Energy Transitions, Environmental History and Collective Action: Notes from the History of Economic Thought for the Current Debate

Lazzarini, Andres and Crespo, Eduardo. 2022. 'Energy Transitions, Environmental History and Collective Action: Notes from the History of Economic Thought for the Current Debate'. In: 19th STOREP Annual Conference – “Economics and the Economic System: The Ecological Transition”. Viterbo, Italy 26-28 May 2022. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Problems created by demographic pressures and energy depletion date back to more than 20 thousand years ago. Immediately before the agricultural revolution the world population amounted to 6 million people. By 1800 – roughly 10 thousand years after that revolution – it was 1 billion. Plant and animal domestication, which had a severe impact on ecosystems (e.g., deforestation), was the technical solution to the environmental restrictions that most hunters and gatherers were facing before that enormous transformation in food production.
Humanity went through the same process during the industrial revolution. As Tony Wrigley has estimated, without coal the humanity would have needed to cut all the trees of the world to produce the iron and steel required by the 19th century railways. The industrial revolution of the coal and steam led to an energetic transition that, after 200 years, allowed the world population to reach 8 billion people. Certainly, energy production based on fossil fuels face restrictions.
This paper argues that those restrictions cannot be found in either oil exhaustion (as the Club of Rome forecast in 1972) or relative scarcity of resources (as the marginalist theory claims, e.g., Stanley Jevons). The actual restriction is the greenhouse effect, that creates the atmospheric conditions that make the Earth get warmer and warmer. Examining the two energetic transitions mentioned above, the paper also argues that contemporary societies will not be able to overcome current environmental restrictions both without developing and adopting cleaner technologies that can create increasing volumes of energy required to meet the world global demand and without the decisive and imperative government intervention. Building on some contributions to the history of economics, chiefly Elinor Ostrom’s works, we claim that, for some economic activities involving a certain level of scale (e.g., demographic pressure on food production) state intervention guarantees both necessary and sufficient conditions that allow collective action achieving efficient solutions. Connectedly, this works critically discusses the Malthusian approach to studying demographic pressures on natural resources as well as the marginalist explanation of the inexorable collapse that the humanity would reach due to the scarcity of energy resources for production. These analyses are compared against our reconstruction of influential anti-Malthusian approaches proposed by Ester Boserup and Wrigley. These approaches (along with some connections with Adam Smith’s views), we argue, offer a sounder interpretative framework to understand energetic transitions than the much-commented views relying on resource scarcity or demographic explosion.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Environmental History, Energetic Transitions, State Intervention, Ostrom, Boserup, Malthus, Smith, Jevons.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Institute of Management Studies
Institute of Management Studies > Structural Economic Analysis


4 April 2022Accepted
26 May 2022Completed

Event Location:

Viterbo, Italy

Date range:

26-28 May 2022

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

05 Dec 2022 15:32

Last Modified:

19 Feb 2024 16:23


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