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Reviewed by:
  • Past and Present Energy Societies: How Energy Connects Politics, Technologies, and Cultures ed. by Nina Möllers and Karin Zachmann
  • James C. Williams (bio)
Past and Present Energy Societies: How Energy Connects Politics, Technologies, and Cultures. Edited by Nina Möllers and Karin Zachmann. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2013; distributed by Perseus Publishing. Pp. 338. $50.

This edited collection is based on papers given at a 2011 international workshop at the Deutsches Museum on “Energy as Symbol, Resource and Consumer Good.” Karin Zachmann’s introduction, first tracing old ground in the discussion of energy in history, leads her to suggest that “finding a comprehensive and definitive concept of energy, not just in the sciences but in technology and culture” (p. 8) posed a major challenge for the volume’s contributors. After noting that scientists explore energy as a constant, while historians and social scientists seek explanations of change over time, Zachmann revisits the most powerful historical concept of such change: the “energy-civilization equation,” an idea that historian George Basalla largely trounced in 1980. Although this recounting reveals little that is new, it provides a trope to suggest that during the last thirty years, energy historians have focused largely on “problems of energy production, transition and provision” and have not given much attention to cultural “(re)presentation and consumption of energy as well as the cultural perception of energy sources and its use”—the aim of this volume (pp. 24–25). I was surprised at this, for there are many good works addressing past and present social, cultural, environmental, and politic aspects of energy. Unfortunately, only a few of the most obvious ones are referenced in this work.

The essays in Past and Present Energy Societies are summarized by Zachmann and grouped in three sections. The first addresses cultural representations of energy, and its three essays look at presentations of energy delivered by means of electricity at four world’s fairs (1894 to 1982) and at the marketing of electricity in Germany and France. While all are workmanlike, each had some little problems. Defining energy trapped one author, who more than once defined electricity as an energy source rather than a method of energy transmission. Another argued simultaneously that “energy suppliers [s]ought to educate housewives about the advantages and the use of electricity” and that “their aim was to find out about the desires and needs of electricity consumers” (p. 82). The last contributor posited that objects of consumer culture led to the “gadgetization” of the kitchen, arguing—dubiously, I think—that objects made “sacred [… gave] them a cultural value which exceeds their use value” (p. 112).

The second section, on energy consumption practices, contained an interesting essay by Nina Lorkowski on the effort of Berlin’s electricity company, Bewag, to systematically influence the manner of energy consumption by promoting certain electrical appliances before and after World War II (p. 140). While similar efforts were carried on by electric [End Page 1004] power companies in many other parts of the world, Bewag’s effort to change consumption habits focused particularly on marketing electric stoves and water heaters. For the latter, the company used the unique method of renting out 30- to 80-liter electric water heaters to consumers, which they hoped would balance out electric power consumption. Bewag discovered, however, that personal habits were not so easily changed, and Lorkowski ably traces the interplay between the company and its consumers over a considerable time period.

The second essay, by Mathias Mutz on the introduction of daylight saving time (DST) in East and West Germany, is quite compelling. He traces the history of DST from World War I through the oil crises of the late 1970s and early 1980s and into recent years, ultimately concluding that “Daylight saving time as energy saving time is a myth” (p. 189). Rather, DST is related to “complex social and cultural processes that go far beyond energy saving” (p. 173). It is, indeed, a “measure of social engineering” (p. 187). The last essay of this section reports contemporary sociological research in Austria looking at energy consumption practices in low-income households.

The last section focuses on perceptions of energy consumption. A case study...