Course code EDS349

EDS349 Energy and Society

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Showing course contents for the educational year 2022 - 2023 .

Course responsible: John Andrew Mcneish
ECTS credits: 5
Faculty: Faculty of Landscape and Society
Teaching language: EN
(NO=norsk, EN=Engelsk)
Limits of class size:
Teaching exam periods:
Course Assignment delivered at end of January block
Course frequency: Biannual. Next Course in 2023
First time: Study year 2016-2017
Preferential right:
Students registered in the Masters of International Development Studies, Development Studies or International Relations. 
Course contents:
The course provides an introduction to social science perspectives on the complex relationship between energy and society. At its foundation the course aims to reveal to students the fundamental reliance that exists between energy resources, human development and concepts of power and modernity. Direct connection is made in the course to the challenges of sustainable development and energy transition. 
Learning outcome:

Knowledge goals:

Students shall gain deeper insight into energy politics and the linkages between social and economic development and energy use. Students shall acquire the capacity to use theory to study concrete cases concerning energy politics and governance at the national and local level. The course makes explicit and critical use of theoretical approaches drawn from science and technology studies (STS), anthropology, economics, political science, political economy and political ecology. Students shall develop the capacity to undertake interdisciplinary analyses and obtain higher-level understanding of the ways in which society, resources and technology interact and influence the possibilities of human decision-making. The students will learn to connect theoretical perspectives and approaches to practical policy issues, and through analysis suggest political solutions where efficiency, legitimacy and political viability are considered important criteria. The use of digital storytelling as both an assessment and learning method assists students to form a strong personal and qualified connection with the themes of the course. 

Skill Goals:

Students shall acquire the skills to study various strategies for the sustainable use of energy resources. Energy resources are studied individually within the context of international agreements, national policies and local politics. In relation to this, the inter-relationship between state, business and civil society is emphasized. Students shall, finally, be able to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of existing energy governance structures, and develop and evaluate ideas for alternative solutions. Given the importance of communicating to both specialists and the general public, the course encourages students to work collaboratively, to study both academic and policy-related documentation, and to present their opinions and ideas in plenum.

General goals:

Through active participation in class discussions, student presentations, group work, visual and written assignments students develop their skills in critical thinking. The course aims to encourage reflection on both their own and other people's attitudes, values and norms and develop self-reflection around the relationships between society and nature as well as scientific and interpersonal relationships. 

Learning activities:
The course will employ a combination of standard lectures and "flip-the-classroom" problem-based learning and teaching methodologies. The course also includes a total of three workshops introducing students to digital storytelling. These workshops and associated story-circles are important elements of the course methodology, enabling a deeply contemplative connection between the individual student and the thematics of the course. As well as the only means of assessment, digital stories also represent a central element of the teaching methodology in the course. Through these workshops and story circles student have opportunity to both work and learn together, leading up to the delivery of an individually produced and complete digital story. 
Teaching support:
Three  workshops will be run by the Learning Centre on digital story-telling on three separate occasions through the course. The Learning Centre will also provide both technical supervision and support outwith these workshops and throughout the course period. This is a continuance of the successful experience of using similar assessment methods in EDS348 Environmental Politics and Governance. 

Course Structure 2020:


Part 1: The Power of Power


1.Introduction: Energy in Human History


Class considers the earliest human relationships to energetic resources, our reliance on these for adaptation. The class considers the necessary coincidence between our discovery of fire, the domestication of animals, the rise of slavery and the establishment of the first city-states in Mesopotamia and the Levant. The class traces the harnessing of energetic resources to increase production, manufacture and enable transport. This is placed in context of early discussions of human adaptation, human calorific necessities and ¿stone age economics¿. It considers the role of slaves and beasts of burden in early exploration and conquest (including the Spanish conquest of the Americas), but also the way in which distinction between humans and beasts were frequently blurred by crown and church.


Nikiforuk, A (2012) Chapters 1 & 2. The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. Greystone Publications.Sahlins, M (1972) Chapter 1: The Original Affluent Society. Stone Age Economics. Aldine Atherton Publications.Mintz, S (1986) Chapter 3. Sweetness and Power: Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books.Smil, V (2006)  Chapter 3: Energy in Human History: muscles, tools and machines. Energy. Beginners Guides. One World: Oxford.


2.Empires of Coal and Oil


Class explores the key role that the coal and steam had in sparking the British industrial revolution. It furthermore considers the role that coal played in enabling the consolidation of European states and enabled the expansion of  Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. The class highlights the way in which the shift from coal to oil resulted in a global shift of power from the British to the USA. The class demonstrates the way in which American dominance of oil production across the globe, and acceptance of a linkage between oil price and dollar price, enabled the US to sustain its global political and economic dominance throughout the 20th century. The class also demonstrates that this was a position won at a price. The wealth generated by the exploration and exploitation of oil frequently awakened nationalist, separatist, ethnic and class based movements willing to use violent means and war to capture the power of oil.


Mitchell, T (2011) Chapter 1 and 3. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Verso Publications.Shulman, P (2015) Chapter 3: The Economy of Time and Space. Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America. John Hopkins University  Press.Ugo Bardi (2010) The dark side of coal - some historical insights on energy and the economy. See: Billon, P (2007) Drilling in deep water: oil, business and war in Angola. In Lynn Karl, T & Said, Y (eds) Oil Wars. Pluto Press.



3.Sparking the Start of the 20th Century


The class explores the discovery of the potential of electrical energy. The class explores the competition and bitter rivalries between inventers (such as Edison and Tesla), government and the market. The class also discusses the way in which electricity became valued at the end of the 19th century as one of the fundamental forces granting a people the status of modernity and progress. Lenin is famously quoted as saying that Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.  His quote emphasized the way in which governments in the global north and global south have seen national development as attached to the spread of both urban and rural electrification.


Stirling. A (2014) Transforming Power: Social Science and the Politics of Energy Choices. Energy Research and Social Science. 1. pp83-95. See:¿Anusus, M & Ingold, T (2015) The Charge Against Electricity. Cultural Anthropology. Vol 30. Issue 4. pp 540-554.Hornborg, A (2001) Chapter 1: The Machine as Emperor. The Power of the Machine. Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology and Environment. Alta Mira Press.Lomas, R (2013) The Man Who Invented the 20th Century: Nokola Tesla, Forgotten Genius of Electricity. Create Space Independent Publishing.


4.A Nuclear Winter


The class studies the political development of nuclear power, its connection to the conclusion of WWII and the establishment of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West. The class also discusses both the rise in use of nuclear power generation in Europe and the US, and the effects of consecutive disasters and scares on the public perception and acceptance of nuclear power as a viable sustainable technology. The link between the drop in public support for nuclear power and slowing public investment in further developing atomic power plants further underlines the link between energy and politics (energy choice is not only the choice of elites but of a wider public). 


Gavin, F (2015) Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America´s Atomic Age. Cornell University Press.Nelson, C (2014) The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era. Scribner: First Edition.Campos, L. A (2015) Radium and the Secret to Life. University of Chicago Press.Film: Pandoras Promise (Robert Stone)



Part 2: Responding to the Worst Consequences


1.Exclusion and Contamination in the Niger Delta and Ecuador


The class discusses the environmental consequences of fossil fuel production. The class moves from an initial exploration of the violence and environmental disaster caused by oil production in the Niger Delta, to the study of further cases of socio-environmental destruction caused by oil exploration and mining in Latin America. The class considers the scientific and legal standards governing contamination, and highlights the considerable gaps and ambiguities within it.


Watts, M (2010) Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. Powerhouse Books.Zalik, A (2009) Zones of Exclusion: Offshore Extraction, the Contestation of Space and Physical Displacement in the Nigerian Delta and Mexican Gulf. Antipode Vol41. No 3 pp557-582Sawyer, S (2015) Crude Contamination: Law, Science and Indeterminacy in Ecuador and Beyond. In Appel, Mason & Watts (eds) Subterranean Estates: Lifeworlds of Oil and Gas. Princeton University Press.


2.Corporate Science


The class studies the specific legal and political mechanisms used by local communities to confront the damaging consequences of energy resource extraction. Here we look at civil society use of human rights conventions, indigenous efforts to apply ¿free, prior and informed consent¿, increasingly successful campaigns to hold corporations accountable in terms of corporate social responsibility, the strengths and weaknesses of legal mechanisms for social and environmental impact assessment, community territorial planning, and the recent wave in Latin America of popular referenda confronting energy production. The class demonstrates the importance of civil society growing international networks in confronting state and corporate energy projects (a politics of space), as well as their use of new technologies to speed up their learning and response time (a politics of time) to respond to perceived threats.


Kirsch, S (2014) Ch 2 and Ch4. Mining Capitalism: The Relationship Between Corporations and their Critics. University of California Press.Stirling, A (2014) Transforming Power: Social Science and the Power of Energy Choices. Energy Research and Social Science. Vol 1 pp83-95.McNeish, J (Forthcoming 2017) Throwing Stones at a Giant? Confronting the Extractive State through Popular Referenda and Resource Sovereignty. Third World Quarterley. See Canvas.


3.Resource Curse?


Drawing on recent research the class sets out to question the whether a ¿resource curse¿ really exists. The class demonstrates the weaknesses of earlier studies that focus almost exclusively on resource conflict in Africa, and that fail to recognize the historical and local contingencies of energy politics. The class questions the argument that ¿greed¿ is an overwhelming driver of ¿rent-seeking¿, pointing instead to the importance of grievance and cultural relationships to nature and territory as dynamics in resource conflict. As well as demonstrating the way in which certain countries have avoided the worst destabilizing consequences of energy resource extraction, the class also emphasizes the need for the democratic contestation of energy resources and their use.


Logan, O & McNeish, J.A (2012) Ch1. Rethinking Responsibility and Governance in Resource Extraction. In McNeish, J.A & Logan, O (eds) Flammable Societies: Studies on the Socio-Economics of Oil and Gas. Pluto Press.Humphreys, M; Sachs, J & Stiglitz, J (2007) Ch1: What is the problem with Natural Resource Wealth? In Humphreys, Sachs and Stiglitz (eds) Escaping the Resource Curse. Colombia University PressRosser, A (2006) The Political Economy of the Resource Curse:  A literature survey. Institute for Development Studies (IDS) Working Paper 268. See:



Part 2: Energy in the Anthropocene


1.The Gigatonne Gap


The class explores the relationship between fossil fuel production and climate change. As such it emphasizes the gigatonne gap i.e. between where we are and where science tells us we need to be in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases is becoming clearer by the day. The emphasis on a ¿carbon budget¿ in the latest IPCC report, and the concomitant calls for climate justice underlines the transformative need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels, and embark upon planned energy descent towards a sustainable planet. The class ends with an outline of some recent proposals and experiments in energy descent and transition.


Klein, N (2014) Ch2 Hot Money. How Free Market Fundamentalism Helped Overheat the Planet. In Klein, N. This Changes Everything. Capitalism Vs the Climate. Allen Lane/ Penguin.UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2015. See: - indcsInternational Energy Agency (IEA) (2015) Special Report: Energy and Climate Change. See:


2.Endless Plenty? Cultures of Consumption

The class confronts one of the key assumptions of capitalist modernity i.e. that energy is the key to development, and that there are always more resources to plunder. As such the class discusses the symbiosis between economic growth and heightening energy demand. It discusses the linkage between consumer culture, financialization and accumulation by increasing environmental and social dispossession. It also highlights the linkage that exists between the drive for increasing energy, and the political power it represents, and the constitution of the ¿exceptional¿ and ¿never-ending¿ war against terror.


Whilhite, H (2013) Energy Consumption as Cultural Practice: Implications for the Theory and Policy of Sustainable Energy Use. In Strauss, Rupp & Loue (eds) Cultures of Energy: Power, Practices and Technologies. Left Coast Press.Jackson, T (2009) Ch2 The Age of Irresponsibility. Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. Earthscan Publication.Yergin, D (2006) Ensuring Energy Security.  Foreign Affairs Vol 85. No 2. pp 69-82


3.Greenwashing the Brown


The class explores the green-washing claims and the discursive battle now being waged by states, corporations and activists to establish claims of ¿green¿ energy. The class casts light on how green-washing has been encouraged by the international communities ambiguous commitment to what is not called the ¿green economy¿, a successor to sustainable development. The class highlights the extraordinary lengths to which the oil, coal and fracking industries have gone to try and convince us of their green credentials, and the immediate impossibility of renewable alternatives. The class demonstrates that corporate and state green-washing not only hide the violence of fossil fuel production, but erase the viability of other technologies and other models for sustainable economic and political life.


Klein, N (2014) Ch7: No Messiahs: The Green Billionaires Won´t Save Us. This Changes Everything: Climate and Capitalism. Allen LanePearce, G (2012) Greenwash: Big Brands and Carbon Scams. Black IncThe Guardian Newspaper Series on Greenwash and Fossil Fuels. See:


4.Wind, Wave and Sun


The class studies the advances made in the development of renewable technologies and their application in different parts of the world. The class also highlights the growing civil society campaigns in different parts of the world to push government further in the direction of their adoption. Whilst largely supportive of these efforts, the class highlights that controversies linked to the use of renewable technologies are not limited to the cost and energetic output, but also relate to serious political and environmental considerations. I demonstrate that similar levels of contestation to those seen with non-renewable energy extraction, can be observed in relation to renewable energy production. Indeed, around the world several militant campaigns have been waged against the expansion of wind and solar power capabilities. I highlight that in many instances analysts and environmental campaigner have failed to acknowledge that without significant changes to their economic and technological models, renewable energy production is likely to reproduce similar socio-environmental impacts to non-renewables i.e. territorial conflicts, environmental impacts, failures to carry out consultation and economic benefit sharing.


Howe, C; Boyer, D & Barrera, E (2015) Wind at the Margins of the State: autonomy and renewable energy development in southern Mexico. In McNeish, Borchgrevink & Logan (eds) Contested Powers: The Politics of Energy and Development in Latin America. Zed Books.Behar, M (2010) Selling the Sun. In Nader, L (ed) The Energy Reader. Wiley Blackwell.Hornborg, A (2001) Ch. 8 Symbolic Technologies: Machines and the Marxian Notion of Fetishism. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology and Environment. AltaMira Press.


Conclusion: Energy Choice?


In this concluding lecture, I summarize the key points made in earlier classes and outline an argument for a new understanding of energy politics. Reflecting on earlier classes I highlight the need for a non-essentialist understanding of energy i.e. that recognizes that, just as with nature or the environment, our conception of energy has been constructed through time by the coincidence of social and natural forces. Energy is more than a thermo-dynamic process. We have seen through this course that the significance of the physical properties of energy resources are also defined through the wider forces of cultural, philosophical, political and economic development. We also see that the ¿construction¿ of energy has at time acted to limit both our knowledge of and the direction of energy development and use. Faced with anthropogenic responsibility for climate change we are at a time when such limits need to be recognized and removed. A sustainable energy future requires recognition of the deep linkages between nature and society, and a more democratic form of energy choice and it¿s harvesting.

Basic knowledge of social theory. The course is particularly relevant to the Masters programmes in International Environmental Studies, Development Studies and International Relations
Recommended prerequisites:
Basic knowledge of social theory
Mandatory activity:

Students are expected to take an active role in class discussions, group work and plenary presentations. 

100% attendence (unless student´s circumstances require exceptions. This should be agreed with the course convener).

During the course students are expected to produce an individually produced digital-story in which personal experience and interests are combined with learned theory and course literature to analyze cases of energy development, conflict or transition.

Digital storytelling at its most basic is the practice of using computer-based tools to tell stories. There are a wealth of other terms used to describe this practice, such as digital documentaries, computer-based narratives, digital essays, electronic memoirs, interactive storytelling, etc.; but in general, they all revolve around the idea of combining the art of producing a reflective narrative with a variety of multimedia, including graphics, audio, video, and Web publishing. In the case of this course these narratives are required to be well evidenced and argued. 


Students will produce a digital story in which they analyze cases of energy development, conflict or transition. These are a min of 5 min/max 15 minutes in length. 

The following elements are also considered essential in terms of their content i.e.

1.Empirical knowledge of the theme and context (based on existing credible secondary or primary sources)

2. Academic discussion and analysis (reviewing the current state of the art of an issue)

3. Positioning in response to these (your own position and argument).

Each of the student digital stories will be examined by the course leader together with an external examiner. Here a combination of both technical skill, delivery and the essential elements assessed above will be points of assessment.

Nominal workload:
125 hours
Entrance requirements:
Students enrolled in the International Environmental Studies, Development Studies and International Relations Masters Programmes will be given prioritized entry to the course. Students from other Masters programmes at NMBU are also encouraged to register for the course.
Type of course:
26 hours
Internal and External Sensor
Examination details: Assignment: Letter grades