Article ID: CBB001320573

Fantastic Futures and Three American Energy Transitions (2013)


Introduction Gasoline Automobiles: Mobility, Individualism,... Hydroelectric Dams: Economic Development... Nuclear Fission: Energy Abundance and Capitali... Conclusion and Implications At the turn of the twentieth century, many commentators believed that electricity would facilitate a future age of utopian dimensions. Electric lighting would make streets safer to walk, not only by removing darkness, but by frightening criminals, assisting police in evidence gathering, alerting authorities to crimes in process and eliminating crime. Electrical motors would virtually eliminate the need for the drudgery of factory work. The healing properties of electricity would improve medicine, greatly enhancing life expectancy. High potential dynamos and engines would deliver electric shocks to approaching armies. The application of electricity to agriculture would eliminate hunger and famine. Electrical toys and appliances would usher in a world of inexhaustible novelty, and electric communication would solve cultural differences and render politics meaningless (Marvin, 1988 ). During the formative years of the electric power industry, electric technologies were deeply intertwined with human expectations and fantasies relating to safety, employment, health, military superiority, food, politics and excitement. Yet many of the downsides to electricity---its expensive nature at the time, the threat of electrocution, its reliance on fossil fuel combustion, its ability to displace labor---were given less attention. The situation provokes some important questions: how do fantasies form around certain energy systems? Do these display common features across different technologies and over long periods of time? And what might these mean for contemporary discussions about energy? To provide some answers, this article explicates the historical fantasy themes connected to three energy technologies with different attributes, configurations, services, and operators used in different times. By using the term fantasy, we do not mean to imply that it is pejorative. Instead, our use of the term fantasy is particular, and it refers to the way that communities of people share their social reality, how they create interpretations of events to fulfill some psychological or social need (Sovacool and Brossmann, 2010 ). This makes our conception of fantasy similar to rhetorical visions arising from psychology and communication studies (Bormann, 1972 ) and socio-technical imaginaries arising from the discipline of science and technology studies (Jasanoff and Kim, 2009 ). For our three cases, the authors selected gasoline-powered automobiles in the early 1900s because they were relatively small and decentralized, offered individuals the service of mobility, and were used for transport. Hydroelectric dams in the 1930s and 1940s typified large and centralized infrastructure, offered electrical services along with irrigation and flood control, and were used predominately by electric utilities. Nuclear fission in the 1950s and 1960s was to be harnessed in reactors big and small, promised heat and interstellar mobility along with energy and electricity, and were to be used by various actors. In each case, the interaction between fantasy and technology was mutually constitutive. A transition to these newer energy systems generated highly optimistic, and at times unrealistic, expectations about what the new technologies could deliver. At the same time, such fantasies helped create energy transitions because they made it easier for entrepreneurs to obtain financing, receive favorable legislation, and attract a larger customer base. More worryingly, in the case of our three cases, the interaction between fantasy and energy technology persuaded policymakers and the public to ignore or downplay some meaningful social and environmental costs.


Description Looks at the introduction of gasoline automobiles, hydoelectric dams and nuclear fission.

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Authors & Contributors
Williams, John
Xiangli Ding
Niland, Richard
Annavarapu, Sneha
David R. Starbuck
Sansom, Andrew
Technology and Culture
Business and Economic History On-Line
New Books Network Podcast
IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology
Tapuya: Latin American Science, Technology and Society
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine
Carnegie Mellon University
Wayne State University Press
University Press of Kansas
University of Toronto Press
University of Nevada Press
Texas A&M University Press
Hydroelectric power
Automobile industry
Energy resources and technologies
Technology and government
Le Corbusier
Time Periods
20th century, late
21st century
20th century, early
20th century
19th century
United States
Bangalore, India
Concord, New Hampshire
United States. Department of Energy
World Bank
Ford Motor Company

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