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Journal Article

Great transformations: Social revolutions erupted during energy transitions around the world, 1500–2013


Fischer-Kowalski,  Marina
External Organizations;

Krausmann,  Fridolin
External Organizations;


Pichler,  Peter-Paul
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

Schaeffer,  Robert K.
External Organizations;

Stadler,  Stefan
External Organizations;

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Fischer-Kowalski, M., Krausmann, F., Pichler, P.-P., Schaeffer, R. K., Stadler, S. (2023): Great transformations: Social revolutions erupted during energy transitions around the world, 1500–2013. - Energy Research and Social Science, 105, 103280.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_28765
Over the past 500 years, the transition to fossil fuels has been accompanied by sociopolitical upheaval, revolution, and counterrevolution in countries around the world. Previous research found that social revolutions occurred during energy transitions in a limited sample of 38 countries. This research expanded the investigation to examine the relationship between shifts in the energy base of societies and transformative sociopolitical change in 66 countries since 1500, and to address new questions about these transitions. We found that two-thirds of all 52 identified revolutions occurred during the initial phase of the transition to fossil energy use (between 0.7 and 7.2 GJ/cap/year), a “critical energy transition phase” that lasted 42 years on average. This “critical energy transition phase” can be understood as an arena where social and economic adversaries met to contest past and future relations, a contest that resulted in turmoil, violence, and transformative social change. We also assess the impact of revolutions and counterrevolutions on the speed of energy transitions, finding that revolutions might accelerate transitions and repressions might slow them down. We also find that, in our sample, colonial rule slowed the pace of energy transitions for colonized subjects. These findings are significant because similar sociopolitical developments may be associated with the current energy transition in response to catastrophic climate change, a product of the previous transition.