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Marina Fischer-Kowalski: On the Mutual Historical Dynamics of Societies’ Political Governance Systems and their Sources of Energy. The Approach of the Vienna School of Social Ecology. [Abstract]

This article combines a brief overview of the theoretical approach of the Vienna School of Social Ecology with a report on the results of a long-term study on the coincidence of countries’ first access to fossil fuels with social revolutions. The theoretical approach views societies in a system-theoretical perspective as hybrids of materiality and meaning, with “social metabolism” and “colonization of nature” as key links. Historical changes in the energy metabolism of societies are viewed as key drivers of change in social organization, distinguishing broadly between foraging and agrarian societies, both solar based energetically, but distinct by the latter applying elaborate colonization technologies that allow for higher energy returns at the price of a higher labor burden, the emergence of cities, and land-based steep social hierarchies. Finally, we report on a series of studies on the coincidence of countries’ access to fossil fuels as allowing a transition to industrial societies, again on a much higher energy level. The very early transition phase (“critical energy transition period”), as we show empirically for a large number of countries worldwide across the past 500 years, was typically marked by what we characterize as social revolutions. Finally, we ask what societal changes a next energy transition, required to avoid catastrophic climate change, will bring about.

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