Geographies of energy – why is no one listening?

“Just as the world is the domain of the geographer, energy is the wealth of the world. The two cannot be separated.” (Pasqualetti, 2011, p978)

Last week I returned from the Institute of Australian Geographers Conference in Adelaide.  This was the fourth IAG conference I’ve attended, and as usual I thoroughly enjoyed myself, was exposed to a number of new ideas around geography, but yet again felt like my research didn’t ‘fit’ into the Australian geographical landscape.  This is in spite of my attempts to bring energy into the geographical forum.  For the first time ever, I proposed a session at the conference. My session was entitled ‘Energy and Geography’ and invited geographers to present on any element of their energy-based research and reflect on how their research engages with ‘geography’ broadly.  Unfortunately, only two abstracts were submitted for my session.  Including my own.  And the other speaker subsequently pulled out.  So I drafted a new abstract that would fit with one of the other sessions available.  But this has left me thinking – is there really no space for the study of ‘energy’ in the study of ‘geography’? Is ‘energy’ a context to consider other geographies of interest, or does it deserve its own area of research?

I think that the intersection between geography and energy research is a frontier of geographical knowledge, with Huber noting in 2015 that ‘geography is witnessing a “boom” in energy research’ (p327).  The apparent growing enthusiasm for energy research by geographers is unsurprising given key themes in the use of energy resources, that they should be secure, reliable, affordable and clean, can be linked to geography.  Much has been written on the security of energy and associated geopolitical tension around the sites of extraction, transportation and consumption of energy resources, with implications for the economic development of many nation states.  Furthermore, maintaining a reliable supply of energy requires conceptualisation of the intersection between natural systems (including hydrological and climatological systems), spatially-constructed technical solutions, human behaviour and governance/economic frameworks.  The changing mix of energy fuels, cost structures and consumption patterns provides opportunities for reducing energy costs (affordable energy) and for the reduction of carbon emissions and preparation for carbon-constrained economies (clean energy).  However, these changes also pave the way for potential challenges, including community opposition to some energy sources, inequality in access to energy resources and associated growing levels of energy poverty.  These are just some examples of the kinds of energy themes that are researched by, or might be of interest to, geographers.

And yet, Australian geographers prefer to target their energy research under the banners of social justice research or legal geography research etc, thereby missing the opportunity for energy researchers to learn from the intersections of study required to develop solutions to energy problems.  Ultimately, I’m not terribly surprised by the lack of enthusiasm for energy geography at the conference given my previous attendance and an understanding of the treatment of energy geography at conferences in the past.  Some 35 years ago Peter Odell reflected on the Royal Geographical Society Conference, saying that ‘the members of the [geography] profession seem doomed to remain as the interpreters of the work of other sorts of scholars for the benefit of students and pupils, rather than as effective contributors to meaningful research on the intellectually very exciting issues of the world’s energy problems.’  Unfortunately, it seems to me that very little has changed in this time.  And I can’t help but wonder, where are all the geographers in this energy research ‘boom’ that Huber is talking about?

References:

Huber, M. (2015). Theorizing Energy Geographies. Geography Compass, 9(6), 327-338.

Martin J. Pasqualetti. (2011). The Geography of Energy and the Wealth of the World. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101(4), 971-980.

Odell P. R. (1980). Geography and Energy. Area, 12(1), 86-87.

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