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Anthropology | Energy Policy | Environmental Policy | Environmental Studies | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oil, Gas, and Energy


This introduction to Economic Anthropology’s special issue on “Energy and Economy” argues that we might find inspiration for a much more engaged and public anthropology in an unlikely place—19th century evolutionist thought. In addition to studying the particularities of energy transitions, which anthropology does so well, a more engaged anthropology might also broaden its temporal horizons to consider the nature of the future “stage” into which humanity is hurtling in an era of resource depletion and climate change. Net energy (EROEI), or the energy “surplus” on which we build and maintain our complex societal arrangements, is a key tool for anthropologists as we bring our trademark cross-cultural, ethnographically grounded knowledge and perspectives to bear in examining the complex interplay of material infrastructures, energy flows, social organization, and culture. We are now mindful of the always already cultural nature of such circuitry and interactions—in ways obviously unavailable to our nineteenth-century forebears. And yet even as our energy futures are neither predetermined nor inevitable, neither are they as unfettered by material constraints as many have come to think. A robust anthropology of energy informed by awareness of the energetic basis of the historically specific moment in which we find ourselves seems poised to help us get beyond the developmentalist ideas of Morgan and Tylor and to overcome a seeming inability to think comprehensively about the human predicament in simultaneously general and particular terms. We have a chance in the space now opening to get beyond the antinomies—materialist—mentalist, infrastructure—superstructure, agency—structure, objective—subjective, and so on—that dominated much of twentieth-century anthropology.

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Accepted Version


This article is the author-created version that incorporates referee comments. It is the accepted-for-publication version. The content of this version may be identical to the published version (the version of record) save for value-added elements provided by the publisher (e.g., copy editing, layout changes, or branding consistent with the rest of the publication).


This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Energy and economy: Recognizing high-energy modernity as a historical period, Economic Anthropology, volume 3, issue 1, 2016, pages 6-16, which has been published in final form at http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12040. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.

Original Citation

Thomas Love & Cindy Isenhour
Energy and economy: Recognizing high-energy modernity as a historical period.
Economic Anthropology, 2016, volume 3, issue 1, pages 6-16



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