Towards an “Energy Transition”: Ecological Discourses and Energy Policy in the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom from the 1970s to the 1990s


The “energy transition” is a concept that has now attained considerable political and, in part, economic influence throughout the world. In West Germany, the history of the “energy transition” – seen as a programmatic ideal – is rooted in the 1970s, when ecological energy concepts were developed within the context of the environmental and anti-nuclear power movement. These would begin to gain social and political influence with the founding of NGOs and alternative-scientific research institutions alongside the political rise of the Greens. Similar developments – with all of their particular national characteristics – were underway in other European countries as well. The United Kingdom serves as a particularly interesting comparison with West Germany, as British policymakers, beginning in the 1980s, placed particular stock in liberalized and competitive markets being able to solve the problem of an environmentally friendly energy supply. In West Germany, ideas of ecological modernization began to have a greater influence, which were aimed towards reconciling technological innovations with the developmental path of industrialized society. Another difference between the two countries lies in their relationship with atomic energy: While Germany has gradually moved away from it, the United Kingdom remains committed to nuclear power to this day.

This project explores the emergence, development, and political relevance of discourses on the connection between energy and ecology in the Federal Republic of Germany and the United Kingdom from the 1970s to the 1990s. It investigates which social actors, communicative processes, and interpretive models have brought about, structured, and passed along these discourses, and what influence they have attained with regard to energy policy measures and subsequently on the further shaping of the energy sector. The study analyzes the interactions of four groups of actors: social movements, the sciences, the economy, and national politics. In methodological terms, it seeks to connect the history of discourse and politics, while also forming a combination of comparative and transfer-related history: It systematically compares ecological discourse and corresponding action in the two countries, taking manifold processes of transfer into account – such as transatlantic influences and connections between the global and national levels of discourse.

This post-doc study is a subproject of the IfZ research project on the History of Sustainability, led by Elke Seefried.