New Paper: Histories of Balancing Demand and Supply in the UK’s Gas Networks, 1795-Present

I have a new paper out in the Journal of Energy History! The paper forms part of our special issue on historic flexibility within energy systems and there are some great papers in here, with more still to come. Check out the journal website for updates: JEHRHE #5 | Drupal (


This paper provides an account of how past changes in energy demand have affected the balancing of the UK’s gas systems between the introduction of gaslight in 1795 and the present day. Four periods are examined in which the principal uses of gas have broadly differed: periods in which the dominant uses of gas were respectively for lighting, cooking, industrial manufacture, and central heating. For each period, the paper describes how changes in the ways gas was used influenced patterns of demand and introduced opportunities and challenges for processes of balancing. Also described are how systems of gas provision were widely restructured in response to these shifts in patterns of gas demand.  Three key observations are developed: that issues with balancing demand and supply are not limited to electricity networks but have been, and continue to be, critical to the organisation of gas systems; that the ways in which energy is used influence the timings (durations, frequencies, regularities), intensities, and geographies of demand and condition the balancing strategies that are possible within given contexts; and that how energy is used, and thus the composition of demand and its relationship to patterns of supply, is dynamic.

New Paper: ‘Conceptualising Flexibility’

Blue, S. Shove, E. & Forman, P. (2020) “Conceptualising flexibility: Challenging representations of time and society in the energy sector” Time and Society DOI:


There is broad agreement that the need to decarbonise and make better use of renewable and more intermittent sources of power will require increased flexibility in energy systems. However, organisations involved in the energy sector work with very different interpretations of what this might involve. In describing how the notion of flexibility is reified, commodified, and operationalised in sometimes disparate and sometimes connected ways, we show that matters of time and timing are routinely abstracted from the social practices and forms of provision on which the rhythms of supply and demand depend. We argue that these forms of abstraction have the ironic effect of stabilising interpretations of need and demand, and of limiting rather than enabling the emergence of new practices and patterns of demand alongside, and as part of, a radically decarbonised energy system. One way out of this impasse is to conceptualise flexibility as an emergent outcome of the sequencing and synchronisation of social practices. To do so requires a more integrated and historical account of how supply and demand constitute each other and how both are implicated in the temporal organisation of everyday life. It follows that efforts to promote flexibility in the energy sector need to look beyond systems of provision, price, technology, and demand-side management narrowly defined, and instead focus on the social rhythms and the timing of what people do.

Natural Gas: A Misnomer

Natural gas is neither natural, nor is it a single gas. In this post, I describe the origins of these two fictions and how they result in a discursive slight of hand that may have implications for the positioning of natural gas within future low-carbon energy systems.

1. Not Natural?

There is very little that is ‘natural’ about natural gas. At every stage in its journeys  – from speculation to extraction, processing, transport and consumption – its circulation involves the deployment of complexes of knowledges, practices, technologies, regulations and infrastructures. As Bridge (2004) describes;

“[a] whole industry has emerged […] dedicated to corralling the waywardness and variability of gas and rendering it a commodity compliant with the workings of the market”Bridge (2004: 396)

Originally, the supposed ‘naturalness’ of natural gas referred to its formation beneath the ground without need for human intervention. This naming scheme has a heritage: prior to the development of necessary knowledges, infrastructures and market arrangements for commodifying this particular gas, other chemically similar (but still distinct) gases were manufactured for use as energy products. Such systems produced gas from a range of base products (in particular coal and oil) and were pioneered in Britain, France and Germany from the late 1700s. They rapidly became globally commonplace, initially providing commercial, public and domestic lighting services, and later, facilitating cooking and heating practices. Since the late 1800s onwards however, these systems gradually came to be replaced by energy networks that ran on natural gas or LPG[1].

Different so-called ‘manufactured gases’ were produced within these systems. To differentiate between them and their properties, brand names were developed. These typically referred either to the processes of a gas’s manufacture (e.g. coal gas was made from coal, SEGAS referred to a gas manufacturing process developed in the south east of England – South East Gas), or to differences in its systems of transport (e.g. town gas was transported in ‘town gas’ networks, municipal gas was transported within ‘municipal gas’ networks)[2]. Natural gas was similarly distinguished based on its process or manufacture. Unlike other manufactured gases available at the time, this material was formed by the earth, naturally, without need for processes of manufacture.

However, to suggest that natural gas’s realisation as a readily usable energy product occurs without human intervention is misleading. Just as manufactured gases required dedicated manufacturing plant to process raw products, natural gas requires intensive chemical processing before it can be sold as an energy product. Toxins must be removed, water must be taken out, higher-level alkanes must be siphoned off, and if its energy content is too high, extra nitrogen (an inert gas) must be added to it. Rather than the factories or ‘gasworks’ that manufactured previous gases, natural gas systems therefore similarly require ‘reception’ or ‘processing’ terminals to transform the gas from raw material into a commercial resource. In the UK, 7 of these terminals are distributed around its coastline (fig. 1). As such, even the most supposedly ‘natural’ aspect of natural gas’s circulation involves significant degrees of human intervention.

Figure 1: St Fergus Gas Reception Terminal, Near Aberdeen

This framing is more than just inaccurate. It enacts two particular forms of epistemic violence. First, it obscures the work that goes into commodifying natural gas. The daily functioning of drilling platforms, reception terminals, pipeline systems, compressor stations, engineers, operators and the like, as well as their varied social, economic, and environmental interactions, become hidden behind an image of a supposedly ‘natural’ energy system. Given that some of the most significant sources of carbon emissions associated with natural gas systems relate to the workings and failures of sites such as compressor stations (which require energy to push gas around the country), reception terminals (which flare waste natural gas), and leaking pipe systems (which release methane into the atmosphere), this obfuscation is potentially problematic.

Second, the representation of the ‘naturalness’ of natural gas suggests that gas-based energy systems are clean, green and are compatible with low-carbon transitions. This is currently being actively and systematically mobilised, explicitly through slogans such as the ‘Think Green, Think Clean’ campaign in the header image above, and implicitly, through the use of colours and images frequently associated with cleanliness and environmentalism (fig. 2).

Figure 2: A series of gas company logos making implicit reference to the ‘naturalness’ of natural gas.

This kind of messaging contrasts with the natural gas being a fossil fuel that is both non-renewable and emits carbon when it is burnt (even if these concentrations are lower than other fossil fuels). Methane is over 80 times more insulating than carbon dioxide over the short- to medium-term, and escaping gas therefore also makes significant contributions to climate change. The notion of ‘naturalness’ works to whitewash over this, and indeed, is currently being heavily drawn upon to position natural gas as a ‘clean’ and ‘green’ transition fuel that can help allay concerns for flexibility in decarbonising societies (as illustrated by the quote from Royal Dutch Shell below).

“Natural gas helps provide more and cleaner energy around the world. With the number of people on the planet expected to increase by a billion by 2030, gas is one of the few energy sources that can meet growing demand while reducing emissions from electricity generation, industry, the built environment and transport.”Royal Dutch Shell (2018: 7)

2. Not ‘a’ Gas?

In addition to these issues with natural gas’s supposed naturalness, the term ‘gas’ is also not – strictly speaking – accurate. Natural gas is not a singular gaseous material, but is instead composed of a number of different gases. These can vary significantly in distribution according to the well from which the gas is extracted, the life stage of the well, and the processing practices that are conducted upon the gas. Typically, natural gas’s largest component will be methane, but it can also include higher-value alkanes such as ethane, propane and butane, as well as other gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide and helium. It is consequently a translation of a combination of gases – one that discursively conceals its individual components.

This is significant because these different components can have pronounced social, economic, political and environmental effects. Some are highly toxic (e.g. hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide), some are environmentally harmful (hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide), and some are significantly more energetic than others. The consequences of this latter point are also potentially multiple. Variances in their ratios can influence the amount of energy that is received by consumers. Because customers pay a fixed charge per volumetric ‘unit’ of gas (representing a fixed amount of energy), variations can result either in losses for producers, or for consumers. They can also affect how gas burns within appliances. Customers may experience significant changes in flame size and heat output, but more significantly, the gas may also burn inefficiently, producing carbon monoxide – an odourless, invisible and highly toxic gas that is then released into customers’ homes. It is because of these effects that the precise chemical composition of natural gas is carefully regulated within reception terminals, prior to its entry into the transport network.

This translation potentially works in conjunction with these discourses of ‘naturalness’. By effectively concealing natural gas’s constitutive materials, attention is displaced from the origins and effects of this gaseous mixture, particularly with regards to its effects on global climate. 

3. Reframing?

The terms ‘natural’ and ‘gas’ therefore represent two discursive ‘slights of hand’ that position natural gas in such a way that scrutiny is dangerously detracted from its implications for global climate. This is particularly significant at a time when industry actors are seeking to position natural gas as a low-carbon interim fuel for facilitating decarbonisation. It is in this context that it may be worthwhile considering alternative terminologies and ways of representing natural gas within our writing (for example, by replacing ‘natural gas’ with ‘fossil gases’).

Challenging these representations will likely be difficult however, not only because of resistance from industry actors, but because of their (ironic) naturalisation in public discourse, and because they are also firmly embedded within already established discourses that associate the use of combustible gases with ideas of cleanliness. Indeed, particularly from the 1930s onwards (as the marketing of manufactured gas became increasingly co-ordinated and prolific in response to competition from the electricity industry for providing lighting services), the cleanliness of gas became a major focus of industry marketing in the UK. Gas companies touted gas’s improved cleanliness over coal for cooking and heating purposes, and also strongly promoted its atmospheric cleanliness (fig. 2). Today, similar ideas are again conveyed through the language of cleanliness and images of ‘clean blue flames’ widely used in its marketing.



[1] In the UK, this transition is still relatively recent: the conversion of the existing manufactured gas networks to run natural gas from the North Sea occurred between 1967 and 1977.

[2] For a detailed summary, see my post, ‘Energetic Gases: A Glossary’.


Bridge, G. (2004) ‘Gas and How to Get It’ Geoforum 35(4) p.395-397

Royal Dutch Shell (2018) ‘Natural Gas: Providing More and Cleaner Energy’ [Online] Available at: [Accessed 27/1/20]

Energetic Gases: A Glossary

This is a working document and is undergoing regular updates and elaborations. The aim is to produce a reference documenting the different gases used within past and present energy systems.

‘Blue Water’ Gas

A form of coal gas (see coal gas) that was formed by introducing steam into the manufacturing process. It often had a lower calorific value than other forms of coal gas. In the UK, it was introduced as a technique for gas production in the 1900s.


Typically a by-product of natural gas processing, propane is often referred to as LPG (see LPG). It has four carbon atoms and ten hydrogen atoms. It is most commonly used for heating and cooking and as a vehicle fuel. 


Compressed Natural Gas. Natural gas that is compressed to less than 1% of its typical volume at standard atmospheric pressure. After compression, it is stored and transported within pressure vessels (typically, canisters). It is primarily used in Asia as a transport fuel.

‘Coal’ Gas

Any manufactured gas produced from the combustion of coal in a retort denying it access to oxygen. The production of coal gas would often result in the production of numerous by-products, including coke, bitumen and ammonia. The calorific value of coal gases could vary considerably, depending upon the manufacturing process used.

Fire Damp

A term for the natural gas found within (particularly coal) mines. Also known as ‘mine gas’ (see mine gas), although a range of gaseous atmospheres were also commonly associated with mines, including concentrations of ‘choke damp’ (carbon dioxide) and ‘white damp’ (carbon monoxide). Typically, fire damp was considered a dangerous nuisance, causing large numbers of fatalities and the closure of mine workings. In a few rare instances however, fire damp was used for lighting individual properties.


Hydrogen is an element, consisting of a single atom. As a flammable gas, it appears as a molecule, consisting of two connected hydrogen atoms. It is current


Liquefied Natural Gas. Natural gas that has been compressed and reduced in temperature to the point at which it changes state, from gas to liquid. In the process, it reduces in volume to 1/600th of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure. This makes its long-distance transport more economically viable, as more gas can be transported in the same space. It is used to supplement existing supplies of natural gas within pipeline systems – it is typically transported by boat and lorry tanker, and is regassified prior to injection into a natural gas pipeline. LNG that is transported long distances will also often have to have nitrogen (an inert gas) added to it before it can be transported by pipe, as lighter alkanes will ‘boil off’ as the gas slowly warms over time, leaving a more energy rich gas consisting of higher-value alkanes).


Liquefied Petroleum Gas. LPG can be one of two gases; propane or butane. It is typically stored and transported in cylinders and is commonly used for heating and cooking services, particularly within island energy systems. It has a higher calorific value by volume than CNG, meaning that its import/export is often more economical. It is also widely used as a vehicle fuel.


The main component of natural gas, consisting of four hydrogen atoms attached to a single carbon atom. It is an odorless, invisible gas with a high energy content.

‘Mine’ Gas

A term for the natural gas found within (particularly coal) mines. In the 1700s and 1800s this material was more commonly referred to as ‘fire damp’ (see fire damp). Typically, mine gases were considered a dangerous nuisance, causing large numbers of fatalities and the frequent closure of mine workings. In a few rare instances however, mine gas was used for lighting individual properties.

‘Municipal’ Gas

A term for any manufactured gas that was distributed through a pipeline network owned by a municipality. 

‘Oil’ Gas

A broad term for any manufactured gas that was produced from oil products. The calorific value of oil gases could vary considerably, depending upon the manufacturing process. In the UK, oil gas became increasingly used between the 1950s and 1980s, as the price and availability of coal fluctuated.


Typically a by-product of natural gas processing, propane is often referred to as LPG (see LPG). It has three carbon atoms and eight hydrogen atoms. It is most commonly used for heating and cooking and as a vehicle fuel.


A form of gas named after a manufacturing process first established on the Isle of Grain, in the South East of England (South East Gas). Segas became a popular method of gas production in the 1950s and 60s, mainly because it could produce gas from a wide variety of oil feedstocks and because its start-up time was short.

‘Town’ Gas

A popular term for any manufactured gas that was distributed through a ‘town gas’ network. Such networks involved one or more gasworks (sites of gas manufacture) from which a network of distribution pipes spread, and through which gas was delivered to residential and commercial properties across a set ‘local’ area. 

CfP RGS 2020: On Methods of Thing-Following

On Methods of Thing-Following

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, London, 1st-4th September, 2020

Convenors: Peter Forman (Lancaster University) and Angeliki Balayannis (University of Exeter)

‘Following’ has become a popular methodological practice for human geographers over the last two decades. Early work that followed consumer goods along supply chains (Mintz, 1986; Cook, 2004; Barnett et al., 2005) has now been joined by a rich collection of accounts that trace the connections developed across a diversity of movements – from the circulation of energy products (Forman, 2017), to the movements of people (Knowles, 2009), activist networks (Davies, 2009), animals (Nimmo, 2011), chemicals (Balayannis 2020), waste (Gregson et al., 2010), finance (Christophers, 2011), policies (Peck and Theodore, 2012), and data (Akbari, 2019). In the process, the scope of so-called ‘follow-the-thing’ research has expanded beyond cultural geography and an early focus on violence within global trade networks, to permeate practically all areas of the discipline and cover a wide variety of socio-political concerns related to circulation.

Yet despite this growth in ‘follow-the-thing’ research, the practice and practicalities of thing-following – including the practical, ethical, conceptual, and personal challenges of studying circulations – has remained relatively undocumented (notable exceptions include the accounts of Christophers, 2011 and Hulme, 2017). Clearly, following sensitive data, molecules, or evidence of academic impact presents quite different challenges to following papayas or bottles of hot sauce. Some things may even be impossible to follow. As Hulme (2017) suggests, documenting these challenges, and acknowledging the gaps in knowledge that they produce, is an important line of enquiry. These details can expose power structures and their workings, and can reveal their precarities and violences. Moreover, discussing the difficulties that we encounter and the coping strategies that we develop has value for others seeking to conduct future follow-the-thing research.

This session consequently aims to provide a space for sharing experiences and techniques of thing-following (across and beyond human geography), and for reflecting upon these methodologies as tools for political engagement.

Possible topics for discussion include:

  • How do we define the start and end points of our studies? When do we decide to stop following? How do these decisions affect the stories that we can/cannot tell?
  • How do issues of power, volume, connectivity, plurality, aggregation and divergence present issues for determining what it is that we follow? What problems are raised by the complex geographies of circulations?
  • In what directions must we travel in the process of following? Along which routes do we go? When? How often? What borders and boundaries must we cross in the process?
  • How do we sense, encounter and learn about the movements of particular kinds of thing? How do the terms of our encounters condition the narratives that we produce?
  • Where are the gaps in follow-the-thing accounts? What can we (not) follow? Where can we (not) follow them to? When is it (not) possible to follow?

Abstracts should be no more than 250 words and should be submitted to by the 5th of February. We are also planning to submit a proposal for a methods handbook on ‘follow the thing methodologies’. If you would like to be considered for inclusion in this, please include an expression of interest with your abstract. We particularly encourage papers from ECRS and under-represented groups in the academy.


Akbari, A. (2019). Follow the Thing : Data Contestations over Data from the Global South, 0(0), 1–22.

Balayannis, A. (2020). Toxic sights : The spectacle of hazardous waste removal. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Early Acce.

Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2005). Consuming Ethics: Articulating the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption – Barnett – 2005 – Antipode – Wiley Online Library. Antipode, 37(1), 23–45.

Christophers, B. (2011). Follow the thing: Money. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29(6), 1068–1084.

Cook, I. (2004). Follow the Thing: Papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642–664.

Davies, A. D. (2009). Ethnography, space and politics: Interrogating the process of protest in the Tibetan Freedom Movement. Area, 41(1), 19–25.

Forman, P. J. (2017). Circulations beyond nodes: (in)securities along the pipeline. Mobilities, 0101(November), 1–15.

Gregson, N., Crang, M., Ahamed, F., Akhter, N., & Ferdous, R. (2010). Following things of rubbish value: End-of-life ships, chock-chocky furniture and the Bangladeshi middle class consumer. Geoforum, 41(6), 846–854.

Hulme, A. (2017). Following the (unfollowable) thing: Methodological considerations in the era of high globalisation. Cultural Geographies, 24(1), 157–160.

Knowles, C., & Harper, D. (2009). Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys. University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from

Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Nimmo, R. (2011). Bovine Mobilities and Vital Movements: Flows of Milk, Mediation and Animal Agency. In J. Bull (Ed.), Animal Movements, Moving Animals: Essays on Direction, Velocity and Agency in Humanimal Encounters (pp. 57–74). Uppsala: Centre for Gender Research, Uppsala University.

Peck, J., & Theodore, N. (2012). Follow the policy: A distended case approach. Environment and Planning A, 44(1), 21–30.

New Chapter: Materiality, New Materialisms

Materiality, New Materialisms

Peter J Forman

[This is a pre-print version of Forman (2020) ‘Materiality, New Materialisms’ In: Kobayashi, A. (Ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography (Second Edition) Available online:]

Featured Image: A ‘chemical garden’, made from cobalt. Curtesy of Stephane Querbes –

1. Materiality

Materiality is the quality of being material, or of being constituted by materials. It is often thought of in terms of the manners in which matter presses upon human bodies and senses; in terms of the wetness, hardness, coldness, transparency or odour of materials, as well as the ways in which they may have varied affects – from catching the attention by glinting in the sunlight, to offending the senses through their visceral pungency. More abstractly, materiality may also be understood in terms of the broader affects of elements such as water or air; in the ways that their perceived materialities conjure a myriad of emotions, sensations and meanings through their embeddedness in wider frameworks of discourse and experience.

Yet materialities do not only influence human senses, but are important for understanding how materials also press upon one another. Attending to materiality enables us to appreciate how the hardness of diamond permits it to cut steel, or how oxygen, methane and heat can mix and interact – sometimes to explosive effect. Many of these qualities may exist beyond the limits of human perception and comprehension. However, attempting to attune ourselves to them provides us with one means through which to attend to the material; a way of exploring how the social world is constituted through complex relations between bodies and ‘things’.

In recent years, materiality has become a key focus within human geography and the wider social sciences. This has been strongly influenced by what is now commonly referred to as ‘new materialisms’: a body of scholarship in which the ‘vibrant’ or ‘vital’ materialities of things has been emphasised, primarily in response to the prioritisation of discourse during the cultural turn. Recently, geographers have also sought to expand this work, reframing materiality in a variety of ways in order to communicate the excessiveness of materials and their refusals to submit to human control.

2. New Materialisms

The term ‘new materialism’ describes a plurality of approaches that each share a sympathy, orientation, or sensitivity towards the social significance of matter and materiality. Whilst most commonly associated with research that draws upon actor-network theory, concepts of assemblage and post-humanism, this broad body of thought prescribes no singular ontology, epistemology, or set of methodologies and consequently contains contributions from a diverse range of theoretical perspectives, including those of Marxists, post-structuralists, feminists and post-colonial scholars. As such, it is more appropriate to speak of multiple new materialisms than it is to speak of a single coherent body of thought[1]. Uniting these approaches is a shared (but often varying degree of) concern for the performative role of materials in the constitution of social life and an appreciation of the ‘liveliness’ or ‘agency’ of matter – the understanding that materials can act independently of human action and that these actions may have bearing upon worldly phenomena.

Over the last thirty years, new materialist accounts have coalesced into a broad literary movement that has had significant traction within and beyond the social sciences. In particular, they have generated a series of influential interdisciplinary debates around the constitution of the human and its positioning in wider socio-material ecologies, for instance: refocussing feminist critiques around the performed materialities of bodies and the ways in which their different co-constitutive socio-material relations variously enable and constrain them; drawing attention to the dispersal of political responsibility and accountability across socio-material networks, extending them beyond purely human domains; and highlighting the ecological implications of the anthropocentrism, narcissism and assumed human exceptionalism that currently holds significant traction within public, political and academic discourse. Much of the work concerning this latter point has focused on the politics of the environmental crises that characterize the Anthropocene.

2.1 Contention I: Materialism(s)

‘Materialism’ is often taken to imply – if not an exclusive interest in, then a prioritization of – material ‘things’ in researchers’ analyses of social life. This has been perceived by some critics as indicating an erroneous departure from studies of human society; one that often involves the fetishization of more-or-less useless and politically disinteresting ‘stuff’. Such critiques are typically underpinned by an assumption that materials are distinct from, or other to, that which ‘counts’ for meaningful social analysis: the human.

However, new materialists are rarely exclusively interested in materials per se. Firstly, most new materialists remain highly concerned both with life and with bodily materialities (whether human, animal, or plant-based). Indeed, a large quantity of new materialist work is explicitly focused on (human) bodies: on their fleshy materialities and their diverse co-constitutive relationships with other bodies and things. Moreover, for the majority of new materialists, the human and the material are extremely difficult to separate. A key claim in this work has been to avoid (re)deploying the reductive binaries of society/nature, body/material, subject/object, human/nonhuman: an argument that is perhaps most visible in the feminist and post-humanist contributions around monsters, hybrids and cyborgs, through which the ontological limits of what constitutes the human has been radically troubled.

Secondly, signs, sayings and texts – forms of understanding and communication that are often taken to be uniquely and exclusively human – are also not excluded from new materialist accounts. As will be discussed in more detail shortly, new materialisms emerged out of a series of frustrations with social research that prioritised the analysis of discourse and it is consequently sometimes read as being oppositional to the study of signs, sayings and texts. Instead, new materialists typically point towards the ways in which these representational components are materially performed. At a simple level, this often involves looking at their materialities; at the ways in which they are mediated by different materials such as human bodies and vocal chords, computer screens and speakers, vinyl players and books. Accounts in this vein might, for instance, emphasise the similarities and differences between printed and digital images and their varying capacities to travel, persist, and to have effects. At a more complex level however, many new materialists would also point toward the ways in which the meanings behind these elements are constructed through a variety of material-discursive practices. As with linguistic-based accounts, discourse is seen as being that which defines what can and cannot be said and done. However, here it is not limited to signs and signification but instead describes practices of reconfiguring the socio-material world in ways that constrain thought and action. In this way, new materialists have sought to replace linguistic notions of discourse with a more radical form of material semiotics.

Thirdly and finally, the recent increase in attention to the politics of affect has also led to an expansion of materialist interest in the affective materialities of ‘things’ beyond the ‘simply’ material. Studying affects involves attending to the social significance of a plurality of immaterials and ‘not-quite-entities’– ‘things’ that are real in the sense that they exist and exert force upon other entities in the world, but which are also often intangible, ethereal, and which may have indeterminable points of origin. As Ben Anderson (2014: 77) explains, intangible entities such as love, hope, boredom, and affective atmospheres “are as real as the infrastructures, classes, Gods and other social factors and forces that populate life” – they exist and press upon other entities in socially significant, but potentially indeterminable, ways.

As such, any accusations of new materialist accounts being disinterested with the human and only being concerned with brute, ‘simple’, or ‘grounded’ matter (matter that is fundamentally distinct from human bodies) are inaccurate. Indeed, it is because of new materialisms’ broader, ‘more-than-material’ interests that the word ‘material’ is often replaced in this work with alternative expressions such as ‘actants’, ‘nonhumans’, and ‘more-than-humans’. These phrases are employed in various attempts to describe a plethora of ‘things’ that may exceed the category of the purely ‘material’ and to demonstrate a troubling of established notions of what constitutes the ‘human’.

Yet such articulations also introduce a problem with new materialist research. As numerous scholars have noted, despite their deployment within post-humanist critiques, such terms work to discursively reassert humanist notions of artificial human/material distinctions. Indeed, the same is true of the labels, ‘materials’ and ‘materialisms’. While new materialists have critiqued these distinctions, they are simultaneously reproduced through these discursive labels. This consequently prompts the question: Why have new materialists held on to the term, ‘materialism’?

2.2 The Persistence of Materialism

The persistence of materialism is connected to the way that it indicates a departure from social research that focuses primarily on culture and discourse. ‘Materialism’ emphasizes how (im)materials matter for political agency and for the performance of everyday life. It conveys an ongoing allegiance to a broadly realist ontological perspective, whereby a real, (im)material world is seen to precede, facilitate and constrain (human) conscious thought. Provocatively, human and nonhuman action are consequently seen to stem from “embodied and environmental affordances, dispositions and habits” (Anderson and Harrison, 2010: 7), rather than being predicated upon (human) willpower or intent. It is for this reason that ‘materialism’ has value, it working to advocate for making this controversial and radical leap – a leap that has significant implications for understandings of human exceptionalism, ethics and politics. Under a materialist perspective, human thought and action are seen as unexceptional: they are the performed products of complex webs of socio-material relations[2].

This effective ‘flattening’ of the ontological and agential differences between humans and nonhumans has – perhaps unsurprisingly – been a primary target of new materialisms’ critics. Yet some of the tension surrounding this claim also stems from a fundamental misconception. New materialism is often considered to assert that material agency is equally important to – if not more important than – the agency of humans. However, while there is variation in the degree to which nonhuman vitalism is emphasised across the spectrum of new materialist accounts, few new materialists would likely argue that the ‘human’ does not frequently play a significant – if not key – role in the unfolding of social and political phenomena. Indeed, humans and materials are not seen as being necessarily equally consequential in this work. Rather, new materialists would generally assert that:

  • We cannot possibly know which entities (human or otherwise) are going to be consequential in a given situation, prior to observing them. To make premature assumptions about the significance of human agency would be to blind our analyses to other key agents and processes that may influence the unfolding of social phenomena.
  • Human bodies and their diverse forms of agency must be seen as being socio-materially constituted; as being constantly performed and socially-contingent products that emerge through their positionings within complex webs of socio-material relations. Human agency is therefore not inherent or ‘natural’. To understand it properly, we need to look beyond the human and examine how it is relationally (re)produced.

As such, the term materialism is both productive and controversial. On the one hand, it is unhelpful in that it implies an exclusive interest in matter and materiality, despite its advocates remaining interested in life, bodies, knowledge, systems of meaning, and affects. On the other, it usefully signifies a radical and provocative departure from idealism, emphasising the importance of socio-material relations for the emergence of social phenomena. It is through this latter move that new materialists also advocate for finding alternatives to social research that is based on a bedrock of assumed human exceptionalism.

2.3 Contention II: ‘New’

A second source of contention has concerned the term, ‘new’.  Indeed, studies of the significance of matter are anything but new: there have been, and continue to be, a wide variety of approaches that, in different ways, insist upon the significance of materials and materialities for the constitution of social life. Notably, these accounts have included the socially-detached metaphysical materialism of Epicurious and the historical and dialectical materialisms of Marx and Engels. Such approaches have similarly received sustained scholarly attention and continue to have contemporary advocates. Calling new materialism ‘new’ is therefore inaccurate and potentially violent. At best, it commits alternative perspectives to a perceived antiquatedness, and at worst, it denies the existence of their plurality. Moreover, its ubiquity is such that it has become difficult for these alternative approaches to avoid themselves being labelled as ‘new materialist’. In this sense, new materialisms are inherently colonial.

In order to understand why new materialisms are referred to as ‘new’, it is helpful to reflect on the recent history of materialism in the social sciences. This again is dangerous, for what is referred to as ‘new materialism’ is not singular, nor does it have one given point of genesis[3]. To reduce this work to a more-or-less linear narrative of causality that leads up to its emergence is therefore also an act of epistemic violence, and any scholar seeking to learn about materiality and new materialisms would be well-advised to look beyond the oft-recited meta-narrative that follows.

The narrative begins in a Western context, with the historical materialism of Marx and Engels. Here, attention is paid to the historic development of the social and political conditions that constitute capitalist societies. Matter and material practices are seen to be necessary for maintaining relations of production and as simultaneously having the potential to constrain these relations. Material practices are thus both constitutive of Capitalist modes of existence and are key to emancipating labour from exploitation. The promise of this approach is that, by re-ordering the material practices that underpin Capitalism, other more egalitarian forms of social and political organization can be brought into existence.

Until the 1970s, historical materialist approaches enjoyed widespread influence in the social sciences. Their emphasis on matter complemented the then-dominant realist ontologies of the time that insisted upon the existence of a real, physical, world that was independent of human minds and action. They also complemented the prevailing positivist epistemologies which insisted upon this physical world being able to be more-or-less objectively measured and known, typically through quantitative methods.

From the 1970s onwards, the social sciences underwent a widespread shift away from these realist ontologies and positivist epistemologies. Commonly referred to as the ‘cultural turn’, this shift was characterised instead by a movement towards idealist ontologies and constructivist epistemologies. To differing degrees, these new perspectives took the broadly phenomenological approach that, if a real world did exist at all, it was impossible to ever know of its existence with any certainty or objectivity. The primary focus of analysis consequently turned towards examining the formation and effects of meanings, discourses, language and shared systems of meaning (cultures), rather than exploring the formation of materially-constituted social environments. Analysis therefore moved from a focus on the physical to the representational, from the natural to the cultural, and from matter and materiality to meaning and discursive effects.

It is difficult to overemphasise the benefits that the cultural turn had for social research. Most notably, it involved recognising the social construction of knowledge, including coming to terms with the existence of a plurality of knowledges and the multiplicity of their modes and sites of production. In the process, culture went from being something that was taken to naturally exist to something that was seen as constantly performed. This also brought about a dramatic increase in attention to the ways in which knowledges and systems of meaning are structured through power, with emphasis being placed upon how particular thoughts, ideas and ways of seeing could become prevalent and subjugate others.

During the cultural turn however, matter became side-lined. As Keith Woodward, John Paul Jones and Sallie Marston (2009) have reflected, this period brought with it nearly “two decades of celebration of epistemological inquiry and a near total rejection of metaphysics and ontology” (p. 272, citing Dixon et al., 2009). Whilst this is not to detract from the ways that matter and materiality received (limited) attention during the cultural turn[4], these aspects of social life certainly became increasingly backgrounded in social analyses over this period.

2.4 Materialist (Re)turns

New Materialisms’ gradual and disparate emergence stemmed from a series of widespread frustrations with this totalising emphasis on knowledge and representation, combined with lingering feelings that the material world still had something to offer for understandings of social organisation[5]. In no small part galvanised by the 1987 publication of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’, these accounts began to cumulatively describe forms of materialism that resurrected the realist ontological leanings of earlier materialisms, but which reworked them through the concepts of performativity, relationality and discourse that had become influential during the cultural turn.

As Sarah Whatmore has argued, the ‘new’ in ‘new materialism’ is therefore perhaps better understood as indicating a return towards matter and materiality, rather than as marking a departure from previous forms of materialist research. Instead of describing the creation of a singular, coherent conceptual framework, new materialism was meant to describe the broad variety of materialist accounts that emerged/persisted following this turn. As a result, it has been used to represent a wide variety of recent materialist work, despite the fact that many of the authors associated with the term would not refer to themselves as ‘new materialists’.

Two distinctions set this broad collection of materialist work apart from earlier forms of materialism, however. First, in order to avoid perpetuating the ‘naïve realisms’ of earlier accounts, many so-called ‘new materialists’ began to draw upon broadly phenomenological perspectives to question the extent to which the material world could be humanly known and engaged with. For many scholars, a real material world was now seen to exist, but human perceptions and interactions with it could only ever be partial and mediated.

Second, these new materialists began to challenge the human exceptionalism that underpinned previous materialist approaches. Influenced by Enlightenment thinking, earlier forms of materialism had tended to present the material world as being a potential tool for human progress that could be made subservient to human will and mastery. To challenge this, new materialists instead began to emphasise the vitalism of materials and their forceful materialities, highlighting their capacities to act independently of human agency/intent and influence social and political phenomena. In the process, materials came to be seen as textured political agents rather than as impartial ‘stuff’ that could be wilfully and easily manipulated. This claim has become perhaps the most recognisable characteristic of what is now referred to as ‘new materialism’, albeit one that not all ‘new’ materialists prescribe to with the same degree of enthusiasm.

2. Geography, Materiality and New Materialisms

As Sarah Whatmore has also observed, one of the most central and enduring concerns in human geography has been to explore the complex relationships between human life and the material world. From the performativity of gendered urban landscapes to the political ecologies of resource extraction or the social implications of ‘natural’ hazards, human geographers have held a longstanding interest in documenting the social significance of materials – an interest that far precedes the recent influence of new materialisms. As such, while the cultural turn involved productive geographical scholarship around the topics of discourse, culture and knowledge politics, it is perhaps unsurprising that geographers have been widely receptive to new materialist arguments.

The earliest explicit geographical engagements with new materialisms can be traced back to the mid-late 1990s, shortly following the rapid growth in interest in relational approaches to space and place. These new, radically disruptive, perspectives reframed space and place as the performed products of complex relationships between flows of people, objects, ideas and meanings. Their emphasis on performative relations enabled geographers to better understand how physically-dispersed entities and institutions could e/affect one another in socially important ways and therein provided a means to overcome the so-called ‘tyranny of distance’. More radically however, and in no small way thanks to the work of Doreen Massey, they also promoted a progressive understanding of space and place through which notions of fixed and essentialised spaces, places and spatial identities could be challenged.

New materialism was seen to broadly complement these approaches. Its primary vectors of disciplinary entry were through the plural theoretical channels of feminism and posthumanism (Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad), Actor-Network Theory (Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Annemarie Mol, John Law), and concepts of assemblage (Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Manuel DeLanda). Each of these approaches emphasises the importance of seeing the world as being contingently performed through the complex, unstable relationships between bodies, things, words and ideas, and of attending to these relations within academic analyses. Significantly for new materialisms, these approaches also all emphasise the importance of matter and materiality for understanding the formation of social phenomena.

In the context of the uptake of new materialisms within human geography, these approaches provided a crucial link for pushing beyond the dominant focus on representation that had come to characterize human geography during the cultural turn[6], offering a series of conceptual and methodological frameworks for joining up ideas around discourse, representation and knowledge production with a renewed attention to matter, materiality and the material world. Indeed, so extensive has their influence been that many concepts from this work, including those of performance and performativity; emergence and becoming; materiality and material vitality; naturalisation and translation; and contingency and failure, have become central to a large number of contemporary geographical debates. Moreover, despite the continued existence of a plurality of other materialist conceptual approaches within human geography, it is these conceptual frameworks that new materialism remains most closely associated with in the discipline today.

Few areas of human geography remain untouched by this reinvigorated interest in materials and materialities. Geographers have, for instance, explored the leaky, (dis)abled, gendered and racialized materialities of human bodies and the capacities of materials to exert force upon them in ways that produce different kinds of benefit, value, harm, emotion and affect. They have examined the materialities of landscapes, urban spaces and built environments; the ways in which these materialities perform particular kinds of gendered, racialised, (dis)able, (im)mobile, or (in)secure subjects; how they give rise to certain kinds of politics and opportunities for political resistance; and how their various obstinacies and vulnerabilities can impede transformations or necessitate ongoing maintenance. Geographical attention has also been paid to the ecological, cultural, economic and political significance of the transformation, decay, persistence and (im)mobilities of different materials, examining these in wide-ranging contexts, from the circulation of foodstuffs to the disposal of waste and the securing of digital content. Moreover, substantial interest has recently been expressed around examining the role of matter and materialities in the political ecologies of life within and beyond the Anthropocene.

Geographers have significantly contributed to materialist thought primarily by expanding understandings of materiality. Perhaps most influentially, this has included their extensive theorization of material affects, whereby attention has not only been paid to the different ways in which matter can variously press upon, enchant, disturb, amuse, intrigue, harm, bore or motivate different bodies, but also to how its finiteness, absence and immaterialities may haunt bodies and spaces and provoke affects such as loss, mourning and fear[7]. In these accounts, materiality is not seen as necessarily being a quality of physicality, presence, solidity or groundedness, but can instead be far more ethereal, intangible and hard to locate.

Recent work on elemental geographies has also influentially expanded accounts of materiality. Here, researchers have again tried to avoid reproducing accounts that reassert the obstinacy and groundedness of matter, and have instead focused on the ways in which elements such as rock, fire, air, water, ice, fogs and winds can exceed their physical compositions and qualities to include metaphorical and poetic expressions (which are seen to constitute further dimensions of materiality). The full materialities of matter and its manifold capacities to press upon and affect human subjects are consequently regarded as often being ungraspable.

Research on elements has also been part of a series of wider efforts to explore the voluminous and mobile qualities of materials. For example, scholarship around maritime geographies has described how the materialities of water include its three-dimensional liquidity. Ocean waves have depth and angles and move in undulating ways that can have manifold consequences for seafaring mobilities. Volume and movement must consequently be seen as forms of materiality. A considerable amount of research has begun to take up this idea in alternative contexts, for example looking at the social implications of concrete’s volumetric qualities and the ways it is variously used to tunnel, bunker and protect human life, or examining the consequences of Arctic ice’s dynamic and mobile materialities and the ways in which its melting can trouble territorial distinctions. Again, these studies are united in their attention to the excessiveness of the material and their refusal to reduce its materialities to those of obstinacy and inertia.

Another sizeable body of geographical work has begun to examine materiality through the lens of the molecular. Here, focus is placed on the way that molecules travel, interact and have e/affects – from the movement of airborne particulates to the genetic makeup of bodies and the global circulation of pathogens. This is not a simple scalar framing of materiality however; molecular materialities cannot be equated with the micro. Rather, the molecular provides a way of acknowledging a form of particulate materiality; one that describes connections between different atomised parts. In this manner, it once again articulates the excessiveness of matter, emphasising how these materialities may exceed ‘normal’ human registers. Molecules can move in indeterminable, difficult to trace ways – at speeds and in directions that are different to those with which humans are typically familiar. Moreover, they provide a way of thinking beyond particular stabilizations of matter to explore the affective afterlives of materials (once such stabilizations have broken down), or the ways in which they can permeate and travel between stabilizations. For instance, electronic components may decay, break down and leak, discarding molecular structures that travel beyond their previous forms and permeate soils, watercourses and organic bodies. In this sense, the molecular provides a tool for getting at the interconnectedness of bodies and their environments.

A different focal point for materialist research has been around the concept of atmospheres. In this work, geographers have attempted to describe another form of material excessiveness that cannot be fully comprehended by humans. Atmospheres are voluminous, ambient, difficult to trace the boundaries of, hard to precisely attribute the e/affects of, and are characterised by their uncertain presences/absences. Studying atmospheres consequently provides a less concrete or grounded representation of materiality, with the atmospheric providing a means to deal with the often ambiguous, forceful relationships between bodies and things.

Other researchers have returned to the materialities of the ground. Here the aim has been to draw attention to matter’s excessiveness by focusing on slow processes of geological (de)formation and the heating and folding of materials across geologic timescales. Such accounts are often framed in the context of the Anthropocene, with researchers working to decentre the human and attend to processes and timescales that challenge the discourses and political imaginaries through which ‘nature’ and the ‘natural’ world are typically engaged with.

Finally, geographers have also explored planetary materialities. This work has similarly been primarily concerned with documenting materialities in relation to the Anthropocene, with emphasis being placed upon understanding processes that affect the health and well-being of the planet (including its possible ‘death’). This work has been characterised by accounts of materiality that span across a range of planetary domains, including the hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere and geosphere, with such formations being examined in relation to a variety of pressing material challenges, such as planetary urbanization, pandemics, atmospheric pollution and global carbon emissions.

In these different ways, materiality therefore remains at the forefront of geographical thought and geographers continue to make valuable contributions to wider materialist scholarship. Indeed, these diverse reflections on materialities have each shared an important progressive agenda. Uniting them is an interest in finding new ways to engage with the excessiveness of materiality and push beyond accounts that frame matter as inert, obstinate, flat or grounded. It is by engaging with this excessiveness, whether by turning to (im)material affects, elemental resonances, volumetric, mobile, molecular, atmospheric, geological or planetary materialities, that geographers have attempted to push back against earlier accounts of materiality that have portrayed materials as passive subjects of human control. Finding vocabularies such as these – vocabularies that work to challenge the positioning of the human and it’s abilities to comprehend and overpower the material; languages which force us to recognize our situatedness within complex planetary and extra-planetary ecologies of unfolding socio-material relations – is a crucial strategy, not only for ensuring that humans and nonhumans alike survive the Anthropocene, but for enabling people to live more ethically in-and-with the world in the future.

3. Further Reading

Adey, P. (2015). Air’s affinities: Geopolitics, chemical affect and the force of the elemental. Dialogues in Human Geography, 5(1), 54–75.

Anderson, B. (2009). Affective atmospheres. Emotion, Space and Society, 2(2), 77–81.

Anderson, B. (2014). Affective Life. In Encountering Affect: Capacities, Apparatuses, Conditions. Farnham: Ashgate.

Anderson, B., & Wylie, J. (2009). On geography and materiality. Environment and Planning A, 41(2), 318–335.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press. Retrieved from

Clark, N. (2013). Geoengineering and geologic politics. Environment and Planning A, 45(12), 2825–2832.

Coole, D., Frost, S., Bennett, J., Cheah, P., Orlie, M. A., & Grosz, E. (2010). New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Duke University Press. Retrieved from

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Vol. 7). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCormack, D. (2007). Molecular affects in human geographies. Environment and Planning A, 39(2), 359–377.

Steinberg, P., & Peters, K. (2015). Wet ontologies, fluid spaces: giving depth to volume through oceanic thinking. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 0(0), 0–0.

Whatmore, S. (2006). Materialist returns: practising cultural geography in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies, 13(4), 600–609.

Yusoff, K. (2016). Anthropogenesis: Origins and Endings in the Anthropocene. Theory, Culture & Society, 33(2), 3–28.

4. Notes

[1] Authors associated with this work may also not explicitly adhere to the label ‘new materialism’, for reasons that will be discussed in the following sections.

[2] There are exceptions to this position. Nigel Thrift, for example, has described forms of materialism that desire to retain a degree of minimal humanism.

[3] New materialisms have emerged from a series of frustrations across a wide variety of fields, including, but not limited to: post-colonialism, feminism, landscape studies, urban studies, legal studies, performance studies, and science studies.

[4] Ben Anderson & Divia Tolia-Kelly (2004) point toward the work on the extensive cultural materialist work on landscape as an example.

[5] Many of these contributions are also part of a wider body of work that is commonly, but similarly controversially, referred to as ‘non-representational theory’. This literature consists of a diverse set of conceptual approaches that aim to supplement representation-focused accounts of society, without necessarily explicitly attending to matter and materiality.

[6] This dominance can tend to be over-emphasised, as highlighted in footnote 3.

[7] Different bodies and materials are also seen to be more or less sensitive to these affects.

The Fixity of Flexibility

There is widespread agreement about the importance of flexibility in the energy sector. But what does flexibility mean? In our recent blog post for the CREDS website (, Elizabeth Shove and I identify three common interpretations. These include definitions of flexibility as a feature of whole energy systems; as a commodity that figures in energy markets; and as an outcome of specific interventions in supply or demand.

We suggest that all three interpretations rest on assumptions about the extent and character of energy demand and that some have the perverse consequence of fixing ideas about societal needs and limiting the forms of ‘flexibility’ that are discussed. As well as articulating some of the rigidities in debates about flexibility, we point towards a more ambitious agenda capable of engaging with significant changes concerning what energy is for and how it is provided.

You can read the whole post here:


CfP – Special Issue – ‘Histories of Flexibility’

Journal of Energy History / Revue d’histoire de l’énergie (JEHRHE)


Peter Forman (Lancaster University)

Stanley Blue (Lancaster University)

Elizabeth Shove (Lancaster University)


Over the last five years, flexibility has emerged as a key topic in academic, industry and policy debates concerning the decarbonization of contemporary energy systems (IEA, 2008; Goutte and Vassilopoulos, 2019; Ofgem, 2017; Martinot, 2016; Powells et al. 2014). These conversations have primarily developed around the challenge of maintaining the synchrony between energy supply and demand whilst also reducing the carbon intensity of energy networks. Widespread decarbonization is seen to require substantial investment in renewable resources such as wind, solar and tidal power, yet these resources are each characterised by distinct rhythms of generation (day and night cycles, tide timetables) that do not necessarily align with the times when energy is needed.

Researchers are consequently investigating ways in which the flexibility of energy systems can be increased, with flexibility typically being seen as a system’s ability to “respond rapidly to large fluctuations in demand and supply, both scheduled and unforeseen variations and events, ramping down production when demand decreases, and upwards when it increases” (IEA, 2008: 14). It is in this context that there is growing interest in the flex-abilities of different aspects of energy systems, including the potential for generators to quickly deliver energy when needed; for businesses and organisations to shed or reduce their consumption at specific moments; or for residential consumers to reduce peak load by changing the timing of energy-demanding practices.

However, across the energy sector, issues of flexibility are routinely presented as contemporary challenges linked to novel imperatives of decarbonisation and renewable supply. Practically no attention has been paid to the ways in which past energy systems have been variously (in)flexible, to earlier efforts to manage the relation between supply and demand, or to how such strategies reproduce specific assumptions about ‘normality’ and normal service in different societies and historical periods. As such, there is little sense of how understandings of flexibility have developed and of how they have been built into the design and operation of energy systems over time.

We are consequently inviting contributions for a special issue of the Journal of Energy History on the ‘Histories of Flexibility’. We believe that contemporary debates about flexibility could and should be informed by understandings of how temporal and spatial relations between supply and demand have been configured in the past, and of the processes and politics involved. We therefore invite articles that contribute to an understanding of how supply-demand relations have been managed historically and that, in one way or another, inspire and inform contemporary debates. Whilst most attention to date has focused on flexibility in the context of the electricity sector (partly because electricity is difficult to store), we invite contributions that go beyond this context, suggesting that there is potentially much to learn about how supply-demand relations have been organised and managed in relation to other fuels (coal, gas, oil). We are also interested in accounts that detail the different forms of social and institutional flexibility associated with different ‘end uses’ (for instance, heating, automobility), across different sectors. There are no specific limits with regards to time period.

Specific topics that might be explored in more depth include:

  • Issues of aggregation and scale and how these relate to the challenges of managing supply-demand relations – including the move from smaller scale to networked grids.
  • Responses to instances of ‘shortage’ or crises in supply – what do these reveal about diverse forms of flexibility, about notions of normality and about the periods in which they occur?  As well as moments of breakdown, such as power cuts there are other revealing forms of restriction, for instance in war times or times of economic crisis.
  • Methods of handing variations over different time scales: for instance, seasonal fluctuations as well as daily peak loads.
  • How changes in societal and institutional rhythms, e.g. working hours, holiday periods, etc. have a bearing on both the ‘need’ for energy and when it is required.
  • Methods and techniques for recording and representing the relation between supply and demand in real time, and for forecasting future needs.
  • The political and institutional organisation of energy systems, and how these constitute pressures for and interests in different forms of flexibility.


To have your paper considered for this special issue, please send an abstract of no more than 300 words to Peter Forman at, by June 7th 2019. Abstracts will be reviewed by the co-editors and authors will be notified of the success or rejection of their applications by June 20th 2019. Unfortunately, we cannot accept publications in French.

We have funding from CREDS (Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions) to host and organise a two-day workshop for contributors (scheduled for December 2019).  This event will provide an opportunity to revise, comment on and improve the coherence of the draft articles and ensure that the special issue adds up to more than the sum of its parts.


7th June 2019 Deadline for abstract submission
20th June 2019 Selection of authors
10th November  2019 Deadline for first paper drafts
18th December 2019 Workshop to review and discuss papers (funded by CREDS)
January – May 2020 Editing submissions
28th August 2020 Final deadline for submission to ‘The Journal of Energy  History’

The Journal:

The Journal of Energy History / Revue d’histoire de l’énergie is the first journal in French- or English-speaking academia dedicated to the study of the history of energy. At the heart of human history, concerns about energy have increasingly become global, complex, and pressing. They merit rigorous investigation and study, including historical inquiry. Furthermore, the history of energy helps us understand the history of human society and sheds light on contemporary challenges.

The Journal of Energy History / Revue d’histoire de l’énergie seeks to go beyond studies that treat different sources and forms of energy in isolation. The journal hopes to create new opportunities for scholarship and publication in which the full potential of historical research can be realized by comparing and contrasting different forms of energy produced and consumed in their social, political, economic, technological, and cultural contexts.

Event: Chemical Kinships – RGS 2019

I’m excited to be part of the upcoming Chemical Kinships session at this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference in London, organised by the fantastic Angeliki Balayannis (Brunel University London) and Emma Garnett (King’s College London). Abstract and session outlines follow below.

Session Abstract

A. Balayannis & E. Garnett

A chemical turn is taking place across the social sciences and humanities. This bourgeoning field of research is increasingly approaching industrial chemicals ontologically, as heterogeneous material entanglements. These situated attunements to chemical relations and conditions are stimulating new conceptual developments, including: chemical kinship (Agard-Jones 2013); chemical geographies (Romero et al. 2017); the chemosphere (Shapiro 2015); chemical space (Barry 2005); and chemo-ethnography (Shapiro and Kirksey 2017). This session considers what a geographical approach to chemicals generates conceptually, empirically, and ethically. Geography has largely taken the materialities of industrial chemicals for granted – often reducing them to villainous objects. By approaching the spatiotemporalities of chemicals through their enabling and constraining capacities, this session considers the ways shared exposures afford new political possibilities (Alaimo 2016; Murphy 2006).

The session has two key strands, the first entails a set of themed paper sessions, exploring chemical entanglements in embodied, material, and affective registers. The second puts these ideas into practice, through a participatory workshop for cultivating attunements to chemical kinships in central London – exploring bodily relations with chemicals, ranging from antibiotics to air pollutants to plastics. Our point of departure for this final session is Elizabeth Povinelli’s key question (2017: 508): ‘How does one probe and discover the world that one is in, but can experience only peripherally?’


Paper Abstract

CH4emical Encounters: A Human/Natural Gas History – Knowledge/Politics/Governance

 P. Forman 2019

How has natural gas, an often-violently vital, yet also invisible, intangible, and largely odourless material, become humanly known? How has it transformed so radically in its everyday relationships with people that, in the space of just 200 years, it has gone from inspiring widespread fear to featuring as an everyday household commodity that people not only depend upon, but which is so normalised in daily routines that it is rarely given a second thought?

To explore these questions, I outline a brief history of human-natural gas encounters, describing the development of a range of increasingly elaborate techniques for rendering natural gas knowable, communicating its effects, and regulating its behaviour. In the process, I examine how natural gas occupies a position that seemingly contradicts dominant narratives of material vitalism (in which materials are overwhelmingly represented as villainous entities: as sources of societal threat or challenging inertia), demonstrating how gas instead presents a range of threats and opportunities for society. These vital capacities are also shown to be the focus of increasingly sophisticated practices of governance, gas being surveyed, monitored and manipulated in efforts to actualise certain vital capacities, whilst inhibiting others.

In tracing this history of gaseous knowledge production and governance, I conclude by considering the lessons that could be learned for the governance, politicisation and rendering known of other gaseous substances that have significance for ecological governance in the Anthropocene, in particular, carbon dioxide and air pollution.


Preliminary Programme


Session 1

Organisers: Angeliki Balayannis,  Emma Garnett

Chair: Angeliki Balayannis


Making microbes make materials: Chemical kinship and relations of value in the biotechnological production of industrial chemicals

  • Eleanor Hadley Kershaw (University of Nottingham, UK), Carmen McLeod (University of Nottingham, UK), Brigitte Nerlich (University of Nottingham, UK) 

Chemical regimes of living and home hygiene practices in Sydney, Australia

  • Rachael Wakefield-Rann (University of Technology Sydney, Australia) 

Here We Go; Here We Go; Here We Go: Olfactory Circulations in Moments Of Collective Delight

  • Victoria J. E. Jones (Durham University, UK)

Oxidation in Relation to Urban Bio- and Geo- Politics: When Elements and Bodies Encounter in a Petrochemical City

  • Yi-Ting Chang (National Taiwan University, Taiwan), Shiuh-Shen Chien (National Taiwan University, Taiwan), & Yi-Ting Chang (National Taiwan University, Taiwan)

Circulating stories of the air

  • Harshavardhan Bhat (University of Westminster, UK) 

Session 2

Organisers: Angeliki Balayannis, Emma Garnett

Chairs: Angeliki Balayannis, Emma Garnett


The Social Life of Nitrogen: Organic Chemicals and Political Economy

  • Emma Cardwell (University of Glasgow, UK)

CH4emical Encounters: A Human/Natural Gas History -Knowledge/Politicization/Governance

  • Peter Forman (Lancaster University, UK) 

Beyond nuclear geographies: Exploring the entangled afterlives of para-nuclear waste 

  • Rebecca Alexis-Martin (University of Southampton, UK) 

Garbage Mountains: Chemical Geographies as Sacred Space

  • Katie Oxx (Saint Joseph’s University, USA)

CO2; the problematic chemistry of cement; and the question of substitution

  • Vera Ehrenstein (University College London, UK) 

Session 3

Organisers: Angeliki Balayannis, Emma Garnett

Chairs: Angeliki Balayannis, Emma Garnett 




Event: CfP ‘Thermal Geographies’ RGS-IBG 2019 Annual Conference

There is still time to submit an abstract to our RGS-IBG session on Thermal Geographies! Full details below.
rgs-ibg-logo SMALL


Thermal Geographies: empirical, conceptual and methodological encounters and consolidations.


RGS-IBG 2019 Annual International Conference: London (Wednesday 28th to Friday 30th August 2019).

Convenors: Elspeth Oppermann (Technical University Munich), Gordon Walker (Lancaster University) and Peter Forman (Lancaster University).

This session seeks to draw together the multiple ways in which the ‘thermal’ plays a role in shaping geographical materialities and knowledges, and their co-production. It is propelled by two shifts. First, the emergence of new modes of engaging with the thermal such as: embodied, affective, experiential and non-representational engagements with heat and warmth (Ingold, 2011; Vannini et al. 2012); new materialist accounts of energy (Bennet, 2009; Kirby 2011); and analyses in the fields of architecture (Ong, 2012) and human evolution (Jablonski, 2013), which identify heat or thermal energy as agential in the co-production of socio-material, cultural and political worlds.

Second, profound shifts in the materiality of our encounters with thermal energy; on the one hand human life has a remarkable ability to shield itself from and control thermal environments, and on the other, we are increasingly exposed to the vagaries of thermal shifts beyond our control, in part as a result of our (inadvertent) climate engineering. As such, the thermal appears as newly powerful: experientially productive, and potentially existentially destructive. Too much or too little heat, at the wrong or right times, in the wrong or right places – is playing an ever more visible role in the production of thermally differentiated physical and social geographies.

Geographers have engaged with the thermal in various ways. Examples include: the thermally shifting geopolitics of the Arctic, (Shake et al. 2017; Steinberg & Kristofferson, 2017); uneven thermal infrastructural, economic and social geographies (e.g. Buzar, 2007; Silver, 2016);  elemental and pyrotechnical geographies of ice and fire (e.g. Adey, 2015; Clark & Yusoff, 2014); and the entangled geographies of thermal flow for, through and from social practice, including in relation to corporeal vulnerabilities of various forms (e.g. Oppermann and Walker, 2018; Hitchings, 2011).

Cognisant of our temporal and spatial situatedness in a rapidly warming world, we invite empirical, methodological and theoretical papers that critically engage with the thermal as a productive geographical register for understanding, intervening in, or engaging ethically with the dynamics of political, cultural, economic, material and ecological formations.

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words with your name and affiliation to Elspeth Oppermann ( and Gordon Walker ( by the 8th of February, 5 PM UK time.