The Role of Energy in Economic Value and Social Reform: Lessons from the History of Ecological Economic Thought
Marco P. Vianna Franco (KLI Vienna)
The history of ecological economic thought is composed of the long-lasting development of ideas bridging ecology and economics and, more broadly, the various forms of interlinkages between the natural and social sciences for the sake of better understanding human-nature relations. In this sense, social energetics, seen as the application of thermodynamic principles to social systems by means of assessments of flows and stocks of energy shaping the functioning of human societies, constitutes one of the key types of such articulations. Hence, this talk is based on a forthcoming book chapter addressing the so-called Austro-German social energetics as an intellectual tradition in political economy emerging in the wake of breakthroughs in thermodynamics in the 19th century: From the works of Eduard Sacher in the 1880s to individual contributions published in Wilhelm Ostwald’s Annalen der Naturphilosophie and, finally, to the “Other Austrian Economics” of Josef Popper-Lynkeus and Otto Neurath. I argue that, despite a certain level of diversity of ideas, these authors shared a scientific utopian view which emphasized above all the need (i) to take energy into consideration when conceiving theories of economic value, and (ii) to promote a radical reform of the capitalist system. Such a broad historical assessment can also shed new light into the variegated and fruitful character of the relations between social energetics, economic value, and social reform, in addition to moving beyond one-sided misrepresentations of such authors as conservative, technocratic, and social-Darwinist reformers.