V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Re-Imaginings: the past, the present & the future of energy

The Future of Energy Infographic, produced by the One Great Workshop, featured in one of our previous blogs highlights some of the difficulties we face when attempting to address the profusion of political, commercial, and domestic needs and interests, which have all shaped the ways we think about fossil fuels. Often framed as being in crisis, our reliance on fossil fuels is driven by a political, often highly emotive, agenda that connects across spatial scales from transnational politics to our everyday lives at home and work. As the schema provided by The Future of Energy Infographic, concludes, reliance upon any single source of energy will not solve the problems we face in the current age of climate change.

Opening up a window onto the past, we do not need to look too far back to recover the former existence of energy regimes and cultures that sought to harness power from a diverse range of sources. Indeed, History presents us with new possibilities to reimagine the energy landscapes of the future. The sampler shown here was made by Elizabeth Cridland in 1752. Samplers were made by young girls, from middling and gentry families, as a means of honing their skills at needle craft, but also as a means of working through and learning religious and moral values. Elizabeth included the Lord’s prayer, she also depicted elements of the local landscape that were evidently meaningful to her. They include her family home, garden and perhaps most surprisingly to us, the local windmill.

The use of the past as a prompt to re-imagine the future is of course not new. Faced with the devastating social and cultural impact of large-scale industrialisation and fossil consumption in the nineteenth century, utopian writers like William Morris in News from Nowhere employed history as a means to envisage an alternative future, one in which workers were released from pollution, poverty, disease, and what he saw as the terminal degeneration of culture and art brought about by the alienation of labour and the technological ‘fix’. For us today these writings continue to hold currency, they cause us to stop and reflect and prompt us to ask, what if an alternative ‘revolution’ had taken place? A revolution that was technologically efficient, politically transformative and socially just?

Morris drew upon the deep past as a means to reinstate the organic relationship between people and the environment, which he saw as being eroded away by the twin forces of large-scale industrialisation and urbanisation. He was interested in the potential of craft, as not only a way of doing, but also as a way of envisaging how society could work. For Morris, the tactile, skilled and knowledgeable processes of making, which were themselves imbued with aesthetic qualities, translated into a deeper understanding of social relations built upon cooperation and a shared responsibility to protect the earth’s resources, not to waste or spoil anything.

The course of history is not set on some linear course with a clear beginning and inevitable ending. We often think of time in this way because patterns of change and continuity, and moments of transition are deeply entangled, complex processes that are hard to decipher.  It is easier sometimes to think of History as having some logic: so that’s how we got to where we are today. But what if we unpick the threads of the dominant narrative of industrial revolution and capitalism, to reveal other less well known histories, alternative stories, experiences, imaginings, perhaps even alternative endings. Is it not the case that without utopia, and allowing creative space for new imaginaries to develop, we are faced with an unchanging world in which our relationship to energy, and reliance upon fossil fuels, becomes so absorbed within our culture that it seems normal, essential and to be protected at any cost.

What does Elizabeth Cridland’s sampler, made over 250 years ago, say about the place of wind power in everyday landscapes in the past? Can a small, commonplace piece of needlework such as this provide a prompt for us to rethink our relationship to renewable energy sources today?


Edward Robbins ‘News from Nowhere: a Utopian Dream’ in Manifestoes and Transformations in the Early Modernist City Edited by Christian Hermansen Cordua.

William Morris News From Nowhere (first published 1890)

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