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3. Europe as a Material Civilization in Transition: Flows, Consumption, Crises, and Resilience

3. Europe as a Material Civilization in Transition: Flows, Consumption, Crises, and Resilience

This area of research proposes understanding contemporary Europe as a material civilization characterized by flows (of resources, goods, and people), modes of consumption, and crises. In keeping with the research conducted at the Centre de recherche en histoire de l’innovation (Center for Research in the History of Innovation), it will specifically but not exclusively examine technological innovation, the actors who drive it (companies, engineers, researchers, consumers, regulators), and the complex transformations it has brought about. This also involves exploring the concept of transition, which has become omnipresent in the debate regarding the future of European societies in quest of sustainability. 


This area of research is structured into three aspects:

3.1 Flows: The Dynamics of European Infrastructures

The infrastructures used for transportation, energy, and communication cross borders, raising a number of questions: what chronologies are involved? Through which debates and agreements? Delineating what spaces? With regard to earlier research, we will focus on new periods (the Second World War in particular, in connection with Research Area 4 on “War”) and new objects (especially hydrocarbon transportation networks and freeways), in an effort to supplement and nuance depictions of the hidden integration of Europe as a globalized continent.  

3.2 Consumptions: Europe as a Zone of Comfort

The notion of comfort was invented or reinvented in nineteenth-century Europe, in relation to a substantial material component. However, even within supposedly well-provided countries, inequality, blockage, the development of different kinds of precariousness (housing, food, energy), counterbalancing forces (role of consumer associations), and rejections (different forms of opposition to consumer society) show that consumption does not travel along a single or univocal path. When seen through this prism, has the material civilization that Europe built preserved its originality, or gradually confused it with the American way of life? Has a European model of consumption ever existed, and if so does one still exist today? What role do consumers play? Our research focuses firstly on energy and the automobile, and tries to address the various “fractures” caused by mass consumption.

3.3 Crises and Resilience

Notions of crisis and resilience can renew approaches to the history of Europe as a material civilization. Whether materiality relates to the causes or consequences of the crisis, it represents a key aspect of the experience of such singular moments, as well as how to emerge from them. For that matter, during the modern period the notion of crisis became a way of presenting reality, and for some even a way of governing, as simply evoking the term has tended to impose changes that are subsequently presented as “solutions” for the future. Material aspects are once again of importance, and call for attention.