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Home > CIRED > Research contracts > BNRE Project

Bifurcations in Natural Resources Economics (1920s-1930s)

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Funded by the European Society for the History of Economic Thought (ESHET)
Research Grants Programme | 2017-2019

Coordinator: Antoine Missemer (CNRS, CIRED Paris)

Members: Marion Gaspard (Université Lyon 2, Triangle), Thomas M. Müller (Université Catholique de Louvain), Franck Nadaud (CNRS, CIRED Paris)


The project "Bifurcations in Natural Resources Economics (1920s-1930s)" explores the historical period when (exhaustible) natural resources economics split into two trends: on the one side, a trend of theoretical modelling, after L. C. Gray’s seminal contributions (1913; 1914) and on the road to H. Hotelling’s model (1931); on the other side, a trend of empirical applied studies embodied by the Brookings Institution energy programme (see Tryon, 1927; Tryon and Eckel, 1932), which concentrated on the tricky issue of (de)coupling between energy consumption and economic output. This episode is very little documented in history of economic thought. Yet, since it deeply structured the subsequent evolution of natural resources economics, it may shed light on several controversies (conflicts between theoretical modelling and empirics, methods of measurement of decoupling, etc.), and provide insights about the uses of some mathematical tools in economics (calculus of variations, inter-temporal optimisation methods, index, etc.). The project aims at presenting, analysing and discussing the two trends, both from an institutional and intellectual point of view (participants, backgrounds, political impact), and from an analytical point of view (economic questions, theoretical frameworks, mathematical methods).

With regards to theoretical modelling, the focus will be put on the elaboration and reception of the Hotelling model, and its famous “rule” of inter-temporal optimisation, in the 1920s and 1930s. In this direction, archival material will be used. As regards empirical studies, the Brookings Institution energy programme will be scrutinised through a long run view on the history of resources economics (How did it differ from past analyses?), and from a history of statistical tools view, by situating the programme among other attempts of building index and time series in applied economics at the time. A last research path will be dedicated to the potential cross-relationships between the two trends, and to what these relationships may say about the competing roles of theoretical modelling and empirics in the field and beyond.

Because inter-temporal resources distribution and decoupling are two hot topics in sustainability studies, the project is designed to foster dialogue between historians of thought and contemporary economists.

How to get informed about the project

The advancement and results of the research will be updated regularly on this webpage. Interested scholars may also contact the coordinator of the project by email or follow some participants on Twitter (@ant_mis1, @Marion_Gaspard) to get informed.

A general appraisal of the project is expected to be presented at the 2019 ESHET Conference. Intermediary workshops will probably be planned. Interested participants will be welcome in these events.