Between Two Giants: Materialism and the Social Imaginary in the Energy (Transitions) of Hungary

xtro realm / Climate Imaginary Reader

Power lines, reactors and radioactive waste repositories, generators, furnaces, and photoelectric cells: citizens may think that they have little to do with these infrastructures but they have defined social relations for decades. Energy systems play a prominent role in encoding, sustaining, and developing how relations of production are constituted. In recent centuries, fossil fuels have underpinned an economic growth-oriented paradigm interlinked with bloating energy-intensive industrial output – a dynamic which has become inextricably fused with prevalent social imaginaries1. In Hungary, the energy and climate imaginaries are shaped by political and economic visions and decisions, and they filter into society through ideologies, mediated by information and propaganda. The resulting energy imaginary is a collection of the norms which determine the way in which society thinks about energy and how consumption practices institutionalize.

Kitti Gosztola: Monument to Fossil Fuel Production of the World, 2018, Courtesy of the Artist

Fossil fuel-based growth-oriented imaginaries have been encoded across the political economic spectrum ranging from libertarian capitalism to Soviet-style communism. These are shaped by material factors evolving over time, reifying energy production and consumption-related practices but conveying different characteristics based on the variegated cultural settings in which they surface. The confluence of these factors shape social imaginaries to different extents, in addition to which there is a transfer and permeation of certain modes of organization from core regions to peripheries. Material forces condition the political dynamics that mold energy imaginaries and these are frequently external2. Hungary’s energy system has been subjugated to such dynamics twice in the past seventy years.

Hungary provides an informative case that shares numerous characteristics with the broader region. When tracing the politics preceding Hungary’s energy transition in the Soviet era, one finds that the Soviet attitude was similar to all Central and Eastern European (CEE) Comecon (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) members: Moscow managed the region’s energy situation as if it were a single entity, making little differentiation between these countries. Segmentation came primarily from different reactions to the emerging challenges and pre-existing dispositions. Some countries, like Czechoslovakia or Poland, could turn to domestic resources (coal) to a larger extent, while others had more developed manufacturing capabilities, allowing them to barter oil from the Middle East (for example, the German Democratic Republic). Nonetheless, in principle all these countries essentially had to accept the propositions of the Soviet Union and shape their energy systems accordingly. Similar dynamics have emerged with regard to climate and energy policy, where the CEE has been hesitant to change but pressure from the European Union and Western European countries have led them to adapt the way they plan and think about their energy systems.

Sándor Gáspár (1916-2011): Finding the coal in Dorog, 1990 (source: Central Mining Museum)

Relations of production have been foundational for an era of fossil fuel-based social systems, enabling the rise of fossil fuel futures3. This dynamic dates back to the Industrial Revolution in England where fossil fuels first entered a dialectic with capital, brushing the environmental destruction accompanying exploitation to the side. Coal offered a convenient source of energy ensuring accelerating and stabilized production, while being easy to transport to urbanized areas4. A coal-based fossil capitalism came to dominate the social imaginary, later overtaken by a petroculture5. Fossil capitalism embodied the exploitative relations which were at the heart of capitalism and its expansion. These were further entrenched over the course of history, as the global desire for economic growth increased fossil fuel consumption. A prominent global social imaginary was formed and permeated from the cores of fossil capitalism: England, and later the USA. Political action transmitted elements of these social imaginaries across borders, which were then shaped by the historical material factors prevalent in receiving regions.

The rise of the Soviet Union came to show that the environmentally destructive dialectic between fossil fuels and industrial production was not limited to capitalist societies. It was this powerful force that underpinned production – subjugated to the logic of all-encompassing growth – that permeated the Eastern bloc6. This became tangible in proclamations such as Lenin’s statement that “[c]ommunism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country,”7 the latter of which was extensively reliant on fossil fuels. The country’s unrelenting endeavor for economic expansion, as well as its ambitions to convey political and military might, led it to hike the exploitation of its vast fossil fuel reserves. Leaders in Moscow facilitated this by constructing infrastructure first geared to deliver coal and subsequently pipelines intended to transport oil and natural gas domestically and to Warsaw Pact signatories. Ecological destruction was a non-issue, overshadowed by industrialization8. These materialities functioned as the basis of a culture that continued to exploit natural resources, leading to lock-ins that pre-determined the orientation of the economy and society9. The material elements of energy systems and the ideologies that they maintained entrenched themselves in social relations shaping the Eastern bloc’s social futures, similarly to capitalist societies. These relations constructed and maintained fossil communism in countries closely aligned with the Soviet Union.

Hungary is a semi-peripheral state which was wedged between Western capitalist Europe and the Soviet Union. Prior to World War II, its energy intensity was relatively low. That said, oil and natural gas exploitation had already begun in the 1870s and accelerated in the 1920s and 1930s on the back of motorization and industrialization10. Oil-dependent auxiliary technologies formed the foundations of a carbon lock-in, given their strong role in shaping a social imaginary predicated on motorization, growth, and fossil fuel consumption – primarily permeating from Western capitalist countries. Following the war economy, where the social imaginary was subjugated to strategic security objectives, domestic and foreign political leaders thrust the country onto a trajectory of accelerated industrialization. They oriented its economy to favour a heavy industry as per the Soviet model. In a country as resource-poor as Hungary, this was an industrial policy that led the country to become import-dependent for its energy resources11. Nonetheless, Hungary saw rapid growth which was welcomed by Hungarian and Soviet leaders alike, despite the inherent unsustainability of its economic expansion.

Csaba Nemes: Field Work, 2015, MABÉOSZ-headquarters, (Photo: OFF-Biennale Archive)

Leaders in Budapest could consolidate their vision of import-based growth by meeting energy demand through well-established import routes, reflected in the country’s early five-year plans. Hungary received inexpensive oil supplies from the Soviet Union via the Druzhba [Friendship] pipeline which began operations in 1964 and based upon which the country was able to operate its single oil refinery in Százhalombatta. The oil pipeline was a key outlet for Soviet production, enabling it to fuel growth in the states of the Eastern bloc. The Soviet Union was able to exploit and trade the resource for other crucial products its economy was unable to access or produce (for example, manufactured goods). In doing so, its social imaginary of fossil fuel-based industrialization as well as economic and military expansion permeated Hungary’s social fabric too, underscoring its bid to become the country of “iron and steel”. The Kremlin was additionally able to maintain unity within the Eastern bloc and emanate economic superiority vis-à-vis its Western capitalist adversaries by propping up the economies of amicable states with inexpensive natural resources, something from which Hungary significantly benefited. The Druzhba pipeline, paired with domestically-sourced coal, dominated the way through which Hungarian society and policy-makers envisaged their energy future. Hungary’s social imaginary was rooted in the idea that it would enjoy perpetual access to inexpensive Soviet oil flows.

Hungarian leaders sought to pursue an oil import-based energy future, but the Soviets signalled that this would not be the case. Volumes produced in Soviet fields were faltering,12 inhibiting the growing demands of rapidly industrializing countries such as Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Moreover, the Soviet Union sought to sell growing volumes on international markets in hopes of acquiring valuable foreign (Western) currencies. Leaders in Moscow signalled to the Hungarians that the composition of their fuel mix would have to change. Robust economic growth in Hungary was coupled with rising energy demand which brought a wave of power plant and transmission line constructions in the late-1960s and early-1970s. This is when the 400 kV line between Munkács (currently Ukraine) and Göd was constructed, further strengthening energy-based ties between Hungary and the Soviet Union. These years also brought the launch of the country’s largest coal-fired power plant, the Gagarin-turned-Mátrai Hőerőmű power station, reliant on strip-mined lignite from the region. These initial energy infrastructures laid the foundation for Hungary’s energy-related social imaginary for decades to come.


Aerocene Gemini, Free flight, 2016 from Germany (Schönefeld) to Poland (Biskupiec). Owned by the Aerocene Foundation, Photo: Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2016. (Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Aerocene Foundation)

Debates during the 1960s and 1970s in Hungary were oriented toward how the country’s energy future should be composed. The lack of domestic energy resources paired with Hungarian leaders’ continuous ambitions to boost economic output – an ambition partially imposed by leaders in Moscow – consolidated Soviet hegemony. Hungary essentially had nowhere to turn to as its limited foreign currency reserves and relatively high global oil prices hindered it from purchasing from international markets. The Soviet Union proposed three alternatives to oil: electricity, natural gas, and nuclear. Hungarian leaders adopted these resources in this order since they understood that their relative costs increased respectively. The least expensive option was to import electricity via the 750 kV transmission cable from Ukraine. Following this, Hungary became a partner in developing the natural gas pipeline system set to gather and transmit Soviet supplies to Europe. Hungary came to maintain one of the most extensive natural gas infrastructures in the European Union, based on the promise that natural gas was a “modern fuel” which helped meet the energy demand of households in an invisible manner13. Its “convenient” descriptor facilitated its inscription in the social imaginary. And lastly, Hungarians – forecasting robust energy demand growth – agreed to the expensive nuclear power plant which had been on the drawing board since the late-1950s. They connected the Soviet technology-based Paks nuclear plant to the electricity grid in 1982.

The decisions made by policy-makers during the 1950s and 1960s created lock-ins which would last for decades to come. Paks’ units are set to be retired between 2032 and 2037, while the Mátra Power plant should be retired by 2030. The electricity and natural gas transmission and distribution systems are likely to be utilized well into the 21st century. These small components were elements of a broader fossil fuel-based growth paradigm which has turned into a fossil capitalist system following the regime change in 1989. A non-fossil addition to this system has been the nuclear power plant in Paks. Constructed close to forty years ago, it has essentially preordained a geopolitical status quo that places great emphasis on maintaining close Hungary-Russia ties, inscribing an extremely powerful sociotechnical imaginary14. The nuclear power station is infrastructurally an extremely complex entity which narrows the scope of geopolitics while forcing Hungary to subjugate the rest of its energy system to it. For example, the Hungarian electricity grid is centred around Paks, but industrial production is also shaped by the large quantities of inexpensive electricity that the plant is able to produce. Thereby, it has determined how Hungarian policy-makers and society think about energy, significantly reducing the room for maneuvering to change energy consumption practices. In 2009, the Parliament of Hungary launched an inquiry into the options for substituting existing nuclear capacities (when retired) with a new nuclear power station. MVM, the state-owned utility, authorized the planning and construction of a new nuclear power plant, Paks 2, in 2010. These steps reflect the country’s ambition to seek an energy future where the electricity supply continues to rely on a combination of domestically produced nuclear-based electricity, complemented by renewables and electricity imports 15.

Balázs Kicsiny: Allegory of the Republic (after Daumier), 1990, acrylic, charcoal wood, (source: www.ludwigmuseum.hu)

Climate change and the climate action which various actors have chosen to take have begun to disrupt fossil fuel capitalism’s lock-ins. The European Union has proclaimed itself to be at the helm of climate action,16 which policy-makers have enacted by developing the bloc’s competitive edge through investments in renewable energy technologies – a much needed step given the region’s historical legacy of high emissions and fossil fuel import-reliance. This vision does not deviate from the dominant capitalist political economy, but it substitutes the consumption of fossil fuels for that of renewables (for instance, solar photovoltaics or wind turbines) or decarbonized fossil fuels (for instance, by utilizing carbon capture and storage). Leaders of the European Union and states actively supporting renewable energy diffusion have led the EU to develop an energy imaginary interlaced with its ambitions to decarbonize by 205017. This not only draws on the ambitions of government officials but on long-standing environmental movements in Western Europe18. Policy-makers have begun to alter the fossil fuel-based status quo to one that relies on renewables, albeit adapted to the growth-oriented social system of capitalism prevalent in contemporary Europe. The permeation of this social imaginary has begun. By exerting their political power, EU institutions and (self-proclaimed) champions of climate action have diffused their vision of a carbon neutral Europe, which all twenty-seven EU states must now accept and initiate action to execute.

Climate goals, including renewable energy targets, are voluntarily accepted by member states, and the solidarity principle of the EU entails burden-sharing between wealthier and less wealthy countries. It is unlikely that Hungary would have launched an energy transition of any sort without the influence of the West19. This has begun to alter its energy imaginary towards one including renewables, leading the country to achieve the 2020, 2030, and 2050 carbon-neutrality targets to which it has agreed, additionally stimulated by the European Union’s Emission Trading System (EU ETS). The Hungarian government has maintained that it will reach targets by harnessing nuclear power, biomass, and solar photovoltaics20. The latter has introduced substantial change in the country’s energy future, as installed capacities have increased more than sevenfold from 2015’s 172 MW to 1,277 MW in 201921. For comparison, this equates to more than half of the Paks power plant’s capacity, but it should be noted that the utilization rates of solar PV are much lower, leading to less electricity being generated. Nonetheless, we are witnessing the germs of change in the Hungarian energy imaginary, shaped by external factors. Solar PV has become an organic component of the country’s energy future and has gained further traction as the technology becomes increasingly competitive, enabling its diffusion and recursively consolidating its role in Hungary’s energy future.

Hungary’s energy imaginary has been dominated by the state’s actions, primarily shaped by the objectives of external actors (the Soviet Union and later the EU) as well as those of the government and several business leaders22. Environmental movements and counter-hegemonic blocs which would alter the country’s energy future have been scarce23. Key constituents of the sociotechnical imaginary, such as the Paks nuclear power plant, were decided upon at state level with authorities taking little notice of opposition. Subsequently, state institutions have promulgated messages consolidating the position of this decision in Hungary’s energy future. This has been the case under the Soviet regime and recent governments, where central control of the energy sector has persisted. As Hungary moves ahead with its energy transition, it is set to be imbued with the norms of a composite consisting of (decarbonized) fossil capitalism and renewable energy-based capitalism, both embodying the normative logic of fossil capitalism while also conveying the specificities of the Hungarian context. These are re-inscribed into the materialities of the newly instated sources of energy which continue to mediate capitalist social relations. The socio-cultural characteristics of a growth-based system are left intact, supported by domestic and foreign hegemons seeking to maintain the logic of the status quo.

This reading of Hungary’s energy futures is quite deterministic, warranted by the country’s limited geopolitical power, resource scarcity, and the bid of ruling governments – be that during communism or recent ones – to establish hegemony over society. This leaves little room for civil society to contest and shape its energy future, a dynamic which has been continuously reified through government commitments to construct vast and complex energy infrastructures that allow them to maintain centralized control over energy systems while undertaking a paternalistic role in society24. Rays of change may be surfacing as household solar photovoltaic installations have become exceptionally popular in Hungary, providing 34% of installed capacities in mid-201925. This could offer an alternative, less centralized form of energy production that introduces a more autonomous and self-sufficient component to the Hungarian energy imaginary. However, for this to blossom into a truly alternative energy future, political determination supporting just access to new technologies for all strata of society is necessary in order to allow consumers en masse to liberate themselves from centralized production. Energy strategy documents contain indications that this will be supported to some extent, but this alternative is likely to remain in the shadows of a heavily centralized energy imaginary that is imbued with the reigning government’s ideology.


I would like to thank Anna Zilahi, András Deák, Balázs Sipos, and Rita Süveges for their input and critical feedback.


John Szabo is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University (CEU) and a Junior Fellow at the Institute of World Economy, Research Center for Economics and Regional Sciences. He explores how the European Commission’s climate action has influenced its natural gas market engineering endeavours. More broadly, he is interested in the of energy in social systems. 


The Climate Imaginary Reader is edited by the members of xtro realm artist group, Rita Süveges and Anna Zilahi, editor of visual material is Gideon Horváth.


Climate Imaginary Reader

Preface – by Anna Zilahi
The World as Contingent Space – by Anna Zilahi
The Politics of Susceptibility – by Héla Hecker
Climate Change, COVID-19, and the Space Cabin: A Politics of Care in the Shadow of Space Colonization – by Réka Patrícia Gál
Between Two Giants: Materialism and the Social Imaginary in the Energy (Transitions) of Hungary – by John Szabo
Beyond the Postcard: an Ecocritical Inquiry on Images of Nature – by Rita Süveges
The Long March through Social Imagination – by Márk Losoncz


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Notes:

1 Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (MIT Press, 1997); Anna Zilahi, “Klímaképzelet és a világ mint meglepetéstér,” tranzitblog.hu, April 29, 2020, http://tranzitblog.hu/klimakepzelet-es-a-vilag-mint-meglepetester/.

2 Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

3 Imre Szeman, “How to Know about Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures,” in On Petrocultures (USA: Virginia University Press, 2019), 174–99.

4 Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London; New York: Verso, 2016).

5 Imre Szeman, On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy, 1st ed. (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019).

6 Jeronim Perović, ed., Cold War Energy: A Transnational History of Soviet Oil and Gas, 1st ed. 2017 ed. (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

7 “Our Foreign and Domestic Position and Party Tasks” (The Moscow Gubernia Conference Of The R.C.P.(B.), Moscow, 1920), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/nov/21.htm.Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, “Our Foreign and Domestic Position and Party Tasks,” (Presented at The Moscow Gubernia Conference Of The R.C.P.(B.), Moscow, USSR, November 21, 1920), https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/nov/21.htm.

8 Matthew T. Huber, “Fossilized Liberation: Energy, Freedom, and the ‘Development of the Productive Forces,’” in Materialism and the Critique of Energy, ed. Brent Ryan Bellamy and Jeff Diamanti (Chicago, USA: MCM Publishing, 2018), 501–24.

9 Gregory C. Unruh, “Understanding Carbon Lock-In,” Energy Policy, no. 28 (2000): 817–30; Karen C. Seto et al., “Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes, and Policy Implications,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 41, no. 1 (2016): 425–52, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-110615-085934.

10 VGF and HKL, “A Magyar Olaj És Földgáz Története VI.,” Víz, Gáz, Fűtéstechnika És Hűtő, Klíma, Légtechnika Szaklap, no. 9 (2013), https://www.vgfszaklap.hu/lapszamok/2013/szeptember/3000-a-magyar-olaj-es-foldgaz-tortenete-vi.

11 Paul A. Baran, Political Economy of Growth (USA: Monthly Review Press, 1957).

12 Thane Gustafson, Crisis Amid Plenty: The Politics of Soviet Energy Under Brezhnev and Gorbachev (Princeton University Press, 2014).

13444.hu, “Orosz Befolyás Magyarországon – Teljes Film,” 444.hu, published on December 28, 2018, Youtube video, 91 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRcZzejPOMk&t=76s.

14 Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim, “Containing the Atom: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Nuclear Power in the United States and South Korea,” Minerva 47, no. 2 (2009): 119–146.

15“Hungary National Energy and Climate Plan,” Government of Hungary, Budapest: Ministry of Innovation and Technology, last modified August 21, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/topics/energy-strategy/national-energy-climate-plans_en

16 Sebastian Oberthür and Claire Roche Kelly, “EU Leadership in International Climate Policy: Achievements and Challenges,” The International Spectator 43, no. 3 (September 1, 2008): 35–50, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932720802280594.

17European Commission, A Clean Planet for All: A European Strategic Long-Term Vision for a Prosperous, Modern, Competitive and Climate Neutral Economy, (Brussels: European Commission, 2018) https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52018DC0773.; European Commission, “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions A Roadmap for Moving to a Competitive Low Carbon Economy in 2050,” Official Journal of the European Communities, March 8, 2011, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:52011DC0112&from=en.

18 Kenneth Hanf and Alf-Inge Jansen, Governance and Environment in Western Europe: Environmental Politics, Policy and Administration in Western Europe (UK: Routledge, 1998).

19 John Szabo and Andras Deak, “The CEE Energy Transition: Recurring 50 Year Old Dynamics?” in Energy Transition in CEE, ed. Matúš Mišík and Veronika Oravcová (UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020).

20“Klíma- És Energiastratégiai Dokumentumok, Magyarország,” ITM, Budapest: Ministry of Innovation and Technology, last modified June 22, 2020, https://www.kormany.hu/hu/dok?source=11&type=402#!DocumentBrowse.

21“Statistics Time Series,” IRENA, International Renewable Energy Agency, accessed August 28, 2020, https://www.irena.org/Statistics/View-Data-by-Topic/Capacity-and-Generation/Statistics-Time-Series.

22 Clyde W. Barrow, Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neomarxist, Postmarxist (Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1993); Phil Johnstone and Peter Newell, “Sustainability Transitions and the State,” Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 27 (June 1, 2018): 72–82, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eist.2017.10.006.

23 Ian Scoones, Peter Newell, and Melissa Leach, “The Politics of Green Transformations,” in Pathways to Sustainability, ed. Ian Scoones, Melissa Leach, and Peter Newell (London-New York: Routledge, 2015), 1–24.

24 John Szabo and Marton Fabok, “Infrastructures and State-Building: Comparing the Energy Politics of the European Commission with the Governments of Hungary and Poland,” Energy Policy 138 (March 1, 2020): 111253, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2020.111253.

25“1,1 GW ÖSSZTELJESÍTMÉNYT ÉRTEK EL A NAPELEMEK 2019 KÖZEPÉRE,” MEKH, accessed August 28, 2020, http://www.mekh.hu/1-1-gw-osszteljesitmenyt-ertek-el-a-napelemek-2019-kozeperee

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