On the rebound: Jevons' paradox and the invention of energy conservation


Academic Profile

Thomas Turnbull studied history at Kings College London. He subsequently worked in scientometrics, endangered language conservation, and as a policy analyst for an environmental think tank. Returning to academia, he completed the School of Geography's Nature, Society and Environmental Policy MSc course (NSEP), and went on to receive an ESRC studentship to complete a DPhil in geography and the environment. This research is being carried out under the supervision of Professor Andrew Barry (UCL) and Dr Richard Powell (Oxford).

Current Research

Thomas's thesis offers an intellectual and political history of energy conservation, understood in terms of resource economy rather than in the thermodynamic sense. In tracing this history, he draws on the disciplines of science and technology studies, the history of science, history of economics, human geography, resource geography, historical geography and the philosophy of science.

Thomas documents the history of energy conservation via the analysis of a series of energy conservation controversies, from economist William Stanley Jevons' Coal Question (1865) onward. Following the tenets of controversy studies, the analysis of these disagreements, regarding both the possibility and the specific mechanism of energy conservation, is used to develop a fine-grained account of the intellectual development of energy conservation as a form of knowledge.

This emphasis on controversy enables a somewhat unexpected history of energy conservation to be written, which documents the contributions made by resource economist Erich Zimmermann (1888-1961), economists Harold Barnett (1917-1987) and Chandler Morse (1906-1988), Tjalling Koopmans (1910-1985), the mathematician Fred Roberts (1943-) and mathematician and politician Jeremy Bray (1930-2002).

Tracing the relation between the work of these scientists and the work of policy-makers provides a novel political history of energy in Britain and the United States, which traces the political use of energy conservation from the Victorian era to the Cold War, and from the energy crises of the 1970s to electricity market privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s.

Alongside this work, Thomas has an interest in participatory methods, reconstructing models and simulations, visualisation, and web-based and digital methods.

Other relevant activities

Co-organiser of Oxford University science and technology studies (STS) discussion group Counting Differently alongside Farzana Dudhwala and with the kind support of the ESRC Interdisciplinary network fund.

Current Teaching


Thomas has previously given workshops on the cultural geography of earth observation for the preliminary BA geography and given a research skills lecture on digital methods.


Thomas taught the Mapping Controversies component of the NSEP MSc in 2012 and 2013. This module introduced students to the analysis of web-based knowledge controversies, as a methodological and theoretical exercise.

In 2014, Thomas gave two lectures on the analysis of online environmental knowledge controversies at University College London (UCL) Department of Geography as part of the MSc Environment, Science and Society.

Thomas is an Associate Fellow of The Higher Education Academy (HEA).