Energy and ownership
: An evolutionary analysis of the relationship between ownership institutions and energy transitions

  • Tilman Hartley

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Previous grand energy transitions have been accompanied by changes in the ownership institutions governing a society’s main energy resource: hunter-gatherers generally follow ‘communal’ ownership systems that distribute resources fairly equally; agriculturalists typically live under hierarchical ‘command’ ownership institutions; and contractually defined ‘titled property’ has become widespread in societies that run on fossil fuels. In this thesis, I ask why these different ownership institutions have evolved to govern these different kinds of energy resource. I begin by arguing for a taxonomy of ownership, drawn from debates across the humanities and social sciences, that distinguishes between the ownership of resource stocks such as farmland, of resource flows such as crops, and of fund-service resources such as tools. Using this taxonomy, I construct an evolutionary game theory model of the evolution of ownership. Existing models explain only the evolution of hypothesised possessive instincts, so I extend this approach to model a mechanism by which the communal, command, and titled property ownership institutions typical of human societies may have evolved. One particularly significant outcome of the model is that it suggests titled property institutions are likely to survive when governing energy resources that are expanding. I present a long historical outline of the evolution of titled property from its ancient origins to the modern period, which does indeed suggest that titled property institutions have historically survived only where they govern expanding energy resources. The thesis thus contributes a nuanced taxonomy of ownership institutions governing different resource types, an evolutionary model of human ownership institutions, and an analytical narrative of the evolution of titled property. It also suggests that titled property institutions in their current form may be unlikely to survive should energy resources become significantly constrained in the future.
Date of Award25 Sep 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorMircea Popa (Supervisor), Magnus Feldmann (Supervisor) & Jutta Weldes (Supervisor)

Cite this