Battle in Print: Solving the energy crisis: is it all about light bulbs and lifestyles?

Professor Jacquie Burgess, 21 October 2009

Climate change is accelerating as a direct consequence of 200 years of fossil fuel driven industrialisation. The challenge is how rapidly societies can reduce and replace fossil fuels with less carbon intensive alternatives, without introducing unintended consequences such as those associated with first generation bio-fuels.

Moving to a low carbon energy system to keep global warming to within 2˚C by 2050 is necessary but not sufficient to secure the future. In his book Why we disagree about climate change; understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity, Mike Hulme refers to ‘Upper case Climate Change’ (to distinguish it from the normal dynamics of weather and climate systems) as a ‘wicked problem’. Wicked problems, first recognised by Rittel and Weber are complex, interdependent, involve multiple perspectives, and mix facts and values. Crucially, attempted resolution of one part of the problem leads to positive feedbacks and unintended consequences in others. Whenever an idea is proposed in the debate about how to mobilise the energy regime to help tackle Climate Change, one hears ‘yes, but…’ responses from other parts of the system. Finding effective ways of dealing with dangerous climate change is like trying to shut the multi-headed Hydra in a suitcase.

How the problem and potential solutions are framed depends on the perspective. Knowledge from social sciences and the humanities shows that relations between human societies, the natural world and its resources are temporally, spatially and culturally specific. The gulf between those living in extreme poverty and those living in extreme abundance is wider now than ever. Without resolution of deeply political, economic, social and ethical issues (raised most clearly in the 1987 Brundtland Report), it is unlikely that much progress will be made in Copenhagen in December 2009.

A variety of tools, some drawn from social marketing techniques, others dependent on journalists and similar intermediaries to shape the agenda, encourage individuals to voluntarily change aspects of their everyday practices to reduce carbon emissions. One well-worn strategy is to try and frighten people into doing things differently. There is vigorous criticism of the ‘climate change as apocalypse’ discourse, promoted by some climate scientists and NGOs, and widely circulated through media channels.

Results from a questionnaire survey presented at the 2009 British Antarctic Survey conference shows 50% of audiences finding media coverage about the risks of climate change ‘too alarmist’, and growing more sceptical about the impacts of human activities on the climate: more sceptical groups included men rather than women, older people, high earners and those in rural areas.

Evidence from risk and decision-making research suggests that turning up the risk thermostat in reporting Climate Change is very unlikely to succeed in persuading people to change their everyday, energy-consuming, practices. Experimental evidence reveals two risk-processing systems in play when individuals choose between different courses of action: a ‘very fast and hard-wired’ emotional response triggered by adverse experiences such as the threat of personal attack, overlaid by a consciously analytic mode of reasoning which assesses probabilities /uncertainties and rules of thumb in deciding what to do. There is widespread agreement among decision-theorists that the bedrock emotional response is fundamental in making analytic reasoning effective.

Is the threat of climate change a likely candidate for any kind of ‘hard-wired + analytical response’ that could lead to changes in everyday practices which would involve inconvenience and sacrifice for “the sake of the planet /future generations/ distant others less well off than oneself?” Experimental evidence suggests not. Nor is a communications strategy based on heightening fear and anxiety about the impacts of climate change going to achieve the necessary changes in social practices and domestic routines. Research in a range of social science disciplines reveals a feature sometimes described as ‘compassion fatigue’. There is only a ‘finite amount of worry’ that healthy human beings feel able to allocate to different issues circulating in the public sphere, quoting an interviewee who said: ‘after all, you just can’t worry about all of the world’s problems all of the time’. Inducing fear won’t do it.

Recognising the slowness with which society is moving onto more sustainable pathways, increasingly strong appeals are being made to individuals to take voluntary action to reduce, re-use and recycle, backed by a range of social marketing techniques. The terminology is interesting. Like other more aggressive and certainly better funded marketing campaigns, targeted audiences are constructed as ‘consumers’. But what does the verb ‘to consume’ mean? Raymond Williams’ Keywords tells us that the word was a 14th century introduction into English, meaning ‘to take up completely, to devour, to waste, to exhaust’.

Ideas linking production to consumption flourished in North America from the late 19th Century as mechanisms for exploiting the power of large scale industrial capitalist enterprises boomed as the domestic sphere was industrialised through the rapid expansion of energy-dependent appliances. Marketers made the most of the capacity for advertising to manufacture desires that could (apparently) be satisfied through the consumption of material goods. Our consumer societies are saturated by such messages: BMW is promising middle-aged men ‘JOY’ as they recapture their lost youth at the wheel of a sports car.

Where does energy consumption fit in this picture? Energy is not purchased for itself but for the functionality of a wide range of goods and services people want and need, such as domestic space and water heating, electrical equipment, private cars, long-haul flights and so on. A central feature of consumerism is the relentless driving-up of what constitutes socially acceptable standards of comfort, cleanliness and convenience: for example, the internal temperature of domestic dwellings has increased by 6˚C since 1970 and mobile phones are as much a fast-changing fashion statement as a communications tool.

The message from the market and from government is to ‘consume differently’ but not to ‘consume less’. Yet mounting evidence shows that greening production chains will not, by itself, deliver the reductions of greenhouse gases needed: for example, the average unit efficiency of washing machines rose by 4.5% between 1999-2003 but their total energy consumption increased by 8.5%. There is well-documented evidence of a ‘rebound effect’: money saved by, for example, reducing domestic energy use is then spent on purchasing more stuff or on other, potentially more damaging activities.

One contribution from environmental social sciences has been to demonstrate the power of consumer lock-in to specific routines and practices through the systems of provision that structure all aspects of everyday life. ‘Lifestyles’ embody bundles of social practices produced through daily interaction with the infrastructure, rules and resources that constrain our range of choices. Yet quantitative evidence shows huge geographical variability in patterns of households’ energy use whilst qualitative research with Danish households living in the same street attributed substantial differences in energy use to different ‘moral economies’ in the low-use /high-use households. The former lived according to a ‘thrift’ ethic whilst the latter embraced ‘hedonism’, where self-gratification through the consumption of goods and services was a core value.

Those asking ‘What is enough?’ or ‘What constitutes the good life?’ find the answers are ethical rather than economic or environmental. Richard Layard, known as the economist who promotes happiness, argues strongly for ‘a new social norm in which the good of others figures more prominently in our personal goals’. This is a tough message to get across in an era of extreme individualism, secularism and disillusionment.

This is not conducive to human well-being, as a growing number of studies attest. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) leads the way in arguing for alternative kinds of economic activity to deliver environmental, social and financial goals needed for sustainability. It is possible to reduce inequalities, re-invigorate civil society and control market excess.

To live well, NEF’s manifesto urges us to do five things every day:

Connect – with family, friends, workmates and the local community.
Be active – go outside, walk, run, cycle, garden, dance.
Take notice – be curious, see the unusual, the beautiful.
Keep learning – try something new, rediscover something old.
Give - do something for another, smile, volunteer - ‘look out as well as in. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding’

NEF’s five principles have been shown to be robust through both quantitative and qualitative research. They provide the basis for ‘a good life’ which, it will be noted, is human rather than environment-centred because that’s how it has to be. If history teaches us anything, it has to be the sheer impossibility of a mass movement that would voluntarily embrace eco-centric values.

Structural, systemic and deeply political barriers stand in the way of what could be caricatured as naïve idealism, but the seeds of change are there; social experiments are flourishing all over the country. How else is civil society to be energised, when no other even vaguely convincing strategy exists for building community resilience in the face of the looming crisis. And it will be a crisis: by 2100, the global population will have expanded to a projected 9 billion or reduced to 1 billion by runaway climate change.

All about light bulbs and lifestyles? – of course not.


Professor Jacquie Burgess is Professor of Environmental Risk and Head of the School of environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. She has two main research interests. First, she specialises in designing and implementing participatory environmental decision-making processes that are both analytically robust and able to support deliberation between specialists, stakeholders and citizens. Second, Jacquie researches sustainable consumption, partly through action research with the charity Global Action Plan.

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