English: Energy infrastructure Electricity cab...
Pylons and a gas main

How much energy we use is, like how much and what kinds of food we eat, is an issue that has taken on, more and more, the characteristics of an intense moral debate. We are told again and again by policymakers to take responsibility for our energy consumption, just as we are for our intake of saturated fat and sugar. But we face all kinds of conflicting advice about how best to respond to the challenge of using less energy or eating more healthily. In this Cafe, Dr Chris Groves from the Cardiff University Energy Biographies project outlined results of research on some of the unexpected ways in which our social environment constrains our choices and makes it difficult to heed such imperatives.

We live in environments that often make it difficult to change our behaviour. This can be at the level of infrastructure: we increasingly need computers and smartphones for shopping, managing finances, communicating with each other. It can be at the level of social norms – what kinds of behaviour and environments are accepted as normal or desirable – as in the standard for indoor heating that assumes that 22°C is the optimal temperature. So we live in environments that encourage us, all the time, to use more energy just as we live in environments where processed food is cheap and easily available all the time. If we live in obesogenic environments, we live in ones that intensify our consumption of energy ones too.

The Energy Biographies project has studied since 2011 our sometimes difficult relationship with energy in our everyday lives, and the ways in which how we use energy is related to our ideas about what it means to live a worthwhile life, a good life. The project is based on the idea that our relationship with energy can come into sharper focus at times of transition – periods in our lives when we pass from one status or social category to another (leaving school, having children, getting married, bereavement, jobs change, moving house). Times of transition are times of uncertainty: what kind of parent will I be? What will life be like after retirement? Changes in how we use energy are part and parcel of such transitions – we do more laundry as parents, take more trips abroad as retirees, or need to use more energy to heat a new house that’s hard to insulate or has more bedrooms.

In response to a set of issues including climate change and fuel poverty, successive governments have made efforts to change the ways in which people use energy. This is typically done through incentives or information. More recently, the idea of ‘nudging’ has become popular among policymakers – not just providing information, but changing the environments in which people make choices (by charging for plastic bags, or placing healthy foods in a school cafeteria at eye level, while putting less healthy junk food in harder to reach places). But there are difficulties with such approaches. For example, chest freezers and tumble-driers use large amounts of energy. At the same time, we live in a society where frozen food is a major convenience for people who work long hours, and where rainy weather coupled with a social norm for washing clothes far more regularly than in the past combine to encourage use of tumble dryers. While our environment does not necessarily cause us to do one thing rather than another, it constrains our choices in ways that ‘nudging’ does not affect. Added to which, many of these constraints may be invisible or intangible.

Energy Biographies takes this issue of invisibility and explored how experiences of transition in people’s lives can make the practices and infrastructures on which we rely more visible or intangible. The project used extended narrative interviews with participants from four case sites, over the course of 18 months. These included the Royal Free Hospital in West London, Peterston-super-Ely, an affluent commuter village outside Cardiff, Ely-Caerau, an inner city housing estate in Cardiff, and a a self-build ecovillage in West Wales (Lammas/Tir-y-Gafel).

We discovered in the course of our research that many people do actually have a keen sense of how much they rely on energy, and what appliances use the most. People turn off appliances, monitor levels of usage, and transitions in their lives do indeed make this reliance more visible and tangible. Nowhere was this clearer than at Lammas. Interviewees here had all been involved in a major life transition: moving from other communities to 80 acres of farmland in West Wales, going off grid and building their own houses. An interview with Tao Wimbush, one of the householders, was shown at the Cafe in which he discusses how being off-grid introduces a new relationship between the residents and their energy infrastructure.

On the theme of rendering the invisible more visible, the project collaborated with others from around the UK in producing an exhibition funded by the UK Research Councils Energy Programme. Working with conceptual, sound and animation artists and designers, the result was a range of interactive exhibits to allow people to engage with research, and which make our relationships with energy more tangible using audio, video and other media. This was held in Hackney, London in June this year and again at the Senedd at the end of September.

One of the exhibits was a series of short films by Cardiff-based animator Tom Edgar which brought to life data from the project’s interviews, exploring the sometimes surprising ways of using energy that people consider to be essential to their lives.

If the project found that people were often aware of the ways in which they use energy, it found that using narrative interviews brought to the surface other, less tangible aspects of our reliance on energy. In particular, the data showed exactly how our reliance on energy can creates moral as well as practical dilemmas. Aristotle said 2000 years ago that the fundamental moral question of human life is ‘how should we live?’. The ways of life we evolve in whatever society we inhabit can be viewed as being implicitly answers to this very question – answers that we don’t just speak or write, but live out in our everyday lives. Sometimes we grow dissatisfied with these answers and try and change how we live, individually or collectively. We question the values or priorities contained in our ways of life, asking again the question: how should we live?

There are at least four different kinds of values that can be the focus of debate over ways of life. Food and energy alike are are necessary for staying alive – to some degree. We might also have preferences for particular kinds of food (‘little treats’) or ways of using energy (e.g. consumer electronics) that we see as pleasures (even ‘guilty’ ones). But we also affirm that some uses of food or energy are constitutive of a life that goes beyond necessaries and survival, and becomes a life worth living (e.g. sharing food, creating a convivial and welcoming home). Such uses are not the same as ‘mere preferences’. When we talk about such ‘good life’ uses, we typically do so in a way that implies that using energy or food in some ways is generally part of any good or worthwhile life. But then we see that there may be many kinds of lives that are experienced as meaningful, and might judge some to be wrong or worse and others right or better. This is the level of moral value proper. Often we might see this in terms of character – what philosophers call virtue. We might see obesity as shameful and a sign of self-indulgence or of a lack of self-control, or leaving all the lights on in an office building all night as a sign of heedlessness.

There can be significant conflict between these three levels of value. Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish between these levels at times, especially between preferences and ideas about the good life. Dr Groves provided an example from the Energy Biographies project data. The kinds of things we associate with a ‘good life’ are often also the kinds of things we see as essential to the kind of people we are (a convivial home for convivial people). But our attachments to such ‘constitutive’ objects, practices or whatever can cause problems if we are forced to question the way we do things. They can constrain our choices just as much as the wider social environment can. Paying attention to transitions in people’s lives can demonstrate how far this is the case.

Dr Groves described how an interviewee from Peterston talked of moving there with her partner and two children from London. They had family roots in the area, and cited quality of life as a main reason for moving. The interviewee described how, in renovating a house, the family had put in open fires to increase its homeliness and also uses patio heaters to enable them to sit outside on typically cold South Wales summer evenings. At other points in her interviews, she stated that she was very keen on energy efficiency, and was shocked, after moving in, at how much money it cost to heat their new big house. But at the same time she’s showed herself to be very emotionally attached to the idea of open fires (even though wood costs a lot and the fires give off relatively small amounts of heat), and also to the use of patio heaters. The reasons implicit in her account of the family’s recent transition relate strongly to issues of identity and insecurity.

She points out that, having moved, in order to maintain connections to London friends, they have to have them visit regularly. Her sense of needing to be a generous hostess to her friends and provide a warm and welcoming environment, and to show off the family’s new quality of lie, underlay her talk of creating homeliness and comfort through the use of open fires, patio heaters and so on. Our need to appear a particular way, to present a certain identity, and to maintain such an identity through the uncertainties of a major liminal life transition – like moving house – can therefore underlie our attachment to certain ways of using energy. It’s not just about preferences, it’s about seeing a particular object or a practice – like the patio heater – as key to maintaining one’s valued sense of who one is, through the middle and aftermath of a difficult transition. So here we have conflicts between what the interviewee represented as necessary (keeping the costs down) and what she saw as essential to a good life (homeliness, the kinds of energy use that produce it, and the identity that is built around it) and also what she sees as morally acceptable to the community (as she said, “we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it”). These conflicts appear to be rooted in anxieties relating to identity and to the sudden distance between the family and its social network.

One of the key lessons from the Energy Biographies project, then, is that if we are to reshape how we collectively use energy, maybe we need to have spaces for conversation that enable us to talk together about what might be ‘shameful secrets’, relating to why about why exactly we are attached to particular ways of using energy, because these are not just practical issues, they are about identity, values and our ideas about morality and how the world should be. They are also about how the transitions we go through affect who we think we are, our values, and our worldviews. This, Dr Groves suggested, has taken us a long way from the idea that we just need helpful leaflets and monetary incentives to make the transition to sustainability.

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