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How energy matters: energy biographies, ethics and the texture of everyday life


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While energy consumption is necessary to support people’s everyday lives in a material and instrumental sense, the ways in which energy is used are also constitutive of ways of life and of identities. The Energy Biographies project at Cardiff University has used biographical narrative interviews and multimodal methods across four case sites in the UK to investigate this constitutive meaning of energy consumption, and its implications for attempts to reduce energy demand.
Our data demonstrates the importance of emotional attachments to practices and technologies that consume energy, and the ways in which these attachments support valued identities, particularly when people undergo difficult lifecourse transitions. We show how a biographical approach can help us appreciate the ways in which ethical and moral conflicts emerge out of everyday energy consumption, not just around the priorities accorded to different values (like convenience, cost, comfort and luxury) but around what are in effect competing ethical frameworks used by people to guide them in balancing their attachments, and thus in determining how to use energy (including e.g. caring commitments to others, the costs and benefits of using energy, the plurality of values that make up a ‘good life’, or deontological rules). We thus show how qualitative biographical approaches can reveal the ethical investments and conflicts that are embedded in the thick texture of everyday life, and how the ethical significance of energy in the everyday lies in the diverse ways in which it comes to matter to us through the lifecourse.

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How energy matters: energy biographies, ethics and the texture of everyday life

  1. 1. Christopher Groves, Karen Henwood, Catherine Butler, Karen Parkhill, Nick Pidgeon and Fiona Shirani Energy Biographies Project ( School of Social Sciences Cardiff University
  2. 2. • Energy as an abstract resource ▫ E.g. Vaclav Smil (2003): just distribution of energy = 60-110GJ annually per capita worldwide • Overly reductive understanding of need
  3. 3. • Needs are always fulfilled through particular & singular, culturally & individually significant objects • Difference between thinking of ▫ Food as X calories per day ▫ Food as kosher, halal etc. • Consumption makes meaning, produces identity
  4. 4. “The meaning of our lives cannot, therefore, be understood as a search to satisfy generalizable needs for food, shelter, sex, company and so on, as if our particular relationships were simply how we have provided for them. It is more the other way round: without attachments we lose our appetite for life” Peter Marris (1996), The politics of uncertainty, Routledge
  5. 5. ‘[lived experience] encompasses both the “rage for order” and the impulse that drives us to unsettle or confound the fixed order of things’ A universal human concern with the ‘precarious and perilous character of existence’ Michael Jackson (1989), Paths towards a clearing, p. 2 and p. 16 Relation ships Practices Definition and fulfilment of need Reduction of material/ emotional uncertainty
  6. 6. • Practices threaded with relationships • Shape sense of who we are and what we can do (identity and agency) • Also sustain shared ethical sensibilities about what should be done to live a properly human life • Other threads: socio- technical/material arrangements (Shove, Pantzar and Watson ,2012) ▫ Objects, tools, devices, infrastructures
  7. 7. • But the weave can be snagged or tangled • Voluntary/ involuntary lifecourse transitions connected to intense ethical reflection on practices and forms of life, as identities shift (Hards, 2011) Relation ships Practices Definition and fulfilment of need Reduction of material/ emotional uncertainty Devices/ infrastructures
  8. 8. • 3 longitudinal interviews (original group of 74 in first round narrowed down to 36 for rounds 2 & 3) • 6 months between interviews • QLL biographical interviews 2011-13 • Participant photography tasks
  9. 9. ‘Lucy’ (Peterston) ‘Christine’ (Ely) • Lives in affluent rural commuter village • Mid-30s, white/Welsh • Husband, two young children • Recently moved from London to rented house while renovating another • Recently given up well-paid job to look after children full- time • Lives in deprived inner-city ward • Early 50s, white/Welsh • Husband, four children (one with additional needs) • Recently became unemployed • Recently took in elderly father-in-law (who died during period of interviews)
  10. 10. “I don’t think I really feel guilty I just think I’m aware and it does make me cross when like Sean especially just is deliberately almost you know wasting it […]” ‘I never really wanted to waste money, energy but now I think it’s just, when I got my last energy bill, I couldn't believe it.’ […] now we are obviously heating a much bigger place, and um, ah you know being here in the day and using tumble dryers and dishwashers and all of that kind of stuff so, it’s really seen a massive increase […].
  11. 11. • ‘a lot of people come here and complain that it’s cold’ • […] we have a log fire and we are getting a log fire and how actually they’re probably super inefficient aren’t they in heating a room? […] we’ve put massive radiators in our new house cos its really Victorian, tall ceilings, and so we just don’t need a wood burner to be on at any point but actually it’ll sort of make the room […]
  12. 12. • ‘We do love our patio heater when it’s a sunny evening but it gets a bit cold and dark and you can sit out and they’re like probably the worst things aren’t they? But we love it well we only use it about five times a year so it’s OK.’ • ‘Cos we love being outside, we just love that you can you know go, we were sitting out there one evening … it was like midnight and you could have a drink outside still and it’s so lovely here cos it’s so quiet and everything so but you wouldn’t have been able to do it without that so or you would have been freezing. So that’s our kind of, we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it.’
  13. 13. The rebuilder • ‘a run-down property that myself and my first husband renovated’ • ‘[…] the idea was to convert the double garage into a unit specifically for [disabled son], so it was self-contained and that's what we did […]’
  14. 14. The caring parent • ‘Some are subtle changes that you don't realise until you think about 'oh okay!' our way of living is always like this. Like I said, right at the very beginning, kids leave, kids come back whether it's University or whether [...]whether they move in with a partner, whether that relationship suffers and they come back, they always come back to mum. ’ • Oh God, I literally, you just don't know what's around the corner […] so we don't look into the future as such.
  15. 15. Lucy Christine • The wise manager ▫ Identifying waste ▫ Cost-benefit framework • The good host ▫ Constitutive values • ‘We know it’s bad but we’re still going to use it’. • The rebuilder ▫ Managing disruption ▫ Needs balanced against , costs • Caring parent ▫ Constitutive responsibilities to others • ‘Oh God, I literally, you just don't know what's around the corner […] so we don't look into the future as such.’
  16. 16. • Conflicting identities & commitments • Commitments ≠ subjective preferences • Commitments are reasons for acting that represent evaluations of what matters for a genuinely human life • E.g. Lucy’s patio heater: ‘we’re still going to use it’ ▫ The ethical value of the heater: sustaining an identity, sustaining friendships ▫ Might be right or wrong – but opens a space of argument, not simply brute assertion of preferences
  17. 17. • Weaves, snags, tangles produce identities and normative commitments • Trying to change how energy is consumed can challenge these identities and commitments • Points beyond distributive energy justice and towards justice as procedural (who decides what matters) and as recognition (understanding the specific value of particular identities) (Schlosberg, 2013) Commitments can be • Unspeakable • a source of shame, anxiety or discomfort, • disavowed
  18. 18. Relevant publications Groves, C. et al (2015) Energy biographies Science, Technology and Human Values Groves, C. et al (2016) 'Invested in unsustainability? On the psychosocial patterning of engagement in practices', Environmental Values forthcoming (June 2016)