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Why energy matters: energy biographies and everyday ethics


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In recent years, debates about energy justice have become increasingly prominent. However, the question of what is at stake in claims about energy justice or injustice is a complex one. Signifying more than simply the fair distribution of quantities of energy, energy justice also implies issues of procedural justice (participation) and recognition (acknowledgement of diverse values constitutive of ways of life). It is argued that this requires an acknowledgement of the relational nature of ethical subjectivity. Data from the Energy Biographies project at Cardiff University is used to explore the connections between the relational texture of everyday life and the ethical significance of energy. In particular, the contribution of embodiment, attachment and narrative as capabilities to the everyday ethical evaluation of different ways of using energy is shown to be significant. Ethical investments in ideas of a good life are implicit in bodily comportment, emotional attachment, and biographical narratives, it is suggested. Using multimodal and biographical qualitative social science methods allows these implicit forms of evaluation to become more tangible, and the moral conflicts between some forms of energy-using practices to be exposed

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Why energy matters: energy biographies and everyday ethics

  2. 2. THREE FRAMEWORKS ON ENERGY AND BEHAVIOUR • Information on energy costs leads to reduced energy use Rational choice • Shared practices constrain possibilities for choice Practice theory • ‘Everyday ethics’ influence which practices adopted and how Everyday ethics
  3. 3. ‘ORDINARY ETHICS’ ‘Ethnographers commonly find that the people they encounter are trying to do what they consider right or good, are being evaluated according to criteria of what is right and good, or are in some debate about what constitutes the human good. Yet anthropological theory tends to overlook all this in favour of analyses that emphasize structure, power, and interest.’ Michael Lambek (2010), Ordinary Ethics: Anthropology, Language, and Action • The ‘ethical register’ as immanent in everyday practice • Practices and beliefs as expressive of ideas of good and right
  4. 4. ‘ORDINARY ETHICS’ SUBJECTIVE PREFERENCES • ‘I think I feel like x right now’ • ‘x is my favourite, each to their own’ • ‘I don’t know why, I just like x’ THE ETHICAL REGISTER • ‘Everybody needs x’ • ‘Good lives are ones with x in it.’ • ‘People usually think x is the right thing to do, but I think one should y, because…’
  5. 5. ORDINARY ETHICS AND PRACTICES • Cultural meanings are elements of practices that influence their spread and longevity (Schatzki; Shove, Pantzar & Watson) • Example: showering and shared expectations of cleanliness; luxury • But people are not just ‘carriers of practices’ • They also have biographies: how do lifecourse transitions influence the ethical significance attributed to practices? Behaviour change Intransigence of practices Practice theory Influence of ethical meanings on unpredictable ‘tinkering’ with practices
  6. 6. ENERGY BIOGRAPHIES PROJECT (2011-2016) QL biographical interviews • Four sites: Cardiff (Ely, Peterston), Lammas, Royal Free Hospital (RFH, London) • 3 longitudinal interviews (original group of 74 in first round narrowed down to 36 for rounds 2 & 3) • 6 months between interviews • Multimedia component – participant photographs
  7. 7. EXAMPLE: ‘LUCY’ (PETERSTON) The wise household manager… “I don’t think I really feel guilty I just think I’m aware and it does make me cross when like Sean [husband] 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.’ But living in a large, hard to heat rural house…
  8. 8. GOOD HOST, ‘GOOD WASTE’? On patio heaters: “[…] 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? […] 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 […]. we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it.” On hosting friends from London: “weekends we pretty much always have visitors […] so big Saturday dinner and a few bottles of wine and big Sunday lunch and stuff like that” Reinstating wood fires: “[…] we have a log fire and 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 […].” Comparing with neighbours: “[…] it’s fairly typical, everyone’s got a couple of cars, everyone’s got wood burning stoves”
  9. 9. IN SUMMARY • In Lucy’s case, energy use increases because of • material fabric of home • but also because of ‘ordinary ethical’ commitments • Some commitments conflict with others (i.e. to using less energy) • This points beyond practice theory: what reasons do people have for using energy in particular ways? • Do these create obstacles or opportunities for promoting demand reduction/practice change? Conflicting identities, clashing ideas of how to be good: 1. “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” 2. “we know it’s really bad but we’re still going to use it.”