Coming back to the topic of this Insight, energy cultures, how does the aforementioned public concern connect with the set of habits and values? At first sight, the energy sources that are resorted to stand out as a purely technical and value-free choice. However, if we look back at the history of civilisations, it appears that, since the discovery of fire, then on to the steam engine development, and up to the implementation of innovative wind turbines and solar panels, energy and culture have always intertwined. If energy has hugely contributed to the development of societies, culture – with its values, beliefs and behavioural patterns – plays a major part in determining our their energy choices, and to a great extent holds the key to the eventual success, or failure, of the of the initiated transition.
A great example of this can be found in the book of Victor Seow, Carbon Technocracy: Energy Regimes in Modern East Asia, where the author depicts China’s intensified exploitation of fossil fuels:
“Harnessed through the steam engine, the considerable power contained in coal helped drive mass industrial manufacturing, altering the fabric of work and patterns of consumption. Coal fuelled steam locomotives and steamships, facilitating travel over great distances on both land and water. In so doing, it allowed people, ideas, and objects to more easily circulate. Gas produced from heating coal lit lamps in streets, factories, and domiciles, lengthening the day’s activities into the night. Processed into coke, coal fired furnaces for smelting and working the iron and steel used to build the latest machinery and infrastructure, from mining pumps to railway tracks. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, coal burned in thermal power plants generated electricity through which it witnessed even wider application. “Out of this coal and iron complex,” social critic Lewis Mumford remarked, “a new civilization developed.”
However, Seow observes that if coal has been essential to the advent of strong economies, it has also been very much complicit in their unmaking. The burning of fossil fuels has released into the atmosphere such a massive quantity of greenhouse gases that it might eventually end up endangering, even wiping out, human civilisation altogether. The momentum of the coal and oil-based economies, coincided with a culture characterized by a rapid growth in consumption and production, the exploitation of labour, and has transformed natural habitats and power the societies far beyond the level of sustainable growth. What was originally an efficiency and an advantage, has eventually become a compulsive practice that recalls, to some scholars, the myth of Prometheus– a benefit acquired at an unforeseeable cost and of tragic consequence.
Throughout history, new sources have given rise to many other cultures of energy. Following the discovery of fusion in the 20th century, nuclear power has been implemented to the point where it has become a viable technology in many countries around the world. However, despite the fact that nuclear power, compared to other technologies, has one of the lowest levels of fatalities per unit of energy generated, it has always remained very controversial – perhaps due to its military roots, as well as to its widely known failures, nuclear energy business has always been embedded in a culture of anxiety and discord.
As we are gradually adopting them, renewable energy practices are resonating with positive cultural rings. The values associated with the wind and solar sustainable energy are inherently connected with a sense of responsibility, a genuine care for nature, and of course sustainable growth. Solutions emerging on the market today often rank high on the cultural values scale, for they are seen as being forward-looking, modern and even fashionable – electrical mobility, for instance. However, new energy sources are not entirely consensual, and even the best technological choices often kindle enduring controversy. The current dissension around wind turbines, as regards their potential impact on human health and natural habitats, clearly illustrates how every new invention and technical advancement has always brought about, in history, great public concern.
The latest IPCC’s study raises the alarm about the current climate conditions, the worst humanity has ever seen. The importance of new technologies fit to improve our resilience to climate change cannot be underestimated. That said, the IPCC paper often refers to cultural changes and reminds us that the technological shift alone will not suffice to lead us out of the crisis. The socio-behavioural aspects also have a role to play in the systemic transition. The IPCC’s report puts forward several interesting points related to the cultural dimensions of energy:
“The Paris Agreement stressed the importance of development and transfer of technologies to improve resilience to climate change and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, innovation and even fast technological change will not be enough to achieve Paris Agreement mitigation objectives. Other changes are necessary across the production and consumption system and the society in general, including behavioural changes.“
At Vadviam, we believe that companies, by adopting frameworks inspired by the arts and humanities, can contribute to creating better and healthier future. In a fragment that refers to the social aspects of today’s global urgency, the IPCC report states:
“Human induced global warming, together with other global trends and events, such as digitalisation and automation, and the COVID-19 pandemic, induces changes in labour markets, and bring large uncertainty and ambiguity. History and psychology reveal that societies can thrive in these circumstances if they openly embrace uncertainty on the future and try out ways to improve life. Tolerating ambiguity can be learned, e.g., by interacting with history, poetry and the arts. (…). As a key enabler, novel narratives created in a variety of ways e.g., by advertising, images, entertainment industry, help to break away from the established meanings, values and discourses and the status quo.“
This excerpt delivers us inspiration for developing new practices. Understanding the public behaviours, both in terms of energy consumption and management, can lead to development a specific energy cultures framework. This approach can enable the shift to novel technologies and accelerate the green transition our world urgently needs.