Chapter 5: ENERGY AND SOCIAL SYSTEMS

This chapter addresses the human dimension of energy production and use. It criticizes conventional approaches to analyzing energy-use policies and choices, arguing that "the conventional policy paradigm is flawed when it comes to understanding energy demand, analyzing social change, and representing the scope and character of effective policy intervention." It suggests that the conventional, economic approaches are restrictively narrow. It recommends alternative approaches which take into account the social organization of energy consumption: factors such as social norms, cultural practices, institutional context and infrastructure.

Summary

Conventional approaches: Energy has received considerable study within economics and applied psychology, but little within sociology and social anthropology. Policy makers, and engineers have tended to use an economic paradigm that emphasizes the behaviors of individual end-users. Policy questions are framed in economic terms, using a model of rational individual decision makers bound together by a set of causal relationships (see Vol. 3, Ch. 3). This directs the policy process toward influencing individual action, excluding questions about the social organization of energy consumption. It overlooks collective norms, cultural practices, shared expectations, institutional contexts, and infrastructure. Such approaches tend to separate the social and the technical, yet historical analysis demonstrates the interdependence of sociotechnical change, the lock-in of technology, and the ways in which technologies influence their users.

A number of examples are given of the failure of the conventional approach. One is the "efficiency gap" in the design of new buildings -- the gap between current building practice and the implementation of cost-effective energy-saving measures. People do not make full use of the savings potential. Attempts to explain the gap focus on the attitudes and values of individuals, ignoring the social and institutional context.

Methods of forecasting future energy use are flawed. The model of the "rational economic actor" is embedded in many modeling assumptions. Although this is sometimes extended to include demographic or lifestyle factors, it still emphasizes individual decision-making, ignoring social meanings and conventions, organizations and institutions, and the structuring of choice.

Researchers and policy makers are struggling with the questions, "Why won't people save energy?" and "What factors govern energy consumption?" To answer such questions, they need to view people as active, knowledgeable social agents and pay attention to the culturally specific meanings of energy-related practices. Energy technologies co-evolve with ideas and practices related to comfort, convenience, and cleanliness.

Alternative approaches: Examples are given of studies that offer a broader understanding of energy-related practices. They show people as social actors operating within a cultural and sociotechnical framework, with choices shaped by existing networks and infrastructures. The results suggest that policy interventions need to be based on a better understanding of social change and of policy making as a social process.

Sociologists have found that lay views of energy and its use differ significantly from those of energy policy assessments, and accord well with everyday experience. When people take their own energy use into account in their own nontechnical terms, dramatic reductions in consumption sometimes result (far exceeding estimates of technical potential). These actions depend on socially acquired understanding and continuing social support. New shared understandings must be created (for example, so that people make use of the energy efficiency labels on appliances).

A study of crosscultural differences illustrates the social nature of energy-consuming practices. The heating, lighting, and bathing practices in Japanese and Norwegian households were compared. Differences of climate and energy price explained some of the difference in consumption, but not in a way that theories of economically rational behavior would predict. A strong social value on coziness in Norwegian homes led to energy-intensive use of heating and lighting. In Japan, on the other hand, brightness was preferred leading to use of central ceiling lights (mostly flourescent) and small, energy-saving individual heating units; but bathing habits in Japan remained energy-intensive with the cultural preference for baths rather than showers.

The interconnection of technological and social change is illustrated by a study of air conditioning in the U.S. The introduction of air conditioning facilitated large-scale migration to hot climates. It also allowed changes in home design (such as more glass, less insulation) which then made homeowners dependent on air conditioning. As home builders became able to ignore climate, homes could become more standardized throughout the country, and now air conditioning is often installed even in locations where it is not really needed. Thus, demand for air conditioning was manufactured, but once in place and supported by other technology and practices, its use becomes difficult to shift. (For example, the definition of the normal workday precludes use of the siesta as an alternative to artificial cooling.)

Strengths

I found this chapter fascinating. It shows the restricted focus of conventional policy analysis and helps explain the failure of traditional economic incentives to change energy use behavior. It points out some of the institutional and cultural obstacles to change. It gives persuasive evidence that strategies for changing behavior must take account of social, institutional, and cultural factors. It should be useful to planners and policy makers who are looking for ways to influence energy consumption behavior.

Weaknesses

The chapter discusses energy use behavior but does not directly address the issue of climate change at all, therefore I wonder about the decision to place it in Vol. 2 (Resources and Technology). It points to needed directions in policy analysis and would seem to belong in Vol. 3 (Tools for Policy Analysis), which is more likely to be read by those who could most benefit from its recommendations.


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