People’s relationships shape how they use energy

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Feb 05, 2020
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By Lucie Middlemiss and Tom Hargreaves

Our new paper in Nature Energy is all about how people’s relationships with each other shape their energy use. We started writing this paper about 9 months ago, but in many ways we feel that it represents an idea that has been central to both of our careers so far: people’s relationships are at the heart of how they experience the world, and this shapes the ways in which they consume in unexplored ways.  We are increasingly convinced that understanding people’s relationships is critical to thinking about how both sustainable and fair energy futures can be brought about. If you want people to consume differently, you have to understand what it is about their relationships with others that shapes why they consume as they do.

As co-authors of this paper we have had remarkably similar research interests since we started our PhDs in the early 2000s: in a way we have had unintentionally parallel research careers. We have both researched community sustainability initiatives, different forms of sustainable consumption, and, most recently, the lived experience of energy poverty in the UK, where we collaborated in a project with other colleagues about energy poverty and social relations. We have also moved in similar academic circles, engaging with practice and transition scholars, as well as with the interdisciplinary research community that works on sustainability (including SCORAI). Our collaborative work on energy poverty was the first time we had directly worked together, as well as the moment when we started to characterise our interests using the concept of ‘social relations’. It turns out that people’s relationships have always been at the centre of each of our (independently conducted) research.

All forms of relationships, whether in the home, with friends and colleagues, in communities and with agencies, or relationships of identity (e.g of class, gender, or ethnicity), shape people’s expectations, desires, needs and practices. In the Perspective we give examples from our own and other people’s work, of this relational way of explaining current practice, and the potential for this way of seeing the world to explain both change and continuity in energy demand. For instance, the choices of our parents in heating the home when we are growing up impacts on our expectations of warmth in the home today. When new energy technologies are introduced to the home, their use and effectiveness is shaped by the division of household labour, often linked to gender roles. If we encounter (and feel able to talk to) a community energy group that offers advice on how to save energy, we will make different choices than if we are left to our own devices. A sympathetic energy supplier can make the vital difference between exacerbating cold-induced health conditions and coping.

We believe that in-depth, qualitative work on people’s lived experiences has been critical in revealing the importance of social relations. Given that this knowledge is built from detailed qualitative insights into people’s daily lives, we wanted to make sure we brought stories from people’s lives into this rather short summary of our argument. We were lucky enough to work with a designer, Mary Tallontire (@murkybucket), who drew us two great illustrations to go with two stories we profile in the paper. One tells the story of Usha, a 35-year-old Pakistani-British woman who became disabled after childbirth, and who relies on family for care, and access to energy services. Her story complicates the idea of a household, given that family member sometimes live with her, sometimes live elsewhere, and have to engage differently in energy practices according to who they are with. 

Usha

The other tells the story of John and Jane who, on John’s instigation, have started experimenting with smart technologies in their family home. Jane becomes increasingly frustrated with her loss of control of the house as she does not understand how to use the new technology.

John and Jane

So where next? Despite having, between us, spent a total of 30 years investigating how relationships affect consumption, we do not feel we have got to the bottom of this yet! Developing a relational understanding of (energy) consumption will be a key focus for us both in coming years. This will likely involve building on our theoretical ideas, using further empirical examples and contexts. We would also like to encourage others interested in social relations to engage in energy research and in the broader topic of sustainable consumption: there is room for a sustained and diverse engagement here. Creating fair and sustainable energy futures will demand changing current, and building new social relations both within the research community and across society. Please get in touch if you would like to share the journey.

Lucie Middlemiss and Tom Hargreaves

Go to the profile of Lucie Middlemiss

Lucie Middlemiss

Associate Professor in Sustainability, University of Leeds

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