Response: Writing the wrongs of energy efficiency

A response to Jan Rosenow and Tina Fawcett’s Commentary: ‘What is right with energy efficiency?’

Elizabeth Shove, December 2017

In writing about what’s wrong with energy efficiency my aim was to bring a body of established social theoretical ideas to bear on a concept that has taken hold – and become taken for granted – in energy research and policy.  I wanted to do this in order to provoke considered reflection on the conceptual foundations of the very idea of energy efficiency.

This is an unusual undertaking and misunderstandings are to be expected.  Some are a product of the very issue that I seek to address:  that is the extent to which certain lines of thought have become so institutionalised and so ‘normal’ that there is no space left for critical reflection. Other potential hiccups relate to the fact that I am approaching the topic as a social scientist – and what’s worse, as one interested in the philosophy of knowledge, and in the performativity of discourses, ideas and practices.  This is not at all the same position as that occupied by readers who are in the business of ‘doing efficiency’, or energy policy, or who have no background in the ideas on which I draw.

That is not a problem. It is my job, in writing the article, to convey enough of these intellectual traditions to enable people immersed in the field of ‘energy efficiency’ to see what they are caught up in.  There are some signs that my article has had this effect.  For instance, Gerrit Jan Schaeffer, Director of Dutch Solar Energy thanks me for taking the effort to think through the concept of energy efficiency ‘in a thoroughly intellectual way’ (a tweet on 6th September 2017). Others  have acknowledged the importance of articulating some of the social, historical and political assumptions that are embedded in ‘efficiency’ as it is mobilised in contemporary policy. But for Jan Rosenow, for Tina Fawcett, and quite likely for other readers too, I have evidently not got through.  I am not about to repeat my entire argument (so please read this response alongside the original article), but their  reaction is a useful diagnostic tool, signalling what I take to be four main ‘error messages’.  In responding to these alerts my aim is to counter readings of the article that remain rooted within the ‘efficiency paradigm’.

Error message 1. The article is about whether energy efficiency ‘works’ in its own terms or not. 

In their response, Rosenow and Fawcett include a graph that they use to demonstrate the value of energy efficiency. There are, of course, many other such graphs that show the same.  My question is not whether the figures on which these graphs depend are right or wrong.  Instead, and as my extensive discussion of the ‘purifying’ work involved shows,  my aim is to  highlight the taken-for-granted assumptions and the work on which all such data is based.  Presenting evidence that demonstrates the benefits of energy efficiency, in its own terms, is in no way a counter claim, or a rebuttal of my position.  If anything it serves to illustrate just how deeply embedded and how uncritical efficiency discourses have become.

Error message 2. The discussion is about whether efficiency measures, and other energy policies, can combine to combat climate change. 

Quite early on in the article I make reference to some of those who claim that an effective response to climate change – including meeting future targets – is not only about finding more efficient ways of meeting present ‘needs’: as Obama said in 2016, ‘more will be needed’. In the UK, the Committee on Climate Change is also not sure how future targets will be met without the government applying ‘more challenging measures’, perhaps calling present standards of living into question. Rosenow and Fawcett want  ‘evidence’ that efficiency measures (alongside other technical fixes) might not be up to the task ahead.  In reality it is impossible to know how future ‘demands’ might evolve and what new ways people might be using energy in two or ten or a thousand years’ time.  Accordingly there can never be ‘evidence’ to show that efficiency will be enough, or to show the reverse either.

This is not where the argument lies. Instead, and as I sought to explain, the much more important point is to recognise that societal needs and demands are not given: they are negotiable, dynamic, and in part constituted by technologies and policies, including those of efficiency.  In this more metaphorical sense, efficiency arguments are not enough because they disguise and do not engage with the ways in which present and future demands are made, or that efficiency measures are themselves a crucial part of this process.  In other words, the potential to respond to climate change depends on what energy is used for and how societal ‘needs’ evolve. My case is that the pursuit of energy efficiency has many unintended consequences, within and as part of this story.

Error message 3. There are societally or universally agreed needs and demands and energy efficient systems and technologies help meet these needs with fewer resources.

I completely agree that efficiency measures  help meet pre-specified needs with fewer resources.  But in taking ‘needed’ services for granted such measures also ‘fix’ historically and culturally specific interpretations of comfort, light, travel, etc.  For a time, and for certain groups of people, these interpretations constitute ‘real’ needs.  But as most historians would explain, these are not universal,  nor are they always agreed.  The error is to suppose that there are societally or universally agreed needs.  In response, my article is designed to help proponents and defenders of efficiency discourses see just how much political and cultural baggage is attached to the seemingly neutral concepts with which they work.

Error message 4. In being critical of efficiency discourses I am at risk of raising politically awkward questions and inadvertently lending support to those in favour of boosting energy supply.

In the article I imply that discourses of efficiency are politically convenient because they disguise their own highly political role in sustaining specific interpretations of need and service.  On this point  I do want to rock the boat.   One reason for writing the article was to draw attention to just these hidden features.  I think this is important in that identifying what I call ‘good’ forms of efficiency depends on carefully articulating the meanings of ‘need’ and service that they sustain.  And as I argue, concepts of purification and entanglement help in this endeavour.   In my view, engaging with what is wrong with discourses of efficiency is a necessary step in working towards a more considered response to climate change: it is not a sign of weakness.  Far from it. Being critical of the intellectual foundations of policy discourses of efficiency – or for that matter of other related concepts like the energy ‘trilemma’ – is part of a necessary process of conceptualising and interrogating the dark sides of conventional wisdom.

To reiterate, the article is not about  whether efficiency should get more attention in policy spheres than additional supply.  The question is what commitments and assumptions do discourses of efficiency entail, and what perverse, unwitting and unintended effects might these have?  In particular, how do references to efficiency reproduce specific interpretations of ‘service’?

Rosenow and Fawcett’s discussion of ‘what’s right with energy efficiency’ represents a simple defence of the ambition of energy efficiency and because it remains at this level it does not offer a theoretically informed critique of ‘what’s wrong with energy efficiency’.  This is a shame in that there is plenty of scope for taking issue with various features of the argument that I make.   For example, a more interesting charge, and one that political scientists might reasonably make, is that I am myself beguiled by the dominant discourse of energy efficiency and have made the mistake of taking it at face value.  In other words, I fail to reference some pretty basic ideas about the rhetoric of policy making and politics and fail to recognise that concepts of efficiency are significant not in their own right but as a symptom of much bigger and deeper political and economic battles.

Another credible challenge is that I confuse or at least conflate ‘real’ forms of efficiency (based in physics and engineering) with the very much fuzzier versions that abound in policy documents.  For example, some purist engineers agree with aspects of my position, feeling that the notion of ‘efficiency’ has been repeatedly hijacked and misused in policy circles in which it is taken to be a generalised ambition, not a context specific measure of input and output.  My mistake is to treat ‘efficiency’ discourses as one.

Third, and for those who know the literature, my attempt to apply and work with notions of purification and entanglement skates over some rather important differences between Hodder and Latour. Similarly, I do not really engage with Hodder’s ideas about the path-dependence and directionality of entanglement.  This is quite significant, especially when dealing with long term issues like those of climate change.

Others might reasonably take me to task over the somewhat slippery solution of distinguishing between good and bad forms of efficiency, and they might press me on how notions of ‘good’ efficiency do or do not relate to debates about need and sufficiency.

I’ll resist the temptation to respond to these self-set challenges.  The point is not to resolve these questions now, but to show that there are important debates still to be had about the theoretical foundations of efficiency policy, and what these mean for  how questions of energy are measured, managed, understood and known. Sliding these topics under the carpet, insisting that efficiency ‘works’, and contending that it is politically important to defend efficiency programmes come what may is not a long term solution.

Further reading: Not everyone will be interested in  thinking about energy efficiency in these terms, but for those who are curious about how  scientific ideas and policy discourses  ‘work’ I’d suggest a few key readings.  One is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn, first published in 1962.  Another would be Don Mackenzie’s excellent book ‘Inventing accuracy’ (1990, MIT Press). Mackenzie writes about nuclear missiles but many of the ideas he explores apply as well to energy efficiency. A third suggestion would be to read more of Latour.  The book to which I refer in the article, Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, (1993, Havard University Press) is not an easy starting point, but some of Latour’s earlier work, like Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, with Steve Woolgar (1979, Sage) would be a good place to begin.


Elizabeth Shove is Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University and PI of the DEMAND research centre (Dynamics of energy, mobility and demand). She is known for her work on social practice theory, including The Dynamics of Social Practice (Sage 2012) with Mika Pantzar and Matt Watson, and more recently, Nexus of Practices (Routledge 2017) edited with Allison Hui and Theodore Schatzki.  She has also written about different aspects of energy and demand in everyday life.

ORCID number: 0000-0002-4792-5479

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