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Using less energy: why do we say one thing but do another?

When it comes to the environment, it’s hardly unusual for us to say one thing and do another. We may profess, when asked, that we care about recycling, pollution, climate change or wasting energy. We may have access to plenty of information about the environmental consequences of our actions. Yet often we fail to change how we act.

Social science has for many years been interested in this phenomenon, which researchers have called the “value-action gap”. In the 1970s, governments began to launch educational campaigns like the UK’s “Save it” energy conservation campaign. They assumed that giving people information about the environmental impacts of their decisions would lead them to question their priorities and change their behaviour. However, it quickly became clear that such approaches tended to fail.

In the 1980s, social psychologists began to research psychological and sociological factors that might explain why. One recognised factor is that if we don’t directly experience the consequences of our actions, we’re less likely to change how we act. The link between flying and climate change is not immediately visible, for example. More generally, environmental damage tends to emerge as a result of complex processes and only after an extended period of time. The lack of direct experience of harm means we are less emotionally involved in this damage and, as a result, we are less likely to feel a responsibility to change our behaviour.

Shared norms also constrain what we think is acceptable, desirable and possible. Cultural expectations about hospitality might make us turn up the heating higher before our family come to visit, for example.

Melting glaciers in the Arctic and causing sea level rise – indirectly. Aero Pixels, CC BY

In recent years, researchers have also investigated how shared social practices alter over time in conjunction with technological change. For example, the slow evolution of how we heat our homes or wash our clothes is influenced by new technologies and their commercial application. Biological washing powders make it possible to do laundry in colder water and thus use less energy. But people in developed countries generally own more clothes than their grandparents or parents, and wash them more often, which may cancel out these energy savings.

The changing, complex relationships between how we do things and the devices we rely on are no less invisible to us in our daily lives than the environmental harm that may result from them. It’s therefore important to ensure domestic energy usage is made more visible, which explains the widespread interest in smart meters.

An energy-efficient ‘new normal’

But this brings us full circle, back to the question of whether more information can help us change our behaviour. An alternative might be to look at the influences at work within individual lives that can help change people’s ideas about “normality”.

Our Energy Biographies project examined how, as people go through different “lifecourse transitions” (like having children, moving house, retirement and so on), their ideas about what kinds and levels of energy use are normal change significantly. In interviews with people from different sites in Wales and London – including an eco-village, a large hospital and two different communities in Cardiff – we discovered that these ideas about “what’s normal” are indeed often shared. At the same time, they also reflect individual experiences and emotional attachments to ways of life.

In these interviews, domestic devices ranging from the mundane to the exotic, including kettles, patio heaters and hot-tubs, take on rich emotional significance, appearing as an essential part of what people consider to be lives worth living. We feel disconnected from the consequences of energy use, our research suggests, because this stuff becomes a naturalised part of our identities – something we don’t even consider trying to change.

At Lammas, a newly-established eco-village we studied, this situation was different. Residents there were engaged in a kind of collective experiment, remodelling everyday life to make it as sustainable as possible. Previously familiar practices (like doing the laundry) and ideas of normal energy use (like having games consoles or radios conveniently to hand) had to change. Emotional attachments, both to particular ways of doing things and to specific devices and appliances, were similarly placed in question. Over time, as a community hydropower generator and household solar panels came online, everyday appliances like washing machines and laptops were reintegrated into everyday life, but with a new appreciation for the resources needed to power them.

Lammas represents a collective effort to build from scratch a whole community together with its energy infrastructure. In the process, hitherto overlooked feelings about the devices and practices through which people consume energy came into the foreground.

Even in more mainstream settings, however, discussing energy in the community means that ideas about what is privately thought of as normal can be “tested”. This can help people to reassess their own levels of energy use, as well as making it possible to share experiences of success and failure in using less. Our own research shows how discussing renewable energy technologies with trusted neighbours can encourage their uptake.

Maybe life in an eco-village like Lammas isn’t for everyone. But talking to your neighbours is less challenging, and may open up surprising conversations about how we can change how we use energy.

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