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date: 25 May 2020

(p. 161) Consumption Dynamics

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter identifies four important trends in global energy consumption that have emerged in recent decades. First, the consumption of energy and electricity is growing at a faster pace in the twenty-first century than it was at the end of the twentieth century. Second, growth in energy and electricity consumption has slowed in affluent nations, but it is accelerating in some developing nations, particularly China and India. Third, energy efficiency has generally improved around the world, but it has not substantially curtailed energy consumption in most nations. Fourth, despite rapid growth in renewable energy production globally, fossil-fuel consumption continues to grow.

In Part III we move from production to its flip side—consumption—and in that process bring to the fore the role of actors in energy-society relations. While the autonomy of individual consumers can at times be overemphasized (it is minuscule compared to that of industry and business), consumers nonetheless do play an elemental role in energy consumption and the prospects of energy system transition, as highlighted in a number of recent empirical studies that have attempted to quantify the “behavioral wedge,” the potential efficiency gains that could be realized with relatively minor shifts in household behavior. The availability of cheap energy in high-income countries has fostered energy-consumptive goods, markets, and lifestyles, and high expectations among citizens of these countries for the protection of such lifestyles has had a notable impact on politics in places like the United States. While per capita consumption has largely stabilized in high-income countries, moreover, the expansion of middle classes in rapidly industrializing countries like China has and will continue to have foreboding effects on energy supply and demand, as well as our efforts to mitigate climate change.

Studies of consumer behavior have advanced considerably in recent years. Researchers continue to grapple with what appears to be a consistent inelasticity in energy-consumption behaviors—the so-called value-action gap—despite growing environmental awareness, but, as noted by Ana Delicado, sociological inquiries have moved beyond social-psychological studies of individuals to situate those actors (p. 162) within a larger sociocultural context in which practices are (re)produced. At the same time, it is important to remain aware of the limits of individual responsibility, the focus of the final chapter of Part III.

Richard York begins this section in Chapter 9, exemplifying first and foremost the vast inequities in energy consumption globally. To a great extent, these inequities in energy access are just as noteworthy as those in wealth. Importantly, York makes clear with current data that the historical trajectory of efficiency improvements bears no inevitable relation to overall consumption—both are perfectly capable of increasing simultaneously. Notably, as later chapters will further substantiate, observed increases in renewable energy utilization have not replaced fossil-fuel consumption.

In Chapter 10, Perry Sadorsky draws our attention to cities, now home to the majority of us, which are currently the sites of 75% of global energy consumption. Not only is this a reflection of population; urbanization is also associated with increases in per capita consumption. This is not entirely new; concentrations of people have led to vast increases in energy consumption since the Roman Empire. But it may well be newly disconcerting as we consider options for transition in energy-society relations. The relationship between cities and energy consumption are complex, however, expanding way beyond direct consumption in economic activities. This means not only that there is no simple answer to reducing the amount of energy consumed in cities, but also that there are several avenues for doing so.

Marilyn A. Brown and Benjamin K. Sovacool dig down to focus on the consumer in Chapter 11. Middle- and upper-income households are responsible for a sizable share of the energy pie, and are often the target of transition proponents, but the authors highlight the formidable constraints on the ability of consumers to reduce their consumption, despite expressed concern about the environmental and climatological effects of our consumption practices. This value-action gap is so perplexing to social scientists that the authors identify no less than 50 distinct conceptual frameworks introduced to explain this phenomenon, all of which note the many structural conditions within which consumption takes place but which are beyond the control of individual consumers.

Following this, Thomas Pfister and Martin Schweighofer employ a social practices perspective to make the case that “energy systems are much more than technological hardware.” In fact, if one wants to understand the relationship of any given society to energy, and the likely future of that relationship, we must start with culture. There is more to this perspective than the rather superficial conclusion that energy transition must involve cultural change, however. Rather, the authors bring to the center of analysis the expression of energy-society relationships through specific assemblages of material, knowledge, and practices, enabled and sanctioned through cultural institutions. Change thus necessarily implicates all three of these domains.

In Chapter 13, Janet A. Lorenzen picks up where Brown and Sovacool left off, focusing squarely on just what those structural constraints are. Presenting the results (p. 163) of an analysis of qualitative interviews with three distinct groups, all of which are motivated to change their practices for various reasons, Lorenzen shows just how problematic is the narrative that “we are all responsible / if we all do a little together we can accomplish a lot.” Not only are households not the primary consumers (the residential sector accounts for just 24% of total energy end use in the United States)—and this narrative draws attention away from those who are—but also, let’s face it, in most Western industrial societies, we are locked in, with systems of provision, regulation, and institutional support placing hard limits on the effectiveness of voluntary measures. Even if we assume optimistically that the vast majority of consumers are motivated, and that motivation can be sustained, consumers face economic, cultural, organizational, and societal barriers to doing so; our prioritization of household-based voluntary measures to support a shift in energy-society relations ultimately only serves to draw attention and resources away from those actors and locations where the potential for meaningful change lies. (p. 164)