Photo by Clem Onojeghua

Photo by Clem Onojeghua

 

This site explores the relationships between Energy, Society and Technology. Each one shapes and constrains the possibilities of the others.  New forms of energy make some technologies possible and others obsolete.  

"Better" technology may fail because it doesn't consider the social system it must work within.  And every new technology changes the social world, sometimes in ways we cannot foresee.

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Moving successfully to a low-carbon world will only happen when we consider the intersection of energy, technology and society. Explore here ideas from multiple perspectives on human energy use historically and today. Join the conversation by suggesting ideas and resources. 

You'll find topics including food as the fundamental fuel, who uses energy and why, thoughts about why energy is often equated with progress, how energy is embodied in our material lives, and the way culture shapes how we think about energy and what forms we use.  

This website shares information from a wide variety of social and natural sciences to show how people have always been in a relentless search for energy in order to live their lives.  

This was just as true in pre-historic times as it is today.  It's just that energy has taken different forms and human societies have created different institutional structures to capture, distribute and use energy.  The energy in our food, homes, clothes and transportation shape our natural world - and it shapes us. 

Why Energy and Society?

Given the essential role of energy to society I’m struck at how little we pay attention to energy except in those moments of precipitous loss like a blackout.  We tend to treat it like another category of the household budget alongside food and rent.  However, energy is not just an input, a means of keeping warm at night or running a flat-panel television set.  It is that, but far more. 

Energy is constitutive - not an addition to how we live but a resource that actually organizes our ways of living and working, depending on how we source it and use it. 

Energy makes things possible.  But once we have put a particular form of energy into place it also makes some things more likely.  The electric plug doesn’t only deliver energy,  it is an invitation to use blenders and electric fans.  Energy - its type and availability - is fundamental to social life everywhere today and at every earlier time in human history.

Like most people in the U.S. I rarely gave much of thought to my energy use a few years ago.  Sure, I drove a small car, recycled faithfully, and washed my clothes in cold water.  But these acts were less than rational calculations about energy and more about following civic norms in my environmentally aware small university town.  As an academic sociologist in a business school I am interested in how social institutions such as government, cultural practices and the network structure of an industry contribute to what actually takes place in an economy. 

I’ve studied everything from the automobile industry in South Korea to the role of traditional gender norms in the success of direct selling companies such as Amway and Mary Kay Cosmetics.  I assume that social institutions and social relations shape economic activity in different ways, sometimes spurring on or channeling economic action and sometimes creating barriers.  I look for connections between the social and the economic, and especially between past social institutions and what takes place today.

My first inkling that energy might be a worthy area of research for me came when I was asked to participate in a study of the construction of green buildings funded by the California Energy Commission, a strong government advocate for energy efficient buildings and processes. The CEC was interested in understanding why many commercial building contractors were not adopting existing energy efficient technologies.  There had a been a lot of research funding by the CEC and the federal Department of Energy to develop more energy efficient motors, materials, sensors, and other technologies that reliably save energy.  But many of these devices were not being adopted.

Economically it would seem rational to install a cooling unit that uses less energy, or windows that maintain interior temperatures. However many of these products were never installed despite substantial public spending on their development. Why weren’t they universally embraced after being proven effective substitutes? Were these efficient technologies ignored because architects didn’t understand them?  Did prospective tenants refuse to pay for modern technology?  Were the regulations difficult to follow?  My colleagues and I received funding to figure this out.

In fact the answers we found had little to do with the technologies per se. [1]  It turns out that the social structure of the commercial building industry makes it very difficult to do anything new, not just trying new glazing or insulation.  Novelty is risky in an industry where technologically complex office buildings are constructed only one time with a changing group of contractors and subcontractors between projects. 

It’s a bit like making a Hollywood movie with a script that is used once and with a cast that may never work together again.  Adding a new technology - or a new character - means trying something unproven when time and money are in limited supply.  Better to stick with reliable equipment and known subcontractors, or a proven crowd-pleasing franchise like The Terminator or Star Wars, than risk the unknown. 

Even more importantly - and surprisingly - building owners rarely think of commercial buildings intended for lease as bricks and mortar.   Buildings actually have very little material reality to their owners and they don’t actually think much about their construction. 

Commercial office buildings are now usually built by investment funds as assets that will bring in reliable rental income for ten or twenty years.  Buildings sit alongside stocks and bonds in pension funds and other financial portfolios seeking diversification.  Buildings are financial assets first and foremost.  They aren’t solid but rather a pass-through for cash.

Why would an investment fund put money into greening a skyscraper if it wouldn’t return more rental income? 

There are more answers that came out of our study but our findings alerted me to the difficulty of “doing the right thing” for the planet or even the most efficient thing in terms of saving energy, and it isn’t a simple economic calculus. Energy efficient technologies might save money, be good for the planet and be morally important to those who value low-waste technologies.  However given the structure of building ownership in the U.S. today and the construction process there is often little incentive for energy efficient commercial buildings. Today’s energy efficient buildings are usually the result of tough building standards in places like California, where there is no legal alternative, or they are owner occupied, not treated as an asset in a portfolio.

This website is a place to learn more about how energy and society are intertwined.  The topics include the history of energy, industrial energy,  cultural impacts on energy use, how food fuels us and how fuels create food. The relationship between our uses of energy, and economic and social beliefs about how we should live are complex, interesting and not always straightforward.  Energy policy will be better informed if it  looks not only to economic reasoning but to the social reasoning behind our energy institutions.

I'll post brief periodic essays about the  intersection of technology, energy and society. I'll suggest further reading if you want to dig further. Over time I hope you will have a new way to look at yourself in the world. If you find this interesting please share with students, colleagues, and friends.

 Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Davis CA

Resources and further reading

Market Structure and Energy Inefficiency: The Case of Commercial Buildings.  A Report to the California Institute for Energy Efficiency, 2000.  Loren Lutzenhiser, Nicole Woolsey Biggart, Richard Kunkle, Thomas D. Beamish.

Thomas D. Beamish and Nicole Woolsey Biggart, 2010. "MesoEconomics: Business Cycles, Entrepreneurship and Economic Crisis the Commercial Building Markets."  Markets on Trial: the Economic Sociology of the U.S. Financial Crisis: Part B. Research in the Sociology of Organizations, Vol 30B, 245-280, Emerald Group Publishing.