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Beyond a culture of carbon

As I write, over three thousand activists are engaged in a march towards the Vattenfall coal-mine in Proschim, East Germany. The action, entitled Ende Gelände, is part of a global movement demanding that energy companies keep their fossil fuel reserves underground and unburnt. A number of Vattenfall power stations have so far been temporarily shut down or in reduced capacity, and train tracks and diggers have also been occupied and blocked. The mine is infamous for its digging of lignite coal, among the least clean or energy efficient fossil fuels – a lot has to be mined for relatively little energy returns. It embodies the opposite sort of future which we as a culture need to be building: we need fuels which are sustainably sourced, reusable and effective in meeting the needs of a populous future, not those which represent the dying flame of our fossilised cultural past.


[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#00FFCC” class=”” size=”14″]The dying flame of our fossilised cultural past[/pullquote]In Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, Canadian museum expert Barry Lord explores the relationship between energy and culture, proposing that each major energy transition brings about a shift in culture tied intimately to the nature of the fuel they use. For example, the coal-powered era of the industrial revolution was linked to a culture of production. A strong separation between the working and upper-classes entered around this time period, too – citizens were defined by their relation to the energy production process. Later on, the wide scale use of electricity, first made possible by Thomas Edison in 1879, ushered in a culture of transformation. With electric light bulbs we could suddenly change night into day, make things move, and transform entertainment through their projection onto cinema screens. Electricity gave us optimism– we saw ourselves as agents of change on an unprecedented level.

Today’s dominant culture is one whose predominate energy source is oil and gas. With most of the public detached from its direct extraction, as well as being less labour-intensive and seemingly free-flowing, beginning in the 1950s and 60s this fuel source stimulated a culture of consumption rather than production. The extraction, processing and trade of oil and gas helped make possible the automobiles, shopping malls and branded products that are so characteristic of modern daily life. Now with big machines to bring our energy out of the ground for us, we can afford to sit back, relax. With more leisure time, many of us fill this with activities that make us feel and look good, like shopping.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”#00FFCC” class=”” size=”14″]‘The so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures’[/pullquote]What we must now ask is what kind of a culture we find ourselves moving towards. With a potential future reliance on renewable energy, Barry Lord predicts that a culture of stewardship, sharing and solidarity will gradually develop. Solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal wells provide a more consistent and less volatile form of energy – this will alter our values, since extraction and storage of a particular fuel requires the adoption of a particular set of principles. Driven by philosophies of holism, systems thinking, and an abhorrence of waste, the culture the Lord proposes we are moving towards will no longer celebrate exploitative activities which place strain on the earth’s natural capital; it will instead encourage trading, sharing, and the production of high quality goods which are not programmed to be obsolete, as many are today. Lord points out that a ‘sharing economy’ is already on the rise, with initiatives like Airbnb and Uber framing and enabling increasingly more of our lives.

With cutting edge energy storage systems like Tesla’s Powerwall, we will be able to store significant quantities of electric energy from inexpensive solar panels. This ideal of storage will itself become part of a global ecological ethic, one which condemns wasteful uses of energy. Acquisition, consumption and private ownership will become values of secondary importance to those of a circular, effective economy, productive in real terms rather than in the language of GDP. True development without obligations of growth will define the aims of this post-profit economy.

Lord argues that ‘the so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures’. Our current attachment to fossil fuels is not driven by a search for the most effective and safe energy, but a resistance to let go of particular cultural motifs which have framed so much of our lives today, regardless of whether they are truly advantageous to our health, wealth and happiness. This is also a conflict between generations, with younger people becoming more critical of non-‘green’ policies pushed by aged politicians.

In an interview, Barry Lord said that, ultimately, a culture of stewardship will become dominant only when renewable energy becomes far more embedded within our urban infrastructure than it is today. However, encouraging this cultural shift will still be beneficial – resistance to a renewable energy transition is steeped in decades of reinforced values clung to by powerful individuals who see their fossil fuel investments at risk. To change this culture, premises need to be questioned and policies discussed. But radical reassessment must also happen at an individual level. While the COP21 Climate Conference in December proposed an institutional solution to climate change, change must also happen from the bottom. Our diets, purchases, transport methods and energy usage must also be subject to our own critique and change. How we live our days is how we live our lives; and how we all live our lives contributes to the culture we collectively create.

Dom Stephen

Dominic Stephen graduated in Philosophy and Literature from University College Utrecht. He then followed a three-month international development course in Kenya and Tanzania, with an internship placement researching democratic environmental governance in northern Tanzania. He is now hoping to pursue a Master's degree in Environmental Economics, Governance, or Political Science, beginning in September 2017.

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