Energy consumption and everyday life

By Thomas Roberts

A couple of months ago the fridge in the sociology department kitchen was replaced. Whilst the new fridge looks nearly identical to the old one, there is a fundamental difference – the hinges are on the opposite side.   I have lost count of the number of times I have walked into the kitchen and attempted to open the fridge but failed to do so.  Furthermore, it appears that I’m not the only one struggling, I have noticed many colleagues having the same problem, and consequently the fridge has become the subject of significant debate.

While the impact of this minor change to our fridge is minimal, it does highlight the potential problems associated with adapting to technological change in relation to habitual and mundane everyday practices. When habits are ingrained, we do them without thinking and it takes a long time to adapt to a new way of doing things. This is highly relevant to the sustainability agenda and transitions to a low carbon society, as it highlights the challenges associated with adapting to socio-technological change.

In the UK, one third of energy used is consumed by domestic households (DECC 2013). Consequently, if we are to have any chance of hitting the government’s target of a 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020; 50 percent by the mid-2020s; and 80 percent by 2050, it will be necessary to make significant reductions to household energy demand.  To achieve these reductions, significant changes will be needed to both the type of devices present in people’s homes and the way in which they are used.

If a simple change in the opening mechanism of a fridge can interrupt the tea making routine of a whole department of sociologists for several months, the challenges associated with reconfiguring the numerous mundane routines undertaken every day in an average domestic home are immense.

The sheer complexity of every day domestic life was recently highlighted to me when I undertook a series of walking interviews around people’s homes as part of our work on the WholeSEM project.  The participants were asked to walk me through their daily routines. Along the way we discussed the numerous devices through which they consumed energy and the role they played in their daily lives.  The research highlighted that while the majority of the participants were aware of both the environmental impacts and financial costs of high levels of energy consumption, convenience and the desire to maintain a particular ‘lifestyle’ were far more important to determining how they performed activities.  It also demonstrated the co-evolution of domestic practices, revealing that changes in one aspect of domestic life can have significant knock-on effects for others.  For example, how the presence of internet access in the home has changed the way in which people heat their homes:

`It gets cold just sitting in front of the computer all day, when it’s just me at home it’s not too bad as I can just heat one small room, but when my wife is working at home as well, one of us sits at the main table so we end up just sticking the heating on and heating the whole house.  In some ways it’s a bit silly as I don’t have to pay for the heating if I go into work, but it saves loads of time and I get more done at home’. (Academic, 30s)

And the relationship between the purchase of a television for the kitchen and food preparation:

`We now have a TV in the kitchen as well, it’s a flat screen so doesn’t take up much space.  I always stick it on while I’m cooking dinner. ….sometimes I watch cooking programmes while I’m cooking and think, `oh that looks much better than what we are eating, maybe I will try that at the weekend’. (Administrator, 50s)

Understanding the co-evolution of domestic energy practices and particularly the reasons why people configure their domestic lives in particular ways is essential for reducing energy consumption.  Over the past 40 years, economic and behavioural approaches to reducing consumption have been largely ineffective as they have predominately relied upon data on the drivers and barriers to behaviour change rather than thinking more holistically about the way in which daily lives are configured.  As Elizabeth Shove (2012) notes, the focus needs to shift from trying to persuade individuals to use less energy and water and towards trying to understand how resource intensive practices take hold in society and on how they change.  If this can be achieved we may at least be in with a fighting chance of finding policy solutions that influence domestic practices in a way which will aid the transition to a more sustainable society and ultimately enable us to reach our targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  


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