why knowing more about our energy doesn't solve the problem

A recent article in Fast Company, A Problem for Smart Meters: People Don’t Understand Electricity, raises some very interesting issues. Based on research findings (again, not much said about how the research was conducted, and yes, it does matter), people have shockingly low literacy about our energy: how much we use, how it works, where it comes from. So the conclusion is, teach people energy literacy to see the results we want from our new smart meter technology.

If only it was that straight-forward.

The underlying premise makes sense: people will shift their behaviors when they are able to see the impacts: making the invisible, visible. This has been one of the greatest challenges facing perceptions of environmental impacts and threats. As many scholars have noted elsewhere, the problem of invisible and indeterminate impacts has made communications and outreach exceedingly challenging. The task has been therefore to increase literacy – to illustrate and show systems, flows, impacts. However this is really based on a model referred to as “information-deficit” – which presumes if people know more they will act accordingly.

The information-deficit approach has long been disbanded and rejected in most environmental education circles – slowly and begrudgingly. Because we all want to think if we teach people more, they will suddenly become activated as the ecological citizens we urgently need them to be. Perhaps for those in the sustainability professions, this is what happened. We learned about certain deeply problematic and disturbing issues about how humans have messed up nature, ecological systems, driven creatures out of existence, and then decided to do something about it. Well, this is clearly not so much the case for much of the population. And those in the field seem to lack some empathy for the fact that, unfortunately, more information can make people less engaged. Even apathetic.

The need for informal science education, utilities, planners, designers, to grasp this point – that information is only part of the picture – is urgent. And what about the other parts?

This is where the awareness of human psychology comes in – not simply behavioralism, but a systemic approach to how and why humans change, innovate, create, rise to challenges, run away, and so on. What we have learned from decades of clinical psychology – addressing addiction, mental health problems  – is that we can use feedback and information, but the other stuff has to be acknowledged: the parts of us that don’t want to change, are fearful, and deep down feel totally ineffectual. For many people, the craving for agency (action, power) is so strong we will express it however we can: buying fast cars, spending lots of money at the mall, not turning out the lights. In other words, what is not being asked is this: What if people don’t want to know about how much energy we use, or how it flows through our lives, because it may arouse anxieties, concerns, fears…  or it’s just not of much interest.

So where does this leave us?

We must resist the temptation to use behavioral modification to solve all of our pressing problems around energy efficiency. We need to take a deeper and longer view at the changes we are asking of people, and rise to the occasion, by engaging people who work with people – psychological researchers, practitioners, clinicians as collaborators. We need to stop being afraid to acknowledge the mess we’re in, because people respond to truth and to invitations to be co-creators and participants in solutions. We need to stop patronizing people and assuming we know what they think and want; and start asking more questions, more creatively and with more complexity.

Then maybe we can start designing deeper forms of engagement and see the results we are desperate for.

1 Comment

  1. Jane S. Peters

    “What if people don’t want to know about how much energy we use, or how it flows through our lives, because it may arouse anxieties, concerns, fears… or it’s just not of much interest.” very true! information does not solve the energy problem, clearly Smart Meters will be useful for those who want to access their usage – at least for a while, until they find themselves knowing “enough,” but for others it will be just more confusing numbers and things they are supposed to do but don’t want to or don’t have the time for.

    Some people do find the OPower letters motivating to invest in efficiency when told they are using more than their neighbors, others find the messages distressing and some even act perversely and consume more. There are true limits to what people can do in their homes and businesses because everyone does not have enough money to make the changes and many people already feel stretched to their breaking point.

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