Giving advice

One of the newsletters I subscribe to is from The Happiness Project‘s Gretchen Rubin. While some days I barely take notice of the short quotes she sends, on other days they resonate. Today’s offering:

“Most of us are experts at solving other people’s problems, but we generally solve them in terms of our own and the advice we give is seldom for other people but for ourselves.”
Nan Fairbrother, The House in the Country

I can’t help but think about how this can be true not only on an individual level, but also on a social one. Too often it seems the advice and solutions we hear from managers and lobbyists and policymakers seems to speak as much or more about their challenges as those of others. In part this may be because we just understand so little about the problems of others, either not appreciating their complexity or not having time to learn more. How can we build up a culture where advice given in our own image and with our own concerns foregrounded is minimized? How can we build up a culture where complex problems are acceptable and complex solutions are expected?

All this talk about lights hides bigger energy challenges – via The Conversation UK


All this talk about lights hides bigger energy challenges

By Allison Hui, Lancaster University and Elizabeth Shove, Lancaster University

To anyone following recent discussions about the UK’s energy sector, it might seem the nation is entirely lighting-obsessed.

When announcing the deal that paved the way for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, the energy secretary, Ed Davey, explained that it was “essential to keep the lights on”, echoing earlier claims that energy reforms will “keep the lights on and emissions down”.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband’s announcement last month that a Labour government would freeze gas and electricity bills led energy companies to warn that “they might not be able to keep the lights on”. Why is the rhetoric of “keeping the lights on” so important and why is lighting such a compelling and such a persistent point of reference?

Part of the answer has to do with what happens should the lights actually go out. As those cut off in the wake of the St Jude’s Day storm will be only too aware, blackouts are immensely disruptive. Even small-scale interruptions demonstrate how dependent our society has become on a reliable electricity supply. In this context, regular or prolonged outages would indicate that the government had failed to maintain basic standards of living.

Files released this summer show that during the miners’ strikes in the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher contemplated using the military to help keep the lights on: a plan that clearly signalled the symbolic and actual significance of power. Then, as now, talk about the importance of keeping the lights on provides a chilling reminder to governments of how vulnerable they are when faced with a total breakdown of energy generation and supply.

But in the present context, the rhetoric of “keeping the lights on” is as misleading as it is compelling. Though there are billions of lights in the UK’s homes and in places of work and recreation, these are never on all at the same time. Many are off for a large part of the day and in any case lighting does not account for a very high percentage of energy use. Lighting is undoubtedly useful, but for some people it’s not the lights but the internet and communication systems that really need to be on.

In corporate talk, the phrase has been adopted to highlight the percentage of a company’s expenditure spent on keeping its information technology infrastructure running – the blinking lights of networking equipment, rather than overhead lights. This dependence runs deep: in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy in 2012, people walked miles to charge their phones – an indication of how thoroughly such communication devices had been embedded in their daily lives.

Reference to dramatic instances in which all power is lost obscures the fact that the real discussion is not about power cuts, nor is it about the lights alone. Instead, the critical questions –- questions that this “lights on” rhetoric systematically avoids -– are to do with energy demand: what is energy for, how do energy demands arise and how do they change?

These ought to be central concerns for energy policy, especially given the challenge of meeting CO2 emissions targets, yet the “keeping the lights on” mantra perpetuates an unquestioned reliance upon electric power, reinforcing the view that energy consumption is non-negotiable and that it lies outside and not within the frame of legitimate policy debate. In effect, the phrase has come to symbolise a right to unlimited power; it suggests that as a nation there is no end to what we can consume.

There is no such thing as an unlimited energy supply. At every level, from the individual home to the grid itself, cables and infrastructures are sized and managed with certain patterns of demand in mind. Behind the scenes, the need for power is, and always has been, a topic of ongoing negotiation.

Instead of blindly insisting on the importance of keeping the lights on (and all that the phrase stands for) the real political challenge is to bring questions of demand into view. This is not just a matter of technological efficiency. What is needed is a fundamental debate about how much energy is enough, what does it mean to establish ways of living that call for much less power than we use today, and just how many lights could or should be kept on?

Allison Hui and the DEMAND Centre receives funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme.

Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

School holidays and energy consequences – via The Conversation UK


School holiday shakeup brings unintended consequences

By Allison Hui, Lancaster University; Elizabeth Shove, Lancaster University, and Gordon Walker, Lancaster University

Michael Gove’s proposal to allow all schools in England to set their own holidays is part of a bill aimed at removing “unnecessary burdens” and regulations. But removing some burdens could create others. Some potential complications such changes might present for schools and for families have already been discussed, but there are other unintended consequences.

Our particular interest is in energy. The link is not initially obvious, but it is clear that what people do, and when they do it, is important for determining peaks and troughs of energy demand. No one buys gas, electricity or petrol just for the fun of it; they are used for providing power and heat at home, getting to school or to work, and so on. How and when people use these resources, whether they do so at the same time as others, and how they are distributed throughout the year is of direct significance for total energy demand. Changing the length, timing, or coordination of school holidays would have a big impact on the ways in which daily lives are scheduled, and hence on the timing of when energy is used.

Changing travel patterns

For one, travel patterns and the school run could be affected. If families with children at several different schools find that their holidays fall during different periods, the journey to school, with its consequences for fuel use and carbon emissions, might have to be extended to cover more days of the year. Potentially such changes could break up familiar patterns of traffic congestion around the school run, sometimes reducing traffic, or potentially making it worse. Either way, peaks and levels of transport-related energy demand are likely to shift as families adapt to new holiday periods.

Changing where energy is used

Also consider the energy used in heating and running buildings occupied at different times of the day and year. Currently the longest school holiday period is during the summer, when energy demands are lower. During the Christmas break it’s colder, but the energy burden of keeping warm during the day is shifted from the school (or workplace) to the home. In theory, schools could change the timing and duration of holidays so as to reduce the need for energy intensive heating or lighting – for example by making winter and Easter breaks considerably longer and extending the summer term.

Children out of school are generally at home, so this strategy would shift costs from schools to parents. It’s obvious what this would mean for those who pay the bills, but it’s not clear what such a change would mean for total energy consumption. Collective heating systems – as in a school – would more efficiently keep lots of children warm, using less total energy than required to heat and light many private homes through the day. Then again, those homes are already heated for part of the day; extending this by a few more hours (and not heating the country’s schools at all) might entail less energy consumption in total.

Disconnected policies

It would be interesting to see some careful working out of the implications of education policy for energy demand. Somewhat similar calculations have been made in an effort to quantify the energy consequences of putting the clocks back and of thereby shifting patterns of activity into hours of darkness (or light). This is something of an exception. More commonly, little or no attention is paid to the impact that non-energy policies have on the temporal and spatial patterning of daily life, and hence on the energy demands – and carbon emissions – that follow.

One way or another, the proposal to de-synchronise school holidays is sure to have tangible, but unintended and unanticipated consequences for energy demand. And yet despite this there is no systematic attempt to think about how this, or indeed any other, non-energy policy affects the extent and timing of energy demand.

Allison Hui and the DEMAND Centre receives funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme.

Elizabeth Shove and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

Gordon Walker and the DEMAND Centre receive funding from the RCUK Energy Programme and EDF as part of the R&D ECLEER Programme

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.