Power to the people

3rd August 2023


Dr Rihab Khalid explains why the road to net zero must be paved with expertise in the social sciences and humanities

Energy has become central to our political, economic and socio-ecological systems. A transition to net zero will require radical shifts in how we think about energy. Yet decisions about energy and enabling policies remain largely driven by techno-economic framings, grounded in traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and overlook the ways in which energy is interlinked within wider social, cultural and political systems. Here, I explain why social sciences and humanities (SSH) perspectives are critical for understanding energy.

Energy and the everyday

Energy shapes most of our modern lives: the activities we partake in, the work we do and the urban environments we plan, navigate and form part of.

SSH perspectives help us see the complex and intricate connections and interactions that form an integral part of energy systems. Understanding these dynamics is essential before undertaking interventions to enhance sustainability. Without recognising the underlying socio-cultural need for our current energy demand, techno-economic efficiency frameworks will be insufficient to achieve sustainable transitions. Hence, change in our energy systems will require change in our everyday practices at the individual, societal and institutional scale.

SSH disciplines, encompassing psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and more, play a vital role in deepening our understanding of societies and how they evolve. They shed light on the complex web of relations, networks and interactions (both human and more-than-human) that are fundamental to our existence. They allow us to uncover the underlying ideologies, path dependencies and decision-making processes at the heart of our institutions, as well as highlighting our societal differences and similarities. As such, they provide insights into the behaviours, motivations, practices, actions and aspirations that determine and shape future energy transitions.

A socio-technical issue

In particular, the field of science and technology studies (STS) enables us to see the intricate connections and relationships between technology and society. STS helps us understand that energy technologies do not exist in isolation and cannot be taken as purely scientific, neutral and objective. Rather, technologies are shaped by the underlying social contexts, cultural norms, economic interests and political motivations. By understanding energy through a socio-technical lens, we can better develop insights into the unintended consequences, trade-offs and distributional impacts of technological solutions, thereby making better informed decisions for sustainable net-zero transitions.

Politics and justice

Energy systems are not intrinsically democratic and egalitarian, nor is access to energy, by default, fair and evenly distributed. It is crucial to recognise that net-zero transitions will have profound implications for class disparities, gendered and racial differences, and geographical imperatives. Energy systems inherently involve power dynamics, ignoring which can result in reproducing existing inequalities, marginalisation and exploitation of certain peoples and communities. This makes energy a political issue, and SSH theories and frameworks can help us analyse, challenge and dismantle existing systems and structures of oppression for equitable and sustainable energy systems.

“SSH theories and frameworks can help us analyse, challenge and dismantle existing systems and structures of oppression”

Energy transitions also raise significant questions of justice. Any transition in energy systems towards net zero will inevitably benefit some and burden others. For example, adopting renewable energy technologies has implications for land use, resource extraction and local communities, and can result in similar disparities and differential distributions as their carbon-intensive predecessors if the underlying political and economic systems through which they are developed and governed follow the same imperial, colonial and neo-liberal legacies.

SSH perspectives help us in reframing critical issues so that we can begin asking important questions regarding how we define sustainability and net zero, ensure equity and inclusivity, measure prosperity and wellbeing, and set normative standards for a good life – questions that are imperative to the future we imagine and the path we take towards net zero.

Dr Rihab Khalid is research fellow at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge

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