Go back to article: Getting to grips with energy: fuel, materiality and daily life


How people value and relate to energy has to do partly with the basic properties of different fuels and the way they are categorised and communicated. ‘Energy’ may be a meaningful category in science but it is not how most people use or think about the power they use in their daily lives. The US Department of Energy has suggested that if energy was purple and more visible, people would not waste it so easily. Bill LeBlanc has done an illuminating series of videos interviewing Americans about what they know and feel about energy. Hardly anybody was able to explain electricity – “it is one of those mystic forces like love or magnetism, you do not know where it comes from”. The nature and cost of a KWh was equally a mystery to most; some speculated it must cost $5 (almost fifty times the actual cost in California). Not even politicians get the price of basic goods so wrong. Most people find it easier to talk about what energy allows them to do: cooking or driving or drinking coffee. How the matter of energy is visualised by people is consequently a hugely important subject, not least in the challenge of promoting more sustainable ways of living.

As an umbrella concept, ‘energy’ has the inbuilt tendency of converting different fuels into the same unit; MToe (Million Tonnes of Oil Equivalent) in the case of current estimates. Imported from the Greek, the word originally had nothing to do with the heat or work we get out of burning oil or coal. Instead it referred to the power to call up mental pictures. It was only in the early nineteenth century that the modern scientific concepts of ‘kinetic’ energy and ‘potential’ energy were established. The breakthrough of the aggregate meta-category in public policy and discourse has been even more recent. It is largely a product of the years after the Second Wold War. Into the 1960s, countries had ministries of fuel. In the United States, the Department of Energy was not formed until 1977.

The material properties of different fuels make quite different demands on users. Coal and wood, for example, are bulky and heavy and require storage; this was something that seriously disadvantaged the urban poor who had little space and were especially vulnerable to temporary shortages. By contrast, it is difficult to store electrical energy, although we are currently witnessing significant advances in battery technologies. Not all coal is alike, moreover. Lignite (brown coal) has a very high water content which means in winter it easily freezes to the ground or freezes in transport. Countries that were heavily reliant on lignite, such as the GDR and its Eastern European neighbours consequently faced different problems from, say, France which relies heavily on nuclear power. Similarly, town gas and natural gas have different burning points and caloric properties, which meant appliances needed to be modified or replaced entirely when a society shifted from one type to the other. Transitions to a new fuel and technology consequently involve major adaptations on the demand side, in appliances, use and skills, as well as on the supply side.

None of this means that the material properties determine human action or meaning. They don’t. But, equally, it would be foolish not to take them seriously in understanding what people do or think about the fuels they use. One conceptual platform to explore this relationship is ‘affordance theory’ created by the psychologist J J Gibson, which stresses the possibilities of action contained in things and the natural world. Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on the body as a site of knowing, Actor-Network-Theory and studies of everyday objects for thinking and doing provide further possibilities (Gibson, 1979; Latour, 2005; Brown, 2003; Dant, 2005; Trentmann, 2009; Turkle, 2007; Norman, 1988).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180901/002