Have you heard of Energy Humanities?

My review of a number of recent scholarly contributions on energy and sustainability has just appeared in De Nederlandse Boekengids (nov 2017). While diverse and wide-ranging, the many insightful analyses contained in these publications demonstrate the power of imagination in overcoming the current energy impasse. The various authors also apply incisive critical thought to fossil culture, and to the very idea of the climate crisis and of the anthropocene.

The following works are reviewed:

  • Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson & Imre Szeman (Eds) Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, McGill-Queen’s University Press 2017.
  • Imre Szeman & Dominic Boyer (Eds) Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Johns Hopkins University Press 2017.
  • Derk Loorbach, Vanesa Castán Broto, Lars Coenen & Niki Frantzeskaki (Eds), Urban Sustainability Transitions, Routledge 2017.
  • Petrocultures Research Group, After Oil, Petrocultures Research Group 2016.
  • Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton University Press 2015; 2017.



Margaret Atwood and Energy

In a piece taken up in Energy Humanities: An Anthology, the grande dame of Canadian letters Margaret Atwood wonders about the power of literature to fight climate change:

Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions? Or will it just become part of the ‘entertainment business’?

Atwood’s contribution was noted by  Jelmer Mommers in De Correspondent, when it first appeared. This new genre has also been noted in the Netherlands, the subject of an essay review in the Nederlandse Boekengids. As a researcher in the field of energy, I’m obviously primed, and when browsing in the bookshop on a day off, energy titles do jump out at me.


My top 5

1.De een na laatste dood van het meisje Capone, Isabel Hoving

2. Het tegenovergestelde van een mens, Lieke Marsman

3. The End We Start From, Megan Hunter


4. Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins

5. The Carbon Diaries, Saci Lloyd





What will bring about the energy transition?

At our meet-up on Friday, we watched and debated VPRO’s documentary De Doorbraak van Duurzaam from the Backlight series. The focus of the documentary is the point we have reached with regards to the financial and technological status of renewable energy: we’ve hit the moment when producing energy from renewable sources is cheaper that producing it from fossil fuels. Therefore, the various interviewees argue, we’ve come to a tipping point, a breakthrough moment. While they stop short of crying out Hallelujah, the language used is jubilant: now that technological efficiency has hit the necessary level, the green breakthrough is inevitable and we are heading the way of renewables. The bottom line, if you’ll pardon the pun, is that the calculative logic of the market creates an irresistible force that will bring about the energy transition: it would be too financially too stupid to do otherwise!

Yet, next to this dominant narrative, there are whispers of other dynamics emerging through the cracks of this narrative. For example on El Hierro,  one of the Canary Islands, we hear of the importance of sustainability and of the creation of opportunities for the local community. And it’s precisely the relative importance and consequences of what might drive the energy transition that was at the core of the discussion, after the viewing, moderated by Jaap de Wilde (University of Groningen). To briefly summarize a large number of diverse and lively interactions, the energy transition can be the result of

“push” by market forces (it’s the logical thing to do, financially)

“pull” by political will (the Chinese, able to put forth long-term and top-down plans)

an “imperative” to avoid ecological catastrophe (we have no choice if we want to survive)

or “growth” of community (there is a range of benefits in creating a new local energy system)

Each of these potential motors of the energy transition results in different configurations of what an energy system based on renewables might look like and on who its beneficiaries could be–with very stark contrasts between the different scenarios. In the discussion, even the ecological advantage of using renewable energy was not seen as a given–there are unsustainable ways of deploying solar panels, batteries and smart grids. As such, the inevitability of the economically-driven transition was considered more than debatable.

To delve deeper into the contrasting drivers

For a useful handle on different scenarios driving the energy transition, I recommend looking at After Oil, especially the chapter ‘Energy Impass and Political Actors’.


Behind the Event

Each year, the summer school holds an event that is open to the public, with the aims of giving something back to the city that hosts the school, of having an opportunity to connect to our summer school alumni, and to create interaction between the specialists-in-training attending the summer school and members of the public. Such bridges between expert knowledge and collective concerns are a crucial weapon against fact-free politics and a useful way of making knowledge relevant.

With regards to the event itself, this evening was a successful collaboration between the Energy Academy, Tegenlicht and its dedicated representatives, and the Groningen Energy Summer School. We are grateful to the many people who contributed to the meet up, with particular kudos to Tris van der Wal for making this meet-up happen.


I won’t ‘like’ your post: let’s move beyond potshots in public discourse on science

A troublesome ‘list’ has been circulating on Facebook lately, variously taking on the shape of a meme, coffee mug or t-shirts. It’s meant as a defense of science in the face of post-truth Trumpianisms and of recent waves of media attention to anti-science activists and extreme deniers.

Here is the pic in question, in one of its many forms: psa-earth-is-not-flat-vaccines-work-weve-been-to-26973087

Posted by many esteemed friends and colleagues these past couple of weeks, it is an image that I struggle with each time I come across it. This repeated and deep discomfort lies in both inability to endorse it, (knowing why others are posting it and agreeing with them that there is a fight to be fought) and with the dynamics it creates (its frame pushes us into the wrong fight).

This is an attempt to explain why I can’t ‘like’ this post.

How we’re talking about science

In very broad brushstrokes, there is currently a growing tension between two poles. On one end, this is characterized by the dominance of technocratic knowledge, highly abstract knowledge based on calculations and a whole metrics instrumentarium, where data is closely entwined with modelling and simulation. This is the kind of knowledge that is embraced by major global institutions–from the World Bank to the WHO–and enabled by state-supported bureaucracies. It is how we know about world economies, the refugee crisis, global warming, epidemics and many other crucial issues. This kind of knowledge is held by the ‘elite experts’ we are supposedly tired of–to paraphrase some of the recent commentary to the Brexit and Trump’s election.  The other pole of this tension is the populist appeal to common sense and to the evidence of one’s eyes–imagine Trump speaking on an icy day and stating that we just have to look outside to see that global warming isn’t such as issue. This (and much worse) happens and gets broadly tweeted, reported and broadcast.

I wish this tension were a caricature, but it’s not, this is the repeated and dominant framing of discussions about science in the mainstream media.

(At this point, I should state that my own intellectual and professional investments as a science and technology studies scholar have been to explore the professional production of knowledge, to show the diversity of kinds of knowledge and the important variations in what experts are telling us, how they come to their conclusions,  what counts as evidence and how these claims are validated. So in no way am I dismissing the importance of expertise, on the contrary, a proper characterization of this kind of knowledge and of its metrics, is a crucial matter that can feed the necessary measures I describe below.)

So what’s wrong with this post?

There are basically two problems with the ‘list’:

First, it contributes to polarisation and simply isn’t going to help the place of science in the public discourse. If anything, it’s making it worse. This list is as much of a potshot as Trumps claims: look out the window. It is just an appeal to common sense, perhaps one that has a ‘rationalistic’ or ‘scientoid’ flavour to it. Furthermore, the ‘controversies’ the list refers to are highly diverse in their scope and nature, and in their social contexts. This list tars all kinds of objections by a diversity of groups with the same brush.

Second, I can’t help but yearn for sub-clauses in these statements. For example: Vaccines work, yes, most of the time for most people if they are properly manufactured, stored and administered, and only if we collectively embrace them, and while they do bring some risks in a very small number of cases, this risk should be weighed with the risk of not using vaccines.

The earth is not flat and we’ve known this in various parts of the world at different times, based on different kinds of research and evidence.

Chem trails have not been widely measured and neither have their purported effects at population level been documented.

And so on…

The way to #StandUpForScience: grounded knowledge

I want to bring in these sub-clauses because they take us out of the potshot dynamic. Most importantly, they are a first step in getting some motion going. It’s essential for science and for public discourse to have a dynamic between the abstract and the particular, between expert and collective knowledge. Rather than potshots, we need circulation. I don’t long for a perfect, modernist cycle of interaction, but for modest moves between positions. We need a framing that leans towards interaction, translation, and conversation as an essential first step to grounded knowledge, to a science that matters and to a better public discourse on knowledge.

My recent reflections on the place of knowledge in politics and public debate have been inspired by the writings and lectures of Helen Verran, Paul Edwards, Anna Tsing, Kalpana Shankar, the recent exchange between Sismondo and Collins et al, starting in February 2017 in SSS.

Learning to interface at the Groningen Energy Summer School 2017

In one week, 25 PhD students from all over the world wafbeelding_nieuwill gather at the University of Groningen for ten intensive days of learning on the topic of Global Energy Transition from Local Perspectives.

The programme for this summer school is diverse, from lectures to excursions. Central to this programme is an active involvement for participants and organisers: presentations, discussions, feedback are all part of the deal!

Speakers and participants to the summer school have already co-created a shared and annotated bibliography on ‘YIMBY’ (yes in my backyard) that can be consulted at the Zotero website.

Not only does this interactive approach create a deeper link between participants, but is also helps participants develop skills that are essential to the energy transition.

These skills will help them

  • work across disciplinary boundaries and communicate their own expertise effectively
  • understand how social, economic, technical and cultural aspects of energy are entwined
  • engage a variety of stakeholders in complex shifts towards new energy systems
  • achieve the assemblages that are needed to connect local solutions and global issues

More on this next week, for now, I’m enjoying delving into the materials participants IMG_4076have submitted: two dozen delicious dissertation chapters-in-progress or papers reporting on their ongoing PhD work.

From Peru to India, from electric vehicles to atomic energy, from participation to obstruction, from citizens to corporate incumbents… Material that will enrich my understanding of the energy transition and stretch the scope of my knowledge.

Succesful conference on local energy initiatives


Conference topic

When local energy initiatives take on complex projects: Insights from research on governance, networks, and socio-technical innovations

Over 25 scholars attended this one-day event that was marked by the diversity of approaches to the study of local energy initiatives. In the course of the day, it became clear that the intricacy and layeredness of these energy intiatives require us to sharpen our conceptual tools. Forms of organisation, dynamics of governance, the diversity of meanings attributed to participation and the complex legal and economic playing field in which these projects develop were all brought into the spotlight by the various speakers.

A follow-up event aimed at stakeholders from the projects and at policy-makers is planned for the Fall.

Organising committee:

  • Henny van der Windt, Science and Society Group, University of Groningen
  • Tineke van der Schoor, Noorderruimte, Hanzehogeschool Groningen
  • Fleur Goedkoop, Department of Sociology, University of Groningen
  • Anne Beaulieu, Energysense, University of Groningen

Topic of the conference:

The event brings together scholars from different disciplines around the topic of how energy initiatives take on complex projects. Around this central topic, a number of issues and lines of research are relevant, among them the following:P1000828

  • Governance of initiatives
  • Interactions between initiatives and local, provincial and national government
  • Technologies for bottom-up initiatives
  • Social and technical innovations and local energy initiatives
  • Processes of scaling up and stabilisation in the energy transition
  • Support for new energy sources when put forth by local initiatives

You can find the full programme details here.

Dichte Deur, Warme Winkel

A rare exception to the rule, in the main shopping strip in Groningen.

Since I put forth the idea of combining energy behaviour, social norms and tipping points in September 2017, a team of students has been working on the project Dichte Deur, Warme Winkel.

Guided by Wander Jager and myself, four bright young minds from the University College Groningen, Hanne Oldenhof, Roos Walstock, Guido Kinds and Jack Dingham have done fieldwork, delved into the literature and contacted stakeholders.

The project had as a starting point the concept of ‘tipping points’ and the desirability of shifting shopkeepers’ practices of keeping doors open in the winter months, in order to decrease energy use and ultimately achieve reductions in CO2 emissions.

At the core of the tipping point dynamic is the visibility of behaviours, leading to social pressures (both positive and in the form of sanctions) to adopt particulat behaviours. This team of students developed a campaign plan, taking this element of visibility into account, by asking themselves, shopkeepers, the municipality and other experts: what would it take for shops to change their door policies in winter?

The answers were as diverse as they were interesting, and the team is currently preparing their final presentation, scheduled for the UCG Project Presentation Day 19 June. The students will be passing on the fruits of their labout to the Green Office of the University of Groningen, which will carry out the campaign in Groningen next winter.

Well done Hanne, Guido, Jack and Roos! This is only the beginning…