Energy planners resist change, social scientist finds

As an anthropologist, Laura Nader has observed US energy planners and found that their beliefs and prejudices explain the slowness with which the United States has moved toward conservation and alternative technologies.

Dr. Nader, working at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, studied professional energy experts up close while participating in a massive National Academy of Sciences study of nuclear and alternative energy strategies.

As part of this study she chaired a resource group considering lifestyle changes that would accompany changes in per- capita energy consumption by the year 2010. "The assignment was heavily laden from the start. Lifestyle was a vague term and one charged with emotion," she recalls.

In an exercise, the group explored the possibility of two societies. One was essentially today's society projected into the future without major changes in attitudes but with improvements in amenities and energy efficiencies. In the second society, attitudes toward resources were significantly different: The values of thrift and self-reliance were increased, resulting in high technology but extremely low energy consumption.

Solar energy, advanced automobiles, magnetically levitated trains, computer control of buildings and industrial applications, more efficient onsite generation of electricity, major occupational shifts from large corporate to individual jobs, and increased leisure and recreation time were assumed in the alternative society.

"There are several lessons to be learned from this second society," Dr. Nader says. There are many ways that a given amount of energy can be used in a society. Certain supply technologies -- namely oil, gas, and solar -- are less "intrusive" than others, such as nuclear. Changes that come too fast -- whether they involve increases or decreases in energy use -- are disruptive. Changes that include grass-roots input will be different from those imposed by business or government.

"Furthermore, we found that there is no basis for believing that the continued growth of our present technology would not dramatically effect changes in lifestyle," she says.

Dr. Nader and her follow social scientists learned something more from their efforts: that their ideas were unpopular with energy planners. They were accused of describing impossible futures and planning futures that "go against the grain of human nature."

"For me, denial translated into 'we don't like it.' Reasons for disliking such scenarios range from fear of the unknown, satisfaction with one's present place in life, a dislike of the past which they see the future as resembling, or as a challenge of basic paradigms which they have never questioned," the anthropologist reasons.

To back up their prejudices, the energy experts rely heavily on statistics. "The Azande of the African Sudan consulted their oracles, the Department of Energy [planners] consult their statisticians. They wish to minimize risk-taking where the future is uncertain, or at least they wish to legitimatize the decisions they make if there be need for accounting," Dr. Nader says.

This provides a false sense of reality and leaves important factors out of the decisionmaking, she says. "How are questions of freedom or democracy discussed numerically? How are questions of social structure . . .?" asks the scientist.

The energy experts, she continues, found it difficult to comprehend that the energy problem is a social and cultural problem rather than a technological one.

This experience led her to attempt to identify the ideological barriers that keep energy planners from adopting alternative energy strategies. She has decided that preconceptions about time, progress, and complexity were implicated:

* Energy planners restrict their time horizon. Thus, they consider solar energy intermittent because it varies from day to day while fossil fuels are considered continouos. Yet when a scale of centuries is applied, it is the fossil fuels thatare temporary and solar energy that is continuous.

In a restricted sense, technology saves time by whisking us across the country in a matter of hours. But in a broader sense, Dr. Nader maintains, people today do not spend more time in any important activities as a result.

* The presence of technology, rather than its use or its effects, is considered the measure of progress. Progress, it is said, has eliminated the drudgery of women's work; yet there is evidence that this is not the case.

* Technologists are attracted to large-scale, complex, and high-risk machines and systems. "People who like it big and risky find a low-energy society intellectually uninteresting. Conservation is labeled a feminine pursuit," the antropologist maintains.

Because the bulk of the community of energy experts is tied by outlook, expertise, and livelihood to existing technologies and approaches, they will not promote change because change is not in their best interest, Dr. Nader concludes.

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