Posted by: Dr. Breffni Lennon | December 4, 2013

Book review: Cultures of Energy: power, practices, technologies

The following book review of Strauss et al.’s 2013 publication features in this year’s Chimera: The UCC Geographical Journal. This insightful book places ” the central challenges of energy and environment in a globalizing world in a truly cultural perspective, one which takes account of issues of meaning, value, diversity and agency” (Arjun Appadurai, 2013) and is highly recommended to anyone interested in contemporary energy issues and the role ethnographic research can play in meeting those challenges.

Cultures of Energy: power, practices, technologies, edited by Strauss, S., Rupp, S. and Loue, T.
Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-61132-166-1

The human use of energy is inherently understood and experienced through cultural frameworks, yet the degree of engagement with this topic on the part of the social sciences has been minimal and uneven at best. So argue the editors of a new collection of essays titled Cultures of Energy: power, practices, technologies. This volume examines how energy flows through the various forms of natural and social circuitry (from production, to distribution and consumption) with specific ethnographic case studies found throughout of energyscapes at the local, national and transnational scales. In terms of geography, probably the most significant English-language fora for engagement in the socio-spatial dimensions of energy, on this side of the Atlantic at least, are found in the United Kingdom with the Royal Geographic Society’s Energy Geographies Working Group, and the ESRC funded Geographies of Energy Transition series led by key academics in geography departments from the universities of Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham and Oxford. This book’s main focus rests predominantly on North American experiences, and grounds itself rather strictly within anthropology. However, this in no way diminishes its contribution to geographic debates on the subject, but rather enhances it.

The book is divided into five thematic parts, comprising sixteen chapters in total and rounded off with an Afterward by Laura Nader. Each section is helpfully concluded with an The first two chapters attempt to theorise how energy and culture are mutually organised at two key scales of enquiry: the individual/household level and the wider socio-spatial arena. The incongruities found in modern institutional arrangements and the unsustainable levels of energy consumption are also highlighted. One intriguing concept the reader is introduced to is that of money as a fictive energy that mystifies or indeed conceals the hidden relationships that conspire to distance consumers from the various sources of energy consumed. This fiction helps create a fundamental problem of energy; that is the unequal to access to power, in all its meanings, that individuals and groups at different societal scales experience. My own research into wind farms reflects this analysis, given the presence of wind turbines on the landscape (a constant reminder of where electricity comes from) and the negative reactions some local people have to them. The second part of the book, comprising chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6, further develop several indicative themes on technology, meaning and what they term the cosmologies of energy. Recognition of the fact that the values and costs of energy are never evenly distributed within communities or indeed wider societies is also highlighted. Part three of the book (chapters 7, 8 and 9) go on to discuss the social and cultural changes brought on by changing energy infrastructures, most notably those connected to electricity generation. Chapters 10, 11, 12 and 13, which constitute the fourth section of the book, explore the conflicts and power dynamics at the centre of a number of controversial energy procurement practices including fracking and biofuels and review how the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) phenomenon may be applied in a more positive way in order to produce more sustainable local energy infrastructures. The final thematic section of the book (chapters 14, 15 and 16) focuses on oil and the dynamic power contestations associated with this specific resource. Laura Nader concludes the collection with a call for anthropologists to heed the writings of Edmund Leach and Nasim Taleb, whose influential concept of black swans suggests we will continue to experience unpredictability when trying to predict where contemporary energy cultures are going.
Cultures of Energy is an important contribution to current debates on energy and the role it plays in shaping contemporary societies. Of notable interest to this reviewer, given the corresponding themes found in my own doctoral research, was the approach taken by a number of contributors in highlighting the correlation between (meta)physical flows of energy and the mobilities that occur within the social, economic and political relationships at the heart of our advanced energy systems. It also has considerable cross-disciplinary appeal and should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the socio-environmental dimensions to contemporary energy frameworks – particularly to those involved in energy geographies, but also those engineers and planners appointed to build and regulate these frameworks.

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