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close this bookEnergy as an Instrument for Socio-economic Development (UNDP, 1995, 114 p.)
View the document1. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development
View the document2. Energy as an Obstacle to Improved Living Standards
View the document3. Energy's Role in Deforestation and Land Degradation
View the document4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective

4. Energy Needs for Sustainable Human Development from an Anthropological Perspective


The anthropological approach to energy needs for sustainable human development contains two important elements: the historical and the cultural. The historical aspect allows us to examine the present in the long time frame of human evolution, and survival by analyzing both the social organization and the material remains of societies. The cultural aspect takes us out of the immediate moment and lets us question the unexamined assumptions of the "modern" period that is now promoted by development schemes everywhere. Recognition of the cultural, of the place of ideas, strengthens our ability to recognize that corporate cultures, whether of the state or of industries, regularly superimpose their own blueprints on more local cultures everywhere. Much can be learned, particularly about who the primary actors are, from examining the past.

Until recently, the capacity of the human species to change the globe in irreversible ways was limited. Similarly, decisions affecting individual and group survival were probably shared for most of human existence. We evolved and survived as hunters and gatherers for 1.5 million years, during which people regularly made decisions about potentially life-threatening situations. The period of time between decision and consequence was relatively short. Humans act intelligently in the face of dangers if they have the cultural information necessary to understand situations such as environmental limitations and opportunities. When societies made disastrous environmental decisions in the past, the scale of destruction was relatively small.

The recent human situation is in stark contrast to most of human history. At the end of the twentieth century, the development movement to economic global centralization has accelerated standardization of problems, definitions, and solutions at breakneck speed by means of human technology. Development is not a benign process. This worldwide tendency to central control, irrespective of political forms that government or ethnic movements take, is related to a dominant military-industrial system spread by governments and multinational corporate structures. Nations, regions, and migrations are all coloured by the diffusionist modus operandi of these now oligarchical corporate structures; their unilateral assessments of risk are imposed on vast populations. Perhaps, the most ubiquitous inequity has been the inability of those who will be directly affected by technologies to inform themselves of what is going on, and to organize politically around universally shared inequities that affect life processes.

What is needed today is a frame of reference for understanding the future that reaches deep into the human past.

Modern cultures do not provide people with the necessary cultural knowledge to routinely participate in choosing technologies. Over the past fifty years, individual and group self-reliance has decreased dramatically worldwide. Wage labour and specialization is now the overwhelming pattern, and dependence on large-scale institutions the theme. Often, when subsistence farmers turn to cash cropping, their children turn to work in factories. With increased dependence has come increased regional planning, increased reliance on experts, and an increasingly disunited society with different segments operating as strangers to one another. The future will not be an extrapolation of the past because there has been a qualitative transformation of the human world. Sustainability seems threatened because a species, unprepared to deal with events unrelated to first-hand experience, will be sleep-walking.

Social philosophers have reminded us that "from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic; the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."2 Along the same lines, Amory Lovins uses the "hard-soft" analogy for energy paths that are either authoritarian or democratic.3

The dominant thinking - that large-scale, system-centered complex technologies are more likely to spread the good life - is increasingly being questioned.4 Some philosophers argue for a better understanding of "limits," while others take a more pragmatic conserver approach to the reality of limits, encouraging us "to do more with less."5

This essay is about innocence and ignorance, about problems and solutions, about nature and culture. It is about powerful barriers to thinking about sustainable energy as an instrument of social change. Rooted in the belief that "more is more" lies a system, an ideology, an expertise that needs to be continually subjected to critical thought in order to stimulate practical innovation and creativity. Too often, those who well realize that, given our present way of doing things, there is not enough wealth, resources, or material goods for global use, are prevented from acting on what they know by their mindsets and institutional affiliations.

People's daily interactions with technology are decided for them by a small group of planners. The effects of industrial-country production and use of energy are felt both in their own countries and the rest of the world: coal miners suffer from lung disease, acid rain damages lakes and forests; nuclear waste contaminates groundwater; cities are shrouded in smog.

The Last Twenty Years: Questioning Assumptions

During the 1970s, broad-based energy research examined unquestioned assumptions held by the majority of energy specialists; this research revealed options previously deemed unacceptable as solutions to a growing energy crisis in the United States, a world leader in energy consumption.6 Action around these research results promoted "appropriate technology," a conceptually impoverished, but nevertheless useful, term. High energy productivity was combined with conservation, thus, removing inefficiency and waste in the U.S. energy expenditure system; amenities, instead of being reduced, were enhanced. We now have automobiles that run more miles per gallon of gas, and refrigerators that use less energy without reduced function. Furthermore, research indicated that there are many possibilities for a high technology society to use low energy expenditure.

Such changes in resource use - toward high technology with low energy expenditure - were not thought to be punitive or to lead to reduced amenities. On the contrary, the realization that conservation is essential stimulated a whole range of innovative technologies and diverse products and services. This creativity is related to an openly diverse and flexible atmosphere. Today, conservation technologies are utilized even in mundane areas. For example, lightbulbs, which have long been produced in energy-wasteful ways, have been greatly improved; efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) consume only one fourth the energy of common incandescent lamps. However, CFLs are almost unknown in Third World countries. The improved lightbulbs have the additional advantage that they could make dangerous, Chernobyl-class reactors a thing of the past.7

Only when we understand how systems-centered approaches work can we explain why powerful nation-states and corporate entities tend to be conservative and intellectually counter-revolutionary. This attitude transcends national boundaries and, along with seemingly innocuous technologies like nuclear power, glosses over pragmatic solutions.8

It is important to note that the behavioural and technological changes that lead to energy savings do not restrict growth in production of goods and services. By "decoupling" concepts such as high energy expenditure and quality of life, energy researchers have been able to discover a broader range of options than had previously been considered. They have documented improvements in quality of life with decreases in energy expenditures. The economists who linked, or coupled, economic growth and energy consumption were wrong; the futures they predicted were way off-base. It is possible to have economic growth with reduced energy consumption.

The greatest energy revolution of the last twenty years is conservation. In practice, this means that conservers (the sectors and people who practice conservation) retain approximately the same comfort levels in space heating and cooling, and in water heating. The goods and services are merely delivered and used more efficiently. Transportation sources are used more effectively and alternative fuels such as ethanol, methane, and methanol, although not without problems, are used. In the industrial and commercial sectors, savings per energy unit result from use of conservation technologies, not from production cutbacks.

Significant conservation of energy can be achieved by mechanisms ranging from economic policy to regulations, education, market signals, research, and development. With a conservation approach, the trend toward tightly meshed technological systems is reversed by increasing the use of diverse systems that can survive even if component parts are damaged. Culturally, sustainability is supported by an increase in the potential of self-reliance and a decrease in dependency. Attitudes change - towards transportation, throw-away products, the form of cities and space use, work organization, personal status - aspects not always discussed in connection with energy practices. New technologies are explored.

Anthropologists first defined the energy problem as social and cultural rather than technological. This approach forces a recognition of the roles that values play in planning sustainable futures. Only then can behaviour at international conferences change, with more attention given to exchanging experiences than to posturing. For example, Asian and European cities planned prior to the invention of the automobile, as well as Latin American cities, provide models of convenient public transportation that relegate the automobile to just one transportation option. Many peoples can learn from examples of citizen-activism as an input to central planning, such as the conservation movement in the United States. Brazil can teach us about the problems of producing alternative fuels like ethanol. Russia provides a dismal example of an undiversified energy policy dependent on nuclear power. The so-called developing world provides lessons in conservation and appetite limits. We have more solutions than we are using, partly because the military-industrial hierarchy of values stymies the application of the best solutions.

The question of flexibility, so key to sustainability, is bound up with professionalism and expertise - the identity of professionals is tied up with delimiting research problems and standardizing solutions. However, critical thinkers and energy experts are now scrutinizing central values and core concepts, including questioning fundamental ways of "doing science."

Energy research needs to be based on the science of totalities, not on isolated phenomena or isolated technologies. Decisions about nuclear energy, for example, cannot be made independently of the complete set of alternatives and their consequences. Many professionals realize this, but others resist the approach of looking at the total picture because that is not the way laboratory research is organized. Yet by resisting this approach, they operate with a disastrously restricted time perspective: for them, fifty years is a long time. In contrast, for most farmers, destruction of land fertility within a fifty-year period is unacceptable; sustainability is built into farming philosophies, especially where land use is precarious.

Fitting the time perspective to the problem is essential. Restricted time perspectives are not what is needed for environmental protection, nor for building conservation into cities, nor for building long-term sustainable futures in subsistence food-producing areas. Sustainability has been defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."9 Such a definition is central to measures of social progress, but measuring social progress is tricky. The notion needs careful examination.

Restrictive time perspectives are promoted by the widely held, but erroneous, thesis that progress is an inevitable part of linear social evolution. In this view, technology is used as a measure of progress, and it is the presence of technology rather than how it is used or its consequence that is considered indicative of progress. Thus, for example, technological progress is said to have eliminated the drudgery of women's work. Yet there is ample evidence to the contrary.10 For example, African women may not need to stamp the grain, but if they are cash cropping, they work harder. If portable water makes life easier, women may still have to walk longer and farther for fuel. In cities, amenities in the home make life easier, but paying for these amenities may require working double shifts. In addition, the cost of "progress" is minimized by the concept of externalities, which ignores long-term environmental and social costs of energy technologies, for example. (Editor's Note: for a different view of the impact of technological progress on women, see chapters 2 and 3.)

Evolution is neither necessarily linear nor built on technological progress. How energy is used, rather than the expenditure of energy per se, is what in practice defines improved quality of life or decline in living quality.12 And how the energy challenge is defined determines the kinds of solutions pursued. When is small beautiful? When is big bad? When is more, more, and when is it indigestion? When is centralization appropriate and when is decentralization required? Under what conditions do mal-adaptive ideas persist? What works and with what consequence? Answering such questions requires not just expertise, but above all, good judgement, wisdom, and a long-term time perspective, dimensions not always present in large organizations or research laboratories anymore than elsewhere.

An analysis of energy policies shows the connection between how science and technology are organized, and the development of sustainable options. Indeed, the perspectives of virtually all kinds of workers are limited by their own experience, interests, and skills. In California, bankers, contractors, architects, building inspectors, and realtors were questioned about housing, building codes, and energy use.13 As with scientists and engineers working on one particular technology, it was difficult for people involved in one aspect of the work to break out and see the picture as a whole, especially if it was not in their self-interest to do so. Even if solar building codes are passed, it is these various workers who would determine how effective they are. Whole industries are similarly positioned. The public utilities, for example, may see themselves as generators or sellers of energy, rather than as buyers; therefore, they may be unwilling to purchase alternative sources of energy from alternative providers.

Enumerating barriers is to recognize the realities of any sustainable energy thrust. Uncertainty in the workplace, particularly among high status workers, such as scientists and executives, leads to conservatism, denial of resource uncertainties, and inability to perceive the need for new technologies. The mentality that prefers the big toy over the workable gadget, laser fusion over community solar collectors, is a mentality that in many countries supports military values of control, centralization, and fear. In the United States and elsewhere, not separating military from civilian energy goals contributed to the slow development of sustainable energy technologies as well as to generous state subsidization of nuclear energy over renewable sources of energy.

Implications for Sustainable Human Development

The anthropological approach to sustainable human development offers three important lessons, lessons learned from observation and from testing assumptions. First, especially when dealing with technologies of potentially irreversible consequence, long-term decisions should not be left solely to experts or self-interested industries. Experts, like special industries, are often self-interested and operating with a short time perspective - usually the duration of their working lives.

Second, technology is rarely neutral.14 Technology carries a cultural load beyond its ostensible function. Thus, energy technologies should be adopted, knowing full-well what values are being introduced - instability/stability, democratic/ authoritarian, high risk/low risk, economically viable/state subsidized. Theories of technological politics recognize that large-scale technological systems create their own momentum and that technology has the power to transform human ends; they also recognize that some technologies, like solar energy, could have different political consequences under different circumstances.

Third, energy technologies are not free-standing - that is, they become situated in social nexus, embedded in institutions that are compatible with the preferred technologies, Nuclear energy, for example, is most compatible with institutions of secrecy such as the military or with short-cycle accountancy, which may include the building of a nuclear power plant, but not its decommissioning or clean-up in case of an accident. Thus, it may be difficult to decommission a nuclear plant when its usefulness has ended, or to expose the difficulties of storing long-lived radioactive waste. Nuclear energy flourishes with central planning that silences competition, options, and democratic debate. All this is known from the experience of the United States, Russia, France, and other European countries. The lessons of Chernobyl are crucial. The people affected by Chernobyl have had to learn to believe the evidence of their own eyes, as their trust in authority and expertise waned. They saw their children balding, they saw trees drying up; they knew their meat was contaminated, and their babies were born defective, despite what they were being told by government personnel and experts.

Common to all of these lessons is the observation with which I began this paper: people no longer trust their own experience and if they do, alternative views are quickly marginalized. Censorship, perhaps even self-censorship, prevails.

The Fork in the Road

Where do these observations lead us? Nuclear technologies that were the result of secret military research, and that were initiated by scientific elites for national security reasons, are no longer economical or environmentally sensible. It is increasingly clear that the way to meet long-term global energy demands is through renewable sources of energy and conservation.

Fortunately, a number of viable options exist. Current technology provides opportunity for dramatic change that would be beneficial to the economy, public health, and the environment. Existing, highly cost-effective and efficient technologies can reduce electricity consumption in buildings (insulation window systems, new air-conditioning systems) at annual savings worth billions of U.S. dollars.

In addition, new technologies make it possible to replace existing sources of energy - oil, coal, and nuclear - with technologies less damaging to life. Long-term renewable solutions - in the form of biomass, wind and solar power, and geothermal energy - increasingly produce the world's energy. Solar energy - including passive solar, solar electric, photovoltaics, solar thermal power plants, and hydroelectricity - holds the greatest potential. However, the situation is not straightforward. Two competing paradigms - system-centered and man-centered - continue to exist side by side.

In a recent book, Flavin and Lenssen are optimistic about emerging changes, suggesting that non-polluting hydrogen will supplant oil and natural gas, electric cars will become common, coal and nuclear plants will be converted to efficient gas turbines, and numerous clean decentralized systems will emerge.15 At the same time, however, the nuclear industry is renewing its raison d'e, this time to combat global warming. The arguments that nuclear energy is an expensive, unsustainable, dangerous and ineffective option to combat global warming are pushed away by desire for large-scale nuclear energy. It was desire, rather than decisions based on consequence thinking, that drove the push for the fast breeder reactor, which nevertheless came to naught. It has been dubbed "the most expensive technological ruin" in the German Federal Republic, and disastrous elsewhere.

The same kind of "big" thinking is ubiquitous. It is evident in the plans for India's World Bank-funded Tehri Dam, which has been called "a prescription for disaster. "16 At what cost will the Indian government be supplying electricity to power industry? The Tehri Dam is a solution imposed on locals with little or no consultation. The case is especially interesting because of the contradictory views of those who oppose the dam and those who support it. The arguments against the dam are not based on seismology or cost-benefit analysis, but on a completely different worldview, an alternative to economic development plans, a philosophy about the relation of humans to the natural world, a philosophy that opposes the predominant development policies that have spread worldwide over the past three to four decades. The opposition stems from a philosophy that is more local, more stable, more durable, one that adds a further dimension to civil society and democratic effort in India.

But even renewables can be controversial or imposed from the top down. Windpower provides an interesting illustration. England has had a tradition of windmills for at least several hundred years. Yet, when a large, centrally controlled and market driven wind farm was recently built in Cornwall, England, there was a storm of local protest because it was imposed by centralizing powers. In Denmark, on the other hand, the neighboring public has considered development of community rather than large-scale centralized windpower to be good value. The lesson is that imposition of solutions over the heads of local communities - and not for communities - is not an effective response to energy concerns.

Still another example of government-imposed solutions can be found in plans to revitalize an inner-city district of Copenhagen. Central versus local planning collide. Resident proposals opt for "urban villages" that would reduce water and energy demand on the model of the Asian City. The government has its own plan for improvement, a blueprint much like the usual western development plans for the Third World.17

The concept of the "Commons" should be taken seriously as a source of self-determination, creativity, and survival. It acts as a brake, or a safety net, against failures of global energy and resource plans devised by states and industries. The Commons implies that local people have the right to define their own forms of community energy and resource use, which may mean that they will be biased against large-scale plans and activities that are not designed to enhance sustainability. It is now well known that plans to provide energy to industry may be generated in the very regions where labour-saving devices are not available to women who are doing their wash by hand, grinding corn by age-old manual techniques, or carrying water on their shoulders - tasks which global planners have targeted to be "solved" by expensive grids.

Getting Through the Twenty-First Century

Increasingly, several new concepts are mediating the cycle of externally imposed energy technologies and strategies followed by resistance. These new concepts are people-centered development, public participation, and people-led development. These terms are similar to one another, but not the same. People-centered development refers to a managerial planning mode that makes change palatable to the user; it does not alter what is done, but makes how it is imposed more user friendly. Similarly, public participation is often used by the World Bank and others to win post-facto approval for decisions already made, to give a sense of having been consulted. Although bottom-up peopled development is no guarantee that sustainability will be achieved, it at least gives locals the responsibility and the opportunity to tinker with the system to make it work.

At the American Anthropological Association meeting in December 1994, anthropologists reiterated the loss of community control to national governments, multilateral institutions, and multinational industry action.18 The distance between decision and consequence has increased, while fewer and fewer people control more and more of the world's resources. This distance is a critical factor in making the immoral seem moral. The resulting reality is dysfunctional governance - where some humans are deemed legally and socially expendable in the name of national development, national security, and the health of the bio-commons. There is a need for mechanisms that allow people living with a problem to gain greater control.19 Anyone who has followed the Cayapo Indian case in Brazil knows that local control is not a panacea; nevertheless, in the long run, there is more hope in local control, provided there is no "mind colonization" of a hegemonic sort.

As noted earlier, national and corporate industry culture is often superimposed on local and regional cultures. Majid Rahnema argues that modernization hegemonies that are colonizing the minds of Third World peoples must be resisted.20 However, it is imperative to realize that such hegemonies are first put in place in industrial countries, and then diffused outward. A clear-cut energy example can be found in the repeated attempts of the U.S. nuclear industry "to win the hearts and minds of women."21 In the mid-1960s, Connecticut Yankee Power, a public utility, produced a film, "Atom and Eve," to gain women's support for the state's first nuclear power plant. The film indicated that a woman's desire for convenience and freedom can only be sated by the Atom.

In the 1970s, NEW (Nuclear Energy Women) was started, an affiliate of the Atomic Industrial Forum. NEW produced a slide show called "Women and Energy: The Vital Link." The program features a woman-to-woman approach and warns of the hardships an energy shortage would pose for women: "labour-saving devices in the home will be the first cutback," viewers are told. The slide show suggests that energy use has been at the forefront of the battles for women's rights. The case for energy consumption is followed by a glib dismissal of energy alternatives in favour of nuclear power. Safety issues are dismissed and any diversion from nuclear power foreshadows a bleak future.

In the 1980s and 1990s, NEW began a concerted international outreach, targeting women in other countries through such groups as the International Association of Professional Secretaries, the Girl Scouts, and other groups.22 Such "education" campaigns take many subtle forms. In the United States, the media campaign brought the message to mothers at home, in doctor's offices, in the classroom and school associations, in baby-sitting services, an obvious example of the selling of corporate culture. Other energy-related industries now also target women, especially since the role of women in energy and resource use has been, and continues to be, well documented.

Ashis Nandy speaks to the need to listen to culturally rooted understanding in this way:

"I am not speaking here of a strategy of mass mobilization.. .I am speaking of the more holistic or comprehensive cognition of those at the receiving end of the present world system... this... means that the living traditions of the non-Western civilizations must include a theory of the West.. it is the culturally rooted, non-modern understanding of the civilizational encounters of our times for which I am trying to create a space in public discourse."23

To Nandy's three skepticisms, this essay adds one more to make four: 1) skepticism directed at the modern nation-state, its potential and fallibility, 2) skepticism toward modern science, with its truths and biases, 3) skepticism toward the larger forces of history, with preference for the smaller forces of history, and 4) skepticism toward the multinational industrialization of the world, whose time dimension is so minuscule. Skepticism as a form of critical thinking is necessary for resolving energy sustainability within the dilemmas of a world which "has more problems than it deserves and more solutions than it uses."

Entrenched alliances of interests form substantial barriers to energy sustainability. These interests demonstrate not just attitudinal obstacles, but also a combination of actions that together are mismanaging the long-run good for most of humanity. Recognition of the dangers inherent in these entrenched interests is itself providing new fuel for the engines of change. That new fuel may mean big energy plants or small ones, but the sources of energy need to be diverse, sustainable, and part of the processes that are commonly recognized as key to the longevity of the human species.


1 Laura Nader is Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.

2 Lewis Mumford, "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics," Technology and Culture 5 (1964), pp. 1-8.

3 Amory Lovins, Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace (Ballinger Press, 1977).

4 Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994).

5 Science Council of Canada, Report No. 27 (September 1977).

6 Laura Nader et al., Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources (CONAES), Energy Choices in a Democratic Society (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1980).

7 Arthur Rosenfeld and Evan Mills, "A Better Idea," Washington Post, August 3, 1992, p. A19.

8 Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977).

9 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 43,

10 J. Vanek, "Time Spent in Housework," Scientific American 231 (November 1974); Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology - From the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983); A. Ong, "The Gender and Labour Politics of Postmodernity," in Annual Review of Anthropology 20 (1991), pp. 279-309; and Cynthia Gay Bendocci, Women and Technology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Gareaud Publishing, Inc., 1993).

11 Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (New York: Viking, 1989).

12 Laura Nader and Stephen Beckerman, "Energy and the Quality of Life," Annual Review of Energy, No. 3 (1978), pp. 1-28.

13 Laura Nader and Norman Milleron, "Dimensions of the 'People Problem' in Energy Research and the Factual Basis of Dispersed Energy Futures," Energy, Vol. 4, No. 5 (New York: Pergamon Press, 1976), pp. 953-967.

14 Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986).

15 Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution.

16 Fred Pearce, "Building a Disaster: The Monumental Folly of India's Tehri Dam," The Ecologist, Vol. 21, No. 3 (May/June 1991).

17 See, for example, Dharam Ghai, "Environment Livelihood and Empowerment," in Development and Change, Vol. 25 (1994), I-II, Oxford Blackwell Publishers.

18 Barbara Rose Johnston, "Defining and Defending Human Environmental Rights," American Anthropological Association meeting, Atlanta, Georgia, December 2, 1994.

19 Conrad R. Kottak and Alberto Costa, "Ecological Awareness, Environmentalist Action, and International Conservation Strategy," Human Organization 5z(4) (1993), pp. 335-43.

20 Majid Rahnema, "Under the Banner of Development," in Development: Seeds of Change (1986). Reprinted in The Tragedy of Development: Tradition and Modernity Re-Examined, A Reader in Peace and Conflict Studies (Berkeley: University of California, 1988).

21 Lin Nelson, "Atom and Eve: The Nuclear Industry Seeks to Win the Hearts and Minds of Women," Progressive, Vol. 47, No. 7 (July 1983).

22 Lin Nelson, "Atom and Eve."

23 Ashis Nandy, "Cultural Frames for Social Transformation: Acredo," Alternatives XII (1983), p. 117.