The meanings of energy: a case study of student air conditioning activity


There has been much work on interventions aimed at changing consumer energy consumption behaviour, but the progress on emissions reductions is limited. We argue that further gains can be made through new examinations and developments of the theory that informs interventions, offering a critique of two major areas of theory in energy reduction: behaviour change and social practice theory (SPT). Behaviour change focusses on the individual consumer, but powerful social influences on energy consumption are often neglected, and results can be ambiguous. In contrast, SPT, while strong on explaining social influences, can sometimes leave ambiguous how interventions can be designed with and for individuals. We address this problem by focussing on a study of student use of air conditioning in Southeast Asia informed by the behaviour change approach. We then move to a discussion of how SPT could be used to conceptualise and design interventions for the same setting in a very different way. In working through the differences, we draw out two themes. The first is how far and in what ways we can meaningfully work with individuals to bring about social change on energy consumption. The second concerns the conflict between the abstract meaning of energy as an ecological threat, which many realise and care about, and its practical meaning as fuel for activities, for example, space cooling or commuting, which incur energy use as an unavoidable part of everyday life. We discuss ways of working with students to bring about greater consonance between the abstract and practical meanings of energy, by reconfiguring aspects of existing student practice to produce new means for individuals to act.

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Halloran, J., Gaura, E., Goldsmith, D. et al. The meanings of energy: a case study of student air conditioning activity. Energy Efficiency 14, 22 (2021).

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  • Energy
  • Students
  • Survey
  • Behaviour change
  • Social practice theory