there is no transition

Maybe I’m being over-optimistic, but seeing arguments for non-solutionist and demand-side approaches to decarbonisation research appearing in a journal from the Nature stable feels like a sign that the idea is getting some traction at long last. That said paper is by Elizabeth Shove, a brilliant and tenacious researcher whose work has been a huge influence on my own—and who has done a huge amount of leg-work over the years in both fighting against behaviourist and managerial models of consumption, and advancing social practice perspectives as an alternative—makes it all the sweeter.

… the timescales across which energy research is defined and framed do not exist in isolation. Seconds are part of minutes, and seasons are part of years. What look like comparably massive ‘turns’, for instance from renewables (wind) to fossil fuels (coal), are made of overlapping trajectories, not all unfolding at the same rate and pace, and made up of different units (seconds, minutes) that are not equivalent but that are part of the historical periods in which they are set.

This is obvious, but research problems are routinely carved out in ways that obscure these interactions and the threading together of past, present and future. Energy efficient building renovation is a good example in which the age of the building, the payback time on investment, the lifespan of the owner/occupier, and the durability of different materials interact.

Interventions in buildings and in energy systems occur within and as part of multiple dynamic processes that defy easy description, but that are crucial for conceptualizing and fostering transitions not only in the types of fuels that are ‘plugged’ in to the supply system, but the timing of demand and thus in the making of a substantially lower carbon society.

Research agendas that focus on ‘the’ energy transition, and debate about how long this transition might take overlook this point. Given that energy systems (supply and demand together) are woven into society and into the constitution of always-changing sociotemporal rhythms there is unlikely to be any one such shift now or in the years ahead.

That last point—very much contra the self-referential definitions of ‘transition’ from the Geelsean MLP literature, still hugely popular in policy circles—was a major plank of the argument of my doctoral thesis. As I put it in my discussion chapter:

… if we are to think of transition at all, it is perhaps better to think of it not as a bounded entity, not as something that somehow happens to entire populations all at once, but rather as a basic condition of existence in human society. Transition is not “there, and then”, but ubiquitous and perpetual, always-already ongoing everywhere, albeit at different rates and in different directions. The transitions of the MLP are stories that only make sense in hindsight, tautological artefacts of their own analysis; in effect, “transition” is a fairytale that we repeat in the hope that repetition will make it come true.

If we wish to truly understand the dynamics of sociotechnical change, rather then merely describe a dynamic which we imagine might be amenable to certain forms of control or management, then we must abandon the hackneyed plot of transition and return our attention to the actual actors on the stage.

Raven, PG (2018), Making Infrastructure Legible, p262

The more distance I get from the process of writing that thesis, the more I understand why it was such a struggle to get the damned thing passed in the context of a civil engineering department…

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