Domestic footprint

Workshops on reducing household energy footprint led by ecoteams at Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street, London   4 December 2010

Anyone whose work involves connecting the lives of ordinary urban communities with ecological awareness, knows the problems – questioning private habits, or critically engaging the space of anyone’s home invariably implies a measure of invasion of who they are. A previous generation of environmental artists and cultural activists saw the connection between ecology and culture as a way to move the present conditions of society to another beyond capitalism, debt, consumerism and individualism. But it has been a double-edged process, with phrases such as ‘ecofascist’ becoming part of our language.


What's urgently needed is mediation on the space between cultural work and the intervention needed into the basic everyday material conditions of life inside what we each call ‘home’. We have to examine the way the social spaces of exchange operate within domestic space and how it has changed in the digital age.
There are many approaches to this but one critical pathway is through how our cultural lives serve as a ‘market’ and the way that relates to messages concerning the environment. Certainly we have witnessed an exponential explosion in choice and potential ways we both produce and access cultural material. Through access to new channels via the internet and satellite, we have a vastly greater choice in what we listen to, what we watch, what we read, thus what we buy, what we consume. Our cultural environment as an economy has been transformed by the virtual economies with their ‘long tail’ as described by Chris Anderson enabling ‘fringe’ culture to operate successfully in the marketplace though perhaps not to contest the mainstream. Ecologically-aware cultural material, symbolised in the Green consumer movement, would belong to the fringe yet like other cultural identifications, how it reaches the consumer at home, in particular in mass urban housing, is more likely through vast new monopolies with questionable green credentials – like Amazon, ebay, google, Sky…. These new-media monopolies are different to those who supply the more fundamental provisions of life like the utilities we need in our homes, the energy to boil a kettle for some tea. The utility conglomerates created through deregulation are the so-called ‘natural monopolies’. The market reality with the natural monopolies is the opposite of the new-media monopolies; theirs’  is a ‘short tail’ economy with little flexibility and choice. For most part it is a captive market environment controlled by a small number of cartels where the long tail market model simply doesn’t apply. Thus culturally we now live in long-tail economic environments; materially we are still short-tailed with few choices, in-effect we are nothing more than old-fashioned subsistence workers albeit in the information age.

We are also getting habituated to tools of measure like the ecological footprint (1990), and then the carbon footprint to measure greenhouse gas emissions. With Kyoto in 1997, both the public and private sectors entered the foray in the war on climate change. This has now popularised a literacy about ecology and environment in most people’s minds so much so that today it is considered culturally vulgar to not recycle paper, plastic and bottles, to own a large car without justification, etc. Indeed household energy consumption in the UK according to the National Audit Office has been decreasing at the rate of 1.4 per cent a year since 1990. Sadly this won’t address even the compromised targets set in Kyoto though, if maintained, perhaps achieve the EU’s 20/20/20 programme policy, which aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 (and keeps our ecological footprint well above 3 planets to put things in perspective).
The National Audit Office states that UK households spend £20 billion on energy each year, mostly on electricity and gas. Programmes to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy consumption cost some £2.6 billion a year. However, the value of the possible energy savings outweigh these costs many times over – the typical household could save at least £280, or roughly 30 per cent of their energy bills, if they adopted the cost-effective measures already available.
Besides its financial value, household energy consumption accounts for 27 per cent of all carbon emissions. Thus the reality is that the household as the largest user of energy through fossil fuel use (marginally more than industry, which is more than transport) is central to efforts to mitigate climate change. Homes are the biggest ‘polluters’ but it’s a hard constituency to address; it's you, me, the ‘people’ – ordinary consumers just getting by.


But how do we read local government attempts at dealing with energy consumption at the domestic level? At Hackney Town Hall I am here to participate in workshops devised by who have developed a participatory methodology to help reduce energy consumption at home. Their approach is to break down the main constituents of domestic energy consumption into a series of workshop games. The subject of their games are domestic things: the electric kettle, the lcd flatscreen TV, the fridge-freezer, the tumble dryer, the washing machine, home PC, the toaster, the oven,.. all staple amenities of modern life plus other associates – roof insulation, mending clothing, eating local food, solar panels, saving water, composting,….
With neat labels for each of these, the workshops corellate energy consumption to games of shared experience; participants place themselves in order of increasing or decreasing energy footprint of different amenities, then reshuffle to a different order for the average daily energy footprint of each – e.g. kettles aren’t on all the time though a fridge freezer is. Then another game explores the likely chances of actually implementing any of these energy saving exercises. And so forth.


Learning through trial and error, participants familiarise themselves with each other's consumption and a sense of exchange and support emerges as people get to know what are otherwise pretty mundane facts:  a fridge on all day uses less than a kettle used sparingly 6 times a day if its empty spaces are filled up with containers. It hardly sounds revolutionary but the hard reality of the present age and state of our civilisation is that such little details symbolise the scale of participation allotted to us. Paradoxically the problem is that it's actually difficult to contest the ‘good’ in this. It’s almost too good. Little good things add up…. This is in fact the social domain of what Alex Steffen described as the Light Greens which he contrasted with the Bright Greens, who believe that science and innovation hold the key to a green future, and then the Dark Greens identified by their total rejection of globalisation, consumer culture and retreat to pre-industrial localism.
Light greens strongly advocate change at the individual level. The thinking is that if you can get people to take small, pleasant steps (by shopping differently, or making changes around the home), they will not only make changes that can begin to make a difference in aggregate, but also begin to clamour for larger transformations. Light green environmentalism, as a call for individuals to change, has helped spread the idea that concern for sustainability is cool. On the other hand, it is the target of much of the “green fatigue” we’re now seeing.

Log on to ecoteams website to download their neighbourhood workshop tools and the Light Green ethos comes alive with informational snap bites – far easier to swallow than the carbon footprint manuals we had in recent years.
'In the UK we throw away enough carrier bags to carpet the entire planet every 6 months.
The average person uses 3,500 litres of embedded water per day – it is in everything we consume.
It takes 120 litres of water to produce one glass of wine.
A fluorescent tube generally uses 500 times more energy if left on for 15 minutes than the energy needed to restart it.'

The Light Green approach performs a shift in policy focus from ‘over-consumption’ to ‘save waste, save money’. Light Green implies that ‘Making good with consuming less’ is a painless way of tackling climate change. That projects a form of affiliation to the idea of economic degrowth, or décroissance. The philosophy of décroissance began as an environmental movement based on anti-consumerist ideas that set out to contract the economy. But décroissance is a collectivist vision, based on community cooperation to supplant individual consumerism, thereby producing savings through sharing. The Light Green, on the other hand, is based on the privatization of responsibility, ‘laissez faire ecologies’ devolved to consumer culture that are arguably amenable enough to be co-opted into green capitalism. An apotheosis of such a model is the 10:10 campaign based entirely on long tail contemporary marketing, setting targets through crowd sourcing online: deep-trawling for a diversity of human subjects just as would trawl cultural material. Whilst 10:10 unwittingly fitted the Rightwing ‘climate alarmist’ tag with its viral video, its more deep-seated problem lies in its methodology. Suggesting that individual commitment made by clicking on a mouse translates into the long term is deeply problematic. Voluntaristic commitment, if made through an institutional scale may be viable (e.g a school, a workplace) but at the individual consumer level it’s suspect.


The reality is that energy consumption is simply another means to express social capital – people have and use the flat screens, the washer dryers, the sports cars to consolidate and circulate their social capital. Sigrid Stagl and Tania Briceno, in their various studies on sustainable societies state that consumers constantly strive to ‘consume the same (or better) goods and services as friends, neighbours. The consumption of ‘cultural goods’ is key to maintaining integration in a social environment.’ Consumption today is thus for most part firstly cultural and secondly material. Energy in the market place is always bundled with other things and is just one of the many forms of ‘cultural goods’ available for maintaining or advancing one’s social capital. Whilst we have seen that they depend on fundamentally different economic models, cultural bundling is part and parcel of life and the exercising of social capital in mass culture largely through consumption. “Those who do not engage in culture consumption are therefore more likely to be disconnected from others and forgo all of the benefits that come from network relations and, that have been glossed under the banner of social capital".
The “doing with less” mantra has limited social currency if ecological footprint is disconnected from the complexities of social capital it is woven into at a domestic and community level. Saving an amount in the order of £200 a year through conscientious eco-practices hardly constitutes an incentive for the average household, though it might make a difference to the planet. Small wonder then that the ecological footprint remains largely unsocialised in mass culture.

Re-posted to  Sept 2012