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DIVING INTO THE CASE: THE ENERGY SYSTEM AND TRANSITION

3.4

Energy: Well-being and sufficiency

Sufficiency as part of a sustainable transition of the energy system is often seen as leading to a decline in well-being. Providing a differentiated understanding of well-being, this article argues why this is not the case.

The Brundtland report in the year 1987 was crystal clear regarding “Western lifestyles”: they use too much energy and consume too many resources and are therefore not generalisable on a global scale, given our globally scarce eco-resources. These lifestyles have to change so that a fair global distribution of available resources is possible. This change becomes part of transitioning the energy system. Often, the idea of changing the prevailing Western lifestyles is treated under the label of sufficiency, and then frequently further operationalised in terms of relinquishment, curtailment or even frugality.

An opposing view rejects sufficiency by pointing to an existing correlation between per-capita energy consumption and quality of life. According to this view, changing lifestyles to a lower level of energy consumption would lead to a lower quality of life – something people would never be willing to accept, because it would substantially decrease their well-being. Hence, and contrary to what has been said in the Brundtland report or is claimed by advocates of sufficiency, transitioning the energy system should focus on efficiency, i.e. reducing the amount of energy needed per unit of existing lifestyles.

The debate on these opposing views is as crucial for a sustainability-oriented energy transition as the debate on how to manage an electricity system based on fluctuating renewables, for three reasons:

First, individuals or households do not consume energy per se, but energy services that serve a specific purpose such as cooking, transport, or listening to a concert on TV. Being able to carry out such purposes (preferences) is linked to well-being. For example, in winter you feel good when your flat or house is adequately warm. When you are not able to heat your flat or house, you count as an energy-poor or energy-vulnerable individual.

In another example, a recent study in Switzerland demonstrated that there is no relevant difference in life-satisfaction between those who own a car and those who don’t, if the latter got rid of their car on a voluntary basis. However, those who cannot afford a car at all show a lower life-satisfaction (Hess, 2022).

This shows that there are indeed important links between energy consumption and lifestyles and, accordingly, well-being. Looking beyond the global North, these links also hold, especially considering that many poor households in countries of the global South still do not have access to clean and affordable energy.

Second, the debate sketched above is a placeholder for two quite different strategies in sustainability and energy transition in general, and the change of individual behaviour in particular: namely, the efficiency strategy and the sufficiency strategy. Both agree in saying that per-capita energy use has to be substantially reduced, but they differ on how to accomplish this.

Advocates for the efficiency strategy claim that we can reach that goal by combining technological innovation with appropriate financial incentives. Change of behaviour then means implementing new technologies within stable lifestyles.

In turn, advocates for the sufficiency strategy express reasonable doubts about efficiency being successful without also changing lifestyles, i.e. eating less meat, reducing living space, going for slow transport, abandoning fast fashion etc.

Hence, the first strategy amounts to decarbonising existing lifestyles, the second to changing lifestyles towards a dematerialised quality of life.

Third, this debate makes us aware of the many different existing understandings of well-being or quality of life. If you equate quality of life with material possessions, your argument will look different compared to a multidimensional understanding of well-being which includes friendships or personal relationships, for example. Today’s scientific literature on well-being makes a 2 x 2 x 2 distinction regarding well-being:

  1. You can look upon well-being in terms of a one-dimensional aggregate-like life-satisfaction or happiness, or in terms of a multi-dimensional set of criteria like the capability- or the psychological PEARL-approach.
  2. In addition, there are two theoretical approaches, Hedonism or Eudaemonism. The former puts individual pleasure (satisfaction of preferences) centre stage; the latter focuses on individuals flourishing (e.g. living an active life).
  3. Finally, there is the distinction between subjective and objective well-being. You can look upon yourself as being happy (subjective well-being), although you have no access to clean energy or health facilities (objective well-being).

The debate between efficiency and sufficiency reminds us that the energy transition is not only about technology and a healthy environment, but also about the purposes behind energy consumption and one’s understanding of quality of life or well-being.

Using such differentiated understandings of well-being, recent research has argued that there is no need to operationalise sufficiency in terms of curtailment or frugality. Sufficiency is about changing lifestyles in addition to improving efficiency. Typical forms are reducing formal work in order to have more time for care or social work, reducing meat consumption for a healthy diet, or getting rid of one’s car to become a car-free household using shared, low or public transport means. None of these things lead to a reduced quality of life, because the individuals prefer to do so and value the outcome accordingly.

A really difficult problem, however, is what a sufficiency policy fostering lifestyle changes could look like. What do you think? How would you tackle this problem?

Author: Paul Burger


References

Hess, A-K. (2022). The relationship between car shedding and subjective well-being. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives 15, 100663.