​What’s in a name? A new relationship with energy

Sensemaking / ​What’s in a name? A new relationship with energy

To change our grid, we must change our thinking: from ‘consumer’ to ‘citizen’ - Jon Alexander

By Jon Alexander / 23 May 2017

At the New Citizenship Project, we believe that we’ve reached the limits of our consumer mindset in our relationship with energy, as in every aspect of society. This way of thinking is at the heart of our present crisis, but it also represents an enormous opportunity. When we recognise that ‘the consumer’ is only a mindset, not a fundamental reality, we can leave it behind, and embrace a new idea of who we are that will play a critical role in bringing a dynamic, renewable grid to life.

When we talk about energy, we usually call ourselves ‘energy users’ or ‘consumers’.  These labels are perpetuating our centralised, fossil-fuel-powered grid by telling us that, as individuals and as organisations, our role is limited to purchase and usage: our power to shape the energy system is limited to our choice of supplier, and the signal this sends through the system.

The impact of this must not be underestimated. This situation drives the perception that most people don’t care about the damage caused by our existing energy supply, and this perception in turn serves to entrench existing behaviours through the system, at every level. The big players respond to calls for change with - ‘If consumers don’t demand it, why should we do it?' The role of government becomes limited to protecting consumers from paying too much. Even NGOs are trapped, the available strategies narrowing down to appeals to individual self-interest that are ultimately self-defeating, to behaviour change by stealth, and to increasingly restricted attempts to influence governments that show no evidence that they represent the people.

While we are stuck in this mindset, we will not change the system. As Einstein put it, “We can’t solve the significant problems of our time with the same level of thinking that created them.”

The task, then, is to move to a new level of thinking. The opportunity lies in realising, first, that the role of the consumer, and the associated commonplace that people are led by self-centred motivations, are not fundamental human truths: they are simply part of a story we tell ourselves, and a dying one at that. Second, that a new story is emerging to replace it. This is the story of ‘the citizen’ - a story that is best understood in contrast both to ‘the consumer’ and to the story that came before: ‘the subject’.

Subject, Consumer, Citizen

In the early days of the 20th century, we were ‘subjects’: the story was that if we all did as we were told by our betters, the best society would result. Coming out of the second world war, this story was replaced by ‘the consumer’. We gained the power to choose and the right to complain. As a shift from ‘the subject’, this was a liberating raise in status. The new story drove huge improvements in material standards of living across the world.  What’s coming next is ‘the citizen’: as yet fragile and not fully formed, in the story of the citizen we are gaining the power not just to choose, but to shape the choices on offer; we are starting to work together in interdependence, seeking not just what’s best for ourselves as individuals, but as communities and societies.

Once you start to look at the world through this lens, you see the change happening in every aspect of society, everywhere. In politics, it is the shift from representative democracy – limited to the occasional consumer choice of the vote – to the participatory democracy of Taiwan’s Gov Zero movement, Better Reykjavik’s civic forum, Portugal’s nationwide participatory budget, and Mexico City’s crowdsourced constitution, for example. It is the shift in perception of the role of business: from exploitation to empowerment, from shareholders to stakeholders, from profit to purpose. Perhaps most importantly, in local communities, it is the shift from ‘consumers complaining’ to ‘citizens reinventing structures from the ground up’.

Back to energy 

The rise of community energy and distributed renewables on our roofs and estates has already begun to disrupt the story of the energy Consumer. This broader understanding of the current moment in time sets this in context, not as a niche pursuit, but as the first front in what can and must become a wave of popular participation in the energy system.

In order to unlock this wave, we need to revisit the perception that people don’t care. My contention is that we absolutely do - almost all of us. But quite naturally, when we are repeatedly told that the power we have to create change is limited to choosing between a group of suppliers we find barely distinguishable, and to changes in our behaviour that we often quite rightly see as incommensurate with the scale of the challenge, we tune out. It is not that we don’t care, but that we cannot let ourselves care.

This is where citizen-thinking begins: the assumption - in stark contrast to the consumer mindset - that people are naturally disposed to care, but need to have meaningful power in order to sustain that care. The challenge for organisations across the system is then to give us that power, and to make it meaningful, creative and joyful to express it. This is what community energy begins to do, but what if government could run a national conversation on the future of energy with the same kind of creativity that the big six develop their advertising campaigns - so we became policymakers, not just consumers? What if cooperative energy got the boost it deserves, so more of us could become owners, not just consumers? What if environmental NGOs celebrated the citizen movements already happening, and gave us ways to join in, drawing on approaches like citizen science, and helping us be participants - not just consumers?

We at the New Citizenship Project are not experts in the technical detail of the energy system, but we know enough to know that this sector more than most has gone way beyond the limits of the consumer story.  Those who work in it can choose either to seize the promise of the citizen, or let it slip.  This is neither a threat nor a moral crusade, but a tremendous creative opportunity.  If anyone wants to seize it, here’s where you can find us: www.newcitizenship.org.uk

Jon Alexander is founding partner at the New Citizenship Project, an innovation company that aims to speed the shift to a more participatory society.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

I completely agree with this new approach. Karl Marx was quoted as saying, "Religion is the opiate of the masses". I rather believe that today, religion has been replaced by "consumerism".
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