Changing the Conversation on Energy at the Centre for Energy Ethics

December 10, 2021

Mette M. High

Many years ago, my older brother and I got into a heated debate while visiting our parents for Christmas. I had just returned from working for an environmental organization in Ecuador, where I had seen up close how oil drilling was done there and with what effects on the environment. The carelessness of the process had shocked me, and I was voicing to my brother my anger at the companies and their workers, the national government and the local politicians, the global economy and our appetite for oil. How could this be allowed to happen? At what social and environmental cost was oil produced? And to whom was that cost truly visible and known? My brother sat across the table, having just returned from Nigeria where he worked as a geophysicist for an oil and gas company that was drilling offshore wells in the Niger Delta. For him, what I had seen wasn’t about oil per se but rather about weak governance. He pointed to how weak governments allowed this to happen, with corrupt politicians acting out of self-interest with no democratic electorate holding them to account. The conversation was tense from the outset and ultimately proved unproductive. Our parents intervened and the topic was silenced, for years.

I have since come to appreciate that if we aspire to create an energy future that is better for all, it is crucial that we take a different approach than my brother and I did all those years ago. To that end, in February 2021, I established the Centre for Energy Ethics (CEE) at the University of St Andrews with the vision and ambition to change conversations on matters of energy. The CEE brings together researchers across Arts, Humanities, and Social and Natural Sciences, as well as its own policy fellows, research fellows, visiting fellows, and artist-in-residence. Its extensive programme of events, ranging from art exhibitions, concerts, and poetry readings to policy workshops, seminars, and international conferences, encourages members and participants to be curious and embrace the unknown. As scholars, we might feel most comfortable when working with methodologies that are familiar to us and with literatures and debates that offer recognised frames of reference for our work. Yet I believe it is also crucial to recognise what we don’t know and to acknowledge that we can all contribute different insights to the same questions, and then explore the unknown with a curious and open mind. For me, this appreciation grew out of my research on energy ethics  and is a perspective that I see as fundamental to collaboration across disciplines, advances in policy making, and engagements with publics. It is by tuning in to our curiosity and embracing the unfamiliar that we can shift conversations about energy in more productive directions. 

The Centre’s focus on energy ethics suggests an analytical open-mindedness that allows for our interlocutors to not always share our own views of how the world should and could be. Instead of drawing on and reproducing oppositions and tensions in society, it is an approach that brings into focus how people’s ethical sensibilities and persuasions inform the multiple, diverse, and interconnecting ways in which we live with energy. It is thus an approach that brings together the ethical and the political, taking seriously the multiple scales, across which we are part of and enact energy worlds.

The Centre for Energy Ethics brings into focus how people's ethical sensibilities and persuasions inform the multiple, diverse, and interconnecting ways in which we live with energy.

My interest in approaching questions about energy and natural resources with the analytical openness that informs the work of the CEE has in different ways always informed my academic work. How do people conceptualise and engage with environments? What beings, agencies and capacities are recognised, feared, or desired? And how does value figure in this, especially when we think of value as both financial and moral? In my earlier work on the emergence of the Mongolian gold rush amidst angered spirits and transgressed taboos of the land, I proposed the notion of ‘cosmoeconomy’ to make sense of this broad and multi-scalar entanglement. I could have turned to the literature on, say, extractivism to make sense of the political and economic ideologies that underpinned the pursuit of gold, approaching it as yet another example of the ‘planetary violence’ on which we have come to depend. But I wanted to delve deeper into the nuances of how Mongolian miners, gold traders, pastoralists and others made sense of the gold rush. For them, what constituted value, liquidity, and risk were closely tied to local understandings of pollution, fortune, and the power of gold. Analytical attention to cosmology was crucial in order to understand how my interlocutors conceptualised the gold rush, its attractions and dangers. An extrapolation to a planetary scale was certainly possible but it would not have captured what the gold rush meant to those involved in it, and as such there would be the danger of ascribing to this event a politics that was not theirs. Indeed, for my interlocutors that kind of abstraction was one they experienced repeatedly and had come to deplore. Countless international development organisations and journalists produced report after report on life in the gold mines, which my interlocutors felt fundamentally misrepresented what they were doing and why they were there. In a way, I felt that these interpretations, carried out by international development organisations and journalists, were a form of extractivism, extracting the parts that were valuable for putting forward a familiar narrative about a particular politics. In order to bring focus back to those living and working in the gold mines, I had to forefront “the connections and continuities where we, as analysts, might otherwise expect there to be none.” It was by paying attention to the dynamics that mattered to my interlocutors that it became clear that the gold rush was a profoundly strange and cosmologically chaotic event unlike anything else.

The gold mines of Uyanga, Mongolia, 2006. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Paying close attention to and taking seriously how others perceive the world is in my view one of the most important strengths of social anthropology, as well as one of its greatest analytical challenges. This is especially the case when our interlocutors’ sense-making differs radically from our own. I remember as an anthropology student at the London School of Economics, I was keen to chat with those who studied finance and aspired to careers in investment banking. Whenever they told me of all the benefits of tax havens or complex derivatives, I felt like I was doing fieldwork and challenged to suspend judgement as I was trying to understand how these neophyte finance professionals made sense of the world. How was value produced in these spaces? Who was included and who was excluded? And under what circumstances did these divisions come to matter? Once I had pieced it together as well as I could, amounting to a different assemblage of a cosmoeconomy from that put forward by Mongolia’s gold miners, I could explore it through a more critical lens. What were the broader implications of these aspirations? How were these political and economic structures so enduring? And what were the structural weaknesses and moments for potential change? Seeking to understand how others make sense of the world does not prevent a critical lens but it does specify an ideal moment when it can inform the analysis. This transition between analysis and critique is never complete nor perfect. It is an ideal and it is one that I believe we do well to strive towards.

In my current fieldwork on the oil and gas industry in the United States, this approach to ethnographic analysis helps me try to craft a space where my interlocutors’ sense-making can flourish, regardless of what my own views may be on the matter. Rather than sitting across the table from my brother, voicing my anger and listening little, I seek to tune in to my own curiosity about how others experience and make sense of the world. That curiosity can bring depth to ethnographic understandings on energy ethics, but it can also enable our Centre members to work collaboratively across disciplines as they embrace an orientation that does not predicate their own expertise and insights as superior to that of others. With more than 60 energy researchers working across all faculties of the University, energy ethics is not only a topic of research, but it is also an ethical project in itself. I believe that it is by working together, drawing on multiple and diverse areas of expertise, and bringing into conversation a broad range of insights that we will be best able to understand each other and the world at large.


Dr. Mette M. High is Reader in Social Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Energy Ethics at the University of St Andrews. She is currently leading a 6-year European Research Council funded project entitled “The Ethics of Oil: Finance Moralities and Environmental Politics in the Global Oil Economy (ENERGY ETHICS)”.

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