What's your energy story?

12 Min Read

December 21, 2020

Derek Gladwin is an Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy Education and a Sustainability Fellow with the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

Photo by Black Rock Solar

Adapted by author from original article published in The Conversation.


Everyone has energy stories, whether they involve a family member working in the oil industry, a parent teaching a child to turn off the lights, or personally experiencing a winter power outage.

When I teach students about the effects of energy literacy in society and culture in my education courses at the University of British Columbia, or in the public workshops I lead as a sustainability fellow at the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, I begin by asking students to reflect on and then share some of their energy stories. People may not realize it at first, but our experiences with energy are integral to the stories that bind us in our human struggles for survival.

By contrast, if I begin with talking about climate change, some students shift in their seats and cross their arms. It’s as though they are instantly closed to a discussion.

Many people are shocked when they realize that the objects and encounters in their lives—also called petrocultures—are built upon finite and polluting forms of fossil fuel energy (oil, gas, coal). This can range from the clothes we wear and the transport we use to the medical supplies we depend upon.

One of the major challenges we face as a society is transitioning from a fossil fuel-based culture to one built on renewable energy. As our society transitions to new forms of energy, our social and cultural stories will also change.

The energy humanities provide a useful framework for understanding and speaking about our individual and collective energy stories. They privilege social and cultural perspectives about energy through work in the arts and humanities, which also complements and informs other important geophysical or technological approaches.

Words and stories matter

My research in arts and humanities education explores how people experience language and narrative, and how these impact people’s understanding and decisions about their environmental futures. Whether consciously or not, people draw on the tools of storytelling through language, narrative, and imagination to understand the challenges they face.

Focusing language on energy transition could help overcome the social impasse we’ve reached in addressing climate change. Scientists can clearly prove the existential threats of climate change and their link to fossil fuel energy. But they have less success at educating and communicating with specific groups to produce social action.

Climate change has become weaponized in divisive political wars waged over who controls the narrative in media and society. Facts and evidence have yet to sway large segments of the public toward effective climate action. Public sentiment often relies more on beliefs reinforced by false messaging from corporate lobbyists or political pundits than on evidence or even direct experiences.

Framing energy stories

If we start to communicate and educate about energy transition through our interconnecting and overlapping stories, then we could avoid further polarizing climate change and publicly shaming those who have been rhetorically manipulated to believe otherwise. 

One of the under-used tools in overcoming the energy-climate impasse involves language and literacy. How can we educate about the primary cause of climate change—fossil fuel energy—while also collaborating through our overlapping energy stories?

George Lakoff, professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguistics at University of California, Berkeley, has been looking at ways of using language in politics and society for decades. In his books Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant, for example, Lakoff discusses how the political divide is associated with the framing of values more than with disagreement over facts and logic.

Based upon cognitive research, Lakoff explains how people see the world in mental structures called frames, which create or make sense of reality. He argues that how we frame the environment affects how people understand it.

Today, the framing of climate change has become heavily associated with ideology. Talking about our energy stories might just get us beyond the impasse.

Collaborative models

Appreciative Inquiry is an educational approach using dialogue and storytelling in a collaborative way. It looks at possibilities based upon big-picture thinking by sharing stories instead of starting from a place of critique. Rather than focusing on the deficit model of problem solving, Appreciative Inquiry encourages listening to other stories to learn and foster positive growth in communities and society.

Reframing seemingly abstract concepts of climate change to relational experiences involving energy change allows different conversations to unfold, particularly those about how we collectively live with energy in our daily lives.

People know how much it costs to fill the truck, what the electricity bill costs each month, or why we need forms of fuel to cook our food. Energy stories also involve environmental threats that impact human lives, such as polluted air or contaminated water.

Energy realities, those that highlight our life dependency on energy systems, connect to our human stories.

Reframing seemingly abstract concepts of climate change to relational experiences involving energy change allows different conversations to unfold, particularly those about how we collectively live with energy in our daily lives.

Shifting the conversation

Talking about how energy transition would improve socio-economic conditions for people working in energy sectors could offer a common language across political divides.

Renewable energy can employ people previously working in Alberta’s oil patch, Scotland’s offshore oil fields, or West Virginia’s coal sector. It can also contribute to local economies and improve public health and environmental conditions.

Energy transition also provides opportunities of energy sovereignty for Indigenous people and other historically marginalized groups.

In this model of energy transition, people have more possibility of agency over their energy sources in ways they often didn’t with fossil fuels. This shift in the story creates sustainable low-carbon futures without erasing people’s histories or futures in the process.

In order to break the gridlock of social division in public discourse, let’s share the story of energy change. Shifting the conversation to energy doesn’t ignore the reality of climate change. It only reframes the story.

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