How many cultural change specialists does it take to change a light bulb?
A stimulating evening spent listening to Professor Mackay, Pilgrim Beart of Alertme and Stuart Groves of Booz and a plethora of the great and good of science, engineering, environmental policy, and me, (as an 'Energy Anthropologist' - a label coined by Mr Beart).
The question was the need for cultural change to address the challenge of reducing our national energy demand. A number of the more rational approaches to this problem were highlighted and critiqued. There was a lot of discussion of clever ways to convince 'consumers' to use less of something they don't understand, don't explicitly value (I must keep me and my family warm, not just choose to do so) nor appreciate the true costs.
So the million dollar question which is being asked is 'what works?'. A question which fills most researchers with a sense of dread because as Zygmunt Bauman quoted his own mentor saying, "don't make predictions, especially not about the future".
Clients usually say they want research to be 'actionable', which would be all well and good if actionable meant being able to think more clearly about what to do, but is less attractive when it involves leaping into the unknown with a do list and some verbatims.
At the risk of using a circular analogy in the context of sustainability and climate change, the problem at one level comes down to confusing the difference between weather and climate. Most research briefs ask questions about the weather and try to define the climate, others ask questions about the climate and try to predict the weather. In general, weather is more interesting, more immediate and more open to objective measurement. I can measure rainfall on a particular day, but a flood does not mean that the climate is getting wetter. Likewise I can be pretty confident of a heavy lasting snowfall not presaging the next ice age (and a particular lack of snow not being a direct cause of global warming). Climate, as the UN have found, is a much more slippery beast to define and measure.
However, we seem to be obsessed with researching the social and cultural weather and assuming that this means we are living in a changing social climate. And we perhaps miss evidence of climate change because we can't see beyond the extreme events and responses which obscure the bigger picture. The recent announcements about measuring 'happiness' fall into this domain, as do predictions of the death of democracy in the face of voter apathy.
Some businesses live or die on trying to predict social and cultural weather - fashion retailers for example - but others would better spend their money understanding climate and making decisions based on changing patterns while keeping an eye out for disruptive El Nino-El Nina like oscillations.
This is important because our responses to the clamour of the climate change lobby, the need for energy sustainability and the need to provide affordable energy to everyone (not just the very few who can afford to go 'off the grid') are not generated from a blank sheet of paper. They are situated in a complex social and cultural "climate" which itself distorts the meaning and effect of different statements, scientific or otherwise, and resists the modernist drive to leave behind traditional beliefs or superstitions and trust in the ulimate truth to be found in a rational pursuit of progress.
Perhaps this is because the world "out there", be it a "consumer" one or otherwise, is not reducible to a single, universal guiding morality, but is made up of a number of parallel, often dissonant moralities, and likewise, we don't live in a world inhabited by a single, universal rationality, but a dissonant set of rationalities.
Predicting the weather is enormously difficult and expensive, requiring ever more complex computer models (and the greater the granularity, it seems, the greater the potential for volatility) reflecting the individualisation of the liquid modern experience. Working from an understanding of climate, by contrast, enables organisations to play a longer game by preparing for periods of disruption and volatility but working to a probablistic but thereby more predictive model of attitudes and behaviours over time.
Each generation is heralded as bringing a new social climate when in reality they usually represent oscillations within a still recognisable sets of norms and values - a function of the ambiguity which definitions of either social or geographical climate need to encompass to maintain their integrity over the long view.