Participation, power and sustainable energy futures

Thursday 26 October 2010, SPRU, University of Sussex

The fourth workshop in the ESRC seminar series Critical Perspectives on Public Engagement in Science and Environmental Risk explored both formal and informal forms of public engagement and participation in the context of energy systems and transitions to sustainability. The energy system and the need to build more sustainable energy futures has risen high up science and policy agendas in the context of proliferating discourses on climate change, sustainability and security. Whilst public participation has long been a feature of energy debates, this complex interrelation of framings and imperatives has brought about an increasing diversity of democratic experiments across the energy domain. Institutionalised policy-oriented spaces of invited public deliberation and engagement have grown considerably (such as recent UK consultations on nuclear power and radioactive waste) which often claim to uphold normative principles of democratic empowerment but also attract popular criticism as being exercises in gaining decision justification and public acceptance. The need to reduce energy demand and transform the consumption practices of citizens and consumers has led to a wide range of pro-environmental behaviour change initiatives in the workplace, home and wider society, often driven by instrumental imperatives, which are increasingly incorporating group-based and deliberative processes. More organic, spontaneous, and uninvited forms of public engagement, organised by citizens and groups in civil society by themselves, continue to grow, ranging from various forms of activism and protest (such as Climate Camp) to alternative models of distributed or grassroots innovation (as exemplified by the Transitions movement) which offer up substantively different pathways of sustainable energy transition.

These alternative forms of public engagement with energy-related issues raise a number of questions important to the wider seminar series. What meanings and forms of participation are embedded in these often disparate spaces of public engagement with energy? How do they differentially construct and produce visions the public, science, innovation and democracy? How are these different spaces of public engagement framed, governed and controlled, and with what exclusions and effects? What is the relationship between these different forms of democratic engagement in energy-related issues and the trajectories of energy innovation pathways? How does the materiality of sustainable energy infrastructures shape the forms of public engagement that get enacted? What do we mean by critical public engagement with energy, in terms of the ways in which we critically study and practice participatory governance?

The workshop report is available here Sussex-report.

To read more about the seminar series see here.


10.30 Registration, SPRU – University of Sussex, G23/24 Freeman Centre (Building 43 on the campus map)
11.00 Welcome and Introduction  Professor Andy Stirling (Director of Research, SPRU, University of Sussex) Dr Jason Chilvers (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA)
11.20 Critical public engagement and sustainable energy  ‘Public engagement in the low(er) carbon energy system: diversity, materiality, agency’ Professor Gordon Walker (Lancaster University)
11.50 Critical engagement and energy policy ‘Lessons from CoRWM’ Professor Gordon McKerron (SPRU, University of Sussex) ‘Nuclear Consultation: rhetoric and practice’ Dr Paul Dorfman (Warwick Business School, University of Warwick) Discussion
13.00 Buffet Lunch
14.00 Critical engagements on behaviour change  ‘Governmentality and energy use: behaviour change and the making up of energy citizens’ Dr Tom Hargreaves (School of Environmental Sciences, UEA) Discussion
14.30 Critical engagement in alternative sustainable energy pathways ‘Civil society engagement in alternative energy pathways’ Dr Adrian Smith (SPRU, University of Sussex) Discussion
15.00 Tea/Coffee
15.15 Workshop discussion – two breakout groups
16.15 Plenary discussion  Final reflections  Professor Andy Stirling (Director of Research, SPRU, University of Sussex) Dr Kevin Burchell (Kingston University)
5.00pm Close