The optimality paradigm that guided 20th century energy development led to rapid growth in mostly fossil-fuel based energy production and a similar rise in energy intensive consumption. The paradigm succeeded in growing global income and wealth at rates unmatched in human history. But it also created an energy obese social condition with unacceptable social, climate, and other risks. Left to its own devices, the paradigm could only repair social and ecological harms at a pace consistent with economic growth. As the problem of climate change has made clear, however, this pace is far too slow to sustain a healthy future in human and ecological terms.
The proposal for sustainability as an economic principle has so far experienced difficulty in overriding optimality as the defining decision-making factor in human development, essentially reducing sustainability’s translation to marginal costs or benefits affecting, without materially altering, the obesity defect of modern success. Transitioning away from the current energy intensive pathway of development will form a critical component of any development strategy that aims to enhance and maintain living conditions for the world’s growing population without outpacing environmental carrying capacity or entrenching inequality in the human prospect.
Sustainability as a principle of commons development repositions the social dynamic away from singularizing individual gain and, instead, reconstitutes society as a matrix of community landscapes confronting the practical consequences of energy-environment-development interactions. The SEU appears to offer a promising practical strategy to deploy sustainability as an operational form of commonwealth economics. SEUs can continuously organize investments creating significant potential for the model to substantially change the energy economy. At the same time, an SEU keeps value in the local context due to its bottom-up, polycentric governance and economic structure, thereby linking its viability to ongoing community trust.
Business-as-usual scenarios clarify the untenable character of the 20th century’s Great Acceleration as we move forward in the 21st century: when no action is taken, society will continue to push the limits and strain environmental boundaries. The range of concerns that modern society faces go well beyond the sin- gular issue of energy, but abundant energy machines are now a major part of the problem instead of a solution. The SEU model offers an opportunity to tackle modern dilemmas which have emerged from 20th century conventional utility performance. Building com- munity trust and commonwealth economies, an SEU model may represent a Social Change 2.0 method to deliver transformation, rather than relying on incremental change of supply-side business-as-usual development to meet our dual challenge of social and eco- logical progress.
Byrne, J. and Taminiau, J. (2016), A review of sustainable energy utility and energy service utility concepts and applications: realizing ecological and social sustainability with a community utility. WIREs Energy Environ, 5: 136–154. doi:10.1002/wene.171
… the new policy context of energy productivity conservation and renewable energy represents a paradigm shift from the “more is better” principle toward a foundation built on enjoying less. Such a paradigm shift fundamentally re-arranges the energy–environment–society relationship as the policy frame-work concentrates on efforts to fulfill human needs and wants.
Byrne, J., Wang, Y.-D., Taminiau, J., and Mach, L. (2014). The Promise of the Green Energy Economy. In J. Byrne, & Y.-D. Wang, Secure and Green Energy Economies. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publisher. Pp. 1-17
From climate change to acid rain, contaminated landscapes, mercury pollution, and biodiversity loss, the origins of many of our least tractable environmental problems can be traced to the operations of the modern energy system. A scan of nightfall across the planet reveals a social dilemma that also accompanies this system’s operations: invented over a century ago, electric light remains an experience only for the socially privileged. Two billion human beings—almost one-third of the planet’s population—experience evening light by candle, oil lamp, or open fire, reminding us that energy modernization has left intact—and sometimes exacerbated—social inequalities that its architects promised would be banished. And there is the disturbing link between modern energy and war. Whether as a mineral whose control is fought over by the powerful [..], or as the enablement of an atomic war of extinction, modern energy makes modern life possible and threatens its future.
Byrne, J., Toly, N., and Glover, L., 2006, Energy as a Social Project—Recovering a Discourse: In: Byrne, J., Toly, N., and Glover, L. Transforming Power: Energy, Environment, and Society in Conflict. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, p. 1-32.
A contrast exists between decisions guided by capital and technology to endanger the health of workers and whole communities by pollution practices at various industrial sites (which enhance profit, market position, etc.) and the collected practices of technological societies which in toto valorize a particular atmospheric chemistry (specifically, one richer in CO2). The difference is fundamental. In the former case, a social structure—technological society—guides behaviors which adversely impact nature at the behavioral level: air, water, and human tissue are poisoned to some degree. But the natural order, which produces air, water, and living matter, is not itself altered; the effect of the pollution is too small to restructure nature; and the force of technolization and capitalization are too specific in their goals to alter natural order. In the latter, social structure threatens to cause a different natural order to evolve. This interpretation conceives commodification as having breached the nature-society duality and is now encroaching on the structural organization of nature itself. This prospect lies beyond the theoretically possible for social and physical analysis as presently organized. Apparently, however, it is not outside the reality of contemporary nature-society relations.
Byrne J., Glover, L., and Martinez, C. (2002). The Production of Unequal Nature. In: Byrne, J., Glover, L., and Martinez, C., Environmental Justice: Discourses in International Political Economy. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. p. 261-291.
Among the many societal problems thrown up during a tumultuous twentieth century, it would be fair to say that “environmental problems” have been salient, and this salience has only grown as we entered the twenty-first century. Pockets of local pollution that popped up in the 1950s and 1960s, such as DDT, which led to thinning egg shells or methylmercury poisoning of fish and people in Minamata, Japan, were the harbingers of the larger and more dispersed crisis to follow—a crisis that has encompassed all aspects of human and nonhuman life, from deforestation and soil erosion to groundwater depletion and river basin closure in many river basins, from urban air pollution in Los Angeles to acid rain in Germany, and from dam-related displacement in China or India to Chernobyl- and Fukushima-type nuclear disasters. Cutting across all these locations, climate change, induced primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, is considered to be the “mother of all environmental problems,” not for its own sake, but for the way it introduces stress and uncertainties into this already precarious socioenvironmental situation. .
Rethinking Environmentalism: Linking Justice, Sustainability, and Diversity Sharachchandra Lele, Eduardo S. Brondizio, John Byrne, Georgina M. Mace, and Joan Martinez-Alier eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262038966.