Interdisciplinary work usually requires mutual comprehension of each other’s fields through metaphors, analogies, and buzzwords. The i-CONN project is an interdisciplinary hub where researchers from a wide variety of fields join forces to cross-feed each other’s perspectives. During my research, I am frequently stimulated by interdisciplinary work coming from natural sciences, molecular biology or systems ecology. At the moment, conceptual frameworks shared by energy studies and molecular biology, such as the idea of metabolism, are at the centre of my research. What are the parallels between anthropogenic energy systems and biological metabolic systems? During this blogpost I will explore my concerns about answering this question.

In biology, metabolism is the set of chemical reactions that enable organisms to transform the energy stored in their food into energy that can be used for cellular processes. That energy is key for organisms to grow, reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to the stimulus of their environment.

An anthropogenic energy system is defined as the set of arrangements by which humans use the Earth’s resources to improve their chances of survival and to enhance their quality of life. They are formed by several fundamental components such as natural energy sources, their conversions and a variety of specific uses of the available energy flows. The available energy from these processes is then used to maintain the energy system infrastructure – extraction, distribution and consumption – and allow for the evolution of the energy system.
At this point it becomes self-evident that the parallels between anthropogenic energy systems and metabolism systems are striking. Added to that, both systems can be classified as complex systems in which functional and structural components operate within a prescribed boundary, which opens the door to using similar analytical tools to analyse their properties.

The objective of this blogpost is not to go around emphasizing the similarities and praising the synergies, but to problematize the underlying assumptions that underpin this initial excitement with the objective of (possibly) refining the lens through which we look at these parallelsisms. The basis of the critique I want to discuss is that, contrary to biological metabolic systems, anthropological energy systems are not only formed by the elements described above but they are held, reproduced and organized around a set of myths, (at times competing) narratives, stories and ideas about them which are a reflection of the power asymmetries in place. For this purpose, I will use the book Energy Fables, written by Jenny Rinkinen, Elizabeth Shove and Jacopo Torriti, which exposes the blind spots in the concepts, the mythmaking and the stories that we have interiorized around energy. In this first entry, I take the case of energy efficiency.

Currently, the global energy system is falling short of being a “set of arrangements to improve the chances of survival”, in fact it is achieving the opposite. The European Commission, as the organism responsible for organizing the organizational coordinates of the European energy system, has put forward the Fit for 55 Package as a response for adapting climate and energy legislation to the newly-adopted mandate of 55% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) by 2030. It does so by resorting to energy efficiency as the main reduction pathway: “The 32.5 % (efficiency) target for 2030 translates into final energy consumption of 956 Mtoe and/or primary energy consumption of 1,273 Mtoe in the EU-28 in 2030”.

Leaving aside the fact that efficiency is not the same as consumption, I am not going to focus here on the usually discussed problems of the sole pursuit of efficiency (aka rebound effects – maybe in another blog entry). I will focus on how measures tackling efficiency – and grounded on biological and engineering perspectives and metaphors – persistently reproduce the status quo. I picked two aspects of this from Energy Fables:

  • Measuring energy: The use of standardized units (kWh or tonnes of oil equivalent) is common ground in energy analysis – both biological and anthropogenic –, which in turn makes it possible to aggregate and compare energy use through time. However, in anthropogenic energy systems, energy is contingent, historically and socially bounded and this oversimplification detaches energy from processes of social and cultural change.
  • Bounding objects of efficiency: To define the object of efficiency is a mandatory step when calculating its efficiency but doing that “reveals nothing about how the meaning and services expected from such entities develop and interact”. This means that measures to maximize efficiency of a specific object become “performative”. In short, they themselves become key actors in “shaping social processes of interpretation and evaluation.”

The homogenization process engrained in the engineering perspective to analyse reality makes a lot of sense when studying energy systems and their evolution. It is important to simplify the variables of the system and only consider those ones that explain more variance in the process that is being observed. This, however, when extrapolated to the political debate around energy, sets the frame into a particular normative position, which is defended to allow for the maximization of the efficiency of a system as a whole, because this is perceived as a collective good. In addition, present approaches on efficiency fail to distinguish “good” energy services bonded in sustainable and regenerative provisioning systems of energy, from those that are not.

Parsons, when talking about power, says that A exercises power over B when A is to make decisions which take procedure over those of B in the interest of the effectiveness of the collective operation as a whole. What is at stake is who and what defines the effectiveness of the collective operation as a whole – in this case the EU Commission and the Efficiency Directive – and which mechanisms are in place that legitimize A over B in the organization of energy systems. All these are political questions of power that shape and influence the possibility of transforming energy systems in which the analogy with biological systems is silent.

In summary, beyond the concept of efficiency, metaphors raising analogies between biological systems and anthropogenic systems fail to grasp the socially and culturally based practices, meaning and myths around energy. As David Graeber would put it: “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.” If analogies with biological metabolisms are taken non-critically for developing policy recommendations on energy systems, we run the risk of normalizing the status quo.

The status quo is literally setting the planet on fire.