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The slippery slope of the energy descent

With Russian gas to Europe disrupted and an energy crisis looming, rationing is back, albeit in disguise. To avoid a clash with the ideological underpinnings of our society of abundance, instead we are more likely to hear the terms ‘reduction of consumption’, ‘demand management’, ‘sufficiency’, and even ‘energy sobriety’.

But what exactly is energy sobriety? And, even if it remains somewhat taboo, could the principles of rationing offer an alternative to the current state of rising energy poverty amid ecological crises?

The term ‘sobriety’ has a very particular resonance to ecologists. For the philosopher Ivan Illich, a radical thinker whose writings inspired the nascent political ecology movement, sobriety conveys an anti-productivist understanding of society based on an ethic of ‘conviviality’, which encourages people to maintain autonomous and creative relationships with each other and with their environment. As he wrote in Tools for Conviviality in 1973, ‘People will rediscover the value of joyful sobriety and liberating austerity only if they relearn to depend on each other rather than on energy slaves.’

When applied to energy, sobriety reflects a long-term political vision for a society empowered to escape from the cycle of repeated crises by becoming less dependent on energy. It is not about simply saying that ‘we’ should consume less, as if social inequalities did not exist. Rather, it challenges us to achieve structural change in energy use that is both democratic and socially just.

Sobriety or sufficiency?

At first glance, the use of the term sobriety may lead to confusion with the fight against alcoholism. This was experienced at first-hand by French green thinker Luc Semal, one of the authors of the landmark publication Sobriété énergétique, during his first meetings with grassroots organizations. But once the misunderstanding is dispelled, the metaphor remains. As with alcohol, we have a civilisational thirst for energy. Both should be properly produced, well chosen, and consumed in moderation, and, like alcohol, the abuse of energy can be destructive to both physical environments and social structures.

In the English-speaking world, the term energy ‘sufficiency’ is more frequently used than sobriety. For the purpose of this article, the two will be considered equivalent. Both concepts recognize the need to say ‘enough is enough’ and create an alternative to our societies’ insatiable use – and indeed wastage – of energy.

Energy production and consumption in France – including the embodied energy of imports – have grown continuously since 1945, for example. Various energy management have been tried out since the 1990s – even earlier if we consider the anti-waste campaigns of the 1970s – but these policies either focused on energy efficiency or were nothing more than gesture politics.

The story is the same for the energy policies of the European Union. In 2012, researcher Maria Edvardsson was unable to find a European Commission text that dealt directly with the concepts of energy sobriety or sufficiency. Little appears to have changed. When the terms do appear, their use reflects a confusion with the notion of energy efficiency.

The dominant discourse around energy saving remains deeply embedded in the growth paradigm, in which technical innovations have the upper hand. The influential work of American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin on the ‘third industrial revolution’ expresses this most clearly. According to his vision, Internet technology and renewable energies will allow hundreds of millions of people to produce their own green energy. These decentralized infrastructures will replace our ageing nuclear, gas, and coal-based systems. This new world of highly interconnected technologies will create millions of jobs and ‘countless new goods and services’, perpetuating economic growth.

In this context, energy saving is seen as a possibility offered by technical innovations to cut production costs and accelerate the pro-duction of new technologies to shift toward a decarbonized economy. Energy efficiency pushes the boundaries of growth forward, thereby ultimately leading to greater global energy consumption. It is this line of reasoning that led French president Emmanuel Macron to declare in February 2022 that, in order to reduce France’s energy consumption by 40 percent, the country has to ‘grow in sobriété’. He stated that this can be achieved ‘without self-deprivation’ by means of ‘innovation [and the] transformation of our industrial processes’.

For ecologists such as Luc Semal, this does not represent the emergence of the society they dreamed of. The energy sufficiency they strive for is political. It concerns the fair distribution of energy reduction efforts, not the development of technological innovations. For them, sufficiency is about rethinking global energy demand. To do this, we must also rethink the economic foundations of our democracies.

The ‘natural contract’

In capitalist democracies, access to energy is expressed either as a right for the poorest or as a freedom for the richest. As such, efforts to green these democracies – which implies policies that reduce global energy consumption – give rise to fears of insecurity among some and, among others, the sense that their freedom and way of life are under threat. Energy sobriety thus requires the redefinition of a social contract in which resource limits are finally taken into account to collectively define what ‘enough’ actually means. Philosopher Michel Serres calls this the ‘natural contract’.

The objective here is to reduce inequalities through the creation of new mechanisms of solidarity based on resource scarcity rather than abundance. The concept of sufficiency is a challenge that can make discussions over energy more tangible and demands a rethinking of equality and justice through the lens of energy consumption.

The purpose of such a policy is to anticipate – in a democratic fashion – what economist Christian Arnsperger and philosopher Dominique Bourg describe as ‘a forced return to sufficiency, in inequitable and violent forms, that destroys authentic human dignity’. In other words, the rise in energy poverty amid the current crisis.

Rationing and collective sufficiency

European history is replete with examples of rationing policies introduced during wars or oil crises. Governments are quite capable of intervening drastically and fairly in the market when required. However, these policies are only accepted by populations insofar as they can offer both fairness to the poorest and security to the richest.

In France, rationing remains associated with the German occupation during the Second World War, when it was used as an instrument of deprivation. But the French experience of rationing twenty-five years earlier, during the First World War, shows how it can also be used to fight social injustice and overconsumption.

In 1915, the war drove up inflation on food products and coal. The first government intervention to tackle this involved obliging retailers to display average food prices in shop windows alongside their own. However, costs continued to skyrocket, and tensions rose in the population. In response, the government decided to set maximum prices in 1916, first for sugar and coal, then gradually for other staples. But this also failed to curb increasing inequalities.

In 1917, Parisians demanded that the government go further by rationing coal. In spite of initial resistance from the parliamentary majority, the decision was taken to limit its purchase by the upper classes, thus ensuring access for all. This political decision was well received by a public that could no longer afford a resource that had become rare and too expensive. The fact that the setting of prices and quantities by the government only occurred as a last resort and under popular pressure is worthy of note.

The implementation of coal rationing required significant administrative reorganisation. The Ministry of Armaments decided on the national allocation of coal via the National Coal Office, which then organized distribution at the departmental level. The key principle of this policy was ‘one fire per household’, which of course disadvantaged the wealthy. The coal allowance could be slightly increased for larger households; this tended to benefit the working classes.

The political wrangling that took place in the parliament and the senate on the introduction of coal rationing pitted the interests of the (more rural) producers and owners against those of the (more urban) consumers and workers. In the end, this public intervention in the market and the private sphere succeeded in easing social tensions and safeguarding social cohesion through to the end of the war.

Oil and drain. Image by Tootdood via Flickr

Rationing was also a feature of the oil crises of the 1970s. When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, OPEC imposed an oil embargo on countries that supported Israel, including the Netherlands. As a result, oil prices quadrupled, and the Dutch authorities had to act quickly. From November 1973, private cars were banned from driving on Sundays. In January 1974, this restriction was replaced by oil rationing via a coupon system. The objective of this measure, which was supported by oil companies and the Den Uyl government, was to reduce demand in line with the decline in imports (i.e., 30 percent). After one month, however, imports resumed, and rationing was abolished. The government subsequently continued its energy reduction programme by limiting speeds on the roads.

In our current context, it is reasonable to assume that energy rationing would successfully anticipate oil depletion, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and limit the human activities that are causing biodiversity loss. But how feasible would it be to introduce energy rationing outside of situations of war and acute crisis? The historical examples presented above differ from our current context in at least two ways. First, the ecological crisis is not temporary. The goal of implementing a sufficiency policy would be to establish a ‘new normality’. And second, energy dependence is greater now than ever before. Oil in particular appears to be impossible to replace in the transport sector without initiating profound changes in infrastructure and mobility services.

The ‘new normal’

Returning to the present, disruptions in the supply of Russian gas to Europe have caused prices to rise dramatically. These price hikes have mainly affected the most vulnerable in society and have forced EU governments to take a range of much-discussed emergency measures: energy price caps, reduced VAT rates, super profits taxes, windfall taxes on energy companies, subsidized social rates extended to lower-middle-income families, and energy allowances for households and businesses.

The common denominator of these measures is that they focus solely on prices; quantities and uses never enter the equation. No distinction is made between the heating of water for a shower and for a private swimming pool, or between a mile travelled to go to work and one travelled for sightseeing. This, however, is the crux of the problem. How can we justify subsidizing kilowatt-hours that are put to pointless or even extravagant uses? How can we agree to pay collectively for certain practices that are incompatible with our ecological commitments?

A solution to this problem is the progressive energy tariff, which helps us to make a distinction between uses. Under this system, the first kilowatt-hours consumed are inexpensive, and prices then increase in stages. A progressive tariff thus guarantees that essential needs are met, while large consumers pay a premium. A well-known formula by political scientist and journalist Paul Ariès sums up this approach: ‘free use and expensive misuse’.

It is no mystery that energy consumption (and therefore CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts) increases with income; a progressive tariff is therefore also a social tariff. This principle can also be applied to businesses and industries based on their ecological, social, and economic impacts in order to maintain and increase our collective power to live with dignity.

In his interviews with people who unwillingly endure energy sufficiency in their daily lives, Luc Semal found that explaining the concept sometimes led them to reverse the social stigma around this issue: ‘Overconsumption is the preserve of the rich, while sufficiency can be the virtue of the poorest. A more political conception of ecological inequalities then emerges, which goes hand in hand with a critique of economic inequalities.’

A more radical way still to distribute energy equitably would be through personal quotas. The system of Domestic Tradable Quotas was first proposed by policy analyst David Fleming in 1996. Under this proposal, a carbon budget is set at the national level. This is then divided into individual emission rights. Everyone in a given society would receive the emission rights necessary to purchase fuel or electricity (alongside the normal financial payment). The sale and purchase of rights would be authorized, but no further emission rights could be issued, which would produce a redistributive effect.

Many variants of this idea have been developed including personal carbon trading, personal carbon allowances, and end-user emissions trading. Proposals for such a scheme even gained considerable government interest in Britain in the early 2000s. However, during the tumult of the 2008 financial crisis, the UK government declared that it was ‘an idea currently ahead of its time’ and simply abandoned it.

The slippery slope

Paradoxically, it seems that the more energy a society consumes, the less people are aware of its materiality. If abundance relegates the management of energy to the private sphere and, considering voluntary simplicity, to the moral and philosophical sphere, its scarcity brings it back to the political field. In a zero-sum game, one person’s consumption may be at the expense of another’s. This interdependence is the first stage of politicization.

A social contract will not be enough, however. The principle of gradually diminishing aggregate quantities requires a kind of ‘natural contract’. As nature is unfortunately not able to speak for itself, limits would have to be set rather than externally imposed. However, it is the very purpose of political institutions to organize and administer distribution, arbitrate needs, and prioritise uses.

The drastic travel restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 crisis showed that the rapid implementation of policies is possible, but also that such measures highlight inequalities that can imperil their acceptance. Effective rationing policies can only be achieved in the long term if they recognize the experiences of the groups for whom scarcity is a daily reality. Failure to build fair and united mechanisms for organizing energy rationing (such as progressive energy tariffs) could lead to large-scale social conflict due to shortages.

At the time of writing, the war in Ukraine is leading to a major energy crisis. While states are adopting measures to support people on low incomes, it is clear that this is not just a matter of price but also of usage and supply, pushing policymakers in the direction of rationing. In France, the term sobriété is no longer a dirty word. President Emmanuel Macron himself promised a ‘plan de sobriété énergétique’ to dispense with Russian gas in July 2022.

Once more, sufficiency policies are being implemented in response to crisis. In Sobriété energétique, the authors question whether our democracies are actually capable of proactively choosing energy sufficiency as a means of bringing about a truly ecological society. What is undeniable, however, is that energy is a matter of democratic debate. Today’s concerns about energy prices should not obscure the twin crises looming large before us: the fragility of our energy supply and the need to organize a large-scale energy revolution, which will necessarily imply sufficiency. The use of energy, as a limited resource, should contribute to the global common weal. Building a system of energy distribution that makes a distinction between uses is the best way of tackling both rising energy prices and overconsumption. As environmental sociologist Mathilde Szuba writes: ‘Unthinkable? Unfeasible? Not really, and in fact, we’ve done it before.’


This article was first published by Green European Journal on 30 November 2022.

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