Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Case for Personal Virtue: 1. Outside-In Or Inside-Out?

[Here is the second installment of the paper. If you're just starting, refer to the previous post for the introduction.]

To get at the nugget of truth in the Vice President’s statement, it is worth attending to the situation of ordinary people whose part in the system of energy production and distribution is primarily that of consumers. I have in mind those of us who are not policy makers, scientists, engineers, corporate executives, nor holders of any position of apparent influence over the future of the infrastructure. These are ordinary citizens and consumers, watching and worrying about the price of gasoline or of natural gas, making decisions about how to get by with less.

What is energy policy to them?

Ordinary consumers make their decisions under various kinds of constraint, the terms of which are set by the systems in which they participate: a more-or-less regulated market economy, post-industrial production and distribution, the decentralized metropolis, transportation dominated by the automobile, and so on. Within those systems, they have a narrow range of options available to them, and their choices among those options work within a narrow field of influence. It might well seem as though behavior is largely determined by external systems, leaving little scope for changes in attitude or the acquisition of personal virtue and little hope that such changes might in turn help to determine the future shape of those external systems.

Accordingly, much of the discussion about energy policy focuses on scientists, engineers, corporations, and policy makers working to change the system from above, removing or reconfiguring constraints in order to direct consumer choice and behavior along new pathways. The mandate is to leave people as they are but make sure that, as they blindly follow their consumer impulses, they have different toys to choose from and the toys they have to play with use less energy, or use energy from different sources. I think of this as the outside-in approach: change the system as a whole, and the behavior of ordinary people will follow.

The main alternative would be to work from the inside out, seeking to change the way people think, perceive, value, or feel in order to change individual behavior, which will bring about changes in patterns of consumption, which will in turn bring about changes in the infrastructure of energy production and consumption. This is the preferred approach of many activists and advocates who aim for some kind of “consciousness-raising.” It is also the preferred approach of thinkers in my own field, environmental ethics.

From the system-oriented perspective of a policy maker close to the centers of power, the inside-out approach could well seem hopelessly, laughably naïve. However high individuals raise their consciousness, one could argue, nothing of any use will be done unless policy makers close to the centers of power act to either change or shore up the system from the outside. From this perspective, perhaps, a personal commitment to conservation may be dismissed as an empty gesture.

There is some danger here of falling into a false dichotomy. I would suggest that the outside-in approach and the inside-out approach are not only compatible but are necessary to one another. This, then, is my recommendation: do both. Look for ways of integrating personal virtue into a comprehensive approach to energy policy.


Doc Nagel said...

If there was time and opportunity for the sly bit of sarcasm in your description of the impact on individual consumers of expert policy-making (the narrow range of options and lack of opportunity to develop personal virtue), I would be willing to bet it passed without recognition.

And please, for the love of all that is sacred, refrain from using the word "nugget"!

Lulu--Back in Town said...


(It must have been a thrilling exercise trying to turn this all into a poster.)