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Childhood Energy Practices “Stick” With Us Through Adulthood

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It is common to relate previous experiences to current habits, for example, through everyday phrases like, “Were you born in a barn?” which refers to someone leaving a door or window open. This illustrates how energy habits tend to “stick” with us from childhood throughout adulthood, and my research illustrates some of the first evidence that previous experience with materials and social conditions have an impact on later energy consumption practices.

We know very little about which physical and social conditions shape energy practices because it requires historical household data combined with energy consumption data for a large group of people. In Denmark, such data is available in the form of administrative data and data on energy used for space heating and hot water. This makes Denmark an excellent case study for the impact of experience on energy practice. Taking advantage of this, my research, “‘Sticky’ energy practices: The impact of childhood and early adulthood,” published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, looks at how characteristics of childhood households correlate with later energy consumption patterns. Figure 1 illustrates how I followed individuals from childhood to adulthood.

Figure 1. Analytical model. Figure republished with permission from Elsevier from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.06.013

An old house is the mother of energy saving

My research indicates that people growing up in old houses with wood-burning stoves tend to be more careful about turning up the heat, for example, choosing instead to put a warm sweater on (see, for example: Hansen et al., 2018). The same goes the other way around. People growing up in newer homes with district heating tend to turn up the heating. This suggests that we learn and embody understandings of how to act from our physical surroundings. For example, the study shows that people who grew up in very old houses (built before 1938) tend to consume less energy for heating and hot water compared to later periods.

Childhood homes also seem to have an impact on energy habits later in life. It is well-known that households with more economic resources tend to consume more energy for space heating and hot water (see, for example, my previous study: Hansen, 2016). However, my new study extends this by indicating that living in a household with more economic resources during childhood and early adulthood generally leads to higher energy consumption later in life. In other words, my study suggests that growing up under economic constraints tends to lead to an embodiment of more frugal heating habits, whereas occupants growing up under more economically favorable conditions embodies more resource-intensive heating habits. In this way, the economic resources of a household should not only be understood as the economic capabilities of a household but also as a mechanism that shapes and forms heating habits. This resembles Bourdieu’s classical analysis of the “taste of necessity” (Bourdieu, 1984). Moreover, my study indicates that differences in acquired technical competencies and commitment in everyday practice might also be important to the embodiment of energy practices. However, this needs further investigation.

“Carriers” of energy practices

My study points to how household members embody and “carry” practices with them throughout the course of their lives (as Reckwitz, 2002, suggests), and it is the first study to investigate this using actual energy consumption data. Another paper (Jacobsen and Hansen, in press), co-written with a colleague, argues for a focus on the concept of practical understanding to emphasize how appropriate and competent ways of performing sustainable consumption practices are embedded in material arrangements and embodied in human actors.

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This means that when people move into a house, their energy habits, competencies, and comfort expectations, which are formed by previous experiences, move with them. This leads to energy practices that are performed differently than the practices of their neighbors. Therefore, I believe that buildings should not just accommodate occupants’ expectations and practices, because the building itself might be the most important co-producer of these expectations and practices. This might also explain why households respond differently to energy-saving initiatives. Thus, households’ energy consumption becomes a result of embodied practical understanding and physical surroundings in the given context.

What did I do?

I followed a cohort born between 1965 to 1970 from childhood over early adulthood to later adulthood when they were 39 to 44 years old (see figure 2).

Figure 2. Age at different times for the cohorts and data registration year. Figure republished with permission from Elsevier from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2018.06.013

To support the findings, I compared the results with an older cohort born between 1955 and 1960 and a younger cohort born between 1974 and 1979. The older cohort (born 1955 to 1960) was compared to their adulthood experience, and therefore I looked at the impact of characteristics in 1990, when this cohort was 29 to 34 years old. The younger cohort (born 1974 to 1979) was used to compare childhood experience, and therefore, I looked at the impact of characteristics in 1990, when this cohort was 10 to 15 years old. For all cohorts, the last model consisted of data from 2010, when all cohorts were adults.

Furthermore, I controlled for the impact of current socio-economic and building characteristics. This means that the results were independent of the current home, e.g. current economic and educational conditions, and the current housing situation.

In summary, this study suggests that practices may be deeply rooted in embodied experience and, therefore, more “sticky” than previously expected. Going forward, I intend to investigate how “steady” these practices are and dig more into the role of social relations in forming and reproducing energy practices.

These findings are published in the article ‘Sticky’ energy practices: The impact of childhood and early adulthood, recently published in the journal Energy Research & Social Science. Anders Rhiger Hansen from Aalborg University, Denmark, conducted the study.

References:

  1. Bourdieu, P., 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  2. Hansen, A.R., 2016. The social structure of heat consumption in Denmark: New interpretations from quantitative analysis. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 11, 109–118. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2214629615300542
  3. Hansen, A.R., Gram-Hanssen, K., Knudsen, H.N., 2018. How building design and technologies influence heat-related habits. Build. Res. Inf. 46, 83–98. https://www.tandfonline.com/action/cookieAbsent
  4. Jacobsen, M.H., Hansen, A.R., In press. (Re)introducing Embodied Practical Understandings to the Sociology of Sustainable Consumption. J. Consum. Cult. In press.
  5. Reckwitz, A., 2002. Toward a Theory of Social Practices A Development in Culturalist Theorizing. Eur. J. Soc. Theory 5, 243–263. https://journals.sagepub.com/action/cookieAbsent

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About The Author

Anders Rhiger Hansen is a sociologist and holds a position as researcher at the Danish Building Research Institute at Aalborg University in Denmark. His research primarily concerns households’ energy consumption with a special focus on the importance of embodied experience and social relations to the reproduction of energy consumption practices. However, his current projects concern energy prosumption and time-shifting of energy consumption as well as the impact of family relations on reproduction of sustainable consumption practices.