What motivations and underlying values drive the bioenergy industry and also mass consumerism?

Why does Melinda care to learn about what bioenergy stakeholders think?

Do bioenergy stakeholders think that because bioenergy is renewable and less greenhouse gas emissions intensive than fossil fuels, it is automatically sustainable? Australian bioenergy researchers and industry are positive and enthusiastic about bioenergy because it creates jobs and it has less emissions.

Although, once the industry achieves increased economic efficiency, will they think that the industry is “sustainable”? If so, then why don’t all the stakeholders make decisions to advance sustainability governance and a long term commitment to sustainability?

I need to understand the underlying value systems influencing these perceptions of bioenergy and also sustainability. My project will be an Australian case-study contribution to an International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy project.


Source: Creative source blog

Do stakeholders have fundamental values that technology will solve our climate change (and other environmental) problems? Are they neoliberal capitalists who may view biofuels as an emerging commodity for international (free) trade as the fossil fuel commodities eventually become economically inefficient? What are the underlying values of the IEA?

Do some bioenergy stakeholders subscribe to “weak” sustainability? For example, perhaps they define sustainable development as that natural capital in the form of biomass can be substituted for human capital such as profits or electricity to heat a home.

Which bioenergy stakeholders subscribe to “strong” sustainability values – that natural capital is not interchangeable with human capital because it provides ecosystem services vital to earth’s survival for the long term? Some view bioenergy as one way to rejuvenate soil ecosystems. Others as responsible waste management in a society that is striving to “reduce-reuse-recycle”.

Answers to these questions will inform which type of bioenergy sustainability governance and policies are required. This will then ensure long term sustainability.

So where to start the investigation?

Drawing a flow chart of the many feedstocks, conversion process and end uses gave me a visual tool to understand the consequences of including or excluding something from the project scope. Including only woody feedstocks excludes whole industries of bioenergy stakeholders. I had to ask, “how will excluding their perceptions affect my research outcomes”?

I have realised that the first page of my final report will need to be clearly defining terminology! For example, “biofuel” often also means bioenergy but sometimes only refers to liquid versions. Criteria for keyword searching helped me limit my search results significantly, for example, including “second” generation but excluding “first” generation (from crops which are also foods) liquid biofuels.

Chad’s Project is to study and understand the psychological drivers of mass consumerism and consumption over the past few decades and the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that keeps us in this mindset—despite often good intentions to be environmentally sustainable.

This is initial research for the first chapter of a larger book I am working on tentatively titled: The Live Small Manifesto: A Guide to Living Infinitely Better on a Finite Planet. The book itself will argue two things: one, we need to live compact (read: small, low impact), compassionate lives if we are going to survive as a species on this planet. And two, it will build a compelling case that we will be happier and healthier people if we lived this way.

Why Chad’s interested in mass consumerism

I spend an inordinate amount of my time reading gloom and doom tomes on climate change due to our profligate energy use. The average book in this genre is 350 pages of data that that basically says we’re screwed if we don’t change the way we live. I want to write a book that essentially gives us a blueprint for what that change looks like and put it in a positive light (though it will require the controlled destruction of our current economy. Sorry for the spoiler).

This is personal to me. I went vegan, ride a bike to work, and make a concerted effort to live small so that I can proudly call myself an ‘environmentalist’. Yet in reality, I still fly regularly and live a lifestyle that gives me a carbon footprint that is five times what the average person in the global south has. The chapter I am researching tells us how I/we got to this level of consumption and the role that cognitive dissonance plays in perpetuation the problem.

What Chad has learned so far in the investigation of consumerism

Mass consumerism and consumption is not just the passive by-product of a glut of cheap, superabundant fossil fuels in the last century.  Our current economic system has been delivering surpluses for over a century. The way that large business entities have dealt with this surplus is to manufacture a psychological ‘need’ to consume more. This has been accomplished through very savvy and expertly targeted propaganda and PR. We are groomed from the day we were born to be mass consumers and we are seldom aware of how pernicious and powerful the forces arrayed against us are in this area. Behavioural economics, the latest weapon in the advertiser’s arsenal, has been particularly effective in using our cognitive biases to bring us to heel in this arena. Somehow, we have taken the concept of citizen and consumer and equated the two!

Social science research can help both of us identify why we do or don’t act sustainably

social science why wordartBoth of our projects seek to understand underlying perceptions, opinions, values, motivations, attitudes and cognitive biases. Instead of simply seeking empirical “facts”, we need to ask “why” questions, for example, why does society overconsume, or why are stakeholders driven to advance the bioenergy industry? Consequently, we will both be using qualitative social science research methods in building our arguments.

Mass consumerism and bioenergy and how they relate to sustainability are both interdisciplinary topics, involving politics, economics, waste management, ecology, social science, engineering and resource management.

Both projects focus on a review of the available literature and will not be conducting primary research. We have both found Endnote software invaluable in the process of tracking  searches and giving it replicability. Creating search criteria (such as date limitations and keywords) prior to searching has made searching much more efficient and consistent across different databases.

Literature availability and scope differentiates our topics

There is little peer-reviewed literature on Australian’s perception of bioenergy. Much of the social science methodology for primary research will have to be based on  literature from the EU and the U.S. Dissimilarly, there is significant literature on the drivers of mass consumerism and Chad will be mining that research to build his argument.

Chad’s research project has no geographical scope, whereas Melinda limits the geographical scope to those bioenergy stakeholders in Australia (it will be used later by others as a template for other jurisdictions).

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