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Moving beyond technical solutions: Studying energy from a social sciences perspective

Moving beyond technical solutions: Studying energy from a social sciences perspective

Lina Brand Correa

After completing her BA in Economics at the National University of Colombia, Dr Lina Brand Correa was left unsatisfied with the approaches of mainstream economics to environmental problems in general, and the understanding of the role of energy in society in particular. She decided to pursue an MSc in Ecological Economics at the University of Edinburgh (UK) and a PhD at the University of Leeds (UK). During the latter she focused on the interface between energy, the economy and societal wellbeing, with the goal of understanding and uncovering alternative avenues for decoupling environmental impacts from human flourishing.

The theoretical and methodological developments of her PhD continue to influence her current research interests and approaches. Theoretically, she has explored the implications for sustainability of a “eudaimonic” understanding of wellbeing (related to human flourishing in the fullest sense, very much in line with Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach and human needs approaches), as opposed to a “hedonic” understanding of wellbeing (more narrowly conceived around utility maximisation and positive states of mind). This led her to the concept of need “satisfiers”, i.e. the ways in which individuals and societies fulfil their needs or achieve the capabilities required for flourishing. Human needs or capabilities are broad dimensions of wellbeing, universally shared. Need satisfiers are the socially, economically and historically specific ways in which we achieve (or not) wellbeing. By having a clear distinction between ends (capabilities or human needs) and means (need satisfiers), she argues we can critically evaluate how current economic systems are enabling or blocking human flourishing, and we can design climate change mitigation policies that have positive societal outcomes.

She applied this theoretical framework to energy, conceptualising energy services as need satisfiers. And she developed the Human Scale Energy Services (HUSES) methodological approach, adapting Manfred Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development participatory method, with the goal of engaging communities with the concepts of energy services and human needs. She has applied HUSES in different settings, engaging diverse communities across cultural settings and language barriers in Colombia, Zambia, Nepal, and the UK.

From her empirical work, she has highlighted the importance of centring wellbeing (rather than economic considerations) when discussing energy issues with communities. This opens up decoupling possibilities the go beyond technical solutions. In the case of energy and wellbeing, decoupling implies achieving the same or growing levels of wellbeing with fewer energy services. This type of decoupling would require changing the way we understand two things:

  • Energy provisioning: Moving beyond technical efficiency improvements to meet an unquestioned level of demand, towards considering what energy demand is for and critically analysing the social-technical systems that influence our relationship with energy.
  • Need satisfaction: To question how and why we consume the things we do, including energy, and to reconsider whether our current way of doing things enables or hinders or wellbeing.

As she embarks as a new faculty member at EUC, Lina is planning to continue to develop her research area, using the conceptual and methodological tools she has around wellbeing to study other environmental and urban issues, such as climate change policies, housing and health.