What is energy? This broad question is one I tackle each day. And for each person, it means different things. In the social sciences, I like to say it is the way we go about our day. How we live, how we move, and what we consume. It is not only in the physical consumption and use of energy, but how the environment around us responds to our habits, desires, and ways of living.

The task to represent what energy is, and what this means through a cultural lens just became harder for me. Now, after finishing my book, ‘Energy Cultures’, focused on Eastern Europe it is with the publisher, Edward Elgar. But I still have the task of finding and choosing the cover image. I’ve selected a few with two described below.

This first picture is of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas Lithuania. This is a great picture because it represents both the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union. It is in Lithuania, a former USSR republic. And it shows the planned industrial architecture of the nuclear power plant and the surrounding nature neatly manicured around the industrial facility. Lithuania, now an EU member state, symbolizes both the dramatic political-economic changes of the region, but also a reorientation of the society.

The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Visaginas, Lithuania. Screenshot from Adobe Stock, since I didn’t pay for it.

The second picture, and the one I’ll probably go with, shows a typical modern residential building in Wroclaw, Poland. What struck me here was the representation of the built infrastructure and the everyday energy consumption of the people. It is in our daily lives that we create a culture, and we create our own energy cultures through our lived experiences, even when we don’t think about it. The utilitarian building here with the recessed balconies is reminiscent of the panel houses dominate in Eastern Europe. Each apartment displays a limited but functional living space. The lack of expression of individuality in these buildings also confines the inhabitants to a defined way of living. Shading on the side of the building, bars on the railings, provide a representation of jail constraining the dwellers.   

Building in Wroclaw, Poland Source: Wiktor Karkocha https://unsplash.com/photos/Dt3y3dQR6Qk

It turns out the focus on balconies also caught the attention of documentary filmmakers. ‘Enter Through the Balcony’ provides a more in-depth perspective of the conversion of balconies in Ukrainian life. The trailer does a good job of capturing this push for more personal space and against the structure imposed by the state. That is, by the state giving people accommodation, they needed to accept smaller living spaces. But in their everyday lives, they pushed out for more space and representation of how they live, despite what architects and the state-imposed on them.

Representing cultural practices in the energy system only requires looking at two sides of how people live and what they do. There is surface level practices, such as how people drive, walk, or take a bus. But there are also the deeper structures that force people to live their lives or influences their choices of transport modes. Such as government funding for roads or public transport. Even deeper is understanding the interplay between government funding and ownership and interests in transport companies or relations between countries and firms. For example, Russian nuclear power plants provide huge amounts of electricity to power public transport and reduce oil imports. Under the Soviet System, when nuclear technology was essentially free and used as a geopolitical tool (as it is today) but oil could be used for generating hard currency, the choice of energy infrastructure also influenced the types of transport available for people. Restrictions on buying cars also limited personal transport options. The cultural practices of society were influenced by the energy infrastructure.

Energy, and understanding, ‘What is energy?’ provides the means to explore and engage with our everyday lives. This engagement exposes the role of the state and the power of those leading the state. It also shows what society expects and accepts in their everyday. The built environment and our balconies are only one representation of this. But how to represent this in one picture or one object? How do we succinctly represent our everyday practices? Maybe I can just use a picture of me on my Budapest balcony where I write in every season but winter. In the early spring and late fall an electric heater helps me start the day. Thus, even the production of this blog represents the production of own everyday energy culture in Eastern Europe.

My writing space in my Budapest veranda. With pre-socialist windows.

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Dr. Michael LaBelle is an associate professor at Central European University in the Department of Environmental Sciences. He produces the My Energy 2050 podcast to change how we communicate and improve the energy transition.