People often disengage from environmental issues because of a sense of disenfranchisement: “What kind of difference can I make? Not much, so why bother? We need big changes and soon. The power to do this is controlled by politicians, who are influenced (financially and otherwise) by Big Business often intent on blocking change.”
In a series of provocative articles in Energy Policy1, Gregory Unruh posed two questions to help us unravel forces at the root of this problem:
The answer he suggests is carbon lock in. What is it? How has it become major inertia to change by reinforcing power structures in society, business, and politics?
Automobile-based transportation is a great example of carbon lock in. Let’s start at the level of an individual business firm and then scale up to the entire world:
a business –> technology –> society–social norms and institutions –> society–public institutions –> globalized society
(1) An individual business (e.g., a car manufacturer)
When the automobile was being invented at the dawn of the 20th Century, there were three engine technology options: electric, gasoline internal combustion, and steam. A confluence of forces pushed gas engines over the top. Horse troughs were closed to steam engine use in 1895. The discovery of the U.S.’s first major oil discovery in Texas (the Spindletop gusher in Beaumont, TX) provided light crude oil that could be refined into gasoline (earlier, heavy oils were mainly used as lubricants or refined into kerosene).2 This flooded the market with cheap gasoline. In addition, Henry Ford’s assembly line was gearing up with the gas engine, dramatically reducing vehicle prices and fueling mass appeal. The rest is history.
So what happens once this new technology became the industry standard? Unruh (2000) suggests several outcomes:
Unruh (2000) goes on to identify several problems with this in terms of how it begins to lock us into a particular mode of production that’s hard to change:
(2) A technology (e.g., transportation system)
In addition to the rise of the gasoline engine-based auto industry, a number of additional industries sprung up to accommodate the growing popularity of personal automobiles. And with them came the service economy and standards for how things are designed, all of which create further lock in:
These interlinkages are a significant source of resistance to change. An industry is unlikely to innovate unless it is sure that all of the necessary associated industries are willing and able to accommodate the change.
(3) Society–social norms and institutions
Eventually, social norms and institutions are structured around the emerging technology, helping to further reinforce lock in throughout our daily lives:
(4) Society–public institutions
Local and national governments respond to civil society and business. They have the power to influence policy, including subsidies and pollution regulation, that can either change or reinforce the dominant business paradigm. They are also heavily influenced by lobbyists and corporate donations.
All of this creates the “iron triangle” among politicians, special interests, and bureaucracy. The military-industrial complex is one example. Agribusiness is another. And the fossil-fuel based economy is another. As Will Rogers once quipped, “We have the best Congress money can buy.”
Unruh calls this overall system of lock in the “Techno-institutional Complex (TIC).
(5) Globalized society
When nations like China and India begin developing, there are a number of political and economic influences that affect developmental trajectories:
As Unruh (2006) suggests, each developing nation is influenced by the TICs of developed nations. Also, the World bank and International Monetary Fund impose financial restrictions (such as structural adjustments) and encourage traditional ways of developing.
There has been a longstanding discussion about the need for developing countries to leapfrog the developed world by installing, from the beginning, things like smart grids and renewable energy production. However, as Unruh (2006) points out
2Little, A. (2009) Power Trip. Harper Collins