Energy, austerity, informality workshop report

On the 21st of May 2014, the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE) hosted a workshop on Energy, austerity, informality: Exploring the everyday politics of urban infrastructure. The event was organised under the auspices of the RGS-IBG funded EVENT project and co-financed by SEED’s Urban Champion scheme. Cities@manchester and the Energy Geographies Working Group of the RGS-IBG also supported the workshop.

The workshop was attended by approximately 30 people from universities and energy associations based in the UK, France, Greece and China.

Participants at the workshop. Photo by Saska Petrova,
Participants at the workshop. Photo by Saska Petrova,

Saska Petrova (principal investigator of the EVENT project and research coordinator of CURE) and Joe Ravetz (one of the co-directors of CURE) opened the workshop. While Joe briefly presented the past and current research profile of CURE, Saska highlighted some of the current debates focusing on the nexus of energy vulnerability and everyday practices in ‘post-austerity’ urbanand peri-urban areas, using Thessaloniki, Greece as a case study.

The programme of the workshop was divided into three thematic blocks. The first session – titled ‘The context: Crisis, vulnerability and infrastructure’ – was opened with the presentation of Lucie Middlemiss and Ross Gillard (both from the University of Leeds). Lucie and Ross outlined the key aspects of the energy vulnerability approach based on findings from their qualitative research study on the ‘lived experience’ of energy poverty in the UK. They argued that energy vulnerability is an effectual analytical tool for investigating the complex and dynamic nature of energy poverty. The findings from their study suggested that one of the key issues with energy vulnerability is its (lack of) visibility. The strength of individual, informal social networks, according to their analysis, could make energy poverty more detectable and conspicuous. Having stressed that energy poverty is a flexible situation people can get in and out from, the identification of the stepping in and out stones/conditions is very important. One of the possibilities of exiting poverty, was said, is the capability for financial action. The need for action as a way of resolving vulnerability issues was further developed by Stefan Bouzarovski (University of Manchester) in his presentation titled ‘The depoliticisation of poverty: Governing energy vulnerability in the EU’.He argued that poverty, and more specifically energy poverty, has been removed from the traditional domains of political action and instead has become subject to managerial, technocratic, and consensus-orientated agendas. His findings from research on the organisational and political complexities surrounding the adoption and implementation of energy poverty policies within the EU context demonstrated that energy poverty has been reduced to consumer policy, while energy efficiency is relegated to the private sector and becomes an accumulation strategy. Therefore, he stressed the need for tackling energy as a spatially embedded phenomenon and making energy ‘publics’ visible.

Nikoleta Jones explains how austerity affected social capital in Greece
Nikoleta Jones explains how austerity affected social capital in Greece

The main focus of the second part of the workshop was on practicing and contesting austerity in Greece. Daniel Knight (University of Durham) commenced the second part of the workshop. He stressed that the energy practices in Greece during the economic crisis reflect the temporal complexities of local coping strategies and provide a prism through which the place of Greece in a modern Europe can be discussed. Daniel claimed that austerity led to (re)emergence and domination of two energy technologies as coping mechanisms: wood burners and solar panels. The former is seen as a symbol of pre-modernity and a past innovation used during the previous Greek crises, while the latter is a reflection of modernity and technological development. This assemblage of two contrasting energy practices, according to Daniel, offers a critique of the current crisis by highlighting the complex underpinning complex socio-economical processes that very often are excluded from the mainstream political economy. The speaker who followed – Nikoleta Jones (Open University) – explored the relationship between social capital and austerity in Greece. She pointed out that although existing social networks have not changed during the last few years, the economic crisis led to emergence of new collaborative organisations and increased community activities. Nikoleta’s findings also demonstrated that the role of the state has been reduced during the crisis. The discussion on how austerity affected collective action and social change in Greece was continued by the last presenter of the day, Yannis Kallianos (CRESC, University of Manchester). His talk was based on a recent paper focusing on the social and political transformations in Greece through events of collective action in public space in Athens at time of crisis. He argued that the collective actions in Greece are not homogenous, and what been portrayed as ‘we’ is intangible. In his opinion, the crisis created did not create a single ‘purified’ community but an opportunity for reinventing a number of heterogeneous and loose communities.

The workshop was closed with a plenary discussion. Some of the key starting points of the meeting – community, energy and urban vulnerability, informality and austerity – were revisited here. While the participants stressed that austerity creates a larger space for informal and collective networking and action, they also pointed out the tendency of these communities to be ephemeral and depoliticized. At the same time, it was highlighted that austerity also produces the space for the emergence of extreme political orientations, on the left and right alike. In relation to energy vulnerability, it was emphasised that the austerity regime, with its increased taxes and energy efficiency polices – which require interventions in the home – occupy the private domain, expose vulnerability and challenge the private/public divide. The participants underlined the need for future research of these issues, especially in relation to how the performance of communal actions in relation to energy vulnerability under austerity can inform broader theoretical debates.



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