Maps and territories: the very abstract nature of the energy concept

Over the previous three posts I’ve sketched out a high-level map of a conceptual landscape. The terrain we’ve been looking at, and for which we now have a very broad overview suitable for orienting our inquiry, is comprised of a set of interrelated ideas that together make up the modern energy concept. In other words, we’ve created our map not by looking directly at the physical phenomena to which the energy concept relates but by looking at the conceptual structures that others have developed on the basis of their own immediate encounter with physical phenomena and the perceptions that arose for them with these experiences. This is not to say that our map is not based on direct encounters with the particular terrain we’ve depicted—it’s just that the encounters are of a very different nature. The direct encounters upon which our map is based, rather than being of a physical nature, have their origin in the social realm of language and culture. The map represents a set of ideas already in widespread social circulation—and so the landscape it deals with is one comprising concepts formed and expressed in language.

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Foundations for establishing a view

Energy issues occupy an increasingly prominent place in public discourse. I’d hazard a guess that general public awareness of the connections between energy, environment and economics has never been stronger. That these matters have critical implications for humanity’s possible and preferred futures is widely recognised, even if such insight is rather unevenly distributed. Of course, none of this necessarily implies significant action in response—though new instances of individual and collective energy-related activism on scales from the local to the global, seem to arise daily. The rate of institutional, infrastructural and cultural change in response to energy-related challenges may well be unprecedented, regardless of admonitions—from those whose own transformatory metronomes are set to a quicker tempo—that change is too slow.

Yet asked what energy is—what it relates to in a specific sense—most people without some sort of practice-based involvement in the natural or engineering sciences are left scratching their heads. At least, this has tended to be my own experience working with students from non-science backgrounds in a post graduate course in sustainable energy futures—though even people from science and engineering backgrounds often realise that it’s just not a question that they’ve ever really needed to grapple with. In a sense, energy is one of the modern scientific-industrial world’s great givens—a basic building block of contemporary knowledge the nature of which has been sufficiently well dealt with that we can assume there’s nothing to be gained by looking at it more closely. We can leave aside questions of its nature and origin, and focus squarely on the pragmatics of getting by in a world defined and configured in its terms.
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