Whitelaw: Is it time for a renewed movement around energy transition literacy?

Bill Whitelaw, Managing Director, Strategy and Sustainability at geoLOGIC systems ltd.

Back in what seems a lifetime ago, the notion of “energy literacy” enjoyed a moment in the sun.

Many “stakeholders” believed enhanced literacy could have a positive impact on increasingly polarized debates about energy (specifically oil and gas) by creating a broader baseline understanding of energy complexities. Improved literacy, so the argument went, would create more balanced dialogue around all matters energy – and would mean intelligent, rationale and respectful dialogue.

Starting somewhere around the mid-2000s, activities started in earnest. There were conferences and workshops: toolkits were created and townhalls organized. There were collaborative meetings galore. Academics dove into study and survey. Governments and regulators met with community groups; oil and gas companies met with NGOs. Much enthusiasm greeted the initial wave of literacy thinking and so a euphoric bandwagon moved along nicely for a couple of years and showed some promise.

Then it slowed. And slowed even more.

Notionally, the idea of an energy literate citizenry seemed sound enough: everyone could stand to know something more about energy, its production and consumption, its environmental and economic impacts and so on. Canadians should be able to talk knowledgeably about energy among themselves – and even across that notional boundary of oil and gas that seems to separate us so often.

The trouble was that no one group or organization landed on a satisfactory definition of what energy literacy actually is – or at least a definition around which consensus could be built between vested energy interests. Is literacy about numeracy – energy by the numbers – or was it about technology and society? Was it about policy and regulation? Or about production and consumption? Or all of the above? Was it about the future of oil and gas – or its near-term demise?

Indeed, the definitions that did emerge, some critics argued at the time, remained too tied to organizational or sectoral values – there sometimes seemed to be no middle ground. In a way, the energy literacy movement could not resolve its internal tensions. What launched with much fanfare, gradually petered out. Yet it’s important to underscore that no one player was to blame, despite the vested interest critique; indeed, good intentions all around were the impetus in the first place. Still, there was also constructive critique that energy literacy, whatever the flavour, lacked an emotional hook; that it relied too much on facts and figures. And because people make meaning emotively, energy literacy as a it was cast then, lacked the triggers that would make people get emotional about energy – and from that emotional state, get engaged.

Perhaps its lack of broad traction also had to do with the fact that beyond literacy itself being poorly defined was that the stakes in not getting it right were equally vague – not advancing much beyond the proverbial motherhood and apple pie context. At the time, the climate crisis was just gathering (in the general populace) steam. It was there, of course, but more in the background than front and centre. Still no one, not even the oil and gas sector, framed the consequences in a way that was meaningful enough to overcome the resulting fragmentation. Put directly, energy literacy was more of a “nice-to-do” than a “must-do.”

Compounding that result: as the upstream oil and gas industry was behind a particular flavour of energy literacy, and it was the best funded, when the downturn hit in 2014-2015, the movement faded from view, especially as many of its supporters (and doers) fell victim to budgetary blades and more pressing matters – likely simply staying afloat. A knock-on consequence was that other definitions of energy literacy advanced to counter the petroleum sector’s version lost their raison d’etre and so too lost momentum.

Of course, energy literacy isn’t entirely dead to the world; scholars continue to research in the space and many industry associations and NGOs still advocate better ways of talking about energy and depolarizing dialogue. Taken individually, there is a lot of resource material out there. (Some government agencies, like the US Department of Energy, also have decent resources https://www.energy.gov/eere/education/energy-literacy-essential-principles-energy-education) as do other purpose-specific groups.  Despite this individualized activity, however, there doesn’t seem to be any substantive effort to synchronize efforts and so the connected movement writ large – intended to galvanize a population under a literacy banner – is effectively moribund.

That’s a shame. Because if ever there was a time that a well-informed populace should share a baseline level of energy knowledge it is now. We all cohabit a world locked firmly in the grasp of early-stage energy transition – where the stakes of not getting it right are generally well understood by an ever-increasing percentage of folks.

It's the transition pathways there that are not so well agreed upon. But perhaps a re-imagined movement – call it energy transition literacy (ETL) – could help reconcile the increasingly contested definitions of energy transition before they become overly entrenched and intransigent. At the moment, these definitions have more in common than they do in difference. Yet they’re in danger in moving both asynchronously, as well as away from each other, because nothing seems to be compelling them to collaboratively coalesce.

Enter the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources (CSUR) and a unique approach to achieving energy transition literacy both at scale and interconnectedness. CSUR is readying to launch in early 2022 a learning effort via a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that will make energy transition learning accessible to thousands of learners simultaneously – perhaps even tens of thousands.

The 29-module MOOC has been carefully considered. Writ large, it is a system of systems itself, each module asking learners to think critically and rationally about energy matters and energy choice. The MOOC is truly an interdisciplinary approach to energy thinking: it carefully connects dots between seemingly disparate and diverse energy dynamics. The course design is both simple and elegant – and its structure seems to overcome the previous energy literacy movement’s limitations.

CSUR’s MOOC in its course name poses a rhetorical question, by asking learners “How do we make this work?” in getting transition right. In that way, it is putting the stakes front and centre. As learners contemplate that question, they’re constructively compelled to reflect on their own energy agency – in other words, the way they can be active in solutions thinking by thinking critically.

Module by module, taught by academics and practitioners, they’ll build their own energy transition literacy layer by layer. The MOOC has captured via a learning platform the diversity and disparateness of all transition voices – linking them strategically to each other in a way that foregrounds how linked literacy ought to work. CSUR’s effort turns on the notion that if you can’t connect the players, you can at least connect the content.

By module 29, individual literacy will achieve a new critical mass – and when that individual literacy comes into alignment with thousands of other similarly informed learners, it may prove to be what helps energy transition literacy achieve the escape velocity from the inertia that slowed its predecessor movement.

(Full disclosure: the author is a CSUR board director and was active in the energy literacy movement.)

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director, Strategy and Sustainability at geoLOGIC systems ltd.

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