Monday, August 20, 2012

Cultural signaling and energy

An image that struck me recently and has stayed with me since was a license plate. Specifically, a jet-black Kentucky license plate, emblazoned "Friends of Coal."

KY friends of coal license plate
The first thing that ran through my mind was, "Who in their right mind proudly trumpets supporting that?" It struck me as about the same contrarian attitude as waving around a Confederate flag (or its more common contemporary, sporting a Confederate flag bumper sticker; which again, some people actually do that). These are things that, to an uninitiated Midwestern exile like myself, should seem embarrassing to display, to say the least.

Yet, oddly enough, much like the confederate flag paraphernalia one encounters with depressing frequency south of the Mason-Dixon line, Kentucky's "Friends of Coal" license plate is the state's most popular custom license plate design - more popular than veteran's plates and those supporting the University of Kentucky. As it turns out, several other states in the area have their own variations, including Virginia and West Virginia.

Obviously, coal is a major economic player in Appalachia, so strong support is to be expected. But the image in my mind started making me think about a broader issue in energy politics, and perhaps why it seems why so often it seems like there are two sides talking past one another (where, incidentally, nuclear tends to be neglected in the crossfire). Specifically, a part of me wonders if what one sees in trends of public support for various energy sources has to do with the economic phenomenon of "signaling" behavior.

I've of course speculated about how cultural perceptions might play a role in public opinion over energy sources numerous times before, but what struck me here was whether support for energy sources - and specifically, some of the most stark divides that manifest - are perhaps deeper expressions of the cultural and aspirational values of the proponents, trumping factors including economics and environmental considerations (as well as basic issues of numeracy).

To back up a bit - in economics parlance, "signaling" is usually used as a way which people convey information which can't always be directly inferred or observed. Signaling can exist both in the banal, uncontroversial sense - wearing a suit and tie signals conformity, particular conformity to societal expectations of professional behavior - to somewhat more contested areas (such as whether higher education acts as a signal to employers as to characteristics including intelligence, diligence, or again, conformity).

Thus, my hypothesis - I am left to wonder if strong, highly polarized opinions on energy sources - particularly on divides such as coal (and to a lesser degree, natural gas) as well as wind and solar don't perhaps serve as signaling "stand-ins" for statements of individual values and cultural affinity.

In particular, the coal industry has capitalized on this in a particularly effective way, with their "America's power" re-branding, and in particular attempting to link coal exclusively to the idea of low-cost, reliable energy generation (again, despite the fact that the levelized costs of nuclear, with its capital costs folded in, are not wildly out of line with coal, particularly if carbon capture and sequestration is a mandated component.) Coal is, in effect, a signal of working-class values, and in particular an expression of solidarity with the working-class communities typically associated with coal-mining.

In a less regionally confined sense, one has to wonder whether some of the pushback from the right over President Obama's "War on Fossil Fuels" also has more to do with outward expressions of cultural affiliation than it does practical concerns over energy. (Nevermind that favoring one fossil source over another hardly consistutes a "war" on fossil fuels). Consider if you will how often right-wing pundits complain about how curtailing fossil fuel use for electricity would spike energy prices - again, as if nuclear energy weren't supplying a fifth of our electricity at the lowest marginal cost of baseload production next to hydro.

I can't help but feel like the effect is intentional - although perhaps not for the reasons folks like Rod Adams might assert (i.e., no, this is not a fossil-fueled conspiracy). Instead, look to the numbers - while support for nuclear energy is strong among self-identified Republicans, it trails far behind support for exploration of new fossil sources. Ultimately, one has to wonder if such public rending of garments pertains more to a cultural push-back response - rallying around fossil sources because of perceptions of the other - and less about actual, considered evaluation of economic and environmental trade-offs of different energy sources.

Contrast this with renewables - support for renewables is much like recycling - a token expression of environmental concern which can be done for minimal required effort. It is, in essence, expressing support for the environment without actually requiring any kind of substantial commitment from the individual. Considerations such as reliability of supply, economics, or even sheer scale are immaterial - support for renewables is, in essence, "green cred." Among the more radicalized, the inherent limitations of renewables are even considered a feature, not a bug - the limited capacity and availability of renewables are an exhortation to consume less, and ultimately to de-industrialize. In either case, support for renewables is less about the practical reality of the enormous challenge in powering an industrial society at the whims of nature and more about the value expression (or, as it were, aspiration) that it entails.

This process playing out prominently on the campaign trail right now. In Iowa, President Obama blasted Mitt Romney for his support of allowing a wind power production tax credit to expire. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and his supporters have been slugging back, contending that Obama has been waging a "war on coal." (Note as well the targeted blue-collar audience.)

One can easily see where this one is going. Orphaned from any such discussions is nuclear; something at least now (mercifully) given tepid support by both sides, if only because excluding nuclear from energy discussions on the grounds of both environmental and economics grounds is inherently a politically self-marginalizing position, even if it doesn't seem to command strong feelings among most.

So what does support for nuclear energy signal, if you will (and likewise, its opposition)? I would hypothesize that the dividing line for nuclear turns on issues of technological optimism and energy abundance. A common thread I have observed among many nuclear professionals and advocates is a belief that the technology can consistently be made cheaper, more abundant, and ever safer. In particular among these people - myself included - is a belief in the imperative of energy abundance (this in fact was part of the reason I became a nuclear engineer). By contrast, nuclear opponents are frequently (although not always) in the opposite role - sometimes technological pessimists and with a shocking frequency advocates of energy austerity - believing that the answer always is to consume less (despite the unmistakable positive correlations between prosperity and energy consumption, namely due to what energy enables us to do in modern society).

I remark that nuclear opponents are not always technological pessimists, namely because one occasionally encounters the odd nuclear opponent with delusional beliefs about the capability of renewables - although almost universally they fall back to the position of energy austerity when the limitations of renewable sources are brought up.

What do you think? Is energy advocacy a marker for more deeply-held cultural values? And if so, what does a strong preference for nuclear indicate?

Aside: On a personal note, I hope to be back to more regular blogging soon; this month I started out as a new faculty in the Nuclear Engineering department at the University of Tennessee, and suffice to say, the life of a new faculty can at times be... overwhelming.