The Emotional Energy Consumer

The fuel industry worked to foster emotional responses in users toward particular fuels and appliances. This advert from the Coal Utilization Council connected the fire place to emotions of comfort, nostalgia and domestic life. source: inset of Coal Utilisation Council, The Times, October 28, 1952

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This is the third in a series of five blog posts edited by Andrew Watson highlighting the work published in a special issue of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire (CJH/ACH) on the Material Realities of Energy Histories. Each of the articles in the issue will be available open access for four weeks coinciding with each blog post. This post is based on Rebecca Wright, “Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer.” Each blog post will also appear on the University of Toronto Press website.


Ever since the recent IPCC report was published in October 2018 I have had a sick feeling in my stomach. Talking to others it is clear that the emotions I have experienced, from dread to depression, are not unique. Instead, a range of ‘emotional cultures’ are structuring our response to today’s climate crisis. This is not a new phenomenon. Emotional cultures have long structured society’s relationship to energy and the environment. As such, we have to ask what can energy historians learn from the sub-discipline known as the history of emotion. Over the past decade, the study of the history of emotion has revealed the active role of emotion and the way emotional cultures structure people’s activities and relationship to the world.[i]

This can be expanded to include how emotion determines the ways in which societies interact with the environment and their use of natural resources. This shifts our focus away from energy systems to the complexities of our subjective lives. In short, it raises the question: would more careful attention to how our emotional cultures operate help us better understand our relationship to, and impact upon, the natural world?

Observers also responded to emotions about the future circulating at the time. This advert produced by the Energy Efficiency Office shows how the messaging connected to energy conservation had become associated with environmental destruction and global warming by 1990. source: Energy Efficiency Office Department of Energy, The Times, March 15, 1990.

For the special issue on “The Material Realities of Energy History”, my article “Mass Observation and the Emotional Energy Consumer” set out to explore the role of emotion in energy history. I wanted to examine how emotions shape, and are materialized in energy systems over time. Energy historians have paid little attention to users (let alone emotion) in the past, focusing more on energy supply. Recently, however, there has been increasing focus on users and their role in structuring energy demand.[ii] The subjective life of users, however, continues to be largely overlooked. To counter this, I wanted to take emotion seriously and build up a profile of what I called the ‘emotional energy consumer’.

This was easier said than done. After all, there are few historical records about how ordinary people feel and experience the world. While there is ample evidence about how people are instructed to feel it is much harder to access what the historian Claire Langhamer has described as the history of emotion ‘from below’.[iii] In 2017, however, as a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex I was fortunate to spend a year working in what Langhamer has described as an ‘archive of feeling’.[iv] This is the Mass Observation Archive, based at The Keep, University of Sussex.

Founded in 1937 by a group of three left-wing intellectuals, Mass Observation set out to study the everyday life of ordinary people in Great Britain; to provide, in their words, an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. The organisation established a national panel of observers, men and women ranging in age from across the UK, who reported back to the archive about their daily lives. The project ran until the 1950s, when it closed for a variety of reasons. It was resurrected in 1981 as the Mass Observation Project, with a new national panel and is ongoing today. The archive contains hundreds of boxes of diaries, first person accounts, and responses to Directives (a form of written questionnaire) on a range of subjects from attitudes to sex, death, work, and political events such as the Falklands War. The writing in the archive is deeply personal and intimate while also being performative as observers reflected wider social currents and conventions circulating at the time.

Although a major collection for British social historians, Mass Observation might appear an unlikely archive through which to write energy history. And yet, reading through Directive responses collected in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what becomes apparent is how expansive people’s relationship to energy was and how frequently the topic emerged in their writing. Moreover, what also became clear was how people’s relationship to energy was woven into their emotional lives. In my article I try capture two different ways in which this happened. The first shows how observers rooted their emotions about energy in longer individual and social timeframes. Those writing to the archive in the 1980s and 1990s had grown up in the 1930s and 1940s experiencing wartime and post-war austerity, and the total transformation of the British home. This lived experience continued to inform domestic practices, habits, spending patterns, social relations and worldviews.

F1560, Response to Spring 1987 Directive “Waste, Thrift and Consumerism,” The Mass Observation Project, The Keep, University of Sussex.

The second approach examined how emotions – such as sentimentality, fear and nostalgia, structured interactions with energy in the home. Observers’ hesitancy to turn the hall-way light off after dark or leave the front light on, for example, spoke of wider concerns about the manufacture of fear in Thatcherite Britain. Childhood experiences, social memory, family dynamics, social rhetoric and models of the future, therefore, all shaped the way observers felt and interacted with energy systems through their energy practices. This ranged from the temperature at which they heated their home to which lights they kept on, and what appliances and fuels they chose for cooking.

Approaching energy history through first person accounts, therefore, allows us to understand how emotional cultures structure our relationship to the natural world. These expand beyond abstract feelings to include how emotions are materialized in resource networks and energy systems. Mass Observation can be used as an archive through which to understand the operation of these emotional cultures. But it also suggests a methodology for doing energy history; one that gives serious attention to the multifaceted subjectivities and emotional cultures that structure people’s relationship to energy and the environment.  


With thanks to the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive for permission to reproduce material from The Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex.

[i] Key texts include Joanna Bourke, “Fear and Anxiety: Writing about Emotion in Modern History,” History Workshop Journal 55.1 (2003): 111-133; Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

[ii] Frank Trentmann and Anna Carlsson-Hyslop, “The Evolution of Energy Demand in Britain: Politics, Daily Life, and Public Housing, 1920-1970,” The Historical Journal 61.3 (2017): 807-839. The collaborative research project “Material Cultures of Energy” led by Frank Trentmann has drawn attention to the role of consumers in shaping energy systems. See “Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century,” AHRC Award ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past,’ Birkbeck College, 2014-2017. <www.bbk.ac.uk/mce/>, [accessed 18 July 2018]

[iii] Claire Langhamer, “An Archive of Feeling? Mass Observation and the Mid-Century Moment,” Insights 9 (2016).

[iv] Ibid.

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Rebecca Wright

Lecturer in American History at Northumbria University
Rebecca Wright is a Lecturer in American History at Northumbria University, Newcastle. Her work examines cultural histories of energy, in the United States. She has held Research Fellowships at the University of York, the University of Sussex and on the AHRC Collaborative Project ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ at Birkbeck College. She is currently finishing a book, Moral Energy in America: From the Progressive Era to the Atomic Bomb.

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