About the LiLi project
The Living Well Within Limits (LiLi) project is a Leverhulme Research Leadership Grant awarded to Dr Julia Steinberger. LiLi addresses crucial but understudied questions: What are the biophysical resources, more specifically energy, required to achieve human well-being? What influence do social and technical provisioning systems have on the levels of resource use associated with well-being? If remaining within planetary boundaries requires rapid decreases in resource & energy use, how could these scarce resources best be employed to enhance and preserve well-being?
The principal motivation for this project is the lack of coherent approaches, combining environmental, engineering, economic and social sciences, which would allow comprehensive answers to these questions. An enormous body of scholarship exists connecting economic activity to energy and material use, whereas very little research has been carried out on the biophysical requirements of the well-being of the humans within those economies.
The LiLi project’s ambitious aim is to construct the conceptual and methodological framework upon which this type of research can be carried forward, and to apply it using both quantitative and qualitative methods to analyse and model the energy requirements of well-being. LiLi’s focus is relevant to recent high level comprehensive policy goals, such as the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the EU’s 7th Environmental Action Programme.
Research questions & Analytic approaches
|Research questions||Analytic approach|
| What are the biophysical resources, more specifically energy, required to achieve human well-being?||Quantitative, empirical, comparative analysis: econometric & industrial ecology toolkit.|
| What influence do social and technical provisioning systems have on the levels of resource use associated with well-being?||Qualitative, empirical, comparative analysis: political economy, participatory & fieldwork tookit.|
| If remaining within planetary boundaries requires rapid decreases in resource & energy use, how could these scarce resources best be employed to enhance and preserve well-being?||Scenarios & modelling: participatory scenario development, systemic quantitative modelling.|
The LiLi project is based on an innovative framework, integrating (1) biophysical resource use, (2) the social and physical provisioning systems which draw up on these resources as inputs, and (3) the social outcomes which depend upon them. Each of these three phases, and their constitutive elements, have traditionally been the purview of separate disciplines. The purpose of this project is to present a new integrative research approach, highlighting the crucial role of provisioning systems in linking physical and social processes and outcomes, and thus in enabling empirical research into achieving well-being within a bounded economy.
The crucial role of provisioning systems in connecting physical and social processes and outcomes remains sparsely researched. This is because the topic spans traditional disciplinary boundaries, requiring a coherent operational framework, robust concepts, methods and metrics bridging the social sciences (living well within society) and natural and physical sciences (physical resources and technologies, environmental limits), which could be applied equally to industrialised and developing contexts.
Energy will be the main biophysical input considered: robust international datasets of energy use exist, covering the past 45+ years; energy use has a clear connection to planetary impacts through greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and climate change; and novel methods have been developed for analysing the supply chain of energy specifically, from primary extraction to service delivered to the end-user. Energy is never consumed directly for its own sake, but for the sake of the services (warmth, light, mobility, energy embodied in products, including food) that it delivers. Energy services may thus hold the key to connecting energy use with social outcomes, as various combinations of energy services are likely to satisfy different dimensions of human well-being.
Within the LiLi project, social outcomes are considered through from the perspective of human well-being, rather than economic development. Specifically, the LiLi project will be based on the Theory of Human Need of Doyal and Gough, but will also draw upon ideas from capabilities and human development, and on the participatory methodology of Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development. The two main reasons for focusing on this approach are, first, that it is well-defined, listing a finite number of universal, satiable, non-substitutable needs (considered as pre-requisites for living well), and, second, that it incorporates the concept of “satisfiers” of human needs, the cultural, technical, political, economic ways in which different communities satisfy the needs of their members. Different communities can be studied according to their unique satisfier configurations, correspondingly diverse social and physical provisioning systems, and ultimately in terms of their performance in enabling need satisfaction at different levels of resource use.
LiLi research components
“Provisioning systems” is the broad term used to describe the chain linking the production, distribution and consumption of the goods and services through which human needs are met. Provisioning systems form the link between social resource use and social outcomes. The study of social provisioning systems, known under the term “systems of provision” has been formalised Fine & Leopold. A key consideration is that social aspects of provisioning systems influence physical aspects, and vice-versa. For instance, electricity is often dominated by monopolistic or oligopolistic generation organisation and centralised technologies: heavy regulation aims to check their power, but also protects the status quo by shielding it from competition by fundamentally different providers (local micro-generation, for instance). Similar mechanisms can be seen for personal transportation and the role of the automobile industry. Therefore it is vital to consider both social and physical aspects of provisioning systems, since their interdependencies may constitute significant opportunities or constraints. By elaborating the systems of provision approach, embedded within the wider unifying notion of social provisioning, analysis will go beyond exchange to “the study of the on-going economic process that provides the flow of goods and services required by society to meet the needs of those who participate in its activities” (Gruchy 1987).
Studying alternative provisioning systems, in both their physical and social aspects, is necessary to understand how well-being may be decoupled from resource use. Depending on social and physical supply chains and efficiencies, more or less energy may be required to reach high levels of well-being. Interestingly, some of the most important decoupling opportunities are likely to be found at the community level: economies of scale through provision of efficient networks of energy service delivery or collective demand-side measures. Examples of socio-technical provisioning systems between energy and well-being could be the existence of collective systems (local supply networks, public transit …), in contrast with highly individualised systems, where each household has to use its own forms of energy to procure goods and services. Such collective systems may also provide more resilience to shocks in energy supply or prices than highly efficient, but individualised, technologies.