The language we use to define “energy transition,” for example, exposes our different value systems

Bill-WhitelawHad an intriguing chat the other day with an industry colleague.

He’s personable, passionate, and persuasive.

He has three degrees, including a doctorate. He is one of our sector’s most brilliant technical minds. He has published extensively in the right journals and speaks regularly at the right conferences.

He gets calls consistently for his thoughts on some pretty challenging questions.

There isn’t much about energy and energy systems he doesn’t know after more than three decades in the oil and gas sector.

energy transition language
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These days, he thinks a lot about “energy transition” and “energy transformation” and what binds them as phrases and what separates them. He has a distaste for the former and a penchant for the latter.

He’s puzzled why science seems to be on a defensive backfoot in key debates like climate change. He’s a classic “the-facts-are-the-facts” kind of guy, so he gets frustrated when there’s more than one “fact” bouncing around in a discussion.

Give him credit, though. He’s deliberately moving from his “comfort zone” because he believes much is at stake for society in getting energy change right. He’s talking to many more people these days in a personal quest to know and understand even more.

But as intelligent and astute as he is, he’s often perplexed that an increasing number of folks he encounters seem to have views and values that don’t accord with his sense of “science” of “transformation.”

So, I asked him if he thinks much about energy linguistics and how language subtly constructs and shapes how “energy talk” goes these days, especially when different value systems and perspectives collide.

It was an interesting shift to a different thinking paradigm for him: one that foregrounds language – and the way language shapes and conditions what people understand to be the facts of a matter – from what a “fact” means to how it’s defined and the social context in which it gets considered.

Here’s the thing: despite all his learning and experience, he has no clue who taught him to conjugate verbs. When pressed, he also admits he isn’t quite sure how to identify the predicate in a sentence or what being the antecedent of a verb means.

We both chuckled at the notion of a dangling participle (which he couldn’t define).

He’s heard of grammar, syntax, and semantics but knows what he knows about them is limited. Etymology? Phonology? Morphology? Nope, nope, and nope. No clue.

Yet somehow, he believes he makes language work, for the most part – and he does, within the various parts of the energy system in which he operates with familiarity and comfort.

But not so much outside of those well-trodden paths.

How is it, then, I asked, that he could so confidently tackle the technical and increasingly social and political questions he does without really understanding the limitations of his linguistic and language toolkit? This is especially germane during his new adventures outside the energy echo chambers, where he spent most of his adult life, and which have their own energy language where words have certain meanings in certain contexts, based on rules nobody can quite remember establishing. Language isn’t contested because all parties in those echo chambers know those rules – without actually being able to explain how they know them.

But outside his echo chambers – more charitably defined as “knowledge chambers” – there are as many energy dialects and vernaculars as there are world languages. I suggested that the rules of language so familiar in one instance are often rendered useless in the next.

He admitted that isn’t something he gives much thought to.

Let’s focus on the term transition. It’s a straightforward word that, when preceded by “energy,” can, in the blink of an eye, push some people to technical, political, and social poles so far apart there’s little hope of anything resembling rational discussion.

When pressed, he admitted believing “transition” to be a weaponized word of the woke – used by “climate warriors” to deliberately marginalize oil and gas from transition talks. His “petro-hackles” rise when someone insists, for example, there can be no transition in which hydrocarbons play a part.

As we delved deeper, he admitted to frustration when he had to “expert-‘splain” his version (and his views) of energy transition/transformation to folks outside the comfort of his energy linguistics sphere.

I queried whether he gives much thought to how hard someone not in his “knowledge chamber” might have to work to “decode” his explanations. He was puzzled by the decoding notion, until he realized he is an encoder. That took my doing some ‘splaining’ of my own: I asked him to think about how he thinks about the message he wants to encode – and whether he ever considers what the other party to his discussion might possess by way of decoding tools.

In a nutshell, he hadn’t thought a great deal about the burden we often unconsciously place on words and language as the packhorses of our communicative intent. He acknowledged that, for the most part, he implicitly assumes everyone comes to words like energy and transition the same way he does, with similar intentions and motivations. But he now understands he encodes deliberately to convey his values vis-a-vis energy, which often accounts for the looks of chagrin and disdain he receives in return.

In language terms, the encoder-decoder model is a simple way to think about what gets sent and what gets received, with a focus on understanding how meaning and context fidelity can get lost much in the way an electronic signal often degrades between transmission and reception.

I only half-jokingly suggested to my friend that he needed remedial ESL lessons – Energy as a Second Language – to improve his fluency and better appreciate the depth of the language tools available to be effectively understood across increasingly diverse energy instances.

Did I change his mind about the importance of language as a mediator of better outcomes on energy change? It was tough, but grudgingly, I think he would admit he’s now thinking differently about different forms of energy talk and how every conversation has a different context in which meaning and consensus outcomes are negotiated.

And at least he laughed when I asked him to contemplate how much he has had to say about energy transition, er, transformation, has gotten lost in energy translation.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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