Motivated Markets: Instruments and Ideologies of Clean Energy in the United Kingdom


This article examines efforts to reconcile capitalist and ecological values, focusing in particular on the instruments and ideologies that pervade the United Kingdom's developing renewable energy sector. In keeping with neoliberal models of economic knowledge and practice, renewable energy instruments target the motivations of individuals by using incentive programs to reach environmental policy goals. The argument focuses especially on the way newly implemented market devices shape and represent the motivations of energy producers, suppliers, and traders. The centerpiece of the U.K. government's initiative is the creation of an artificial market in renewability, bought and sold as a virtual commodity. Although the realities of economic motivation complicate the practical implementation of the renewable market, these are represented as isolated and self-interested “exchanges” by market devices, providing policymakers and their critics with partial yet authoritative accounts of renewable policy, premised on narrow and contested assumptions about economic motivation and action.

Joshua Reno, "A dairy farmer demonstrates how waste is fed into his bio-treatment plant in Wales." October 19, 2012.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on markets and economies. See, for example, Smoki Musaraj’s “Tales from Albarado: The Materiality of Pyramid Schemes in Postsocialist Albania” (2011), Douglas R. Holmes’s “Economy of Words” (2009), and Robert J. Foster’s “The Work of the New Economy: Consumers, Brands, and Value Creation” (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of articles on environmental politics, including Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of the Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism within and against Neoliberal Order” (2009), Marina A. Welker’s “‘Corporate Security Begins in the Community’: Mining, the Corporate Social Responsibility Industry, and Environmental Advocacy in Indonesia” (2009), and Joseph Masco’s “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post–Cold War New Mexico” (2004).

Joshua Reno, "English inventor James Murcott presides over the construction of a new bio-treatment plant." October 19, 2012 via .

About the Author

Joshua Reno is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His diverse research interests are linked by a fascination with materials and devices that become sites of social controversy and creativity, particularly those technologies, both wondrous and humble, which are designed to cope with waste, climate change, disease and disability. He received his PhD in Socio-cultural Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 2008.

Additional Works by the Author

Joshua Reno is the author of "Your Trash is Someone’s Treasure: the Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill,” which appeared in the Journal of Material Culture 14(1):29-46 in 2009. He has articles on waste, techno-science, and environmental politics appearing in Anthropology NowAmerican Ethnologist and Science, Technology and Human Values in 2011 and a book co-edited with Catherine Alexander on global recycling economies expected from Zed Books in 2012.


Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Why does Reno choose to work primarily with farmers to learn about renewable energy in the United Kingdom?

2. What are some of the changes that occurred in the renewable energy sector in the United Kingdom after the introduction of new, incentive-based, policies?

3. How does the United Kingdom’s Renewables Obligation create “facts” for economists and policy experts?  What kind of facts are these and what assumptions about people do they support?

4. Name some of the ways in which participants in the renewable energy sector account for Renewable Obligation Certifactes (ROCs).  Why does Reno use the idea of debt and “social payment” to understand them?

5. What two approaches to economic action does Reno find insufficient to account for the motivations of participants in renewable energy and carbon markets, and why?

6. Keith Hart writes: “How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between them” (2007:16).  What are some of the ways that people try to scale down the world through climate change discourse, policy and technology?  In what ways do they try to scale up the person?

Joshua Reno, "A Renewables Obligation Certificate (ROC) meter." October 19, 2012 via .

Editorial Overview

Worldwide, there is growing interest in promoting renewable sources of energy as viable alternatives to fossil fuels, but disagreement about how best to do so. The United Kingdom’s influential energy policy is unique because rather than levy a flat tariff or tax, it fosters a supplemental market in government issued renewable certificates, thereby allowing “renewability” to become a commodity tradable apart from the sale of energy. Anthropologist Joshua Reno analyzes the social implications of commodifying “renewability” in the August 2011 issue of Cultural Anthropology. “Motivated Markets: Ideologies and Instruments of Clean Energy in the United Kingdom,” examines what motivates small-scale energy producers in England and Wales and how this is mediated by various market devices, including connections to the national grid, virtual auctions, and the renewable certificates themselves.

Reno finds that the decisions of energy producers are not easily manipulated by new policies, but take place “in a context of established relations.”  Renewable certificates, for example, do not serve merely as incentives for large- and small-scale energy producers, but function as “new forms of obliging and manipulating social payment and debt, crystallized around the experimental moment associated with climate change governance.” And yet, paradoxically, the technical format of the market in renewability allows for policy experts to extract facts that accord with their assumptions about economic action.  From this perspective renewable credits “are not merely instruments that allow participants in the energy sector to calculate interests; they produce and circulate representations of those participants as self-interested, in keeping with neoliberal ideology.” For renewable energy and climate change policies to improve, Reno concludes, they must employ different ways of “scaling up the person” which can take into account the ambivalence and burden of knowledge associated with making the environmental economic.

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