Uncertainty affects both the public and policy makers. In an uncertain environment, conflicting interests and changing political positions generate a welter of confusing and contradictory authoritative statements about energy. Consequently, it is no surprise that mistrust is endemic. Because energy users are justifiably skeptical of information offered them, the credibility of an information source may make more of a difference than the accuracy of the information offered. Experience leads us to believe that mistrust would be even more serious in a major energy emergency. In short, credibility may be the central problem for energy conservation programs, for emergency preparedness and management policies, and for any other energy programs and policies that rely for their effectiveness on public response.
Energy debates are, in an important sense, debates about control. Energy is often symbolic of control or loss of freedom. A major motive behind some local energy activities has been to gain for communities a greater ability to control or manage their destinies, as they see themselves buffeted by national policies and world and national economic forces. The perception and experience of control are also powerful determinants of individual response, and they increase behavioral commitment to future action. Thus, energy policies and programs are likely to be better accepted and more effective if they increase individual and local control, rather than impose decisions from outside. We believe control is currently a particularly important issue in energy policy because of the relatively low level of public trust in energy institutions.
In addition to these characteristics of the energy system, several facts about the actors in the system have also repeatedly impressed us. Although it is often useful to think of these actors as economically rational decision makers, several other processes govern their behavior as well.
One of these processes is behavioral momentum. Individuals and organizations are, in part, creatures of habit. They establish routines and stick to them, they work to reduce uncertainty and change in their environments, and they avoid or ignore problems. People, organizations, and local governments often persist in outmoded energy-using practices despite information that they would benefit from change. Individuals, furthermore, usually justify their past behavior to themselves, strengthening their tendency to keep doing what they have done in the past. Organizations create subunits and standard operating procedures that have a similar effect. Behavioral momentum can be reversed by getting the relevant people actively involved in a change process: any new activity tends to commit them to a new course of action. The principle of involvement can be used manipulatively, but it can also be an extension of a democratic decision process: a decision made after political debate constitutes a behavioral commitment for a community.