InFocus: Dr Mette High

On Thursday 25 February 2021, the University of St Andrews launched the Centre for Energy Ethics. The Centre is made up of a group of researchers hoping to foster opportunity for energy researchers of any discipline to come together to engage in dialogue.

The Centre wishes to tackle a fundamental challenge facing humanity today: how to balance energy demands with concerns for anthropogenic climate change. By bringing together different areas of expertise, the Centre claims the responsibility of scholars to address such questions, pursuing the question not only of what we can do, but also what we should do. The key three areas of focus are research, policy and public engagement. The virtual launch saw hundreds of people from all over the world come to join the event.

The driving force behind the Centre is Dr Mette High, a social anthropologist who joined the University of St Andrews in 2011 as a researcher. Her aim is for the Centre to focus on nuanced understanding and engagement between disciplines on matters of climate change and energy.

Having completed her PhD at Cambridge in 2008 on the Mongolian gold rush, she continued her research at LSE with a British Academy Post-Doctoral fellowship. As part of this project, she undertook field work in Mongolia looking at the relation between Buddhism and the gold rush.  This involved detailed ethnographic research into Buddhist monasteries that were located near gold mining camps.

Having had a son and realising that field work in Mongolia was no longer a practical option, Dr High was looking for redirection. In 2011, whilst writing her book Fear and Fortune (2017: Cornell University Press) at a research centre in Switzerland, she attended a workshop where one of the attendees suggested that “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) might be the focus of her next research project, noting her previous interest in natural resource extraction of the gold rush but also her interest in ethics and how we enable human flourishing.

This interest led Dr High to secure research funding from the Leverhulme Trust and later the European Research Council to work in Colorado from 2013, involving field work in Denver, where many oil and gas companies involved in hydraulic fracturing have their headquarters. Acknowledging that fracking is controversial, Dr High wished to transcend political motives to seek nuance and understanding about such topics. This aim is central to the Centre for Energy Ethics.

The Centre has a clear interdisciplinary approach, involving already 14 of the 22 academic schools at the University of St Andrews. Explaining this, Dr High stated, “I really treasure the debates and discussion within my discipline. But I also miss engagement that can happen when we work across disciplines. I think in the world at large, there is a tendency to hang out with people with similar views, and thus our views are affirmed as right. Then, when we leave our bubble and meet people from different walks of life, we struggle to understand each other, and we become defensive. As soon as we do that, dialogue becomes a challenge. For me, it is crucial we engage.”

She continued, “Through these encounters, we can ask questions, reflect on our positions and understandings, and perhaps embrace perspectives we might not be otherwise aware of. This goes beyond academia. As academics we must engage with industry, government, the public, everyone who is part of our society”.

As Centre Director, Dr High has a strong team working with her to make this project happen. This team includes an administrator, events organisers, digital communications staff, IT services and research assistants.

Given that the key focus is engagement, there will be opportunity for students to get involved, regardless of whether they are at undergraduate, Masters or PhD level. Participation for students is open for those with an interest in any of the three key areas of focus:  research, policy and public engagement.

For students interested in research, there is The Energy Blog, in which students can write a short piece aimed at an interested, non-academic public audience. Students may reach out to Dr High if this is of interest.

For students interested in policy, there is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Centre, who is organising PEP talks – Policy Engagement and Practice – open to the whole community.

In terms of engagement, events in the calendar include an energy café, virtual for the moment, which takes place fortnightly on Tuesdays from 12-1pm. This offers a platform for people to meet each other and foster relationships with the possibility of future collaboration. There are further possibilities for wider engagement, with a debate panel on 15 March debating the energy transition, and an “ASA panel” from 29 March – 1 April on the topic of “Who Speaks for Energy?”. The Centre also produces the podcast “All About Energy” in which each episode will see a member of the Centre speak on their research and the wide worlds of energy. And of course, COP26 initiatives.

Dr High said, “I would really encourage students to get in touch. The Centre is for them too. The Centre is about nuanced understanding grounded in research, and I would like students to take on that curiosity that compels them to engage”.

The Centre is not yet a physical building, and efforts so far have gone into building the team, fundraising and establishing the event programme. This is a privately funded centre with private donors, and planning for the building is a priority for the next six months. When complete, the Centre will be located in St Andrews.

Over the next ten years, the Centre for Energy Ethics has a £6 million budget. Dr High said, “The Centre’s vision is big and ambitious. I would like the Centre to be a place where we can have early career researchers, policy fellows and visiting professors, so we have a core with expertise, networks, and skills to be able to feed latest research from St Andrews into policy making at Holyrood and Westminster.”

The Centre will also have an artist in residence. Dr High said “Art was part of the launch event because it is very important for me that art is part of the centre’s ethos. We need to take on engagement not just as an opportunity but as a challenge. Here, art is uniquely positioned to help us. There is no right or wrong in art. Art opens up a way of relating to the word that is non-judgemental, it is not for or against, it is not bifurcated in the way I think a lot of our conversations about climate change are at the moment.”

“Right now, I feel popular discussions on energy and climate change are incredibly simplistic. This is not helpful for policy-makers nor scholars. We can be better scholars if we see engagement as a challenge, so I am embracing art as part of the ethos of the Centre. The Centre will be hosting an artist in residence who will be working with us in St Andrews”.

Further long-term possibilities will continue to include virtual events. As part of the launch, the Centre for Energy Ethics held an Art of Energy exhibition. Due to COVID-19, all submissions had to be digital, and consequently submissions were received from all over the world.

Dr High said, “We had art from Colombia, Cameroon, Senegal, Nigeria. This is incredible. If we had done this as a simple face to face event in the Byre, it would not have been possible. And three quarters of the people who tuned in to our launch were from outside Scotland, so we have an incredible opportunity for virtual engagement beyond Covid.”

This engagement is something the Centre wishes to stress. The Centre is not a platform for a simplistic environmental campaign that is not grounded in research. Rather, it is at its core a Research Centre. The aim is a nuanced understanding of energy and the environment, where it is  curiosity that drives and engages people.

More information may be found at the Centre’s website: https://www.energyethics.ac.uk/. If students wish to get involved, they may contact the Centre Administrator at energyethics@st-andrews.ac.uk or Dr High at mmh20@st-andrews.ac.uk.