Modern Consumer Families and Self-reliant Maine Yankees: Two Cultures of Residential Heating

Gray Cox1, Moises Flores Baca1, Nicholas C. Harris1, Renae Lesser1, Phineas Ramsey1, Miguel Valencia1, Stephen Wagner2, and Jacob Wartell1

1College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME 04609
2BCM Environmental and Land Law PLLC, Concord, NH 03301

Corresponding Author: Gray Cox (

Key Words: residential heat, culture, firewood, regional analysis, consumer behavior, ethnographic study, Maine culture, DIY

Cultural analysis is vital for understanding the causes and patterns of energy consumption (Lutzenhizer 1992, Lutzenhizer 2008, and Stephenson 2010). Here we present a study of residential heating in Hancock County, Maine that uses a mix of ethnographic methods. The results show that previous studies of Hancock County, ME energy use dramatically underestimated the use of wood as a fuel. Additionally, we find that fuel choices are very affected by two alternative subculture patterns. These patterns involve systematic differences in root metaphors for heating, values and assumptions concerning space, time, aesthetics, costs, family structure, ways of knowing, and other aspects of life. Our results have important implications for policy change and community based efforts that aim at changing energy use. They also reveal hypotheses about comparable cultural differences in other kinds of household behaviors in Maine and other parts of the world.

Artwork by Alicia Oberholzer – See More

I. Introduction
Hancock County, Maine has 1,586 square miles of land, most of which is forested (US Census Bureau 2018). It consists of approximately 45% hardwood and 55% softwood/evergreen growth (Ten Broeck 2010). Hancock County has a population of 54,418 people and 22,149 households distributed in coastal towns and more sparsely populated rural inland villages (US Census Bureau 2018). A previous study of residential heating with wood undertaken by the U. S. Census indicated that 10% of the households in the state of Maine and 11% in Hancock County heated with wood (US Census Bureau 2017).

The ethnographic research reported here is part of a larger interdisciplinary project studying the use of wood as a fuel for residential heating in Hancock County. Previous research indicates that increased use of wood could reduce carbon footprint, promote local economic development and security, and increase regional and national energy security – all in ways that might have social and environmental costs significantly less than the costs of other fuels being replaced (Ten Broeck, 2010). This might seem initially counter-intuitive, since in many parts of the world the use of wood for residential heating and cooking is unsustainable and its health costs are very high (World Health Organization 2016). However, in rural areas where wood is plentiful, its harvest may provide a sustainable source of energy (deB Richter et. al. 2009, and Gulland 2018). Where baseline presence of particulate pollution is low and rural population is sparse, the public health costs of marginal pollution caused from efficient wood stoves may be less than the environmental costs of common fossil fuel alternatives. Additionally, burning wood doesn’t impact the global carbon cycle the way burning fossil fuels does, as carbon from the wood is already a part of the modern carbon cycle and does not add to the total load of carbon in the carbon cycle and the parts per million in the atmosphere.

Preliminary study by our team found that there was an ample wood supply source in Hancock County that could be harvested sustainably for residential heating in the county. Measurements of particulate levels in the local atmosphere and modelling of likely public health impacts indicate that the health costs of increased use of efficient wood heaters would be very low (Cass 2011).

These results suggest it would be useful to study who in the county was and was not using wood as a residential fuel and why. Previous research has demonstrated a wide range of ways in which culture plays a significant role in determining energy consumption (Lipfert 1983, Lutzenhiser 1992, Wilhite 1996, Lutzenhiser 2008, Sopha 2010, and Sovacool 2011). Considerations in addition to cost – including time use, lifestyle preference, identity, and other factors – may play important roles in the decision to use firewood or other heat sources (Force 1989, Jalas and Rinkinen 2013, and Williams 2004).

Here we present a survey of 120 households in Hancock County, ME. We find indications that dramatically more wood is used for residential heating than previously reported (US Census Bureau 2017). We find that those who use wood differ culturally in systematic ways in their heating practices. These differences are characterized here in terms of “Modern Consumer Families” (MC) and “Self-reliant Maine Yankee Families” (SMY). These differences suggest possible significant implications for understanding cultural action that might yield improved practices of sustainability.

II. Material and Methods
To research patterns of fuel use in Hancock County, we used a critical participatory research process in the tradition of “illuminative evaluation” (Cox 1986, Richards 1985). This process draws on multiple methods to develop “verbal images” of intentional structures of behavior whose accuracy could be “triangulated” using qualitative and quantitative methods (Cox 1986, and Richards 1985). These methods include: household surveys, focus groups, consultations with community leaders and experts, in-depth/semi-structured ethnographic interviews, and participant observation (Spradley 1979).

We developed and refined the household survey using initial in-depth, open-ended, ethnographic interviews from a snowball sampling of people from varied income levels, professional backgrounds, and regions of the county. We also drew on insights from participant observation and consultation with various local experts on the production and use of wood as a residential fuel source. The systematic survey instrument developed from this process is a brief questionnaire designed to simultaneously gather basic data about heating choices and elicit open-ended dialogue in which participants explain how they heat their homes in their own words and according to their own customs. Survey sessions were typically 30 to 40 minutes in length.

We surveyed 120 households, selected to systematically include representation from each town proportional to its population relative to the entire county. We selected households by identifying every Nth household in the town property list, where:

In the few cases where property lists were not available, selection of households was varied geographically to provide a representative sampling.

The basic survey questions were:

  1. How do you heat? Do you heat with firewood or pellets?
  2. How many cords of wood or tons of pellets do you burn a year and where do you get them?
  3. What are your reasons for not using wood more for heating?
  4. What matters most to you regarding home heating?
  5. Do you think heating with firewood and/or pellets should be encouraged or discouraged for reasons of ecology, economy, health, or national security? Why?

III. Results and Discussion
We find that the level of residential heating with wood in Hancock County, ME is dramatically higher than previously indicated. US Census Bureau (2017) reported that 11% of households in Hancock County used wood as a heat source. We found that 58% of households use at least some wood to heat (Fig. 1). Of these, approximately 50% of households get half their heat from wood sources.

Figure 1: The extent to which surveyed households heat with wood. The right hand axis categorizes the extent to which each household heats with wood. The bottom axis shows the number of households out of the total sample of 120 that fall under each category.

There are a number of possible explanations for why such different results were found here compared with the previous Census study. Some of the discrepancy may be explained by an actual increase in wood usage following a devastating ice storm in 1998 which caused over 360,000 people in Maine to lose electric power and, in many cases, to have to live without it for several weeks. The larger sample size (5x) of our study may also impact the different results. However, it is likely that discrepancies in self-reporting of wood use in the different contexts of the two surveys has had a large impact on our results. For example, some respondents were clearly concerned by the fact that insurance companies typically charge significantly higher premiums for houses which rely primarily or exclusively on wood heat. Thus, those households with any source of heat other than wood were likely to report the other heating source as their primary source in a survey for an official government study. Since the Census survey did not ask about supplemental or back up forms of heat, other sources would have been unregistered.

Figure 2: Households that heat with wood. The pie chart on the left shows the relative proportion of households heating with at least some wood. Categories of wood heating regimes include: exclusively, almost exclusively, primarily, 50/50, supplemental, as a back up for other heating systems. The large pie slice on the right-hand side of the pie represents the 42% of the households who used no wood at all. The bar chart on the right breaks down the “no wood” group into four subcategories, those who chose not to heat with wood because of: age, rental constraints, allergy/asthma problems, or “other” reasons.

The relative percentages of different household wood heating regimes are shown in Figure 2. Initial findings included self-reported explanations as to why people did not heat with wood: 6% had allergies or asthma, 6% were elderly or infirm and no longer able to heat with wood, and 5% were renters whose landlords did not allow them to heat with wood (even if a stove and chimney were in place).

Of the “no wood” heating households, 25% fell into the “other” explanation category. Why did these households choose other heat sources over wood? One clue came from people’s direct responses to the question, “What matters most to you regarding home heating?” Surprisingly, only about half mentioned economic issues like cost or finances as mattering most – or even mentioned them at all. Further, of those who did mention economic issues, 58% of those respondents used some wood in heating their homes. This indicates that a concern with economic issues such as cost are not a predictor of which fuel people choose for heating.

Even more striking is the very different ways in which people interpreted questions of cost in terms of fuel choice. For example, in comparing wood with oil, one person said, “[Wood] costs more than oil because my time is worth more than that. You have to cut it and stack it. It’s dirty. You get tired of it.” In contrast, a second person making the comparison said: “The nice thing about wood is that it heats you three times. Once when you cut it, once when you split it, and once when you burn it.” Clearly these two had very different ways of constructing their understanding of what calculates as a cost. From the point of view of the second group, the contrast was sharpened by their perception that people who had views similar to the first person might not only spend the extra premium that heating with oil cost in dollars, but also go and spend hundreds of dollars on a membership in a fitness club in order to get exercise which the second person viewed himself as getting for free by “heating himself three times” with wood.

In closely reviewing the nuances of people’s responses and reflecting on insights from the other methods employed, we see a pattern of two different subcultures of household heating distinguished by their root metaphors, assumptions, values, and practices. Using interpretive methods of “illuminative evaluation,” we developed “verbal images” for these two groups and their behavior (Richards 1985). The first group, the “Modern Consumer” (MC) families, has as its root metaphor for heating the notion that heating should be viewed as an efficient service that is provided for you. The second group, the “Self-reliant Maine Yankee” (SMY) families, has as its root metaphor for heating the notion that heating should be viewed as a self-reliant practice that is performed by the householders themselves. Table 1 summarizes the contrasts we found between the two subcultures.

Table 1: Modern Consumer Families and Self-reliant Maine Yankees: Two Cultures of Residential Heating in Hancock County, ME.

We found systematic differences in values in these two sub-cultures. MC families value a heating service that is delivered in a homogeneous and relatively uniform distribution through space and time. They comment that: “I like to be able to walk anywhere in the house in my T-shirt and be comfortable.” They praise their conventional oil or propane gas heating system because: “I don’t have to give it a thought, just set the thermostat and you’re done.” For them, a good heating system is like a good waiter or valet who seamlessly delivers the desired service – the less you need to notice it or talk about it, the better. Typically, a neat and tidy house that is uniformly clean and well-appointed is desired.

In contrast, for the SMY families it is considered common sense that heat should be distributed unevenly through space and time. They emphasize the desirability of having a space in the house that is especially hot, noting, “There’s nothing like a woodstove if you want to get warm when you come in from the cold.” But they will often also make comments like, “I like to leave the bedrooms cold. I sleep better.” They assume further that variations over time are normal and appropriate – keeping the house at different temperatures depending on the time of day, week, or season of the year, as well as who is home and what activities are happening. They prize, in a variety of ways, opportunities to notice, talk about, and interact with the materials and devices that they use to produce heat in their homes. They will note, “I like to watch the fire and feed it. Its homey, cozy.” They savor the feel of the seasoned wood in handling it, the smell of it burning, the hypnotic flicker and glow of the fire and coals, the sparks that rise when they poke in new logs, and even the fertile mineral qualities of the ash when they use it to enrich their gardens. For SMY families, its seems normal and appropriate that there be dirty spaces where wood is brought in and handled. This extends to their utility spaces and landscaping outside the house as well, in which workspaces of different sorts are assumed to be part of the well-equipped household.

The MC families view heating as a service provided to them as consumers and the purchase of it is relatively neutral with regard to gender, age and other features of them as individuals. Either spouse can, for instance, ask the other to call the professionals and have them come and fix problems or maintain the system. In contrast, the SMY families typically suppose that it is normal and appropriate for different members of the household to have different gifts, skills and preferences when it comes to performing various heating activities. The traditional stereotypical form this could take is that the husband with greater upper body strength cuts the wood and the wife who is home through the day in the kitchen tends the fire. This is not an especially accurate stereotype but the underlying reality that it makes sense for different people to do different chores is a part of the practice-centered understanding of heating for these folks. The activities provide opportunities for creativity and self-expression in the ways wood is split and stacked and fires are built – and ways children or family and friends are involved in such activities.

In contrast to the MC families’ purchase of a service by professionals, much of the activity associated with heating in SMY families is only partially commodified, if at all. It may involve gift exchanges of work, tools or material. Much is exchanged by barter. Often wood is harvested on the householders’ own land or gleaned from public lands or lots of others. Much of the work is by people who do it only part time or as amateurs in supplying fuel or building and maintaining chimneys and stoves along with other infrastructure. The guiding and regulation of such activity is not directed by expert opinion provided by professionals as in the case of the MC families purchasing conventional heat from “Them”. Instead, it is developed and shared in a collaborative, community based epistemic process of dialogue and shared practice in which an individual may share what “I” have found and compare it with “Your” experience to develop a collective sense of what “We” would agree on – which might come, over time, to be accepted, increasingly without thinking or debate, as what “One” does in heating a house.

In their views of each other, the typical – or perhaps better said, the stereotypical – MC and SMY families have rather sharply contrasting visions. The MC family can tend to view their own approach to heating as modern and rational and in many cases see the wood heating done by SMY families as quaint, old-fashioned, poor or backwards looking and perhaps even feel compassion for “those poor b******s”.

A significant portion of the SMY families can, in contrast, view heating with wood as a source of personal and family pride and regional identity and view oil users as un-ecological, irrational householders who are irresponsible and not self-reliant, taking a risk that they will freeze in an ice storm. They may even view them as politically un-American or lacking good Earth stewardship because they are supporting “Big Oil” and not advancing oil independence or reducing their carbon footprint.

IV. Implications
The differences in household behavior and culture found here raise a variety of theoretical questions and suggest avenues for further study. The first question is, “What leads to the emergence and adoption of one subculture rather than another?” Our study identifies a variety of possible kinds of dynamics and explanatory factors that determine who takes part in the MC or SMY cultural practices. These include:

  1. Some people seemed clearly to have formed their ideas and practices of heating in early childhood and maintained them since. Parents cultivated appreciation, for example, for the joys of splitting wood and then coming in to sit beside a warm wood stove.
  2. Others were motivated to adopt what they perceived as the local culture when they moved in to Maine in order to define and affirm their new cultural identities as “Mainers”.
  3. Others went through some kind of personal conversion experience when they had an opportunity to try an alternative form of heating. For example, some fell in love with the magic of a wood stove, or, conversely, others became enthralled with the relief of not having to feed one anymore.
  4. For a few people, a major ice storm in 1998, which shut down many power lines for weeks, led them to conclude that self-reliance in heating sources was a matter of survival.
  5. Some shifted to wood heat as part of the self reliance efforts of the back to the land migration to Maine in the 1960’s and 70’s.
  6. Some shifted at one of the points at which the relative prices of fuels went through dramatic swings up or down leading them to rethink their approach to heating.
  7. Some bought houses or started renting where the infrastructure for one kind of heating practice or the other was already in place.

These 7 examples are just a few of the explanations for the adoption or rejection of one sub-culture or the other. What these examples might lead us to overlook, however, is the very significant variation in the extent to which the patterns of behavior of one sub-culture or the other are adopted. Individual households may have members with very different backgrounds and former practices of heating – who then raise children with some hybrid mix of values, norms and practices. And individuals may be self-reliant or expert-dependent to quite varying degrees in how they install, maintain, and feed the fuel systems for whatever mix of heating systems they choose.

In the case of some individuals and households, there is an adoption of one sub-culture or the other in a systematic and relatively complete way, as though it were a Kuhnian paradigm they were committed to – a logically coherent and systematically distinct way of describing and explaining the world and interacting with it which would be incommensurable with the alternative paradigm. In the case of many other individuals or households, the elements of the two subcultures are more like elements of two different accents or regional dialects which they can intermingle and mix and match different elements from to form a linguistic pattern of their own which itself might vary considerably over time. The dynamics of the causes and motives for participating in one culture or the other merit further study.

It is also worth considering how understanding these sub-cultures can help us design and implement programs aimed at changing fuel use. Could community organizers promote one culture over another, or could policy incentives encourage the promulgation of one culture over the other? Organizers might use various kinds of community activities to encourage the sharing, elaboration, celebration, or transformation of one set of cultural practices. Policy steps promoting one or the other could reinforce such action at the community level with resources to carry on the work, with public commitments to one cultural identity, with educational initiatives within the school systems, or with subsidies and other incentives.

Another line of research is the relevance of these sub-cultures to understanding household behavior in other areas of interest in sustainability studies – such as food systems, education, or health care. Might there be sub-cultures of households in Maine where food is understood with analogous root metaphors, views of space and time, aesthetic values and other assumptions analogous to the two sketched here? Participant observation carried out as part of this study strongly suggests that many key elements of the MC and SMY subculture patterns inform people’s practices for providing themselves with food, education, and health care. Systematic research in these areas would provide fruitful insights into the cultural patterns and into the dynamics by which these patterns develop and change over time. For example, are there experiences like gardening with tomatoes or using herbal teas for medicine that provide key gateways into SMY cultural practices? Are there community institutions like farmers’ markets or CDC sponsored community health agencies that are effective vehicles for more systematic cultural change?

The “two sub-cultures” pattern found in this study might also provide useful hypotheses for exploring the consumption behavior of households in other regions of the U.S. or other parts of the world in which various forms of consumer culture – and alternatives to it – have developed in the last two centuries (Lewis 1993, Thompson 2010). The patterns studied here might also provide useful ways of interpreting household behavior in other kinds of arenas besides ones focused on resource use such as political life and voting behavior.

V. Conclusion
This study of Hancock County, Maine, demonstrated that there is dramatically more use of wood as a residential fuel than previously reported and that a majority of households use it in some form. Further, household choices of heating methods would seem to be strongly associated with two different subculture patterns that involve involve systematic differences in root metaphors for heating, values and assumptions concerning space, time, aesthetics, costs, family structure, ways of knowing, and other aspects of life. The distinctions between these two subcultures, the “Modern Consumer” families and the “Self-reliant Maine Yankees”, may provide fruitful possible ways of framing further studies that aim to understand and change heating and other kinds of household practices in order to promote more sustainable uses of resources.

Significant and much appreciated support was provided by a 2009-2011 National Science Foundation Grant # 0904155 obtained through a Maine EPSCOR grant on “Developing Our Energy Future” received by the College of the Atlantic, administered by the University of Maine under the “Maine’s Sustainability Science Initiative.

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