Technology: the Modern Prometheus

In this article I examine the question of how intrinsically related innovation is to growth. The question is one of environmentalism because it intends to help demonstrate why we seem to consistently position issues of environmentalism through economic lenses. It’s not a perfect argument, because the approach is intended to make broad sweeping generalisations rather than a highly nuanced analysis of all the specifications.

In part, by asking this question, I am actually trying to detangle the philosophy of Prometheism from neoliberalism. As Prometheism isn’t a concept that enjoys a lot of public analysis, it is necessary to outline a few basis points. In doing so, it may seem self-evident as to why it leads to neoliberalism, and the task then becomes one to demonstrate that it is merely a necessary but not sufficient predicate.

Moreover, I wish to argue that Prometheism just as easily lends itself to economic agendas on the other side of the spectrum, including Marxism, but the end point one takes is very much an issue of one’s view on (economic) justice.

The teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.

Prometheism: Stealing Fire

The first myth of Prometheus is an Ancient Greek one, wherein a Titan stole the fire of the Olympians and gave it to Man [sic]. This is an allegory for taking the spark of innovation from the heavens. It has come to represent the idea of humanity successfully challenging the status quo set by divinity and often alludes to an element of hubris. Not so for its eponymous philosophy.

The central premise of Prometheism is one that vaunts human innovation, and does so in such a way that it predicts that human innovation will provide a solution either leading up to or as a result of any major crises we may encounter. Specifically, it often positions itself against arguments denouncing economic growth, which claim that unlimited growth will lead to a catastrophic environmental collapse. Its response is that the potential power of human ingenuity and ability to provide technological solutions far surpasses the magnitude of these issues.
One of the best ways to see this dialect is through a comparison of these following videos, first Paul Guilding’s ‘The Earth is Full’. Followed by Peter Diamandis ‘Abundance is Our Future’.

Both provide a vision of the eventual trajectory of human development, one suggesting that the only genuine way to preclude a catastrophic environmental failure is through a steady-state economic system, the other suggesting that any limits to growth will ultimately hinder humanity’s potential to discover a solution by strangling resources. In essence, the position that vaunts human innovation to provide technological solutions seems to require access to as many resources as we can provide for research.

This is a position argued strongly by such theorists like Lomborg who takes the apparently next logical step to suggest that there is no environmental crisis, “The Truth about the Environment”. A position that was iterated by other historic economists like Simon in his work, the Ultimate Resource, which places human ingenuity as a far more valuable resource than most natural resources. It was the thinking of Simon that underscored the attempts to combat ‘radical environmentalism’ articulated in Reagonomics and Thatcherism.

Technology with a big T

The reason that I consider these arguments to be falsely equivalent, that growth is inextricably linked with innovation, is because it begins with an economic premise and imposes that regime onto a technological impetus. By this I mean to allude to the way we have collectively invested some kind of agency into a shared notion of Technology and what it does for our society. That this ideal is deeply implicated, and even integrated, into almost every aspect of Western society. It is this social constructivist view of technology that makes me capitalise the word: to separate Technology as phenomenon as it interacts with society, rather than to describe an assemblage of objects and devices that humanity creates.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon.

Technology is composed of a number of artifacts, objects and instruments that humanity has created towards a particular purpose, but whose very nature we have imposed a particular meaning upon. As a type of technology becomes ubiquitous its meaning is subsequently replicated throughout our society until it becomes invisible. We cease to make a conscientious connection between the two and start to unconsciously associate them. In certain extreme cases, the value we attribute to an artifact can excite and even elicit strong emotions from us, to the point where the artifact is fetishised. We need look no further than the Apple Cult for a recognisable example.

As Technology comes to represent the aggregate aspirations of human innovation, it foments an implicit teleology into the ideal it represents. Technology becomes embedded into nearly every aspect of our environment (social and physical), even serving as an intermediary for our socialisation. It begins to shape our fundamental experience of being human and lends itself to some notion of a shared manifest destiny, which is purportedly realised through humanity’s innovation.

Such notions reinforce the value of things from a humanocentric point of view (or even technocentric). Not to say that a humanist perspective is bad, but that in terms of making assessments about Technology, it comes pre-packaged with its own value system. This makes it difficult to decouple any notion of technology from a human framework. This tends to position Technology in line with human progress, and against a commonly held view of Nature. It places technology (and human capacity) in opposition to the environment, creating a crude dialectic between them. However, any conceptualisation of Nature is just as much an imaginary construct as Technology: they are both the result of humanity ascribing particular qualities onto a complex system.

The Economics of Environmentalism

I briefly mentioned how one side of the debate lent itself to Reagonomics and Thatcherism. I mention this because at the heart of this debate is how a given society responds to the systematic issues of and within the environment. Environmentalism as part of a counter-cultural movement is a decidedly Western phenomenon, positioning itself against State authority and a lack of corporate accountability. Outside the West, socio-cultural dispositions towards the environment are not politicised in the same way, and when they are they have often been a Western import.

This leads me to my next major point, being that almost entirely our sense of environmentalism is couched in economic terms. In part, this is because it is a political agenda, meaning is it a social product, and in part because it seems to be the closest type of systematic rationality we can apply to its issue. I say this, because on both sides of the debate (whether stable-state or unfettered growth), the arguments seemed to have started with an economic position, and worked their way back to the environmental system. That is, both neoliberalism and Marxism are world views of an economic nature, each predicated on a set of values. Those values can roughly be reduced to the fundamental concepts of liberty and equality respectively.

From these original positions, a kind of economical reasoning allows its relevant proponents to extrapolate a political regime of a just society and does so in such a manner as to bury the original dialectic far from sight. This was the dialect of the Cold War: iterated and reified through politics and societies; the collapse of the Soviet Union prompting the pronouncement of the victory of liberal democracy (read neoliberalism) by Fukuyama. Though hardly an original contention for student of international relations, we are now twenty years on and our retrospection of this becomes increasing removed and academic.

Let us re-examine the Western response to the environmental protests of the 60s and 70s, one that was almost Weberian in its approach. During this period we see a State treat radical environmentalism as being equivalent to the imposition of Communism, and subjected to a kind of new McCarthyism; a Green Scare if you will. The State response was much more subtle, by instating environmental ministries, by bureaucratising environmental issues, it was able to systematise the issue and placate a public demanding a response as a kind of governmentality. However, like many Western state-led environmental initiatives, the actual outcomes of any given program have often fallen far from their purported objects.

Rational Discord

If you’ve followed the monologue so far, I have attempted to demonstrate that both Technology and Nature are vulnerable to the constructivist black box. That we can interact with these things, but we cannot fundamentally know them independently of the meaning we already impose upon them. In doing so, we tend to arrive at notions of both the environment and technology with predispositions towards them.

I have also attempted to demonstrate many of the arguments and approached towards engaging with the environment are informed by underlying economic ontologies. So while on the surface the debate seems to be a contention between Technology (that human innovation is our greatest resource and therefore it should be unlimited) and Nature (that nature is a finite natural resource and therefore humanity’s impact upon it should be regulated), in reality they are built upon much more fundamental issues about how we, as societies, should organise economically: whether more towards an entirely unregulated market with an ultimate goal of prosperity (neoliberalism), or more towards a heavily regulated market that removes many individual liberties for a greater good (Communism).

Prometheism: Love Your Monsters

The second part of this article explores the other main allegory making claim to the name Promethean, namely Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (or the Modern Prometheus). In her book, Dr Frankenstein uses (pseudo) science to defy the assumed natural order to revivify a dead body into an unnamed man. The scientific allegory is almost self-apparent, in a “What Has Science Done?” kind of way. Again, the parallel is one that science is humanity’s hubris against the natural order. Specifically, it is invoked in lieu of the precautionary principle.

It is to this notion that I return to one of the extrapolations of Prometheism that responds to this accusation of hubris, namely that we should love our monsters. In summary, the responding position claims that science, and all its artifacts are the consequences of human innovation; specifically that “Dr. Frankenstein’s sin was not his hubris to create life but rather his fright that led him to abandon rather than care for his creation”. In other words, it is something of an extension the original position advanced by the Prometheans. It argues that science itself provides its own solutions, and that our approach should be one of loving the works of our creation instead of abjuring them. However, there is a kind of rationality implicit in the scientific method, which doesn’t always translate into the political arena. Rather the rationality of any evidence-based position is almost always subsequently co-opted by an economic framework and it’s own particular rationality. That is, the scientific method is subsumed by rational choice theory (which means its findings are often subjected to the Tragedy of the Commons).

On Energy and Emissions

In the context of modern environmentalism, there are two core issues that are visited frequently. One reflects the source of our production (typically energy, but also acquisition of raw materials) and the other reflects the waste of our production (pollution). While there are a number of ways that these issues can be explored, the most prominent ones relate to energy, such as in renewable energy sources, and its almost directly related issue of emissions, such as in climate change. One side seeks to address what it considers to be a depletion of natural resources, and the other an impact on the environment we exist in. Rather than revisit the specifics of those debates (some of which is already alluded to in the growth vs stable-state debate above), I will instead highlight that both these debates are very frequently framed as economic issues. This is more true for energy than it is for emissions, and it is this comparison that I wish to use to help show why we tend to fall back on economic conceptualisations of the environment in order to address environmental problems.

Perhaps the most constantly visited argument relevant to energy production is its absence and our current societal dependency on a certain amount of energy production. The core issue at play is one of abundance. There is a certain amount of a resource that our society must acquire in order to produce or perform baseline functions. As the population increases, and as more of the global population modernises and industrialises, the amount of energy required increases. According to the International Energy Agency, the average energy used per person in the last decade increased by 10%, as the world population increased 27%. So the question of how much energy is available from our current sources is an important question, and one that very much aligns with some of the attendant issues with arguments for the limits of growth, viz. if there are finite energy resources then there cannot be infinite growth. Naturally, this tends to shift the burden of energy production to renewable energy sources, which are limitless (at least as far as our foreseeable future is concerned in any meaningful sense). That we are reaching a point where the production cost of solar energy (possibly our most abundant renewable energy) is able to challenge the production cost of fossil fuels. In 2008 energy power source for oil was 33.5%, coal was 26.8%, gas was 20.8% (meaning fossil fuel was a total of 81%), ‘other’ (hydro, peat, solar, wind, geothermal power, biofuels etc.) was at 12.9%, and nuclear was 5.8%. Oil and coal alone combined represented over 60% of the world energy supply in 2008.

If the production cost is the only relevant factor in changing our source of energy from a fossil fuel source, to something renewable or at least comparatively abundant and cheap like thorium and/or nuclear, or indeed the use of garbage to create fuel, those changes would be widespread. Lamentably, energy production contains other issues, including safety and emissions, which are much harder to reconcile into that equation. At this point, we naturally segue to the other half of this section: emissions.

This means that both types of initiatives [carbon pricing and emissions trading] depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first.

I won’t iterate the lengthy debates on climate change, but provide my agreement with the scientific consensus that climate change is real and very likely to be anthropogenic. Most of the major international programs that are seriously attempting to off-set climate change relate to market mechanisms, including pricing carbon or emissions trading. Both of these attempt to reconcile the externalities of emissions, by including them into the market. This means that both types of initiatives depend intrinsically on using market forces for solutions, which necessarily frames environmental issues as economic problems first. Thus, we come full circle.

Post-Scarcity

So we return to my original challenge: that is that Prometheism isn’t inherently neoliberal. The above comparison of energy and emissions politics has proved useful for the last step of this argument. Specifically, it will show how both are issues relevant to human impact upon the environment, but that there is actually a distinction between matters of allocation and distribution (how resources are applied vs. who benefits from those resources).

One of the reasons why programs turn to market-like mechanisms to help resolve energy and emission problems is because of the real costs associated with those problems, whether that’s the production cost of energy or the externalities of emissions. The prevailing system of liberal democracy in the West means that any such broad and systematic program has to somehow reconcile the private benefits that we seek to acquire as consumers versus the public goods we hope to enjoy as public citizens. However, there is a very symbiotic relationship between the market and liberal democracy. So attempting to resolve the issue of environmentalism through this framework simply reinforces the idea that the market mechanisms will provide the solutions. I say this, not because I’m about to lead to rejection of market forces (and/or capitalism), but merely to reiterate how deeply entrenched they are in almost every aspect of Western culture (I am somewhat skeptical that we can actually engage with large complex systems without filtering it through an economic lens on some level, but that’s an article for another day).

Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity.

The question remains: how would Prometheism potentially align with more socialist economic systems like Marxism? Simply put, because most of them also assume some kind of technological teleology, which will drive them towards a particular economic state. Effectively, the innovation implicit to Prometheism might actually prove a means of achieving abundance, which would change fundamental assumptions of current modern economics, being scarcity. Scarcity, holds that society attempts to balance human needs against the scarcity of material resources; a technology that produces energy sufficiently cheaply would reduce its production costs to a negligible cost, meaning it would be abundant for all practical considerations: thus, achieving post-scarcity status. Albeit, post-scarcity is still a live debate, being hailed alternatively as utopia and as a pipe dream. However, both these arguments seem to be reduced to either an acceptance or a rejection of an impending Malthusian catastrophe, which is itself the core contention of growth vs stable-state economics.

In summary, the teleology of human innovation is a powerful narrative that can be co-opted for either particular economic endgame (whether Marx or Fukuyama), and used to justify itself in seemingly self-evident ways.

4 thoughts on “Technology: the Modern Prometheus

  1. Pingback: On the Campaign Trail – Part 1 | Rhyme and Reason

      • The handbook is the most accurate analysis and description of reality in terms of economics and the environment. And I get the feeling that your article significantly diverges from the handbook. I read the handbook once and quickly/easily grasped the argument. I’ve read your article a couple times and am still not quite certain what your exact argument is.

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