The Gathering Storm of Diplomatic Catastrophe

Taken from Wikipedia, part of public domain.Australia is facing one of the most significant diplomatic crises in the last few decades, and there is almost no significant reportage of this impact. The first three months of government has seen a spectacular cavalcade of international incidents that is putting Australia in an incredibly fraught position. Significantly, there is currently a very insular account of international politics that is currently being trotted out by many of the media outlets, and if you were to take it at their word you might be forgiven for imagining this international furore is nothing more than a spat over phone tapping.

There are three policies and responses that are currently impacting Australia’s international relations, which are namely Australia’s immigration “turn back the boats” policy, Australia’s current climate policies, and Australia’s diplomatic activity through Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott. Both the previously mentioned policy positions are alienating Australia from the Asia-Pacific region, and Australia’s subsequent so-called ‘diplomatic’ activity is aggravating already delicate issues. While this might not be on the scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Australia will see itself caught in the middle of any escalating Sino-American tensions.

Australia’s policy on immigration and climate change are subtly and overtly affecting our foreign relations: our immigration policies are casting Australia as xenophobic, while our climate change policies are characterising us as a potential threat to national security.

Policy Failures on the Environment and Immigration

For a more nuanced take on Australia’s recent actions and how they are impacting upon our relations with Indonesia, I would direct you to this excellent analysis. The points to take away from this analysis is that the “turn back the boat” policy has incensed Indonesian national pride by undermining Indonesian sovereignty; it also highlights the significant impact that cutting foreign aid has had.

Australia’s climate change policy is an increasingly an issue of foreign policy, particularly as connections between climate change and security become manifest.

The other issue is Australia’s climate change and environmental policies (or lack thereof). Australia’s climate change policy is an increasingly an issue of foreign policy, particularly as connections between climate change and security become manifest. Climate change will have two big impacts on security, the first of them being the rise in ocean levels. To understand the geo-politics of these changes, I’d like you to look at a comparison of the Rising Sea maps by Natural Geographic. While the projections of ocean-level increases are variable, these maps are pretty reasonable medians compared to most projections I’ve seen. They are sufficient for our purposes here. You can get a broad sense of the way it will affect highly populated areas, and not to mention the impact it will have on the Pacific Islands, many of which may become entirely submerged like the island nation Kiribati.

If you compare Australia to South-East Asia, you will see that the ocean level rises will be particularly devastating to some of the most heavily populated areas in South-East Asia. These changes will put vast swathes of territory underwater and displace massive numbers of people. Comparatively, Australia will have some significant coastal impacts, but the principle population centres affected are coastal South Australia and the Murray-Darling basin. Agriculturally speaking, the creation of a permanent inner sea for Australia might actually be beneficial (please do not read this as an endorsement of sea-levels rising, merely an observation that on the balance of impact Australia will have some relative gains).

However, the real impact of global warming is how the impact on regional stability and security as hotter temperatures affect water cycles. Global warming’s impact on water cycles is phenomenal, from its impact on glacial waters in the Himilayas (a source of water for much of south-east Asia), to desertification in the Middle East. When sources of water dry up, and the land becomes more arid, there is a significant drop in arable land. Beyond this, as global temperatures increase, the frequency and potency of storm surges increases (see the 5th IPCC report). This means that storms are more devastating and more often, and flooding tends to be larger and more powerful. The issues on this for human habitation is not just the destruction of homes, but the stripping of topsoil necessary for arable land. It is these impacts through a shaken water cycle that will be most relevant to Australia’s domestically agriculture, far more than changes to ocean levels.

There is another angel for Australia, as both ocean levels and increased aridity are triggers for mass migrations, meaning global warming has a consequential implication for regional stability and security. It is for this reason, that Australia’s climate policies must be inherently linked to Australia’s foreign policy, as our stance and our pollution begins to jeapordise our neighbours’ very existence. Australia’s current policy regime smacks of Western exceptionalism, and there is little wonder why it leaves a bad taste in the mouths of our Asia-Pacific neighbours, particularly in light of Typhoon Haiyan.

…both ocean levels and increased aridity are triggers for mass migrations, meaning global warming has a consequential implication for regional stability and security.

Geopolitics of Asia-Pacific

Australia is in a precarious position diplomatically in the Asia-Pacific, by virtue of its the geopolitics of the history of the region. Australia’s three most important Asia-Pacific neighbours are Indonesia, China, and Japan: Japan and China constitute two (of four) of our most significant trading partners. To give you an idea, allow me to refer to an earlier article of mine where I explore Australia’s energy market relationships with China. Our foreign relations have also been markedly affected by the variable political stability of the Pacific Islands, and the regional stability of South-East Asia.

The defining historical attributes of Australia in the context of Asian-Pacific relations were fomented during the Cold War. Japan was westernised in order to provide a principle bulwark against the expansion of communism into the pacific theatre, and when the Domino Theory became prevalent there were significant overtures to secure places like Malaysia and Indonesia as anchor points for containment. In fact, Australia’s relationship to Indonesia was a key component of that policy.

Jump forward to the 1990s, and Australia endured an Asian security crisis under the Howard government. Part of Howard’s victory was achieved through rhetoric of White Australian nationalism, which was both jingoistic and echoed alarmism of the Yellow Peril. This was best exemplified in Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, which catalysed the Coalition’s jump to the right as they sought to recapture Hanson’s voter block (for a supremely excellent deconstruction of the Howard years Asian crisis, I refer you to Anthony Burke’s “Fear of Security”, Chapter 5). Moreover, during this period, the Asian nations observed Australia’s treatment of its indigenous population, as a bell-weather for populist attitudes of its non-white neighbours.

What we saw then, and what we are seeing repeated under the Abbott government, is a political ‘double-bind’ where the government of the day is incapable of diplomatic overtures because of its own ideological complicity.

What we saw then, and what we are seeing repeated under the Abbott government, is a political ‘double-bind’ where the government of the day is incapable of diplomatic overtures because of its own ideological complicity. The Howard and Abbott governments both achieved power partly due to racist polemics, and Abbott significantly touts a domestic mandate that stems from these positions. This means the Abbott government must present bravado in response to the posturing of our Asian-Pacific neighbours, lest it alienate its voter base.

The Gathering Storm

There is a gathering storm of military and political posturing happening in our region. There are numerous policies of encirclement occurring as China is emerging as the next superpower. This year alone, Russia has sought to politically encircle China, strengthening Sino-Russo relations while also forging alliances with its peripheral neighbours. The US is seeking to demonstrate its military presence by encircling China with fighter jets and stealth bombers, and also giving support to the disputed Taiwan island. Japan, China, and South Korea are becoming increasingly anxious over territorial disputes. There are huge games of realpolitik occuring, and Australia, like it or not, will be dragged into the centre of it.

Australia is strategically pivotal for for the USA, should any conflict break out between the USA and China. Any escalation of tensions between these two superpowers becomes of intrinsic interest to Australian national security. Very recently, China tested the limits of Japan’s naval territorial limits by sailing a war fleet through the Soya Strait, encircling Japan, and returning through the La Perouse Strait. This is overt military posturing, and since Japan has a pacifist military policy since its capitulation after WWII, it is struggling to respond to this gesture. Instead, we see the US responding by flying jet fighters unannounced over the Chinese controlled East China Sea, over territory that is disputed between China and Japan; because the USA must prop up the sovereignty of Japan as a bulwark against any Chinese expansion into the pacific theatre.

Because of its close ties to both China and the USA, this is not an issue that Australia can remove itself from, even in the fact of China rebuking Julie Bishop for ‘interfering’. Moreover, Australia is a temporary member of the UN Security Council, and must necessarily be seen to take actions towards issues that affect global and regional stability. Australia stands on the precipice of a diplomatic disaster, and the continued gaffs and alienation are only undermining Australia’s capacity to employ effective diplomacy. It is no surprise that even the most diplomatic overtures by Australian representatives will be met with hostility and suspicion. As far as the international stage is concerned Abbott has huge shoes to fill after the exemplary diplomacy of Rudd-Gillard and Carr; even Alexander Downer, a former Coalition foreign minister, is casting aspersions to the government’s diplomatic competence.

Australia’s policy on immigration and climate change are subtly and overtly affecting our foreign relations: our immigration policies are casting Australia as being xenophobic, while our climate change policies are characterising us as a potential threat to national security. 

Marketising Climate Change

NRM-Clusters-Map

In this article, I review the newly formed Coalition’s agenda to repeal the carbon pricing scheme implemented by the Clean Energy Bill 2011, and the policy program of the Clean Energy Plan. These actions are subsidiary to a broader political attack upon the doctrine of State-based initiatives to regulate climate change. It is perhaps most clearly manifested in their initial actions to repeal the Clean Energy Bill, as well as abolishing three agencies incentivising renewable electricity production in Australia: the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), the Climate Change Authority (CCA), and the Climate Commission (CC).

That the political debate has moved on from the question of climate change to its solution is worth interrogation, but not within the scope of this article. Instead, by focusing specifically on the interactions of these agencies with potential energy markets a single thread of the debate is analysed debate while contextualising the relevant political components.

…should the policy platform produce the results anticipated by the Coalition, it would be remiss to suggest that it was due entirely due to market forces

Political Climate

Broadly speaking, the political division over climate change falls upon the Clean Energy Plan. The polarisation centres not upon climate change and denial, but the application of political ideology as to the best means to address it. The Coalition’s policy reflects a neoliberal scepticism towards government regulation, deferring instead to market-mechanisms. In counterpoint, the Clean Energy Plan exemplifies a rejection of the market alone as the means for resolution, and places incumbency upon the State to induce sufficient change.

The Clean Energy Plan is and its attendant carbon pricing is a policy program responding to anthropogenic climate change, synthesising the disciplines of environmental sciences and political economy. It emerged after a failed attempt by the Rudd government to secure an Emissions Trading Scheme, and a subsequent compromise through the hung parliament under Gillard. It implicitly entails a classical economic approach that reconciles government agenda with environment concerns, and attempts to model its program on economic rationality. This necessarily filters the debate of climate change through economic discourse, by emphasising the nature of emissions as externalities. Implicit in this position is a contention that the market cannot respond rationally to climate change, and requires government intervention (see such claims as made in this book). Typically such critiques claim that market mechanisms cannot internalise emissions because individual choices within the context of market forces are subject to profit seeking over public interest.

The counter-argument lauds the capacity of market forces in selecting for environmentally sound practices: as the externalities of the environment increase social costs, and as these demands become increasingly urgent, industry and technology are able to respond with a solution by sheer dint of the demand. In this light, the Clean Energy Plan has been criticised on a number of fronts, including an inability to realise its ideals due to economic sleight-of-hand, which prevented incentivisation; another being a failure to engage with the populace on the significance of the carbon price, beyond how it impacts on the daily cost of living. These two arguments are exemplar of climate change denialism that rejects the potential thread of a Malthusian catastrophe, as exemplified in the works of Lomborg. These critiques effectively accuse the Clean Energy Plan of environmental authoritarianism (for example).

Power Dynamics

Having laid the groundwork of these political divisions, the contentions between market-mechanisms and State-based mechanisms become much more apparent. The ‘Carbon Tax’ is easily the most visible component of State-based instruments, and the principle focus of the Coalition’s actions. However, where we see additional complications and nuances on these issues is the Coalition’s focus on the abolishment of the climate change agencies.

Firstly, the CEFC’s principle mandate was the subsidisation of renewable electricity innovation: in the last year the CEFC managed to invest $560 million in projects, including the Moree solar farm and the Taralga wind farm. Moreover, the CEFC has laid claim to having encouraged an additional $1.6 billion worth of private investment towards clean energy projects. Incoming Climate Action Minister, Greg Hunt, has critiqued the CEFC of being a green hedge fund, “borrowed in taxpayers’ name for investing in speculative ventures” . It is worthwhile noting that such actions and positions are perfectly in line with the neoliberal sentiment of deregulating interference with the market.

The predominant form of electricity production in Australia is coal, comprising 77.2% of the country’s total electricity production

However, the issue is not as reductive as there are other political and commercial interests relevant to these changes; not the least of which is the significance of Australian coal. The predominant form of electricity production in Australia is coal, comprising 77.2% of the country’s total electricity production in 2003. Though different States and Territories have specific energy policies, the aggregate cost of most electricity production is based on the price of coal at the power station: coal also constitutes one of Australia’s principle energy exports to China. So the question remains that if State-based mechanisms are removed to incentivise change and Australia is economically dependent on the coal industry, will market-mechanisms alone be sufficient to achieve the government’s mandated renewable energy targets for 2020. If critiques hold true, then deregulation will simply expose a vulnerable environmental system to greater intrusion by market mechanisms, which cannot redress the issue. If the neoliberal vision holds true, then the market should reach a point of equilibrium as the burden of environmental degradation affects consumer choices.

There are two principle issues that will significantly play into this: the first is the cost of peak coal production, and the latter is the tipping point of solar power energy production. Currently there are a series of predictions suggesting that the production of solar powered electricity may become equivalent to conventional fossil fuel production. That Germany has taken a significant lead in adopting solar powered energy production, and thus growing the global solar market. There is also predictions of the decline of the global coal market, with Citi analysis predicting coal consumption in China could peak as early as 2014. Equally compelling, there is some evidence that renewable energies are gaining confidence in the US market, to the point of being considered reliable. This competition of solar and coal energy markets is made even more pertinent in Australia, as the Climate Commission revealed a significant uptake of solar panels.

To suggest these changes signal the success of the neoliberal vision is flawed, particularly in context of these competing energy markets.

To suggest these changes signal the success of the neoliberal vision is flawed, particularly in context of these competing energy markets. Neither of these energy markets has changed significantly without some form of government intervention. In 2012, the Chinese government invested $68 billion into renewable energy, making it a leader of that investment. In comparison, Germany and its production of solar power is more difficult to determine. At first glance, Germany seems to depict a narrative of a staunchly pro-nuclear power leading changes to become the world’s top photovoltaic installer. However, some later commentary predicts the burst of the solar bubble, and Lomberg specifically critiquing the policy project as being economically unsustainable. While a genuine economic critique is far beyond the scope of this essay, it is reasonable to say that neither the reduced cost of solar power in Germany nor the peak consumption of coal in China are purely the consequence of market mechanisms.

Due to the vagaries of both China and Germany, it is far too early to predict the success or failure of the Coalition’s policy platform to respond to the issue of climate change through a high dependency on market mechanisms. Moreover, should the policy platform produce the results anticipated by the Coalition, it would be remiss to suggest that it was due entirely due to market forces, which are merely capitalising on opportunities produced through contrary political economic agendas.

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.