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Losing Sight of Ourselves

Anthony James

Taegen Edwards and John Wiseman in Arena Magazine no. 111 describe their deep concern about climate change and the need to act comprehensively to avoid potentially catastrophic effects. They conclude correctly that it is also vital that we move in the right direction, that ‘the required emissions reduction targets cannot be achieved without substantial rethinking of economic growth targets and definitions’, yet concede that technological fixes are not solutions in themselves: ‘Aside from the truly apocalyptic scenario of geo-engineering solutions overshooting, the greatest risk here is that faith in a potential technical fix can undermine the essential sense of urgency for more immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases’.

To be sure, this is an enormous risk. But there is arguably a greater one, more immediate and insidious—one that is fundamental to our ability to develop a ‘far deeper understanding of the essential reciprocity’ in nature that the authors suggest must inform a reduction in consumption and rethinking of economic growth. The greatest risk of the ‘tech fix’—indeed the pre-eminent ‘environmental problem’, exceeding even climate change—is no less than the loss of what it means to be human.

Energy: What Is It Good For?

Energy-intensive industrialised societies are celebrated as enabling unprecedented financial and material wealth. Yet other telling outcomes include gross and worsening inequity, environmental degradation nearing on ecosystem collapse (climate change being just one factor), and heightened conflict related to relatively diminishing access to fossil-fuel-based primary energy sources.

The system we have organised appears to be doing the wrong thing right in achieving financial and material wealth at the expense of its ‘embedding systems’; that is, of society within nature. Therefore, the ‘more right’ the system works, the ‘more wrong’ it becomes, regardless of the intentions of individuals or institutions that are part of the system.

While relatively diminishing access to fossil-fuel-based energy sources may result in increased conflict, this need not be the case, for the same reasons that it need not be taken as a spectre of diminished human wellbeing in general. Conventional energy use and its forecasting by institutions like the International Energy Agency have been underpinned by a range of flawed assumptions, including that human wellbeing (read narrowly as ongoing economic growth) is necessarily coupled to increasing energy use revolving around specialist development of enabling technology.

Significant in its move to embrace a broader context, the 2004 UN World Energy Assessment update noted that beyond a certain point, increasing energy use does not lead to increases in human wellbeing (as measured by the Human Development Index, or HDI).

Professor of environmental studies Vaclav Smil revealed in 2003 that the highest HDI rates were found to occur with a minimum annual energy use of 110 giga-joules (GJ) per capita (roughly Italy’s rate, the lowest among industrialised nations, and around a third of the United States’), noting no additional gains past that point, with diminishing returns past the threshold of 40–70 GJ per person. Developing energy-intensive technology past the point of beneficial utility brings to mind the analogy of using a chainsaw to carve butter. Smil’s conclusion from a decade prior to this research remains relevant: ‘higher energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens’.

Echoing these findings, extrapolation of the links between these ‘environmental burdens’, energy-intensive lifestyles and impacts on health is increasingly common, appearing in publications including a prominent 2007 series in The Lancet, and in the 2009 report Coal’s Assault on Human Health by Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The decoupling of energy use (past a certain threshold) from human wellbeing casts the problem of climate change in new light. By exposing flawed assumptions related to energy use within industrialised societies, we might think of ourselves as liberated from the limits of context-less, ‘technology-driven’ strategies for dealing with climate change. Even if we were successful in developing cleaner technologies to allow current energy use patterns, what would have been achieved if we had averted ‘dangerous’ climate change only to find that a broader range of environmental and social problems persisting?

The range of environmental and social problems is better recognised as symptomatic of an underlying cause. We suffer to the extent that we fail to adequately perceive the inter-relatedness of these issues (as part of a non-linear natural world). The indications are that to achieve improved human wellbeing within a healthy environment we need to create ways that enable outright reductions in energy use in industrialised societies. Developing the intellectual basis for this approach, Frank Fisher has coined the term ‘conservation mining’, geared towards altering the perception of what constitutes an energy ‘source’. It posits conservation as arguably the major energy source opportunity of the immediate future within these societies, while framing it in such a way as to provoke recognition of the ability to generate investment (financial and other) in ways similar to conventional mined energy sources.

Conservation is the only energy source (within Western consumer societies) that genuinely offers no negative environmental or social impact and, as such, the largest gains towards our more enlightened goal of reduced energy use as part of broader sustainability strategies. It reflects an integrated approach that directs the system towards closing the gap between current energy use patterns and improved environmental and social outcomes (including but not limited to climate change). Most significantly, it constitutes part of an approach to energy use geared towards resolving our underlying ‘crisis of perception’.

Asking the Right Question about Technology

The technical debate regarding how to deal with climate change fails to address the dualistic interpretation of nature that underlies that debate. In this contextual vacuum, technology tends to be regarded as a force separate from the societies that create and apply it. This view fails to recognise that if our current use of technology has resulted in certain problems, it is not the technology but our way of thinking that underpins it that requires development. Relying on technology to solve our problems equates with abandoning any pretence of responsibility. In this sense, more important than the question of technology’s role in dealing with climate change is its place.

In his article ‘Technology and the Loss of Self’ (2006), Fisher neatly illuminates this distinction, describing technology as a subset of technique: ‘In a mechanistic world-view, technique resides in the dualistic gap between people and nature. It can, however, be used to facilitate closure of the gap and when it does this, it is “appropriate”’.

Appropriate technology for energy use in the future may well incorporate aspects of the current dominant energy-related technology discourse. Its appropriateness, however, will not be determined by what the technology is, but rather the manner and context in which it is applied; that is, upon the degree to which its application narrows the gap in our dislocated perception of nature.

Use of the ‘bicycle/public transport’ combination for urban commuting, for example, reconnects the cyclist to the world around her or him. This includes being more open to public interaction, along with the experience of de-trivialising the topography and general landscape which otherwise passes relatively unnoticed in the private car. At a broader level, the appropriateness of this technology to the task effects a ‘re-location’ of the devastating array of environmental and social consequences of energy-intensive transport, mitigating one’s energy-related impact upon land, air, water and atmosphere.

Critically, this impact includes not only the ‘direct’ consequences associated with the bike and private car in this case, but also consequences stemming from the related meta-structures that enable them. These include those responsible for manufacture, maintenance and disposal of the bike or car, as well as the paths, roads and other related physical infrastructure. They also include the legal, parliamentary, marketing, security and insurance structures and so on. When we consider this more complete context, it highlights the gross inefficiency of the car as a tool for urban transport, and the potential in other existing and simpler technologies such as the bicycle.

More importantly, it demonstrates the contextual framework that needs to be applied to assessments of renewable energy systems and other technologies commonly proposed to deal with climate change. And it helps us to see how the conceptual tool of ‘conservation mining’ offers a significant pathway to sustainability.

As a subset of technique, these technologies are also enabled within diverse contexts by more subtle meta-structures, forms of social behaviour (social institutions, taboos and so forth). Bicycle technology is reflected in the range of associated behaviours and understandings that the bicycle commuter must develop regarding the social dynamics of the road—the way people ‘see’ and react to the commuter cyclist, for example. From this point of view, as Fisher describes it, the bicycle is essentially a social device, rather than simply a material one.

This approach points to the inadequacy of applying technology to designated objectives isolated from broader contextual considerations. Most profoundly, in this relational sense, the dominant focus on the technical debate in dealing with climate change perpetuates the failure to recognise that the entirety of human meaning (including the nature of technology) is derived from our interrelations within nature. We strip ourselves of the very basis of that meaning when we incorrectly perceive technology as a force apart from us as its bearers.

This problematic perspective persists as if the world was a human-configured machine, such as a car, able to be worked upon by a spanner directing a mechanic. When the car runs poorly, the challenge is perceived as developing a more evolved spanner rather than a more evolved person. A dislocated perspective on reality has at once disempowered the mechanic and de-valued nature. In fact, the action is one and the same, resulting in the dualistic gap that reflects the failure to perceive the inherent relational complexity of the person within nature.

Dealing with climate change in more contextually aware ways that act as pathways to sustainability may be seen as using energy-related techniques to achieve a better ‘fit’ rather than a precise ‘match’ of our actions in complex social relations with nature. The notion of becoming increasingly sensitive to our fit within nature may be understood in Rabkin’s terms, as Fisher explains: ‘Exposing the systems of knowing that are the womb of our designs and that enable those designs to be operationalised in practice is the path to closing the present hiatus between us and nature while preserving in a careful way those techniques coherent with us as nature’.

Increasing our awareness of such techniques as coherent with us being ‘nature’ was described by mythologist Joseph Campbell as ‘the long process of the Opening of the Eye of European man to a state that is no state but a becoming’. It is empowered participation in how things work, how they are derived, and what consequences ensue to self and the ‘extended self’ implicit in the broader system of life―human and non-human.

Anthony James is a writer, musician and lecturer in post-graduate sustainability studies at Swinburne University’s National Centre for Sustainability.