Breaking the Deadlock between Gaians and Prometheans

Peter ThieleGuest Post by Leslie Paul Thiele, Distinguished Professor, Political Science, Director, Sustainability Studies, University of Florida / August 4, 2018

[The views of guest post authors are their own. C2G2 does not necessarily endorse the opinions stated in guest posts. We do, however, encourage a constructive conversation involving multiple viewpoints and voices.]

To grapple responsibly with the prospect of geoengineering, fundamental beliefs and values regarding humanity’s prerogatives, duties, and capacities need to be confronted.

While some people view geoengineering as a creative and responsible technological option that must be considered in the face of a climate emergency, critics see it as a hubristic attempt to gain full-scale mastery of the planet and play God.

These opposing viewpoints can be represented by two ideal types, which I call Promethean and Gaian.  My recent article “Geoengineering and Sustainability” in Environmental Politics presents the geoengineering debate as frequently stymied by these polarized positions.  I argue that approaching geoengineering through the lens of sustainability offers a potential means of overcoming the deadlock.

Two opposing approaches

Gaians, named after the ancient Earth deity, counsel a humble role for our race.  The ideal is to for humanity—as one among many interdependent species—to live harmoniously with the biosphere.  They believe that nature supplies a moral and practical compass to guide us in treacherous times.  Ignoring this counsel invites dire repercussions: nature knows best and bats last. Consequently, Gaians view the techno-industrial complex with suspicion.  To engage in geoengineering is to rip Pandora’s box wide open.  The ills that emerge will be legion; and the stakes are planetary.

Prometheans, named after the titan who gifted humanity with fire, see our species as exceptional and inventive, possessing the scientific knowledge and technological capacities that allow the beneficial modification of the environment.  Prometheans insist that human beings have always been technologically oriented and that our world-changing activities—which began in prehistoric times with the use of fire, the creation of tools, and the invention of agriculture—have fundamentally defined our species.  Technology brought us out of barbarism and into civilization, and there are no foreordained limits to its development and expansion.  Seeing no fundamental boundaries to humanity’s world-changing efforts, they refuse to take geoengineering off the table. If geoengineering is determined to be a reasonable and responsible endeavor following a rigorous assessment, then it would be mistaken and immoral to demur.

Promoting Dialogue around Sustainability

Productive dialogue between Gaians and Prometheans is stymied by a wide gulf.  Prometheans and Gaians typically talk past each other, in part owing to the group polarization and confirmation biases to which each camp is prone.

“Geoengineering and Sustainability” argues that the discourse of sustainability offers Gaians and Prometheans a mutually acceptable vocabulary and narrative framework within which to evaluate geoengineering.

Sustainability means different things to different people.  I take it to entail an expanded temporal and spatial horizon that responsibly accounts for the interdependencies that characterize living systems.  It promotes a future focus, where the satisfaction of present needs does not undermine the prospects for future generations.

Sustainability is also attentive to the regional and global impacts of local actions and policies, and the local repercussions of regional and global trends.  Its overall aim is to conserve core values and relationships in communities of life by managing well the scale and speed of change.  To this end, environmental protection is most effectively, enduringly, and justly achieved when economic development and social empowerment are simultaneously pursued.

Like ecosystems, human societies maintain their core functions in the face of disturbance by adapting.  This is known as resilience.  If adaptation is too slow or constrained, the system may disintegrate rather than rebound when disrupted.  If social systems undergo change that is too widespread or too fast, however, their core values and relationships may be jeopardized.

Sustainability entails managing the scale and speed of change to conserve core values and relationships.  To that end, it blends creativity with conservation; it must be innovative and responsive to change.

Forging Common Ground

Both Gaians and Prometheans are likely to be receptive to a sustainability approach because it employs ecology as an organizing framework.  This framework allows Gaians to conceive nature as a kind of ethical norm to structure human endeavors and relationships.  Nature knows best. At the same time, ecological science holds nature to be dynamic and evolving rather than static. Prometheans can embrace an ecological framework because it promotes innovation in the service of resilience.

In turn, Prometheans are amenable to sustainability because it balances the protection of the natural environment with social and economic needs. Sustainability affords Prometheans a utilitarian calculus to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest duration, with the greatest good understood to integrate environmental, social, and economic variables.  Gaians, in turn, are amenable to sustainability owing to its origins in nature conservation, environmental protection, and its enduring focus on socio-economic and political empowerment.

In my article, I explore other reasons why a sustainability vocabulary and narrative framework can elevate the geoengineering debate.  While a sustainability orientation does not predetermine whether geoengineering can or should be developed and deployed, it can foster a ‘fusion of horizons’ between Prometheans and Gaians, allowing otherwise stalemated discussion to break new ground.  The investigation and discussion of how the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might be advanced or undermined by geoengineering would provide a good starting point (see, for example, C2G2’s helpful framing of the issue).

The extent to which a sustainability vocabulary and narrative framework will advance the geoengineering debate—within academia, the policy community, and the general public—ultimately is an empirical question to be tested.  Given the stakes in the game, such an investigation is surely warranted.

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