In What Sense Abundant?

Debating climate, renewal, and American decadence
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Matt Frost’s “After Climate Despair” [Fall 2019] helpfully exposes the rhetorical and practical limitations of climate catastrophism. As he argues, such an approach gives the false impression that there is some discrete point of no return, some cliff over which civilization will fall if we fail to cut carbon dioxide emissions quickly enough. More insidiously, catastrophism’s reliance on terrifyingly large numbers and apocalyptic forecasts induces paralysis and despair. The only solution that seems adequate to our ecological problems is some “political breakthrough” that brings about global cooperation. Once we realize this is nigh impossible, we are left with despair.

Instead of basing his optimism on a political breakthrough, Frost recommends looking for a technological one. Yet his claim that “technological breakthroughs are less far-fetched a solution” than political ones is dubious, and it doesn’t actually avoid the “combination of brooding pessimism and delusional optimism” that he thinks it does. In essence, Frost rightly argues that a transformative political activist like Greta Thunberg is not a viable hero for those worried about climate change, but he leaves us waiting for a tech guru like Elon Musk. Authentic hope will not be found in either of these figures. Rather, hope resides in the good work being done by countless farmers and gardeners, walkers and cyclers, artisans and craftsmen, homemakers and caretakers — normal people choosing to reject the kind of abundance proffered by modern industry and instead gratefully stewarding the abundant life of a given world.

Technological breakthroughs may seem more plausible than global political cooperation, but if we have learned anything from the technological breakthroughs of the past century, it is that they always come with costs. The Green Revolution eroded topsoil, destroyed rural communities, and polluted waters. Nuclear power brought the ever-present danger of nuclear war and devastating accidents. And as much as digital technologies connect us and deliver equitable access to information and opportunity, they also render us lonely and centralize economic capital. Ivan Illich’s 1973 book Tools of Conviviality remains indispensable in tracing this pattern, and Frost utterly fails to recognize it. In places, this essay reads like an Elon Musk sales pitch — short on details, long on rosy pictures of the world that technology will create. Those of us who no longer believe that DuPont and its ilk will deliver “Better Living Through Chemistry” are left with the same paralysis and despair from which Frost promised to rescue us.

Indeed, as people such as Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry have argued, optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. Both postures depend on expectations about the future, and both leave most people with nothing to do in response to massive problems like climate change: Either far-off experts, whether political or technological, will fix the problem or they will not, but regardless we have no responsibility. Hence Berry, in a 2013 talk at Yale, urges us to turn away from both of these stances and take up the practice of hope:

Optimism and pessimism are programs. It means you’ve already decided ahead of time how things are going to come out…. You’ve reduced the future, in a way, to your sense of how it’s going to turn out. Hope is a different matter, because hope is — well, hope is the opposite of despair…. You have to define the ground of hope, and this is work for the present…. It’s something that you’ve got to look around and justify now. And what justifies it, for one thing, is the reality of good possibilities, examples that show that a better way of forestry, a better way of farming is possible…. Another thing, I think, is to be able to make in yourself, imperfectly as necessary, the sense of the possibility that you can do better.

(I develop Berry’s understanding of hope in the context of climate change at greater length in Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry’s Sustainable Forms.)

Instead of this possibility of good work, Frost holds out the promise of abundant energy that is “too cheap to meter”:

What should motivate our response to climate change is what got us into this mess in the first place: our desire for the abundance that energy technology affords. Energy is the commodity that allows us to protect ourselves from the ravages of nature and to live distinctly human lives, and many of the benefits we enjoy today were made possible by the exploitation of fossil energy. Our children should enjoy greater energy abundance than us, not less.

This is whistling in the dark. Energy abundance is not a human right, and rhetorical declamations will not magically bring about the impossible. More fundamentally, as Frost himself admits, this desire — for the luxuries that depend on cheap energy and on the material resources cheap energy enables us to exploit — is what got us into the mess we are in. It’s not clear how he thinks that continuing down this road will lead to the healing of creation rather than its further destruction. It is past time to disabuse ourselves of the myth that infinite progress is possible, the fond belief that “insatiable desire,” as Lasch put it, could be “a powerful stimulus to economic development” instead of the “source of frustration, unhappiness, and spiritual instability.”

What ideal, then, might motivate the practice of hope in the face of climate catastrophism? After all, Frost is right to worry that the grim austerity promoted by climate activists is not much of an ideal and is unlikely to motivate people to radically alter their lifestyles. Perhaps the answer lies in redefining abundance. Reflecting on Jesus’ claim in the gospel of John — “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” — Wendell Berry warns that “abundance” is a particularly dangerous word in our era:

To talk about or to desire more abundance of anything has probably always been dangerous, but it seems particularly dangerous now…. We know we don’t have to look far to find people who equate more abundant life with a bigger car, a bigger house, a bigger bank account, and a bigger church. They are wrong, of course…. Abundance, in this verse, cannot refer to an abundance of material possessions, for life does not require a material abundance; it requires only a material sufficiency. That sufficiency granted, life itself, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance.

Perhaps if we learn to see life as already an abundance, we could begin to imagine the kinds of civilizations that might sustain this life. We have no right to energy so abundant it can satisfy all our desires; instead, we have an obligation to be grateful for the remarkable gift of life and to enact this gratitude in the work of love and care.

Jeffrey Bilbro
Associate Professor of English
Spring Arbor University;
Editor-in-chief, Front Porch Republic

Matt Frost’s essay is right. Climate change policy is often oversimplified to false choices: renewables versus fossils, environment versus economy, energy reduction versus inaction. The global climate challenge requires both political and technical realism, and solutions for making a transition to clean energy cheaper and faster while preserving economic growth and reflecting the global nature of the challenge.

Accelerating clean energy innovation starts by identifying where excess carbon dioxide comes from, and how a free market can respond and thrive. The production of electricity and heat is currently the largest source of emissions in the world, and China is the largest emitter. But remember that China’s climate problem is our climate problem. We must reject yet another false choice: that if China and the rest of the developing world aren’t doing anything to slow their emissions, then the United States shouldn’t either.

Instead, clean energy technologies developed in America can benefit and transform the rest of the world, like we’ve done in the past with natural gas, nuclear, and solar power. There are three legs to success, and America must lead.

First, we must innovate. That means developing clean technologies the world wants to buy, and that give America a competitive advantage. Big energy projects can’t be done like a new food delivery app, in someone’s basement with a small angel investor. Similarly, the SpaceX rocket launch that recently returned America to the manned-launch business was not done solely by the private sector. Between SpaceX and NASA, it took years of research, development, and design. Big projects require big solutions, and we have to set ambitious goals across multiple classes of technology — advanced nuclear power, carbon capture, and grid-scale storage are among those with the biggest impact. And we must drive progress on those goals with public investments in innovative technology, in close partnership with the private sector, with very clear accountability at the Department of Energy and other agencies to produce dramatic cost and performance improvements.

Second, we must demonstrate how the technology works. A growing number of U.S. utilities have raised their hands and committed to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. Working backward from that goal, by 2035 they will need to build new zero-emitting 24/7 technology, including nuclear, and remove carbon dioxide out of the air with carbon-capture or direct-air-capture technologies. Let’s work with them, not against them. The Advanced Research Projects Agency -Energy (ARPA-E) within the Department of Energy provides funding for advanced energy technologies, while bills have been introduced in Congress that seek to establish prize competitions for technologies that are on a path to commercialization.

Third, we must export new technologies once proven, and create new clean energy markets. Everything we are innovating and demonstrating must not only have a niche in our own energy sector, but also apply to a country like Nigeria or Tanzania — and we must consider what they would be willing and able to buy from us.

We must always keep the end in mind. Done right, we can advance stronger policies that commercialize the cutting-edge clean energy technologies needed to reduce global emissions as quickly and cheaply as possible. And when the global temperature ticks up another degree, as it surely will, it will face an arsenal of new technologies, ready to decarbonize.

Rich Powell
Executive Director
ClearPath Action

Matt Frost rightly takes to task the ineffectualness of “climate despair” as a motivator in changing human behavior in an unrealistic direction. He correctly concludes that the growing chorus of lamentation over civilization’s end, the extinction of humanity, and generalized catastrophism, accompanied by the heavy moralizing of these dire warnings, is more likely to dull the attention of a broad swath of the populace and lead to “diminishing returns on dread.” Far from constituting a call to action, the unintended consequence of catastrophism increasingly seems to be a descent into shoulder-shrugging — even as a growing percentage of people recognize the legitimacy of studies showing that global warming is caused by human activity.

Frost also recognizes that unrealistic calls to austerity are not likely to gain widespread purchase; indeed, austerity seems to be something of a luxury good, most likely to be embraced by the wealthy and comfortable who can purchase their way into a low-carbon lifestyle. It’s easier for people living in small Manhattan or Parisian apartments in attractive walkable mixed-use neighborhoods to imagine a low-energy future than it is for people living in far-flung exurbs who rely on automobiles, those whom French geographer Christophe Guilluy has written about in his book Twilight of the Elites. The protests of the “yellow vests” arose in significant part from the working classes who would disproportionately bear the burdens of higher fuel prices sought by President Emmanuel Macron, and proposals for radical austerity seem likely to provoke a similar exacerbation of class division anywhere they might be tried.

But Frost goes too far in the opposite direction in arguing that the solution lies in a future of “energy abundance,” purchased and made possible by ongoing massive carbon-energy expenditure, directed at least in part to securing carbon-reducing energy sources. His argument that future generations should enjoy the same level of energy abundance as previous generations hinges on the essential claim for generational continuity — the obligation we have to guarantee the flourishing of those who come after us. In his view, it would constitute something of a betrayal if we caused future generations to live lives with less energy abundance than we did.

While Frost is sensitive that any solution must be cognizant of the continuity between generations, he does not acknowledge that the energy-abundant world that we have enjoyed for the past two hundred years was a radical departure from the world in which all previous human generations lived. He claims to seek continuity of a condition that was premised on radical rupture in human relations. Frost does not entertain the possibility that extreme energy abundance during this period has resulted in the false belief in generational discontinuity — the misguided belief, born of energy inebriation, that one generation can live in wholesale independence from forebears and descendants. This time of extraordinary — and profligate — energy abundance has coincided with a period of growing disconnection, indifference, and even hostility between the generations. If the ‘60s generation began in rebellion against their parents, they are ending their lives in a kind of reverse animosity toward the younger generation, leaving them a mountain of debt, inflated financial bubbles, and the environmental catastrophe that threatens the human species. Their descendants have inherited this hostility, in the form of the abandonment of marriage, the normalization of divorce and abortion, and low birth rates. Generational discontinuity is now a settled way of life in much of the world.

This moment — amid the radical changes forced on us by the pandemic — seems particularly propitious for reconsidering some of the deleterious aspects of our high-energy lives that go beyond climate change and the moralistic scolds who counsel an austerity that shades into anti-humanism. Concerns about extended supply lines are giving rise to discussions of how economic relationships ought to be more national and local than international. The disintegrated model of commuting, schooling, and shopping is being displaced, of necessity, with a less deracinated way of life. The belief that we must constantly fly to distant locations for a meeting or junket has been revealed to be largely superfluous and self-indulgent.

These changes — lives lived more locally, in mutual reliance on family and communities — have been forced upon us not directly by climate change, but by a disease spread quickly in globalized conditions that are one of the main consequences of our energy abundance. It is these changes, which have done more to wean us off fossil fuels than any film by Al Gore, that are likely to precipitate a healthier, more energy-constrained future. Such a future will demolish the illusion that generations can exist in separation, indifference, and even hostility toward each other, and return us to the natural condition of human generations that is a central lesson of the Old Testament — one that counsels and rewards gratitude for an inheritance, and commands obligation to afford the same to our children and our children’s children.

Patrick J. Deneen
Professor of Political Science
University of Notre Dame

Matt Frost responds: Jeffrey Bilbro and Patrick Deenen are exemplary spokesmen for the cause of virtue, both civic and personal, in the face of America’s contemporary decadence. They are correct that the cheap availability of fossil fuels has allowed affluent Westerners to consume beyond our means. Along with their keen diagnoses of our current pathologies, both writers offer positive visions of American life as we might reclaim it, with a renewed focus on our unchosen commitments to family and community. No wonder, then, that they are scandalized by my claim that this world, with its debt-fueled profligacy, its heaps of discarded goods, its shamefully ill-distributed surplus, needs more of anything.

The “insatiable desire” that Christopher Lasch calls a “source of frustration, unhappiness, and spiritual instability,” though, is a pathology distinct to those of us fortunate enough to have our basic material needs satisfied. In much of the world, the afflictions of abundance work far less ill than genuine material deprivation: People simply need cleaner, more affordable energy. It is presumptuous to suggest that the rest of the planet should make do with burning wood indoors because a certain farmer-philosopher in Kentucky can get by with a soulful old pickup truck rather than the newest model.

My claim that the world needs more energy should not be misunderstood as an argument that each of us needs to consume more of it. Ivan Illich, whom Bilbro cites, was a creative thinker and a keen polemicist, so let us grant, strictly for the sake of argument, that affluent Westerners reached the level of energy consumption that Illich identified in Energy and Equity as the socially corrosive point beyond which more energy consumption leads to less autonomy and flourishing. Any growth in per capita energy consumption beyond this level, according to this supposition, will only decrease our well-being. Fortunately, per capita energy use in the affluent West peaked in the 1970s, right around the time Energy and Equity was published. Well done, Fr. Ivan. We can take it from here.

Even if the retrenchment and austerity that Bilbro and Deneen endorse could be morally salutary for well-off Americans, it would do little to address the ostensible reason for this conversation: excess carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. If Americans decided all at once to live the sort of constrained and virtuous lives that Wendell Berry and Christopher Lasch prescribe, the chemical makeup of the air we breathe and the thermal insulation of the planet would change little, if at all. The debt we have accrued over the course of modern history would remain unpaid. With an abundant supply of carbon-free energy, however, our children and grandchildren could pay off their ancestors’ carbon debt and exercise the virtue of responsibility. We owe them the tools to roll back generations of wanton, if unknowing, neglect.

Treating carbon pollution as a purely technocratic problem guarantees that we will fail. Without a prudent vision of our own responsibilities, and without the virtues that Bilbro and Deneen would have us cultivate, we might dismiss carbon mitigation as too expensive, even if a technical solution becomes viable. Or we might rely on an unsafe technology because its proponents dazzle us with promises that a skeptical philosopher would see through.

Phronesis alone, however, will not get us where we need to go. Familiarity with technology is a prerequisite for rationally evaluating its tradeoffs, so Bilbro’s contention that my proposed future depends on “far-off experts” reveals a regrettable alienation from any technical craft that does not generate compost or sawdust. There is nothing magical about carbon-free energy sources or carbon capture. The expertise needed to build more-efficient batteries or to upgrade the transmission grid or to install new generating capacity is not some obscurity — it rests among the same “artisans and craftsmen” that Bilbro praises. Plenty of our neighbors can perform exactly this “work for the present,” to use Wendell Berry’s phrase. Elon Musk’s glib hucksterism, which Bilbro holds up as a foil to the caution of Berry, Lasch, and Illich, is a distraction. Innovation does not depend on Promethean monomaniacs, but on ordinary people applying their God-given talents to both phronesis and techne.

Rich Powell seems more familiar with the entities, government and corporate, by which the craft of energy innovation might be brought to market and then adopted at a meaningful scale. His proposed three-part framework for accelerating clean energy technology reflects this demystified perspective.

Powell also recognizes just how desperately the rest of the world’s population needs energy in order to achieve basic material sufficiency. In Nigeria, for instance, per capita energy consumption is barely a tenth of what it is in South Africa, and less than four percent that of the United States, despite the former’s rich reserves of oil and natural gas. Over two hundred million Nigerians share an installed generation capacity of 12 gigawatts, but inadequate distribution infrastructure leaves only about a third of that available for delivery. For now, small solar and fossil-fuel generators with no grid connection make up some of that supply gap, but there is a clear need for a better and more reliable electrical grid. This is simply poverty; delivering a higher quality of life and a cleaner environment to Nigerians through clean and affordable energy sources is a moral imperative and, as Powell points out, a business opportunity, and is much more like offering “membership in the living world” than “satisfying all our desires.” The demands of virtue do not include starving humanity of clean energy and leaving centuries of accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Patrick J. Deneen, Jeffrey Bilbro, Rich Powell, and Matt Frost, “In What Sense Abundant?,” The New Atlantis, Number 62, Fall 2020, pp. 7-13.
Header image: Breezewood, Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. Photo © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Fall 2019

After Climate Despair

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The hope for a global conversion to austerity has failed to stop climate change. What comes next?

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