Updated: Mar 17, 2021
Hello. I am happy to see you here.
Awe inspiring, isn't it? The way the river speeds around this bend, drowning out our words, bouncing, rolling, bubbling off rocks, eroding the very banks we stand on. Reverence, love, and fear fill me as I reach in to touch what is there for only a moment yet also indefinitely. Hope grows in me as a turn to you, testing the waters as well. Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore taught me the Rules of Rivers.
If we only stand on the banks for a moment, the river seems unstoppable. But if we stay, if we come back together to visit these banks, we will see the river change. It will bend around fallen trees or beaver dams. It will erode new pathways, responding to the life around it. For every new stone placed in its path, the river will redirect. Those are the Rules of Rivers.
Like the rivers, the economic and political forces that have brought us to this time of ecological devastation can feel overwhelming, unstoppable. They are swift, powerful, and engrained in our landscapes... like this river. Yet, like the rivers, they too can be redirected.
I can see from your face that this isn't your first time sweeping a hand through this river. It feels just as unstoppable now as it did last week when your head was underwater, pointed upstream. But it isn't. I ask you, what brought you into this river, swimming upstream? Could it have been the idea that maybe renewable energy can play a role in halting our ecological crisis? That is what brought me here. So, if you’ll sit down on these banks with me, I want to share with you what I have recently begun to understand about the mechanistic worldview that we perpetuate with our work and the socio-economic system of capitalism that, if left unchallenged, will prevent us from effectively using our work to address the ecological crisis. Let’s explore how, within our work in renewable energy, we could change both our relationship with our environment and our dominant economic structures in order to enable the continuation of human life on earth. Let’s toss in some stones, and redirect this river.
After we part, maybe you will meet me on these banks again, as a part of the River Stone Renewable Coalition, a group committed to changing the flow of this river headed toward ecological breakdown. Through creative disruption- imagining different energy futures, enabling work for safer, more equitable technologies, and sharing innovations in ways of thinking about renewables; through citizenship in our field and in our communities aimed at better understanding the origins and the impacts of the ecological threats that face our species; and through contentious refusal to ignore the fact that real success of renewable energy might hinge on a decreased energy demand; we aim to create better energy technologies, systems, and frameworks to respond to the threats to our ecosystem. We will meet for the first time this Spring.
The Mechanistic Worldview
We can think of a worldview as the framework from which we understand and interpret the world in which we live. The dominant, Western worldview of today is being challenged on many fronts, but it still dictates many of our daily actions, social and political structures, and, importantly for us, the direction of research, science, and technology. For that reason, it is important that we discuss what that worldview is, how it emerged, and what it means for our ability to solve the ecological crisis.
Today’s dominant worldview is characterized by a conceptualization of the natural world as a machine and a perception of human beings as apart-from and superior-to other forms of life. Scholars have labeled this worldview as the “mechanistic worldview,” (Merchant p.41-43) or “separatism worldview” (Moore p.93-95) among other names. I should point out that Carolyn Merchant, who uses the term “mechanistic worldview” in her book Radical Ecology: the search for a livable world which I use extensively to describe the emergence of the worldview, also refers to the mechanistic worldview as the “new worldview.” While, on the other hand, Kathleen Dean Moore in her book Great Tide Rising calls the “separatism worldview” (which encompasses the same general ideas as the mechanistic worldview) the “old worldview,” thereby contextualizing the present moment as a moment of dramatic social and cultural change to a new, future worldview. I am not comfortable adopting either temporal assignment. Like Moore, I hope and believe that we are in a moment of dramatic social change, but I hesitate to adopt language that could imply that we have already left the mechanistic worldview behind. I fear that calling the mechanistic worldview “old” sounds like a warning for the field; “be careful not to fall behind the social change;” when what I wish to convey is collective responsibility; “this change needs to come, and given our positions of relative power and social legitimacy, we need to usher it in.” With that said, let’s stick with the phrase “mechanistic worldview.” [a1]
The mechanistic worldview took shape in seventeenth century Europe and spread across the world on the same ships as colonialism and industrialization. Prior to the seventeenth century, most cultures (even in the parts of Europe that would grow to be intellectually and economically dominant), held views of the earth which are fundamentally different from what many of us experience today. Merchant labels these centuries-old worldviews as “organic worldviews.” Organic worldviews conceptualized the earth as a living organism, usually female. Think- “Mother Nature.” European peasants during the renaissance had the concept of the Cosmos. The earth was the center of the universe, and it was a living, breathing organism. The earth had many of the same parts as the human body has-- veins running with metals and minerals, water as blood, earthquakes as farts of objection to human mining. Humans and the earth were not seen to be as different from one another as we see it today. When the earth and humans were likened to one another, the humans had the same (or similar) ethical obligations to the earth as they had to one another. Ceremonies often accompanied extractive practices such as tree cutting and mining (Merchant). While much of Europe has moved away from organic cosmology, traditions and beliefs indigenous toother parts of the world have continued to guide human relationships with the earth (Merchant). Those traditions though have been made peripheral through colonization and the worldview which followed organic cosmology in Europe. Anthropologists such as Jason Hickel and J. Baird Callicott examine the role of Christianity in solidifying the Western worldview (Hickel, Callicott).
In the sixteenth century the beginnings of a capitalist market economy emerged in Italy. Trade among city-states allowed for people to move away from subsistence living and begin to specialize production. Resources from the Americas and bodies from Africa drove the expansion of trade and capitalist economic practice. Whereas humans’ relationship with nature was once one of mutual survival, it became one of human power enabled by the exploitation of nature and other less-powerful humans. Moore tells us that shifts in worldviews happen when a worldview no longer matches the world. That is what happened to the organic worldview. It became incompatible with the exploitation of nature and with the technological development that was to come. So, philosophers of the 1600s began to conceptualize nature as something that could and should be dominated rather than something that was alive and dignified, a view that fit well with the most common interpretation of the story of Genesis (Callicott). Francis Bacon advocated for humans to dominate nature and improve their conditions by uncovering its secrets. René Descartes wrote that humans should “render ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” Humans became more able to do so as thinkers like Isaac Newton reconceptualized earth as a collection of dead parts, atoms which could be isolated, combined, separated, and studied. From Newtonian Science emerged the conceptualization of nature as a machine. Like the new machines of the day, nature was thought to passively follow specific laws. If studied well enough, humans could determine those laws and use them to our advantage. The problem, though, is that these rules of nature are typically derived from and therefore applied to parts that are separated from the whole. Scientists attempt to define the laws as context independent, a characteristic which still legitimizes science yet is flawed in its assumption that a particular phenomenon may be understood separately from the environment in which it exists. The notion that science is both objective and value-free relies on this separation (Merchant).
Nature conceptualized as a machine allowed and continues to allow for capitalism to thrive. We have taken more from the earth than it (she? they?) has to give, and we have done so in the name of economic growth. It has been ethically permissible to do so because we conceive of the earth as something dead and radically different from ourselves. Other forms of life are valued in relation to humans, a viewpoint that is characteristic of anthropocentrism (Plumwood).
Capitalism deserves a closer look as a force of our river, but it is important that we remember the worldview with which it emerged and that continues to allow it to spread.
The Problem of Capitalism
Nature, fundamentally different from and inferior to humans, is ripe for exploitation. A socio-economic system which measures progress in terms of profit and economic growth rather than health and well-being is more than able to facilitate that exploitation. John Bellamy Foster, professor of sociology at University of Oregon said in an interview, “When you start looking concretely at the forces that are generating this [ecological] crisis, it becomes clear that they are inseparable from the basic dynamics of the global capitalist system itself.” Foster points out that our biosphere cannot sustain the expected growth rate of 3% per year. Capitalism requires economic growth in order to keep individuals employed as labor productivity increases, pay debts, and maintain a high Gross Domestic Product, a measure that has become a primary indicator of a nation’s power (Hickel). That growth requires capital input (Soron), a fact that can go unseen because of the unequal distribution of power in our society and the distance between production and consumption made possible by global markets. The textile industry of England would not have been possible without cotton grown in the American colonies by slave labor. The booming salmon fisheries during early European colonization of the Pacific Northwest United States came at the expense of the salmon populations themselves and the river ecosystems they depend on. Cheap produce comes at the expense of the soil. These harms are beared by the marginalized, the unseen among us. The slaves, the indigenous peoples, the farmers, all those who are downwind and downstream. Capitalism rewards taking from the colonized (the earth and the peoples), turning what we take into profit, and leaving little behind (Fairytales of Growth). It incentivizes ecological harm (Goble).
In the 2020 documentary film Fairytales of Growth scholars Marta Conde and Wendy Harcourt describe the common narrative that all people should be able to engage in a consumer lifestyle. We measure quality of life based on what we consume. It is an “easy narrative to hear” they say. But the more difficult reality is that the consumer lifestyle comes at the expense of the environment, nonhuman beings, and care (Fairytales of Growth). Ultimately, it also comes at the expense of the people. With capitalism as the dominant socio-economic system, we have 4.3 billion people living in poverty on earth and millions more with the oceans or the wildfires at their doorsteps (Hickel and Kirk).
So, what about renewable energy?
If, as many scholars say, our way out of the ecological crisis requires us to leave behind capitalism (some go as far as to say that the ecological crisis will rather violently force the end of capitalism), then where does renewable energy now sit in terms of solutions? Climate change communication expert George Marshall says that one of our biggest mistakes in communicating climate change is that we assume climate change can be “defined entirely and exclusively as a problem of gases” (Marshall p.167). I bet you and I both have defined climate change this way, simplified to a parts per million, leading us to assume that any renewable energy technology is a solution to climate change because it converts energy without emitting greenhouse gases. But by now, maybe you are with me thinking, “wow, maybe greenhouse gases and capitalism are the problem…. and maybe it’s got something to do with worldviews, values, and ethics too.” So maybe the assumption we have been making about renewable energy isn’t helping us. It leaves us swimming upstream in an unfamiliar current. We simplify the problems we face to "technological challenges," "economic infeasibility," "fossil fuels." We focus on improving technologies, decreasing prices, or satisfying energy demand instead of on addressing the ecological crisis.
When we define the ecological crisis as more than a “problem of gases,” renewable energy is no longer a solution by its very nature. Furthermore, when we engage with the idea that capitalism and the economic growth mindset has been catastrophic for the environment, we are forced to ask ourselves if renewable energy solutions focused on allowing for continued economic growth are more like problems than solutions? So far, as renewable energy comes online, it has not replaced fossil fuels. As the renewable energy sector has grown, so has the overall demand for energy (Fairytales of Growth). In marine renewable energy, we rarely see metrics of success that value energy demand reduction or total emissions reduction. We focus on production. Rarely reduction. So it makes sense that renewable energy hasn’t had a significant impact on global emissions… how could it when the people working on the technologies don’t focus on emissions reduction? I used to blame the nebulous “politics” or “economics” for the slow impact of renewable energy, and obviously there are factors outside of our control, but are we, working in the science and technology of renewable energy, really able to escape responsibility? We assume our technologies will be solutions by their nature, and with that, we resolve ourselves from thinking collectively about whether or not we are working on what the people and the planet need. So long as that is the case, renewable energy technologies that enable continued growth will make for a “less destructive mode of production” (Kunze and Becker), but won’t really become ecological solutions. Kunze and Becker note, “A large part, if not the majority of renewable energy production exclusively follows profit maximization when replacing fossil fuel power plants and does not challenge the growth and acceleration logic of capital accumulation” (Kunze and Becker).
From another perspective, while industrialized nations could use a healthy curbing of “growth,” there are plenty of nations where economic growth will be necessary to bring people out of severe poverty. Renewable energy will likely play an important role in that growth. These are the countries in the Global South whose resources and raw materials provided the capital and the labor necessary for economic growth in the Global North. Social and environmental justice advocates say that the North should repay their “ecological debt” to the South (Fairytales of Growth). Though renewable energy could be a part of this repayment, when we acknowledge the way that our socio-economic system has helped the Global North accumulate that debt, it is hard to imagine that we could pay it back without changing that very system.
When is comes to energy, renewable energy is sometimes conceived of as a way to decouple greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth (Kunze and Becker). So far, that simply has not been the case (Fairytales of Growth). And with that, we might have to choose- do we prioritize growth or ecological sustainability? Right now, on the whole, we are choosing growth. We report the production of renewable energy projects rather than the reduction of emissions. The structures of mechanistic science limit our ability to integrate environmental and social concerns into technology design. If a technology is defined by its physics, as we currently categorize marine energy devices, then should we not expect environmental and social considerations to remain in the margins? In a world built on mechanistic science, we barely have the tools to look at the problem as a whole. The idea that science should be context-independent and value-free prevents us from consciously creating futures through our work. We design for today’s grids, today’s oceans, and today’s social environments, even when we know that our electric grids need to become more decentralized, that the ownership structures of energy could shift, that the ocean is acidifying and changing faster than scientists can keep up with, and that public perceptions of renewable energy and climate change come with political, ethical, and value-full baggage. Renewable energy is not value-free.
Embracing some alternatives
There are alternatives to capitalism and the mechanistic worldview. There are actually a lot of alternatives. They are coming from social movements, policymakers, and ecological thinkers across the world. today, let’s talk about a couple. I hope that in the future we can talk about more. Social ecology, reconstructive science, donut economics and ecofeminism are all concepts worth exploring, but for now let’s look at degrowth and environmental justice. Some aspects of these alternatives may seem far-out, but then again, to many people, so does marine renewable energy.
Degrowth and the environmental justice movement share some major common ground- they both focus on the needs of the planet and the needs of all people. Degrowth and environmental justice are both social movements as well as areas of academic study. Degrowth is considered a scientific concept (Kunze and Becker). Sustainable degrowth is the “socially sustainable and equitable reduction of society’s throughput” (Kallis). Throughput is the material and energy that we extract from the environment, process, transport, distribute, then dispose of. Sustainable degrowth is about reducing what we use in a way that makes sure everyone still has what they need. Degrowth would have us shift away from GDP as the ultimate measure of progress and toward a different economic structure. The policies that could be included in a degrowth agenda include new controls on how we produce and circulate money, a shift to a shorter work week, limits on advertising, or rules regarding obsolescence (Fairytales of Growth). At the foundation of degrowth is the idea that human well-being is not a function of wealth, but a function of equality, relationships, and simplicity (Kallis).
The environmental justice movement offers us an alternative conceptualization of nature to that of the mechanistic worldview. Since the movement emerged out of grassroots organizations pushing back against governments and corporations harming their living place, the movement’s definition of “environment” has been one that is inseparable from humans and culture. The environment is the forest and the city. It is the suburbs and the ghetto. The environment is, according to Professor of Environmental Studies Giovanna Di Chiro, community (Di Chiro). Justice relates to the distribution of harms and benefits of a specific action. Environmental justice, therefore, concerns itself with communities where toxic waste is dumped in secret, islanders with the ocean on their doorstep who are responsible for merely a fraction of the carbon emissions which you or I are responsible for, and even the fossil fuel industry-dependent communities that are at risk of falling right off the map when we finally kick our petrochemical habit. Environmental justice requires that we recognize that people of color take on a disproportionate amount of harm and that humans are dependent on the health of the planet.
Though those are brief summaries of continuously growing and changing ideas, we can nonetheless begin to see what embracing them could mean for the fields of renewable energy. Environmental scholars have explored how degrowth and renewable energy could come together to work toward ecological sustainability and the democratization of energy. Kunze and Becker investigate the idea that small scale energy technology and the decentralization of energy system ownership could lead to (and align with) sustainable degrowth. They introduce the concept of “collectively and politically motivated renewable energy projects” (CPE) as projects which could embody degrowth practice. CPE projects are defined by how they deal with ownership and participation. Options for alternative forms of ownership include cooperatives, municipal ownership, and local and broadly distributed private ownership while participation means that communities are involved in benefits allocation, planning, and the decision-making process. CPE projects have explicit political aspirations and their goals expand beyond generation of electricity or heat. Projects [a2] align with degrowth goals when they aim to reduce per capita energy consumption and integrate ecological principles into design and execution (Kunze and Becker). Literature thus far on the overlap of renewable energy and degrowth mainly focuses on project development and social policy, but if we are to turn our attention to creating ecological solutions around marine energy, we might want to look at what the overlap means from a technological development standpoint.
Concepts of Design Justice helped me understand what the current work in renewable energy and degrowth means for those of us in research and development. I was introduced to Design Justice concepts through a book called Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need written by Sasha Costanza-Chock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. Costanza-Chock argues that it is the job of the designer to consider the distribution of harms and benefits of their technologies, and that one of the main ways we can go about creating technologies for social justice and ecological sustainability is to better involve users (people that will be impacted by a technology) in the design process. Doing so involves community participation in the design process in such a way that community members have accountability, credit and ownership of a project. [a3]
We have some big ideas here. So, before I throw out some specific ways that I think these big ideas could change what we do, let’s summarize. The capitalist socio-economic system is foundationally at odds with ecological sustainability. By thinking only about production (and not reduction) and only considering the needs of large private and state developers (as opposed to communities and ecosystems), marine renewable energy is currently more focused on producing energy in a capitalist system than becoming an ecological solution. Sustainable degrowth is one (of many) economic concepts that could be an alternative to capitalism. To practice degrowth in renewable energy could mean creating projects with community participation and ownership. From a technology standpoint, Design Justice gives us some of the procedural tools we need to do that. With that in mind, let’s want to consider some specific pathways for us to refocus marine energy on the ecological crisis.
We could use some new metrics of success that go beyond production and cost. Maybe we should begin considering emission reduction potential and effective decrease in demand? Absolutely these metrics will be harder to quantify at first, but should that stop us? Second, maybe we should further broaden our scope of potential users. We are already doing so with emerging market research and development, but could we go further? When we think of the democratization of energy, we have to think of all kinds of communities. Is a technology developed for collective ownership different from one developed for a big private owner? And if a “user” is so broadly defined as someone who is effected by a technology, then could it not also be our jobs to consider the communities most at risk from climate change on one side of a country while working on a project on the other side of that country or even the world? Kunze and Becker say that communities with CPE projects can have many different goals including reduction in energy consumption, protection of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, and social equity (Kunze and Becker). It seems to me that if our aim is to develop renewable energy technologies to address the ecological crisis, adopting some of these goals ourselves for the still-nascent technologies we work with wouldn’t be the worst idea.
The alternative worldview of the environmental justice movement could vitalize our work. The environmental justice movement is based on an ethic in which all humans and nonhuman beings are valued. More than valued, they are inseparable. Culture is not at odds with nature because together they form the environment, the community (Di Chiro). We have certainly made efforts to integrate knowledge of coastal communities and marine ecosystems into marine renewable energy technological research and development, but you might agree that we have not had overwhelming success in doing so, especially from a technical perspective. Could it be because the mechanistic worldview leaves us considering humans, technology, and nature as entirely separate? Could embracing environmental justice help us see humans, technology, and nature as intimately connected? Once we do, could it lead us to new ways to integrate each of these important factors? The environmental justice movement requires that energy transitions are a topic in renewable energy research and development. There are millions of workers around the world who work for the fossil fuel industry. What happens to them when renewables replace fossil fuels? I don’t necessarily think that researchers in renewable energy are responsible for answering this question, but I do think that we are responsible for keeping it close. Environmental justice demands we ask how equitable our solutions really are. How can we make them more equitable?
I am not suggesting the field as a whole to jump in with the degrowth and environmental justice movements, but shouldn’t we start prioritizing addressing the ecological crisis? These movements expand our understanding of what it means to address the ecological crisis and can lead us down new pathways. Emissions matter. A lot. But they certainly are not the only thing that matters. You might be hearing me, and even agreeing with me, but thinking, “this is political, it has no place in science.” Well, historians of science, and frankly anyone who takes a critical look at nuclear America or genetically modified food, would disagree. The mechanistic worldview tells us that science is context-independent, but our reality tells us otherwise. I see a world where the unrealistic goal to keep “politics” out of science has led science and technology to be something that protects the status quo. By forwarding the systems of capitalism and the mechanistic worldview, we are making a statement of values already. It is just easy not to see that because those values align with the most dominant societal values.
Let’s Keep the Conversation Going
I have learned a lot since I began engaging with scholarship in environmental history, philosophy and ecological economics. More than anything else, I have been forced to ask myself if and how my work (and the work of others in my field, like you!) contributes to a more just, equitable, ecologically sustainable world. And if I could put my conclusion thus far into one sentence; I have learned that my work exists within structures that obstruct movement toward equity and ecological sustainability, but at the same time I have the power through my work to challenge those structures. We can work beyond the confines of mechanistic science, challenge the institution of capitalism, and become a field that truly creates solutions for people and the planet. I’ve got suggestions as to how, but I by no means have an actionable agenda, for I have neither the expertise nor the presumptuousness necessary to attempt such a task on my own. That is what River Stone Renewables Coalition is about.
In many ways, we do our work in renewable energy with a focus on the world as it is. But the world is changing as we reckon with our abuse of people and the planet. My hope is that River Stone Renewables Coalition will grow to be a positive part of that change, sharing opportunities to do work in renewable energy that supports environmental justice, challenging the influence of capitalism on our work, share new ideas for how we can better integrate people and the planet into renewable energy. Let’s hold each other accountable for doing work in renewable energy to find solutions to the ecological crisis. I dream of building, with you, a coalition that has the knowledge and skills to understand, work with, and stand up for communities where renewable energy systems will be built, where climate change is taking lives, and where the fall of the fossil fuel industry will threaten livelihoods. There is a lot of work to be done, and we are capable of more than we might imagine.
Please, reach out. And join me.
With heartfelt thanks for reading,
Ali May Trueworthy
Oregon State University
PhD student in Mechanical Engineering
Master’s student in Environmental Arts and Humanities
Reach out: email@example.com
Callicott, J. Baird. Earth’s Insights: A Multicultural Survey of Ecological Ethics from the Mediterranean Basin to the Australian Outback. 1994. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angles, California.
Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design Justice: Community-Led Practice to Build the Worlds We Need, 2020, MIT Press, Cambirdge, MA.
Di Chiro, Giovanna. Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environment and Social Justice in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, Ed. William Cronon. New York: Norton, 1996. P. 298-320
Fairytales of Growth. Khanna, Pierre Smith. Participants Tokata Iron Eyes, Mara Marcet, Geta Thunberg, Giorgos Kallis, Marte Conde, Alnoor Ladha, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, Wendy Harcourt, Federico Demaris, Filka Sekulova, Jason Hickel, Rupert Read. April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQ4cpOKmde8&t=2s.
Goble, Dale D. Salmon in the Columbia Basin From Abundance to Extinction in Northwest Lands, Northwest Peoples: Readings in Environmental History. Chapter 12. December 1998, University of Washington Press.
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Moore, Kathleen Dean. Old Worldviews, New Wolrdviews in Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. 2016, Catapult.
Plumwood, Val. Paths Beyond Human Centeredness, Chapter 3 in An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy. Ed. Anthony Weston. 1999, Oxford University Press. P. 69-105.
Soron, Dennis. Ecology, Capitalism, and the Socialization of Nature: An interview with John Bellamy Foster. 2004, Aurora Online.