The Myth of Prometheus


April 2012 | Leslie Thiele,

Shellenberger and Nordhaus criticize environmentalists for having a pale vision of the future. But the issue is not about being for or against technology. The question is this: do we invest in the education and empowerment of citizens such that they can wisely -- which is to say, selectively -- utilize technology in ways that help sustain both a high quality of life and a healthy environment?

When asked, "What's so great about jazz?" Louis Armstrong responded, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

In "Evolve," Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tell us "we should treat our technological creations as we would treat our children, with care and love." What's wrong with that? I would respond as our jazz trumpeter did. In their proposed Anthropocene love fest, I fear that our children (not to mention other species) will be getting a pretty raw deal.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus criticize environmentalists for having a pale vision of the future. But our vision of possible worlds is anemic if we ground it upon a black and white view of the world. The issue is not about being for or against technology. The question is this: do we invest in the education and empowerment of citizens such that they can wisely -- which is to say, selectively -- utilize technology in ways that help sustain both a high quality of life and a healthy environment?

Nordhaus and Shellenberger set forth a clear statement of Prometheanism: the celebration of the human being as having no fundamental characteristic save its remarkable ability to refashion its world -- and itself -- by means of technological ingenuity. The authors offer readers a stark choice: throw our (straw) hats in with the romantic preservationists who persist in the misanthropic effort to keep humanity from intruding upon a pristine nature, or join the Promethean optimists who recognize that shaping the world is humanity's birthright. The ultimate goal of the latter effort is the control of evolution itself. We are as gods, and should start acting the part. The choice presented is apotheosis or bust.

Apotheosis is a gutsy move. Granted, naive preservationism has little to offer us. It is misconstrued in depicting humanity as set off from the natural world and has proven itself practically ineffective. But there is a third alternative.

Instead of retreating from the world or seeking to become its (re)Creator, we can embrace our limited but significant role in the evolutionary drama. I have adopted the term coevolution to identify the opportunity we have as a species to become creative partners in the Earth odyssey.1 The goal of coevolutionists is to preserve the life-sustaining capacities of a diverse world in which the "options for ... evolutionary change" are enhanced.2

The ontological vision sketched by the technophiles undermines coevolution. To Promethean man, the Earth appears as a storehouse of resources to be exploited and controlled. In the endless pursuit of mastery, he abandons his responsibility as an observant caretaker, assuming instead the mandate of a technician. The Earth and all its inhabitants are now "enframed" into what philosopher Martin Heidegger calls "standing reserve." All beings are effectively perceived as resources, as raw materials to be put to use. For the man equipped only with a hammer, everything gets treated like a nail.

To Promethean man, there are no ethical grounds to distinguish between one form of technological behavior and another, whether it's preserving or extinguishing a species, detoxifying or poisoning an ecosystem, enhancing life or spreading death. The only question is how to find the most efficient means to any given end.

I am not suggesting that the technophiles are amoral, that they could care less whether we enslave our fellow humans or destroy our fellow species. I am simply saying they provide no grounds for judging between better or worse forms of human control of the environment, including the human environment.

This deficiency is a direct product of their anti-essentialist, Promethean ontology. There are no limits, boundaries, or even guideposts for action. We have become god-like in our technological powers, and we cannot and should not restrict our ambitions. The question of who we are, and what responsibilities we have, has been replaced by the question of what we might become. There are no grounds offered for limiting or even orienting the essence-less and endless self-transformation of the world. Genetic engineering of our own species is a near certainty. After all, how could we refuse technologists the greatest experiment yet: the remaking of humankind.

What might restrain us, or guide us, as we enter a world of limitless technological possibility? I do not believe -- any more than Nordhaus and Shellenberger do -- that we have at our disposal an arsenal of facts or rational arguments that would compel particular restrictions or actions. That is because we do not have a surefire, cognitive means to determine the ontological essence of humanity or ascertain its ethical imperatives. But that is not to say we are without resources.

Scientific facts and philosophical arguments may help clarify our ontological and ethical positions. But these positions are largely settled by the stories we craft to give meaning to our lives. Outside the walls of academic philosophy, metaphor and mythology play a greater role than axioms and argument in the development of individual character, moral disposition, and social relationships.

The moral quandaries of life are seldom if ever resolved by deduction. Rather, they are negotiated by way of reflective mythologizing. We find out what it is right and proper to do by discovering what our roles are in a story that situates us in the world. The pressing question is what sort of stories do we develop? While the Promethean tale may stimulate technological development, it does not guide, discipline, or heal us. As Thomas Berry observed, a different sort of story is required for that.3

An alternative narrative cannot be provided here. But I can address one of the skills that its protagonist might develop. The ancient Greeks called it phronesis, often translated as practical judgment.

The ancient Greeks understood phronesis to meld practice with principle, allowing one to act prudently in specific situations because the parts are seen in the context of the (good life as a) whole. Situated within extensive webs of interdependence, virtually no human actions are without repercussions, many of which, dispersed widely across time and space, are unintended. To exercise practical judgment is to know that you can never do just one thing, while also knowing that refraining from action altogether is not a viable option. Phronesis prompts one to address the question, "And then what?" before taking any action while simultaneously marshaling the moral courage to act responsibly in the face of uncertainty. It stimulates an appreciation of the complex nature of an interdependent world. Without it, the technologist's ingenuity threatens to open up a Pandora's box.

The Greek mythologists understood as much. To punish humankind for the offense of accepting Prometheus' purloined fire, Zeus devised a plan for retribution. He presented a beautiful woman, Pandora, with a marvelous box as a wedding present. When the newlywed opened Zeus' enchanting gift, all hell broke loose.

Prometheus is also punished by Zeus. Shackled to a peak in the Caucasus, he is tortured by a vulture that feasts daily on his liver. Each night, Prometheus's liver grows back that it might be devoured again by the voracious raptor the following day. Perhaps Prometheus had to be bound to a rock because he could not limit himself, a trait shared by the technological race he created. And perhaps Prometheus has his liver eaten away each day because the liver is the organ of envy. Promethean man is an ambitious and envious creature. He wants nothing less than to become a god.

To be sure, Promethean man's technological feats are astonishing. Yet each achievement leaves him aware of limitations to be surpassed. Every boundary he overcomes underlines his distance from divinity. Thus every dawn Promethean man is awakened from his dream of omnipotence by a ravenous lust for power that eats away at his soul. Faced with torment, and the dangers involved in technological efforts to escape human finitude, we require stories that will guide, discipline, and heal us as we search for a path to a sustainable world.

Leslie Thiele is Professor of Political Science and Director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Florida. His most recent book is Indra's Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World (MIT Press, 2011).

1. See Leslie Paul Thiele. 1999. Environmentalism for a New Millennium: The Challenge of Coevolution (New York: Oxford University Press). (back)

2. John Gowdy. 1994. Coevolutionary Economics: The Economy, Society and the Environment (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers), pp. 22,98. (back)

3. Thomas Berry. 1988. The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books), p. 123. (back)