Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

A cornucopia of Prometheanism

with 15 comments

This post has been prompted by an exchange of comments I have been having with Patrice Ayme – on my previous post (i.e. here) – that I feel deserves wider exposure and/or appreciation. However, if you have not the faintest idea what I might be on about, please be patient:  This post is not too long and, if you read to the end, I believe all will become clear.
Dryzek politics ote
The image shown here is the cover of one of the two main course texts I had to buy in order to do my MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University in 2010-11.  It is an excellent introduction to the subject of environmental politics and the concept of discourse analysis.

It is in this book that John Dryzek puts forward his own particular method of discourse analysis – analysing the things people say or have written – suggesting examination of: (a) the basic entities people recognise or appear to construct; (b) the assumptions they make about natural relationships; (c) the agents they recognise and motivations they assume; and (d) the key metaphors and rhetorical devices they use.

In the sphere of environmental politics, Dryzek suggests that it is possible to classify people on the basis of whether they appear to believe sustainability can be achieved by reformation of the status quo; and the extent to which they are thinking “outside the box”; as follows:





Economic rationalists

Environmental alarmists


Ecological modernisers

Green revolutionaries

After Dryzek Box 1.1 on page 15 of The Politics of the Earth (2005).

In essence, economic rationalists assume market forces can be used to solve environmental problems; whereas ecological modernisers think it will take more than that.

This then was the starting point for my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism, which I have now published as The Denial of Science.  However, in order to propose a similar classification of climate change scepticism, it was necessary to take Dryzek’s basic idea and combine it with what I have called the ‘Six Pillars of Climate Change Denial’ that I extracted from Robert Henson’s The Rough Guide to Climate Change:

The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem (after Henson 2008: 257).

As I explain in my book, I simplified this summary of the positions adopted by those who are supposedly sceptical, in order to produce my Dryzek-style classification of climate change denial, as follows:






(1 – ACD is not happening)

Economic rationalists

(4 – ACD is not worth fixing)



(2 – ACD is not significant)


(3 – ACD is not problematic)

Contrarians are those refuse to acknowledge the nature of reality.

Cornucopians are those (like Julian Simon) who do not believe action is yet required to address any anticipated effects of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).  They are named after Cornucopia, the horn of the goat Amalthea in Greek mythology, which Zeus endowed with a supernatural power to provide an unlimited supply of food etc..  As such, Cornucopians have unlimited confidence in the abundant supply of natural resources; the ability of natural systems to absorb pollutants; and their corrective capacity to mitigate human activities.

Economic Rationalists are defined and discussed by Dryzek (2005: 121-42) but, for the sake of argument, can here be taken to be synonymous with Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” as cited in Elster (1986); and/or Herman Daly’s “growthmania” (1974).

Prometheans are those (like Bjorn Lomborg) who propose radical technological solutions including environmental stabilisation of the atmosphere by means of geo-engineering.  They are named after Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who stole fire from Zeus and so vastly increased the human capacity to manipulate the world.  As such, Prometheans have unlimited confidence in the ability of technology to overcome environmental problems.

In a nutshell, my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism (i.e. the most prominent climate change sceptics in the UK) appears to suggest that the majority of these “sceptics” are either contrarians or economic rationalists.  However, I suspect that as the outright denial of reality and the need to address the problem of ACD both become increasingly untenable, I think more and more people will try and find solace in either cornucopian or promethean beliefs.

In the discussion that I alluded to at the outset of this post, Patrice Ayme did not like the way in which I appeared to disparage the importance of human ingenuity (by suggesting that people who believe in both Cornucopianism and Prometheanism are deluded).  I am pleased to say that we have now resolved any misunderstanding by agreeing that Prometheanism is the best option.  However, crucially, we also agree that, in order to avert an ecological catastrophe, we will also need to modify our behaviour.  That is to say, neither faith in Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism) nor faith in human ingenuity (Prometheanism) should be used to deny our responsibility for causing the problem or to abdicate responsibility for doing everything we can to minimise its consequences.

Great stuff, hey?  All we need to do now is get those with the power to make policy decisions to do the right thing.

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15 Responses

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  1. dear Martin: Thanks for making me the honor of a post. I always viewed Lomborg as MBAborg. Just a guy making a career from pleasing oil men. Lomborg initially called the greenhouse effect “a myth… extremely doubtful”. Leter he changed his music. In his 2001 book A Skeptical Environmentalist he states; “[I accept] the reality of man-made global warming but questions the way in which future scenarios have been arrived at and finds that forecasts of climate change of 6 degrees by the end of the century are not plausible.”

    I completely disagree with this. In my long held opinion, the possibility of run-away warming, through a clathrate/CH4 gun, or quick permafrost melt, for example, is extreme.

    Devastating the biosphere is not tolerable, and had to terminated right away. Even then, due to inertia and the long half life of CO2 in the air, and as carbonic acid in the seas, we will need radical technology solutions. But, as it is, they do not exist. However discouraging the usage of fossil fuels through very high taxes will help the existing sustainable energies.

    The 100 other nuclear technologies so far basically unresearched, and progress in all sort of solid state physics (supraconductivity, etc.), or Quantum mechanics (efficiency of Quantum computers, maybe even harnessing the Casimir effect beyond the nano architecture designing today) offer all sorts of perspective for futher Promethean activities, same as we have done for millions of years.

    Those activites are not just a possibly nice option we could play with. They are the only one we have. A rise of sea level of at least ten meters is absolutely certain, for example, and that means a lot of ingenuity will have to be deployed pretty soon.

    Patrice Ayme

    23 March 2013 at 01:09

    • Thanks Patrice. Is not Lomborg just another fool who does not recognise the limits of his own expertise? Why should anyone take notice of what he thinks? The trouble is, of course, that many have been duped by his completely irrelevant opinions about what is and is not plausible.

      CO2 buried in the ground will have no half-life at all – it must never escape. Carbon Capture and Storage will be more dangerous than burrying nuclear waste. This is why I get so angry with people who promote unconventional hydrocarbon use instead of decarbonisation: People like Peter Styles who ask “Do we need shale gas?” should be asking “Can we survive shale gas?” As it happens, Professor Styles is giving this talk locally on Monday night, so I will go and ask him myself.

      Your list of items of humanity’s drawing board is impressive but two things are worth repeating: (1) Technology will not obviate rich people from the need to reduce their personal resource consumption rates; and (2) Nature may well intervene by wiping out a large proportion of life on Earth rendering hi tech solutions unnecessary for a very long time (if not for ever).

      A lot of ingenuity will be needed but, sadly, I suspect also, a lot of AK-47s and F-17s as well. Sadly, I suspect an awful lot of poor people will just get washed into the sea. Those who have already become wealthy on the back of the pyramid-selling scheme that was modernity, however, will probably not be quite so stoical or silent. Either way, permanently re-locating the 634 million people who live within 10 metres of sea level will take a lot more than ingenuity; and it will require money no-one has now got (although this is a very distant problem for all except those who live on a tropical island or river delta).

      Martin Lack

      23 March 2013 at 12:29

      • Martin: We agree on everything here, so… prostitutes such as Lomborg, or the even more famous and dangerous Allegre in France and the guy who succceeded him at Institut de Geophysique(both Nobel class geophysicists) can occupy the front of the political and media, plutocratic scene, and we are like little dogs barking in the countryside.

        CCS works in less than half a dozen special geological places. One of them, in France, injects CO2 in an old exhausted CH4 field, at 4,000 METERS depth (an extravagant depth!) But the problem is, of course, that most power plants are not on top of special geology.

        Thus the fact algae fuel could be the only CCS I know of that could work. That this only plausible possibility is not pushed tells me that politicians are not sincere about CCS.

        Patrice Ayme

        23 March 2013 at 14:46

        • “…we are like little dogs barking in the countryside”. What an apt analogy this is.

          It would be extremely sad if our leaders were not pursuing viable CCS options (some have been suggested that sound plausible to me). However, how can algae be used to achieve CCS? Using algae to extract CO2 from the atmosphere is not CCS if we then turn it into biofuel (but that would be better than digging up yet more fossilised sunlight).

          Martin Lack

          23 March 2013 at 15:30

  2. I’m never keen on the this or that option but for arguments sake I think humans can be resourceful [exploitative] and adaptable [and stupid], the coming storm can be approached either in a Cold War way or a Second World War way. A tidy metaphor in that it was good vs evil.

    We could prepare and spend billions just like the Cold War or we could get complacent with the ‘phony war’ and be forced to make that difference. I just read up on Cuba vs North Korea’s response to the loss of the soviet union and subsidised oil and fertiliser, one choose an even more totalitarian state and the other during the ‘special years’ did the transition. Make me a moderniser as the prospect of the free market is frankly depressing. But even given a fighting political chance could we transform the billion cars into electric, the planes the ships with eco fuels? could we build our way out of coal and gas powerstations? It would be like the War, and like the war I’m sure generations will be happy to pay off the loan for the coming 60 years.

    There is the possibility- a slim one, that 2c-5c whilst likely some how, does not quite manifest itself and the jury is out as far as major feedback loops are concerned. The truth is we don’t know as models have never been used as predicting tools as they are possible projections but really most people would not play Russian Roulette with 1:6 odds [but will play 13 million to 1 odds on the lottery!]. But AGW is not the only issue- we are reaching limits to growth it may be stating now but certainly within 15 year. Oh my 15 years that sort of feels like yesterday so if your 30 or 40 or have kids it is not a huge amount of time. And a limit to growth means the end of borrowing which gives Greece the role of trailer for the coming main feature. In Greece they cut all the park trees down for fire wood so I don’t see widespread poverty as some how a fix.

    In the words of the immortal prophet- Bob the Builder- Can we fix it, yes we can. If we don’t- fellow bloggers- it will be at least recorded and tweeted about. We are living in historic times and we get front row seats to either see an end to civilisation or the birth of a new one. Feel privileged.


    23 March 2013 at 02:54

    • Thanks Jules. I hope you do not feel I was offering a false dichotomy. I was not seeking to be dogmatic; merely to offer readers the benefit of some of the core issues I learned from doing my MA. To beat our principal enemy (in this case Prometheanists) we must understand how and why they think as they do; and then gently point them in the direction of reality.

      Martin Lack

      23 March 2013 at 12:35

      • Please call them polluting or poisoning plutocrats, and try to stop torturing poor Prometheus with innuendos. Especially when he is the only one that can avoid 6 billion violently killed, all too soon. Don’t work photocells making current at night, and algae fuel, sucking CO2 from the atmosphere… Thank Prometheus in advance, for these future gifts, just as the Swiss company that will soon launch satellites from an Airbus, at a quarter the cost…

        Patrice Ayme

        23 March 2013 at 14:55

        • Patrice, as we have now established that we agree on all of this stuff, would you be happier if I called them “technological optimists” instead? Please see this recent post of mine (subtitled ‘In conversation with a “technological optimist”’), which I think you must have missed.

          Martin Lack

          23 March 2013 at 15:36

        • I realise that the grid of opinion means that the dot can be mainly one thing or a mixture of all four. I agree that prometheanists are the principle voice [of un-reason]- listen [!?!] to lord Lawson and we would be convinced by this famous geologist, economist and physicist [because understanding natural laws is pretty essential now] that there is trillions of gallons and hundreds of years of business as usual: the Earth is both bountiful and humans clever.

          But us rational modernisers also believe the same or at least have to if we think there is a chance of long term survival. We know that recycling is not going to make jack all difference, that renewables have limitations and nuclear is just an expensive stop gap. We also know that most of humanity in the West is ill equipped to deal with transition. But we know it could be done.

          As for understanding the current consensus- I found this article which rings true for me-

          economists and advisers and energy experts appear to be, in facebook speak- like bitches. They are hired by politicians and business to confirm what they think. Left politics hire left thinking economists- investment drives growth- the right hire economists who advise the free market for growth and the energy consultants appear to tell everyone what they want to hear- more – for more growth- to pay off the debts= to borrow more = to get re-elected.

          On a personal level – how many of us get invited to dinner parties when we just bang on about AGW and the end of growth?


          23 March 2013 at 20:46

        • “Prometheanists”, Jules? What’s next, prometheanistic?, prometheanistically?, prometheanisticalism?… Joking aside, Lord Lawson is a very good example of someone who is deeply hypocritical – confesses his ignorance and yet asserts that climate scientists should not be taken seriously. See

          The delusion of prometheanism is the belief that tehcnology alone can solve the problem. That does not stop us agreeing that technology solutions will be very important. However, a return to simple living (reducing carbon footprints) will be at least as important (especially if we do not have the money to pursue the high tech solutions).

          Thanks for the link to the article on the Resilience blog. I think experts failed to predict the fall of the USSR for much the same reason they failed to predict the fall of the WTC on 9/11 – a mixture of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

          With regard to dinner party conversation, I think Clive Hamilton was right to observe(i.e. in Requiem for a Species) that people don’t like talking about climate change because it “has the smell of death about it”.

          Martin Lack

          24 March 2013 at 10:19

  3. Jules: the higher the price of carbon burning now, the quicker sustainable, or more powerful, cleaner techs will come online. An example is algae fuel. It works. It sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere. It’s even the ONLY realistic CCS in existence. It can be scaled up; the US Navy uses it. Problem: it’s expensive. Solution: subsidize & raise price of fossil burning.

    Patrice Ayme

    23 March 2013 at 07:14

  4. US Navy uses it [bioCCS]…

    The US Navy is also looking at getting fuel from hydrolysis of water and combining with CO2 to produce the hydrocarbons.

    See, Fueling the Fleet, Navy Looks to the Seas.

    Commenter rmz makes a good fist of condensing the important bits, although I doubt that I’ll see our navy flying by fusion produced jet fuel any time soon. Heck, our lot can not see further than their noses by building two new carriers with conventionally powered turbines. They have even gone back on their eminently sensible idea to opt for the cats & traps version of the F-35. To be sure a supersonic Harrier type sounds inviting unless you know a bit about the inbuilt limitations (short of inventing anti-gravity paint) of load carrying ability and range.

    Those uninitiated in carrier flying will probably not realise that aircraft can be launched from cat’s (catapults) at significantly higher weights than when operating from airfields, particularly in warm climes and with the airstrips at higher altitudes. With carrier equivalent loads the aircraft would need a much longer runway to reach flying speed, by which time the wheels are rotating so fast that the centrifugal forces working on heat weakened tyres causes blow-outs and a nasty mess at the end of the runway.

    Having written all that, carrier op’s requires a terrific amount of jet fuel (I know well having refuelled them in a previous life and a whole lot more), thus any on-board systems to produce them will have to be mega-efficient.

    Lionel A

    23 March 2013 at 18:09

    • Lionel: I have ranted pages after pages on my site, against the F35, the world’s highest and most ridiculous military project, ever.

      The F35 is projected to cost more than a trillion, for a plane no better performing than the (then) disastrous F 105 Thunderchief… That was 50 years ago! it’s plutocracy, military-industrial variant, at its best. the program should be stopped right away.

      The USA Navy has operated an entire fleet on algae fuel (except for the nuclear boats). Including the planes. US Congress tried its best to stop it. Thus goes the fossil fuel plutocracy.

      Patrice Ayme

      23 March 2013 at 18:39

      • I meant: highest COST (more than 450 billion dollars so far, and basically militarily useless at this point)

        Patrice Ayme

        23 March 2013 at 18:40

  5. Martin: I have to run and finish my essay on Cyprus (which goes all the way back to Pompeius Magnus fake war against pirates, and what happened next)… Plus, ironically, I have to go to Palo Alto, fief of pseudo tech (and some real tech)… So will do it maybe tomorrow….

    All of the “geoengineering” schemes are totally delirious. Except the algae scheme (but that would have, at least in the beginning, an insignificant impact; it would be more like zero sum.)
    So call them delirious. techno-crazies. Technopaths…

    Patrice Ayme

    23 March 2013 at 18:46

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