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Can there be a post Promethean vision of development?

Posted by Geneviève Ferone on 2 April 2010

We are depleting our resources and disrupting our ecosystems. Humanity’s future will unfold on a fundamentally different planet from the one we know in this century. This perspective remains theoretical, too distant and far too abstract to impact the course of daily priorities. What lessons, in a general and a literal sense, can we draw about the training of our elite, those individuals who will be confronting highly critical trade-offs between precautionary principles and principles of innovation?

“Sustainable” economy can be compared to a long-haul flight

Compared to an economy based on the extensive exploitation of limitless resources, “sustainable” economy can be compared to a long-haul flight that requires us to minimize the quantities loaded and maximize the range of self-sufficiency. To accomplish this, we must streamline new interconnected systems, optimize flow management, adapt our metabolism, and invent new ways to reduce intelligently and efficiently our environmental footprint.

We must be humble and curious

Tomorrow’s engineers will contribute fully to this challenge. We are looking at a transformation of our civilisation for it is no longer question of man’s technical domination over the environment but rather humanity’s adaptation to the functioning of the overall balance of our ecosystems, which makes life on earth possible for 6.5 billion individuals. We must be humble and curious for we still ignore almost everything about these natural systems. Yet, we can not reduce our environmental footprint if we do not understand and we can not measure what we are destroying.

We need to leave behind the narrow logic of over-specialisations

Faced with these challenges, not only the field of engineering but also its range of skills must expand. We need to leave behind the narrow logic of over-specialisations and open up to other sciences – social sciences and environmental sciences – that will greatly contribute to understanding complex systems and the creation of Environmentally Sound Technologies (ESTs). Conversely, if we remain locked in overly rigid scientific compartmentalization, if we are unable to provide a collective meaning to the technological breakthroughs that are available today, we run the risk of exacerbating the gap between science and governance.

Under the sometimes violent rejection of scientific study on global warming lurks an obvious difficulty to conceive the world in other terms than as part of a Promethean concept of man. This conception is built on faith in the individual and in his freedom and power. It rejects any form of conformism and constraints that society may impose and values above all else the rationality of our choices and actions, devoid of feelings and moral considerations. This stance is the best antidote against mediocrity and intellectual or political totalitarianism.

The Promethean hero dominates nature through his scientific spirit or his qualities as an engineer. He defies the elements and through his courage and commitment encourages us to surpass ourselves. Such a hero is radically against any form of “politically correct” thought and rejects all compromise with the supposedly more gullible and malleable. Ecology, presented by some as a new totalitarian cult that calls for an immediate and planetary communion, clearly collides with the referential framework that is the very foundation of our present civilization.

However, the challenges we must take up demand we display boldness, humility, and solidarity. Until we accept and integrate these new dimensions of dialogue and interconnectivity between various disciplines and communities, our faith in technological progress is will remain a marvellous, magical, promethean wish.

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