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Energy Darwinism


Concerns over climate change has pushed the delicate relationship between short term benefits and long term risks and economic and environmental balance. Recent reports published by Citi (and subsequent national commentary on them) have focused on the idea of “Energy Darwinism.” This post will explicate this term, relate it to evolution and natural selection as the metaphor implies, and what this says about moral and religious obligations to the environment. Implicit in this discussion which will be addressed in a later post is the intricate relationship between money and morality, the economy and ethics, and patrons and politicians.

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As a brief point of introduction, natural selection, or “Darwinism” is the basic mechanism of evolution. From the assemblage of single-celled organisms to humanity, genetic variations accumulate over time and create branches of descendants and all of the life on earth today. The basic tenets of natural selection is that mutations occur in DNA to produce variations which are then competitively selected by the environment, mating preferences, and predator/prey relationships. Interpretations of evolution often forgo the opportunity for supernatural or divine intervention, making it a materialist theory of origins. Thus, evolutionary theory has often been opposed by religious adherents who regard it as immoral and too largely focused on the environment as a guiding force. Alternative narratives often find a role for a deity such as creationism or intelligent design. Labeling evolution “Darwinism” is in part a rhetorical strategy to reduce the explanatory power of evolution to the worship of an individual.

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Although natural selection was not meant to be applied to other areas of life, especially not human life, many people have demonized the competitive spirit of natural selection as damaging to humanity. Social Darwinism is an attempt to label philosophies of human competition with evolutionary characteristics. Energy Darwinism is a new application of evolutionary theories to industry reactions to environmental protection. The concept refers to the economic benefits of businesses becoming more eco-friendly. As carbon becomes more expensive as demand remains (or increases) and supply decreases, businesses themselves will move towards alternative sources in order to remain competitive. There is an irony in professing that Darwinism, which is often levied as a negative descriptor of human competition, aggression, and exploitation is used as industry competition that may drive down prices, encourage innovation for selfish needs for profit/money. Energy Darwinism may seem a simple, logical concept, but there are sinister implications and consequences for such thinking.

If the changing economic environment will change naturally to encourage better business practices, this removes the responsibility of industry to be purposeful actors and the government from intervening in environmental protection. There would be no need for regulations, national laws, and international agreements about reducing carbon and encouraging change because industries will naturally adjust to environmental pressures. Industries are reduced to the world of motion (such as the basic functions of animals), incapable of rational and symbolic action (such as the functioning of humans) that would require thoughtful reflection and intervention. Furthermore, the discussion of environmental protection is reduced to economic benefits, arguably the reason why the environment has been harmed to such extent. Energy Darwinism removes economic structures from culpability and instead worships it as the source of salvation. The system will correct itself, so there is no need for activism or change.

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A better motivation for environmental protection perhaps lies in moral arguments instead of economic ones. Though Energy Darwinism provides hope that businesses might be motivated to act, economic motivations are certainly questionable for immediate actions. Especially considering the Key Stone Pipeline and other important changes happening now, it seems that waiting for industries to succumb to pressures in the economic system will be too little, too late. Religious arguments, however, often propose moral obligations to protect the Earth for future generations and appeals to charity to help those in less developed countries accommodate environmental change. These arguments are certainly more appealing on a basic level of caring for fellow humanity, but it is perhaps overly optimistic to think that creation care arguments might ever have the persuasive power of dollar signs.

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