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Energy Descent, a Kaleidoscopic Dialogue

November 13, 2023

A Continual Search for Aptness

Let me begin with the word aptness. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines apt as “appropriate or suitable in the circumstances”. A continual search for aptness is at or near the core of how I approach all things philosophical, and I would argue — for now — that this is as good a core principle for the practice of philosophical inquiry as any, and better than most of its alternatives.

It may seem odd that I’d begin an essay on the topic of energy descent as I am, by speaking of this theme specifically as a topic of philosophical concern. But I have my reasons for doing so, as hopefully you’ll soon understand. So please bear with me, we’ll be getting to the topic of energy descent soon enough. Meanwhile, I want to begin by setting the theme of energy descent down within philosophy, as I understand philosophy.

As I see it, philosophy is likely best — or often best — practiced in a way which is essentially ancient. This may seem an odd suggestion, but what I like about the ancient Greek way of “doing philosophy” is that the ancient Greeks hadn’t invented the conceptual schema which divided questions sharply into the categories of “scientific” and “philosophical,” and thus treating these as if they were separate from one another.

Long before “the natural sciences” of the modern era, there was “natural philosophy”, which term originated in ancient Greece and was used to describe a broad inquiry into the nature of the world and the cosmos. Natural philosophy, in those early days, was often called “physikḗ epistḗmē” (φυσικὴ ἐπιστήμη), where “physikḗ” (φυσικὴ) relates to nature or the natural world, and “epistḗmē” (ἐπιστήμη) means knowledge or science.

From the ancient world (at least since Aristotle) until the 19th century, natural philosophy was the common term for the study of physics (nature), a broad term that included botany, zoology, anthropology, and chemistry as well as what we now call physics. It was in the 19th century that the concept of science received its modern shape, with different subjects within science emerging, such as astronomybiology, and physics. – from Wikipedia, Natural philosophy

I’m not arguing here that all of ancient Greek philosophy was understood simply as a form of “natural philosophy” as physikḗ epistḗmē, but rather that all of ancient Greek philosophy existed at a time when knowing and knowledge hadn’t yet undergone the transformations to philosophy which occurred as modern science emerged from a history of thought which began within (and as) natural philosophy. The results were various kinds of divorce of science and philosophy which I think are misleading and unhelpful. That is, this divorce which occurred between philosophy and science is not apt — or appropriate or suitable in the circumstances we now find ourselves within.

In the above paragraph I have named two distinct terms: knowledge and knowing. You may think I’m being redundant here, and may wish to think these terms are synonymous. But I want to point out that one of these terms is a verb (an adjective, yes, but closer to a verb…) and the other is a noun, and I think it is often apt, when “doing philosophy,” to take note of the fact that knowing is a process and not an object, or a fixed thing. Knowing is more like a dance than like a brick — although even a brick is more a process than an unchanging object, but one must look closely at bricks to see this and understand it. Bricks begin and end their lives in motion — clay is dug up, shipped, formed into a shape and fired in a kiln, then the bricks are shipped and so on and so forth. A brick is an event as much as it is a seemingly unchanging, solid thing. (Bricks will eventually essentially dissolve under certain environmental conditions.)

Philosophical knowing is Kaleidoscopic

A thing is kaleidoscopic when it is quickly changing from one thing (or perspective) to another, as are the ever-shifting patterns appearing when looking through a kaleidoscope. Knowledge, the noun form of the verb knowing… (Okay, technically, dictionaries consider knowing to be an adjective, not a verb. But I’d like to make a case for knowing to be used as a verb sometimes, because a verb is “a word that characteristically is the grammatical center of a predicate and expresses an act, occurrence, or mode of being.”) … Knowing is a process and event, and it is something we are doing within time. Whereas knowledge—the word—evokes the sense of completion, arrival, a static image. And I want to evoke the sense of philosophy in which philosophical practice is always ongoing, never fully arriving or completing. When we are “doing philosophy”, we’re subjecting our most cherished assumptions and beliefs to inquiry, testing them, exploring them — turning the wheel of the kaleidoscope to see and understand things from the many possible angles they may appear within or from.

— and now for some words on energy descent —

The Least Loaded Word

“Descent is the least loaded word that honestly conveys the inevitable, radical reduction of material consumption and/or human numbers that will characterize the declining decades and centuries of fossil fuel abundance and availability”

— David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

While Holmgren may be right in saying this, descent is generally quite a loaded word. Down is rarely a direction we want to travel in.1 We like it when things are going up. Down, after all, is the direction of Hell (or so some have said). Heaven us upward. When our friend is feeling down, we want to elevate her, to bring her up. When the economy shrinks (a downward motion), we want to lift it up. Descent is a downward movement. Basically, in common usage, down is bad and up is good.

Eventually, I’d like to compose (or find) an actual history of the use of the term “energy descent” which is just comprehensive enough, without needing to fill a whole book. But I don’t want to hinder my writing process here today by burdening it with the need to know this history in full.

I actually play an interesting, but quite tiny, role in this history, as when I first “googled” the phrase some number of years ago, the Wikipedia was atop my search results. I read the article there and found that it defined “energy descent” (then) in purely involuntary terms — as an inevitable consequences of increasing fossil fuel resource scarcity, primarily in relation to oil. So I heavily edited the article to include voluntary energy descent mostly resulting from concerns about anthropogenic climate disruption, also known as “climate change”.

These words are mostly mine, but are also a collaboration:

Energy descent is a process whereby a society either voluntarily or involuntarily reduces its total energy consumption.

Energy descent can be understood in relation to peak oil, in which case there is a theoretical post-peak-oil transitional phase characterized by a descending use of energy. The peak oil energy descent model has focused mainly on resource scarcity leading to an involuntary contraction of energy use.

The phrase “energy descent” has also become increasingly associated with the voluntary and deliberate choice of a society to reduce energy consumption in response to the global climate crisis.[1] The basic premise of energy descent in this latter context is that a simple replacement of fossil fuels with renewable and cleaner energy sources won’t be feasible in the time frame required by an effective response to the global climate crisis. That is, those who call for a voluntary energy descent doubt that clean and renewable energy sources can simply replace the total quantity of energy currently in use while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

— now back to philosophy a bit —

Standing Upon the Shoulders …

“We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are”

― Anaïs Nin

Philosophy, and what we now call “science”, underwent significant changes over the millennia. In ancient Greece, birthplace of the lineage of world philosophy of the sort most familiar as “philosophy per se,” a lineage which begins with the pre-Socratics and meanders over centuries to arrive at Plato and Aristotle, which I mention partly because of the famous quote from philosopher A. N Whitehead — “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them”.  But I suspect few philosophers today would doubt for a moment that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were standing upon the shoulders of the likes of Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus and Parmenides — who are counted among the pre-Socratics.

During the Middle Ages, the term “natural philosophy” continued to be used to encompass a wide range of inquiries into the natural world. However, during this period, the focus often shifted towards the integration of philosophy with theological considerations. Scholars, particularly in the medieval Christian world, sought to reconcile their understanding of the natural world with religious beliefs.

The Renaissance marked a period of revival of classical learning and a renewed interest in the study of nature. During this time, figures like Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei made important contributions to the field. The term “natural philosophy” persisted, but there was a growing emphasis on empirical observation and experimentation.

In the 17th century, the Scientific Revolution brought about a fundamental shift in the approach to understanding the natural world. Figures like Sir Francis Bacon and René Descartes advocated for systematic observation, experimentation, and the development of scientific methods. This period saw the emergence of what we now recognize as modern science, and the term “natural philosophy” began to be gradually replaced by the term “science.”

By the 18th century, the term “natural philosophy” became less commonly used, and the various branches of science started to take on more distinct identities, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. The institutionalization of scientific disciplines and the establishment of scientific societies further solidified the transition from natural philosophy to the modern concept of science.

The Classical Period of “Philosophy, Per Se

Plato was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle. The transition from the Pre-Socratic to the Classical period is generally considered to have occurred around the late 5th century BCE.

It was during the classical period that Greek philosophy most strongly turned toward questions and dialogues (inquiries) into the nature of “What is good” and ‘What is right” — and beautiful — (ethically and aesthetically, and to the question of how we can know these things. These are questions we now associate with ethics and aesthetics — or value-thinking. These questions were, of course, attempted to be grappled with in relation to fundamental questions concerning “natural philosophy,” in that they were not discussed much in terms of “the gods,” or theology. The Classical Period philosophers were grappling with how we can know and understand things in relation to what is observable directly, with our senses. This is a tradition of thinking begun (as history tells us) with the presocratics.

What I Am Attempting to Do Here …

… is to open up a space of inquiry and dialogue into “energy descent” which fully integrates value-thinking with scientific thinking — and which integrates these all within a “space of reasons” which is what I understand to be “reasoning,” which some have liked to call “rationality”. But “rationality” isn’t anything at all straightforward. It’s complicated!

It’s been years since I read Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, the description of which opens with –

In the seventeenth century, a vision arose which was to captivate the Western imagination for the next three hundred years: the vision of Cosmopolis, a society as rationally ordered as the Newtonian view of nature. While fueling extraordinary advances in all fields of human endeavor, this vision perpetuated a hidden yet persistent agenda: the delusion that human nature and society could be fitted into precise and manageable rational categories. Stephen Toulmin confronts that agenda—its illusions and its consequences for our present and future world.

In a follow up to Cosmopolis, Toulmin later wrote Return to Reason, described in part in this way.:

In Return to Reason, Stephen Toulmin argues that the potential for reason to improve our lives has been hampered by a serious imbalance in our pursuit of knowledge. The centuries-old dominance of rationality, a mathematical mode of reasoning modeled on theory and universal certainties, has diminished the value of reasonableness, a system of humane judgments based on personal experience and practice. To this day, academic disciplines such as economics and professions such as law and medicine often value expert knowledge and abstract models above the testimony of diverse cultures and the practical experience of individuals. (Source: Return to Reason)

In short, Toulmin argued that a certain conception of “rationality” impairs our ability to be reasonable, and being reasonable is too valuable to cede to that version of “rationality”.

A Pattern Connects

I have noticed this pattern which Toulmin speaks of in the various discussions and debates around whether “voluntary energy descent” is even “possible”. And whether it is possible is, I think, is certainly among the most important political questions of our present time in human history. We are entering a time in which involuntary energy descent is chasing the equally dogged tail (and tale) of voluntary energy descent, and vice-versa. Round and round these dogged dogs go, the two of them. And it’s not entirely clear where we are or what all of this means.

— energy descent and philosophy as one singular, integrated topic —

In a thousand online conversations, over the years, I’ve been told repeatedly that either voluntary energy descent is a pipe dream (impossible on the face of it), or we may as well treat it as such, it being so absurdly unlikely to occur at a scale that can matter. “There is no political will for it, nor a political discourse which can accomodate it,” I have been a thousand times told.

So I learned that “technological determinism” (Google it, or use your favorite search engine) has a variety of traditional meanings which don’t much include what I’d choose it to mean for my present purposes — which requires me to come up with another name for what I mean. It means I have to think afresh about agency, and political agency, all afresh. And that’s what philosophy is good for!

This all sets me down in a tradition of philosophical inquiry which comes down to dialogue. Philosophical dialogue is kaleidoscopic. It opens up possibilities where otherwise possibilities are foreclosed. It is in this way “generative”. It’s generative because we are capable of allowing reason to thrive where “rationality” might crush it.

Actual philosophical dialogue is generative. It leads from dead ends to opening up of possibilities where “the impossible” seemed to dwell.

Let us begin.

Anywhere is a good beginning. Dialogue can take the form of essays responding to essays, conversations inspiring conversations, folks sitting around a table and wondering (and wandering) together. But I’m not at all accepting the popular story which has it that humans have no agency in the world. I’m more apt to say, with folks like David Abram, Sophie Strand and Bayo Akomolafe that agency is far more distributed in our world than we had ever imagined as “moderns”. I want to participate in that dance. It’s certainly a generative and ever re-framing dance of the kaleidoscopic.

What a good kaleidoscope can do is to break us out of our collective trances.

So let us begin. Again. Always anew.

We simply do not know what we can or cannot do together. It’s not for us to know this. The future is not entirely determined by the past (as we imagine we understand it). What is for us to know is what our historical moment is calling us to. Let’s not say no to that calling.

Come, let us reason together.

1 Up and down definitely have the sort of connotations and associations as I speak of here in the culture where I live, but I suspect these directional associations are far from culturally universal.

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.