Lisa H. Sideris
Recently I retrieved an old coffee mug from the deep recesses of a kitchen cabinet where it had been hidden by years of accumulated clutter. In faded green letters, the mug’s inscription insisted that “Changer c’est possible.” The mug is a memento from the three years I spent as a faculty member in the School of Environment at McGill University in Montreal. The message struck me as distinctly un-American, in the best possible way. Un-American in its willingness to concede that things, as they stand, are somehow wrong, and in its prosaic and measured call not for greatness, but simply for change. Change is possible. It’s possible to change.
Belief that the United States occupies a special place on the world stage has driven such notable endeavors as westward expansion, the civil rights movement, and modern space exploration. America’s relationship to science and technology, vexing and ambiguous as it is, exists alongside and is inseparable from a stubborn legacy of exceptionalism. Compared to other nations, for example, America is notoriously resistant to the findings of climate science (Funk and Rainie 2015). The United States has the highest CO2 emissions per capita, yet remains one of the countries least concerned about climate change (Wike, 2016). At the same time, the majority of Americans continue to trust that hard work, technological innovation, and a few well-timed scientific breakthroughs will secure our bright future (Smith 2014).
Exactly what it can mean for one nation—even an allegedly once and future great nation—to anticipate its own continuing future brilliance against a backdrop of global environmental collapse is an interesting question. Might there be a connection between American techno-scientific optimism and our notorious lack of concern for the environment? Does persistent belief in and affective attachment to narratives of U.S. ascent somehow hinder the cultivation of environmental values? Does American investment in narratives of exceptionalism make it impossible to halt the destruction of nature?
In The United States of Excess (2015), Robert Paarlberg argues that American exceptionalism is synonymous with exceptional excess. Exceptionalism-as-excess sheds light on America’s climate policy failures, as well as other ways in which Americans are consistent and egregious outliers—the exception— compared to nations around the world. “Faith” in science and technology, he notes, is integral to America’s puzzling lack of urgency on a number of fronts. While skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, Americans are “far more inclined than Europeans to trust that science and technology will provide a response” (Paarlberg 2015:127). With Paarlberg’s claims regarding excess and exceptionalism in mind, I want to explore the ways in which trust in science and technology exhibits a religiosity of its own that is practiced at the expense of the natural world and nonhuman life. Paradoxically, this form of religion, fueled by belief in endless adaptability, makes genuine change and growth hard to come by.
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My recent work analyzes a cluster of ascendant scientific narratives and their likely negative impact on environmental attitudes and moral sensibilities (Sideris 2017). Science-inspired myths such as The Universe Story or The Epic of Evolution are popular both within and beyond the academy. These narratives present cosmic unfolding, from the Big Bang to the present, as a modern creation myth for all. The “new story” is frequently touted as universal and empirically true. As such, it purports to inform us of who we are, where we are going, and how we should properly orient ourselves to the natural world. And yet, in prizing human intelligence and complex consciousness as virtually inevitable products of telic cosmic processes, these narratives embody naïve faith in progress and may underwrite dangerous forms of human exceptionalism, including American techno-exceptionalism. They may well ratify, in other words, the very attitudes and assumptions, the very narratives of human ascent, that drive environmental destruction and devalue nonhuman life.
In our so-called Anthropocene age in which humans appear to be transforming the planet in unprecedented ways, belief in exceptionalism (of various sorts) and an unshakeable commitment to progress increasingly masquerade as environmentalism. Consider the rise of “ecomodernism,” a rebellious species of green ideology that scoffs at ecological or planetary limits and embraces the quintessential fantasy of futurists that technology will allow humans to “decouple” from nature (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015). Ecomodernism is largely an American phenomenon (its chief prognosticators are affiliated with the Breakthrough Institute located in Oakland, California). Emboldened, rather than chastened, by an Anthropocene vision of humans as a geological force that is wholly remaking the planet, ecomodernists believe that all environmental challenges can be met with intensified agriculture and urbanization; nuclear energy; genetically modified food sources; climate engineering, bioengineering, and other amazing technological feats yet to come. Humans are de facto planetary managers. We can look forward to a great Anthropocene, a new dream to replace the gloom-and-doom nightmare of moribund environmentalism and its tedious talk of sacrifice, scaling back, and fitting into nature (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2007; Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015).
Where visions of American exceptionalism once fueled frontier fantasies of discovering and conquering a “wild” and pristine west, ecomodernist exceptionalism embraces the “end of nature” thesis, dismissing previous generations of environmentalists as romantic idealizers of a nonexistent nature. Either way, environmental exceptionalism reveals its bedrock optimism, its abiding ethos of more and better. New worlds exist yet to be conquered or engineered. More energy to fuel our exploding population will be discovered or created. With perfected knowledge and cutting-edge technology we will engineer our way out of trouble. However novel and daunting our current challenges, the basic storyline—what Timothy Morton variously calls “modernity once more with feeling” or “happy nihilism”—remains the same (2016: 15). It appears we can no longer tell the difference between genuine resourcefulness, on the one hand, and sheer excess on the other. Virtue and vice. The former simply enables more of the latter. In its classic frontier mode and in its post-environmental pursuit of Anthropocene greatness, exceptionalism denies and recoils from the prospect of limits.
Ecomodernist optimism and, to a lesser extent, cosmic narratives of the human ascending to higher consciousness, essentially function as theodicies—or anthropodicies—in which human direction of the future unfolding of the planet takes the place of God (Hamilton 2017). The goodness that will prevail “lies in the order of things, an order that mobilizes the creativity and resourcefulness of humans” (Hamilton 2017: 70). These secular theodicies induce a troubling quietism that embraces the status quo—or worse—and that inspires campaigns to facilitate and smooth the way for the future that appears ordained. Hence, for the ecomodernists, climate change presents a challenge, or “trial” to be “met and won with technology,” an opportunity to fulfill the promise of progress (Hamilton 2017: 68). This framing of events as somehow a product of inevitable or incontestable forces also enables its “awed subtext regarding human [and American] specialness to slip in and, all too predictably, carry the day” (Crist 2013:132, my emph.). The awed subtext, like the “affective convictions” that Elizabeth Shakman Hurd identifies in her discussion of Wal-Mart in this volume, points to an underlying belief in American (techno-) transcendence.
Hollywood routinely capitalizes on this affective conviction by exalting the workaround: stories of savvy Americans manufacturing the means of their own survival from meager materials at hand are met with awed excitement and rapturous reviews. If the gravely imperiled Apollo 13 astronauts could fix their runaway CO2 problem with tube socks and duct tape, we have no grounds for despair (Patel 2014).1 Or consider the 2015 hit film, The Martian, in which American astronaut Mark Watley, played by Matt Damon, is marooned on Mars with little prospect of survival and few resources. “I’m left with only one option,” he casually intones to the camera. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” Damon’s signature line is now emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and shared via hashtags and GIFs (though some engineers felt slighted by the sole emphasis on “science”). Celebrity astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson was moved to tweet that it was his favorite line in the film.
In its most extreme form, American belief in endless adaptability and resourcefulness promotes abandoning our overheated planet altogether in search of new worlds on which to perpetuate the species. The widely acclaimed film Interstellar is a case in point. The film was inspired and co-produced by a Caltech physicist named Kip Thorne who has consulted on other Hollywood films (notably Contact) in which interstellar travel takes the form of a spiritual quest.2 The fantasy of space colonization allows an almost endless deferment of difficult choices here on earth. As George Monbiot astutely observes, “Space colonization is an extreme version of a common belief: that it is easier to adapt to our problems than to solve them” (2014 n.p.). He too notes the political obliviousness or even defeatism that techno-optimism engenders. “Only by understanding this as a religious impulse can we avoid the conclusion that those who gleefully await this future are insane,” Monbiot continues. Escape fantasies jettison the “complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics.” Nowhere is this stealth religion, and its attendant political quietism, so pronounced as in America.
Some forms of techno-exceptionalism stake their claim on the deep evolutionary past rather than (or in addition to) a bright sci-fi future. A case in point is a popular exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History that puts a uniquely American spin on “the” story of human evolution. It tells an uplifting tale of humans’ infinite ingenuity and adaptability in the face of environmental challenges. Indeed, charting the salutary influence of radically changing climates on our species’s evolutionary ascent appears to be the exhibition’s primary agenda. Fluctuations in climate are not just normalized by the Hall of Human Origins: they are revered as a wellspring of human creativity and innovation. Impressive milestones in human evolution, notably tool use and pronounced increases in brain size, are cleverly correlated with periods of climate instability, suggesting in not-so-subtle ways that climate fluctuation has been a boon to our species (Sideris 2016). The punchline to all of this—and a well-deserved black eye to the Smithsonian—is that the Hall of Human Origins is richly funded by, and named in honor of climate-denial financier David H. Koch (Romm 2015).
Interestingly, the Smithsonian’s Human Origins’ “Broader Social Impacts Committee” which is charged with public outreach and dialogue, is comprised of American scholars of religion and religionists, some of whom are also intimately involved in promoting the Universe Story.3 The overtly religious nature of the Committee, whose apparent role is to mediate between Koch-compromised Smithsonian scientists and the American public, raises important questions about the kind of religion, or religions, the Smithsonian—or the “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” or the Universe Story, or Hollywood—is selling. Religion here is often of the shape-shifting variety described in Hurd’s essay. The “productive ambiguity” and ambivalence of such religiosity allows it to work its way into techno-exceptionalist projects, virtually undetected, while also seeming to float above the political fray. We are not supposed to notice that the Smithsonian—whose curator and resident paleoanthropologist just happens to have landed on a theory that climate is a primary driver of human evolution—has made common cause with religionists promoting a deep-time narrative of human exceptionalism, and a billionaire fossil fuel tycoon who is bankrolling the whole operation. Having joined forces with the spirit of scientific discovery and innovation, this protean religion effectively naturalizes, depoliticizes, and even universalizes a particular vision of what it means to be human. Visitors to the Hall of Human Origins are treated to a video display of everyday people from around the world and in a variety of languages repeating the passionate refrain: “We are all one species.” This spurious “we” covers a multitude of sins.
It might be objected that the Smithsonian’s Social Impact Committee clearly announces its (multi-faith) commitment to presenting “contemporary religious responses to evolution.” Its form of religiosity is not mutable or covert, one might argue, but utterly upfront and transparent. And yet the existence of this body of religionists, tasked with mediating a “productive” science-religion dialogue between the Smithsonian and the American public, diverts attention away from the religiosity inherent in the Smithsonian exhibition project itself. The religion of the Smithsonian embodies the spirit of American techno-exceptionalism. It is the religion of Koch Industries whose motto reads: “Challenge Accepted: It’s in Our DNA.”4 Whose DNA, exactly? Humans’? Americans’? The Koch brothers’?
Whatever else they may be up to, these projects all display an undercurrent of cosmic optimism (or perhaps more accurately, what Terry Eagleton calls “optimalism”5). Smithsonian curator Rick Potts describes himself as “actually quite optimistic” about the future—or, again, in his deceptively generic phrase, our future (Py-Lieberman 2010). Potts cites, as the source of his optimism, our species’ amazing abilities to innovate technologically, to be infinitely adaptable, to think new thoughts. “Those traits have never existed in any other organism, including our early ancestors,” he adds. “What we see in almost all species over the course of earth’s history is that, they’re adaptable only to a certain degree.” Humans’ bragging rights, vis-à-vis other organisms, find support in the exhibition’s profound silence—its quiescent anthropodicy—on the subject of how millions of other lifeforms might fare, or have fared in the past, when confronted with wildly fluctuating climates. Should we assume that species that fail to sprout big brains and innovate their way out of climate trouble are simply losers in the evolutionary lottery, fair and square? Endorsement by a multibillionaire libertarian is bound to give rise to such questions. The Hall of Human Origins is evolutionary history as told by the victors: “No pain, no gain” (Joyce 2007: n.p.).
Yet, despite Americans’ putative preference for the difficult and painful path, rarely does our boundless versatility lead us to accept the enormous challenges involved in real change--the challenge of reining ourselves in, of abjuring a quest for limitlessness. Of resisting the temptation to science the shit out of things. Put differently, our “gift” of adaptability is inseparable from American exceptionalism’s penchant for excess. The painful truth is, we will do anything to avoid pain. In this respect, cosmic optimism is a form of conservatism—not only political conservatism, though sometimes that as well—because it does not call for change. Optimists are conservatives, as Eagleton notes, “because their faith in a benign future is rooted in their trust in the essential soundness of the present” (2015:4).
Paarlberg argues, for example, that American’s technological optimism is disproportionately invested in cheap and dangerous techno-fixes of last resort, a “scrambling form of adaptation” (8). In the case of climate change, we prefer (unproven) carbon capture and storage techniques, or geoengineering strategies like solar radiation management, that require no appreciable change in our consumption patterns and aim to protect America and America alone. Rather than reduce our emissions (a.k.a. mitigation), we succumb to the allure of hi-tech adaptation strategies—like geoengineering. Rather than prevent obesity by reducing food intake (mitigation), we seek technologies that treat obesity and its complications (adaptation). “An outlier as an overconsumer”—whether of food or fuel—“the United States is also an outlier as an under-responder” (20).
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American under-response is often understood to be driven by religion, in the traditional and/or institutional sense of the word. Paarlberg points to America’s “greater religiosity” compared to other countries, as well as the prevalence of disinformation campaigns financed by the fossil fuel industry, as key factors in climate denial. More powerful than religion, however, is America’s trust in “private markets, its faith in innovative new technologies, and its opposition to coercive governmental actions,” Paarlberg argues (128). Yet Paarlberg’s implied comparison here--faith in technology versus “religious” faith—fails to appreciate the extent to which religion as techno-exceptionalism is already acting as a powerful and pervasive force in America.
It is helpful to keep in mind this shape-shifting but potent form of religion when we encounter standard arguments about the relationship between religious belief in America (typically shorthand for conservative or evangelical Christians) and climate denial, or when appeals are issued for more communication between climate researchers and the religious public. For example, a recent article in Issues in Science and Technology, written by religion scholars, calls on climate scientists and climate engineering researchers to engage in dialogue with religion scholars or religious groups, much as the Smithsonian’s Broader Social Impacts Committee mediates between ostensibly secular science and a conflicted religious public (Clingerman et al. 2017). The authors make a compelling argument that climate engineers need to cultivate character traits—virtues like humility and prudence—and they point to religion as a resource for shaping these traits.
Yet the appropriation of mythic and religious language in a techno-scientific milieu is rampant, particularly in high-stakes endeavors like climate engineering, or gene-editing technologies. Hence we find would-be geoengineers, like ecomodernist and lifelong tech visionary Stewart Brand, insisting that “we are as gods and we have to get good at it” (Brand 2010: 20) My point is that calls for science-religion engagement often fail to take account of these appropriations of religion, and thus fail to recognize the degree to which religion already frames these dialogues and shapes the narratives—and the character— of researchers. It is not simply a matter of adding religion into a conversation where it is absent.
Recognizing this, scientists and others might learn to draw on religion’s resources more responsibly, to reflect more deeply and self-consciously on the marriage that has long existed between religion and technology, particularly in an American context. Greater awareness of the deep entanglement of the sacred and the secular might allow us to embrace religion’s potential to chasten rather than simply aggrandize humans and their endeavors, and to claim our status not just as creators but, first and foremost, as creatures who exist within a broader spectrum of life. We might learn to make the hardest adjustment of all, namely, to honor and thrive within natural and human limits.
If Paarlberg’s analysis of American culture is correct, this will be a hard sell. In America, the thankless job of making the case for limits has traditionally fallen to environmental pioneers like Rachel Carson who reproached the small-minded, power-intoxicated chemical engineer bent on ridding the world of “pest” species at any cost (Carson 1962). Carson has a modern counterpart in nature writer and climate activist Bill McKibben who tirelessly promotes an easy-to-remember limit: 350 parts per million, the number that scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. (The planet is currently hovering around a dangerous 410 ppm.)6 Throughout his career, McKibben has valiantly advanced this unpopular argument for restraint, notably in his anti-excess manifesto Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. But as even he concedes, talk of limits sounds “so negative, so unpleasant.” It’s like being told to “eat your bran.” Who wants that?
There is something extremely seductive about this notion of going on forever forward, of never saying “Enough.” It’s dynamic! We’ll be smarter, fitter, healthier. We’ll press 840 pounds on the leg machine! We’ll see in six dimensions. We’ll have eyes all over our heads. We’ll have a box that cranks out anything we want. We’ll live forever. Pass the ice cream (211-212).
The Bill McKibbens among us will always be drowned out by the Stewart Brands urging us to embrace our godlike capacity, our gift for innovation and infinite malleability. Inevitably, “eat your bran” loses out to “pass the ice cream.” And anyway, restraint is not the stuff of celebrity tweets or meme generators, or Hollywood blockbusters. It doesn’t sell T-shirts and coffee mugs. It doesn’t sell, period. It may be one way, but it is not the American way.
The film Apollo 13 depicts this and many other triumphal scenes of American know-how at work.↩
Director Christopher Nolan inherited the project from Steven Spielberg after he was forced to step down.↩
See the “Member and Member Resources” page of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins website for more:
Optimalists believe we “already enjoy the best of all cosmic arrangements” whereas optimists may see the “shortcomings of the present while looking to a more lustrous future” (2015: 4).↩