Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Role of the Frontier Myth on Energy Policy and Technology

Limitations in the supply of oil interrelated with climate change and other ecological concerns create potentially extreme risks to modern society. As a society, our intuitive response to these problems is dependent on the prevailing ideology – specifically, that the endless frontier of science allows for technological progress that generates economic growth through capitalist development, resulting in human progress. Insomuch as ideologies are expressed and proliferated by myths, this ideology is propagated by the Frontier Myth, a story which illustrates our experience of economic growth and human progress through successful development of a frontier. This myth informs our response to contemporary problems by way of connecting us to an idealized past and exemplifying our belief in a prosperous future.

It is an act of faith, however, to believe that the historical success of this myth means that the same approach will effectively inform our current energy and environmental policies. In fact, referencing the Frontier Myth as a rationale for our energy policy cannot of itself provide the solutions that we desire. Such attempts will only continue our dependence on energy and result in potentially catastrophic, unintended consequences. It is essential that we revise our Frontier Myth if we are to successfully address the challenges of the 21st century.

Initially, the Frontier Myth expressed our relationship with the physical frontier during a period of agrarian expansion. As this frontier closed from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries the myth was revised to connect the public to the scientific frontier and support the transition to a modern, industrialized economy. Progress became dependent on the continual discovery of cheap, abundant resource, whether at a physical frontier or a scientific one.

Positive and negative aspects can be ascribed to the progress associated with American growth and development. America has been extremely successful at overcoming obstacles; we can bring gifted people and extensive resources to bear on immediate problems. Our achievements have generated a high standard of living and allowed a slow, if not always ideal or forward-moving, transition towards improved human rights and equality across race, sex, and nationality.

Yet this selfsame growth and development has had its drawbacks. We have difficulty looking beyond the immediate obstacles of today and organizing to prevent future problems. And the same growth and development which has brought us a high standard of living tends to devalue that which cannot be ascribed a specific economic value. Big business offers us cheap and abundant goods and services, but often at the cost of environmental, community, and individual well-being.

Furthermore, we now associate energy consumption with economic growth, and this growth is deemed necessary for further development and progress. We have locked ourselves in to a never-ending quest for more energy, and always the promise of cheap, nearly limitless energy is on the horizon. The choice, of course, is not between our current scale of energy use with its necessary expansion in magnitude and a world without energy. The goal should be a more deliberate use of energy, with an understanding of the implications of such use for ourselves, the community, and the nation. A closer examination of American history is relevant for understanding the motivation behind current energy policies and technological visions, as well as recognizing why such solutions are becoming less and less tenable.

...if you made it this far, then look for my class paper next month...

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