Readers of this blog may be interested to note a feature article forthcoming in Newsweek Europe on the conflict between the culture of stewardship that is incoming with renewable energy and the still dominant culture of consumption that came to us with oil and gas, on which we currently continue to be so dependent. The article is scheduled for the July 17 issue of the publication, which will appear on Europe’s newstands on July 10. For readers outside Europe, the article will be online on the Newsweek Europe website around July 7.

My thanks to the great Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood for drawing the attention of Newsweek Europe to the subject, and for recommending Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) along with Ian Morris’s Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve (Princeton University Press, 2015) as two indispensable books for the understanding of climate change and energy transition as essentially cultural phenomena. I will devote a separate posting to the interesting relationship between Professor Morris’s book and mine; at this point it may be enough to remark the congruence of his theory of moral values in relation to energy consumption and my focus on aesthetic and more broadly cultural values in relation to energy sources. It is exhilarating and confirming for both when two theorists working in related disciplines reach congruent conclusions almost simultaneously.

Recent events have made my article in Newsweek Europe even more topical than when I drafted it two months ago. In June the Group of Seven agreed to phase out fossil fuels by the end of this century. Many of those concerned with climate change had hoped for a somewhat earlier deadline; their compromise at the end of the century means that most of the politicians who made it won’t take any steps to implement it during their terms of office. Nevertheless, it is significant that these seven global leaders now agree that there is a need to plan for energy transition away from fossil fuels, at least in the long term. Although some, like Germany’s Angela Merkel who announced the agreement, have long been pressing for a new policy, others, such as Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a climate change doubter who has been vigorously promoting the Keystone pipeline to carry Alberta’s bituminous tar sands oil across America to refineries in Louisiana, were on message for the first time.

Hardly had we heard this news when Pope Francis released his Encyclical, in which he explicitly links the culture of consumerism that he deplores to the oil and gas that have made it possible along with global warming. This moralistic condemnation of consumerism considerably broadens the discussion among the general public because it puts the issue in a cultural context. Almost immediately U.S. Catholic Presidential candidate ‘Jeb’ Bush was obliged to respond that he preferred religion to focus on “helping people lead better lives,” reassuring voters that he would not be basing his energy policy on the advice of priests, bishops or the Pope. (Astute observers of the Bush family’s close relations with the House of Saud in Arabia might suggest other foreign sources for that policy.)

Notwithstanding its necessarily moralistic tone, Francis’s Encyclical appears to be the first major public recognition by a spiritual or a secular leader that the so-called energy debate is really a conflict of cultures. Hopefully the Newsweek Europe article will further extend the growing recognition that each energy source brings with it certain cultural values that become widely accepted in any culture that is dependent on that energy source for its continued existence. The focus of the article is on the emerging culture of stewardship of the earth and the body that accompanies renewable energy, in contrast with the oil-and-gas-based culture of consumption. Both in the broad popular consciousness stimulated by the G7 announcement and the papal Encyclical, and in the more scholarly context of Morris’s analysis and mine, the priority now is to identify clearly the characteristics of the culture of stewardship as it affects all aspects of 21st century life.

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