One of my classes this semester is Renewable Energy Systems. I came into the class thinking it was going to primarily focus on the different types of energy generation systems that exist, but I was somewhat mistaken. My professor has a background in National Security with a focus on energy security and brings a philosophical mindset for much of the class.
Last Friday, we discussed the issues surrounding American exceptionalism and more generally human exceptionalism when climate and energy systems are discussed.
What is human exceptionalism?
We believe that humans are unique, distinctive beings that ought to be assigned fundamental moral value in accordance with that distinctiveness. That because we have a conscious and can communicate across vast distances, we are inherently smarter and therefore better than many other animals. It has gone so far as to start declassifying humans as animals, as if, because of this difference between species, we are better than any other one. This idea manifests itself in many different forms that primarily focus on determining that humans have a “right” to act in a certain way.
My professor brought forth an analogy. What is giraffe exceptionalism? Giraffes are obviously the best animal on the planet as they have the longest necks. They have little horns with little tufts of fur on top and because of these qualities they are the best. Even their God is a giraffe, as giraffes were made in the image of their God. Because obviously their God created giraffes in the image of themselves, all other creatures must be lesser beings.
Why does this matter?
Energy systems are the entire process of creating, extracting, transporting and consuming energy. Roads, buses, trains, cars, oil rigs, all are energy systems. Combined with human exceptionalism with a focus on Western exceptionalism, one sees many developing countries get told how to develop. Why should developing countries develop a certain way? We don’t expect customs from New York City to work with tribes in the Amazon; why should we demand that countries must work within the frame of Western civilization.
“If these countries model themselves on the Western example, it is a foregone conclusion that, despite increases in energy efficiency, all intentions of a global environmental policy will wind up as so much waste paper. The inevitable consequence is a much greater use of emission machines, mostly cars.”A Solar Manifesto by Hermann Sheer pg. 34
Written in 1992, Hermann Sheer’s work still holds relevance today. Shown increasingly with the fact that even in 1992, “The Western Model is the most destructive, clearly evidenced by the fact that 80% of the world’s energy is consumed by 20% of the world’s population, despite its higher energy efficiency.” Today that number has shifted with China now being part of the Western Model, but we still see the issues that arise.