AS THE GLOBAL CONFERENCE on climate change is taking place in Paris, it is time to contemplate the meaning of “clean energy.” In the West, the word energy is marked with the force of deadly negativity. It is assumed, for instance, that energy must be extracted, with the greatest degree of violence, by destroying whatever or whoever temporarily contains it. More often than not, it is procured by burning its “source,” in the first instance, plants and parts of plants whether they have been chopped down yesterday or have been dead for millions of years, the timescale sufficient for them to be transformed into coal or oil.
Without giving it much thought, one supposes that the only way to obtain energy, whether for external heating or for giving the body enough of that other heat (namely, “caloric intake”) necessary for life, is by destroying the integrity of something or someone else. Life itself becomes the privilege of the survivors, who celebrate their Pyrrhic victory on the ashes of past and present vegetation and other forms of life they commit to fire.
Seeing that, for Aristotle (who still maintains a strong hold on energeia, a word that he introduced into the philosophical vocabulary), the prototype of matter is hylē, or wood, the violent extraction of energy paints a vivid image of the relation between matter and spirit prevalent in the West. A flaming spirit sets itself to work by destroying its other and triumphs over the wooden matter it incinerates. The price for the energy released in the process of combustion is the reduction of what is burnt to the ground. And, unfortunately, the madness of metaphysical spirit, which sets everything on its path aflame, tends to intensify.
It is not that plants are exempt from the general combustibility that, for Schelling, defined the very living of life. They release oxygen, and so provide the elemental conditions of possibility for the burning of fire. But the vegetal mode of obtaining energy — especially that of the solar variety — is non-extractive and non-destructive; the plant receives its energy by tending, by extending itself toward the inaccessible other, with which it does not interfere. That is one of the most important vegetal lesson to be learned: how to energize oneself, following the plants, without annihilating the sources of our vitality.
In the meantime, energy extraction means tearing both living and dead things apart, penetrating into their core, enucleating them. Energy production is a fury of destruction. It does not relent until the atom is split, until it reaches the nucleus and divides the ostensibly indivisible. Nuclear power and the atomic energy it unbridles is the apotheosis of the contemporary energy paradigm. So is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that cracks the earth (particularly shale rocks) open by exerting high water pressure on them from below. Environmentally destructive and shockingly shortsighted as these methods of energy production are, they are not surprising in light of the prevalent conception of energy that involves breaching into and laying bare the depth of things (of the atom, of the earth…) and drawing power from this violent and violating exposure.
On the one hand, most approaches to energy presuppose substantial divergence between the inner and the outer, depth and surface. The very language of “storage” and “release” indicates that the energy of everything from galaxies to microbes, economic systems to psychic life, is contained (held inside and prevented from achieving its full actuality) before it is liberated with more or less force.
And the encompassing whole is, likewise, seen as a great container, from which no energy ever escapes; that is what, at bottom, the law of the conservation of energy means. Absent the dimension of interiority, one can no longer explain how things work, how they are put to work, activated, or withheld in potentiality. Energy differentials depend, above all, on the difference between the inside and the outside, on the speed and force with which their boundaries are traversed.
Plants, on the other hand, do not need to devastate the interiority of another being to procure their energy. They set to work the elements they neither control nor dominate nor appropriate. Besides water and the minerals they draw from the soil, they receive what they need from the sun, processing their solar sustenance on their maximally exposed surfaces, the leaves. (Plants can, to be sure, deplete the soil, but this happens only with human inference, due to intensive agriculture and the spread of monocultures. By and large, vegetation returns to the earth much of what it takes in the processes of its decomposition).
Human reliance on solar energy would bespeak our willingness to learn from plants and to accept, mutatis mutandis, an essentially superficial mode of existence or, at the very least, to integrate it with the dimension of depth. Although current technical capabilities would sustain a nearly total reliance on renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, etc.), they do not match the prevalent mindset toward the essence of energy, viewed as something destructive-extractive and snatched from the interiority of things.
The focus of attention may, in fact, swing to “clean energy” and that is, in and of itself, laudable. But “cleanness” relates primarily to the effects of its utilization, not to the question of what energy is. That is why oil, coal, and, especially, natural gas companies can claim that they are making the transition to clean energy, without radically modifying the sources of fuel themselves, let alone how they are procured.
Be it labor or truth, we extract value from the core of the human and destroy the material “shell” in the process. On economic spreadsheets, we are accounted for as human resources, from which work can be extracted in a mode incompatible with Marx’s dream of the human self-actualization through labor.
Our epistemologies, too, are consistent with the desire to reveal the inner core of reality, usually by shattering and discarding the outward “mere” appearances that occlude it. Thinking has assumed the shape of mental fracking. Unless we subscribe to the insights of phenomenology, we are quite dissatisfied with the surface of things, with how they present themselves to us in everyday life: with all their imperfections, incompletions, shadowy spots, and stamps of finitude.
For us, superficial actuality, the actuality of the superficies, is never actual enough. As we strive to know what things really are, we break them down to atomic and subatomic, chemical and molecular levels. Why would the framework of energy production and extraction be different from that of the production and extraction of knowledge? The two would have to change in tandem, if the human impact on the world, as well as on ourselves, is to be mitigated.