Emmet Penney: Why It Was Fire

Emmet Penney, the Nuclear Barbarian wrote a great piece at his Substack this week. I’ve reproduced it below. Click here to subscribe to his newsletter.

It occurred to me, as the energy crisis has gained a head of steam, the left has doubled down on silly renewables commitments, and a fleet of private jets hove towards Glasgow for COP26, that by strange twists in history and the human mind many people do not seem to know what energy is for. And that because they do not know what it is for, the broad vision of a “green” tomorrow pushed on the public is a shadow-play of fear and half-understandings. When the bulk of civil society engages in discussion about energy strange things happen. Energy is no longer how we heat our homes, the current that delivers our modern lives to us, or the means by which we sterilize our medical equipment. It is, instead, viewed as the engine of our wyrd at the end of which we consummate civilizational suicide.

A gross misunderstanding.

In the following series of essays, I aim to correct it. I will also recommit myself to articulating the ideological underpinnings of the anti-human climate consensus. And if luck and ability rise to meet my ambition, I will articulate an alternative vision of energy. To begin, I want to start with a single question: why was the Promethean gift fire?

For those who’ve never heard that phrase—and I don’t blame you, it’s an old one—Prometheus is an ancient Greek god who gave to us the gift of artifice. For this, Zeus punished him in exquisite fashion: for eternity Prometheus would mete out his days chained to a rock. Each day, a raptor would fly to him and proceed to coax his liver from his bowels and snap it down its jagged beak. Whether he merited such deserts I leave to the reader.

Still, the question persists: why was the gift of artifice—the ability to create and to make and to scheme—symbolized by fire. Well, what were we like before? The state in which Prometheus found mankind illuminates our inherent condition. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the god describes humanity before his gift.

For humans in the beginning had eyes but saw

to no purpose; they had ears but did not hear.

Like the shapes of dreams they dragged through their long lives

and muddled everything haphazardly.

They did not know how to build brick houses

to face the sun; nor how to work in wood.

Absent will, absent power, and so absent artifice. We were supremely vulnerable to the world.

It’s important that Prometheus’ account begins with our senses. It implies that human life is for something beyond sensorial input. We had the organs of sight and hearing, yet they grasped nothing for there was no reason for them to grasp anything. That we were “like shapes of dreams” bespeaks the poverty of life without intention; mindlessness. Lastly, we knew not how to shelter ourselves. Notice that the explanation moves outward: from the sensing organs, to the mind, to the outward expression of our will.

And it’s that outward expression of our will that gives us the reasoning for fire as the symbol of our ability to create. Fire—combustion—gives us power. And power allows us to work. And it’s through work that human life flourishes. The Event of the Promethean gift was to supply us with the cognition to live and that cognition could be expressed only in the most powerful and necessary thing we’ve put to our use.

But I’d like to dwell a bit more on our inherent vulnerability in the world, specifically in nature. Prometheus knows well that life without shelter leaves us victim to the elements. Nature is a harsh mistress.

Perhaps no one has expressed this as starkly as the director Werner Herzog. In a clip from a documentary cataloging his insane quest to shoot his film Fitzcarraldo in the middle of a South American jungle, he describes the natural world he sees around him as the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder.” As his plans to make the film founder in the wild overgrowth he comments that yes, he and the crew are in misery “but it is the same misery all around us. The trees here are in misery. And the birds are in misery. I don’t think they scream, they just screech in pain.” He says this not out of hate, but out of deep admiration for the jungle, which he says he loves “against [his] better judgment.”

Nature is neither our friend nor our foe, but it is dangerous and it is beautiful and it is awful in its power and we must make the world safe for ourselves if we want to survive, let alone thrive, in it. Without energy, we live in a dangerous and dark world riven with depredations that hazard our fragile lives. As Robert Bryce writes in A Question of Power, “Darkness kills human potential. Electricity nourishes it.” We cannot flourish except with energy.

So, when the environmental establishment—culturally hegemonic in the developed west—pushes arguments that growth, development, and ingenuity are born from meanness alone they have fundamentally misunderstood what energy is for. They have rejected Prometheus’s gift and opt instead to consign us to a dumb and starved future beleaguered by the very obstacles the gift has helped us to master. Why they think and do this will be the subject of the next essay.