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Can a donkey be tragic?

Technological development and its adverse consequences for the environment and for people can hardly be reasonably regulated; there is a way back only after accidents. In order to further understand rebound, another story needs to be told, a philosophical 'aestheticisation 'of the imprecise. 

By Bernd Draser 

Translated from the German by Vanessa Kammerer

When the Oracle of Delphi prophesied that it was Oedipus' destiny to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus tried everything in order to escape his fate. He left his father, his mother and his hometown of Corinth and started a new life as the king of Thebes. 

This summarises the first part of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King. But Oedipus did not have all the information needed to make a good decision, even though to him it seemed like the best solution. He met his birth father, without knowing who he was, on his way to Thebes and killed him. After his arrival in Thebes, Oedipus freed the city from a crisis and was rewarded with the throne and the queen who, also unbeknownst to Oedipus, was his own mother. Oedipus' first step to becoming a tragic hero was his unswerving attempt to prevent the oracle's prophecy from coming true – and by doing so he fulfilled it. 

The term rebound is used in the fields of pharmaceuticals and mechanics, in the financial world and in basketball. Since the 1990s, it is also used controversially in sustainability science, when efficiency gains, which are technically supposed to reduce the absolute ecological effects, only manage to do so on a limited scale or in fact to cause the exact opposite effect.

The Oedipus analogy shows that the rebound effect is the tragic dimension of the sustainability system, which focuses on the increase in efficiency and productivity. 

From Rebound to Backfire

Entanglements which cause rebound effects can be interactions of an economic, material and also of an ethical nature, which do not receive enough attention, since they are difficult to quantify. This effect is much older than the expression itself and was first described as a paradox by the English economist William Jevons during the mid-19th century. Back then it was used to refer to the more efficient use of coal, which led to an increase instead of a decrease in consumption. Not only is this effect classical but also intrinsically human – overly human and in a pure classical form, it also appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

The ethical rebound effect, which is often revealingly referred to as psychological, is very delicate. By moralising sustainable lifestyles, the moralist is not only allowed to advance but also to consume more – since it is regarded as ethical – without feeling bad about it. There are plenty of common examples. People who use energy-saving light bulbs are tempted to leave the light on much longer; along with the material increase in consumption, the saved energy is easily overcompensated. Somebody who drives a car with an eco-friendly image is similarly tempted to drive further and more often with the feeling of ethical superiority. Combined with the production of these cars, this equally results in a backfire, thus a rebound effect of more than 100%.

Jean-François Lyotard introduced the term 'grand narratives' (metanarratives); these are concepts of world interpretation that create a system that is expected to be appropriate for the interpretation of all. These are salvation-historical narratives such as the Christian, the Systematic Philosophy of Hegel and Marx and the philosophy of science, etc. Each of these conveys its own thorough interpretation of the world and from these interpretations derives its own measures in order to reconcile the world with the narrative. The discrepancy between the anticipated aim and reality, in other words the discrepancy between the simplicity of the ‘grand narratives’ and the diversity of reality – this tragic discrepancy corresponds to the rebound effect.

The Effect of the Model

Especially in terms of technology, a metanarrative is required for the rebound effect. This is because technological solutions can be very sophisticated in themselves; but on a macro level, interactions with the environment are thought through only in a rudimentary way. In the context of its own grand technical and instrumental narrative, technology revolves around hermetic thinking, rarely reaching the level of interactions. A smartphone, for instance, is a masterpiece in terms of high technology incorporated in the smallest of spaces; but it is doubtful whether the total quantity of devices as well as their interactions with the environment have played a significant role in the design process. During the latter, it is the first criterion of a sustainable industrial design to attach the appropriate value to the dimension of interactions, which can also be called 'cyclical'. 

Seen epistemologically, the rebound effect represents the distortion that is endemic in all model building. It definitely has an epistemological value because it ignores everything that should not be considered in the model and thereby reduces complexity. This distortion only becomes a problem if the model loses its model character and confuses the reduced complexity with the meaning of the narrative. This is the case with metanarratives. Technical-instrumental thinking tends to confuse technical feasibility with the proof of the action’s correctness. In this case, disciplines such as technology assessment intervene as a corrective to readjust what is distorted.

The Promise of Efficiency

Narratives that do not only offer more transparency but also a higher epistemological value are those that reveal what they are because of their aesthetic character. One example is Oedipus the King, a tragedy by Sophocles. Again, there is a grave crisis that strains the community of Thebes – the plague. And again, it is an oracle that announces that a crime is the reason for the plague. Oedipus had already helped the town once to overcome a crisis when he solved the riddle of the sphinx. Back then, the correct answer was: "It is the human being." Decades ago, we found the same answer, namely that the alarming changes in nature are anthropogenic in nature.

So when Oedipus, the detective-like riddle solver, tries to find the reason for the crime, each successful step tragically backfires on him. He realises that he himself is the wanted sinner, not as a human being but as an individual, he personally, without any intention of committing a crime or violation – but nevertheless completely responsible.

And just like Oedipus, each of us as an individual has the responsibility to bear in mind the rebound effects and to reconsider our own actions with respect to them. In this way, we not only acquire sovereignty as individuals but we insist on the non-redeemable nature of individuality, which cannot be forced into shape by any model, which cannot and must not be conceptually pinned down.

The rebound effect is tragic in two senses. On the one hand, it describes the opposite of what was the intention of an action – this is tragic in so far as it represents the fateful involvement in overly complex interactions. On the other hand, we cannot wish it entirely away because its disappearance would mean the extinction of what Adorno calls the non-identical, the resistant self of each individual. Where a rebound effect is ascertainable there we are still safe from the tyranny of the great narratives. There, we are still master of the models, not yet their subject – but the models are evolving.

This approach can only be concluded with Nietzsche: "Can a donkey be tragic? – To perish beneath a load that one can neither carry nor cast off? ... The case of the philosopher." And it is not only the case of the philosopher.

Bernd Draser teaches philosophy at the Ecosign Academy for Design in Cologne, Germany. His last topic in the factory issue entitled Sisyphus was The Comforting Beauty of Failure.

More articles to this topic we present not only online but in our magazine Rebound. It ist finely illustrated and good readable on tablets and screens and contains all articles and pictures as well as numbers and citations.

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