In the Promethean Effort to Mitigate the Climate Crisis, We Can’t Afford Knowledge Hoarding
When I really need a shot of optimism, there’s nothing like a dose of Romantic poetry to shift my outlook from despairing to hopeful. That’s Romantic with a capital R. Not poetry commemorating the bond between lovers but poetry that celebrates the connection between humanity and nature, the depth and breadth of human emotion, and the transformative nature of art.
At the start of this new year, I feel in deep need of some Romantic buoyancy. The state of our fragile planet seems more fragile than ever—ecologically, economically, and geopolitically. And it’s hard to see a path forward that doesn’t end in massive dislocation and destruction, particularly for the most vulnerable among us.
In search of uplift, I turned this week to a beacon of Romantic hopefulness, the verse-drama Prometheus Unbound, published by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820. This poem-play raises an anthem to humanity’s potential for reform, justice, and artistic triumph. It reminds me of both how much and how little have changed since the Romantic era.
On the one hand, glance around the startup ecosystem in your area, and you’ll see how much capacity humanity still has for imagination and innovation. Despite the terrifying climb in global temperatures, many among us are engineering hope. They’re creating ways to capture carbon, generate electricity from renewable sources, grow food more sustainably, and reduce the use of plastics.
At the same time, those who are forging creative solutions work in isolated silos, separated from one another by increasing degrees of specialization. Whereas Shelley paints a picture of a unified collective working harmoniously toward social justice, two hundred years later, that harmony has become much harder to achieve.
It’s no longer enough for innovators to pursue their individual craft to their full capability. As an innovation ecosystem, we must pull together to overcome the tendency to “knowledge hoarding” and work more intentionally toward knowledge sharing.
Promethean Idealism is Still Our Best Hope
The last years of the eighteenth century were heady times in Britain. Across the English Channel, revolution had turned France upside down, and the same thing had happened across the Atlantic in the American colonies. Domestically, the growth in the slave trade had birthed the abolition movement. Women, too, were finding their voice. In 1792 Mary Wollestonecraft (whose daughter Mary would marry Shelley) published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, launching the feminist movement more than a hundred years before the word “feminism” existed.
From the midst of this social turmoil, Shelley declares his intention to change the world by illuminating minds. In Prometheus Unbound, his stated aim is “to familiarize the highly refined imagination of the more select classes of poetical readers with beautiful idealisms.” (Preface)
The protagonist of the play, Prometheus, embodies that idealism. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a divine being who has such compassion for mortals that he steals fire from the gods and gives it to human beings. That fire is the flame of knowledge, and Shelley portrays it as kindling all the human arts, including toolmaking, language, science, music, sculpture, medicine, and architecture.
For generating all these “alleviations” of humanity’s condition (Act II, Scene IV, l.98), Prometheus endures a dreadful consequence. Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek myth) chains him to a rock and assigns him a daily torturer, an eagle who tears open his flesh and feeds on his liver. Each night, the liver grows back so that the torture can continue the next day.
Jupiter pronounces the punishment an eternal doom. But Shelley imagines a loophole—a prophecy that Prometheus’s suffering will end if Jupiter marries the sea nymph Thetis. And in Prometheus Unbound, he envisions what that reversal could imply for humanity, what it might mean for humankind to unlock its true potential.
With Prometheus freed, a new age begins, ushered in by a chorus of spirits who “come from the mind / Of human kind.” (Act IV, ll.93-94) These spirits dance and sing of a world reborn, where darkness has turned to clarity and oppression has given way to liberty and love.
Tapping into the true depths of human intellect and emotion, the spirits create space for a new kind of knowledge to reign. Hear their call to a paradise inspired by the divine fire-stealer:
And our singing shall build
In the void’s loose field
A world for the Spirit of Wisdom to wield;
We will take our plan
From the new world of man,
And our work shall be called the Promethean. (Act IV, ll.153-58, spacing adapted)
In our own era, we tend to describe a tough challenge as Herculean, requiring a great deal of strength, be that physical or political. But the climate challenge we’re facing demands a different kind of heroism, inspired by a different mythological hero.
The unrestrained growth and application of science got us into this mess. Now science is our best hope for finding a path through it. But, as Shelley prophesies, we need a new approach to harnessing the power of the human mind, a spirit of wisdom grounded in a shared vision and purposeful collaboration.
The Challenge of Knowledge Hoarding
Once Shelley’s Prometheus has been loosed, an unnamed voice summons the spirits of the human mind with a single command: “Unite!”
While Prometheus was chained to the cliff, humans were divided, from each other and from their potential. With Prometheus free, heaven and earth are “united now.” In Shelley’s vision of a future created by knowledge and imagination, unity emerges as a central theme.
If Shelley were to step into a time machine and magically travel from 1820 to 2024, he would surely be amazed by advances in medicine, transportation, heating and lighting, building construction, and the visual arts. But he would also be disappointed to see how far from the true Promethean spirit we remain as we pursue innovation in separate, often fortified, camps.
In the business world, organizations have started to wake up to the negative impacts of a phenomenon researchers call “knowledge hoarding.” If we’re going to give ourselves any chance of surviving the climate crisis, then as an innovation ecosystem, we also need to recognize this tendency and overcome it.
Knowledge hoarding shows up in an organization when employees accumulate knowledge but don’t take the initiative to pass it on to others. This reluctance to share gums up the gears of the most sophisticated knowledge management strategies and technologies. And its reach is widespread. As one research team states, “Impeding knowledge transfer is an everyday part of organizational life.”
This is not to say that knowledge-workers intentionally play Scrooge with their intellectual assets; knowledge hoarding is not the same as purposely denying access to knowledge, or “knowledge hiding.” But the results cause damage nonetheless.
In your run-of-the-mill business or government department, knowledge hoarding may cause minor or moderate irritation. It may reduce efficiency and cause employee morale to droop, for example. These negative effects intensify in an organization, or ecosystem, intent on finding innovative ways to mitigate the climate emergency.
With the fate of our species at stake, we can no longer afford to tolerate knowledge miserliness, regardless of whether it happens with self-awareness. We can no longer run the risk of educating engineers who can’t communicate effectively with venture capitalists, for instance. And vice versa.
Not to pick on engineers, let me state the claim more baldly: we can no longer afford concepts of expertise that encourage territorial thinking about knowledge. That applies to all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, the health professions, the pure sciences, and the various fields within engineering.
As humans, we have plenty of reasons for wanting to guard hard-won knowledge. Especially for those of us with strings of letters after our name, our expert status forms part of our identity. It confers authority and, in many cases, power. It also gives us a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded thinkers and creators.
But to make the Promethean lift needed to sustain life on Planet Earth, we need to find a different path, one that will lead toward Shelley’s vision of wisdom based in unity. Sharing knowledge, not impeding it, must become the default approach, the everyday reality in individual organizations and across the innovation ecosystem.
Knowledge Translation Principles to Empower New Prometheans
Yes, this may require changes to the patent system and intellectual property law. Yet there are some practical steps we can take at ground level while we’re waiting for high-level legal reform.
For starters, here are five principles to encourage more habitual knowledge sharing and empower the New Prometheans:
#1: Demystify knowledge translation. The process of moving research findings from the lab or library into practice goes by many different names and involves many different frameworks. Academic theorists have created a remarkably complex architecture around knowledge translation (or knowledge mobilization/knowledge transfer/research translation/knowledge transfer and exchange/knowledge brokering, etc.). Without oversimplifying the challenges, we can tackle the tasks of translating knowledge without making them seem intimidating.
#2: Revive the ancient discipline of rhetoric. While the field of knowledge translation is dominated by “scientific” approaches to knowledge sharing, let’s not forget the ancient principles of the art of persuasion, otherwise known as rhetoric. Aristotle’s treatise from c.350 BCE, On Rhetoric, is still worth the read, and you’ll find its key principles underpinning many modern-day, empirical studies.
#3: Integrate the liberal arts into knowledge translation. In Shelley’s vision, the Prometheans form a unified, but diverse group, including artists as well as scientists. We could be doing much more to bring liberal arts graduates into the knowledge translation process. Just as we can no longer afford ego-driven concepts of expertise, we can no longer afford the culture war between the arts and sciences. It takes many different gifts and skills to transform advanced knowledge into real-world action.
#4: Build capacity for knowledge translation among researchers. As “knowledge translator” becomes a new category of expert, we’re running the risk of overprofessionalization. Certainly, having a knowledge translator on a research team can help move knowledge out into the world, but not all teams have the budget or the time to brief a nonexpert. We can do more to empower researchers to share their own knowledge. Communication is, after all, an essential human skill. Everyone has innate capacity to build on, and for many people, a few subtle changes in perspective can make knowledge translation an accessible art.
#5: Put energy into storytelling. In case you’re thinking of looking up Prometheus Unbound, I won’t kid you: it’s not an easy read. The poetry is dense, the language is often archaic, and some lines are so convoluted that my mind is still revolving them. For a twenty-first-century reader, it’s the story, not necessarily the form, that’s compelling.
Shelley inherited that story from Aeschylus, a playwright who lived and wrote in the fifth century BCE. Aeschylus, of course, relayed a story that had been circulating in his culture for centuries before then. That’s the gripping, enduring force of narrative.
To propel climate innovation forward, we need the powerful engine of story. While scientists and engineers work to create solutions, we need storytellers—modern-day Romantics—working alongside them to weave tales of imagination and hope.
Hope is a choice, they say. In today’s world, it’s a radical choice. It’s also, as far as I can see, the only viable choice we have.
The concluding lines of Shelley’s verse-play state our position plainly. As the new age of prosperity begins, the final stanza provides a list of “spells by which to re-assume / An empire o’er the distentangled gloom.” This includes the following injunction: “to hope till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates.” (Act IV, ll.573-74)
This is an image to fend off despair. It reminds us that hope is a process as well as a choice. As the imagined comes to life, the vision dissolves, becomes a “wreck” from which the new reality emerges.
As specialists around the globe tackle the climate crisis, we can support the process of transforming hope into substantial change by prioritizing, and in some ways rethinking, knowledge translation. This will make it easier for the New Prometheans to share with one another the knowledge that may save us all.
 Webster et al. (2008). Beyond knowledge sharing: Withholding knowledge at work.In J.J. Martocchio (Ed.), Research in Personnel and Human Resources, 27, (pp.1-37). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235298243_Beyond_knowledge_sharing_Withholding_knowledge_at_work
 See Webster et al. for a comprehensive discussion of the many motivations for keeping knowledge to oneself.
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