Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuclear Power and/or Barbarism (with apologies to Evan Calder Williams)

Recently I was privy to an argument on Facebook, wherein my older hippy friend N.C. and my college-age Marxist friend A.S. found themselves at odds over the sustainability of nuclear energy. (Obviously I needn't explain to you the cause for the debate.) N.C. pointed out problems with nuclear power plant regardless of where you place them. (The funny thing about earthquakes, you can't really hold anyone at fault. lololol ... seriously, though.)

A.S. points out that there is a need right now to choose between coal and nuclear power, that coal power is one of the leading causes of global warming, and that radioactive damage is limited by comparison (leading, in his words, to the dichotomy of "barbarism or nuclear power"). Fair enough. But someday soon we ought to see nuclear energy as marginalized as possible. The effects of radiation are awful.

And A.S. made the good (or perhaps rather "popular") point that wind energy especially (but also solar?) has its own impact on the environment. Some of my critics especially like to talk about the dead birds that seem to crop up in the vicinity of wind plants. But I can tell you, as an employee at an office building with a lot of very large windows, birds run into shit all the time. It's much easier for animals and biomes to adapt and evolve around these kinds of edifices than it is for them to adapt to large doses of radiation, or even extra carbon dioxide in the air. The buddhist in me hates to sound heartless but if they can adapt to make chirps sound like car alarms, they can alter their migration patters over time....

Breaking Wind: Silent But Deadly

A third friend, A.R., a chemist, chimed in and spoke about the pace of advancement in green energy industries. With the way these developing technologies are funded, he informed me, it could be decades before they could have a notable effect on how we power our society.

Aha. It all comes back to the ca$$$h money (yeah, I went there).

Look at the federal tax subsidies for the dead-dinosaur energy industries: oil, gas, and coal. That is a lot of money thrown at a not-problem. And while I seem to be the last person in America who thinks the federal deficit is not really the most pressing issue in the country today (I've yet to see hard evidence that a. "we're broke" or b. it's going to cause economic catastrophe - the banks were at fault for the only thing like that recently), I think this is money poorly apportioned. We could do a helluva lot better than renewable wind power by 2030.

I think this is a disastrously shortsighted energy policy. Oil, for example, is not in fucking dire need of federal subsidies. Alternatives are.

Oil made a killing by the end of last year, and it was being traded at roughly 3/4ths what it's going for today. Gouging takes place not only at the pump but on the stock exchange floor, too. There's no law in place to translate those profits into green R&D. If the U.S. government had a pro-Earth agenda, it would nationalize the dinosaurs and force exactly that change. But, firmly in the grip of capitalist industries, neither the Democrats nor especially the Republicans would ever go that far, not without extreme pressure from workers and voters. Before the oilpocalypse, BP spent very little of its profits on renewable energy but made a mountain of that molehill through their sophisticated PR machine. A lot, perhaps, has been forgotten concerning the oily money siphoned to Congress and the White House via PACs, but there's no questioning the influence on policy.

If I'm against oil, and I'm against nuclear power, and if I acknowledge that the problem is both critical and that the financial policy is unlikely to change, then what? Several people, my above-mentioned friend and my own father included (hi dad!), insist that a fall in standard of living therefore follows. Without energy, or perhaps more accurately, due to a fall in energy productivity if wind and solar implementation is made, our "standard of living" will crash. Is that what I want?

In a word, perhaps - although it's curious to imagine how our standard of living would be affected. Perhaps we could stop prioritizing a wasteful and hollow consumerist lifestyle where what matters most to us is what we watch on TV and what kind of car we drive and what we can order from the fancy downtown restaurants and who said what on Facebook (irony points!). I don't know what other people envision when they think of a fall in "living standards" brought about by drastically decreased energy usage. Perhaps they imagine the apocalypse. I imagine something more like widespread inconvenience - for the wealthy, of course, poor people are pretty used to getting by with a "low" standard of living.

AKA, "barbarism." At least to the middle class.

That NYT article bothers me for similar reasons. Not least of which is the tone - equating a few moaning yuppies with imagined - cynically expected, demanded - environmentalist hypocrisy. Yuppies are environmentalists like they are human right's activists - in the abstract. They are yuppies first and environmentalists second. They want to do more than live comfortably - they want to live well, with the private schools and the minivans and the fancy dinner out on the town. No meal is too quaint for them, and sustainability be damned, but naturally sustainability and bike lanes and buses are "a good idea." Hybrids are a status symbol. Green chic has taken the place of radical chic, and the great wheel of capitalism turns again.

I can't help but think of consumers as the "hungry ghosts" of Eastern lore

So yes, I think we can and should take some kind of hit to our so-called "standard of living." I think we could do a lot better with a lot less and do less damage to the planet in the meantime. A great many policies could be solved if we took economic planning out of the hands of profit-hungry corporations and put it back in the hands of a scientifically educated population. I do not fear having to change my way of life; I fear only that we've gone the point of no return, that there is no realistic fix to our mangled education, transportation, and industrial systems, that any attempt to unseat Mammon will unleash violence and chaos and ultimately annihilate the good along with the bad in America.

But there's no way to tell without trying, and no reason to go on if we don't make the attempt. All we need is some focus and some direction and the willingness to sacrifice the "comforts" we know in our hearts are toxic for us anyway.


ADDENDUM: A note of optimism. I admit, my favorite part is when America springs to life. To think, I've waited years for that, and everyone told me I was stupid for believing!

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