Are nukes a viable form of clean energy? Is the need for them inevitable? On Comedy Central’s Colbert Report last week, environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters, and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power, and we simply haven’t been good parents.

Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand, as much as I admire their wisdom generally, are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach at least 9 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in my review of the book Enough Is Enough, its authors have pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unintentional pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource, or Technological, intensity of those things we consume. (The formula is more often written I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but I think consumption is a better and less judgmental gauge.) So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicted doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two, and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But there’s a growing realization that more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my sustainable design classes at Parsons and elsewhere shouts out, “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home in the northeastern U.S. recently. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 9 or 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

A version of this post originally appeared on David Bergman’s blog, EcoOptimism.


  1. Larry E
    United States
    March 10, 2013, 9:56 am

    There are other forms of nuclear power – thorium – that if researched, appears to be almost a miracle energy source. Anyone interested in meeting the future needs of the country’s energy needs – from a carbon free fuel source – would be enthusiastically promoting this mineral. It also can use the stock-piled fuel as a catalyst for its power source – and reduce its radioactivity.

  2. Dave
    February 13, 2013, 7:20 pm

    We don’t hear enough about how the oceans are becoming more acidic due to the dissolved carbon dioxide. This could fundamentally alter the nature of life in the oceans and further contribute to the collapse of the fisheries.

  3. Dave
    February 13, 2013, 7:16 pm

    #1 Can someone name just one reputable person who denies that changing the chemistry of the atmosphere is changing the climate globally who is not somehow linked to the oil and gas industry?
    #2 Why does ALL the science need to be completely and thoroughly understood before action is taken? It is a fact that changes in the climate are having terrible consequences regardless of whether or not we can develop a computer model.

  4. Kevin Hatfield
    United States
    February 11, 2013, 9:35 am

    Responding to: “Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 9 or 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do.” With enough energy and technological advancement, materials and other needs could be fabricated. In such a virtual democracy, the environment would no longer be seen as a resource. Human nature cannot be changed. Seek to provide with over abundance through new manufacture and also alter what is most desired for consumption.

  5. George Mullerleili
    February 10, 2013, 7:00 pm

    Beautiful dreams are always so pleaaant, and then you wake up to reality.

    I=PxCxT similar to the meaningless Drake equation N=R* fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L
    describing the liklihood of finding other intelligent life in the universe. If aliens land tomorrow, the probablility is 1. Until then, as in your equation, all the numbers are pure guesses and opinions with no predictive value.

    What is environmental impact? If I eat a piece of meat how does that compare to the number of chipmunks that might have lived on the patch of land that grew the corn? What is the impact of oil on the environment? How do you explain that there are literally hundreds of thousands of types of bacteria that can use oil for food. They have been adapted for oil for millions of years.

    People- if we continue as we are, within the next 50 or so years the world population is predicted to peak at ~9 billion people as standards of living rise and the birth rate naturally fall. Consumption will inevitably rise. How much are you personally going to reduce your comsumption to help balance things out? No car, no mass transit, airline travel only for national emergencies(i.e. military transport), everything else by sailing ship, food grown by horse drawn plows, a diet of potatoes, rice and wheat, with small amounts of locally grown sun-dried vegetables and fruit. Meat one ounce every two days. 2000 calories maximum. Then talk to some of the poor in Africa where they are “happy” if only one child in three dies in their first year. When you have nearly nothing, anything at all is enough to be happy about.

    “Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us ……A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.” We cannot build a rational policy for anything on totally unscientific, unfounded speculation. Climate change to climate change is especially cute. We’ve gone from Global Warming-dangerous global warming-anthropogenic global warming-catastrophic global warming-climate change-climate weirding, and now Climate Chaos. Congratulations. As the data looks more and more like the earth has natural climate controls that prevent dangerous swings, the threat morphs into something that can be flogged to keep people fearful.

    Cheap energy is not the problem, it is the solution. Look at it this way. A healthy adult can produce about 1 kwh. with 10 hrs of work. For 15 cents I can buy a day’s worth of slave labor. I can afford that. Anyone in the developed world can afford it. In the poor countries, someone making $1 a day cannot afford that. Much less can they afford the true cost in such areas where 1 kwh costs 25-75cents. So, while we may complain about the higher energy costs and skip a Starbuck’s latte, the poor people of the world are driven even further into poverty. Not to mention that stupid polices like turning food into fuel at much higher environmental costs than pumping a barrel of oil have caused major increases in world food prices. I estimate that corn ethanol has killed nearly 20 million people over the last 5-10 years.

    So Mr. Shellenberger, take your maudlin blathering about :We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles.” and wake up from the dream.

  6. Donald Berrian
    February 9, 2013, 6:09 pm

    Nuclear power along with wind and solar are only practical as electricity generators which is a small fraction of our energy usage and likely to remain so. Ethanol is acknowledged to be worse than oil for the environment. There are no viable solutions on offer. The ones being pursued simply make money for the companies pushing them at great expense to the public and no real benefit to the environment.

  7. David Bergman
    February 9, 2013, 1:48 pm

    Hi KL. There’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. (See, for example, The number of weather related disasters has climbed significantly while other natural disasters have remained relatively steady, and most studies indicate that storms are made stronger due to global warming.

    The dollar cost of storms has increased dramatically, too, though a good deal of that can be attributed to increased development and property exposure in the paths of storms.

    And I have to say that using “the science is far from settled” line is a lot like the disinformation campaigns of climate change deniers.

  8. David Bergman
    February 8, 2013, 4:01 pm

    Hi B-dawg. I totally agree that going back to pre-industrial life styles is neither a good idea nor desirable nor realistic. (i, for one, would have a tough time living without the Internet, let alone central heat.) But that’s a common misconception of what our alternatives are. Reducing energy dependency does automatically mean giving things up or sacrificing our lifestyles. There are plenty of ways that we can simultaneously reduce that energy demand while BETTERING our lives and creating the paths for the people of developing regions to better their lives. (That’s the premise of my blog, EcoOptimism, as well of many others’ writings.)

  9. KL
    February 8, 2013, 2:03 pm

    probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home in the northeastern U.S. recently. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

    After a survey of the literature and examination of the existing models, Nature concluded that anecdotal weather events cannot be reliable linked to a larger global trend:

    “Better models are needed before exceptional events can be reliably linked to global warming.”

    Since 1880, when reliable temperature records began to be kept across most of the globe, the world has warmed by about 0.75 degrees Celsius. From the start of 1997 until August 2012, however, the trend derived from the aggregate data collected from more than 3,000 worldwide measuring points, has been flat.

    This trend was contrary to the predictions of climate models and the consensus within the field based on historical observation that increasing levels of atmospheric carbon cause a lock step increase in global temperatures. In other words, climate scientists do not have a solid handle on the degree to which natural variations in solar activity, ocean currents, cloud physics, heat islands / metropolitan areas, etc. interact and affect the global climate system.

    Despite so many desperately wishing it were so, the science is far from settled. Certainly not to the point of using it as the basis to upend the world’s industrail economy.

  10. John Elwyn Kimber
    February 8, 2013, 11:31 am

    Thorium, anyone?