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.

Comments

  1. Duane Urban
    Daytona Beach, FL
    February 8, 2013, 4:46 am

    If every office worker in America who could work from home did work from home a significant amount of today’s energy issues, green house gas issues and traffic gridlock could be solved overnight with practically zero investment. We have the technology right now and it’s built into every computer we use at work and home.

    Something so simple yet the vast majority of companies refuse to implement it even though it would save them a fortune. If society is so resistant to change that they refuse too even when there are clear cut benefits how does anyone expect change when it costs money and perhaps reduce our quality of living?

    Nuclear or not, sustainable or not are side-issues. We are creatures of habit with an aversion to breaking even the bad one.

  2. B-dawg
    February 8, 2013, 4:09 am

    “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.”
    -Typical anti-nuclear liberal, romanticizing the pre-industrial past as a time of happy peasants gently tilling the soil while singing love-songs to Mother Earth. Never mind the fact that if you had a time machine and sent him back to 1400 AD, he’d be screaming to come back to the 21st century within a week. Daily brutal physical toil for life’s necessities will do that to a modern electricity-consuming, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-munching person.
    If the future turns out to be a place worth living in, it will be because we EMBRACED science and technology, not because we rejected it!

  3. Glenn
    st. joe, michigan
    February 7, 2013, 7:19 pm

    *Reprocessing used fuel to recover uranium (as reprocessed uranium, or RepU) and plutonium (Pu) avoids the wastage of a valuable resource. Most of it – about 96% – is uranium, of which less than 1% is the fissile U-235 (often 0.4-0.8%); and up to 1% is plutonium. Both can be recycled as fresh fuel, saving up to 30% of the natural uranium otherwise required. The materials potentially available for recycling (but locked up in stored used fuel) could conceivably run the US reactor fleet of about 100 GWe for almost 30 years with no new uranium input.*

    Twenty-four percent of the Earth’s energy-related carbon emissions are produced in the United States. Forty
    percent of the U.S. energy-related greenhouse gases are attributable to the electric power industry. Eighty-two
    percent of the U.S. energy-related carbon emissions stem from the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum,
    natural and other gases).

  4. Korey
    February 7, 2013, 2:43 pm

    *I don’t know why I used the word dense. I believe I meant “all that dangerous.”

    Also, by “current levels” with respect to renewable energy, I mean current technological levels. We still have a ways to go there. Global Warming is by far the biggest threat to continued human existence today, so we need a way to reduce GHG now, not ten or twenty years down the line. By that point, it will be too late to institute an effective and unified solution to man’s biggest disaster.

  5. Korey
    Chicago
    February 7, 2013, 2:38 pm

    You make a good argument, even though you bring up many tired (and easily debunked points).

    1) Nuclear waste is not dense, and is, within reason, easy to deal with. It only gets so much play because the media doesn’t tell you what qualifies as radioactive waste. For instance, coffee grounds are radioactive waste (low radioactive waste). Fly ash is a particularly large source of low radioactive waste. High level radioactive waste only accounts for a small overall level of waste, and is relatively easy to deal with.

    2) Yes, Americans consume more than anyone else on the planet, and our high standard of living, even though it does not come with guaranteed happiness, is resource intensive. But we can’t deny developing countries the things they desire. Sure, humans can be happy with subsistence farming, but are you really going to rationalize preventing the technological advance of humanity as a whole with “they’ll be as happy with plumbing as they are without, so obviously they don’t need plumbing?”

    3) Energy demands are increasing and are going to increase. At current levels, renewable energy cannot and will not supply our demands. Should we reduce our energy usage? Yes, but to pretend that we will be able to keep it stable in the face of massive population growth (which is a simple result of industrialization) is ridiculous. Nuclear offers a good, temporary solution until other, cleaner solutions are available.

  6. David Bergman
    February 7, 2013, 2:06 pm

    Hi Tiki Mon & Scott Hopkins, and thank you for your comments. A major point of mine is that we don’t have to accept that energy needs here and elsewhere will grow according to recent past patterns. There are many reasons to push for alternative patterns of growth, especially ones that are less energy-intensive. There is no need, for example, for developing regions to repeat our mistakes of car-dependent development and air conditioning-dependent buildings.

    It is also far from “fact” that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.

  7. scott hopkins
    fort worth, tx
    February 7, 2013, 11:03 am

    ‘the limited vision of the pro nuclear… argument’ is a typically deceptive and short-sighted presentation.
    1. it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. none of the renewables come close.
    2. the future of energy demand will be greater than the predictions, not less. as emerging economies in africa, south america, and asia develop, their demand for electricity will accelerate, not decline. try telling these people that reliable electricity is a bad thing.

  8. Tiki Mon
    Atlanta, GA
    February 6, 2013, 4:38 pm

    “Reducing our energy needs”, that tired old saw? You’re ignoring the developing world. They want electric toys too, and they’re not going to let some foreign do-gooder to tell them they have to do without in the name of the greater good.

    Energy needs will increase at the expected rate, even if America sits entirely in the dark.

    Nuclear is the only serious long-term option to fuel the growing world.

  9. Patrick
    Denver
    February 6, 2013, 3:47 pm

    I would like to commend the author on a finely articulated arguement. I would also like to call readers’ attention to the fact that on a article that discusses viable options for the future survival of the planet, there is one comment. On the rememberance page for Mary Leaky there are ten + comments trying to debunk a evidenced scientific theory. There is something quite askew here.
    Regardless, thank you for your reasoned thoughts on our energy/climate/consumption dilemma.

  10. V-man
    February 6, 2013, 12:04 pm

    We do need a renewable form of energy in the world, but I’m not sure if it should be nuclear.