Friday, March 09, 2007



 In which the Blade of Wheat prospers awhile longer...

Greetings to my patient blogosphere readers. My last post was in June 2006, on human extinction and the infinite chain of creation. Then my ecospiritual world turned upside down.
While attending the Friends General Conference annual gathering in Tacoma Washington, I was challenged by a fellow workshop leader to think again about accepting, indeed promoting nuclear power as a necessary part of the package of solutions to climate change. We were both teaching global warming workshops. Mine, entitled “We are the Flood”, was a high school version of the deep ecology workshop I had been trained by Joanna Macy to lead (see my blog of April 2006). It did not go well. The theory of despair and empowerment I outlined in my post on Joanna’s work is tough enough to enact successfully with motivated adults. My teen group included some kids who were there because their parents enrolled them, and were generally young. One kid wrote on his evaluation that he thought we were “literally going to build an Ark,” and was disappointed to miss this feel-good Sunday School exercise. It really hit home for one high school senior, and it was touching to see the others comfort her as she broke down in grief for humanity and the earth. Theirs is a tough generation to be a part of, with the end of the species in plain sight.
Karen, on the other hand, was teaching a group of consenting adults about the science of global warming. Embedded in this was her explanation of energy options, including the key option of nuclear power as the source of base power for the grid. We were both lifelong environmentalists, and we couldn’t have been going at this more differently.

After six months of research, I concluded she was right. The numbers for renewable, intermittent sources like wind and solar just aren’t there (2.3% of power). Not now, and not in a projected 20-30 years. Improved efficiency and conservation, including radically ramping down our overcharged lifestyle, could definitely improve our chances of avoiding the end of civil society within this century. And renewables must be part of the mix. Geeta and I are planning to install photovoltaic panels this year, either as a residential user or as part of a small partnership producer. But in terms of keeping the lights on, nuclear power is a necessity if we stop using coal to fuel base grid power.

Again, pushed by Karen, I’ve realized just how bad coal is. When I say we need nuclear power maintained and capacity strongly increased, I am speaking in the context of a massive emergency late-industrial shift away from fossil fuels. CO2, which is produced most egregiously per unit consumed by coal (along with radiation, mercury, sulphur, you name it), is the key poison in our atmosphere at post-industrial concentrations (now 382/ppm versus 280 at the start of the industrial revolution, with 450 the limit beyond which we risk runaway climate change). So, relative to the (mostly) contained radiation from nuclear waste and the risk of weapons proliferation, the stark immediacy of atmospheric CO2 overload is far worse. The result would be an even greater extinction rate (now pushing 20%), the assured end of civilization, and perhaps human extinction. Gaia, the living, self-regulating system of life on this planet, would go into an extreme state of heating that she hasn’t seen in 250 million years.

In January, a NC Public Utilities Commission hearing for Duke Power’s request to build two new huge coal-fired plants at their Cliffside facility in Rutherford County approached. It was good timing, for a special study authorized by the state legislature had reported in December that, with conservation, efficiency and promoting renewables, the state did not need any new power plants for ten years. Karen’s straightforward remark a fortnight before the hearing, “If you’re anti-nuclear, you’re pro-coal” was irrefutable, so I decided I had to speak out. Then I started to back away, feeling inadequate to the task of defending my position, most of all among my environmental and ecospiritual friends. Two nights before the hearing, I had a dream which sealed the decision. “Ol Blackie”, the workhorse Ford pickup powered by a V-8 350 Cleveland engine with which I built my homesteading base, was swamped with brown-black dusty coal at a garbage compacting station while I napped in the front row of an auditorium whose stage was the truck, coal, and compacter. Okay, I get it.

My testimony was against coal, for renewables and conservation, and for nuclear power. I identified myself as a lifelong environmentalist, and spoke of the twin vise of Peak Oil and Climate Change, ending with the prayer, “God help us.” That night I appeared on two television stations, one highlighting my testimony against coal, the other focusing on the pro-nuclear stance. The Charlotte Observer ran an article that included a quote which surprised me, but I must own, since I remember hearing myself saying it in a departure from my prepared text: “We must build as many as we can wherever we can,” which coincides with the definitive MIT study which calls for a threefold expansion of nuclear power plants worldwide by 2050 to avert climate catastrophe.

So, dear reader, here we are. The philosopher-teacher has taken a public stand, politics has intruded, and I huddle once again at the keyboard. Another dream has come, where my one year-old grandson has lumps of coal in his diapers. As for the hearing, the Utilities Commission refused to authorize but one of the plants Duke Power requested. (I hope many of you know about the improbable victory over TXU’s plan to build 11 new coal plants in Texas. With inspired intervention by lawyers from EDF and others, the company was bought out by a consortium of banks with an agreement to build only three of them). You’re going to be hearing from me regularly again. And I’d like to hear from you, especially inviting my readers to share stories of effective ways to motivate people to change energy habits - starting with you.
NEXT: The Morality of Nuclear Power (with a concluding note on its spiritual context)


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