Friday, April 13, 2007

 

THE MORALITY OF NUCLEAR POWER

The overall moral issue is not nuclear power per se, but of how we care for the web of Creation. It is stewardship in an era when our numbers are overwhelming Gaia, multiplied by an extravagant lifestyle (look at the freezer and the clothes dryer, air conditioning and electric heat, the car and multiple-car families). We live in a world deeply, perhaps fatally, compromised by our industrial choices. As a human being struggling with moral choice I am deeply embedded in the accumulated world of infrastructure and culture built upon layers of thought, pre-existing decisions, my very perceptions structured by millennia-soaked predetermining gesture, thought, and decision.

Starting with Romanticism, signaled by William Blake’s total horror before the effects of the industrial revolution upon London, a genuine critique has emerged from within this embeddedness, ending with a clear statement that is the antithesis to the presuppositions of modern industrialism. This critique is ecocentric rather than anthropocentric, and it is represented by deep ecology, ecofeminism, and ecotheology: the view of the divine as immanent, the primal creative intelligence spread throughout the universe.

My own moral stance is strongly indebted to the Hebraic sense of justice, including the prophets’ land ethic, the compassion preached by Jesus, and Gandhian non-violence, which I learned primarily in the Hindustani context of my early twenties. Once I settled into life in Appalachia, the Quakers became my moral/spiritual home, uniting all of these strands. John Woolman’s testimonies on slavery and respectful treatment of Native Americans led me upon further study to his positions on whaling and industrial dyes. About the same time, I came upon the ideas of deep ecology.

In the early seventies, Arne Naess articulated deep ecology, a philosophy in counterpoint to the anthropocentric, use-value oriented environmental movement. It is deep ecology which touches me most deeply, connecting me to my Paleolithic forebears and my brethren among the critters (see my very first blogpost from November 2005). This is the ultimate test for any of our technologies: energy use, agricultural and manufacturing practices, and housing. An ever-expanding awareness of intrinsic rights has led from Locke, Jefferson and Paine through Woolman and the suffragette movement to include animal rights, even plant rights (The Secret Life of Plants). Everything has an equal right to exist in the biosphere, and it is all necessary to the web of creation. Today, slavery is that state of misguided human greed in which all of nature is enslaved to our industrial machine and global capitalism.

Aldo Leopold laid the foundation for deep ecology with his land ethic: A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. Nuclear power, and everything other tool of the late industrial era, needs to be judged by this overarching ethic, buttressed by the values of the world’s great religions. As Edwin Goldsmith, editor of the journal Ecology, points out in his magisterial book, The Way, these religions developed in the wake of abandoning a human way of life which intrinsically honored the land ethic. They laid out a pathway to salvation from a world of sorrow in the cities which expressed human “progress” in escaping the Garden. “Revealed” religions provided solace to the individual and the nuclearized family that was torn from the web of Gaia. Their accompanying values, including justice, compassion, and ahimsa (non-violence), now need to be enlisted as we find our torturous way back, not to the Garden, but to a sustainable human lifepath which honors what remains of the web as Gaia embarks once again upon reweaving in the wake of eco-collapse.

Justice. The Old Testament land ethic was an ethic of herders, one step better than the banished Cain and his tillers. Their stunting of the forest was effected by moving around herds of herbivores, rather than plowing the earth, breaking the arc towards stable climax and cultivating juvenile, annual plants. But it was a land ethic nevertheless. It grew into a more comprehensive ethic to include the relative right livelihood of the conserving farmer, exemplified in the late modern era by Wendell Berry. But the most embracing term is eco-justice. Post-Leopold, the forms of livelihood, and in our case, energy production, that do least harm to the web are the most just to all. We need to simplify our lifestyles, let go of the idea of space heating and cooling (construction improvements), drive personal vehicles less (or abandon the car entirely), and get rid of unnecessary appliances, especially clothes dryers, my pet peeve. The extent to which we can do this, and lower our standard of consumption, is key to how much energy we can save. Which standard of living are we going to strive for? Are there models? Vermont, Cuba, Costa Rica, Romania, Kerala,? We don’t have to retreat to the level of poor African countries, but the
planet could sustain a lot more folks who lived at 1/200th the American lifestyle – though not on sub-Sahel farmland.

Compassion: if it includes humanity, which it does for all but the most misanthropic Earth Firster, then we need to accept nuclear power, however reluctantly. If it is for the greater system, for Gaia, then perhaps we should stop burning fossil fuels, shut down the nukes and take the money for renewables and put it into habitat restoration for other species, transferring land back to our brother and sister species as we accelerate starvation and disease and the general die-off of homo sapiens. But we’re not going to do that, and as religious people we are already committed to compassion for our own species, including the enemy we are to love. If we are compassionate to both our species and to Gaia, we must embrace the necessity of nuclear power, at least for an interim period of a hundred years or more, along with other sources which emit less carbon than fossil fuels.

Ahimsa. Arguing against my testimony on behalf of nuclear power to the State Utilities Commission, a Buddhist colleague on the NC Interfaith Power and Light board built his case on the foundation of ahimsa, the Hindu/Buddhist concept “to do no harm.” Unfortunately, in the vast drawing down of Earth’s resources that has led to the fit of burning that Thomas Berry calls the “petroleum interval,” the very concept of doing no harm exists relative to the greatest harm we have every perpetrated, both to ourselves and to the earth system. Each of us witnesses from within a system that continues to perpetrate this rape, including those of us who rely on solar and other technologies that are dependent upon the embodied energy of oil (this is true of nuclear power as well). None of us is pure, nor outside it. So all statements about ahimsa are relative. I would have to say that our goal needs to to do the least harm, for “no harm” is not possible as human beings living in the 21st century. Just how much harm we cause is being judged right now not by a transcendent God in heaven, but by the earth herself, and for those of us who are theists, the immanent God whose outer garment is the ecosystem. Least harm in terms of Gaia and continued civilized existence is a mix of energy sources that brings carbon emissions as close to neutral as possible. If we manage to make it that far, then by the latter third of the century, the emissions need to be a net zero.

We have a chance to still be decision-makers then if we radically reduce coal and petroleum use, initiating the shifts in behavior required immediately. As Tim Flannery says at the end of The Weather Makers, “If everyone who has the means to do so takes concerted action to rid atmospheric carbon emissions from their lives, I believe we can stabilize and then save the cryosphere.”[1] (the “eternal realm of ice and snow” at the two poles of the earth. The cryosphere is necessary to buffer solar radiation, both by temperature and the albedo effect of reflecting it. For coastal civilization and tidal and marshland life, its holding water out of the seas is also critical.) My personal response to “everyone” is to go beyond efficiency and conservation to install photovoltaic panels. But in a world of social inequality, civil society needs to supplement what is achievable by those with relative wealth so that the poor, too, can contribute to a sustainable lifestyle – and survive. Up to now, that has meant relying on cheap oil and cheap coal. In the near future, that will mean supporting nuclear power so that the huddled masses in the northern latitudes will survive winter. Justice, compassion, and ahimsa are all involved in reaching this conclusion.

Frankly, I would prefer to let the nuclear power industry quietly die. I’d rather be sharing with you the morally simpler essay, “Don’t’ Mess with the Nucleus” that I drafted five years ago. When I was first asked to write about the moral and spiritual aspects of accepting nuclear power, I realized with a shudder that what I was doing didn’t feel very spiritual. It felt technical, intellectual, political - but not spiritual. But I am the same person whose last stage of life is given over to Creation Care, to convincing enough of my brothers and sisters to change their carbon-producing ways to give Creation a chance. A chance for us and a chance for the critters and flora. I have had to accept my lack of purity, my ability to feel above it all (or so embedded in the web as a deep ecologist that nuclear power would be unthinkable). I have come face-to face with the implications of coal-burning and all that that entails. And that’s just it. When Leopold published the Sand County Almanac (1947), there were 2.5 billion humans on the planet, and CO2 levels were at 305 ppm (now above 6.5 and 382 ppm. Remember, 450ppm is the probable tipping point). Global Warming was not yet a hypothesis.



[1] Flannery, The Weather Makers, 296.

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Comments:
Thank you, Bob, for another inspired post. I'm going to share it with Bill also. Thank you for the way you blend rational acceptances of present realities with a deeply spiritual commitment to how one ought to move in this world. You write as a prophet screaming in the night, calling us into what we are meant to become. God help us!

Holly Stevens
 
Robert,

You have written about "Deep Ecology", Morality and Environmental Crisis. In this context I want to post a part from my article which examines the impact of Speed, Overstimulation, Consumerism and Industrialization on our minds and environment. Please read.

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Subject : Environment can never be saved as long as cities exist.


Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.


A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.


Fast visuals/ words make slow emotions extinct.

Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys emotional circuits.

A fast (large) society cannot feel pain / remorse / empathy.

A fast (large) society will always be cruel to Animals/ Trees/ Air/ Water/ Land and to Itself.


To read the complete article please follow any of these links :

FreeInfoSociety

ePhilosopher

sushil_yadav
 
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