I have been an environmentalist since the first Earth Day. I have tried to make that posture into something I can live into, to “walk the talk.” In the 70’s I built a passive solar house, and have provided the extra margin of heat – about 50%, or one cord/year, with wood ever since. We have worked on getting more efficient appliances, turning off lights (and phantom loads) and now replacing virtually all of them with compact fluorescents. This year we plan to install a photovoltaic system, either as a residential consumer or as part of a solar co-op with others in our land-trust. The last car we bought was the most efficient available in 1996, a Honda Civic equipped with a nifty V-tech engine Since 2001 it has been our only vehicle. We expect it to last until 2012 at our present rate of consumption. The old Ford pick-up from my dream moulders vine-covered in a field a few miles away. I borrow trucks to haul trash and get manure for a productive garden. Taking the last jet flight is still ahead of us.
One of the cardinal tenets of my environmentalism has been to shun nuclear power. Eisenhower’s “peaceful nukes” was a program of disinformation, a figleaf for the real business of world domination through military power. It was a no-brainer, with the allied problem of nuclear proliferation, and most especially the unsolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. My basic position evolved into “don’t mess with the nucleus” (applicable as well to genetic manipulation) – because it’s not our business. The nucleus is a driving force of creation, and God is our Creator. We were playing God .
But unfortunately, the genies of the nuclei are loose, and we have to live with the consequences as responsibly as we can. More importantly, we’ve dug up and burned a huge store of ancient sunlight in the form of coal and oil. Much earlier, the hunter- gatherers warned that it was a sin to dig into the entrails of the earth, even to plow for annual agriculture. In hindsight we can see their immense wisdom.
However, the neolithic revolution is history, enabling us to grow to 1 billion before the industrial revolution. It continues to envelop us, providing a platform for the industrial revolution, and the subsequent accelerated rape of the earth, much species habitat, and indigenous cultures to get at the coal and oil, so that we could grow through a fit of burning to 6.5 billion and counting (UN estimates for 2050 8.5-9 billion, the Great Year of reckoning by so many accounts). If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, we are either pre or post-industrial, with tremendous implications for sustaining our current population, much less current rates of growth and development.
Watching An Inconvenient Truth, I was struck by the fact that I, along with a generation of eco-activists, ignored the warnings about impending climate change. Al Gore was one year behind me at Harvard. We activists knew who the enemy was, Nixon, Big Government, the corporations – anybody but ourselves. But when Carter said that the energy crisis of the early 70’s, which coincided with that first Earth Day, was the “moral equivalent of war,” he made the prescient turn which now haunts us. The war we need to mount is with ourselves, our very nature. All of us are modern industrial consumers in an overpopulated world which is hugely dependent on fossil fuels for its very existence. Now that we’re finally getting the message about global warming, we recognize that what is unsustainable in terms of supply and demand is also threatening the very basis of higher life on earth. It is this context, especially the imperative to reduce carbon emissions immediately, which forces a revision of the nuclear part of the equation.
Since becoming aware of climate change, like many of my enviro colleagues, I have been optimistic about the possibility of “doing it all” – ramping down carbon consumption – with conservation and renewables. In the process of my research, it quickly hit me that I had never looked at the numbers, going on my God-given values, and my gut instincts: don’t mess with the nucleus. Even if we ramped up R and D of the “other renewables,” that little 2.3% piece of the pie-chart which is chiefly wind and solar, it would not grow to replace both fossil fuels and nuclear power in the next 3 or 4 decades. If we act to limit our carbon emissions, and thus save civilization from its own excesses, we will need something greater than “other renewables” to provide base power for the grid. In other words, if you’re anti-coal, you’d better be pro nuclear power.
There are other parts of human impact upon Gaia: transportation, housing and infrastructure, food. Nuclear enthusiasts point out that nuclear power would be a relatively carbon-free method to get hydrogen to power fuel cells. But the infrastructure changes required for fuel cells are massive, and we don’t have enough time to make that transition. Huge changes are needed in all areas of human lifestyle. For our present purposes, I want to focus on the necessity of nuclear power for maintaining the power grid. For I feel that if the grid is not maintained, civil society will unravel, and with it the very basis for moral and spiritual existence. We must keep the lights on if we want to continue searching for Light.