Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Be Ye Therefore Perfect...


Marshall Massey's blog, Earth Witness, recently hosted a significant exchange on the Morality of Nuclear Power, which I blogged about this spring (“The Morality of Nuclear Power,” April 2007). It was occasioned by an impassioned, eloquent post by Angela Manno in which she spoke of the "abomination" of nuclear power and went on to demonstrate that Friends testimonies, the Quaker values that are as close as we get to credal religions, all implicitly condemn nuclear power. Marshall, commenting on the responses from Karen Street and myself, spoke of the conflict between absolute and relative values within the context of Quaker theological history, and promised to respond more fully at some point.

In my previous post I tried to place the question of the morality of nuclear power in the context of our industrial life, showing that it was not benign, but the least harmful way to power the grid, and, in time, personal transport in the form of plug-in hybrids or as a source of hydrogen for fuel cells. But Angela's impassioned call has continued to trouble me. I want to stick by my point that all of this is relative: all of our professed testimonies accuse us in an era when we have compromised the earth's integrity to accommodate unsustainable numbers of people on earth, one billion of whom live much, much more profligately than the earth can sustain, two billion of whom live in abject poverty. Karen Street, my personal policy wonk consultant on energy and climate change, responded point by point to some of the inaccuracies and wrong assumptions behind Angela's post. But I want to carry the conversation further by responding to the challenge with respect to the testimonies, for I think to look at these core values in the context of our way of life, with far-flung tentacles into every corner and all depths of the earth and its fragile atmosphere, is a worthy exercise. For it's not a matter of sitting with a bunch of sympatico Friends in a wooded glen affirming these values as ones we can live by. It's a matter of honestly looking at what degree our lives speak these values.

Simplicity. I cannot deny her point here. Karen and I are talking about nuclear as our best hope to provide non carbon-emitting baseline power for the grid. Almost all of us are hooked to the grid, which because of economy of scale, is the most efficient means of providing electricity . But efficiency is not simplicity. Paul Hawken has said, "Never before has there been a system so ubiquitous, so destructive, and so well managed." The greater the efficiencies we achieve, the faster we deplete the earth. In the earth system’s hour of crisis the only efficiency that will help is one enthralled to negative development and negative population growth. Then, and only then, efficiency might take a turn towards simplicity.

If my wife and I follow our plan and install solar panels this fall, we will be more carbon-free, but certainly not living more simply. I heat with wood, but would be severely challenged to do so without my chainsaw. Yeah, it'll help those nasty emissions when the 2008 federal law bans all new 2-stroke engines, but my trusty saw will be grandfathered in. We have worked for decades to simplify our lives, and I could enumerate many un-American ways we live, but the fact is that though I live at half the American standard, it is still about twice the average world standard of living,.

Peace: reverence for life and the practice of respectful, nurturing relationships, non-violent living, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, working to reduce and eliminate the causes of war and violence. Another tough one. Nuclear power moves us a little closer towards conflict prevention with respect to oil use, since the biggest users of oil have very little of it, and it takes far less uranium than coal, oil, and natural gas to provide lower-emission energy. To the degree that the spread of nuclear power increases the chances of weapons proliferation, then fission power means less peace. But it's the wealthy nations of the world who have that option, not the poorer ones. Rogue weapons are inefficient weapons (mostly "dirty bombs"), which while they are threats to peace, are far less threatening than the nations with delivery systems and plenty of bombs to mount on them. Security issues are real. The path towards coping with them is to strengthen the IAEA. But the greatest risks to our security are the nuclear weapons states, among which we are the proud leaders.

Perhaps the main nuclear assault to peace is the process of mining and drilling, which the First Nations have always resisted because it is like ripping into the womb of the earth. Since it takes far less uranium (or thorium, a better alternative) to power the grid than coal or natural gas, the assault is less with nuclear power. But none of our industrial level comforts and conveniences promote peace when you get right down to it.

Equality. I have already blogged about this in terms of ecojustice. Ecojustice is best served if we devolve from our industrial ways entirely and essentially give up the enterprise of civilization. If we are talking about human equality, nuclear is the better choice, for it is more affordable and, if we commit to it, more quickly available than other non carbon-emitting sources of energy.

Integrity. This one is huge for me. If we're talking about the integrity of the whole earth system, then we need to devolve as rapidly as possible. Human systems need to back off or more likely, break down, so that the rest of the earth system might heal. This is true for cultural preservation as well as natural preservation. On the other hand, what are Eskimos and similar folk to do if they are only allowed enough whale and walrus kills to eat, not to power their lives? Not one of us can live a life of integrity on this planet given the current industrial order of arrangements. Our order has supplanted the natural order, as Jeremiah said long ago. Only we have done it on a scale unimaginable to his audience of sinners. Deep down, I still resonate with my own thesis - "Don't mess with the nucleus" - as fundamentally a witness about integrity. In terms of integrity on the planetary scale, the scale of deep ecology, we need to suffer economic and population collapse and work to reassume our place in the democracy of planetary life.

But if you're talking about integrity on the scale of human interaction and witness, then the point is not to kid ourselves that by being anti-nuke we are pure, holier than the nuclear power advocate. I am so tired of anti-nuke folk willfully ignoring their own ecological sin while blasting those who speak in terms of relative harm. (One recent example was a prominent anti-nuclear Quaker activist damning our exercise of reason and deliberation as she stepped on a plane to Turkey. Whether this was to do "important work" or for pleasure is beside the point; emissions are emissions to the earth system, whatever our motivation.) Yes, we will talk of integrity, but we must make a pact to walk with integrity.

Community. Which community? Nuclear power violates the earth community in some ways, common to other power sources which require mining and drilling and industrial scale use of ever-narrowing supplies of fresh water. And yes, it requires more resource use to safeguard its wastes. But it violates the human community less. "Not in my backyard" ignores the fact that coal and oil wastes don't have any boundaries. The chief person the nuclear power plant effects negatively is the trout fisherman by warming the waters (not to mention the trout).

"Friends Testimonies and the Ecological World View" is Canadian Friend Keith Helmuth's commentary on the testimonies from the biospheric perspective. Just one example, his expansion on my key testimony of integrity: "Ecological Sound Adaptation: design for living according to the integrity of the biotic environment; ways of life and means of livelihood that are congruent with earth's life support processes and systems,; active enhancement of biotic processes and systems." Fine. this is basic Leopold, who undergirds my "Morality of Nuclear Power” blogpost. Keith is a member of a think-tank (Quaker Institute for the Future) to help lead us in the direction of a restored land ethic. However, they have not come up with a way to get the current mass of humanity to the middle of the century without overheating the planet to such a degree that all of our values except compassion in the face of annihilation will be moot.

I pray that my grandchild and his child can live the values of Angela Manno and Keith Helmuth as integral, whole beings, without speaking hypocritically. These are my values, too, and I find honestly facing my impact on the earth very painful, even more painful than changing my long-cherished anti-nuclear position. St Paul's statement, that his flesh continues to sin, even as his Inner Guide counsels not to sin, still fits not just our traditional sense of sin, but ecological sin as well. As inhabitants of the earth's biosphere, the only one we know in the universe, we are not yet in the place where we can truly follow the advice of Paul's Master, "go and sin no more."

Marshall, gentle, firm guide to our conversation, I await your response, which I suspect must move beyond the perfection of absolute values to embrace ethical relativism at some level. No matter what our history as a people of faith in these matters, we are at an entirely new place. It is either the end of history, or the threshold of metanoia.

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