Saturday, December 29, 2007


Two Paradigms

During this year’s Friends General Conference, Quaker Earthcare Witness sponsored a panel, “How Green is Nuclear Power?” I participated, along with Karen Street and Louis Cox, QEW’s information officer . Our aim was not only to debate nuclear power, but to discuss the value systems underlying our positions. Louis laid out two paradigms through which to think about the issue. The first was industrial, whereby technological innovations coupled to mandated economic reforms could lead to maintaining the projected world population of 9 billion at mid-century. The second was ecological, in which human culture would mimic the ecosystem and re-integrate with it. Louis identified with the ecological paradigm, implying that a pro-nuclear power person would represent the technological mind-set. Karen felt her position was more nuanced, but basically demonstrated her accord with it, emphasizing the costs to both humans and other species if we did not severely dampen our carbon emissions by decisively adopting nuclear power.

I found myself in the middle, for I identified with Louis’s value system, while accepting at the same time that the numbers just don’t support the splendid ideal of “doing it all” with renewable energy pathways. It is difficult, but I find it necessary to hold both of these paradigms within me, and see what emerges from the encounter. I am disturbed both by the unwillingness of environmentalists to look at the figures and study new information, and by the policy community’s ignoring the human capacity for metanoia (radical change of mind). We need environmentalists who use reason, rather than emotionally reacting from untested positions, and we need scientists and economists who understand that we need more than policy tinkering. The human community cries out for thoroughgoing structural change.

Let me be clear. I do not think we can commit to caring for an eventual population of 8.5 to 9 billion. We crossed the boundary of the earth’s ability to replenish herself in 1985, when the global population was around 4.5 billion. With great care of engineering, international mandates, and personal restraint, the earth might be able to sustain that many people, but more likely the figure is far less. The laws of population, the limits that Malthus clearly saw, are the same for any species. If the population exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat, then it will suffer a crash, a die-off. Willfully mistaking what dominion means, we have exceeded the entire earth’s carrying capacity, and the technological fixes are but a momentary stay against the inevitable. When I advocate nuclear power, it is not for the purpose of continuing mad growth of population and resource use, but as one of the means to allow us to make a transition to future sustainability.

Thomas Berry, when queried over the fact that he continued to use a car, spoke of the “ambiguity” of the automobile as we made the shift to an ecocentric human presence on the planet. I want to suggest that nuclear power is another such ambiguity, an awkward compromise that is a trademark of our times, as we transition from the late industrial to the post-industrial era. In a remarkable book full of hope, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken shows that this transition is well underway, with at least two million small organizations and NGO’s awakening to protect Gaia, acting as part of her immune system. This bottom-up systemic response is healthy, and contains the instinctive passion that will be necessary for our survival, but more importantly, the survival of a planetary ecosystem still resilient enough to support complex life. But I fear that the auto-immune system will lose its vital connection with the head, with reason exemplified in the policy community’s careful, peer-reviewed recommendations. We need both; neither has exclusive claim to truth.

NEXT: Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson and the New Agrarians. Can we make perennial grains the basis for sustainable farming?

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