In the year 1967, Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb and subsequently one of its most vicious opponents and toughest nuclear power regulators, died of thyroid cancer. That same year also saw one of the most far-sighted, ingenious lectures on the topic of nuclear power in front of the National Society for Clean Air in London. The speaker, none other than Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, subsequently published a slightly re-written version of that lecture in his “book of heart and hope and downright common sense about the future”, entitled small is beautiful. In 1995, The Times Literary Supplement ranked this book among the 100 most influential books since World War II.
So what were the main insights by E.F. Schumacher already in the year 1967? He wrote that “[o]f all the changes introduced by man into the household of nature, large-scale nuclear fission is undoubtedly the most dangerous and profound… The point is that very serious hazards have already been created by the `peaceful use of atomic energy’, affecting not merely the people alive today but all future generations, although so far nuclear energy is being used only on a statistically insignificant scale. The real development is yet to come, on a scale which few people are capable of imagining… A serious accident, whether during transport or production, can cause a major catastrophe; and the radiation levels throughout the world will rise relentlessly from generation to generation. Unless all living geneticists are in error, there will be an equally relentless, though no doubt somewhat delayed, increase in the number of harmful mutations… Yet all these weighty opinions play no part in the debate on whether we should go immediately for a large `second nuclear programme’ or stick a bit longer to the conventional fuels which, whatever may be said for or against them, do not involve us in entirely novel and admittedly incalculable risks.”
Now, where does the unbelievable twist to world’s fate come in? Remember that E.F. Schumacher gave the lecture when nuclear energy produced only roughly one percent of total electricity. Today, nuclear energy not only accounts for around 10% of world’s energy production, with a share of more than 50% in some countries, like France or Slovakia. However, it also more and more gets viewed as a necessary aid for reducing our man-made climate change problem. So, while in 1967 E.F. Schumacher believed that “[r]adioactive pollution is an evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”, we now know that our consumption lifestyles and consequently energy demands have created an evil that is even greater than the “evil of an incomparably greater `dimension’ than anything mankind has known before”. Even more incomprehensible, we now seem to prefer the lesser “evil of an incomparably greater dimension”, and want to make increasing use of it in the future. This is a sentiment that is widely shared across the world. At the end of 2011, the European Parliament has put this most bluntly in its Energy Roadmap 2050: “Nuclear energy will be needed to provide a significant contribution in the energy transformation process… It remains a key source of low carbon electricity generation. As a large scale low-carbon option, nuclear energy will remain in the EU power generation mix.” This, indeed, is something that one should call an unbelievable twist to world’s fate.
So what are our main lessons that we should take away from this venture in the not-so-distant past? Firstly, it seems we way too easily forget about what we should have learnt from past disasters, like Chernobyl or Fukushima. The direct costs of Fukushima run into several hundred billions, while the most serious indirect costs may only arise in the more distant future. For example, recently every single bluefin tuna caught in California was radioactively polluted. How effects like these are accumulating in the food chain is impossible to predict. Similarly, the rate of thyroid cancer in Europeans, Ukrainians and White Russians increased, depending on the region, between threefold to tenfold, believed to be directly linked to the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl around 30 years ago. If this disaster trend is to continue, with a serious incident every 25 years, we will soon be living in a world where radioactive contamination may be the rule rather than the exception. Nevertheless, directly in the aftermath of Fukushima, a large number of nuclear power plants have been shut down, while they are now, step by step, being re-connected to the electricity grid. Economic, short-term considerations, nuclear lobbies, and the unwillingness to opt for a small yet beautiful option may very well turn out to be the downfall of mankind.
Secondly, with each passing generation, we seem to get hold of more and more evidence that our way of using nature, of living off nature, to our own benefit, involves risks that are extremely difficult to calculate and to predict. All our large-scale solutions have turned out to be problematic in some way, from environmental pollutants like coal, oil or nuclear for our energy needs, to taking the joy out of work by big mechanical aids like assembly lines. And this is not surprising, for our planet needed millions of years to evolve into a well-balanced ecosystem, in which species were able to live in a neat symbiosis. It is the impatience of mankind on which disastrous new scientific `solutions’ that support our insatiable lifestyle thrive. One may only wonder what further concerns may arise with the advent of the wicked wonders brought about nanotechnology or genetic engineering, which meddle with genetic codes that have suited the planet’s needs just perfectly for thousands of years.
Thirdly, we seem to be able to get used to living with risks and trying to trade-off these self-created dangers to an extent that, time and again, requires us to question where exactly we would like to take this planet. If yesterday we bedevilled one source of energy for being mankind’s most dangerous energy solution yet, and today we decide to increasingly rely on this source of energy to reduce another problem that we created ourselves, then this is an unmistakably dangerous journey that we are taking. Yes, it is true that we get used to risks, that our future generations will learn to accept radioactivity or climate tippings as part of their lives, but we have to continuously ask ourselves whether this is what we really want for them.
Let me conclude with E.F. Schumacher’s own words. “Man cannot live without science and technology any more than he can live against nature… What matters… is the direction of research, that the direction should be towards non-violence rather than violence; towards an harmonious co-operation with nature rather than a warfare against nature; towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant, and economical solutions normally applied in nature rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful, and clumsy solutions of our present-day sciences.” These words, although spoken roughly half a century ago, remain today as true as ever.
If only the world had started shifting to a clean, sustainable economy back when E.F. Schumacher was writing!
Germany gives us a good model, since they are planning to shift electricity generation to clean sources and also to phase out nuclear by 2050.
But it looks less and less likely that the world will act forcefully enough to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Have you heard that the current civil war in Syria was caused partly severe drought there from 2006 to 2011, and of course, the drought was aggravated by global warming.
Thanks for your comment. I agree that things would have been much easier, lobby-wise, if the world had shifted to a `small is beautiful’ one already some while ago. With every passing year, it seems that we get more and more accustomed to the current, unsustainable lifestyle.
Germany, during the past year, produced – at times – up to 60% of its energy from renewable resources. This is definitely the way ahead. However, the energy lobby is strong, terribly strong so to speak. There is currently a lawsuit filed by the nuclear operators in order to claim billions of euros for early, illegal shutdowns of their plants in response to the 180° change of the ruling party’s attitude towards nuclear power after Fukushima. That this lawsuit may actually turn out in favor of the nuclear operators is quite likely, and also that the government will be unable to pay the costs. We may, therefore, see a (hopefully shortlived) return to nuclear energy in Germany.
About water shortage and wars – in effect, there are estimates that 40% of all wars have been and are led over water, and this is most likely going to continue to be the case with global warming aggravating the problem. One thing, however, is unknown: Whether the drought in Syria can be attributed to global warming, or simply to climate variability. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know the difference, at least for now.