BOOK REVIEW: We can still make “A Bright Future” with nuclear energy

I’m writing on a day when SeaTac had a high temperature 10 degrees hotter than the previous record.

Summer—our brief respite of full, sunny days and clear-crystal weather for which we endure our nigh-year purgatory of ever-drizzle and afternoon sunsets—is still not officially arrived at time of this writing.img_4635

We can hope this season will squeeze in some few nice days precious amid the ash-gray haze of Pacific Northwest forest fires that turns the high-sky sun into a cigarette’s cherry. We’re told this is the new normal, but it could be worse. And it will be.

It is, I promise, worse than you think.”

The New York Magazine piece “The Uninhabitable Earth” by American journalist David Wallace-Wells from 2017 goes on:

If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.

Wallace-Wells details what heating the whole world by degrees really means, the sort of catastrophe a rise of four degrees Celsius causes everywhere and how 10 degrees makes vast portions utterly unlivable from the direct heat—let alone crop failure, flooding, and extreme events that will become common enough just to be called “weather”.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in its Fifth Assessment Report that:

limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

Global energy consumption continues to grow, and though “renewables” are growing quickly by percent, they represent little overall.

In BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2018 (pdf), they determined:

Oil remains the world’s dominant fuel, making up just over a third of all energy consumed. In 2017 oil’s market share declined slightly, following two years of growth. Coal’s market share fell to 27.6%, the lowest level since 2004. Natural gas accounted for a record 23.4% of global primary energy consumption, while renewable power hit a new high of 3.6%.

World primary energy consumption grew by 2.2% in 2017, up from 1.2% in 2016 and the highest since 2013. Growth was below average in Asia Pacific, the Middle East and S. & Cent. America but above average in other regions. All fuels except coal and hydroelectricity grew at above-average rates. Natural gas provided the largest increment to energy consumption at 83 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe), followed by renewable power (69 mtoe) and oil (65 mtoe).

The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming,” Wallace-Wells writes.

American poet Roy Scranton in 2013 wrote “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene”, to the purpose of getting people ready for that:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

But Scranton is an optimist. He thinks we’re all going to die. I think that is rosy. I think billionaires are working very hard to ensure they can get off the planet or into New Zealand bunkers quickly. I think the people most responsible for the extinction of charismatic life and recognizable human culture have a fair chance at succeeding in their attempt to survive it and tell their descendants that our deaths were a sacrifice that was necessary.

Anthropomorphic mass extinction was good, actually.”

Anatomically modern humans may not be able to survive a future 7 or 10 degrees hotter, but who says future humans will be anatomically modern? The first people to have access to CRISPR, and the first to have access to every further refinement of it, will be the very wealthiest. I don’t think rational self-interest will motivate those driving the climate catastrophe to stop and save any of the rest of us.

Scranton says we need to take deep breaths and prepare to die. I think that’s putting on the oxygen masks for the impending crash while the drunk pilots parachute out to safety.

If you think climate change is a serious problem, we have bad news: it’s worse than you think.”

So, that’s the start, proper, to A Bright Future by professor Joshua S. Goldstein and Swedish engineer Staffan A. Qvist.

They largely agree in premise with those articles, but Goldstein and Qvist argue the single most important thing we could do to mitigate and give us a chance at averting climate catastrophe is to first make nuclear power our replacement for all fossil fuel around the world as it relates to electricity generation, then utilize sustainable/renewable/clean technology to wean ourselves off nuclear after.

Subtitled “How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow”, their book is an explicit rebuttal to the horseshoe nihilism of the furthest tips on the Left and the Right.

On the Left, this nihilism tends to be exemplified by a sort of totalizing, numbing depression.

Why have children and bring a new life in a world like this? Why quit drinking? Why stop smoking cigarettes? Why go on? It’s paralyzing.

On the Right, of course, it’s even darker.

When the coming climate catastrophe is admitted at all, the remedy is to say, “Well, the planet is already ruined. The important thing now is to mitigate the effects.” And for them, that means planning how to round up (and, ultimately, to exterminate) the refugees who’ll be fleeing countries more affected than our own.

One of the push factors in Central America right now seems to be how global warming is affecting agricultural yields there. So we’re already in the middle of it, already on that path, and we have to get started making our total emissions better rather than just less-worse, as is the current goal.

In the book, the authors first sneak their case for nuclear energy in by comparing Germany’s reliance on burning coal to Sweden’s investiture in kärnkraft, which is framed as a proven cost-effective energy source that can produce electricity steadily, day and night, gale or breezeless.

Sweden gets about 40 percent of its electricity from this source.

[K]ärnkraft provides one-fifth of all the electricity in the United States, and two-thirds of its “clean” carbon-free electricity. Like, in Sweden, nobody has died…, almost no carbon has been emitted, and hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved compared with burning coal…

But it comes from nuclear energy, so it’s icky, and we’d rather try anything else or at least claim we’re willing to.

Look: I, too, watched the “Chernobyl” miniseries. Radiation poisoning is scary.

But so is black lung, and that killed between 19,000 and 35,600 people as recently as 2013.

Coal kills the miners doing the work immediately and from long-term exposure; it kills others from exposure to particulates in their lungs; and it’s killing the environment we and most of humanity have adapted to ever-so-gradually by rapidly releasing CO2 credited to our planet during the Carboniferous Period, when nothing had yet evolved to eat the trees pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.

In West Texas, they just flare off enough natural gas to power every home in the state, burning it to no purpose except to add to the ambient air pollution that kills a few million people globally each year.

A gas flare burns bright on a production site northeast of Andrews, Texas.
A natural gas flare burns bright at an oil well northeast of Andrews, TX | Jerod Foster for The Texas Tribune

Even if you’re worried about ruining water sources, well, hydraulic fracturing is pretty good at that, and we’re doing a hell of a lot of fracking to get at and squeeze out previously uneconomic oil deposits right now. I quoted British Petroleum up above: it would be nice if the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico had resulted in anywhere near the skittishness toward continued oil production that the next year’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan had toward nuclear energy production.

For those on the Right willing to acknowledge anthropomorphic global warming at all, the plan seems to be to avoid Actual Machine technology and kick the can down the road in the hopes some Fanciful Magic technology actually pans out, like blocking out more of the sun in the upper atmosphere, without creating worse problems, like blocking out too much of the sun in the upper atmosphere.

It’s certainly true, though, that environmentalism is susceptible to the same sort of FM prejudices as other areas influenced by technology (that is, all of them).

Goldstein’s and Qvist’s book perhaps places too much blame on Greenpeace and other environmental groups for being responsible for the current climate catastrophe and continued CO2 emissions. With the narrow exception of the U.S. Green Party’s electoral strategies in 2000 and 2016, I don’t think it’s fair to ascribe that level of potency to the environmental movement, particularly in comparison to the coal, oil, and methane industries.

If Greenpeace were capable of getting anything the fossil fuel industry didn’t already want them to have, the world would look very different indeed.

So it’s not that solar or wind energy don’t have a place in the future but that they aren’t a panacea to the present and have serious, intrinsic shortcomings. Wind and solar can’t produce electricity consistently or in response to demand, and we don’t yet have the battery capacity to take advantage of their “too much” to store when we have “not enough”.

Qvist and Goldstein also point out that, again, as Actual Machines, there are actual environmental trade-offs involved in producing, maintaining, and decommissioning wind turbines and solar panels. Those don’t make them net negatives, but it does mean they have to be evaluated as cost-benefit rather than only benefit. Part of nuclear energy’s relative costliness and unattractiveness is that negatives like waste and security are already priced in.

The analogy the authors make between the coming global climatic horrors and an approaching asteroid is good enough to be worth adding to the progressive lexicon. That is how earth-shattering what’s up ahead will be.

To extend the analogy further than intended, suppose we could calculate where the asteroid would strike, exactly:

Would that be a reasonable justification for those of us in other places to ignore it?

Would it be reasonable and economical to plan how to turn away and otherwise deal with the refugees that might try to flee their impending deaths?

Would it be reasonable to dither over possible environmental damage our launches into space might one day cause?

(If the analogy were closer to true, of course, then Anglo-American Empires would have been the ones to fling the asteroid into space in the first place.)

At present, we have a technology that is good enough to provide the vast majority of our power grid’s energy. If we continue to shift to electric and hybrid vehicles, the effect on our carbon emissions can be even greater because it would impact transportation.

But that still leaves the 51 percent of energy, globally, used in cooling and—more critically—heating. So we need to use nuclear energy every place we currently can and build more to make sure our capacity to non-fossil fuel energy is higher.

Our planet isn’t dying, but some small number of folks are killing the charismatic megafauna on it at an alarming rate. Humans are fairly charismatic.

I’d like to see us survive. (And kittens and dolphins and corvids, too.)


BOOK REVIEW: With “No One at the Wheel”, the rich can steal the roads from us—if we let them

Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, will be the most disruptive technology to hit society worldwide since the advent of the motorcar.

This pronouncement by the team of journalist Karen Kelly and former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz is the sort of boilerplate futurism you’ll find written about any new technology.

Likewise, the very next statement could almost be chalked up to typical hyperbole: “Some futurists and policy experts even talk about driving being banned on some or all roads.”

What sets No One At The Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future apart from that sort of replacement-level schlock isn’t where it looks forward, then, but for how it looks backward to show how a similar process already happened.

A century ago, the original grand theft auto was letting the car industry steal the roads from pedestrians and non-motorized traffic. Soon, driverless industries will be in a position to take the roads from the public entirely.

But only if we let them.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: With “No One at the Wheel”, the rich can steal the roads from us—if we let them”

BOOK REVIEW: “A Prophet of Peace” and Juan Cole’s New Historicism

I sometimes attend the Seattle Atheist Church on Sundays, and despite the many virtues that group has an organization and positive argument it makes by example for secular humanism, the fact that the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheism movement were four white Anglo-American men reflects accurately the biases you’ll find in the atheism movement in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Anglosphere more generally.

Seattle’s atheist community is better than many other spaces I’ve seen, particularly in regards to gender and sexuality, but one element it continues to deal with is anti-Muslim racism.

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BOOK REVIEW: “Talk on the Wild Side” by Lane Greene shows how language is power

Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed came across, in its initial reading, as a scattershot collection of topics relating vaguely to the way the pronunciations, words, and grammars of languages will change with time so long as those languages continue to live and have people speak them. What makes the book really special, though, is the deeper theme: despite some people’s best efforts to pretend otherwise, decentralized changes are not just acceptable but inherent to language.

A Southern-born American journalist now living in London, the polyglottic Greene likewise moves through his topics with a comfortable, intelligible style, connecting otherwise disparate elements with threads that follow easily and ultimately tie together in a way that is truly something special.

What I’m not fully convinced of is whether this was intentional or something emergent from the subject itself.

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BOOK REVIEW: Peter Watson’s “Fallout” shows how the nuclear world we got didn’t have to be this way—and doesn’t

As the Justice Department investigations and Congressional hearings into Watergate closed in, Richard Nixon—as a brag—once said something to the effect of, “I can go into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead.”

That was when he was sober. In the depths of his stress and depression, the U.S. president was also mixing alcohol and sleeping pills, and his natural paranoia became even worse.

“He really got paranoid when he got three drinks in him. There are things I’m not even going to discuss that were said, but they were the result of drinking. He could not handle drink,” one of Nixon’s political strategists said.

Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Peter Watson’s “Fallout” shows how the nuclear world we got didn’t have to be this way—and doesn’t”

BOOK REVIEW: “The Empty Throne” makes a better argument for not having one

I’ve said before there’s a seductive idea that some more competent version of American hegemony was once in effect and is desirable to return to.

Without meaning to, what Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay book The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership seems to persuasively advocate for is how bad of an idea it is for the United States to have a throne at all when the person in it is as likely as not to wield that leadership destructively.

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BOOK REVIEW: The adults in the room have always been “Reckless”

In the Mel Brooks parody, “Space Balls”, the villainous character Darth Helmet brags to Lonestarr, the protagonist, that, “Evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

This trope appears in fiction often, and some writers rely on it almost entirely.

The medievalist historian and culture critic Steven Atwell has observed that one of the central differences between George R.R. Martin’s worldview in the fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire and that of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in the HBO adaption Game of Thrones is that Martin will stack the cosmic deck against his “good” characters to give them more adversity while D&D treat nobility itself as a handicap, where evil is synonymous with competence, cunning, with a willingness to make the hard and necessary choices.

The early 21st-century genre of “prestige television” with its white male anti-heroes is predicated largely on this worldview, from Vic Mackey in The Shield to Frank Underwood in House of Cards, but it continues today and goes back to Kurtz in Apocalypse Now and beyond.

In contemporary reality, though, we have a president and administration that is an ever-overlapping Venn Diagram of racists, incompetents, and grifters rapidly approaching a perfect circle with every new cabinet departure and replacement.

Recently, that administration announced that Vietnam War refugees who’ve been living in the United States for 40 years or more are now subject to deportation. We can and should condemn that as yet another example of ethnic cleansing that it is. It’s the sort of behavior that’s cartoonishly evil except for that it’s actually happening and hurting real people.

That we are currently ruled by schmucks does not make their sadism less painful.

At the same time, there is a syrupy-sweet voice talking from the corners of New York Times opinion columns and conservative “former Republican luminaries” that suggests that everything could go back to normal if we just had the adults back in charge, that if people were a bit more civil and subtle as they went about pursuing policies that irreparably harmed marginalized people, and if they didn’t tweet rude, misspelt things, we’d all be OK.

Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam by Robert K. Brigham is a great corrective on that impulse.

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BOOK REVIEW: In “10 Strikes”, Erik Loomis demonstrates how American labor history is inseparable from American politics

Your short takeaway should be that A History of America in 10 Strikes is a good book in all the ways a history book can be good. You should buy it. You should read it. You should gift it to your friends and family, and stuff extra copies in Tiny Libraries you come across.

The author Erik Loomis is a professor at the University of Rhode Island and regular contributor to the politics and culture blog “Lawyers, Guns, and Money“, and he’s been writing his This Day In Labor History” series for some time. It’s not surprising that he was able to bring the same sort of conversational brevity to this full-length work as he managed on Twitter threads, but it’s impressive he was able to tie almost two centuries of history all together so coherently.

Now, Loomis has a point of view, and he states it outright and upfront: almost everyone in the United States is a worker, and labor unions have been the only force for workers in the past two centuries.

What’s enlightening is his thesis, hammered in time and again, that “the fate of labor unions largely rests on the ability to elect politicians that will allow them to succeed.”

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BOOK REVIEW: It’s a lot easier to kick someone out into the rain than fix your own leaking roof

You’ll often hear, in reference to current events, that the Republican Party has its origins in the anti-slavery movement of the mid-19th century.

This is, strictly speaking, true, but bowdlerized.

The best an abolitionist Liberty Party candidate ever did for president was 2.3 percent of what was then the popular vote in 1844.

The Free Soil Party was anti-slavery but only in so much as it disliked enslaved people. It got 10.1 percent in 1848.

The Know Nothing Party didn’t care for slavery but what really got it going was anti-immigrant nativism, contemporarily aimed at Irish and German Catholics. In 1856, it got 21.5 percent of the vote, still only good for third. By then, the Republican Party was competing on a slogan of “Free soil, free silver, free men.”

Abraham Lincoln won the presidency as a Republican with less than 40 percent of the popular vote four years later.

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BOOK REVIEW: “How to Democrat in the Age of Trump” by Mike Lux is a suspiciously good read

You always ought to be wary of any point of view you consume at length where you find yourself agreeing with it completely, where it anticipates every question that pops in your head and answers it, to the point that at the end you can identify no daylight between your thoughts and its own.

The effect is something like riding to the airport after you’ve doublechecked everything you meant to pack and finding it was actually all already there. There’s no rational reason for you to be unsettled rather than comforted, but somehow you are.

Mike Lux has a written just such a book: How to Democrat in the Age of Trump, and it’s worthy of being recommended to anyone on the Left trying to find a way forward.

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