Forestalling the Future

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Economics, Environment, Politics, Science

Germany has decided to decommission its nuclear power plants by 2022. In this WaPo article, it is reported with econometric dispassion, like a business article. That’s one way to approach the subject. In a related WaPo editorial, the decision is openly called a blunder, an overreaction to the Fukushima disaster. (No mention is made of Germany’s prior experience with being contaminated by Chernobyl fallout.) The principal editorial objection comes in the form of an implicit question: If not through nuclear energy, how will Germany gets its electrical power? Although the German public and its leaders can certainly imagine it, I guess American journalists at The Washington Post simply can’t fathom a low-energy future and therefore regard nuclear power as the best or maybe a necessary alternative to burning fossil fuels, because of, ya know, that nasty carbon problem contributing to global warming.

The debate about how energy is generated and used will undoubtedly heat up further as power eventually and inevitably gets so expensive it becomes a losing proposition. Germany has decided that, considering the risks involved and despite its being old technology by now, nuclear energy is no longer tenable. What emerges from this is a classic confrontation about which future must be forestalled: one of austerity, where energy abundance ebbs away, or one of unavoidable catastrophic technological failures borne out of hubris and desperation. It should be obvious that these options aren’t mutually exclusive.

For a different, more circumspect consideration of Germany’s decision to give up its nukes, see this article at openDemocracy. The author, Holger Nehring, attempts to construct a cultural narrative about Germany’s decades-long relationship with nuclear energy and other destructive technologies, but in the process, he peers into the minds of individuals, as opposed to the wider culture, and falls prey to a version of the intentional fallacy. His article also reads as though he has leapt upon the recent news as an opportunity to dump his doctoral dissertation or a book he’s preparing into a news article, where the plethora of references and complexity of themes probably don’t belong. In truth, I’m very sympathetic to the sort of analysis he appears to be undertaking, but I don’t find what he’s argued very cogent, nor do those offering commentary at the website.

Nonetheless, I’m heartened by the indication that some people are heeding history lessons, abandoning futile projects, and adopting a post-materialist agenda with stronger social concerns than economic ones. As J.H. Kunstler says with some frequency, our immediate challenge is to figure out how to manage economic contraction, not to restart the perpetual growth machine.

    • Brutus says:

      Hal, see para. 3 of my blog post. (I guess you didn’t read what I wrote before you commented.) BTW, I got the link from your blog, though my reaction is different from yours. So thanks.

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