Silent spring, Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism.

Silent spring is a famous book written in the 1960s that addresses the concerns of pesticide use and the detrimental effect that this can have on human health and the health of the environment. Written by Rachel Carson, the book details the effects of human development on nature, the dangers that pesticides pose to organisms that are not the target animal, the threat of bio-accumulation on human populations and the emerging threat of insect resistance to those pesticides sprayed to limit the spread of malaria.

Silent Spring is seen by many as the birth of the modern environmentalism movement. I discovered this thought while researching my last blog post on Castle Bravo, through and article titled: ‘The link between Castle Bravo and modern environmentalism’. This article is really less about environmentalism, and more about Silent Spring, but the evidence is still there. As it says in the article, Rachel Carson needed something “real” to compare the insidiousness of pesticides like DDT with. She found it in the experiences of the Japanese fishing vessel Daigo Fukyuru Maru, which was only about 140km from the blast site of the Castle Bravo test site when it went off. The men crewing that vessel all experienced the effects of radiation sickness, and one of them died.

Carson used their experiences to talk about what she felt was the growing threat of pesticide use. This speaks to the huge emotional impact the events of Castle Brvo had around the world, that this simile was so effective at spreading the message about the dangers of pesticides. Silent Spring is now considered one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th Century, and is given credit for the birth of modern environmentalism.

The movement it inspired is credited with the development of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which is ironic given the EPA supports the use of nuclear power, even more so now since the introduction of the ‘Clean Power Rule‘, and the associated attempts to lower the amount of carbon released through energy generation.

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Experts in the nuclear debate

In class last week, we had a discussion about experts, and their role in scientific controversies.

First of all, what do people designate as an expert? If you listen to those who are concerned with evidence, lack of bias and rational choices, these experts must fulfill a variety of criteria. Most importantly, they should be currently publishing in their field, their field should be highly relevant to the items being discussed and they should be free from commercial interests.

While most people will understand the need to be free of commercial interests, comparatively little thought is given to the question of the expert’s expertise.

By this I mean, someone may be an expert in, say, nuclear reactor design, and then try to opine on the ability of renewable energy to cover the base-load energy demand in a region. Unlike what TV scientists like Dr. Samantha Carter (a physicist with a remarkable ability to do biological, geological and pathological research) lead us to believe, scientists who are experts in one particular field, do not have the requisite expertise to comment on loosely related fields, and they shouldn’t be allowed to.

In my example, above, the nuclear physicist should be considered an expert when the debate surrounds the safety of modern nuclear reactors, or the efficiency of the nuclear reaction itself, or even the costs associated with building a nuclear reactor, but as soon as that physicist comments on how well renewable energy works, they have ceased to be an expert, and merely become an educated commentator.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of ‘expert’ we see on both sides of the nuclear debate. This is partially because the arguments for and against nuclear power cover a wide variety of scientific fields and sub-disciplines, and most formal debates want to limit the number of participants. These debates (like the one I posted a couple of weeks ago, from TED) often rely on the drawing power of ‘celebrity’ scientific personalities. While these people may be experts in their respective fields, their opinions tend to become much more emotional, and combative, as they tend to argue similar points in the opposite directions. Where an expert would have an advantage in this part of the debate would be to be able to cite the most recent and relevant literature, to move the argument on either way.

In the TED video linked in an earlier post, we saw a debate between two people who were put forward as ‘equals’: Mark Z Jacobson and Stewart Brand. But this is not what was actually going on. Mark Z. Jacobson is a civil and environmental engineer and the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford University, where he researches the environmental impacts of different technologies on the environment, so far so good. Stewart Brand, however, is not an expert; he studied biology at university in the 1960s, but is really famous because of his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog, a series that promoted communal living in the 1970s. From there he has been involved in many different projects, but his current position seems to be campaigning for a pragmatic approach to addressing climate change. I’m not saying that he is not an important figure, but he attempts to use rational arguments for most of this debate, which is lacking in an ethos angle, when you know he does not have the credentials to back them up.

There is another common type of debate seen around nuclear power, one where there are no experts. Often this comes in the form of ‘debates’ on news shows, that pits two commentators against each other. Obviously, this sort of debate lacks any rigour or accountability, but it is often used because it draws a crowd.

Say something controversial.


Ethics of the nuclear debate

In class last week we were discussing ethics, and in particular, the different ethical models that can be used when justifying a position.

Ethics is the framework that we apply when we are trying to make a decision about the ‘right-ness’ or ‘wrong-ness’ of a choice. The answers we arrive at depend on what aspects of a choice or the outcome of the choice that we value highly. When people debate a topic, they are trying to prove that their standpoint is the correct or ‘better’ choice, and are actually defending their ethical standpoint as superior to their opponent’s. When you decide which ‘camp’ you align with in a debate, you are making a tacit decision to agree with the ethical standpoint of your side.

From this discussion in class, I want to apply this ethical analysis. To do this I’m going to try to dissect the ethical models used by both sides of the nuclear debate.

It seems, from what I’ve seen so far, that both sides of the nuclear debate use ‘consequentialist’ ethics as the basis of their arguments, but both use it in a slightly different way.

Consequentialism is a branch of ethics that bases its judgement of an action on the outcome of that action. This is in contrast with Deontology, which attempts to judge an action on the morality of the action itself.

The way most pro-nuclear debaters seem to argue, is that the consequences of using nuclear power are minimal (with current technology), and that the consequences of not using nuclear power are disastrous. This is a form on consequentialism that is called ‘state consequentionalism’. State consequentialism bases its judgement on the total outcome of an action, assessed in the frame of the outcome to the state as a whole. In this case, this is being applied in a way to imply that the whole global human society is a ‘state’ and that nuclear power will give a huge (and immediate) benefit to the ‘state’ as a whole.

The anti-nuclear movement is similar, but a little bit more diverse in its ethical arguments. Part of this difference is a more ‘utilitarian’ view of using nuclear power. Utilitarianism is a branch of ethics that falls under consequentialism as well, like the state consequentialism, excepting that there is more emphasis is applied to achieving pleasure.

From what I can tell, the anti-nuclear movement uses utilitarian arguments to argue for renewables over nuclear power. I see this in the fact that the arguments for removing nuclear are based around the idea of using renewables are better (in the long term). This long term vision seeks to give catharsis to anti-nuclear proponents, and society in general, knowing that their energy future is secure.

But the anti-nuclear side also uses a kind of state consequentialism, but in the opposite way to the pro-nuclear advocates. Anti-nuclear campaigners argue that nuclear shouldn’t be used because the risks are too great, and that the ends do not justify the means.

This is why, when you watch debate about nuclear power, most of the time the seem to be arguing the exact opposite of each others’ points. In the video I embedded in the last post, you can see that the debaters make opposing ‘factual’ statements about the capability of renewable energy to cover the baseload energy requirements.

Sat something controversial.