Ecomodernism and nuclear power

Ecomodernism is a environmental philosophy that can be seen as a bit of a reactionary development to the radical  philosophies of mainstream environmentalists.

Proponents of ecomodernism, like their environmentalist colleagues, fight for the reduction of the human impact on the world. However, the ecomodernist movement favours the use and development of technologies that will allow humanity to do so. By this I mean that the ecomodernists do not reject growth and technological development in the way that many ‘greenies’ do. Ecomodernism promotes the use of GMOs, agricultural intensification, synthetic foods, water desalination and waste recycling. In regards to energy production, they favour ‘de-carbonizing’ energy, by switching to high energy-density energy sources, such as nuclear power. They also reject the idea of ‘organic’ agriculture and many renewable technologies, because of their inefficient use of space.The idea of ecomodernism is that we are going to have an impact on the Earth no matter what we do, but if we can be as efficient with that impact as possible, the world will benefit in the long run.

The main point of contention this movement finds is with the ‘degrowth’ and ‘steady-state economy’ movements, which argue for a reduction in growth and technological inputs. Many challenge the ecomodern rejection of renewable energy, especially in light of their plan to ‘de-carbonize’ the energy grid. Where these criticisms seem to fall down is that they don’t take into account the aspirations of developing nations around the world. It is all very well and good to say to developed nations that they need to stop expanding and put all their energy into being ‘in tune’ with nature, but for us to tell people in a developing nation that they have to stop growing, and not use any of our technological developments seems to be a form of classism and quite paternalistic.

The ‘rational’ viewpoint of the ecomodernist movement seems to be a bit of fresh air in the environmental debate, although it is not without its valid criticisms. Maybe this is a different framing of the issue that will be more successful in convincing people who consider themselves environmentalists to be more open to the benefits of nuclear power?

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The ecomodernist manifesto: Link

Criticism of: Link

Major players in the nuclear debate: Greenpeace

An important discussion when looking at any debate is the loudest voices on both sides. Greenpeace is probably the most well known anti-nuclear campaigner, so this post is going to delve into their history and motivations for their stance on nuclear power.

Screen capture of Greenpeace's nuclear campaign homepage, showing a banner ad calling out Fukushima

First, a bit of history. Greenpeace was founded in response to the US governement detonating a nuclear test in Alaska, which many people had protested because of its proximity to a faultline (and the potential for the bomb to cause earthquakes/tsunamis). A concert in 1970, called ‘Amchatka’, was held to raise funds which in turn was used to fund the formation of the ‘Don’t Make a Wave Committee’, which would go on to be renamed ‘Greenpeace’ in 1972.

Greenpeace’s mission statement is

To ensure the ability of the Earth to nurture life in all its diversity.

Greenpeace is well know for its vocal stance on many environemntal issues, not limited to:

  • Nuclear power
  • Climate change (or global warming)
  • Whaling
  • GMOs
  • Disarmament
  • Forestry

Another part of Greenpeace’s image is that of ‘direct action’. Most often this involves publicity stunts like putting up banners on structures or monuments to either protest, or spread their own message. While this sort of protest used to be quite effective at causing controversy and discussion, Greenpeace has come under a lot of fire recently after their stunts involving the Nazca lines resulted indamage to the World Heritage site.

Greenpeace claims to not take donations from any corporations, political bodies or governments, and instead relies on individual donations. This is probably the most powerful rhetorical device in their emply. They are able to slam others for their industry/political connections, and make the claim that they are ‘objective’ and above any question of their motives. However, this stance has taken a few blows, after scandals involving administrative spending (most notably in India).

Greenpeace also claims to have ‘no permanent friends or foes’, but by this they mean they will not be an enemy to you once you start doing things their way, with no compromise (or possiblity of changing their views).

Greenpeace hosts a lot of content on their website realted to their objection to nuclear power. Besides keeping blog about it, there are many ‘fact sheets’ and statemtns made by them on the dangers of nuclear power, and their many objections to its use.

The main reason that Greenpeace opposes nuclear power is that they believe the risks do not justify the end result and that the funding going towards nuclear power would be better spent going directly to renewables.

Their statements about nuclear power are riddled with overly dramatic accounts of the dangers of nucelar waste, the threat of accidental or deliberate damage to nuclear reactors and the ever looming threat of nuclear disasters on par with Chernobyl (they claim there is one every 10 years).

Greenpeace also uses a lot of emotive stories and language to get its point across. As seen in a previous post with the video of ‘Annya’s story’, as well as references to Fukushima and much more on their nuclear home page.

There are many critics of Greenpeace and its tactics. Notably, one of the founding members of Greenpeace —Patrick Moore, a Canadian ecologist— is not a vocal opponent to them, especially on their stance on nuclear power (he now supports it). Others have criticised Greenpeace for their refusal to accept compromise, their reckless stunts that are often dangerous and not effective, their apparent ‘neo-luddism’. None the less, Greenpeace remains an important institution, which goes to great lengths to fight against damage to the environement, although one that is could use a lesson in fact checking, and cooperation and diplomacy.

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Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

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Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013: