Guest Columns

Saving the environment from Environmentalism Part II

by Paul Lorenzini

Part II: Rethinking Environmentalism

Today’s environmentalism is premised on two fundamental ideologies: first, solutions must “harmonize with nature” and second, nuclear power must be opposed at all costs. In the first part of this discussion I addressed the conflicts raised by constraining environmentalism in this way and how those constraints are working against the real goals of environmentalism: reducing carbon emissions and minimizing our footprint on the natural environment as we strive to meet human needs. That analysis only begs the question: how did we get to this point? In Part II I address this question: what led us to these ideologically bounded premises and what should we do about it?

We are products of our history and nowhere is this more the case than with modern environmentalism. It is an inherited dogma, born out of a period four decades ago that conflated environmentalism with social visions of progress and reflected the spirit of an age in our history. A new environmentalism sought more than past conservation movements, more than just preservation and protection; we needed to rethink our ethic toward nature and re-conceptualize what we mean by progress – progress had to be more than the acquisition of material wealth, it had to serve both our human need for material security and spiritual fulfillment, and it had to be sustainable. All are reasonable priorities, but what would it mean?

Woven into this was a basic shift in our confidence in science and technology as the means for human progress. In historical terms the west has been described in a well-known 1959 lecture by the English novelist and science fiction writer C.P. Snow as a culture divided by two competing forces, what he called “Two Cultures”. Those in the natural sciences were seemingly on one side and those he called “literary intellectuals” were on the other. As Snow saw it, these two groups are not just divided, there is a kind of mutual hostility between them. Snow saw this as a problem because he believed decision-makers were failing to value the potential for human progress inherent in science and its technologies. In his review of technological advances over the past century, Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Rhodes refers to Snow and reinforces his observations, noting “appreciation of technology among intellectuals not technically trained was hard to find” over this period.[1] Presuming this is true, what does it mean?

One explanation is that Snow was observing the effects of a two centuries-old fault line in western thought going back to the period of the Enlightenment, a fault line between those who had a reverence for science and objective knowledge and those who rejected its “mechanical and soulless” view of the universe, its materialism and its objectification of nature.[2] Initially expressed by the early Romantics, skepticism of science and its objective view of knowledge has been a continuous theme running from Rousseau, to Nietzsche, to twentieth century existentialism and now postmodernism.

It was a cultural divide that had been lying dormant for decades, but came alive during this period when a new environmentalism was born. In a fascinating critique of this history, Meredith Veldman has linked together early romantic themes with the rise of today’s environmentalism, as especially embodied in the views expressed by E.F. Schumacher. Finding strong parallels with the early Romantic Protest movements in Britain, Veldman believed many of these themes explain the underlying thought behind much of modern environmentalism.[3] They include a rejection of a materialistic view of nature, seeing nature instead as an organism of which we are but one small part; a “revulsion against” the social by-products of industrialization; a “long history of suspicion of the scientific method”; and a conviction that we need to “restore humanity’s links with the natural world.” Nature had become an inanimate thing to be exploited, not an aesthetic aspect of our spiritual existence to be valued.

One can see these thoughts reflected in the work of the two most influential leaders who shaped environmentalism as we know it today: E.F Schumacher in Small is Beautiful (1973), and Amory Lovins, in a 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs: Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken. [4]

After spending time in Burma and India, Schumacher had concluded people in those societies were happier and more fulfilled without the infrastructure of modern industrialism. He urged solutions that would mirror these virtues which necessarily meant a complete rethinking of the ways we use technology to achieve progress. Instead of large corporate and government organizations seemingly beyond our ability to control, he stressed small, low tech, solutions and community. A critical concern was his belief that we would need to alter the way we live, how we labor and the ways in which our lives intersect with the natural environment. Reinforced by a fear that we were running out of fossil fuels, he saw the solution as a shift toward renewable resources that would be both more “natural” and sustainable. But also small, meaning deployed as low tech solutions that could be locally controlled.

It was left to Lovins to reframe Schumacher’s abstractions into a coherent social vision. In his 1976 essay, Lovins characterized energy policy as a rigid choice between the “hard path”, central station coal and nuclear power, and what he called a “soft path”, one which would exclusively rely on renewable resources, but selectively, only those that would be compatible with a restructuring of our energy infrastructure around small, low tech, distributed energy systems.

What ultimately gave Lovins his greatest legitimacy was his emphasis on efficiency; few would argue with the gains made there or with the continued potential. But it was his emphasis on “soft path” technologies that defined the new environmentalism – a dependence on renewable resources and a complete rejection of nuclear power.

Lovins impact cannot be understated. Years later nuclear critic Charles Komanov would write that Lovins analysis was one of the ten “blows” that “stopped nuclear power”. It was, he wrote, a “tour de force that re-conceptualized the entire energy debate. He held out an enticing, almost irresistible vision of a non-nuclear future that also avoided an over reliance on fossil fuels.” [5]

Faith-Based Environmentalism

By 1980, all of this had hardened into a new environmentalism that was now being embraced with almost no critical thought. Key to the new environmentalism were resources that harmonized with nature, which meant renewable, low tech, and capable of being deployed as distributed generation. Notably there was no consideration of real impacts – land use, biodiversity, demands for resources required for construction and maintenance: none of this was thought through. When Lovins said the soft path was “environmentally friendly, benign and peaceful”, it was embraced at face value because it fulfilled a pre-existing new ideology. Nowhere had anyone seriously considered the size of the undertaking or its impacts on habitat. Where concerns were raised, they were trumped by a “group think” which had taken hold within the environmental movement. As Laura Jackson put it after recently attending a conference where speakers emphasized the need to “believe” in the renewables-only path, it has become a kind of “faith-based environmentalism”.

It was an ideology with two prongs: first, an idealized view of nature; and second, skepticism toward advanced technology as a pathway to progress. The former expressed itself as a commitment to renewables as the sole path to a “green” energy future; the latter was channeled into hostility toward nuclear power.

Nuclear power and modern environmentalism

When the issue of nuclear power is raised, there are usually two explanations for its opposition: either a link to nuclear weapons, or simply fear of the technology itself. Because both have legitimacy, they effectively obscure ideological undercurrents that have shaped the controversy.

The problem with the “weapons” answer is it fails to explain the timing of the anti-nuclear movement. During the decade of the 1950’s, a period when nuclear weapons posed their most intense threat, nuclear power actually enjoyed wide public support. The Sierra Club embraced it with the slogan “atoms not bombs”, and as late as 1962, the radical left argued in their influential Port Huron Statement that “… atomic plants must spring up to make electric energy available.”[6] When opposition did begin to surface, it came as a surprise to the industry. In 1963 an industry news outlet wrote that “industry has been shaken in the past year to find that some in the public are suddenly speaking out against proposed nuclear stations.” [7]

The rise of the anti-nuclear movement would come during the next decade, paralleling both the rise of the new environmentalism and the cultural shake-up of “the sixties”. By 1976, three years before the accident at Three Mile Island, an antinuclear movement had fully matured: the Sierra Club adopted its anti-nuclear policy in 1974; Ralph Nader held his first Critical Mass rally later that year, and by 1976 antinuclear measures had been placed on ballots in six states – all to be defeated by wide margins, a defeat followed by civil disobedience and protests across the country.

Many regard the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 as a turning point in the history of nuclear power, and in terms of public attitudes it is largely accurate. But it offers little to explain the rise of an ideologically driven anti-nuclear movement that was well-entrenched long before that accident.

For most of us, risks have dominated the conversation about nuclear power as evidenced by the response to Three Mile Island. For the average person, that is the issue: risk. Yet it is the very potency of this issue that has obscured the ideological nature of the controversy and, in particular, the manner in which fear has been exploited by anti-nuclear advocates to manipulate public attitudes. This was revealed starkly by a 1982 survey of opinion leaders, including anti-nuclear environmental groups. The survey found that anti-nuclear environmental groups made no distinction from a long list of nuclear issues – if it supported an anti-nuclear position, they agreed. The authors of the survey concluded this could only be explained by an underlying “ideology” that was more potent than the specific issues themselves.[8] At an anti-nuclear conference in 1985, one critic put this thought quite bluntly: “Let’s face it. We don’t want safe nuclear power plants. We want NO nuclear power plants.”[9]

This visceral hatred of nuclear power had become so intense sociologists during the 1980’s would write that “opposition to nuclear power has for many environmentalists become the key issue,” and “the most emotional and divisive of environmental concerns.” [10],[11] Given all the threats to the environment in the modern world, it was a rather remarkable claim. One relevant threat they largely ignored, for example, was coal – tolerating an expansion of coal to avoid nuclear power, even though virtually every major study has found coal is far more damaging to the environment and human health than nuclear power.[12]

Yet it signaled the power of ideology in shaping the movement. Today, as serious environmentalists rethink the issue of nuclear power, one hears comments such as “I was duped” (Michael Shellenberger in “Pandora’s Promise”), or “I was a knee-jerk environmentalist” (Stewart Brand in an interview on NPR), or even reservations about speaking out due to the threat of a backlash from the environmental community (Mark Lynas in “Pandora’s Promise”)[13].

Still, by the 1990s little progress had been made with renewable visions and efforts turned toward the adoption of laws that would mandate their acquisition, supported by various forms of subsidies – both with finances and stream-lined regulations. It was around this time that concerns over climate change began to surface, and, just in time, climate change was adopted as the justification to push this pre-existing vision. But it was force-fitting a solution to fit a problem, rather than starting with the problem and seeking a solution.

The reality is that the soft path was never about carbon: it was always about opposing nuclear power and restructuring society to fit a socio-political vision. As we are now beginning to see, the opposition to nuclear power is compromising efforts to minimize carbon while the unreserved push for a “renewables-only” solution is forcing an increase in natural gas and unnecessarily damaging habitat.

A new environmentalism

Rethinking modern environmentalism will necessarily mean a reconsideration of the fundamental premises that guide our thinking. A recent “think-piece” released by the Break Through Institute, co-authored by 18 environmental scientists, activists and scholars, has raised these issues, emphasizing the need to shift our focus as we reconsider the needs of what they call a “new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans”. [14]

There they “challenge the idea that early humans lived more lightly on the land than do modern societies,” a notion which has implications well beyond energy having framed much of modern environmental energy policies. It is not “harmony with nature” that is important, but intensifying human activities, minimizing our collective environmental footprint, and decoupling our dependence on nature so it can be preserved and protected. Technology is not the problem, it has been the liberator making it possible to serve human needs and achieve progress while severing the dependencies that led to the environmental crisis in the first place. They call for a complete and fresh rethinking of environmental policies that embrace the role of technology as a source of leverage to minimize and control our environmental footprint while simultaneously using it to serve the growing human needs of our modern global society.

Yet it is not enough to offer a new environmental vision going forward, the underlying ideologies that got us here in the first place need to be better understood and challenged. We need to separate the goal of environmental protection from an idealized and romanticized view of nature that is becoming a barrier to its preservation.

Given the emotional, financial and political investments already made in existing policies, change will not come easy. At the grass-roots level, however, while solutions have not necessarily come into focus, the need rethink the basics is increasingly becoming clear. In an almost plaintive cry, Basin and Range Watch has stated it this way:

“Seems like 20 or 30 years ago, folks were concerned about protecting their local places, that specific mountain, the river nearby, those particular named canyons near where they lived, and the wilderness they hiked in. Today the shift among environmentalists has highlighted the global, the abstract, even the corporate model of “saving the Earth.”  We are often lectured by this new hybrid of industrial green energy environmentalists about how our attempts to slow down these large industrial energy developments will expedite the warming of the planet and the extinction of the polar bear. We find it ludicrous that these same people would support actions that could lead to the extinction of species like the desert tortoise in an attempt to save the polar bear. Who told them that they were justified in choosing which species get to survive and which do not?”[15]

Who indeed?

About the Author: Paul Lorenzini earned his PhD in Nuclear Engineering from Oregon State University and later earned a JD. He had a distinguished career in the electric utility business and was the Chief Executive Officer for NuScale Power for its first five years. He is now retired and sharing some of his thoughts about energy issues.

Editor note: Paul and I have a continuing email exchange about a variety of ways to interpret the historical, political and literary events discussed in this piece. We do not fully agree on the motivations of the primary actors and the identities of the less visible puppet masters, but his thoughts are valuable and worth sharing.


[1] Richard Rhodes, Visions of Technology, 1999, p. 23 et seq.

[2] See Richard Tarnas, The Passions of the Western Mind, 1991, pp 366 et seq.

[3] Meredith Veldman, Fantasy, The Bomb, and the Greening of Britain, 1994

[4] “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?”, Amory Lovins, Foreign Affairs, Vol 55, No 1, October 1976, pp 65-96

[5] Charles Komanov, “The Ten Blows that Stopped Nuclear Power”.

[6] See Thomas Wellock, Critical Masses: Opposition to nuclear power in California 1958-1978, 1998, p. 41; James Miller, Democracy is in the Streets, 1994, excerpt from the “Port Huron Statement, p. 359.

[7] “Big Hurdle for A Power gaining public acceptance”, Nucleonics News, October 1963, Vol 21, No 10.

[8] Robert L. Cohen and S. Roert Lichter, “Nuclear Power: The Decision Makers Speak”, AEI Journal of Government and Society¸ March-April, 1983, pp 32-37.

[9] A spokesman for the Government Accountability Project, an offshoot of the Institute for Policy Studies, in The American Spectator, Vol 18, No. 11, Nov. 1985

[10] Stephen Cotgrove, Catastrophe or Cornucopia, 1982

[11] Lester Milbraith, Environmentalists: Vanguard for a New Society, 1984

[12] See The Nuclear Energy Option, Bernard Cohen, 1990, p. 135, FN 8; and Pushker A. Kharecha and James Hansen, “Prevented mortality and greenhouse gas emissions from historical and projected nuclear power”, Environmental Science and Technology, March 15, 2013

[13] “Pandora’s Promise”


[15] Excerpt from a letter by Kevin Emmerlich and Laura Cunningham of Basin and Desert Range Watch, reprinted by The Zephyr at:

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