My creative juices were inspired this morning by an article titled Climate is not a mass movement. The piece comes from Randy Olson, the filmmaker turned scientist who is most famous among my pro-nuclear communication friends as the author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist.
Aside: I wonder how many of the people in my pronuclear social media circles who have strongly advocated for Olson’s work as a science communicator know that he fondly remembers his participation in the “No Nukes” movement and thinks of it as a model for societal change? End Aside.
I found the post from the following tweet from Andy Revkin:
— Andy Revkin (@Revkin) February 26, 2013
After reading Olson’s thought piece, I fired back the following tweets in rapid succession:
— Rod Adams (@Atomicrod) February 26, 2013
— Rod Adams (@Atomicrod) February 26, 2013
Olson is a good communicator and hit on some important concepts in his post, but his science interest is biology, not energy production. There is no doubt that the No Nukes movement contributed to a successful (so far) effort to push the world away from the use of nuclear energy, but there is also no doubt that the success of that movement – along with a whole series of poor decisions made by the people who were building nuclear power plants at the time – have put the world into a dangerous position.
The very danger that Olson wrote about – a changing climate that is being made ever more unstable by the forcing functions associated with an increasing atmospheric concentration of CO2 – could have been avoided by focusing first on science and technology and then on creating slogans aimed at encouraging positive action.
Mankind has access to a tremendous gift (from God or nature, whichever you prefer) in the form of a densely concentrated source of heat that can be turned into all of the power that we will ever need. We discovered that heat source at a fortuitous point in our development. Just as our industrial development was finding more and more ways to use energy to improve human health and prosperity, we found an fuel that contained two million times as much energy per unit mass as the hydrocarbons that had been powering that development.
Perhaps unfortunately, we discovered the mechanism to unlock the energy that uranium and thorium have contained for billions of years at a time when our industrial society was in the midst of a world wide conflict. We were choosing to use our god-given creative ability to develop ever more effective ways to kill each other. It was perhaps inevitable that some people in The Establishment determined that the most important use of uranium’s incredible energy density was not producing reliable electricity or motive force that could be used to relieve suffering and empower the powerless.
Instead, they decided to put together a Manhattan Project style program aimed at producing explosive power to demonstrate – once and for all – that we had become like gods on earth.
Aside: In fact, it was archetype of such singularly-focused, short-term, demonstration programs with no planned follow through, just like the Apollo program that is often mentioned as another model of how to get things done. I hope that it’s clear that I am no fan of such a program design; I am much more interested in following the model of Rickover’s naval reactors program, one that has lasted for more than half a century and has been strengthened over the years by adhering to a number of well understood principles. End Aside.
Many people remain firmly convinced that building bombs was the first motive for developing atomic energy capabilities. To overcome that misconception, I recommend spending some time reading old newspapers and magazines from the period prior to 1940, when the “powers that be” determined it was time to force atomic energy into secrecy. They decided to invest most of the world’s nuclear expertise into fashioning a destructive capability instead of taking the easier and far more productive path of building a coal and oil-replacing constructive capacity.
For the price of a few electronic subscriptions to publications like The New York Times, we can now sit in the comfort of our own homes and go back in time to find out what people were thinking and writing. With properly selected search terms we can hone in on a particular topic and a particular time. I spent several hours a few days ago learning more about what (slightly above) average people knew about atomic energy (as it was then known) and what they thought about its potential in the period between 1920 and 1940. It was an illuminating experience.
At the risk of a takedown notice, I thought it would be worthwhile to share at least one of the articles I found to whet your appetite for a similar search endeavor. The article is the March 5, 1939 edition of This Week In Science by Waldemar Kaempffert. Another excellent way to understand that many atomic pioneers were more interested in useful power than in explosive power is to read Ted Rockwell’s Creating the New World: Stories and Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age.
Getting back to the main thought for this post. Like Olson and Revkin, I am worried about the long term effects on the ability of the earth’s systems to sustain life as we know it. I am not worried about “the planet” but about mankind and the vast infrastructure that we have developed to make life more comfortable and more enjoyable. I am worried about the marvelous city where Revkin writes and about the extreme vulnerability that it has always had to strong weather events.
I am worried about all of the coastal areas I have called home over the years, including the Florida east and west coasts plus the panhandle where Mom now lives; the South Carolina Low Country; Groton, Connecticut; the Big Sur coast in California; the Washington DC metro area; and Annapolis, Maryland. I am not alarmed, but I know that it is going to take a lot of effort to change our present course and speed.
The longer we wait, the more difficult it will become.
Thought process leading to the pronuclear call to action
I worry about the climate-destabilizing effect of continued fossil fuel combustion and the associated CO2 waste disposal effort. Unlike the climate change alarmists, however, I do not advocate actions that depower society and force humans to violate our very natural desire to improve our life style. Instead, I advocate turning to an option that will empower most of humanity with ultra low emission electricity and motive force.
We need action. As Olson points out in his piece aliteration and brevity have value in building inspiration and huge movements. As long time readers know, I have been toying with the phrase “fission fan” for quite some time. I also thought about contrasting something with the fundamentally negative, but effective slogan that Olson mentions – “No Nukes”.
I thought about the talk I heard Patrick Moore give to the American Nuclear Society student conference at Texas A&M several years ago when he described how he left Greenpeace because he had tired of spending his life fighting against things and wanted use his science training to find things worth fighting for. I thought about some of the technologies that have been developed to make better use of atomic energy potential.
Finally I remembered my recent conversation with my pronuclear friends, including Gwyneth Cravens, a woman who is a star of Pandora’s Promise, a Sundance film festival sensation that describes how some former antinuclear activists have determined that the hope at the bottom of the chest needs to be released.
After all of that thinking, which took less time to coalesce in my mind than it did to write those few paragraphs above, I hit on the slogan that I think will resonate as a call to pronuclear activism. We need fission and we need it now – actually we needed it yesterday, so now is the best available time.