The Brookings Institute throws an article onto the gigantic pile of articles explaining how we could avert climate change with nuclear power. But here’s the problem: the current environmental movement is the constituency for averting climate change. And the environmental movement as it currently exists is never, ever, ever going to embrace nuclear power.
This confuses a lot of environmentalists. They want to explain to their fellow travelers: “Hey, it turns out that nuclear energy IS safe, and it doesn’t produce carbon, and the waste products, while somewhat problematic, are a lot less problematic than carbon, and anyhow we have some cool ideas to reduce the waste even more.” Which is a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on.
There are two basic camps inside the modern environmental movement. One camp is the scientists (here I mean “scientist” to mean “fundamentally I have a worldview of that privileges science,” not necessarily, “I am a practicing scientist”), and the other camp is the anti-modernists. When the movement was young, 30+ years ago, it brought these two groups into an alliance that allowed them both more political power than either would get individually. Since then, there has been a general mixing of those two camps to the point where it can be hard, especially at a superficial level, to understand which one any given environmentalist is fundamentally in.
The scientists believe this at core: The current trajectory of modern human technological civilization is leading to a catastrophe that will kill many if not all humans and harm or doom civilization. We should work to avoid that catastrophe.
The anti-modernists believe at core: It is inherently undesirable for civilization to do things that are not possible in the natural world. The more that humanity diverges from the state of nature, the worse it is. This is inherent — it’s not about how many people it will kill or cause pain to, or even how many animals or plants that technological society will kill or cause pain to.
You see the scientist/anti-modernist distinction most clearly in a few key areas: nuclear power, geoengineering, and GMO food crops versus organic food crops.
Let’s take food crops. The anti-modernist movement is that organic farming is better than fertilizer and herbicide and insecticide-based farming, which is itself better than GMO crops. The reasoning goes like this: In the natural world, there are these plants, and they grow kind of where they will. If you use lots of fertilizer, herbicide, and insecticide, you’re moving away from that state of nature, and the plants grow where they probably shouldn’t and in quantities they shouldn’t, but they’re still the same plants that they would be in the state of nature. Versus with GMO plants, you’re creating things that aren’t there at all in the state of nature, and which can at least potentially get loose and exist indefinitely: it’s not like you’re creating a tool for a limited purpose and then it gets broken down, you’re changing the world permanently.
The scientist movement in contrast says, “okay, fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides create the following kinds of waste, and that waste poisons such-and-such areas and species, and that could lead to the following negative consequences. GMO plants do not create as much waste but themselves could have primary negative consequences to humans or animals that eat them or otherwise interact with them.” And probably by this point most scientist-types who have seriously studied the situation say, “It turns out that there is a lot of study on the negative consequences of GMO crops, and we haven’t really found any, so while there’s the possibility of something bad we haven’t studied yet, we KNOW there are huge negative consequences to current industrial farming methods, and on balance I’m going to favor GMO crops.”
In the case of energy generation, the anti-modernist approach is that sunlight comes down onto the earth in a state of nature and dumps energy here onto the earth. The wind and waters of the world, in a state of nature, move around and move energy about. Siphoning off some of that wind and sun and water into energy generation is an intervention into the state of nature, but not a huge one (more of a change for hydroelectric, where you’re not just taking some energy, but flooding areas and so forth). That is all preferable to fossil fuels, which take something that is itself natural (petroleum, say), but then brings it up to the surface and burns it and dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But fossil fuels are preferable to nuclear power, which literally creates long-lived stuff that does not meaningfully exist on the planet in the state of nature, isotopes and elements which do not naturally occur in measurable amounts.
It’s not about whether carbon dioxide will kill more people or more animals than nuclear waste, for the anti-modernist.
It’s important to understand that this is not an irrational position for the anti-modernist. They aren’t confused or uneducated. They have a preference (a world which is closer to the state of nature) that they are trying to fulfill. The confusion comes for their scientist co-environmentalists when those scientists presume that the fundamental motivation of an anti-modernist is the same as that of the scientist: decreasing the chance of death or pain to probably mostly humans, but maybe animals as well.
As a side note, some anti-modernists may believe that ultimately a non-natural world will cause pain or death to people and animals, but not through a simple cause and effect chain like “higher temperatures -> flooding -> cities ruined.” It is also important to note that anti-modernists are not monsters and of course also probably want to avoid human catastrophes like the aforementioned flooding — but their environmentalist beliefs do not ultimately spring from wanting to avoid such catastrophes.
It’s also important to note that the scientist types may well be wrong about their scientific beliefs. Like, I feel like a lot of them kind of falter at certain points like, “This pollution leads to this species dying leads to… um… probably some bad consequences, but I don’t know quite what.” This distinction isn’t about rigor of thought or careful analysis of facts, it’s about underlying beliefs. Lots of basically dumb people have basically scientific worldviews that lead them to basically wrong conclusions.
Finally, note that most casual environmentalists do not devote a lot of time to self-examination, and almost all in practice espouse a mish-mash of viewpoints that are attributable to these two fundamental positions. That’s the nature of a political alliance: you tend to adopt your allies’ beliefs to some extent. Only when you seriously sit down to dig into a topic do you start to divorce “stuff that people I generally agree with said” from “stuff I personally have the basis to believe.” Nobody has the mental capacity to be rigorous about everything they think.
This scientific/anti-modern distinction is fundamental to the modern environmental movement, and will continue to be fundamental unless the movement breaks itself into pieces and seeks different political alliances. And it’s far from clear that any environmental agenda would be possible without the modern alliance. So it’s not as though the alliance is ridiculous or un-pragmatic. Lots of scientist sorts may think to themselves, “I’d like it if we could be more accepting of nuclear power, but it’s not worth shattering the entire environmental movement to get that acceptance.” And that, too, is not irrational.