Archives for category: Development

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At the time Ralph Nader’s and John Abbots’s The Menace of Atomic Energy was published, in 1977, there were only about sixty or so operating nuclear plants in the US; soaring energy prices were fueling a rekindled ethic of conservation throughout America (in two years, there would even be solar panels on the roof of the White House); people actually lived in Pripyat, Ukraine.

Since then, the world has experienced at least two epic nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and Chernobyl and perhaps the most unstable weather environment since the advent of agriculture. And yet, the number of power and non-power (research-oriented) nuclear reactors in the United States stands at 140 and they span the country – from fault line to flood zone.

Americans are surrounded by atomic energy. Since 1945, it’s formed our culture, influenced our politics and burdened our bodies. For instance, that we call the President of the United States the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, transforming, de facto, a civilian into someone with marshal power can, as Garry Wills has convincingly argued, be attributed to the legacy of Leo Szilard’s chain reaction.

Because nuclear power is such a complex, energy-intensive affair, it requires the centralization of resources and command, two things not very compatible with a highly diverse democratic country of 400 million opinionated people. Moreover, because of this inherent conflict between efficiency and freedom, the history of nuclear power has been mired in secrecy from the very beginning, such that issues important to the free individual have often gotten steamrolled in silence. As Nader and Abbots wrote:

Furthermore, what the courts on other occasions have called an ‘inherently hazardous instrumentality’ affects a wide array of human rights beyond the technical issues, and this is pre-eminently the case with atomic power. How vulnerable is our society to nuclear theft and sabotage, nuclear wastes, atomic proliferation and the secret, garrison-state mentality associated with the diffusion of technologies that present such awesome risks?

The nuclear establishment is not comfortable with these consumer perspectives whether they are encountered in courts, before administrative proceedings, legislative hearings or in public debates […] More than probably any previous civilian industry, the atomic industry was imposed upon the American people through a sequence of actions by government, reactor manufacturers and utility monopolies […]

A society which insists on a technology that is so vulnerable is a society which invites a destructive few to have great sway over the peaceful many.

Quite simply, when it comes to confronting perhaps our gravest threat, the average consumer-citizen is at the mercy of a maligned priesthood. This is precisely why, when reading headlines like this one at the Huffington Post

Fire And Flood Stoke Fears At U.S. Nuclear Facilities, But Officials Say Radioactive Materials Are Safe,

I can’t help but think of Winston Smith, in Orwell’s 1984, approaching his place of work and spotting the three slogans of the Party on the building’s enormous white facade:





Last night, while in Walgreens, a pint of sherbet, an oversized bag of tortillas and a jar of salsa in hand, heading towards the checkout, anticipating a retreat into a few randomly chosen YouTube documentaries and lots of munching (and losing myself in general inside of my laptop’s nocturnal, liquid crystal glow) – after a threateningly loud clap in the atmosphere, a bright blue light, which flickered with the finality of a burst bulb – the store went dark. Then what was before a drizzle became a seamless sheet of water. Some minutes. Breaks and horns clashed. Some minutes. Sirens broke out. And another timpanic, brief blue light came and went for good measure.

Although I was starving when I came over here, the storm had all of a sudden relinquished my appetite. I was standing confusedly in the candy aisle, looking intermittently at the halted line at the checkout, which resembled a modernist bas relief (the people would be interpreted in the museum caption as being frozen in their primal, postmodern state as consumers) and the exit. There was a group of rowdy, electrified teenagers standing at the sliding doors, transfixed by the storm’s suddenness. They were mostly black. And I remember sort of abstractly (and rather crudely) conceptualizing the implications and potentialities of this – a group of rowdy, anxious black youth in a temporarily decommissioned store powerless to police itself, reduced to a white guy (I assumed to be the manager) frantically shining a flashlight and ordering me and anyone else holding merchandise to return it to the shelves immediately.

My stomach growled with annoyance. I then gently asked the guy if it was okay for me to leave the store. He said yes, rather politely. I ran into the wall of rain, not even conscious enough to castigate myself for such a show of timidity. I simply ran, like a gazelle, without thinking. I passed a McDonalds, a gas station, a Burger King – they were all black – before crossing the bridge to my apartment. Even the traffic lights and street lamps were mere silhouettes. If it weren’t for the persevering headlights and the anticipation that things, as we know them to be – cheap pints of sherbet, solitary movie nights, suspended dystopian realities with microwavable popcorn thrown in, drive-thru pharmacies, incessantly lit streets, controlled air and heat, the comforting thought of the comfort of the so-called real – were bound to resume, I would have thought that this was it. The blackout before the plunge…

“Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilization,” wrote John Maynard Keynes. The implications of such change are not merely monumental – they’re revolutionary, because it would require a complete break from our current way of thinking about the world and our roles within it. It would mean no less than the presently unthinkable notion (among the governmental and economic elite, for starters) that the best action we humans can take to save ourselves from some kind of uber-apocalypse in a few hundred years, at the latest, would be almost the equivalent of burning money. We’d have to cede our current notions of prosperity, of growth, of progress, to a new paradigm in which money (and its various indicators: GDP, stock prices, credit ratings, etc.) does not play the central role.

The most radical (and, alas, most sensible) paradigm for this new conception of living I’ve come upon is Derrick Jensen’s and Aric McBay’s criteria for sustainability, laid out in What We Leave Behind, their exceedingly, crazily honest book about human stuff, the waste that it turns into, and its life-altering impact on all form of life and the environment that sustains it:

For an action to be sustainable you must be able to perform it indefinitely. This means that the action must either help or at the very least not materially harm the landbase. If an action materially harms the landbase, it cannot be performed indefinitely: any line sloping downward eventually reaches zero.

It doesn’t get more fundamental and intellectually honest than that. But few decision-makers are directly confronted with such a basic, elementary line of thought.

Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, published in 2007, is radical enough to understand and indirectly acknowledge Jensen’s and McBay’s definition, but conservative enough that it doesn’t scare away most decision-makers by the end of the first chapter.

Although this isn’t a formal review, I’ll say this: Deep Economy is good and insightful throughout and you should read it if you haven’t already. But the book is particularly valuable for what McKibben says by channeling others. One of the most lucid passages in the book (and the reason I felt compelled to write this post), comes by way of Daniel Taylor, the then-head of Future Generations (I hear he’s stepping down), a small nonprofit focused on sustainable development projects in Tibet and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the world:

His mantra, based on a series of principles he calls Seed-Scale, goes like this: Forget big plans. Development is not a product, not a target, not some happy future state – it doesn’t consist of a set of ‘millennium goals’ to be ticked off as they’re reached. Instead, it’s a process, measured not in budgets but in energy. ‘Change doesn’t happen because of how we invest our money,’ says Taylor. ‘Change happens because of how we invest our human energy, and it always has since we came down from the trees. Everyone’s got a margin of discretionary energy – ten percent, twenty percent – that isn’t used up making our way in the world. That’s the energy available for social change. If you can get a whole community to start focusing their energy together, building on success just as a business builds products, then you get social change.’

Forget big plans. That’s what caught my attention. That very phrase is so antithetical to our modern notions of success that it sounds almost self-defeating (remember President Obama’s State of the Union mantra: We do big things?) Everything we’ve been taught – everything we teach ourselves – concerning our collective, globalized notion of the Good cuts against it. It turns out, however, that such forgetfulness may be our only escape out of a world that’s hastening to blow itself up into one that’s content with, and enriched by, the extraordinary life nature bequeathed us. Our very survival as a species depends on it.

In 2045, UN demographers project, the world’s population may reach 9 billion. Not good news when you also consider that crop yields all over the world are diminishing; that oil may have peaked years ago; that, in general, earth’s carrying capacity has been stretched to its limit already.

There have been many well-intentioned plans to mitigate this population explosion, but none perhaps more ambitious and effective than China’s (in)famous one-child policy,  the “30-year-old family-planning policy [that] limits most couples to one child, a restriction the government imposed to curb a large and then-rapidly growing population that officials feared the country could not support.”

In fact, the policy has been a little too effective.  As the Washington Post (quoted above) reports, as many Chinese workers are approaching retirement, there aren’t enough younger workers to replace them, setting the country up for a range of unforeseen problems:

The demographic change is ushering in higher wages and inflation and remaking the country’s social fabric — particularly in rural villages such as this one south of Beijing, where working adults have all but disappeared to major cities. If there are children, they are living with or visiting grandparents.

China’s one-child policy is a vivid example of how even our best-laid plans for solving many of the world’s most pressing problems  straddle a precariously thin line between worse and even worse.  This is why, before you execute your plan to save the world, you should imagine yourself on a tightrope.  And while so imagining, keep in mind that if you misstep there is no safety net at the end of your fall.  By the way, most experts, scientists, politicians, and policymakers aren’t tightrope walkers.

Which reminds of an E.M. Cioran aphorism:

As the years accumulate, we form an increasingly somber image of the future. Is this only to console ourselves for being excluded from it?  Yes in appearance, no in fact, for the future has always been hideous, man being able to remedy his evils only by aggravating them, so that in each epoch existence is much more tolerable before the solution is found to the difficulties of the moment.

“I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good.  Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission.  We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.”

– E.B. White

AP/Vahid Salemi 

“Look, the boat is stuck…It cannot move anymore.”

– Kamal Saadat, an Iranian whose fledgling boat tour business dried with the lake

Karimi, Nasser, “Iran’s Largest Lake Turning to Salt,” Associated Press, 5/25/11

While reading Paul Roberts’s The End of Oil,  I had an epiphany.  Do you know the difference between big oil companies  and crackheads?  The oil companies get invited to career day:

“The larger impact of the merger mania was to create a new breed of oil company that simply needed more oil to survive.  Today, these ‘supermajors’ – ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, TotalFinaElf of France, and BP (which swallowed up both Amoco and Arco) – are so outsized that the task of maintaining their reserves – that is, of replacing every barrel sold with a freshly discovered barrel – has become an epic struggle.  Not only must these companies discover lots of oil each year, but because they are so large, with such high operating costs, each discovery must be huge in order to be profitable.  Exploration and production costs are now so high, for instance, that no large company can afford to search out and drill a great many smaller fields.  Instead, they need the efficiencies and economies of scale of a single massive score – a billion barrels or more – to operate profitably.”