Monday, December 08, 2008


Can Electricity Save the World?

Unless swift, coordinated action is taken by the governments of major countries around the world, it appears that billions of lives are going to be lost. Unfortunately for those billions (and I fully acknowledge that I might be among them), the governments of major countries tend not to take swift, coordinated action to save lives. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression that the coordinated financial action now being undertaken by governments is aimed at propping up banks and saving elites. So let’s write this one off.

To address climate change and energy problems, there is a concerted push — that even includes many environmentalists — to build a new generation of “safe” nuclear power plants. The idea appears to be that it would enable us to phase out thermal power plants and at the same time provide lots of electricity that would save billions of people from starving and freezing.

Needless to say, this is a laudable goal. People in their right mind — even doomsters who predict a massive dieoff — aren’t cheering on the Grim Reaper.

But we need to realistically assess the belief that peppering the planet with nuclear power plants and hooking everyone up to the grid is going to save the world.

What many people need most desperately is food, and, until they could become self-sufficient, they would need to get that via farm machinery, chemical fertilizers, ships, trucks, trains, aircraft, and everything else needed to grow, process, and deliver food to the starving millions. Sure, some electricity is used, but the system is built on and powered by fossil fuels.

How will you build housing and hospitals for the needy? Electricity would be handy, but it can’t be done without fossil fuels.

But let’s go one level deeper. Is it even possible to build such infrastructure now? We keep hearing about the need for “Manhattan Project”-type efforts to build a vast infrastructure of renewable energy hardware, or a new crop of nuclear reactors, or space-based solar energy collectors that would beam energy down to the planet’s surface via microwaves, and all sorts of other ideas. Indeed, saving billions of people with nukes would require not only building the power plants themselves, but also extensive power grids reaching into the hinterlands of many countries. How would all this be built and maintained? With fossil fuels, of course. Considering the electrical grids of some industrialized countries such as the US, Britain, and South Africa are in need of repair and upgrading, where would the money for such projects come from?

In the Day of Industrial Civilization, the sun has already passed high noon and is heading down into the western sky. The window of opportunity for such planetary-scale development is closing fast, and many projects that are already underway will never be finished, such as Japan’s maglev train. Money is also disappearing fast. Yet, proponents of the “new nukes” advocate a program to build many nuclear plants, which would also require building vast grids in developing countries. Such thinking is about as relevant as a fleet of SUVs.

The precious funding and resources still available should not be wasted on pipe dreams that will never materialize. To save as many as possible, the poor and starving should be given land, seeds, simple housing, water, solar cookers, and other low-tech tools. And political stability.

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