Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Nuclear solutions?

Stewart Brand is a great visionary and thinker. But how did the inventor of the Clock of the Long Now become convinced that GMOs and nuclear power are a good thing? The main problem I have with his reasoning about technology is the premise he starts with; that we must maintain our current profligate and wasteful use of energy and natural resources.

If we are locked into such a zero-sum game then yes, nuclear and GMOs may be the best of many bad options. But if we can instead optimize our whole economic system we may find that designed efficiency improvements can completely eliminate our imagined need for more power plants. (I refer the reader who wants to learn more about market-based efficiency solutions to the ample work of Amory Lovins)

Unfortunately the real problem is not a lack of energy or resources (if anything, we produce too much) but a lack of price signals that would tend to optimize the current system. If the market reflects the true cost of energy (instead of reflecting subsidies and missed externalities) these efficiency improvements would already have happened and we would not be forced to choose between pollution today or pollution 10,000 years from now.

Brand argues based on the premise of the lesser of two evils, but when it comes to big, hard questions about adopting new technologies we have an obligation to do much better. Brand is at his best when he puts his faith in the emergent properties of complex systems. Unfortunately our current economic system is not perfect. The solutions do exist and it is the hope of our generation that we can implement them before we are scared into a future of increasingly hazardous big-technology fixes.

1 comment:

James Aach said...

To some extent I agree with your energy market comments. I'd also like to see conservation pushed a lot harder (which I guess is part of the market).

Mr. Brand has also been kind enough to endorse my thriller novel of nuclear power, which is based on my twenty years in the US nuclear industry and is designed to provide a good overview of the topic for a lay person. I cover the good AND the bad. It is available free online at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com and also in paperback via online retailers.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand