The anxious quality of the discussion about the events in Japan prompted my to post a couple of long comments to an excellent plain-language diary on nuclear energy and the health effects of radiation by Dr. Linda Shelton. I decided to combine the comments into a diary entry here. Some obvious questions are not being asked.
More below the fold:
Most importantly, why are we using this obviously dangerous and foolishly underdesigned technology in the first place? It shares the same root cause as our drilling for oil miles deep under the sea, filling once beautiful Appalachian valleys with the remains of the mountaintops to get at the coal lying underneath, and spewing thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every hour.
There is a simple fact that most do not want to face. Our entire civilization right down to the basic food we put in our bodies is the product of energy consumption. We are EATING oil, and coal, and nuclear energy, without which we would quickly starve in cold, dark, and empty cities. And, we are doing this like there is no tomorrow.
Sadly, there will be a tomorrow, and it's not going to be a happy day. Put simply: The earth cannot and will not sustain much longer the weight of 7+ billion human animals, driving around in 2 tons of steel and plastic, flipping the switch expecting the lights to come on. This is inexorably true because of fundamental laws of nature which we have chosen to ignore. To whit: All life requires a flow of energy and other resources. The earth is finite, and we keep pretending in our vanity and cleverness that we humans are infinite. We are not.
There are those who will say: Don't worry, technology can solve our problems, that our difficulties arent technical; they are social and political. Resources aren't really a problem. We will always figure out a way to feed everyone on the planet with ease and in an environmentally sustainable way if only put in force the right policies and develop the needed technological solutions.
We need to understand that our challenges are a combination of ALL the named factors. Taking technology: One important aspect of the technological world is that it results in the exploitation and inevitable depletion of resources at an ever increasing rate, and many of these resources are already in short supply. Starry eyed believers in infinitely beneficent technology would have us accept that this can continue forever, that we will ALWAYS develop new and better technologies to replace depleted resources, etc.. This is simply wishful thinking. As I said, the earth is finite.
Today for instance, we are using more fixed nitrogen from fossil fuel sources to grow crops than ALL the nitrogen from natural sources combined. There is today no existing, proposed, or even theoretical alternate source for this fertilizer, and given oil depletion, global warming, and other finite PHYSICAL parameters there is not likely to be a future solution. Who can say now, except as an assertion of faith, that technology will always find alternatives? This is exactly the same hubris that leads foolish engineers to assert that accidents can NEVER happen.
It is possible to conceive a world with a much reduced standard of living, supporting today's large population, farming organically, and living like third-world peasants. However, the world population is projected to grow to over 10 - 12 billion in the next half-century. At what point does this become an insoluble problem? Where exactly do we find the political mechanisms and public will (short of widespread war and famine) to do anything about this hard fact of demographics?
Perhaps the engineers in Japan will regain control of this horrible situation, perhaps not. Nevertheless, we are ridng the back of a tiger. I include myself in this selfishness -- what choice do we have? I imagine the history of this age of decline, if there is anybody left who cares to write, will begin with: "It all started with the earthquake in Japan......" In my reflective moments the best I can come up with is: "I am glad to be 64 years old. It's been a hell of a party. I sure wish we had listened to Malthus and Erlich when we could still have done something about it."
One must remain hopeful (morally one must), and wish humanity would wake up and take the needed steps to dramatically reduce population, environmental degradation, and resource depletion, however I don't see any real movement to those ends. I do not say that the world is going to end, just that it's not likely to be a very pleasant place for our children to live in.