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Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green
June 13, 2008 7:09 AM   Subscribe

Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green. Last month, Wired published what it called "10 green heresies" which makes the case for urban living, intensive forest management and, er, air conditioning, among other things.
posted by nthdegx (120 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

*does both*
posted by chugg at 7:13 AM on June 13, 2008


Air-Conditioning Actually Emits Less C02 Than Heating

FALSE DICHOTOBOT HAS DETECTED SOMETHING
posted by DU at 7:17 AM on June 13, 2008 [60 favorites]


That Wired list is really poor. Basically they made a news story out of being contrary (how unusual these days). There is a lot more to the story than they present, much more nuanced. In fact there is even a short rebuttal to the story in the same issue! Wonder why it was not included in the FPP.
posted by stbalbach at 7:18 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Hey. Air conditioning cools the planet! Makes sense to me.
*smacks head*
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:19 AM on June 13, 2008


They spent way to much time focusing on CO2 in their article (which IIRC, was a point the "Hey wait a second..." article at the end made).
posted by drezdn at 7:22 AM on June 13, 2008


Winning the war on global warming requires slaughtering some of environmentalism's sacred cows.

And it also requires slaughtering those not so sacred cows which make up our quarter-pounders and filet mignons for good. Seriously.
posted by trueluk at 7:22 AM on June 13, 2008


Many of these are entirely too late. Embrace nuclear power? Getting construction started fifteen years ago would have been nice. Even if everyone woke up today and said, "I love nuke!" we'd have five years of fund-wrangling before we even broke ground. As electrical power gets more and more expensive, there will be a huge (and perhaps even righteous) backlash at the green types for picking the wrong things to oppose. Between that and "oh noes, Frankencrops!" we've ignored some appreciable scientific benefits.

The only bit about genetically engineering crops, aside from the dangers of monoculture, to which I can honestly urge caution is not the act itself, but the whole "a little bit of pollen from a nearby field has drifted into your land - Monsanto now owns your crop" deal.
posted by adipocere at 7:24 AM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


I don't think I can give up air conditioning and filet mignon to save the planet. The planet is just not worth that much to me.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 7:25 AM on June 13, 2008 [14 favorites]


"Wonder why it was not included in the FPP"

Or your comment. Come on! Team MeFi and all that. The only rebuttal I saw was only addressing the nuclear power element, which, though contentious, didn't addressed the clearly ridiculous point they're making about air conditioning. Other points I agree with, though, so I'd be interested to see a rebuttal addressing all 10 points.
posted by nthdegx at 7:25 AM on June 13, 2008


Pretend what I just said made sense. You get the thrust, any way.
posted by nthdegx at 7:26 AM on June 13, 2008


The fact is, urban living is kinder to the planet, and Manhattan is perhaps the greenest place in the US.

Well, yeah, but Manhattan works because it is part of the New York City metropolitan area, which is a staggeringly sprawly metro area (with an average density, including Manhattan, much less than Los Angeles). So Manhattan is green, but the entire metro area is perhaps not such a green model. And to be fair, you would also think through the ecological impact that all of those companies which have headquarters in Manhattan are having around the world.

So on the one hand, yes, urban living is greener than some of the alternatives... but not in a simple or straightforward way, and what happens in city centers is deeply connected to what is going on in furthest suburbia and in the factories and on the farms.

This is the kind of simpleminded reporting that keeps turning me off of Wired -- they'll have some big piece that is really good, I'll think "oh, I should subscribe," and then I pick up an issue and read this kind of stuff and realize that no, subscribing will only raise my blood-pressure. They have a real knack for getting things wrong at the same time as they get them right, and clearly I am not the target audience for their writing.
posted by Forktine at 7:27 AM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


I don't think I can give up air conditioning and filet mignon to save the planet. The planet is just not worth that much to me.

Yeah, I didn't think so either. Luckily, scientists in Australia have a solution:

"Thanks to special bacteria in their stomachs, kangaroo flatulence contains no methane and scientists want to transfer that bacteria to cattle and sheep who emit large quantities of the harmful gas."
posted by trueluk at 7:33 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


We've had genetically engineered crops for much human history. It was called grafting back then, among other practices. We've got many human-created varieties of fruits, veggies, flowering plants, you name it. Done for reasons of better hardiness, sturdiness, hybrid generation, size alteration (dwarfs), whatever. If you live in the US and have eaten a tomato or banana from the supermarket in recent history, you've eaten a genetically engineered product. They were developed for hardiness at the expense of flavor. Last I saw, no one was protesting in front of Safeway's corporate HQ.

Monkeying around with crops is like any other scientific pursuit. Responsible development, careful testing, and keeping the IP crackpots away, among other important criteria, will lead to tangible benefits for society. I'm sure lots of poor farmers with marginal climates/soils would love to grow crops that can live in lousy conditions.

Crying "frankenfoods!" is cheap theatrics and ignores the potential benefits of science applied by the book. Have the argument - don't hide behind a protest slogan.
posted by pandanom at 7:37 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


However, I have to agree - sloppy article. Typical Wired.
posted by pandanom at 7:38 AM on June 13, 2008


HERESIES

Live in Cities:
Urban Living Is Kinder to the Planet Than the Suburban Lifestyle


Because everyone knows 10 people living in 10 buildings and driving 10 cars is like way more efficient than 10 people living in one building and taking public transportation.
posted by three blind mice at 7:38 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: Pretend what I just said made sense.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


Many of these are entirely too late. Embrace nuclear power? Getting construction started fifteen years ago would have been nice. Even if everyone woke up today and said, "I love nuke!" we'd have five years of fund-wrangling before we even broke ground. As electrical power gets more and more expensive, there will be a huge (and perhaps even righteous) backlash at the green types for picking the wrong things to oppose. Between that and "oh noes, Frankencrops!" we've ignored some appreciable scientific benefits.

Indeed.

When the remains of humanity are at our beachfront property in the deserts of Navada I'll at least be able to point at those dicks at Greenpeace and yell "SEE! CONSERVATION BY SOCIETY DIDN'T WORK! WE NEEDED NUCLEAR POWER AND I FUCKING CALLED IT!"
posted by Talez at 7:43 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


with an average density, including Manhattan, much less than Los Angeles

Is that comparison between the NY Metro Area and the LA Metro Area or the NY Metro and just LA?
posted by Pollomacho at 7:49 AM on June 13, 2008


Wow, people really seem put off my the heating and air conditioning part. It was not a great piece, but there is nothing wrong with the logic in the air conditioning part. Having a large population in a climate which requires cooling is better than having one in a climate that requires heating. People think of cooling as more inefficient than heating, but it is not the case. Southern California is a better place for a city than New York state. If you are going to mention the near-impossibility of moving tens of millions of people from the suburbs into urban centers, you might as well put them in warm climates too, because the savings will be greater.
posted by Nothing at 8:01 AM on June 13, 2008


Southern California is a better place for a city than New York state.
Except for that whole water thing....
posted by Floydd at 8:12 AM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


This reads like that article about how bicycling is bad for the environment because bicyclists are healthier and therefore live longer.

Talk about ignoring the big picture. I can write things like this too:

"Scientists have found that eating filet mignon every day is actually better for the environment than a rice and beans diet eaten by 90% of the world's population. Researchers hired by Americans for the Liberty of of Diet Choices have found that people who eat rice and beans actually emit more methane than people who subsist on just filet mignon and lobster. In response these revolutionary findings, the US has decided to reward farmers who tear up their acreage used for legume production and subsidize the purchase of Monsanto's newly patented Sterile Legless EZ Veal Lo-Methane Bovorganism #XZ2008"
posted by Telf at 8:15 AM on June 13, 2008 [6 favorites]


I don't think anyone's posted it yet, so here's Wired's counterpoint.

And yes, sloppy reporting and all that.
posted by Oxydude at 8:16 AM on June 13, 2008


Southern California is a better place for a city than New York state.
Except for that whole water thing....


Then you've got the earthquakes and the wild fires and you have to add in that it's populated by Southern Californians too, so it's not looking so hot after all!
posted by Pollomacho at 8:16 AM on June 13, 2008


Winning the war on global warming requires slaughtering some of environmentalism's sacred cows.

Heresy? War? Sacred cows? So it's a matter of a religious war over canon, then? Odd, I thought there was science in here somewhere. My bad. Where's my sword? Onward the Green Crusades!
posted by Tehanu at 8:17 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


There are some good words raised in the counter-point article:

"Climate change is not a discrete issue; it's a symptom of larger problems. Fundamentally, our society as currently designed has no future. We're chewing up the planet so fast, in so many different ways, that we could solve the climate problem tomorrow and still find that environmental collapse is imminent. Myopic responses will only hasten its arrival.

Take the proposal that we cut down old trees in favor of new ones. First, I don't buy the carbon accounting presented to advance this procrustean plan: Older trees can absorb CO2 for centuries after reaching maturity, while replanted forests can emit more CO2 than they sequester until the new trees are as much as 20 years old.

But even if wired's math were correct, this would still be a crap fix for climate change. Chopping down forests causes massive soil erosion and leads to desertification, making repeated tree plantings a dodgy prospect. As monocultures, tree farms are far more vulnerable to pest infestations. And batches of trees planted at the same time are more susceptible to wildfires, causing the carbon they're supposed to be sequestering to go up in smoke."

I suggest reading the rest of it, too
posted by tybeet at 8:20 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


This isn't the original bicycle article I was thinking about, but it seems like this post addresses updates to the debate.

Also, my above post should read:
"In response TO these revolutionary findings..."
posted by Telf at 8:21 AM on June 13, 2008


In the comments section some people pointed out Overpopulation. That seems like the real base of the problem. Less people=less consumption. Having less people won't stop what's already been started but limiting the baby count seems like it could only help in the future. I don't like the idea of it in theory, but drastic measures are required.
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


tybeet: And newer trees have lacked some of the useful qualities of older trees.

The suggestions basically take a very large magnifying glass to a small portion of the problem in order to find a contrary solution to it. Actual long lasting solutions are going to require incredible insight and creativity, plus an incredible amount of sacrifice (at the very least in terms of quality of life).

More and more it seems that if we don't find the solutions to the environmental issues confronting us, nature will find the solution for us, whether it's famine, wars over resources, or other epic events.
posted by drezdn at 8:27 AM on June 13, 2008


These articles are sexy headlines making arguments from extremely limited angles. The only answer to the question is "reduces greenhouse gases," all other variables were apparently considered chatfilter.

Even when they make a decent point, they ruin it with hyperbole. An average hypothetical winter temperature is not 0 degrees. Even when it IS 0 degrees outside, you don't have to heat your house from 0 degrees. But I guess it was more fun to compare 0 -- 70 and 110 --> 70 than the more modest and realistic 30 --> 70 and 95 --> 70.

The conventional agriculture piece completely ignores the environmental impact of pesticide runoff. And despite the "contrarian" headline, ends with support of locally-grown produce.

The China article doesn't mention if all of that alternative-energy hardware being manufactured in China is actually being utilized in China. The rest of the short article is speculative. The Frankencrops article has not a word devoted to WHY such crops are derided.
posted by desuetude at 8:29 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Let's not deride the entire piece just because they've overlooked some consequences. This sort of thing is important. Now that being "green" is becoming more fashionable and even an advertising point, the next step is to make sure that this tendency is pushed at actually being helpful, and not just at those things that seem green. The article may be contrarian, but the contrarian urge is vital to counteract the powerful forces of inertia.

By all means, please point out the individual places where the article is potentially factually wrong (in the rebuttal, the tree-farming article is called to question for some factual errors, as well as overlooked factors), places where they've overlooked certain factors, and situations where a long-term solution for global warming is likely to cause trouble for an even longer-term environmental problem. But please, let's not find a few unnuanced analyses and decide that the whole thing is less than worthless. I noticed that this article draws attention to several ridiculously bad claims by other people, recognizes them as seriously flawed, and then proceeds to look for possible grains of truth. It would be nice if those of us who found this article seriously flawed could do the same thing.
posted by ErWenn at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


The betcha-didn't-think-about-the-carbon-footprint! gotchas that keep cropping up are starting to remind me of the diet industry. Zone in on a particularly trendy facet of the problem (antioxidants! trans fats! insulin!) and optimize for it while smugly pointing out how enlightened you are to go against "conventional" wisdom. But I can't really believe that a single-minded focus is actually the best way to approach things. The article says "Restoring the Everglades, protecting the Headwaters redwoods, or saving the Illinois mud turtle won't matter if climate change plunges the planet into chaos." But you could similarly say "Stabilizing the climate won't matter if our supply of drinkable water and arable land diminishes beyond life's ability to adapt" or "Stabilizing the climate won't matter if biodiversity diminishes to the point where a single virus can wipe out most life on Earth". Don't all of these things matter?
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:32 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


From the "Buy a used car" link:

Buy a decade-old Toyota Tercel, which gets a respectable 35 mpg, and the Prius will have to drive 100,000 miles to catch up.

Better yet, buy a three-cylinder, 49-horsepower 1994 Geo Metro XFi, one of the most fuel-efficient cars ever built. It gets the same average mileage as a 2008 Prius


This section is mislabeled. Basically they're saying if you buy an extremely fuel efficient used car, that's better then buying an extremely fuel efficient new car. That should be obvious, but why not include Used priuses? That's kind of a dumb point. Who the hell wants to drive around in a 1994 Geo Metro?

On the other hand, I actually do drive a decade old Tercel, and it's pretty nice. It's an automatic though so the gas millage isn't quite that great.
posted by delmoi at 8:33 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


These articles are sexy headlines making arguments from extremely limited angles.

That's actually a rather kind reading of it. This article is very poorly researched and even more poorly written, and the way it couches sustainability in religious terms is troubling. It is much more spin than substance.
posted by Tehanu at 8:34 AM on June 13, 2008


Err, or what the counterpoint article said.
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:34 AM on June 13, 2008


Less people=less consumption.

Actually that should be: less westerners*=less consumption. I think a lot of people have an image in their head of third world families with eight children hogging all the resources, when it's people like Americans whose children really impact the world.

*I don't mean less people like Gary Cooper. Less people who expect to drive cars and eat meat 3 times a day and have 14 pairs of shoes and buy bottles of water daily and new cell phones every year.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:38 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


The China article doesn't mention if all of that alternative-energy hardware being manufactured in China is actually being utilized in China.

Actually, I've stated this before in various threads. It is. Travelling across China you see solar collectors on virtually every roof from downtown Beijing to a remote village in the mountains. Almost very electric light in urban China is florecent or has a compact florecent installed (in the sticks the bulbs may be incandecent, but there are few of them anyway). They compost and use nightsoil for fertilizer. They recycle EVERYTHING and people pick through your trash for compostables, reusables, burnables and recyclables. The cars that are growing in number daily are mostly compacts.

On the other hand they still heat with coal and there is very little to no pollution controls.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:41 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think getting people to think more critically and more broadly about these issues can be very important. For example, this can help people see through greenwashing to make more informed decisions, or focus less on narrow concepts like "organic" and see a web of choices that can all work together.

However, articles like this, or hummer is better than prius "analysis," etc., while they may purport to serve this function, are total bull. At best, they're stupid sensationalist crap to sell magazines, at worst they offer misleading justifications for destructive actions. Everyone involved should be embarrassed for propagating this garbage: Wired, the writers of the article, etc.
posted by snofoam at 8:44 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Who the hell wants to drive around in a 1994 Geo Metro?

According to Marketplace, used Metros are now selling for around what they sold for new, so someone wants them. I imagine there aren't that many used priuses available.
posted by drezdn at 8:45 AM on June 13, 2008


Is that comparison between the NY Metro Area and the LA Metro Area or the NY Metro and just LA?

It's metro area to metro area. LA feels like it goes on forever, but with endless swaths of 1/4 acre lots. NY has a dense core, but its suburbs stretch out as well... with 5 acre and larger lots.

Here is an article in the Economist, using a Brookings report to claim LA as the greenest city in the US:

Another reason is that Los Angeles sprawls less than it appears. It may be a low-rise city, but a surprising number of people pack into its “dingbat” houses and bungalows. As Robert Bruegmann, a Chicago urbanist and connoisseur of sprawl, points out, this is especially true of the city's many immigrants. Almost one in four Latino households in the metropolis has more than one person to a room.

The second chart down on this page shows how NYC's core is fantastically dense, but then the rest of the metro area's land mass is covered by very low density development, while LA's density is much flatter.

Chapter seven in Robert Lang's Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis (google books link), using 1997 data, ranks NY as slightly denser than metro LA by population/area, although the New York metro area was sprawling and LA was becoming denser; when Lang includes his other sprawl factors, he claims that LA is actually denser.

And here is a Washington Post article from a few years back claiming that LA has a higher average density than other cities in the US.

There are also a bunch of websites that challenge this -- there are other ways to calculate density, and there are a lot of dubious assertions floating around. The central point here is that Manhattan is as unrepresentative of metropolitan New York as it is of Wichita -- Manhattan may be green, but it is embedded within a very un-greed metro area. (And if you think of New York as being just part of a massive urbanized area that stretches north past Boston, over into Pennsylvania, and down towards DC, that "green" claim becomes even harder to support. There is a lot of greenery and agriculture in that stretch of land, but it is becoming increasingly urban and connected.)
posted by Forktine at 8:53 AM on June 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


Well done, false dichotobot!

Also, some of these are really obvious if you think about them. The two that really leap out at me are:

1. "Living in cities is greener than living in suburbs" - There is pretty much nothing that is less green than a typical American suburb. Duh. You can walk and bike to stuff in the city, etc; somebody got paid to label this as "environmental apostasy?" This is a very mainstream view (in the "green" community, whatever the hell that is).

2. "Buying a used car > buying a new Prius." - This one is slightly more deserving of being labeled "apostasy", because the Prius is the darling of the pop-green world. Even a little bit of thought, however, will lead you to consider the enormous investment of energy and materials that the new Prius represents. The "activation energy", if you will, of the old clunker has already been paid for in terms of energy and material; you just have to pay for ongoing use. It is true that my '86 Buick emits more greenhouse gases than a Prius, but one must consider the enormous emission of GHG associated with the mining, refining, smelting, transportation, assembly, shipping, etc. associated with the new car. While I have not seen the data, it seems like you would have to own and operate a brand new Prius for a long, long, long time to have a net positive effect on GHG and the environment in general vs buying a used POS.
posted by Mister_A at 8:54 AM on June 13, 2008


The refusal by environmental organizations to embrace nuclear power seriously makes me want to cry. Their donor base are held back by stupid animal fear thanks to media hype about accidents that happened 20 years ago, and neither Greenpeace nor the Sierra Club nor any other big-green will step up to educate their members about all of the safer and cheaper technologies for fission that are either available now or right around the corner.

All of which produce less emissions and waste than fossil fuels, and power on a scale that can actually replace current fossil fuel generation (as opposed to renewable energy, which is fine and should be researched but won't replace fossil fuels unless we see a catastrophic collapse in our civilization's energy use).

At this point, if you're green and anti-nuclear, then you simply aren't serious.
posted by xthlc at 8:56 AM on June 13, 2008 [8 favorites]


Who the hell wants to drive around in a 1994 Geo Metro?

Here is a CNN report suggesting that people are willing to pay $7,300 for a used Geo Metro.

The rush may have begun.

The 1996 2-door 3-cylinder Metro Solomon now owns opened on eBay May 7 with a bid of $200. A week later, Solomon won the car auction with a bid of $7,300. In 1995, a new Metro hatchback sold for about $9,000, according to Auto Mall USA.


From a 1995 article about the demise of the Geo Metro:

General Motors dropped its highest-mileage model, the Geo Metro XFi, a 3-cylinder, 1-liter model, after the 1994 model year. Despite a redesign, sales of other Metros were off a bit in the '95 model year, to 100,092 from 108,000 for '94, but a company spokesman said it could be because potential buyers at the lowest rungs of the new-car market went for used cars instead, or for other reasons. "We could talk all day about how to account for a sales increase or decrease," said Daniel R. Hubbert, the spokesman. "It's kind of like polling the O.J. jury."

But he did identify one reason: consumers of the smallest cars are doing what buyers of bigger vehicles do. "People who previously bought a small car, or wanted a car with great gas mileage, are now going for small trucks," Mr. Hubbert said. They like being able to haul big things, he said, and they like sitting higher above the road.

...

Mileage seems to be a lagging interest everywhere. At Ford, sales of the Aspire, the sixth-highest-mileage car in the 1996 rankings, are strong. But Ford's customer surveys show that economy now ranks 16th out of 19 reasons for choosing a particular car.


That last bit sounds kind of funny now, but sure seemed different in the 1990s.
posted by Forktine at 9:03 AM on June 13, 2008


Pollomacho, my point is that whether or not China is using the hardware is conspicuously absent from the article. I can't imagine why they would not bother to state (and back up) use of the hardware in China, given the American perception of China as a place where stuff is manufactured for export.
posted by desuetude at 9:04 AM on June 13, 2008


Their donor base are held back by stupid animal fear thanks to media hype about accidents that happened 20 years ago

Oh come on, the problem with inherently risky technology is that sooner or later something is going to fail, somewhere, somehow, even "fail-safe" shit.

And TMI was 30 years ago. There was nothing to "hype" about Chernobyl -- it forced the depopulation of a significant chunk of the Ukrainian countryside.

If this country spent had half the mindpower and resources in safe energy as we do in blowing shit up and stealing other peoples' natural resources, we'd have cheap energy technologies and infrastructure. [Belushi]But nooooooo.[/Belushi]
posted by tachikaze at 9:18 AM on June 13, 2008


We've had genetically engineered crops for much human history. It was called grafting back then, among other practices.

Selective breeding is not genetic engineering. Genetic engineering, by definition, means you are adding a gene to an organism that wasn't there before. Selective breeding just means you select among the traits that are there. And yes, over many generations selection breeding can bring about powerful changes in the selected population, even going so far as to lead to new varieties and species. But it is not equivalent to genetic engineering, which can insert a fish gene into a corn plant in a single generation.

And here is a Washington Post article from a few years back claiming that LA has a higher average density than other cities in the US.

There are also a bunch of websites that challenge this -- there are other ways to calculate density, and there are a lot of dubious assertions floating around.


Which is interesting, considering how moot the point really is. Of real concern how sustainably people are living in those cities given each city's opportunities and limitations. None of our cities in the U.S. are very sustainable, even though some have taken more leadership in terms of becoming more sustainable.
posted by Tehanu at 9:26 AM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]


And just one last link about the density/green issue: here is the New York Times' summary of the Brookings report on carbon footprints.
posted by Forktine at 9:30 AM on June 13, 2008


Tachikaze: Sure, if only there was some motive to create guilt free energy and liberate our countries from the yoke of a fossil fuel based economy. If only such a solution would make its developer's filthy rich. If only. Oh well back to the coal gas works.

I hate that argument. Billions are being spent to develop wind, solar, tidal etc energy sources, but its not going to happen get it? There is no easy way for you to live your lifestyle without harming the environment. Stop peddling fantasies.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:32 AM on June 13, 2008


The only (relatively) short-term alternative we have to fossil fuels is nuclear power, combined with electric cars. We also need a large-scale efficient mass transit system in every big city, and connecting all the cities, but that kind of infrastructure update is going to take decades. We could be (and should be) building a whole lot of big ol' nuclear plants right now. Like, 10 new plants in each state, something like that. Expensive? Sure. But less expensive (and better for jobs in this country) than spending that much and more importing oil from hostile countries (or friendly ones for that matter).

Maybe gas will have to reach $10/gallon here in the U.S. before people hear the wake-up call and get building. I dunno. Eventually though, the price of gas will make this an absolute imperative. It'd be better to get started right now, while gas is still relatively cheap, than to wait until it's vastly more expensive, but I suspect we'll end up waiting until gas prices reach stratospheric levels. And hey, if $10/gallon gas isn't enough incentive, maybe $20/gallon gas will be. Eventually we will reach that point.
posted by jamstigator at 9:40 AM on June 13, 2008


The problem with nuclear power is not that it is overall less dangerous than continued use of fossil fuels per kilowatt-hour, but that it unfortunately falls foul of a serious cognitive bias in humanity.

People are acutely attuned to problems that have a strong punctuation.

Take for example the fact that the general populace seems to have no trouble giving up liberty after liberty and freedom after freedom due to the fact that a score of yahoos flew some planes into buildings and into the ground killing around 3000 people, now nearly 7 years ago. But when there are over 40,000 deaths per year on the road, hundreds of thousands of deaths per year due to curable (or maintainable) diseases that were not properly managed (diabetes, heart/lung ailments, etc), we hardly have the same visceral reaction.

Because we can't make ourselves feel a trend nearly as viscerally as we intuitively feel a disaster.

Therefore, while who knows how many millions or tens of millions people will die -- a few at a time, here and there, slowly due to primary diseases or secondary effects -- from the continued use of fossil fuels, the possibility that one nuclear plant can go critical and melt down in a catastrophic fashion to the detriment of a few hundred thousand perhaps once or twice every quarter century seems to be much more of a threat. The reason is that we are simply attuned to the threat of percussive catastrophes rather than the slow insidious and statistically spotty trend.

I don't know how we will get people to overcome that kind of knee-jerk fear, but I know that I personally hold the environmental movements in the last 30 years EQUALLY responsible for GHG and climate change as I do the fossil fuel industries who benefited from their nuclear fear-mongering.

Greenpeace and Shell, the Sierra Club and OPEC -- the partners who created global climate change, when right now instead of confronting inconvenient truths about carbon emissions and having no infrastructure in place to work against it, perhaps we could be talking about how to use the vast nuclear power infrastructure to electrify 80, 90, or 100% of our transport.
posted by chimaera at 9:46 AM on June 13, 2008 [9 favorites]


Popular Ethics, the "solution" to the energy crisis is not an "it", it's a "them". Multiple sources large (fossil fuel plants, nuke plants), medium (regional windfarms, hydropower apparatuses), and small (residential solar) feeding into the same grid, baby. It's the energy internet, and it's coming.
posted by Mister_A at 9:49 AM on June 13, 2008


jamstigator Has it. If we'd spent the money Bush blew on Iraq building up public transit, alternate energy, atomic plants, fusion research, etc we'd be well on the way to a sustainable energy economy. But no, Bush wanted his war, but, more important, the money wouldn't have been spent on the right stuff anyway. The war spending is going to cripple our economy when the bill comes due, and Congress wouldn't have authorized that sort of spending for anything but a war...

Sucks, don't it?
posted by sotonohito at 9:58 AM on June 13, 2008


the possibility that one nuclear plant can go critical and melt down in a catastrophic fashion to the detriment of a few hundred thousand perhaps once or twice every quarter century seems to be much more of a threat.

If we do turn to nuke plants as our energy solutions, and they melt down in a "catastrophic fashion" every "once or twice every quarter century," then you are talking about 4-10 Chernobyls a century! I would sincerely hope that this would not be the actual rate of failure (although the previous track record on nuke plants hasn't been so rosy).

To say that this somehow increases a perceived risk because it's a big sexy accident is pretty silly - it IS A BIG HONKING RISK! The environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster (and it was only 1) is still ongoing - do you truly want 100 of them?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:13 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


and you have to add in that it's populated by Southern Californians too, so it's not looking so hot after all!

And there's too many damn mexicans and minorities, amirite?

Bigotry is funny.
posted by Justinian at 10:18 AM on June 13, 2008


This is precisely the kind of thinking that put us into this corner, The Light Fantastic:

1) The Chernobyl design was awful. Using that as any kind of standard for prediction is a bit like saying we shouldn't drive Volvos, because Tin Lizzies aren't very good in an accident. Okay, maybe a Gremlin instead of a Model T. Even when I left it as a major quite some time ago, it was clear that nuclear engineering had come a long way from Three Mile Island.

2) As I have often touted, designs are being worked on, right now (though sadly not to any great degree in the US) of thorium reactors, which cannot sustain fission without a neutron beam being pointed at them every millsecond you want it on. This means that they would be incapable of melting down, as the beam equipment would melt and then everything shuts off. You could not make bombs out of them. Bonus round: you can use them to burn old nuclear waste. Yup.

We aren't going to have 100 Chernobyl disasters because we won't be making that reactor, at all, or anything like it. We simply must put logic and caution over fear, then commit the resources (human, political, and financial) to move forward. Otherwise, we're looking at the equivalent of skipping central heating in winter, because we had a house fire a few decades back using kerosene.
posted by adipocere at 10:24 AM on June 13, 2008 [12 favorites]


sotonohito - I'll happily give that dolt Bush a big fat F for Iraq and all the money and resources spent over there that could be helping us here. But we could have been well on our way to a sustainable energy economy years ago had the Democrats not thwarted every single attempt and had the Republicans grown a pair and forced the issue when they had the opportunities.

The Republicans have some petition going around trying to get a vote on drilling off our shores (like the Chinese and Cubans are doing just 60 miles off Florida), and not a single Democrat has signed this thing (along with about 15 other republicans). Think they are serious about helping the average joe? Their gas is paid for - by us.

Nothing is going to change so long we have this current crop of losers in office.
posted by j.p. Hung at 10:26 AM on June 13, 2008


jamstigator Has it. If we'd spent the money Bush blew on Iraq building up public transit, alternate energy, atomic plants, fusion research, etc we'd be well on the way to a sustainable energy economy. But no, Bush wanted his war, but, more important, the money wouldn't have been spent on the right stuff anyway. The war spending is going to cripple our economy when the bill comes due, and Congress wouldn't have authorized that sort of spending for anything but a war...


Just thinking about that makes the blood boil. I think things work out the way they're meant to even if we can't see it at the time, but this scenario is fucking infuriating and unjust beyond words.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2008


I read the Wired article in dead-tree form (actually I have it sitting here on my desk) and couldn't get over how wrong and shortsighted it is. Although some of the sections were better than others, there wasn't really even one that was without problems.

As others have noted, the rebuttal to the article was far better thought-out and nuanced.

The main problem with the Wired feature was that it made it sounds as though there were obvious, easy solutions just waiting for us, that for some reason the "green" movement refuses to use. That's not true and I think they know it. There aren't any easy solutions, aside from perhaps killing a whole lot of people.

We've built a society, and arguably an entire global civilization, that's not anything near sustainable in its current form. Solving the symptoms without taking a hard look at the disease -- namely, is it really feasible to support 6+ billion people on this planet in the style to which we'd apparently all like to become accustomed -- seems destined only to put us into increasingly tenuous positions as we stretch the ecosystem to the breaking point.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:33 AM on June 13, 2008


The environmental impact of the Chernobyl disaster (and it was only 1) is still ongoing - do you truly want 100 of them?

The thing is, most environmentalists have decided that nuclear power is SCARY WRONG BAD, full-stop. Unlike when other murderous environmental disasters have occured (e.g. Bhopal), it's been decreed by Big Green that even funding research to make sure that these accidents never happen again is akin to advocating flipper Bambi and PCBs in your baby's bottle. A meltdown and explosion like Chernobyl is physically impossible in a pebble-bed reactor, yet protestors have stopped that research track dead in Germany and South Africa by invoking visions of a holocaust.

Wind, solar, geothermal and wave power are awesome and should be funded. But we will not see them take over a majority of the grid until the 22nd century at least. Meanwhile nuclear is there, it's safe, its waste products are containable, and there's plenty of fuel available in friendly Western nations like Canada and Australia.
posted by xthlc at 10:35 AM on June 13, 2008


Bigotry is funny.

Well, bigotry against Southern Californians is at least.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:38 AM on June 13, 2008


If we'd spent the money Bush blew on Iraq building up public transit, alternate energy, atomic plants, fusion research, etc we'd be well on the way to a sustainable energy economy.

I sort-of agree. The only thing I don't trust about that argument is whether the government would ever be able to articulate the kind of clear, simple set of milestones needed, manage the funding effectively, and maintain public support over the long term in the absence of a tangible threat. Climate change is still amorphous and difficult to quantify as a danger in the public mind. Without the US-Soviet rivalry, we would never have put a human being on the Moon.
posted by xthlc at 10:39 AM on June 13, 2008


George Will doesn't believe in global warming, so I guess we can all relax now and forget about it.
posted by DarkForest at 10:40 AM on June 13, 2008


Climate change is still amorphous and difficult to quantify as a danger in the public mind

I know i shouldn't overestimate the stupidity of the public, but even TV says climate change is a problem-and if it's on TV it must be true.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:48 AM on June 13, 2008


underestimate that is.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:48 AM on June 13, 2008


Well, yeah, but Manhattan works because it is part of the New York City metropolitan area, which is a staggeringly sprawly metro area (with an average density, including Manhattan, much less than Los Angeles).

I was wondering what you were talking about so I did a little research on my own. It looks like the study that came up with this line was kinda bogus. The "Metro area" thing isn't really all that well defined. The NY metro area includes a lot of simply empty space. Fields, forests, that kind of thing.

here is an article in the NY sun bashing the L.A. study and here is a very detailed comparison. Essentially the "New York metro area" has a lot of nearly completely empty space.

If you compare the actual city limits (see the 9th page of the PDF) NYC has 4 times the density of LA.

And look, when people talk about density they are talking about having lots of people living in high density areas, and only a few people living in low density areas. They're not worried about the average density.
posted by delmoi at 10:55 AM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow, I guess I shouldn't have picked on poor New York in my example. Let me try to phrase this in a way that will not get bogged down in snide asides: One of many factors to consider when trying to live in a way that reduces your negative impact on the planet is whether the place where you choose to live will require climate controlled dwellings for some parts of the year, and if so, it should be kept in mind that cooling a building requires less energy than heating a building. This is not something which is necessarily obvious, and yet the difference, assuming the numbers from Wired are correct, is quite large. non-obvious+big difference=interesting point.
posted by Nothing at 11:12 AM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


j.p. Hung Um, first off the whole "ZOMG the Chinese are drilling off Cuba" line is BS, its not true. Second, drilling for more oil is not a solution, it isn't part of a solution, it's a distraction from the solution. More oil drilling is just going to put is further into the carbon hole while doing exactly squat for solving the root problem.

But thanks for playing the "anything wrong must be the fault of the evil Demoncrats" game.
posted by sotonohito at 11:18 AM on June 13, 2008


They're not worried about the average density.

We care about population density as a proxy for other things such as transportation costs, and for many of those it is indeed average density that matters. Measured one way, the population density where I live is 1,000,000 / km^2, if we count only the 1 m^2 that I am currently occupying. But that isn't a fair accounting, since for all the things that matter (how far I need to travel to get food) there aren't really 1,000,000 people within 1 km. Empty space still matters if you have to cross it.
posted by Pyry at 11:19 AM on June 13, 2008


If you compare the actual city limits (see the 9th page of the PDF) NYC has 4 times the density of LA.

This is why one does not compare by the city limits -- one uses the census metropolitan areas, which while highly imperfect, at least make a pretty decent effort to capture the urbanized area within which a lot of activity is internal -- commuting for work, making deliveries, seeing friends, going to the movies. The city limits matter a lot for jurisdictional reasons, but matter not at all in terms of commuting and so on (no one is checking passports between localities), so you need to look at these issues across metropolitan regions. If your city contains a lot of empty space (or a lot of 10 acre lots), you are going to have a low average density, no matter how dense the core is.

Partly the "OMG LA denser than NYC!" is put up front as a way to make people rethink what "density" means when considered across an entire metropolitan area. But it isn't an automatic critique of old cities like New York -- the dense core/sprawling suburbs is an old model, and combined with good public transport and other amenities can make for an eminently livable (and somewhat green) city.

And look, when people talk about density they are talking about having lots of people living in high density areas, and only a few people living in low density areas. They're not worried about the average density.

That's not true, as a description of how density works, or how the debate about density is taking place. There is an intense debate in LA right now over attempts to create more density in some neighborhoods, for example; Seattle, Vancouver, and other cities have had and continue to have those same debates. It's party hyper-local (with a big flavoring of NIMBY-ism), and partly all about averages. There are choices -- if you are going to have 1000 new people moving in every week, where do you house them? New developments on the edges? In-fill in existing neighborhoods? Dense clusters of high-rises? Something else entirely?

And average density matters, as Pyry says, because it matters for transportation costs, infrastructure costs, and so on, over and above the immediate question of where people sleep at night. Just like average travel speeds tell us something about traffic conditions, even if you have a super secret backroad route that gets you there twice as fast.
posted by Forktine at 11:38 AM on June 13, 2008


The US Govt. provides the insurance for nuclear power plants. Actuaries are pretty smart. If it's safe enough for regular use, insurance companies would insure it at a manageable cost.
posted by theora55 at 11:54 AM on June 13, 2008


We also need a large-scale efficient mass transit system in every big city, and connecting all the cities, but that kind of infrastructure update is going to take decades.

We've got the roads. Why not put more buses ( or LRT ) on them? It'd be a lot cheaper than a large-scale transit system, and could at least help until the rails and trains are built.
posted by Bearman at 12:14 PM on June 13, 2008


The only bit about genetically engineering crops... to which I can honestly urge caution is the whole "a little bit of pollen from a nearby field has drifted into your land - Monsanto now owns your crop" deal.

Well, that combined with the fact that you can't freaking KILL these crops, not even with 'kills-everything' chemicals like RoundUp.... which of course Monsanto also sells because it'll kill every weed or other plant nearby but leave the GM stuff pristine.

Which, loopily, makes it damn hard to get rid of once it does drift somewhere.
posted by rokusan at 12:25 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


> The US Govt. provides the insurance for nuclear power plants. Actuaries are pretty smart. If it's safe enough for regular use, insurance companies would insure it at a manageable cost.

And doubtless they would, but who wants to compete with someone who can manufacture money whenever they want to?

I'd much rather spend the money on researching new, more advanced, more efficient, and safer reactor designs, than on subsidizing power companies' insurance bills, but it's not an either/or.

Also, it's pretty rich to get into any kind of discussion about the negative externalities of nuclear plants that are foisted off on the public, without taking a really hard look on the massive costs that fossil fuels have. While I'd prefer that the government stay the hell out of the insurance industry just on general principles, there's a lot to be said for subsidizing nuclear power as an alternative to power plants that are allowed to freely dump toxic emissions into our air and water, by design.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:38 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


Is there a place in the United States that has (a) good public transit, or is dense enough to not require it, (b) ready access to fresh water, (c) a moderate climate that requires little air conditioning or heating, (d) close-proximity farms that supply the area with much of the food it consumes, (e) good jobs, and (f) good schools?

If there is, someone needs to clue me in, because I'd really like to move my family there. I may need to make this an AskMe.
posted by davejay at 12:55 PM on June 13, 2008


Dave, except for the climate, you are describing the DC suburbs.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:14 PM on June 13, 2008


Sounds like you're describing much of the Pacific Northwest, davejay, and any decent-sized city therein.
posted by chimaera at 1:19 PM on June 13, 2008


Or the Pacific Northwest, yes, chimaera is right. I keep telling myself I'm packing up to move there, but do I?
posted by Pollomacho at 1:40 PM on June 13, 2008


Sounds like you're describing much of the Pacific Northwest, davejay, and any decent-sized city therein.

Yeah, but subtract e) from that picture.

Anyway, I also think we need to be looking hard at nuclear research for power plants. The technology for nuclear has come leaps and bounds ahead of what we had even 20 years ago. It isn't a perfect solution, but it has its good points, and shouldn't be summarily dismissed.
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:40 PM on June 13, 2008


This is precisely the kind of thinking that put us into this corner, The Light Fantastic:

And it was the inverse thinking that got us Chernobyl and 3 Mile Island.

1) The Chernobyl design was awful. Using that as any kind of standard for prediction is a bit like saying we shouldn't drive Volvos, because Tin Lizzies aren't very good in an accident. Okay, maybe a Gremlin instead of a Model T. Even when I left it as a major quite some time ago, it was clear that nuclear engineering had come a long way from Three Mile Island.

Three Mile Island was in 1979, and Chernobyl was in 1986. Just these 2 famous disasters were less than 10 years apart. How many smaller failures and near failures where there within that time frame? While the Tin Lizzie was a dangerous car to drive from our more modern standpoint - it was the top of the line in technology when it was in use. So is the Volvo - and 50 years from now we will think of them as death traps. We are always going to be working with the technology that we have available - and we had 2 serious nuclear plant disasters less than 30 years ago in plants that were no more than 10 years old. I don't consider it alarmist to demand some real proof that any nuclear power plants that go online today are significantly safer.

2) As I have often touted, designs are being worked on, right now (though sadly not to any great degree in the US) of thorium reactors, which cannot sustain fission without a neutron beam being pointed at them every millsecond you want it on. This means that they would be incapable of melting down, as the beam equipment would melt and then everything shuts off. You could not make bombs out of them. Bonus round: you can use them to burn old nuclear waste. Yup.

Designs being worked on is a lot different than online and proven. It's a great idea, I hope it makes it off paper someday.

We simply must put logic and caution over fear, then commit the resources (human, political, and financial) to move forward. Otherwise, we're looking at the equivalent of skipping central heating in winter, because we had a house fire a few decades back using kerosene.

Now who's fear mongering? I don't find my logic to be lacking. Committing to nuclear power is not one of those "come on...let's try it" technologies, and I'd rather use kerosene than have my water table irreversibly contaminated with Nuclear waste.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:58 PM on June 13, 2008


As long as the nuclear waste is stored in an area that's uninhabited, I don't see a major problem with it. We have plenty of barren areas to bury nuclear waste. That might ultimately make the water tables *safer*, incidentally, because we'd be removing nuclear materials from the land where they *already are*, and putting it in reactors for fuel, then burying it safely in a remote area. In other words, are you safer if there's uranium being used as fuel in a plant, or are you safer with that uranium a few meters buried beneath the ground in your back yard, or on the grazing land that feeds the cows you eat?

This intense, almost visceral fear of nuclear power probably has its roots in the Cold War era, and was exacerbated by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, not to mention all the B-horror movies about giant ants and spiders. We need to collectively grow up and get over the irrational fear of nuclear power. Imagine if we just stopped building seafaring ships after a couple of them sank, or stopped going into space because there were a couple of accidents, or gave up on cars after a few fatalities. If we *don't* start building nuclear reactors, a whole lot more people are going to die than if we *do* start building the crap out of them. That's the bottom line right there.
posted by jamstigator at 2:35 PM on June 13, 2008 [2 favorites]


koyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanisqatsi
posted by OldReliable at 2:43 PM on June 13, 2008


but seriously, while americans have been wringing their hands and whining about scary atoms, the French just went ahead and built fifty-five of the damn things. So far it worked out ok, and I think the waste part will be less of a problem here in the US than there.
posted by OldReliable at 2:52 PM on June 13, 2008


Imagine if we just stopped building seafaring ships after a couple of them sank, or stopped going into space because there were a couple of accidents, or gave up on cars after a few fatalities.

We gave up on airships because of just one accident: the Hindenburg.
posted by chimaera at 3:16 PM on June 13, 2008


Your argument is flawed, the Light Fantastic. Here's the thing. Ultimately, at 3 mile Island, the fail safes worked. There were no deaths attributeed to what happened there. Chernobyl was in a completely different class of powerpolant, and was not well maintained.

France has a long history of using nuclear power, and also recycles their fuel rods (something we don't do in the states) which means their waste is much lower than ours. They don't utilize large monolithic plants like we do, but smaller, regionally based plants.

To discount an entire technology for two accidents that happened, one of which did not result in any deaths, is, in a word, Silly.
posted by prodigalsun at 3:17 PM on June 13, 2008


As long as the nuclear waste is stored in an area that's uninhabited, I don't see a major problem with it. We have plenty of barren areas to bury nuclear waste. That might ultimately make the water tables *safer*, incidentally, because we'd be removing nuclear materials from the land where they *already are*, and putting it in reactors for fuel, then burying it safely in a remote area. In other words, are you safer if there's uranium being used as fuel in a plant, or are you safer with that uranium a few meters buried beneath the ground in your back yard, or on the grazing land that feeds the cows you eat?

What!?

Nuclear waste remains radioactive for 100,000 years. As of yet, no one has settled on a final storage or disposal method for nuclear waste - because it's necessary to make sure that wherever you bury it can withstand 100 millenia of geologic change. You don't just find an area that's uninhabited and dig a hole for it!

As for your radioactive cows argument....let's just let that one go, ok?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:25 PM on June 13, 2008


Nuclear waste remains radioactive for 100,000 years.

This is a red herring. If you honestly believed that we need to safely store wastes for as long as they are toxic, you would believe we would need to shut down all of the coal plants in the world immediately as they produce heavy-metal wastes that will be toxic for, at minimum, billions of years.

Nuclear power doesn't need to be perfectly clean or safe. So long as they're cleaner and safer than coal plants, replacing a coal plant with a nuke plant is a win.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:40 PM on June 13, 2008


What is this? Post a Bullshit Anti-Environmental Post Disguised as an Environmental Post Day?

I have this feeling several major think tanks advised energy lobbyists to: " get involved in the grass roots Blogging movement. You know. Hire some some citizen bloggers to troll community blogs and hip web-culture magazines and get your message out before the election."
posted by tkchrist at 5:53 PM on June 13, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is a red herring. If you honestly believed that we need to safely store wastes for as long as they are toxic, you would believe we would need to shut down all of the coal plants in the world immediately as they produce heavy-metal wastes that will be toxic for, at minimum, billions of years.

This is playing fast and loose with the effects each substance's toxicity has. Yucca Mountain and the WIPP are not planning warning monuments that will last longer than all recorded human history just because it will be a funky art project.
posted by mobunited at 6:10 PM on June 13, 2008


Boy, it sure as a good thing there are no environmental consequences to the uranium extraction industry! And that there are no social ramifications to creating fragile, vulnerable, and centralized power plants with their attendant effects on the built environment and need for physical security!
posted by stet at 6:11 PM on June 13, 2008


There is the issue of feasability... I mean, if heating is more costly than air conditioning, does that mean all Canadians must move south?

I was generally under the impression that urban living was the 'better' way to run things, since little matters like returning my library books or buying tomatoes are best done on foot, or in mass transit/on bikes, and the very green 'live in a yurt with compost toilets!' lifestyle is the sort of luxurious self denial that goes with having the choice to not do it, or if you do it, actually make it comfy.
posted by Phalene at 6:12 PM on June 13, 2008


Coal plants release radiation into the air that you breath in the form of Thorium, Radium, and nearly every other radioactive isotope and element. if you were to count on one hand the number of people accidentally killed by reactors designed after 1965 you would have 5 fingers left. Incompetence and bureaucracy were needed to even make the incredibly dangerous RBMK design of Chernobyl explode.
Solution, don't put incompetent bureaucrats in charge of nuclear plants. Have engineers and safety officers like every plant outside of the Soviet Fricking Union.
posted by Megafly at 6:34 PM on June 13, 2008


Newsflash: Anti-nuclear is not pro-coal.
posted by mobunited at 7:00 PM on June 13, 2008


Anti-nuclear may not be pro-coal as such, but the effects aren't all that different.

Being Pro-Nader in 2000 also didn't mean that one was Pro-Bush as such, but you know how that turned out.
posted by chimaera at 7:44 PM on June 13, 2008 [5 favorites]



Here's a better article about what's wrong with environmentalism. Sorry it was more relevant higher up, but my time machine is solar-powered and it's getting dark here.
posted by sneebler at 8:35 PM on June 13, 2008


Newsflash: Anti-nuclear is not pro-coal.

You're automatically put in that group for argument's sake because the only other viable baseload power plants are based fossil fuels.

It's a choice between the lesser of two evils; Fossil fuels and nuclear. You're saying that there are other options but there really aren't so you're implicitly choosing ye olde status quo by discounting nuclear as the viable solution that it is.
posted by Talez at 9:53 PM on June 13, 2008


This Wired piece is a waste of time. avoid reading it if you can.
posted by eustatic at 11:00 PM on June 13, 2008


And average density matters, as Pyry says, because it matters for transportation costs, infrastructure costs, and so on, over and above the immediate question of where people sleep at night.

No, no, no. The problem with average density is that you're looking at space rather then people.

For example, if one block of space has one person in it, and another block of space has a million people, then the average density is half a million. But that's a totally useless figure.

On the other hand, if you try to look not at the density of the blocks, but how far the average person needs to travel each day, then the addition of that one extra person makes hardly any difference at all. You have a million people who never need to travel more then one block, and one person who needs to travel two blocks. So the average travel distance goes from 1 to 1.000002 with the addition of that one guy.

(By block I just mean an arbitrary fixed sized area, rather then a city block with 1 million people in it)

This is playing fast and loose with the effects each substance's toxicity has. Yucca Mountain and the WIPP are not planning warning monuments that will last longer than all recorded human history just because it will be a funky art project.

Those monuments are such a dumb idea. If anything, they'll just attract future archaeologists, I mean, look at the pyramids.

I say if future civilizations get into Yucca mountain it's their own damn problem.
posted by delmoi at 5:06 AM on June 14, 2008


You're automatically put in that group for argument's sake because the only other viable baseload power plants are based fossil fuels.

Well sure, if you're making a bad argument.

It's a choice between the lesser of two evils; Fossil fuels and nuclear. You're saying that there are other options but there really aren't so you're implicitly choosing ye olde status quo by discounting nuclear as the viable solution that it is.

When people say that combined renewable energy is impractical by looking at current technologies (and economies of scale), but they assume that there will be a magical improvement in nuclear technology that will make it accident-immune and otherwise sooper-dooper, that's obviously slanted rhetoric.
posted by mobunited at 5:35 AM on June 14, 2008


The problem with average density is that you're looking at space rather then people.

For example, if one block of space has one person in it, and another block of space has a million people, then the average density is half a million. But that's a totally useless figure.

On the other hand, if you try to look not at the density of the blocks, but how far the average person needs to travel each day, then the addition of that one extra person makes hardly any difference at all. You have a million people who never need to travel more then one block, and one person who needs to travel two blocks. So the average travel distance goes from 1 to 1.000002 with the addition of that one guy.


I think we are going to have to agree to disagree (though I do have a rather large set of planners, geographers, and city administrators on the side of agreeing that averages matter, for both space and people). Averages matter, but so does a much more fine-grained analysis of what is happening at a more detailed level -- you need both, because each can confuse and hide the other, and seeming contradictions can be resolved by looking at another level of information.

Average density, combined with some minimal information (because a towerblock in a big greenfield looks just as "dense" as a bunch of closely-set houses), tells you a lot about costs and needs for water and sewer needs, for example, and (combined with a bit more information about the economy and so on) tells you about transportation -- low density plus scattered employment means that train service won't work so well, whereas high density and everyone works downtown gives you a different set of options.

Adding one additional person to a big city never makes any immediate difference in averages (or in anything else)... but in a city that is growing (ie not most rustbelt cities), decisions about how to fit in the incoming people are critically important, and in aggregate and over time will change metro-wide averages in ways that may contradict what is happening in a given neighborhood. That is, my neighborhood may be undergoing infill development and becoming much more dense, but the city as a whole may be becoming less dense because of so much development happening on the edges, say (made up example, but you can find examples like that pretty easily).
posted by Forktine at 8:24 AM on June 14, 2008


Council on Foreign Relations releases new report on climate change and U.S. policy
posted by homunculus at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2008


Okay, nuclear power isn't the absolute optimal solution in the long term. But for the words "the long term" to have any meaning, we're going to have to rely heavily on nuclear power while other technologies catch up and eventually replace nuclear power. Or we can keep doing what we've been doing, gobbling oil like there's no end to it while at the same time making the planet less habitable by our species. The problem with that is, we might very well make it so uninhabitable by humans that we die in the *short* term. While that may be a gamble some would take, I'm not much of a gambler when so much is at stake, particularly when it involves millions or tens of millions of lives.

France is proof that nuclear power is entirely feasible. What they have already done for their country, we should be doing right now for the U.S., and other countries might want to get on the bandwagon before their entire GDPs are flowing into the Middle East in return for a few billion barrels of oil. Every year we delay puts an increasingly large percentage of our wealth in the hands of OPEC. While I've got nothing against rich Arabs, I don't like it much when their wealth is derived from breaking the backs of our middle class. Nuclear power gives us a short(ish)-term way out of that.

Pumping more oil from our own land is, at best, a delaying tactic, and likely not much of one at that. I mean, that's like saying that the best way to treat cocaine addiction is to make more cocaine available for the addicts. That's just idiotic reasoning there. The quick and painful way out of cocaine addiction is to stop giving the addicts any cocaine at all. That can cause some nasty effects though, nastier than slowly weaning them off it. The same principles apply to our oil addiction. Making more oil isn't going to do one damn thing for breaking our oil addiction. But slowly phasing in nuclear (and other alternative energy sources) while we phase out oil -- that will help us through our initial rough period of oil jonesing.
posted by jamstigator at 3:37 PM on June 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


This means that they would be incapable of melting down, as the beam equipment would melt and then everything shuts off.

That sounds like a design feature a Chernobyl engineer would have promised his boss.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:13 AM on June 15, 2008


To discount an entire technology for two accidents that happened, one of which did not result in any deaths, is, in a word, Silly.

The assertion that Three Mile Island meltdown resulted in no deaths is a fiction, one spun from whole cloth by the nuclear energy industry, by its lapdogs in the NRC, and by its supporters who continue to promote nuclear energy at all costs, conveniently ignoring or brushing aside the serious consequences to public health when nuclear technology fails.

"Several hundred people at the time of the accident reported nausea, vomiting, hair loss and skin rashes, and a number said their pets died or had symptoms of radiation exposure. We figured that if that were possible, we ought to look at [the data] again. After adjusting for pre-accident cancer incidence, we found a striking increase in cancers downwind from Three Mile Island... I would be the first to say that our study doesn't prove by itself that there were high-level radiation exposures, but it is part of a body of evidence that is consistent with high exposures."

- NIH: Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident Data Revisited

This analysis shows that cancer incidence, specifically lung cancer and leukemia, increased more following the TMI accident in areas estimated to have been in the pathway of radioactive plumes than in other areas.

- A reevaluation of cancer incidence near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant: the collision of evidence and assumptions. S. Wing, et al.

A press conference featuring the University of North Carolina’s Stephen Wing and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ David Lochbaum merited only a small story in the following day’s Harrisburg Patriot-News, and the article failed to acknowledge Wing, who discussed his published findings on cancer rates near the stricken plant. An article and editorial in the March 28 Philadelphia Inquirer completely omitted the topic of health effects.

So, 25 years after the accident, the question, “Did anyone die because of Three Mile Island?” remains largely unanswered...

Pennsylvania Health Commissioner Gordon MacLeod publicly stated that downwind from the plant the number of babies born with hypothyroidism jumped from nine in the nine months before the accident to 20 in the nine months after.

MacLeod reasoned that the thyroid gland was affected by the large amount of thyroid-seeking iodine 131 released from the plant. He also emphasized the increase in deaths of infants within a 10-mile radius, as did Ernest Sternglass, a University of Pittsburgh physicist. In the six months after the accident, 31 infants living within 10 miles of the plant died, more than double the 14 deaths during the same six-month period the previous year. (emph. added)

Vital Statistics of the United States, an annual volume issued by the National Center for Health Statistics, showed that the 1978–1979 rate increase in Pennsylvania exceeded the national increase in three crucial categories: infant deaths, births under 3.3 pounds, and percent of newborns with low Apgar scores. In Dauphin County, where the Three Mile Island plant is located, the 1979 death rate among infants under one year represented a 28 percent increase over that of 1978; and among infants under one month, the death rate increased by 54 percent. (emph. added)

But no articles were published. MacLeod was fired by Gov. Richard Thornburgh just six months after taking office; Sternglass was described by health officials as an alarmist...

In theory, the group most affected by Three Mile Island included local downwind residents born in the late 1970s, namely those who were infants or fetuses at the time of the accident.

The table on page 33 shows that in Dauphin and Lebanon counties, the closest area to the north/northeast, all-cause (excluding accidents, suicide, and homicide) death rates for this birth cohort were 26–54 percent higher than statewide rates through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The childhood cancer death rate in Dauphin and Lebanon counties has been elevated since the accident.

From 1979 to 2001, 120 residents of these counties had died of cancer by age 19, a rate 46 percent above that for the rest of Pennsylvania. (emph. added) The degree to which this reflects the latent effects of Three Mile Island should be explored, especially since no other risk factors in these two counties are obvious.


- Three Mile Island: Health Study Meltdown, Joseph Mangano

One tragedy is that industry is happy to work with "regulatory" elements in the government to ensure that the risk to the public will never be adequately and publicly discussed. The larger tragedy is when members of the public work hand in hand with the nuclear energy industry to remain ignorant of the risks.

Nuclear energy will never be safe, and any engineer who promises a foolproof design on behalf of the nuclear industry is knowingly a fraud. Any Internet layman who promises a foolproof reactor design on behalf of the nuclear industry is an unwitting fool, putting his or her fellow citizens in harm's way.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:00 AM on June 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


"The refusal by environmental organizations to embrace nuclear power seriously makes me want to cry. Their donor base are held back by stupid animal fear thanks to.. ..At this point, if you're green and anti-nuclear, then you simply aren't serious."
posted by xthlc at 3:56 AM on June 14


I can't speak for all "greenies" but although I have serious objections to nuclear-based infrastructure (what you are proposing) I'm not totally against nuclear power. The objection, which you interpret in your simplistic strawman, is more complex than you portray.

Personally, I take issue with your "OMG NUCLEAR POWER DUH" panacea. Why? It's the solution that demands no lifestyle change - it's conservation for people who don't give a shit about conservation - and human nature being what it is, the vast majority of people would see the "nuclear solution" as problem solved and not seriously consider the wide range of environmental problems faced all over the world.

What people like yourself won't come to terms with is that environmental solutions will demand drastic lifestyle change from western society - or that change will be forced on us by ecological necessity far more violently. We cannot and will not fix all our problems technologically, there is no Deus ex machina that will allow you to continue drinking diet coke out of disposable polystryene cups and eating beef twice a day for the rest of your life. It just will not work - we are running out of places to shift our ecological problems - the planet is finite.

That is, the reason we are in so much shit is because for generations people have just figured there will be a technological solution to what is a social/cultural problem - rampant unsustainable consumption as practically a core virtue of western society. Rather than decreasing consumption, you propose, (lets be realistic) increasing the energy consumption ceiling for our society drastically. It's the old bacteria in a glass problem again - you increase the energy available and population will grow. You are focusing on scale rather than efficiency and sustainability - the old, core western mindset, the one that has us where we are - consume, consume and attempt to "grow out" the effects of said consumption by adding to our system rather than establishing equilibrium within in. As western society has expanded across the globe this rationale has seen rapid growth but always leaving the cost just over the horizon for anyone willing to look behind us. Look at what was once the "fertile crescent" and wonder what will (and IS currently) happening to the breadbaskets of the world.

Rather than decreasing consumption, nuclear power will increase it, especially if, as you seem to propose, much of the globe converts to nuclear power. Society will grow to our increased energy availability. See also: Symptoms, treating than, rather than disease.
As well as that, currently the US has serious problems in disposing of nuclear waste, and, like those of generations past, you would dump the problem of disposing it on those that come after.

That said, I'm not totally against nuclear power. I'm just against short sighted institution of it, and energy policy that doesn't take into account human nature. Many of my conservation minded friends have the same view as myself on nuclear power, so don't delude yourself that we're all to busy picketing starbucks to see the brilliance of your solution.

Not all of us "crazy anti-nuclear greenies" are a stupid as you like to think.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 2:20 AM on June 15, 2008 [2 favorites]


It's a choice between the lesser of two evils; Fossil fuels and nuclear. You're saying that there are other options but there really aren't so you're implicitly choosing ye olde status quo by discounting nuclear as the viable solution that it is.

And THIS is the thinking that got us here.

Any time that you choose between the lesser of two evils, you still choose evil. There are a LOT of problems with nuclear power that have not been resolved, and likely won't be resolved before we're in a serious energy crisis. To argue that it's logical to implement it anyway as our main power source displays a mindset that I'm all too familiar with: power at any cost. I'm not on board.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:10 AM on June 15, 2008 [1 favorite]


A high level of civilization requires a large population, because the jobs become so specialized. And for every specialist job out there, you need 10 people doing support type jobs (farmers, waste disposal, etc). And to support a large enough population to support a high level of civilization, you need power, and lots of it.

The solution you propose, dwindling our numbers down to a level sustainable by an agrarian society and then all turning into farmers, is in fact probably the best long-term evolutionary survival path, as long as we don't have any large-scale dreams, like colonizing other planets and so on. An agrarian society doesn't need much power, nor large numbers, because the jobs are fairly simple.

A highly technological society with our current population (or more) that is also sustainable -- I don't think that's really possible with today's technology, so people will have to choose between the technology and the sustainability. That's what I see as the purpose of nuclear power: to buy us the time to either come up with some technology that enables sustainability, or to buy us the time to voluntarily reduce our global population. Failing that, Mother Nature will at some point adjust our population downwards, probably in very unpleasant ways.

It could be that we'll end up with a low-population agrarian society eventually, no matter what we do. But I see no reason to *start* there, because I think technology still has a few things to offer us that might be able to change that outcome. In other words, I'm not yet hopeless about the future.
posted by jamstigator at 1:54 PM on June 15, 2008


Me either, I know how hard it is to predict what will come, but I am strongly against anyone who sits back and has faith in eventual technological salvation. I'm not saying we have to go back to being hunter gatherers, or that we have to give up all our social and cultural development. There are just a lot of ingrained practices in western society that we will have to eliminate or face the consequences.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 9:55 PM on June 15, 2008


Update: "Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths", via Real Climate.
posted by stbalbach at 8:47 AM on June 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


Seeing as there's no favoriting option over at Real Climate, I'm going to settle for favoriting the previous comment.
posted by Tehanu at 8:59 AM on June 16, 2008


> That sounds like a design feature a Chernobyl engineer would have promised his boss.

Don't be ridiculous. The Chernobyl reactor wasn't really even designed for power production, much less safety. It was a bomb factory. That was its original design purpose -- to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons. I can guarantee you that its designers, whoever they might have been, were bragging to the boss about the amount of plutonium it would produce; not its safety features. (In fact, because everything was centered around the ability to refuel it while it was operating, a lot of safety features that were known at the time to be Really Good Ideas just weren't possible.)

To put it in a car-analogy perspective, using that design was like cribbing from Top Fuel drag racer plans while building a school bus, and then being surprised when the resulting vehicle has this weird tendency to fishtail.

The Chernobyl incident was and is interesting from a perspective of "what's the worst thing that can happen when you layer one bad decision onto another," but it's not really a legitimate criticism of nuclear energy in general. (And, if you start assuming incompetence, fossil fuels aren't exactly inherently safe either. At least with nuclear systems, you tend to get more attention paid to safety concerns than with petroleum.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:01 PM on June 16, 2008


At least with nuclear systems, you tend to get more attention paid to safety concerns than with petroleum.

I wish that was true.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:55 PM on June 16, 2008


Biodiversity in the Balance: Paleontologists and geologists are looking to the ancient past for clues about whether global warming will result in mass extinctions. What they're finding is not encouraging.
posted by homunculus at 2:36 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Biodiversity in the Balance: Paleontologists and geologists are looking to the ancient past for clues about whether global warming will result in mass extinctions. What they're finding is not encouraging.

That's a link that is worthy of an FPP. I also wonder if clathrate melts would help amplify and knock warming and cooling cycles out of stability.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:42 PM on June 17, 2008


I agree with Blazecock. That is a really good blog I hadn't know about, so thanks. Particularly the marine life entry with Carl Safina as coauthor is very good.
posted by Tehanu at 9:02 AM on June 18, 2008


I won't be able to post again for a few hours, so if one of you wants to post it, go for it.
posted by homunculus at 9:35 AM on June 18, 2008


Done.
posted by homunculus at 4:20 PM on June 18, 2008


Asia and Africa: Living on the Edge
posted by homunculus at 9:44 PM on June 24, 2008


Can a Million Tons of Sulfur Dioxide Combat Climate Change?
posted by homunculus at 12:09 PM on June 26, 2008


Wired magazine jumps the shark once too often and is eaten alive (along with Chris Mooney and geo-engineering)
posted by homunculus at 12:15 PM on June 26, 2008


Americans must not allow global warming deniers to block the policies needed to avert catastrophic climate change. Our future is at stake.
posted by homunculus at 8:43 PM on June 29, 2008


Climate Progress's commentary on Wired's increasingly crappy coverage of climate science is only less awesome than the mental image of Wired in a tank with a bunch of sharks with laser beams attached to their heads.
posted by Tehanu at 6:41 AM on June 30, 2008


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