Breaking Bad and the New Mexican Nuclear Uncanny

The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.

William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch[1]

Western civilization’s social, man-made and natural environments are dysfunctional, decaying and polluted. This dystopia is familiar to everyone because we see it in the mass media and we see it reflected in popular entertainment. It is common for film and television writers to choose the decline of empire as a central theme of their work. Disaster movies are all too familiar, and high quality cable television dramas such as The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad come to mind as examples of long-form fiction that cover the topic better than any two-hour movie could. Yet in spite of the apparent interest in the grand theme of cultural supremacy and decline, these works reveal the extent to which both the producers of mass entertainment and its audience are unconscious of the fact that their stories are tales of the nuclear age.
Noam Chomsky wrote recently, “If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era).”[2] As significant as this break in history was, it is seldom portrayed in popular entertainment. Nuclear weapons appear occasionally in disaster movies as scary terrorist threats, but the real stories of the nuclear age, of the victims and veterans of nuclear testing, for example, remain hidden. Films such as Coming Home and Fourth of July told the fictional stories of Vietnam veterans, but there is yet to be a Hollywood film about a veteran who came back from the Nevada Test Site, or a story told about the hibakusha of the Bikini Islands.
The generation that lived through the rupture in history was much more aware of how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:

"Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization.[3]

In Kerouac’s On the Road, there is no mention of the atom bomb until the final pages of the story set in Mexico, yet it delivers the explanatory punch of the tale. The refusal of the characters to take part in the post-war economic boom, and all the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation” now seem to be explained by this painful consciousness of how the world had changed:

Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way.”[4]

This essay seeks to illustrate the decline of nuclear consciousness in popular art by suggesting that the nuclear age is implicit in every frame of the masterpiece Breaking Bad,[5] even though the story never explicitly touches upon any aspect of America’s nuclear history. The story, centered on a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a criminal career as a supplier of crystal methamphetamine, was set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state which was ground zero for much of America’s nuclear program. In The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico, Sam Gilbert wrote:

A former Los Alamos scientist, who requested anonymity, told me, “The US nuclear complex is either unacknowledged or considered antiquated Cold War stuff. But look at the world today—Iran and North Korea, the global investment in nuclear energy, and the meltdown in Japan. It’s coming full circle, with New Mexico at the center.”
And that’s not just patriotic hyperbole; in his book The Nuclear Borderlands, author Joseph Masco describes New Mexico as “the only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy.” This includes uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the country’s only permanent depository for US military industrial nuclear waste.[6][7]
New Mexico is home to Los Alamos National Laboratories, the primary site of the Manhattan Project and still a leading nuclear technology center and waste storage facility. Sandia Labs in Albuquerque “strives to enhance the nation’s security and prosperity through sustainable, transformative approaches to the world’s most difficult nuclear energy challenges.” In the south of the state, there is Alamogordo, site of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear test in 1945. In the southeast corner of the state is Carlsbad, site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the nation’s only nuclear waste repository that functioned for fifteen years before recent failures and radiation leaks raised serious questions about the viability of all such plans to bury nuclear waste. Finally, in the northwest corner of the state there is Church Rock, the site of the July 16, 1979 uranium mine tailings breach (occurring to the hour on the 34th anniversary of the Trinity test) that went into the forgotten history books as America’s worst radiological contamination of the environment—worse even than the famous Three Mile Island disaster that happened three months earlier.[8]
All of these nuclear sites have made New Mexico a nuclear state, a state that has grown and benefited over the last seventy years thanks to infusions of federal spending on defense, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. In all this time, New Mexico has received more federal funds than it contributes back to the federal government. Thus the broken society depicted in Breaking Bad is the product of the nuclear technocratic economy that dominated the state in the late 20th century. New Mexico is an extreme case, but if other states and other nations look similar it is because they too have been affected in the same way.
Breaking Bad was, however, not consciously created as a story about the nuclear legacy. The creator, Vince Gilligan, had originally set it in southern California, but he was asked to film in New Mexico strictly for the financial incentives offered by the state. For a while he considered how to set up his shots to look like California, but then he decided it would be simpler just to set the whole story in Albuquerque.
The central character of Breaking Bad is Walter White, but he is a chemist who has never done any work related to American defense or nuclear programs. Again, this is a sign that the makers of the story had no intention to write a “nuclear” story. It never crossed their minds to set any of the action at the nuclear sites mentioned above, or to introduce a character who had a connection to them. Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend at one point mentions wanting to see New Mexico’s famous Georgia O’Keefe paintings, but no character ever went to The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, “an intriguing place to learn the story of the Atomic Age [with] exhibits spanning the early research of nuclear development through today’s peaceful uses of nuclear technology.” All of this just goes to show how much the cultural norms created by the nuclear age have been submerged beneath conscious awareness. The story creators and their characters think about them as much as a fish thinks about water, but they permeate the environment of police stations, junk yards, strip malls, drug dens, suburban swimming pools, Indian nations and, most of all, the surrounding desert that serves as a constant reminder of what nuclear technology threatens to deliver on thirty minutes notice. Furthermore, the plague of crystal meth addiction at the center of the story underscores a fact of life in the techno-scientific age. Nuclear weapons are essential, so it is humans who must adapt or be anesthetized to what the construction of a nuclear weapon state demands. 
Whether the creators of Breaking Bad were aware of it or not, the setting seems to portray what  Joseph Masco meant when he wrote of New Mexico’s “nuclear uncanny”—an anxious “new cognitive orientation toward everyday life” and “reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship” (see note 7). New Mexico is a “home to both the hyperwealthy and the poorest of the poor, one that is simultaneously sacred space, US experimental laboratory, tourist fantasy land and national sacrifice zone.”[9] Vince Gilligan was probably quick to realize it was a stroke of luck to make his story in New Mexico, for the setting itself seems to be a central character or even a creative force of the story. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine it would have struck such a chord with its audience if it had been set elsewhere.
As the story begins, our non-smoking hero is diagnosed with lung cancer, while the aunt of his young partner in crime had been stricken the same way. Cancer is the affliction that has made them break bad, broken their hearts and turned them into pessimists and realists who now know that they have to survive like outlaws on the old frontier. The technological age brought no social progress at all. There was always enough money for nuclear weapons, but none for those now suffering from the plutonium blowing in the wind. The bright future promised by the technological age didn’t provide a minimum of health care and social security.[10]
Furthermore, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, adding to the pall cast over the technological landscape. Many people accept such afflictions as naturally occurring, but at the same time we have the uneasy feeling that something is amiss. Formerly rare conditions seem to touch every family on every street. Walter’s radiation treatment burn is recognized by his scientifically illiterate partner because it is such a commonplace thing.
While the story portrays these physical diseases, Breaking Bad is mainly about the social disease of drug addiction and the war on drugs, and thus it follows in the literary tradition of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in portraying drug addiction as a metaphor for the organizing principle of modern life: addiction to power and control, to consumption, to machines, to oil and uranium, and addiction to making others addicted. As Cold War spending declined in the 1990s, New Mexico was primed to turn from one kind of fix to another.
Into the breach comes Walter White like a latter day Robert Oppenheimer, a man of science reluctantly tempted into an evil scientific endeavor that will happen with or without his participation. Oppenheimer made an atom bomb, whereas Walter White makes a neurochemical weapon of mass destruction. He comes to it first telling himself that his motives are pure. He will take just enough to save his family. If he doesn’t do it, someone with lower motives will do it anyway, with an inferior product, right?
Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, rationalized his participation in the same way. He said famously about the first nuclear detonation:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.[11][12]

The historian Alex Wellerstein explained in his interpretation of this quote that Oppenheimer was not claiming god-like powers, as many people have understood his words. The story from Hindu scripture shows that the prince did not want to serve in the war, but the god stood before him, proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form, and showed that the prince must submit to the fate that was demanded of him. To put it in the simpler language of the contemporary Dionysian gods Jagger and Richards: “I’m simply dying for some thrills and spills. If you can’t rock me, somebody will.”[13]
Thus we are to accept that these rational men of science justified their participation in the nuclear weapons program by comparing their necessary obedience to the US government with the superstitions of an ancient belief system. They had to participate because it was destiny, so morally they were off the hook. The destruction was ordained to happen anyway, and someone more evil might have made the bomb first. Or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. I find it to be a dubious argument that uses Eastern mysticism as a way to deflect attention from a moral dilemma that can’t be resolved so easily. 
As the story of Breaking Bad progresses, Walter’s hands get bloodier as his motives get darker. When he has more than enough to provide for his family, he still wades in deeper, like Macbeth trapped by the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner.” (Macbeth I.III.83). No one starts out shooting heroin with the intention of becoming a junkie. Breaking Bad has been called a great modern tragedy, and the parallels to Macbeth run deep. Some of Macbeth’s lines would fit right into the mouth of Walter White: “It will have blood they say: blood will have blood” (III.IV.122), or “I am in blood stepped so far that I should wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.IV.136-138).
As Walter White succumbs to his addiction to power, he takes on the pseudonym Heisenberg, which is perhaps the story’s only explicit reference to nuclear physics. The name serves as a metaphor for the moral enigma that is Walter White. Werner Heisenberg was famous for formulating the uncertainty principle which states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known. Heisenberg’s life itself had many uncertainties, as it was known that he did research in nuclear fission in Germany during the early 1940s, but the extent of his enthusiasm for building an atom bomb for Hitler remained a mystery.
graphic from www.infobytes.tv/breakingbad 
Walter White is an enigma in the same way. Can we observe at what point he loses our sympathy and becomes loathsome? While we observe we can measure one aspect of him, but not others. Is his addiction to power any different than the addiction of a meth addict, or any different than that which we see in our institutions and corporations and in global politics? For the police he is like a subatomic particle: the meth kingpin Heisenberg’s existence may be known but his meth-making cannot been observed. When his actions are observed, his mind and his nature are unfathomable. Robert Oppenheimer alluded to this when he said, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”[14]
Walter White uses science in one other way to hint at duality and ambiguity. In his mundane role as a chemistry teacher, he tells his students about chirality, the property of asymmetry derived from the Greek word for “hand,” a familiar chiral object. An object is chiral if it is, like a hand, not identical to its mirror image. As a metaphor for moral agency, Walter is hinting that people too are chiral opposites with Jekyll-and-Hyde like properties. A molecule has different potential when its orientation is reversed. Walter may appear to others as his well-known self, but he has been flipped and is now capable of things which no one expects of him.
In the finale, Walter White admits to his wife that he didn’t really do it for the family. He did it because he was “good at it.” He knows he will die soon, by cancer or violence. He knows he has lost his family, that his son will despise him forever, but he has not come to his wife one last time in order to apologize. He wanted to speak the truth that he believes she deserves to hear, but what he says falls short of showing contrition. Later, when he is dying of a gunshot, he staggers to his lab equipment and dies caressing his precious creation. He bears a great resemblance to other men of science who gave up their personal lives and scruples for the chance to exercise their genius. No regrets, and sorry, not sorry. As Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success.”[15] Breaking Bad is a work of art that has much to contribute to this argument over what to do about the technical successes of the 20th century.


The promotional trailer for the final season of Breaking Bad features Bryan Cranston reciting the famous poem Ozymandias that provided the title of one of the episodes.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:`Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'


1. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959). See also Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press, 2000) that notes the irony in Burroughs having attended the Los Alamos Ranch School before it became the birthplace of the atom bomb. The school was purchased by the United States Army’s Manhattan Engineering District in 1942.

3. John Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press, 2004). Ginsberg's concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, and wrote a poem called Plutonian Ode.

4. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (original scroll), 1951.   

5. Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, (2008-2013; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2013), DVD.

7. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). The publisher’s blurb for states, “The atomic bomb… is not just the engine of American techno-scientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what  calls a ‘nuclear uncanny,’ revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.”

8. Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground.” Chemical Heritage Magazine, Spring 2013. http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/media/magazine/articles/31-1-on-poisoned-ground.aspx

9. Joseph Masco, 35.

10. Perhaps the most implausible aspect of the story is in its portrayal of this suburban family as prosperous enough to own a home but not a life insurance policy.

11. Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,” Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 23, 2014.

12. James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 144, no. 2 (June 2000), 123-167.

13. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “If You Can’t Rock Me.” It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974; Universal Music, 2009), CD.

14. Interview with Edward Murrow, A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1955. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer

15. Robert Oppenheimer testifying in his defense at his 1954 security hearings, page 81 of the official transcript. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer

Some information not referenced in the notes can be easily traced with internet searches.


Reasons to Oppose the India-Japan Nuclear Deal

If you agree that the India-Japan Nuclear Agreement is a bad idea, please put your name on the petition.

In late July and early August, a leading member of India’s Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Kumar Sundaram, visited several Japanese cities in order to speak to the mass media and Japanese citizens about the proposed Japan-India nuclear energy agreement. He timed his visit to Japan to precede that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of August. Modi will meet with his Japanese counterpart in hopes of finalizing a deal to allow the purchase of vital components of nuclear power plants that are proposed or under construction.
Mr. Sundaram wished to draw attention to numerous problematic aspects of India’s nuclear energy ambitions, negative aspects which the mass media, intellectuals and politicians have failed to criticize sufficiently.
On July 31, Mr. Sundaram gave a press conference in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. During his hour at the microphone, he gave a detailed explanation as to why he believes the plans for nuclear energy development in India will lead to disastrous consequences for both India and foreign countries. This report summarizes the information given by Mr. Sundaram, with additional background information and commentary.

The Nuclear Energy -- Nuclear Weapons Connection

Since India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, it has had pariah status as a nuclear power. Like Pakistan and Israel, it possesses nuclear weapons but never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In response to India’s first test of a nuclear weapon, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed by Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in order to stop exports of nuclear technology to countries that refused to sign onto the NPT. In 1998, after another nuclear test, India faced further sanction, but the pressure decreased after Western nations shifted their emphasis to “the war on terror.” At the same time, their nuclear energy suppliers grew more interested in exporting nuclear technology to developing nations, and the Indian market was too tempting to ignore. During the G.W. Bush presidency, ways were found to skirt around the problems with India’s status as an intransigent possessor of nuclear weapons, and thus the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement came into force in 2008. This waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still permitted to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.
In addition to the US deal, India now has bilateral arrangements with France, Canada, Russia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Australia. The present push for a Japan-India agreement could be seen as a multi-lateral effort that aims to facilitate nuclear deals for multinational corporations. 
The preferential treatment for India set an obvious dangerous precedent. It signaled to other nations that there was a double standard, and it suggested that if they too defy international agreements to not develop nuclear weapons, they merely need to endure rogue status until pragmatic considerations force other nations to legitimize their nuclear power status. It signaled to China that the US was tacitly approving India’s nuclear weapon status in order to have a strategic balance to China in the region. It signaled the same to Pakistan, with the added message that its political instability would prevent it from getting the same treatment as India.
In spite of the opening for nuclear energy created by the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement, there was still a drawback in the works. The major American corporations that want to build India’s reactors have become American-Japanese hybrids such as GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse-Toshiba. Other corporations building plants in India are dependent on parts from these companies. In order for construction to proceed, a Japan-India deal is necessary, but traditionally Japan has taken a hard line against nuclear weapons proliferation, the obvious reason being its status as the only victim of nuclear weapons in an act of war.
The present Japanese government is willing to abandon the strong stance on disarmament and non-proliferation and instead just pay lip service to the issue, as it did this month with regard to the 69th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Times of India reported that on August 10th, the foreign ministers of India and Japan, Sushma Swaraj and Fumio Kishida, met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum to exchange what, to my skeptical eye, was no more than cynical pieties regarding the Hiroshima memorial. The Times report played up the fact that Kishida is from Hiroshima, as if that necessarily makes one sincere on nuclear proliferation issues. Then it portrayed an Indian parliamentary observance of silence for Hiroshima as a blessing by the people of both countries for everything that the two nations are planning to do with regard to nuclear energy development. After this brief ritual of mutual flattery, both ministers emphasized it was time to cut to the chase, to finally sign a civilian nuclear trade deal, regardless of the numerous valid objections their own citizens have. 
No matter how much the Indian and Japanese governments would like to pretend otherwise, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are inextricably linked, especially in South Asia. For India, the primary motive for pursuing nuclear energy is to obtain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons. In this pursuit, all other considerations have been ignored. The government has not considered whether nuclear energy is worth pursuing in terms of its social, environmental and economic costs.

Neglecting safety, local opposition, environmental damage, economic viability, and the decline of nuclear energy in developed nations

Mr. Sundaram pointed out that even among various Indian government agencies the methods of developing nuclear energy have not been unanimously approved. Official environmental reviews have raised strong objections. Even among those who are, in general, supportive or undecided about nuclear power have voiced objections about the methods and the scale of the nuclear expansion. Nonetheless, diplomatic imperatives always sideline these concerns.
For example, after the Bhopal disaster, laws were strengthened to make foreign corporations liable for the damage they may cause, but these laws are now being rolled back in order to please the corporations that are building nuclear reactors. The citizens’ right to information is being curtailed for the benefit of foreign corporations as well. The comptroller and auditor general raised severe concerns about nuclear regulation, and secretaries from eight ministries said they are not in a position to deal with a nuclear emergency. Local opposition to plant construction has been brutally oppressed, with trumped up charges of vandalism and violence laid on peaceful protesters. Five thousand people have been charged with sedition because the government now construes opposition to nuclear energy as treason. Nonetheless, the protests continue. Security agencies now keep files on organizations such as the Coalition for Nuclear Peace and Disarmament (CNDP), Greenpeace, and individual activists (including Mr. Sundaram) because they are defined as threats to national economic security. If they obtain funding or cooperate in any way with groups and activists abroad, they are viewed all the more as traitors.
During the question period after the news conference, I asked Mr. Sundaram to speak about the front end and back end of the nuclear cycle; that is, to describe India’s record in dealing with safety and environmental issues in uranium mining and processing, and issues in the disposal of nuclear waste. He said there have been significant health and environmental impacts from mining, all documented by independent scientists, but the government has continued with complete unaccountability. As for the waste problem, the government is in “complete denial,” asserting even that there won’t be any waste to worry about for another thirty years.
Mr. Sundaram concluded by emphasizing that the pursuit of nuclear energy is an anachronism. India has been targeted by multinational corporations who can no longer make profits from nuclear energy in the countries where they built plants in the past. In this sense, India might be the lynchpin that the global nuclear industry is depending on for its survival. Indian elites are allowing themselves to be used in this way in order to legitimize the nation’s status as a nuclear power, but they have failed to consider whether it is necessary for any other reason. Since India has a chronic trade deficit, these very expensive, high technology deals will be financed by debt that the country cannot afford. Nuclear energy should be opposed in India because it is an undemocratic, unsafe, uneconomic, unaccountable expansion of a technology that will bring horrors and great costs on the nation’s most vulnerable people.


Review of The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude

A few months ago, I wrote a critique of the best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.[1] I argued that this book by the linguist Steven Pinker ignores important changes in the nature of indirect, or structural, violence that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the decline of direct violence (war and violent crime) that the book is focused on. The increase in indirect violence arose from the use of energy resources, a change which created a new form of slavery that degraded the masters’ spiritual well-being and social relations. It was a change that increased human misery by damaging the ecosystem and forcing millions of people to earn their living by the dictates of the extractive industries and technological bureaucracies of nation states.
Since writing the critique, I have found other writers who have covered this theme in greater detail. In The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude,[2] Andrew Nikiforuk provides an excellent discussion of the authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who decried the effects of the new servitude of machinery.
Nikiforuk began with a brief history of slavery in Rome and in the early Industrial Revolution. The comparison of the energy crisis with the historical problem of slavery is more than an analogy. The new servitude is a continuation of the same problem in a new form, one which suggests the necessary energy transition will be as contentious as the emancipation struggles of the past. If we get it wrong, our way of life may collapse like Rome’s, which never gave up its addiction to slavery. The empire just kept trying to acquire more slaves until the unquenchable demand led to decline and invasion from regions that once supplied the slaves.
19th century America provides the most well-known example of an emancipation struggle, and the record shows that nothing was given up without a long, vicious fight. Progress was imperfect and incremental, achieved through flawed work-around solutions like the Emancipation Proclamation. Living conditions, and relations between the former masters and slaves were hardly improved by the legal changes that ended slavery. No one had answers for how the freed were supposed to survive and live as equals in their new circumstances, but those who wanted slavery to end knew that society had to make a blind leap into an uncertain future. They just pushed through the necessary changes and left it to future generations to figure out the rest of it.
We can expect something similar as a disordered (in a good sense of the word) global patchwork of innovative confederations emerges in the emancipation struggle now underway, each one undergoing its own series of blunders, conflicts, political compromises and bold leaps into the unknown. No one will be able to say with certainty, “This will work. This is the answer,” but we do nonetheless know that the devolution to a low-energy society is necessary. It’s a leap of faith that has to be made.  
If Nikiforuk’s theory about energy slaves seems strange, readers should note that he has merely presented an overview of numerous philosophers, sociologists, economists and scientist of the industrial age who have covered this topic before; people such as:

Bernard Beaudreau, Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, Buckminster Fuller, Mohandas Gandhi, Ivan Illich, John Ise, Leopold Kohr, James Kuntsler, Lars Lerup, Alasdair MacIntyre, J.R. McNeill, Donella Meadows, Robert Putnam, Francois Quesnay, Hyman Rickover, John Ruskin, Eduard Sacher, E.F. Schumacher, Vaclav Smil, Frederick Soddy, Pitirim Sorokin, Joseph Tainter, Alfred René Ubbelohde, Thorstein Veblen, and Graham Zebel 

Many of these writers lived during the time of transition, when the effects of new energy sources were more obvious to those who could see what was being traded away for the new comforts. Nowadays, their views are likely to be a little hard to grasp because modern people have no knowledge of a time when their machine slaves were not available to them. Our acquaintance with the natural struggles of existence are so unfamiliar that it may be hard to understand what we are missing.
Scholars of slavery note that the relationship leaves both the master and the slave chained to each other, which is not to say the two suffer equally. The slave suffers much more, and in more obvious ways. For the master, the loss of freedom that comes with the dependency on slaves, and the pernicious effects of the arrangement, take longer to become apparent. When the slaves are machines, the impact on the masters is no different. In addition to the creation of a gross dependency that makes the master lazy, unhealthy, dumb and unskilled in basic survival skills, the use of energy resources creates environmental damage and new social relationships, the worst of which is the miserable servitude required to extract energy resources.
It’s important to note here that this is true even if anthropogenic global warming isn’t considered. There are still many good reasons to favor a less energy-intensive lifestyle. Firstly, doing so is good for the soul, and secondly, there will be fewer tailings ponds, oil spills and deaths from lung disease, and less mercury finding its way into the ocean food chain—to mention just a few of the benefits.
To elucidate this point, Nikiforuk described all the ways that the petro-state erodes democracy and freedom. Just about every state, province and nation that has been afflicted with the resource curse suffers in the same way. Petro-states are more corrupt, and their influence tends to go beyond the immediate interests of the industry to promoting retrograde social policies like religious fundamentalism, whether it is in the US or Saudi Arabia. Petro-states buy off their citizens with cheap fuel, low (or no) taxes, and, in some cases, provide imported slaves (the “guest workers” of Qatar, for example) so that their citizens don’t have to have contact even with their machine slaves. The ease and comfort bought with oil brings passivity and obliterates the will for individual agency in political life. Henry Miller might have been one of the first to see what was happening when he came back to America in 1939 and called it The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.[3]
Dependence on energy complicates political participation in other ways. It requires greater centralization, standardization, complexity and concentration of power as resources become more scarce and the search for them becomes more desperate. People lose physical and mental strength, and the basic skills to shelter and clothe themselves, to gather and grow food, and to form communal bonds. Citizens are left with little choice but to be consumers, cubicle drones and organization men and women. One can drop out and go back to the land, but the land is likely to be fracked, contaminated or claimed by state bureaucracies and corporate title. There is, essentially, no space left for individuals who want to go off the grid and establish innovative ways of rejecting the energy–intensive lifestyle. The dropout is on his own with no direction home.
Nikiforuk also covered the problem of technological solutionism and the naïve and limited view of engineers, technocrats and economists. The former two always see problems as having technical solutions, but the solutions become ever more complex, costly and elusive. The sociologist Jacques Ellul was stunned at the narrow thinking he saw among scientists when he wrote, “When these technocrats talk about democracy, ecology, culture, the Third World, or politics, they are touchingly simplistic or annoyingly ignorant.”[4] Each problem has only one answer: more technology. I would add that F. Scott Fitzgerald touched on this point when he wrote we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” and forever separated from the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”[5]
Standard views in economics imagine that wealth expands by increasing financial capital and the exchange of goods, yet economists who focus on energy inputs see that economic growth depends on having access to energy supplies with a high EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested), an observation that was made in the 18th century by a neglected French contemporary of Adam Smith, Francois Quesnay, and later by other economists such as Frederick Soddy and Eduard Sacher. The economic contraction of recent years is the outward sign that economic growth has stalled because we have entered the era of extreme energy, “the process whereby energy extraction methods grow more intense over time, as easier to extract resources are depleted.”[6] The easily exploited resources are gone. The pursuit of the dregs has led to the use of more complex and dangerous techniques to get sources with less EROEI, the kind exemplified by the Alberta Tar/Oil Sands where the oil gives only an EROEI of 5 or 6,[7] far below the world average of 20, which itself is down from about 30 one century ago.[8]
A good way to understand why technical fixes won’t succeed is to rethink the standard view of food supply and population growth. A common perception is that future population growth and human welfare depend on expanding the food supply and delivering energy to the poorer regions of the world. However, the record shows that population grew very slowly before the Industrial Revolution, but grew exponentially afterwards. One hundred years ago the global population was a little over a billion. Now it is seven billion. Obviously, the use of hydrocarbon energy to produce fertilizer, and other technologies dependent on energy inputs, enabled the population to grow to seven billion.
People who hope for a technical fix to population growth imagine that a breakthrough in fusion energy, or a rapid expansion of nuclear energy, could deliver clean and consequence-free energy to meet all of humanity’s “needs” (a term that is assumed to be definable), in a world where everyone lives a First-World life style, with low birth rates emerging naturally with higher affluence. Yet there is no reason to believe that unlimited energy supplies would not lead to more population growth and greater environmental impacts. It would be a dystopia rather than a utopia in which we would come to resemble the vegetative blobs depicted so effectively in the children’s film Wall-E, or also in the crude satire Idiocracy.
The robots were cuter than the humans in Wall-E
The quest to meet all energy “needs” is as spiritually empty as the wish to never work or suffer. As we face the environmental and social consequences of extreme energy, those who thrive will be the ones who fight for emancipation, those who can accept the old precepts which all the great religions teach. Be humble. Walk softly. Accept life’s limitations and the inevitability of suffering. Those who are trying to create a social system of low energy intensity have recognized these limits, but they are scoffed at by the techno-optimists whose false concept of helping the poor is to expand nuclear energy and fracking to four corners of the world. I’ve made my bet on who will someday be having the last laugh, if only doing so didn’t go against the aforementioned precept of humility.

Nuclear Energy and Extreme Energy

The Energy of Slaves didn’t discuss the nuclear energy industry, but nuclear energy exemplifies the downward-spiraling pursuit of more costly and complex forms of energy in a time when all the easy resources have been tapped. As carbon sources decline, many countries consider nuclear to be an alternative, but an expansion of nuclear would just be a desperate turn toward something that offers no solution to the bad effects of carbon-based energy.[9] Nuclear has a significant carbon footprint[10] because there are carbon-energy inputs involved in mining, processing, construction, deconstruction and the eventual abandonment of spent fuel in some way, yet to be invented, that we hope will minimize its contact with the ecosystem and never result in a catastrophic spill. The only stage of the process that has no carbon footprint is the fissioning of uranium and plutonium, which isn’t exactly a clean process.
Furthermore, the failure of a nuclear power plant can be a long-lasting, high-impact catastrophe, so nuclear technology requires complex and expensive measures in risk management and government regulation. The costs of the precautions and insurance liabilities are so high that private investors no longer have any interest in new nuclear plant construction. Further costs accumulate in managing the eternally dangerous waste products. Nuclear technology leaves most of its burden to be carried by future generations that won’t have benefited from the energy, while in the present it contaminates the remote people and places, seldom seen by the users of the energy, where uranium is taken from the earth.
The Hanford Reservation, just one single nuclear facility in Washington State, is estimated to need a further $100 billion to clean up, but “clean up” is a dubious term. The Department of Energy admits it doesn’t presently have the technology to solve all of the problems on the site.[11] The accumulation of spent fuel now stored at nuclear power plants is a similar conundrum. There is no solution on the horizon. It is hard to imagine how an energy-starved nation with a contracting economy is going to have the desire or the resources to deal with this problem. And this is just in the USA. How will China, Russia, France, Germany, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel (perpetually at war), Kazakhstan, South Africa and Canada, among others, deal with their nuclear legacies? Worldwide, the plan for handling the nuclear legacy is being done on a wing and a prayer.


1.     Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011).
2.     Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Greystone Books, 2012).
3.     Henry Miller. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New Directions Publishing, 1945).
4.     Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 29.
5.     F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).
6.     What is Extreme Energy?The Extreme Energy Initiative. Accessed August 9, 2014. http://extremeenergy.org/about/what-is-extreme-energy-2/ 
7.     Adam R. Brandt, Jacob Englander and Sharad Bharadwaj, “The energy efficiency of oil sands extraction: Energy return ratios from 1970 to 2010.” Energy 55, no. (June 15, 2013): 693–702. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544213002776
8.     Andrew Nikiforuk, 210.
9.     Nuclear Power and Climate Change: Forget about the Myths.” Don’t Nuke the Climate. Accessed August 9, 2014.
10.  Readers are free to look up the various ways that nuclear energy’s carbon footprint has been quantified. I haven’t provided a figure because the calculation involves numerous variables, so figures tend to malleable to the opinion one has about the development of nuclear energy. Regardless, honest pro-nuclear advocates will admit that the nuclear energy is far from being a zero-carbon source of electricity, as is so often claimed in the industry’s propaganda for the general public.


We Are the World of Human Shields

 As the Israeli military campaign against Gaza rages on, the propaganda campaign on both sides has been forced to focus once again on the issue of Hamas' using Palestinians as human shields and civilian structures as military structures. As much as the practice of using human shields is reprehensible, the defenders of Israel forget the simple fact that there is no moral defense for targeting civilians just because they have been used, willingly or not, as human shields. As Amnesty International, puts it, "Under international humanitarian law even if 'human shields' are being used, Israel's obligations to protect these civilians would still apply."
Notice that they put the term human shields in scare quotes. This is because the term is so loosely defined that is almost impossible to pin down. Consider the wording of The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977:

General protection of civilian objects
1. Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals. Civilian objects are all objects which are not military objectives as defined in paragraph 2.
2. Attacks shall be limited strictly to military objectives. In so far as objects are concerned, military objectives are limited to those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.
3. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, such as a place of worship, a house or other dwelling or a school, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.

The slippery term is found in items 2 and 3 in the word effective. It seems the attacker considering whether to bomb a civilian object is free to decide what shall be judged an "effective contribution to military action… leading to a definite military advantage." As the attackers consider this decision, they are also sure to think about how likely it is that they would be condemned in an international tribunal and penalized for their decision, according the terms of Article 52. The terms are so vague and fluid that there could be a way to defend almost any decision to destroy a civilian object. Call it the "we felt threatened" defense.
But the loose definitions work both ways. The rationale for placing weapons and soldiers inside or in proximity to civilian objects can be justified if the political entity defending itself is such a small territory that civilian and military objects have to exist side by side. Besides, the boundary between civilian and military objects is always fuzzy. Ever since WWII, the targets of bombing campaigns have been anything that adds to "the enemy's ability to wage war." This includes factories, infrastructure, and, taken its logical end, women who give birth to the next generation of soldiers. As one Israeli MP, a member of an extremist minority party, recently put it, Israel needs to kill all the mothers who give birth to the “little snakes” who grow up to be the next generation of Palestinian fighters.
Nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants have a major role in this discussion of human shields and civilian objects because wherever they exist they threaten the civilians who live near and far from them. Just as the Israel Defense Forces now feel justified in destroying a hospital where they believe Hamas' weapons have been buried, there could be other entities who feel threatened by a neighboring state's possession of nuclear weapons. Or they might feel that their neighbor's nuclear power plant is really a weapons factory. Or they might just have a bad feeling that the country next door is managing its nuclear reactors so unsafely that they wish they could destroy them in a preemptive raid. But look, the sly, devious scoundrels have put their nuclear facilities right in the middle of civilian populations that would be blanketed in fallout! What to do? Of course, the only moral thing is to forget about the raid and spare lives. It may be frustrating to accept, but the enemy's use of human shields has foiled any plan for a preemptive attack.
As it turns out, Israel is one of the worst examples of this phenomenon because it is small and densely populated. Its military installations are scattered throughout the civilian population. Hamas could rightly accuse Israel of turning its entire population into human shields. Furthermore, the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel’s undeclared nuclear bomb factory, is only about 50 km from the city of Beersheeba, population 200,000. With an enormous hazard like this existing in the theater of military operations, it becomes somewhat pointless for one side or the other to point fingers about the abuse of human shields.

For further information on Israel's secret programs for developing weapons of mass destruction, see the website Armagedon, especially its page on nuclear weapons development at Dimona. The website was created by a group of "Israeli journalists, writers, philosophers and activists who oppose WMD." They have used the Internet to challenge the veil of secrecy that has existed in Israel for sixty years. Their website is hosted in New Zealand, and they defend their actions by adding that nothing they have published is a state secret. They are merely commenting on and promoting information that has already been published in various places throughout the world. 


No Hole-istic Solution for Nuclear Waste

When I created this blog three years ago I was still in the early stages of my learning curve. I got the idea of asking readers to imagine a nuclear-free world could come by the centennial of the nuclear age on July 16, 2045. The reason was purely sentimental. My wife’s birthday is July 15th, so I thought we might still be alive and able to look back at the quixotic wish, and then compare it with what actually will have happened by then. 
I naively thought a nuclear-free world was possible, but it turns out that it could only be achieved if we restrict what we mean by “nuclear-free.” Even if we dismantle every bomb and shut down every power plant, we will still have to accept that we have moved into the very long era of nuclear waste management. The mad century of uranium mining, bomb-building and nuclear energy has made the world a more radioactive place than it was 100 million years ago. The wastes that have been left behind will endanger ecosystems for 100 thousand more years. In normal circumstances it would be laughable to promise that successive generations are going to manage a risk long into the future, but for nucleocrats it has become normal discourse. The absurdity is plain to see if you imagine a banker's reaction to my asking for a mortgage on the Taj Mahal. I doubt she would be impressed by a promise that my heirs ten generations into the future would make all the payments.
Remote rural towns, in this case one far removed
 from areas that use nuclear power, are favored
as candidates for "host" communities
Nonetheless, it is tempting to think there must be a solution. I get it. We like solutions. Every movie we pay twelve bucks to see ends with a solution. There must be one. But in life there are some mistakes that just can’t be undone. Burial would seem to be a solution, but impartial scientists have told us for years that it won’t work. The recent failure at the WIPP facility in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and previous failures in Germany, proved the point. As veteran nuclear scientist and industry critic Chris Busby has bluntly pointed out, there is nothing to do but guard and maintain it above ground, and preferably not move it around too much. This policy is called Rolling Stewardship and is supported by the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (CCNR), and many other civil society groups that are waking up to the dilemma posed by nuclear waste.
  Busby jokes that we could give Rolling Stewardship prestige appeal by giving the guards uniforms that their children would be proud of. We could professionalize the guardians and give them elite status to make waste management more likely to continue. This is not a satisfying solution, but it is what it is. This grim realization leads only to two logical conclusions: we should stop making the stuff and we never should have created it in the first place.
Unfortunately, the nuclear industry isn’t prepared to face up to reality. In recent years, in several countries, it has become more motivated to complete deep geologic depositories. It asks rural communities to “host” nuclear waste as if it were a convention of salesmen, and along with the offers come many promises of jobs and gifts to the community. The nuclear industry is accelerating these efforts now because it knows that the public must be convinced that there is a final “disposal” solution. The waste has sat above ground for too long now without being moved to the long-ago promised depositories. If the industry fails to convince, nuclear power has no future.
This is why the nuclear industry consistently turns a blind eye to citizens and scientists who point out the unpleasant fact that the security of geological disposal is impossible to guarantee even in the near future, let alone into the millenia that would be necessary. No one can say with certainty that the geological and hydrologic features of a burial site will not change over thousands of years. The wastes are active, which means they are still changing chemically and isotopically, so disposal containers are likely to corrode. In addition, moisture can leak into the site, the ground can shift, or heat can build up and cause fires and explosions or changes in the containers and support structures.
Communities that are being pressured to “host” geologic suppositories should bear this in mind. And excuse my use of the more accurate term. Indeed, when a hole is dug for disposal we are just “tearing a new one” for the planet and sticking waste in it. The waste will then be like a pill that is going to dissolve into the actual host—the ecosystem; not some bought-off community of humans who live on the earth for a short time.
In addition, I have a modest proposal for some terms prospective communities should demand for agreeing to take the waste. This is not the mafioso’s offer they can’t refuse. It is an offer they will definitely refuse, but it would be good to put it on the table just to make an essential rhetorical point.


1.     We want to know that the waste has a finite limit, so every nuclear power plant regulated by the state has to be shut down within five years.
2.     About 20 years later (perhaps longer), when every power plant in the state has been dismantled and sites have been remediated, we will permit the creation of a small-scale, experimental, so-called geologic “depository.”
3.     A small amount of waste material will be placed in the hole and monitored for 100 years.
4.     If this experiment is deemed successful, the rest of the project may proceed.
5.     The state must promise that it will not build nuclear weapons, nor sell uranium, and never again use nuclear energy in any form to generate electricity. We offer our land for this risky project as a sacrifice, as a possible resolution to the time of folly and hubris during which humans played with a fire they never should have lit.

Some might feel that the final point concedes too much. They might say that the small-scale experiment could appear to be succeeding after 100 years, but the site might fail later when it is fully packed. But as I mentioned above, this is just a rhetorical exercise. Most of the nuclear power regimes in the world have no intention of bringing their technology to a definitive end. Their express purpose in seeking a disposal solution is so that the nuclear energy industry can carry on and look good to the majority of the public that pays no close attention to this issue.There is no danger that they would actually agree to the terms above. The proposal would only serve to make their intentions explicit.
   Finally, spent fuel is only half of the nuclear waste problem, the one that nucleocrats care to talk about publicly. No one has a plan for the eternal catastrophes left behind at mining sites throughout the world (see the article by Sipho Kings, listed below).


Sasha Pyle and Joni Arends. “WIPP accident reveals serious problems.” Santa Fe New Mexican. June 2014.


About those Better Angels and the Decline of Violence

The Procrastinating Angels of Our Nature, or How Violence Has Been Transformed and Postponed: 
A critique of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

by Dennis Riches
(originally published April 2014 on Dianuke.org)

The best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined received generally positive reviews upon its release in 2011. The book attempted to overturn the popular notion that the present is more violent than the past. This critique considers that Pinker made a strong case, but only within his limited discussion of changes in society’s tolerance of acts of direct violence and his analysis of statistics on direct violence (war and crime), which are good only if one assumes that the data on levels of past and present violence are reliable, or even knowable. More importantly, the book ignores important changes in the nature of indirect, or structural, violence that accompanied the Industrial Revolution and the decline of direct violence. In so doing, it draws attention away from other forms of suffering that are pressing concerns of the modern age − labor abuses, poverty, ecological destruction, famine, and failed economic models among them. In particular, this paper highlights the exploitation of energy resources as a possible factor in both the decline of direct violence and in the increase of indirect violence. Energy resource exploitation has played a central role in human development, but it has also caused enormous ecological harm and human suffering. This article concludes that these negative side-effects of modernity must be accounted for, lest pronouncements about the decline of violence seem Panglossian to those not receiving its benefits.

People in the country, people on the land,
Some of them so sick they can hardly stand.
Everybody would move away if they could.
It’s hard to believe but it’s all good.
- Bob Dylan, It’s all Good (2009)

Since the publication of The Language Instinct in 1994, Steven Pinker has gained recognition as one of the preeminent intellectuals of our times. Prospect magazine placed him at number three in its 2013 World Thinkers poll.[1] He has impressed readers by the breadth of his knowledge and his ability to write articulately and persuasively about language, psychology, and biology, as well as in many fields in the humanities. In his latest work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,[2] Pinker analyzed an impressive volume of historical data in order to present a very persuasive argument. The book received largely positive reviews in the mainstream press when it was released in 2011, as most reviewers decided he made a convincing case that demolishes the popular, pessimistic notion that we live in an age of increasing violence, and that things are generally going from bad to worse. Pinker’s thesis has received so much attention that it has become somewhat of an established truism.

Those who wrote negative reviews found that the book glossed over the sins of colonialism and hegemony, and exaggerated the violence of pre-industrial times. One such review by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson described it as “an outstanding snow job,” with a message “well geared to the demands and drift of Western imperialism.”[3]

I might have found Pinker’s thesis more convincing if I hadn’t been personally jolted out of my complacency and sensitized to what it is like to be the collateral damage of the modernity that Pinker celebrates. I read the book while living two hundred kilometers downwind of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, and my perspective made me think that Pinker ignored much suffering in the modern world by focusing only on what is called direct violence; essentially war and crime statistics.

The sharp increase in the exploitation of energy resources that came with the Industrial Revolution was not considered by Pinker to be a factor in the decline of war and crime, or a possible cause of increases in other forms of suffering. I argue below that the exploitation of energy sources is a key factor that Pinker failed to account for, both in the decline of the direct violence that he describes, and in the rise of structural violence that he fails to discuss; such things as economic inequality and ecological damage. In short, this book doesn’t explore the possibility that modernity kills few but oppresses many,[4] that we have decreased direct violence in exchange for a greater degree of structural violence and problems that future generations will have to reckon with. Furthermore, this review will give Pinker the benefit of the doubt – that the statistics he has gathered and his interpretation of them are comprehensive and accurate. I am not convinced that they are, and other reviews would dispute them, and question whether violence of the past or present can be accurately quantified, but this issue is put aside in order emphasize that even if direct violence has declined, all is not necessarily moving in a positive direction.

The term structural violence, developed by Johan Galtung in 1969,[5] goes back further to the earliest days of Marxist theory. Engels wrote that the relations between the bourgeoisie and the working poor were described by English working men as a slow and indirect “social murder.”[6] The term referred also to the destruction of “nature” (what we would now call the ecosystem) because capitalism exploits nature as it does human resources, and the violence against nature affects the people who sustain themselves by it. More recently, the NASA scientist James Hansen has applied the language of genocide to the ecological crisis by calling the climate-change cover-up a “crime against humanity.”[7]

The negative reviews blasted Pinker for being wrong about violence, but didn’t concede that his analysis may be valid within its limited scope, to the extent that statistics on violence in the distant past or in distant outposts of the modern world can be considered reliable at all. What really seemed to bother them was the neglect of the broader definition of suffering mentioned above; such familiars of the modern age as ecological destruction, labor abuses, overpopulation, superpower proxy wars, and so on. Pinker should, ironically, welcome this criticism because it supports his point that society has become more vigilant about questioning all assumptions about its ethical values. Optimistic findings about the decline of violence will not go un-scrutinized!

One cannot fault Pinker for a lack of thoroughness in his research, nor do I argue that the book is not a valuable contribution to peace studies. It’s a bit much to say he wrote his book as a servant to the demands of Western imperialism. We can assume that he wrote this book with good intentions, hoping to create an understanding of ways that violence can be reduced. In particular, his descriptions of the common cruelties of the past should be read by anyone who might romanticize it or take for granted the many ways we no longer tolerate the sorts of violence that used to be accepted as inevitable aspects of the human condition.

Nonetheless, it is somewhat perplexing that he tries to do this while remaining detached or neutral about the issues of the day that inflame public opinion – such matters as the corrupting influence of private enterprise on politics, US foreign policy, or the ecological crisis. People who are concerned about such things are dismissed as pessimists who can’t see how good everything is getting. It is good for a scientist to be impartial, but the problem is that we all know that this is a fallacy. Books such as this are shaped by personal biases, so they might as well be openly declared. Remaining aloof on contemporary conflicts and controversies invites the suspicion that the author might be “catering to the demands of Western imperialism,” intentionally or not.

An example of Pinker’s cautious neutrality can be seen in what he said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at The Economist’s “World in 2013 Festival.” He contends that an excess, not a lack, of morality is sometimes the problem. Most acts of murder, and most wars and atrocities, are committed to defend moral principles, not to obtain resources or security. When speaking of the specific example of the Middle East, he said:

We often wonder why the Israelis and Palestinians can’t just do what is obvious to the rest of the world as the solution to the problem in the Middle East – a two-state solution, perhaps with some financial compensation* to prop up a nascent Palestinian state… the reason that doesn’t work is that it violates some commitments to sacred values that extremists on both sides hold. The more you point out the financial and everyday advantages of living in peace, the more they feel it’s compromising these values that may not be compromised if you’re going to be a moral person.[8]

(*"Perhaps" "some compensation" would include getting a fair share of the $billions in foreign aid that America gives every year to "prop up" the state of Israel. And would the "nascent" state get half of the military hardware and half the nuclear arsenal, just to keep things balanced?)

There is some obvious truth in this argument, but it conveniently ignores the fact that in conflict resolution more is involved than merely addressing the excess of moralizing on both sides. Conflicts of this scale don’t conclude with pat statements saying it takes two to make a quarrel or blame must be shared all around. Instead, after conflicts are resolved, historians and international tribunals usually come to a consensus that finds one side was the perpetrator. One side had the advantage of power, the ability to deny vital resources to the people it violated, or the ability to halt violence. In the cases where international agencies succeed in holding trials, perpetrators are convicted, one side pays reparations, and lesser criminals are sent back to live among their victims and join the process of restitution and reconciliation. No reasonable person makes excuses that the Nazis, Pol Pot or extremist Hutu groups in Rwanda were merely trapped, along with their opponents, in a standoff based on commitments to irrational moral principles.

Pinker could look to a colleague that he admires as one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, John Trivers, who published a book on a similar theme concurrently with The Better Angels. Trivers managed to blend a study of the psychology of self-deception with a biting critique of the false historical narratives that have been constructed by modern imperial powers.[9] The result is that the reader is left with no suspicion that the author had a hidden political agenda because the author’s views were laid bare, without detracting from the discussion of the science of self-deception. The downside of this approach is that Trivers’ decision not to conceal his views meant that even the New York Times’ positive review found it “too shrill.”[10] His book didn’t receive as much attention or sell as well as popular non-fiction that strives to avoid controversy.

Pinker sets out to prove that the decline in violence is real by going over an impressive amount of historical data, then testing his interpretations for falsifiability. He investigates all possible causes of the decline of violence and eliminates any reason that can’t be backed up by the data or logic. Because he is an evolutionary psychologist, one might expect him to make the case for genetic change or selective pressure on societies that became less violent. It could be that certain cultural and natural environments had a domesticating effect, whereby more aggressive individuals reproduced less successfully. Perhaps he feared the backlash from critics who would wince at any hint of biological determinism, so he was careful to steer clear of explanations that resorted to inter-group biological differences. He concluded there was insufficient evidence of a biological change that made humans less violent. He concludes that all of humanity has the same potential for rapid transformation in its values and behavior, but not its genetic constitution.[11]

Pinker dismisses rising affluence as a cause of declining violence, then by the end of the book concludes that there were primarily just two things that brought about the decline. One was The Enlightenment, the period when 18th-century European and American philosophers used reason to argue against the cruelty of entrenched religion, hereditary privilege, and customary beliefs about such things as the treatment of women, children, and minorities. Pinker finds that the other cause of the decline of violence was technology, in particular communication and transportation, which spread the new values. He claims that greater literacy and travel led to a rapid expansion of the boundaries of empathy, as increasing numbers of people were able gain new levels of compassion toward people outside of their very limited social worlds.

Did exploitation of energy sources reduce some types of violence and increase others?

It seems obvious that energy enabled these technologies, which in turn had a pacifying effect on society, but Pinker never addresses energy exploitation as an ultimate cause. He considers many possible causes and eliminates the ones that don’t stand up. He says democracy could have been a cause of the decline of violence, but he notes that democratic reform was often the goal, not the cause, of struggles to expand rights and moral considerations of the neglected segments of society. Prosperity is also dismissed as a cause because it has a “diffuse influence”[12] on society. According to Pinker’s view, surplus wealth could be spent on many things, so it wouldn’t necessarily lead to prosperous societies spending their surplus on, for example, universal education and health care rather than on palaces. I would suggest that the outcome might inevitably lead to prosperity being shared more widely − precisely because I’ve read Pinker’s previous books on human nature (The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works). He convinced me that while our species is hard-wired to compete, it has also evolved toward greater levels of altruism and cooperation. Energy and technology must have made the decline of violence inevitable rather than an outcome of choosing to follow the path of reason.

Perhaps Pinker disregarded energy in this book because he presumed its effects were too obvious to need stating. He frequently mentions technology as one of the causes of the decline of violence, but doesn’t pursue the idea very far. Thus the negative impacts of technology are not explored. For example, rare earth minerals, as vital components of cell phones, have enabled the modern expansion of empathy happening through information technology, but the devastating damage of rare earth mining is not discussed. The energy industry has well-known ecological impacts. Unfortunately, these downsides are not considered as a countervailing influences on the positive trend in the incidence of war and crime.

Although Pinker paid no attention to energy in The Better Angels of Our Nature, he seems to be aware of its importance. Two years after its publication he is now supporting the nuclear industry on his twitter account. He has publicized screenings of the nuclear industry’s film Pandora’s Promise,[13] and tweeted supportively about a New York Times editorial[14] entitled “Fear vs. Radiation: The Mismatch.” Lamenting the damage done not by radiation but by hysterical fear of radiation, he commented on this editorial, “A textbook case of the psychology of fear.”[15]

It is not clear why Pinker would so readily discount the legitimate concerns the public has about the poisons that have spilled out of Fukushima Daiichi, and about nuclear energy in general. Such editorials don’t exemplify the expanding circle of empathy that led to the decline of violence. Work by numerous scientists and reputable organizations has refuted the views expressed in Pandora’s Promise. In addition, robust moral and scientific arguments have been made against the views expressed in what has become a genre in nuclear discourse − the editorial noting that no one died because of the accident at Fukushima (which is, in fact, not true) and that the ignorant masses were suffering from radiophobia − the disease of the statistically illiterate who simply refuse to accept that the global nuclear industry has a firm, benevolent hand on the situation.[16] Tom Burke, writing in The Ecologist, summed up the widespread distaste for this attitude toward the people affected by the nuclear disaster: “This cynical focusing of public attention on the absence of immediate deaths from Fukushima was a contemptible effort to divert attention from its real consequences.”[17]

Pinker seems to have lent his support to the pro-nuclear cause without his usual thorough investigation of the evidence on both sides of the issue. When he was dealing with apparently crucial questions, such as the possible existence of genes for high intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews, Pinker delved into the matter with a 3,400-word analysis[18] of the methodology and reasoning underlying the research paper Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence.[19] He presented a detailed analysis of the seven hypotheses of this research paper. About this research he asked, “How good is the evidence for this audacious hypothesis? And what, if any, are the political and moral implications?” However, there is no indication in his public statements that he has done a serious analysis of the claims made by nuclear energy proponents. In fact, he seems to be coyly avoiding getting caught in the crossfire of the nuclear energy controversy.

About the question of Ashkenazi intelligence he concludes that the researchers:

… provided prima facie evidence for each of the hypotheses making up their theory. But all the hypotheses would have to be true for the theory as a whole to be true − and much of the evidence is circumstantial, and the pivotal hypothesis is the one for which they have the least evidence. Yet that hypothesis is also the most easily falsifiable. By that criterion, the CH&H story meets the standards of a good scientific theory, though it is tentative and could turn out to be mistaken.

If Pinker had applied the same rigor to the important questions about nuclear energy, he might have discovered that the pro-nuclear argument is “tentative and could turn out to be mistaken.” The World Health Organization studies on radiation (the basis of the argument in the New York Times editorial), have all been distorted by the interests of the nuclear lobby. The IAEA, the UN agency with a mandate to promote nuclear energy, has the authority to overrule any WHO research on questions related to nuclear energy. Pinker would surely concede the point that the UN is compromised by the veto power of the five Security Council members who often put their interests (two of which are nuclear energy and nuclear weapons) above global welfare. He described the UN as the reason we shouldn’t hope a world government would fix our problems. “The Security Council,” he wrote, “is hamstrung by the veto power that the great powers insisted on before ceding it any authority, and the General Assembly is more of a soapbox for despots than a parliament of the world’s people.”[20]

I can find no publications in the academic or popular press in which Pinker examines the controversies surrounding research on radiation and the feasibility of nuclear energy as a solution to global warming. The Chernobyl accident is never mentioned in The Better Angels, and Fukushima happened six months before the book was published – time enough to have inserted a few extra sentences to the one paragraph in the book about nuclear energy. Alternatively, the disaster might have caused Pinker to consider deleting the paragraph altogether. Nuclear energy is not an essential topic in his book, but since Pinker made brief mention of the Three Mile Island accident, and argued that the irrational fear it generated needlessly drove America away from nuclear energy and worsened global warming, it would seem germane to discuss these subsequent tragedies. Since he chose to broach this topic, he owes readers a more thorough discussion of subsequent nuclear disasters and a more vigorous defense of his conclusion that Three Mile Island “probably had no effect on cancer rates” and it “halted the development of nuclear power in the United States and thus will contribute to global warming from the burning of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.”[21]

The Better Angels includes hundreds of references, but none for this claim about cancer rates. It seems more like an opinion the author picked up from casual conversation with nuclear engineers, and it’s an unusual lapse from a scholar who is usually meticulous about referencing. The one note in the paragraph refers to the work of John Mueller, a researcher specializing in risk perception, who is also known for his counter-factual history of nuclear weapons, in which he claims that they had no meaningful impact on the course of history.[22]

In previous books, Pinker has had a keen eye for ways that the social sciences were led astray by prevailing, fashionable theories. Confirmation biases have often led researchers to design studies that produce the desired conclusions. One example he has discussed is the debunking of Margaret Mead’s work on adolescence in Samoa.[23] Contrary to her conclusions, it turned out that teenagers there really weren’t that different from teenagers in the West. Years later, the research subjects admitted they thought her obsession with sex was strange, so they started to make up stories to please her. So that’s fine. Very amusing. In this case, whether Mead was right or wrong, we can say with more certainty that the mistake probably had no effect on cancer rates. It’s always fun to poke fun at academics getting things wrong when they fail to see the simple truths that common folk know too well. However, it is worth asking what motivates Pinker to repeatedly reveal such foibles only in the social sciences, but not in other disciplines that he looks on favorably.

When it comes to questions about nuclear energy, the stakes are high, involving effects on the environment and human health for thousands of years into the future. If there were self-reinforcing beliefs among a few hundred anthropologists, certainly there could be biases in the health studies sponsored over six decades by the trillion-dollar military-industrial complex. This problem has been revealed and studied in depth by many qualified scientists working outside the industry (listed below).

Witnesses who lived through Three Mile Island at close range saw their pets and farm animals suffer sudden ailments, and the people themselves reported their rashes, fatigue, and digestive disorders to independent researchers such as Aileen Mioko Smith.[24] Stephen Wing, an epidemiologist, did research on cancer rates and came to different conclusions than did government-sanctioned research.[25] He argued that the official findings depended on faulty logic because they simply ignored evidence that didn’t fit the standard model. Wing argued that the old model had to be reassessed because his research showed the “collision between evidence and assumptions.”

Nonetheless, even the official view states that 13 million curies of radioactive gasses were released in the accident, and based on what is known about the effect of radiation on living tissue, that is a lot of radiation. It is actually implausible that this had no impact on the health of organisms in the vicinity. Saying the accident “probably had no effect on cancer rates” is a matter of optimistic interpretation, not fact. Almost no individual case of cancer can ever be attributed to a definite cause, so anyone can believe whatever he wants about the effects of a nuclear accident, or smoking tobacco, or virtually any toxin for that matter.

The same “probably-no-effects” claim could be said of almost all carcinogens. Considered one by one for their effects on cancer rates, they would each have no clear effect, as it would be lost in the effects of all the other substances, as well as in confounding factors such as genetics and the mobility of the population. All these causes are responsible, and so none of them are responsible, but this does not absolve the people who are responsible for the release of known toxins into the environment. Nor does it resolve the question of how a society should deal with them. Unfortunately, Pinker fails to discuss any of the complexities of the nuclear energy debate, nor does he acknowledge, in his usual even-handed and impartial fashion, that a large body of scientific studies has arrived at conflicting conclusions about the health impacts of nuclear energy and nuclear accidents.

In addition, it is spurious to claim that the fear of nuclear energy after Three Mile Island worsened global warming. Such counter-factual arguments can be refuted by positing different counter-factuals, which are also, admittedly, not worthy of serious consideration. When we decide to make up stories about the things that could have been, we can say anything. No evidence is required. Nonetheless, if the other side wants to argue this way, it is valid to respond that the decision not to exploit nuclear energy had no impact on global warming. Only the decision to burn more fossil fuel contributed to global warming. At every step of the way, it would have been possible to burn less, invest in renewable energy, improve infrastructure, retrofit buildings, or commit to any of numerous other conservation options. In any case, nuclear energy does have a considerable carbon footprint, a fact that advocates like to ignore.[26]

Furthermore, there is no way to know how many additional nuclear accidents were averted by the decision to stop building nuclear power plants. If you really want to talk about past hypotheticals, let’s say all the Great Lakes and the agricultural lands of North America were saved from the same fate as the rice farms of Fukushima Prefecture. But if readers prefer that my hypotheticals be less hyperbolic, I’ll simply say that the only thing that saved Three Mile Island from being an enormous disaster was luck. It was fortunate that as a pressurized water reactor (PWR), it had an adequate outer containment structure. Many of the American nuclear power plants that existed at the time were boiling water reactors (BWR), and over twenty of these still operate today. Fukushima Daiichi reactors 1, 2 and 3 were BWR, and they all suffered disastrous explosions because venting failed and the beautiful sky-blue outer containment structures utterly failed to provide the defense in depth that the nuclear industry had always boasted of.

In the past, Pinker has been clever at deconstructing many of the unfounded but cherished assumptions of the progressive left, and this is all well and good. Yet when it comes to nuclear energy, he seems to have abandoned his usual caution in order to lend his authority as a “leading thinker” to a policy he favors. His status has perhaps tempted him to espouse opinions on matters that others are better qualified to discuss. Pinker has recently made appeals to scholars in the humanities that they have nothing to fear from the participation of scientists in their specialties.[27] Few people would disagree, in principle, with this argument for better cross-disciplinary cooperation, but this facile treatment of nuclear energy proves that in practice there are good reasons for specialists to not welcome visits from tourists. Historians, activists and scientists who have spent their lives researching the social and biological impacts of nuclear technology do not appreciate the casual judgments made by a star intellectual who will be taken as an authority on the issue by a mass audience. Pinker weighs in on this issue as one of the world’s leading thinkers, but he is a casual visitor to land he has made little effort to understand.

Pinker seems to have linked anti-nuclear scientists and activists with his personal observations of leftist naiveté, like the people who thought peace would reign during the Montreal police strike, or a professor who thought the Vietnam War was motivated by a desire to corner the world market in tungsten.[28] However, the popular resistance to nuclear energy isn’t one of these issues where a clever realist with a counter-intuitive argument is going to make a bunch of granola-eaters look like scientifically illiterate dupes. Scientists, such as Alice Stewart, John Gofman, Ian Fairlie, Chris Busby, Yuri Bandashevsky, Alexi Yablokov, and many others,[29] have spent decades of their lives researching the health effects of radiation and have come to conclusions that disagree with those of the IAEA and the nuclear industry. They belong to or have worked with such organizations as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the European Committee on Radiation Risk, Greenpeace, Green Cross, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Radiation and Public Health Project. Call their findings “controversial” if you like, but the anti-nuclear movement, and the popular dislike of being forced to live in nuclear contamination cannot be contemptuously dismissed as a “textbook case of the psychology of fear.”

In the initial months after Fukushima, many news organizations ran editorials similar to the one in The New York Times (cited above), but that was because the full meltdowns and the full severity of the catastrophe were not admitted to until later when the news cycle had moved on and forgotten the issue. After that, the Pollyannas became noticeably quiet. The timing of the New York Times editorial was interesting because it showed the reappearance of the trope right at a time when a lot of bad news was leaking out of Fukushima. It callously dismissed the official abuses that people in Fukushima have had to live with, and it mistakenly framed the fear of radiation as a failure to properly assess risk. I’ve lived in Japan since 2011 and seen very little fear and panic (in fact, a little more concern might be in order), but I have seen a lot of resentment in people who would prefer to not live on contaminated land and eat contaminated food. They would prefer to not be exposed to any level of Strontium-90 nor any of the other toxic fission products that life on this planet did not evolve with. The “fear” is actually anger at and distrust of the institutions that caused and later mismanaged the catastrophe. After repeated lies by the operators of the Fukushima Daiichi plant – and the complicity of governments, the global nuclear industry, and the IAEA in those lies – the mistrust is well deserved.

Perhaps Pinker has supported nuclear energy because, since publishing The Better Angels of Our Nature in 2011, he has stated that he is “a fan of modernity”[30] and is eager to grasp at an apparent solution to energy problems so that moral progress and the decline of violence can continue. Unfortunately, he didn't devote any attention to energy and the ecological crisis in his book. In the concluding pages of it, he even suggests that ecological sustainability is something for which we have “nostalgia” as part of our habitual but erroneous “loathing of modernity.”[31] I tried to give a sympathetic reading to the context of these words. I suspect he really didn’t want to say what his wording suggests. He is, after all, scientifically literate. He must know the human race will have no “modernity” without a sustainable environment (in denying the effects of Three Mile Island, he did state an acceptance of the reality of global warming), but this passage really does imply that ecological sustainability is something that only sentimental dupes long for, something that should be traded away for the benefits for modernity.

Energy, your slave

Although Pinker’s quiet support of nuclear indicates he is now thinking about the role of energy in bringing about the “long peace” and other such positive trends in rates of violence, the book he published two years ago was primarily focused on various non-technological causes of progress, such as the effect of the rise in literacy rates. When people began to read about others who lived in distant times and places, empathy expanded. Yet here too he overlooks the underlying factors that enabled these changes. There had to be printing presses and distribution networks. People needed light in the evenings to read, and the use of energy sources in various applications had freed people from drudgery and given rise to a class of people who had the leisure to read, travel, and enjoy new entertainments.
I found The Energy of Slaves only after having written this essay. It provides a thorough introduction to the writers of previous centuries who first noted the connections between slaves and machines. From the blurb: "Many North Americans and Europeans today enjoy lifestyles as extravagant as those of Caribbean plantation owners. Like slaveholders, we feel entitled to surplus energy and rationalize inequality, even barbarity, to get it. But endless growth is an illusion, and now that half of the world's oil has been burned, our energy slaves are becoming more expensive by the day. What we need, Nikiforuk argues, is a radical new emancipation movement."
Instead of acknowledging these causes, Pinker places his emphasis more on what seems to be a magical transformation in human thinking, which is odd for an intellectual who wrote so much about human nature before this. Suddenly, he sounds a little like the post-modern philosophers and cultural determinists he railed against in earlier books.[32] Now he seems to say that we changed because culture, or the will to employ reason, imposed a transformation on human nature. Pinker finds that the greatest cause of the decline of violence is that we made, as a product of The Enlightenment, a commitment to reason, which he claims is like a ride on an escalator that we must take to whatever height its conclusions lead to.

It would be instructive to also consider a real escalator when we contemplate the reasons for the decline of violence. If it were not for the exploitation of energy resources, this convenient people-mover would have to be powered by servants, slaves, or draft animals (requiring servants or slaves to tend them) turning wheels and gears. Without our modern technologies for energy exploitation, the only way to obtain many comforts would be to put others to work providing them.

Toward the end of the book, Pinker makes the cautiously optimistic conclusion that the downward trend in violence is not guaranteed, but can continue if we are careful. He refers to other contemporary optimists who have come to the same conclusion. He cites as an example Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist,[33] but he doesn’t mention an interesting discussion of energy that this author presented. Ridley makes the direct connection between our increasing exploitation of the earth’s stored energy and the decreasing exploitation of humans.

Ridley sees a causal connection in the fact that the rising exploitation of fossil fuels in the 19th century coincided with the decline of slavery, a decline in the number of working poor who did arduous labor, and a steady increase in leisure time and standards of living:

Thanks mainly to new energy technologies, what took a textile worker twenty minutes in 1750 took just one minute in 1850… It made it possible for fewer people to supply more people with more goods and more services – in Adam Smith’s words, to make ‘a smaller quantity of labour produce a greater quantity of work’. There was a steep change in the number of people that could be served or supplied by one person, a great leap in the specialisation of production and the diversification of consumption… This is not to make you love coal and oil, but to drive home how much your Louis Quatorze standard of living is made possible by the invention of energy-substitutes for slaves.[34]

This difference between “labor” and “work” − the actual application of energy to transform and move objects in the real world − was more evident to laborers of the past who experienced the relief brought by mechanization. Modern people take it for granted, with no memory of the transition.

To clarify his point, Ridley asks the reader to contemplate how many man-hours of pedaling on an exercise bicycle, attached to an electrical generator, would be necessary to supply the energy needs of the average person alive in the early 21st century. Not to worry, he’s done the math. It’s 150 men pedaling around the clock, with many more required to meet the average consumption of First World countries. “These are your slaves,” he declares, referring to fossil fuels and other energy sources. Ridley also makes the point that energy is not concerned only with conveniences like escalators and hot water. It also accelerated fertilizer production (with its harm to oceans and freshwater supplies), pesticide use, and the mechanization of agriculture, inviting unforeseen disasters like the loss of pollinating insects and postponing the day when civilization reaches its Malthusian limits.[35]

Ridley points out also that in order for anyone to have the luxuries provided by these hired pedalers, these servants would have to be needy enough to do the work. If they had any disposable wealth, they too would be looking for servants to work them. In order for a few people to have their desires for comfort fulfilled, they would have to oppress many others. Thus, if stored energy supplies became scarce, the demand for “luxuries” (which might be only what we now consider basic necessities, such as hot water) would lead to more inequality. We easily ignore such truths because no one alive today has memories of the age before automobiles. We have lived large for 200 years on energy supplies that took millions of years to form. No modern society yet lives entirely on energy sources produced above ground in real time from renewable sources.

Ridley’s thought experiment is somewhat absurd, and the numbers may be off a little, but it makes a striking point about how we have massive stores of energy at our disposal without having to break a sweat, or having to make others break a sweat, to get the benefits that come from them. It is not entirely a coincidence that the industrial world began to find slavery morally intolerable just as a new economy based on fossil fuel was emerging.

One question Ridley fails to address is whether slavery really has ceased to exist entirely. You may not greet your livery servants (or your master) in the morning, but there are people in the Niger Delta (to cite just one example) who are paying a heavy ecological price for the oil exported from their lands to Western nations.[36]

If the cause of the decline of violence is thus concealed by this sort of structural disparity, and if it seems instead to have come from our commitment to reason, that’s because so far it has been mostly a free ride with its effects kept out of sight from most of the beneficiaries. In addition to the disparities of the present, ecological damage could be considered the physical manifestation of global financial debt. The cost of remediating environmental damage for future generations can never be paid off in the present or near term, so the only response has been the irrational decision to ignore the moral imperative of inter-generational equity. We double down, borrow more, and push the day of reckoning farther into the future, as if this can be done forever. Yet we know the costs of carbon and nuclear fuels will be paid by future generations for a long, long time.

Although Pinker attributes the decline in direct violence to the expansion of moral reasoning and critical thought, he never fully explores the possibility that the satisfaction of basic material needs, made possible by energy exploitation, was the most important factor. The point is obvious enough to have been the subject of study in books such as Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.[37] Pinker argues the opposite view by pointing to the “resource curse” − the fact that resource-rich nations are often the poorest.[38] In doing so he ignores the methods by which prosperous nations have found ways to obtain the resources of the “cursed.” If it were so easy to fix a “resource curse,” the people of Niger, for example, would have built nuclear reactors and put French people to work mining uranium for them.

It is intuitively obvious that conflict decreases when people feel that their own, and their neighbors', basic needs are met, and when they see their freedom from drudgery lifting. It might have seemed outrageous when the Pope said in 2009 that the biggest advance for women was the washing machine,[39] but the only way to prove him wrong would be to take away all the gadgets from modern people and see what kind of social order devolves. It wouldn’t be great for men, but it would likely be worse for women. Nonetheless, the point that the Pope failed to make was that machines liberated both sexes in ways we take for granted.

Although Pinker credits reason with the decline of violence, he has at other times endorsed Hobbes’ philosophy in many of his books.[40] Hobbes famously advanced the notion that without a strong authority to enforce order, life is nasty, brutish, and short. When the state expands, it forces citizens to forswear the right of vengeance, and imposes law and order. Fear and enmity decline and the virtuous circle can take hold. However, again, the exploitation of energy must have been a key factor that enabled states to expand and project power over great distances.

To contrast with the security given by a state, Pinker discusses the work of Napoleon Chagnon and other anthropologists whose research showed that people in hunter-gatherer societies have a much higher chance of dying by violence. This has been one of the great controversies in the social sciences, as many anthropologists reject Chagon’s findings and have criticized his methods. One of the strongest arguments against the claim is that there are no pristine tribes to study. They have all been affected by contact with industrial societies, not to mention the anthropologists who study them, so the violence might arise from the pressure on their territories and their desire to trade for weapons and other goods. But even if it is true that they are more violent, it’s a value judgment to say people in industrial societies have a better quality of life just because they live longer or die in different ways. Chagnon insisted on this point when he said, with the utmost respect for his subjects, “The real Indians get dirty, smell bad, use drugs, belch after they eat, covet and sometimes steal each other’s women, fornicate and make war. They are normal human beings. This is reason enough for them to deserve care and attention.”[41]

Pinker argues convincingly against not romanticizing the noble savage or the pastoral, pre-industrial life, but still if we consider criteria other than lifespan and modern comforts, that nasty, brutish, and short life in a rainforest may have been happier by some measures than the life passed in offices and factories, and happier than what is in store for people of the future. For a growing number of people in industrial societies, the air-conditioned nightmare is not even air conditioned anymore. Many inhabitants of decaying First World cities like, for example, Camden, New Jersey, could be forgiven for thinking Hobbes’ words, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” referred to the life that they know.[42] Urban decay and environmental contamination are sorts of structural violence that did not affect hunter-gatherers.

Since the financial collapse of 2008, the disappearance of the middle class has been a recurring theme in political discourse, and it’s not unusual to hear talk of an impending collapse of capitalism that would rival the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. The professor of African and African-American studies, Henry Louis Gates, stresses the connection between prosperity and peace:

Under Lyndon Johnson we had guns and butter, we thought we had enough prosperity to put everybody in the middle class, and as soon as that dream fell apart, people once again started demonizing one another. Slavery was about economic relations, it was easy to demonize a group of people who looked so starkly different. As scarcity increases, so will racism. So will anti-Semitism. So will homophobia.[43]

This connection is, after all, rather intuitive and obvious, so it is odd that it is not pursued as a cause of the decline of violence in The Better Angels. The connection would seem to be in line with Pinker’s support of a constrained vision of human nature and realpolitik that can be traced back through Hobbes and Machiavelli to Thucydides’ writing about the Peloponnesian War:

In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.[44]

Journalist Chris Hedges observed the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s, and since the emergence of the Occupy movement he has written about the similarities between then and now. Capitalism, by the definitions it sets for itself in its own discourse, excludes even the possibility of popular rejection of the system, so Occupy has never been taken seriously by established media as an indication of a threat to the system, but for Hedges and other observers, the mainstream media has all the credibility of Pravda in the 1980s. The Occupy movement has all the markings of a movement that will eventually ignite social transformation. Hedges wrote recently:

The last days of empire are carnivals of folly. We are in the midst of our own, plunging forward as our leaders court willful economic and environmental self-destruction. Sumer and Rome went down like this. So did the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Men and women of stunning mediocrity and depravity led the monarchies of Europe and Russia on the eve of World War I. And America has, in its own decline, offered up its share of weaklings, dolts and morons to steer it to destruction… If we had any idea what was really happening to us we would have turned in fury against Barack Obama, whose signature legacy will be utter capitulation to the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex and the security and surveillance state… The populations of dying empires are passive because they are lotus-eaters. There is a narcotic-like reverie among those barreling toward oblivion. They retreat into the sexual, the tawdry and the inane, retreats that are momentarily pleasurable but ensure self-destruction. They naively trust it will all work out. As a species, Margaret Atwood observes in her dystopian novel “Oryx and Crake,” “we’re doomed by hope”… It is collective self-delusion, a retreat into magical thinking.[45]

Pinker was wise enough to make cautious conclusions in order to avoid being cast with those who are “doomed by hope.” His tables and charts showing the decline of violence, limited as they are to war and crime, are convincing, but he is careful to note they are all open-ended. There is no guarantee the downward trend in violence will continue. He concedes that one nuclear blast could reverse all progress, but one could argue that ecological crises and political incompetence could have the same effect, just more slowly. So far in the 21st century, there has been growing alarm about the worsening of the ecological crisis, a steady erosion of civil rights due to the “war on terror,” a global financial crisis, and constant war in the Middle East. 

The mood among many journalists, activists, and social scientists is not at all optimistic. The geophysicist Brad Werner tried to convey the sense of urgency by claiming, in a conference session entitled “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism,” that the science leads to the inescapable conclusion that the only hope is in the successful resistance to the prevailing system of global capitalism.[46]

The role of energy in the decline of violence seems evident in the apprehension that we all have about global warming, nuclear legacies, and various other related ecological problems. As much as protest movements have been against the “one percent,” they are also movements in which everyone is against his own energy-dependent job and his own energy consumption habits. No one could ever conclusively prove what caused such a thing as the global decline of violence, but this fear of losing energy supplies seems to speak to a fear that the result will be an increase in deprivation and conflict.

Many people in Japan recognize the dilemma presented by their energy crunch, which may be a harbinger of things to come for other developed nations. The anti-nuclear movement has often extolled the virtues of Japan’s agrarian past,[47] but the thought of going back to it also evokes much dread. We know the nation could very well be destroyed by another nuclear calamity, but still the ruling party, industrialists, and a sizable minority of citizens want to flip the reactors back on. “But we need the energy!” they cry, as if to say they would rather risk being dead than being poor. Aside from the obvious threat to the interests of industries and financial markets, individuals fear (incorrectly, because there are alternatives to nuclear and carbon) the loss of energy supplies would mean a loss of jobs and individual comfort, and greater poverty and inequality. We fear that the road back to the slow life would be chaotic, insecure, and violent. There is a strong temptation to stick with the familiar evils, a choice that renewable-energy advocate Amory Lovins describes as the false choice between dying of oil wars, climate change, or nuclear holocaust.[48] Even if there is no guarantee that another way based on efficiency and renewable energy would be painless, or even successful, attempting it may be the only rational choice. Manhattan Project scientists were never certain they would succeed, but in order to gain the weapon that would lead to supremacy in the coming age, that expensive gamble was deemed worthwhile. Why are we now so hesitant to invest massively in a new energy paradigm?

Statistical Deaths

Ecological damage must surely be counted as a form of violence, but Pinker never connects the decline of violence with the suffering that arose from the exploitation of energy resources. This is a reflection of a value that has become the norm. We have become desensitized to the human suffering implied by what is euphemistically called “allowable risk,” which really means the risk we allow ourselves to impose mostly on strangers who are far away and out of sight. In a perverse way, direct violence has the advantage of being its own deterrent. Normal people may have revenge fantasies, but they have a complete revulsion to committing violence when it comes down to spilling blood themselves, or even asking someone else to do it for them. Thus we know the familiar sentiment: I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. But this is not the case when we buy products built by child laborers on the other side of the world, or when we fail to protest against governments that kill by remote control. In some cases, statistical violence is self-inflicted. We accept risks to our own bodies to get the benefits of modernity, but for the most part, statistical violence is inflicted on people who don’t consent to or benefit in the exchange. This harm is enormous and must be counted as violence, along with the violence of crime and war, yet it gets no mention in the 696 pages of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The rebuttal to this charge might be that I’m playing loose with the definition of violence, faulting the author for his choice to write only about direct violence. I can only insist that resource exploitation should be included in such a study because it coincided with both an increase in structural violence and a decrease in direct violence. The correlation makes for a hypothesis with prima facie evidence. It meets the standards of a good scientific theory, even though it may be more of a philosophical question beyond the reach of empirical proof. Science may never find ways of categorizing certain types of suffering as violence, quantifying suffering, and placing value on the trade-offs humanity has made in exploiting energy resources. Unlike Pinker’s statistics on war and crime, the statistics on death and disease caused by industrial toxins are unknowable. The effects of bullets and knives are easy to see, but alpha particles don’t leave traces for homicide detectives to discover.

Some cases of energy exploitation may not fit the definition of violence, if we exclude trade-offs that are instances of individuals accepting a risk to gain a necessity. When peasants in India cook with charcoal because it is the only energy source they have, the harm is self-inflicted, not an act of violence. They set themselves up for lung disease in the distant future to have food in the present. Cavemen made similar trade-offs, as do modern people in more prosperous nations when they drive to work on highways.

On the other hand, the social structure that gave peasants the limited choice between suffering lung disease and eating is a kind of violence − the structural violence that Galtung described over forty years ago. Other examples would be wells contaminated with uranium or hexavalent chromium, or rural inhabitants forced to accept nuclear power plants being built on their land.[49] I could list numerous examples of lower socioeconomic groups having to live in the most damaged environments, but the point should be obvious. This sort of violence is widespread and all the more insidious because the torturer and the victim no longer have to face each other. It is crucial to point out also that statistics on violence don’t cover repressive arrangements that exist by threat of violence or deprivation. Violence becomes apparent only when the oppressed react violently, but oppression tends to be passively tolerated for a very long time.

Structural violence persists because of the quest for profit or because of mistaken notions of national status and security. With structural violence, responsibility could be pinned on individuals, but usually it gets spread through institutions and corporations, and the guilty go unpunished. The victims might be strangers on the other side of the world. Responsibility is diffusely spread further among consumers and citizens who benefit from the arrangements made for them by their governments and corporations. Everyone is guilty, so no one is guilty. The radionuclides are diluted so that everyone has to share the burden, but no one has figured out how to make them disappear.

It may be impossible to quantify the global damage caused by pollution, but scientists have of course tried. In October 2013, the WHO released a study estimating that air pollution, in addition to its well-known impact on heart and respiratory disease, caused 223,000 cancer deaths worldwide in 2010.[50] This is just a measure of one kind of pollution, and it is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Much goes unaccounted for by WHO surveys, especially when it comes to studies of nuclear accidents and military tactics that implicate liability for specific entities that have final say on UN pronouncements.

The official World Health Organization conclusions on Chernobyl are a sad joke to the people who lived through its aftermath,[51]and the travesty is being repeated this year as the WHO publishes its report, finding no alarming rise in birth defects related to the use of depleted uranium during the Iraq War.[52] As noted above, it is WHO studies that are trotted out in regularly recurring editorials that tell us that “radiophobia,” not radiation, causes health to decline after a nuclear accident.

In other news that appeared at the same time as the WHO study, a report by the Walk Free Foundation found that 30 million people worldwide live in slavery.[53] Modern slavery has many forms, and they bleed seamlessly into labor conditions we wouldn’t call slavery but do, without doubt, deprive workers of dignity and freedom − arrangements such as minimum wages set below the poverty line, or entire nations depending on a workforce of multi-generational “guest workers” who have no pathway to citizenship.

These reports and examples are just hints of the damage caused by pollution and economic inequality, which have to be tallied as forms of violence in any study of its rise and fall. However, one argument is that the damage of industrial activities, slavery, and abusive labor practices is outweighed by the overall gains. If there is a global increase in such indicators as life expectancy, medical care, and living conditions, this is progress. Nonetheless, it still amounts to trading some lives for others. Superstitions supporting human sacrifice are a thing of the past, but statistical violence implies that we still sanction it in a different form. In statistical violence, the winners and losers are sometimes the same people (a wealthy man getting cancer from the herbicides sprayed on his golf course), but usually they are not. A few dozen children in Fukushima have thyroid cancer this year because of the broken power plant that sold electricity to people in Tokyo before they were born. Furthermore, the benefits of modernity have to be considered with respect to the unknowable future consequences of the industrial age. When these factors are considered, it becomes much more difficult to conclude how much violence has declined. Or, if it has by some limited definition, does it really matter?

We know there will be costs to pay in the future because the future is actually already here. All we have to do is look at the growing list of damaged environments and sacrifice zones. Aside from horrific examples in the Third World, there are examples in the First World where the chickens are coming home to roost.

Canada’s sacrifice zone in the Alberta Tar Sands will be as large as Greece, and the promise of remediation made by the oil industry is unrealizable for a cost that anyone is willing to pay.[54] There are other sacrifice zones in the Gulf of Mexico, Chernobyl and Fukushima, in addition to numerous other smaller chemical and radioactive sites that have to be closed off for future use.

Farther away from the sacrifice zones, urban dwellers die young because of particulate smog. Mercury and radioactive contaminants are emitted in the burning of coal and oil, and they fall on the oceans and end up in tuna. If all this damage is to be counted as violence, the escalator of reason would force us to consider the violence done to other species and to the earth itself.

Pinker makes passing mention of these larger issues in the chapter in which he discusses the expanding circle of what we find deserving of moral consideration. Our notion of animal rights, for example, has expanded greatly in past decades, and he says it might yet widen to consider “statistical lives.”[55] As I was reading this, I thought this might be the start of the necessary discussion about the morality of letting distant strangers suffer the effects of polluting industries and labor abuses, but it was followed only by a brief mention of soldiers sent to wars by civilians who accept that some of them will die. This is the only hint I could find in the entire book where Pinker alludes to, but ultimately avoids, the moral point made by Voltaire two centuries ago in Candide, in the words of the abused slave of Suriname: “It is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe.”[56]

Instead of developing this discussion of statistical lives and arguing more strongly for including it in our moral circle, Pinker drops it and comes close being associated with Voltaire’s object of satire, Dr. Pangloss, or what in modern terms appears as neoliberal economic doctrine or “techno-optimism.” If global average incomes and life spans are up, and crime and conflict are down, then all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, it seems. Pinker writes of “modernity’s gifts of life itself: the additional decades of existence, the mothers who live to see their newborns, the children who survive their first years on earth,”[57] but there is no suggestion that such gains are often achieved through the sacrifices of people of the present and future who will suffer the effects of uranium mining, dam construction, tar sands development and so on. Somehow, this ends-justify-the-means rationale doesn’t do justice to a book about moral progress.

For the past twenty years, Pinker has written brilliantly about topics as varied as language acquisition, irregular verbs, cognitive science and now the history of violence. One can hope that he will next pay some attention to other forms of violence and parts of the world where there is no apparent decline of violence, places where people are paying the price for the peace and comfort gained in other times and places.

Pinker teaches at Harvard, speaks at TED conferences, and travels intensively on the lecture circuit at colleges in the developed world. I can’t help but wonder if he would he have written a different book if he had spent his sabbatical in a trailer park in West Virginia coal country, or even just gone on a day trip from Boston to Woburn, Massachusetts, to meet with the families that lost children to pollution-induced leukemia in one of America’s more famous environmental scandals.[58] After all, Pinker makes the case throughout his book that it was the increased opportunities for perspective-taking, through travel and reading of journalism, memoir, fiction, and history, that helped drive the expansion of sympathy which drove the Humanitarian Revolution, the Long Peace, the New Peace, and the Rights Revolutions.[59] Perhaps he could be a little less of a Davos Man[60] and venture outside his comfort zone, perhaps to a venue such as the World Social Forum.

In spite of all that I’ve written above, The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book that should be read by anyone interested in making a more peaceful world. Although I think he neglected an important aspect of his subject, Pinker has certainly shown that he is devoted to building on the progress that has made certain kinds of violence decline. One has to admit that statistics on crime and war are convincing. Our tolerance for the cruelty of past ages has declined rapidly, so there is reason for optimism. If I am correct that the decline in violence came ultimately from the exploitation of energy sources, then it came at a steep price that takes the edge off any enthusiasm for modernity. If humanity ever finds a way to produce energy with less harm to the ecosystem and to the people who provide it, then there may be a true decline of violence worth celebrating.

Pinker is at his best when he reminds us of our capacity for such change. Societies can transform unexpectedly when change seemed for so long to be impossible. He writes about how just a few centuries ago, an educated man in London wrote in his journal about going on an errand across town, but made only passing mention of a public torture and hanging that he saw while on his way. In the 1950s, it was widely believed that a nuclear apocalypse was sure to come within the next decade. In 1980, no one would have bet that the Berlin Wall would collapse before the decade was out. Pinker points out convincingly that we have become less tolerant of abuses that were once commonplace, so perhaps these values will stick with us when times get tough and growing numbers of ecological refugees need help.

To these examples of rapid change, I would add that our present energy paradigm could, and should, shift rapidly away from carbon and uranium. Nuclear energy could fall from favor quickly once its hazards are fully understood. We have had three major accidents (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima) within 32 years. In addition, there are major deficiencies in the proposals for implementing new (but actually old) reactor designs. The waste legacy remains unsolved and is an immoral burden on future generations. Nuclear energy is inseparable from the development of nuclear weapons, and there is enough danger in dealing with just the hazards that have been created so far. We haven’t really begun shutting down existing reactors and getting nuclear waste out of contact with the ecosystem, and society is yet to wake up to the enormous costs, and perhaps even the impossibility, of this project. Then there is the cost of future accidents, which may come in the midst of war, sabotage, natural disasters, or just a declining ability of countries to manage this expensive and technically complex problem.

On April 20, 2011, as the Fukushima catastrophe was still unfolding, and barely comprehended, Ban Ki-moon, the UN General Secretary, stated during a visit to Chernobyl:

To many, nuclear energy looks to be a relatively clean and logical choice in an era of increasing resource scarcity. Yet the record requires us to ask painful questions: have we correctly calculated its risks and costs? Are we doing all we can to keep the world’s people safe? The unfortunate truth is that we are likely to see more such disasters. The world has witnessed an unnerving history of [near]* accidents. We have seen in Japan the effects of natural disasters, particularly in areas vulnerable to seismic activity.[61]

(*It seems like minders in the UN bureaucracy took it upon themselves to alter Mr. Ki-moon’s words in the transcript. The word “near” appears in square brackets on the UN website where it is likely that the letters U, C and L were in the word that was spoken, between N and EAR.)

A similar question can be asked about violence. Have we correctly defined it and accounted for all of its causes? Does the apparent decline in violence have any meaning if we have neglected to count the violence of economic inequality and environmental destruction? When we consider the uncertainties of interpreting the historical record, and the complete uncertainties of the future, there is only room for limited optimism, based on an understanding of the way that moral values have changed and certain forms of violence have been reduced. Perhaps we have learned enough to comprehend the scale of the challenge and the need for change. Soon we might see the energy equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall: the rapid formation of taboos on exploitive labor relations and industries we only recently found acceptable. Or it may be a slow, painful transition like the abolition of slavery. With proper attention paid to developing a renewable economy and renewable energy, the decline in direct violence could be followed by a decline in structural violence as well. That would be the kind of modernity worth being a fan of.


1. “World Thinkers 2013,” Prospect, April 24, 2013, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/world-thinkers-2013/#.UmOFnvlmiSo.

2. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011).

3. Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Steven Pinker on the Alleged Decline of Violence,” Dissident Voice. December 5th, 2012, http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/12/steven-pinker-on-the-alleged-decline-of-violence/.

4. Chris Williams, “Violence Against Our Environment,” The Socialist (December 5, 2013), http://www.thesocialist.us/violence-against-our-environment/. This article is cited as just one example of many essays that have applied the terms of human conflict to the crimes against the environment, such terms as violence, rape, atrocity, crimes against humanity, and the suffix cide applied to eco.

5. Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167-191. Galtung coined this term that refers to social structures and institutions preventing people from meeting their basic needs.

6. Friedrich Engels, “The Great Towns,” in Condition of the Working Class in England, September 1844 – March 1845. http://www.walkingbutterfly.com/2012/07/26/engels-on-social-murder/.

7. James Hansen, “20 Years Later: Tipping Points Near on Global Warming,” The Huffington Post, June 23, 2008. http://www.examiner.com/article/the-1-billion-dollar-climate-change-cover-up-crimes-against-humanity. Hansen anticipates testifying against energy company CEOs in future trials, but does so without a hint of irony. Opponents of nuclear energy, which Hansen promotes as a solution to global warming, might imagine a day when Hansen himself would be on trial for the catastrophes caused by nuclear disasters.

8. “Steven Pinker: Human Nature in 2013,” The Economist’s “World in 2013 Festival,” December 8, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFDJJ1KydgE#t=1013.

9. Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011).

10. John Horgan, “The Folly of Fools − By Robert Trivers − Book Review,” The New York Times, December 23, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/books/review/the-folly-of-fools-by-robert-trivers-book-review.html.

11. Steven Pinker, 620.

12. Steven Pinker, 476.

13. Steven Pinker. Tweeted on April 24, 2013 by @sapinker. Accessed December 28, 2013. He offered no comment on the film, but the tweet was a promotion of an upcoming screening of Pandora’s Promise at MIT, which would seem to be an endorsement. Followers “favorited” the tweet and thanked him for it.

14. David Ropeik, “Fear Vs. Radiation: The Mismatch,” The New York Times, October 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/opinion/fear-vs-radiation-the-mismatch.html.

15. Steven Pinker, http://stevenpinker.com/. Tweeted on October 22, 2013 by @sapinker. Accessed October 26, 2013. The quote is from the list of recent tweets visible on this website on the date of access.

16. John Dudley Miller, “A False Fix for Climate Change,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 11, 2013. http://thebulletin.org/false-fix-climate-change.

17. Tom Burke, “Can We Risk Another Fukushima?,” The Ecologist, November 29, 2013. http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/2171501/can_we_risk_another_fukushima.html.

18. Steven Pinker, “The Lessons of the Ashkenazim: Groups and Genes,” The New Republic, June 17, 2006. http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2006_06_17_thenewrepublic.html.

19. G. Cochran, J. Hardy, H. Harpending, “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” Journal of Biosocial Science 38, no. 5 (September 2006): 659–693. doi:10.1017/S0021932005027069.

20. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 284.

21. Steven Pinker, 346.

22. John Mueller, Atomic obsession: Nuclear alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

23. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), 368. The author covers this subject in other books: The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.

24. Aileen Mioko Smith, “Three Mile Island: The People’s Testament,” Three Mile Island Alert, March 29, 1987.http://www.tmia.com/node/118.

25. Steve Wing et al., “A Reevaluation of Cancer Incidence near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: The Collision of Evidence and Assumptions,” Environmental Health Perspectives 105, no. 1 (January 1997): 52-57. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1469835/pdf/envhper00314-0052.pdf.

26. Sovacool, Benjamin K. “Valuing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power: A critical survey.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 2940-2953.

27. Steven Pinker, “Science is Not Your Enemy,” The New Republic, August 6, 2013. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114127/science-not-enemy-humanities.

28. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 674. The police strike is mentioned on page 122.

29. Ian Fairlie, A 100 mSv Threshold for Radiation Effects? November 27, 2012. Accessed October 29, 2013. http://www.ianfairlie.org/news/a-100-msv-threshold-for-radiation-effects/. I will wade no further into the argument among scientists and activists over the health effects of low-dose radiation. This reference is given as an overview and a reference to further sources.

30. “Steven Pinker: Human Nature in 2013,” The Economist’s World in 2013 Festival, December 8, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFDJJ1KydgE#t=1013.

31. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 692.

32. Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1994). A chapter is devoted to a critique of the “standard social science model.”

33. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 692.

34. Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Harper Collins, 2010), 236-237.

35. Carlo Rotella, “Can Jeremy Grantham Profit From Ecological Mayhem?” The New York Times, August 11, 2011.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/14/magazine/can-jeremy-grantham-profit-from-ecological-mayhem.html?pagewanted=all. The views of Jeremy Grantham, owner of a 100-billion-dollar asset-management fund, were described this way: “Grantham argues that the late-18th-century doomsayer Thomas Malthus pretty much got it right but just had the bad timing to make his predictions about unsustainable population growth on the eve of the hydrocarbon-fueled Industrial Revolution…That put off the inevitable for a couple of centuries...” 

36. John Vidal, “Nigeria’s Agony Dwarfs the Gulf Oil Spill. The US and Europe Ignore It,” The Guardian, May 30, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell.

37. Thomas F. Homer-Dixon, Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (Princeton University Press, 1999).

38. Steven Pinker, 674.

39. Nick Squires, “Washing Machine ‘Did More to Liberate Women Than the Pill’,” The Telegraph, March 9, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/4959509/Washing-machine-did-more-to-liberate-women-than-the-Pill.html.

40. Steven Pinker, 31-57.

41. Emily Eakin, “How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist,” The New York Times Magazine, February 13, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/napoleon-chagnon-americas-most-controversial-anthropologist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&.

42. Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books, 2012). This book contains a thorough and empathetic description of life in America’s economic and environmental sacrifice zones. Chapter 2 covers Camden, New Jersey.

43. Daniel D’Addario, “Henry Louis Gates: ‘Since Slavery Ended, All Political Movements Have Been About Race’,” October 20, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/20/henry_louis_gates_since_slavery_ended_all_political_movements_have_been_about_race/.

44. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, May 2009) Chapter 10.

45. Chris Hedges, “The Folly of Empire,” Truthdig, October 14, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com/report/print/the_folly_of_empire_20131014.

46. Naomi Klein, “How science is telling us all to revolt,” The New Statesman, October 29, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt. Klein’s article summarizes Brad Werner’s session at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, December 2012.

47. Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams (1990) was a collection of shorts depicting the director’s memorable dreams. After one dream depicting a nuclear catastrophe, which seemed to presage what happened Fukushima, Daiichi, Kurosawa finished the film with an idealized portrayal of a return to a pre-industrial village.

48. Amory Lovins, “A 40-Year Plan for Energy,” March, 2012, TED, http://www.ted.com/talks/amory_lovins_a_50_year_plan_for_energy.html.

49. P.K. Sundaram, “Koodankulam: Indian Democracy Under Nuclear Threat,” DiaNuke.org, November 23, 2011, http://www.dianuke.org/democracy-nuclear-koodankulam.

50. Kaye Spector, “Air Pollution Causes Cancer, World Health Organization Says,” EcoWatch, October 18, 2013, http://ecowatch.com/2013/10/17/air-pollution-causes-cancer/.

51. Alla Yaroshinskaya, Chernobyl: Crime Without Punishment (Transaction Publishers, 2011). There have been numerous research papers, books, and articles written about the collusion between the IAEA and the WHO. This is a thorough history of Chernobyl, told by a Ukrainian journalist and politician who was on the ground from the beginning of the crisis to the present day. Eye-witness accounts cast doubt on the claims that radiophobia and social factors caused most of the health damage.

52. Nafeez Ahmed, “How the World Health Organization Covered up Iraq’s Nuclear Nightmare,” The Guardian. October 13, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/oct/13/world-health-organisation-iraq-war-depleted-uranium/.

53. Alex Smith, “30 Million People Still Live in Slavery, Human Rights Group Says,” NBC News, October 17, 2013, http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/10/17/21005059-30-million-people-still-live-in-slavery-human-rights-group-says.

54. Niobe Thompson and Tom Radford (directors), Tipping Point: The End of Oil, 2011, http://tippingpointdoc.ca/about-the-film/credits/. Dr. David Schindler, quoted in this film, stated, “The costs of any reasonable reclamation are so high that there would be no money made on the oil sands. I don’t think people realize how big the sacrifice zone is going to be. It’s an area slightly bigger than Greece.”

55. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 423.

56. Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 19 (1759).

57. Steven Pinker, 692.

58. Dan Kennedy, “A Civil Action: The Real Story,” Boston Phoenix, 1998, http://home.comcast.net/~dkennedy56/woburn_realstory.html. Kennedy describes the background not told by the film A Civil Action, and notes, “Woburn is one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution. A toxic brew of chemicals has been floating through the Aberjona River valley, which bisects Woburn, for more than 150 years.”

59. Steven Pinker, 583.

60. Akash Arasu, “The Evolution of Davos Man,” The Huffington Post, January 22, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/akash-arasu/davos-man_b_2529544.html. Arasu says, “Davos Man was meant to refer to members of the global elite who view themselves as completely international. They have no need for the term ‘nationality’ and feel that governments are merely shadows of time past to be used as facilitators in their global operations.”

61. UN News Center, Remarks at “25 Years after Chernobyl Catastrophe: Safety for the Future” conference. April 20, 2011, http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/sgspeeches/statments_full.asp?statID=1152#.Ulz-31Cnqc0.s.