2014/07/20

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 I succeeded in getting a mortgage on the Taj Mahal by promising the bank that my heirs ten generations later would make the last payment.
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.

Conditions:

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).

Sources:


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



2014/07/05

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)

Abstract
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.




Endnotes

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.