Back to 1982's Electric Avenue

Electricity consumption in Japan in 1982 was 1/2 of 2010 levels.

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings."
-quote of Albert Einstein published in the New York Times, April 25, 1929
We hear a lot about how both developed and developing countries need ever-increasing supplies of electricity to meet their future “needs.” In Japan, this argument is used to justify the restart of nuclear reactors and the continuation of the nation’s pre-Fukushima energy policy. Nuclear is also justified in this argument because it is “green” and doesn’t require dependence on expensive fuel imports. Nuclear fuel makes nuclear energy cheap, if you can ignore the tremendous costs of capital investment, decommissioning and waste handling that are all pushed on to future generations who may be too ignorant, de-skilled and poor to deal with them.
The argument in favor of the nuclear restart takes economic growth and growth of energy consumption themselves as a laws of nature, like the law of nuclear energy itself: E=mc2. It also places man at the center of nature, as if some supreme being somewhere has promised us a solution to the energy crisis because we are the chosen species.
Physics professor emeritus Bernard L. Cohen wrote in 1990,

“The very existence of plutonium is often viewed as the work of the devil. As the most important ingredient in nuclear bombs, it may someday be responsible for killing untold millions of people... If it gets into the human body, it is highly toxic. On the other hand, its existence is the only guarantee we have that this world can obtain all the energy it will ever need forever at a reasonable price. In fact, I am personally convinced that citizens of the distant future will look upon it as one of God's greatest gifts to humanity.”

Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) is considered to be the inspiration for rationalism and the Enlightenment thinkers who gave birth to the scientific age, and he was the first to speak of a cool and indifferent god rather than a fatherly God who cares about humanity. Ironically, here we see in Cohen’s words a 20th century descendant of rationalism using this latter concept of God to justify the use of plutonium.
People who warn about the dangers of both carbon fuels and nuclear energy are often told that the only alternative is to go back to a pre-industrial, pastoral lifestyle, as if somehow this wins the argument. However, the answer is of course, yes, that, or something worse, might be the result. But I’ll leave aside these dark thoughts about being blasted back to feudalism or the Stone Age, and use the graph below to make readers consider the simple step of going back to a 1970s or 80s lifestyle. Relax, the music (aside from disco) was better then, anyway.
The graph shows the Japanese government’s record of electricity generation from 1952 to 2011, and the curious thing to note is that output doubled from 1982 to 2010, even though the population had stopped growing, and output continued to increase after the collapse of the bubble economy in 1991. If you subtract the electricity generated by nuclear in 2010, the amount generated that year by other methods is still greater than the total output for 1982. What changed in those years from 1982 to 2010?
green-nuclear, orange-coal, light blue-hydro, purple-liquefied natural gas, brown-oil, dark blue-water pumping, red-renewables (solar, wind)
units of y-axis: 10E+8 kilowatt hours.

In the 1980s Japan began the transition from being a frugal, productive nation to a nation of consumers. The oil shock of the early 70s was a distant memory. The yen doubled in value in a short period, and suddenly the pressure was on from America to buy stuff and reduce Japan's trade surplus.
In the 1980s you could still meet people who refrained from using indoor heat until January, even though they were living in tiny houses that were suddenly worth a million dollars. But in the years that followed everything changed. Industry was beginning to move offshore, but the slack was picked up by consumer demand. The companies that built nuclear power plants also built the consumer goods that would use the electricity they produced. Electronics chain stores kept their front doors open in winter and summer, blasting out heat or air conditioning according to the season, blaring loud jingles and keeping (it seemed) every TV on at high volume – something they continued to do even during the crisis periods of energy shortages in 2011 and 2012.
Some of the increase in electricity output can be attributed to a shift from carbon fuels to electricity used for transportation, cooking and heating. This might have done something to make the local air cleaner, but a lot of electricity is lost in the wires on its way from distant nuclear power plants.
Most of the increase can be attributed, I believe, to active promotion of wasteful lifestyles and non-essential goods – the creation of desire for air-conditioning, massage chairs and 24-hour convenience stores, more automated manufacturing, less human muscle power. People were encouraged to be totally complacent about the waste, where it was coming from and how much it might cost to the future.
The point here is that Japan of 1982 was not the dark ages. Before we scare ourselves about needing to devolve back to the lifestyle of the Amish, let’s consider a simple first step. It wouldn't be so unbearable to return to the conditions of a few decades ago. At that time, Japan’s post-war rebuilding was complete. It had excellent statistics in education, health care and longevity, and employment. It had some serious environmental problems, but it had managed to lift itself out of poverty and join the ranks of developed nations. This is something to keep in mind as our leaders act as if it would be impossible to stop growth, reverse energy consumption trends and make “drastic” cuts of 10 to 20%. If a cut of 50% would throw us back to living like Japan of 1982, how is that a problem?

Sources cited:

Cohen, Bernard Leonard. The Nuclear Energy Option: An Alternative for the 90’s. 1st ed. Plenum Press, 1990. http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/chapter13.html

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