Enviros, Pro-Nukers and Global Warming Skeptics: A Love Story

We know the stale dichotomies of modernity: left and right, liberal and conservative, constrained vision versus utopian vision. Yet the world is actually much more complicated. The extremities not only touch; they elbow, jostle, hook up, spawn weird offspring, then ditch each other to move on and look for better options.
This can be seen in the strange love-hate triangle that has emerged between environmentalists, nuclear energy advocates and global warming skeptics. The latter two can best be viewed as male suitors competing for the acceptance of the environmental movement. Let’s call these actors Ned, Fred and Ellen, and just think of N as in nuclear, F as in fossil fuel, and E as in environmentalism.
Ned and Fred know that they both have a serious reputation problem, and they would desperately love to win the hand of Ellen. If they could do so, they would bask in the nurturing glow she casts, and win the blessing of the angels and the approval of the public. Some serious positive re-branding comes from winning the hand of she who stands for all things good and nurturing. The suitor that wins Ellen's heart will prosper and multiply. Every king needs a queen. If you win the heart of she who stands for Mother Nature, you win the game.
Yet Ellen is a fickle creature, in no rush to settle for the least bad choice when the stakes are so high. She has been burned before. She is skeptical about global warming skeptics, and unconvinced that nuclear energy could be safely expanded to a scale that would satisfy mankind’s lust for energy. So she waits, and her suitors begin to seethe with resentment.
What is she anyway, they ask, other than a bloated lobby supported by Hollywood celebrities and wealthy urbanites? These people have no idea what it is like to earn a living off the land and truly manage the earth’s resources for the betterment of the common folk. They work from lawyers' offices and bureaucracies in Washington and Brussels, locking up vast tracts of productive land so that it can be preserved in its “natural” state, and this very act of preservation worsens the problem by removing land from active human management. Ellen is a prima donna, an expensive and puffed up princess consuming the very thing she claims to preserve. But still, she stands for the elusive goal of a better world, a solution, and they need her.
And so one strategy is to belittle the competition. Ned says only he can avert the calamity of climate change caused by Fred. Fred says the climate science is all flawed, the solar system and the earth are too big, and time is too vast for a couple centuries of fuel-burning to have made a difference. Sure, we must conserve and develop clean alternatives, but Fred is not the culprit here. “Work with me,” he says, “and forget about Ned’s false promises.”
But Ellen remembers Chernobyl, the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Fukushima and the Athabasca Tar Sands. Ned and Fred are both too quick to overlook the harm they have caused and duck responsibility. Their entreaties, their feckless mansplaining and condescension leave her cold. They are stale and lacking in imagination. Radioactive waste piling up everywhere, or particulate matter in our lungs? Really? Are these the only choices, the price we have to pay for the so-called benefits of our way of life? There’s got to be another way. Better to wait than to settle for one of these two.
And Ned and Fred should know it’s hopeless to go on courting her, and they are each aware that their counterarguments are mutually destructive. While Ellen turns away, they are left to spout their views in their respective narcissistic echo chambers. At heart, the seducer’s quest is all about self-love anyway. And as much as Ned and Fred are antagonists, they must admit it is the bromance that keeps them going. Deep down, no matter how they self-deceive about wanting the best for the next generation, they love each other for being on a as competitors on the same team, on a mission to advance the corporate interests of their respective sponsors and cheerleaders.
A fine example of an attempt to strut and woo the environmental movement is in the marketing underway for the new film Pandora’s Promise, due for wide release in June 2013. The film is a strained attempt to re-brand nuclear as an environmental savior, as if the only choice were between fissile fuel and fossil fuel.
Like many documentaries these days, it is not a documentary in the traditional sense. There is no attempt to be objective, or to look at the issue from many facets. Documentarians used to stand back, let their images speak, and interview people on all sides of an issue, leaving the audience to make up their own minds or leave the theater with unresolved questions. Now, the only approach in films such as this is to be having a thesis and a passionate belief that it is correct. Then the director proceeds to select only the evidence that fits. The best examples of the genre feature the middle-aged apostate acting as auteur. In Waiting for Superman, it was a formerly avid supporter of public education who saw the light and took to promoting charter schools and demonizing public school teachers. And it wasn't just a lone director exploring a topic that captivated him. The project was backed by wealthy donors and groups that had a shared view of how to proceed with education reform. It was a pure propaganda piece.
Pandora’s Promise seems to be another entry in this dismal trend. It was shown at the Sundance Festival, and it is presently going through advance publicity as showings at select university campuses. The trick is to the create buzz among the select few whose opinions matter, then they are unleashed onto social media before wide release of the film. This stealth marketing campaign is supposed to change the parameters of the global conversation about what it means to be an environmentalist.
The writers at Beyond Nuclear have already done a critique of the film’s flaws – not only in terms of its content but also the people behind it and the hype around it. For example, the film claims to feature several “leading environmentalists” who were once anti-nuclear, but it turns out they were never much of either, except in their own recollections.
The Beyond Nuclear report gives details on the numerous omissions and distortions in the film that strive to make nuclear energy seem harmless, affordable and manageable. For example, the director Robert Stone visits a spent fuel storage facility in France and perpetuates the sunny description of it that he has been told by the people hosting his visit. Beyond Nuclear had a contrary assessment:

“… Stone’s self-confessed ‘aha moment’ [occurred] when he was ‘granted entry into a room in France (the size of a basketball court) where all the waste from powering 80% of the country for 30 years is stored.’ But this room, located at the La Hague reprocessing facility, contains in vitrified form only 4% of the country’s high-level waste, and none of the intermediate and low-level waste, none of the plutonium or contaminated uranium, nor of course the waste still at, and being generated by, France’s operating reactors. (The French nuclear industry exempts irradiated and reprocessed reactor fuel from being classified as ‘waste.’ It ‘could be potentially reused at an undefined time in the future’ allowing for the misrepresentation made to Stone at La Hague). The premise for making the film was therefore based on, at best, a mistaken impression.”

The Beyond Nuclear report also notes that the film is supported by The Breakthrough Institute (BTI), and that it prominently features the viewpoints of many of this organization’s members. The BTI has a strange record of wanting to cover all of the anti-environmental angles, while attempting to position itself as the voice of a redefined environmental movement that can accommodate the energy desires of a global population of 10 billion. Ironically, they have a record of both denying anthropogenic climate change and promoting nuclear as the only solution to it. Beyond Nuclear cites a report by thinkprogress.org:

“… they [BTI] spent the past two years dedicating the resources of their organization to help kill prospects for climate and clean energy action — and to spread disinformation about Obama, Gore, Congressional leaders, Waxman and Markey, leading climate scientists, Al Gore again, the entire environmental community and anyone else trying to end our status quo energy policies.”

The Beyond Nuclear report notes how the press releases for Pandora’s Promise have been continually revised and removed from the film’s website. As anti-nuclear critics note every outrageous claim or quote from a fake “expert,” the producers issue new promotional material to tone down the language and look for ways to say things that won’t be immediately ripped apart by critical reviewers.
In the present version of the official trailer, Michael Shellenberger, president of The Breakthrough Institute, says of his past beliefs, “To actually believe in nuclear power was, by definition, to be a dupe.” I am yet to see the film, but based on what has been presented on the official website and the critical reviews of it, and on what I know about this issue (see previous post about the argument made by the organization Don’t Nuke the Climate), I have to conclude that Michael Schellenberger’s younger self would not approve of what he has become. He is, indeed, a dupe. And the public is duped if they believe his self-description as a leading global thinker on energy, climate, security, human development, and politics. He is described this way only on the website of the organization that he is president of, and by a few right-wing publications that find him useful. None of the leading environmental organizations recognize him as a prominent in the field, nor do they endorse nuclear as a solution to climate change. Almost all of Shellenberger’s publications listed on the BTI website are self-published right there.
The director Robert Stone defends the film’s title by pointing out that in the myth Pandora finds hope in the end. This is, of course, after having unleashed all the evils in the world. The opinion we form of nuclear energy depends on when we think the time of hope has arrived, or will arrive. Have all the evils been unleashed, with nuclear now offering us hope for a better future? Or will hope arrive at some time in the future, after enough nuclear catastrophes have convinced us to abandon this toxic technology?
It is to the credit of those who deny anthropogenic climate change that there has not yet been a piece of propaganda like Pandora’s Promise that argues that fossil fuels are the only hope for solving the demand for energy while averting nuclear catastrophes. They know there is no way to put lipstick on that pig. The best they can do is acknowledge the problem, promote green initiatives in the industry, and try to cause as little harm as possible. Long before anyone worried about climate catastrophe, it was well known that hazards like acid rain and particulate smog were causing horrific damage to the environment and human health. These were always reason enough to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
Some climate skeptics, whether one agrees with them or not, have at least taken the respectable approach of not trying to re-brand themselves as environmentalists, or ingratiate themselves with the environmental movement. They are more willing to just kick it in the teeth to make their point.
One example of this is Elizabeth Nickson’s book Eco-fascists: How Radical Conservationists are Destroying our Natural Heritage (published most aptly by Broadside Books). The author puts herself on the side of skeptics who say that climate science is flawed, but doesn't go into details of how it is flawed. In any case, this isn't the focus of the book. I have doubts about some of the points she makes, and while the subtitle is fine, labeling opponents as fascists is a famously cheap rhetorical tactic. Nonetheless, she has written a valuable tear-down of the excesses of the environmental movement.
She describes the insidious bureaucratic creep of the movement in rural communities, using her home on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, as an example. What once started out as a well-intended effort to preserve the island turned it into a flashpoint for ideologues on all sides of land use debates. Regulations, and jobs for regulators, expanded until there was a crippling and expensive process in place for residents who wanted to make even the most minor changes to their properties. Her story describes how she ultimately had some influence in getting the community to roll back the bureaucratic excesses.
Eco-fascists also describes the perspective of land holders throughout the American West who claim they have been deprived of their livelihoods by remote entities, whether they were government, corporations, or environmental groups. The latter erred mostly because of the mistaken belief that land could be preserved if humans just abandoned it and let it go back to nature. However, since the early “noble savage” beliefs of the environmental movement, the science has progressed. 
We now know that before Europeans came, the land was intensively managed by human inhabitants. According to Nickson, the neglect of this history has led to a situation in which large tracts of land are preserved, left unmanaged and removed from contributing to the lives of people who used to work them. Now there are regular catastrophic forest fires in Colorado, for example, which could be happening because of climate change, or because the forests are no longer culled and managed properly. According to this view, the environmental movement has in many cases been the unwitting shock troops that hastened the economic collapse of rural regions. When land owners are bankrupted by regulations and the decline of the local economy, corporate farms and government institutions come later to buy land from those who are forced to sell cheap.
Nickson may be right to reveal these negative effects of preservation efforts, but she seems curiously hellbent on laying all the blame on this one factor, as if the chemical and radioactive pollution of the 20th century was just a little thing that happened on the sidelines. Yes, the original inhabitants of North America had more of an environmental footprint than we once believed, but it can't compare with that left by the industrial age and a population of 300 million. 
The most curious omission in Eco-fascists is that the nuclear history of the American West is never mentioned. The author wrote a great deal about the abuse of the good folk of the American West by remote, powerful institutions (the worst of which seem to be law firms working for NGOs), but if she had really wanted to point to a villain, there are no better examples than the litany of abuses by the nuclear weapons and nuclear energy industry: the uranium mine disaster at Church Rock, New Mexico (more radiation released than at Three Mile Island), still poisonous nuclear facilities at Hanford, Rocky Flats, and Los Alamos, and the millions of people affected by bomb fallout from atomic tests in Nevada.
After reading the book, I couldn't surmise whether Elizabeth Nickson would be against the expansion of nuclear because, if the climate science is bunk, nuclear is not a necessary alternative to fossil fuel. Or would she lump the anti-nuclear movement in with all the aspects of environmentalism that she despises? These questions underscore the chaotic state of flux among the alliances and conflicts forming around energy policy. The multilateral nature of the conflict ensures chaos, which delays meaningful steps toward solutions.
In spite of what the people at 350.org hope, there is not likely to be a smooth transition to a less energy-intensive and less populous world. A return to the conditions of the past might be forced upon us by circumstances, and the road back will not be pleasant. Likewise, the attempt to satisfy demand for more energy will be disastrous. World population grew exponentially after the industrial revolution, not before. Energy inputs enable population growth, so increasing the energy supply ultimately solves nothing. In the past, without huge inputs of fossil and fissile fuels, population growth was always limited by what the sun could turn into food, and what food could turn into animal and human work.
With this, we are back full circle to 1972 and a founding publication in the early days of the environmental movement: The Limits to Growth. In 2010, it was reassessed by Nørgård et al. who called it a "pioneering report," saying, "its approach remains useful and… its conclusions are still surprisingly valid... unfortunately the report has been largely dismissed by critics as a doomsday prophecy that has not held up to scrutiny." Time will tell.


Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Vintage Books, 2006.
Linda Pentz Gunter, Pandora’s False Promises: Busting the Pro-Nuclear Propaganda,’ Beyond Nuclear, May 2013.
Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis L. Meadows, William W. Behrens, The Limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, Universe Books, 1972.
Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, Richard W. Hazlett, The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Jørgen Stig Nørgård, John Peet, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, “The History of The Limits to Growth,” Solutions for a Sustainable Future, 1, no. 2, 59-63, February, 2010.
Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground,” Chemical Heritage Magazine, Spring 2013.
Pandora’s Promise. Official website for the film.

No comments:

Post a Comment