Not Hope but Cynicism in Pandora's Promise

The people behind the pro-nuclear film Pandora’s Promise defend their unusual title choice by reminding us that after Pandora unleashed all the evils of the world, there was hope at the bottom of the box. But the filmmakers’ premise is actually quite cynical and pessimistic.
The film mentions the well-known problem with energy efficiency: the Jevons paradox that was first noticed in the 1865 when improvements were made in coal burning technology. William Jevons observed that efficiency doesn’t lead to overall reduction in energy consumption. GDP continued to grow, standards of living increased, and an increasing number of people were able to benefit from energy consumption.
The phenomenon is obvious today if you consider that as hybrid engines deliver great improvements in energy efficiency, more cars will be sold and they will probably be driven longer distances. So, according to this logic, the situation is hopeless. We can’t expect that renewable energy and efficiency gains will save humanity from the climate crisis. The film resorts to a TINA mentality here: Accept what we say because There Is No Alternative to nuclear energy. Only a massive expansion of nuclear energy can satisfy the future demand for electricity by “the poor” (in these arguments, it is never the rich who have desires). Yet wouldn’t the logic of the Jevons paradox also apply to the nuclear option? If demand will always increase, then, just like fossil fuels, renewables and efficiency gains, nuclear is finite, even the promised next generation nuclear. There is a limited number of sites for nuclear plants, and competing demands for land use and the resources necessary to build them.
This point about competing demands was overlooked by Stewart Brand (who appears in Pandora’s Promise) when he debated nuclear energy on the TED stage in 2010. He began with these words:

We are moving to cities... And we are educating our kids, having fewer kids, basically good news all around. But we move to cities, toward the bright lights, and one of the things that is there that we want, besides jobs, is electricity. And if it isn't easily gotten, we'll go ahead and steal it. This is one of the most desired things by poor people all over the world, in the cities and in the countryside.

The statements are true and obvious on their own, but it would be a mistake to consider them in isolation from more fundamental desires. There are a few things that poor people, and all people, desire more than electricity, such as water and food, seas, lakes, rivers and lands to provide the real essentials of life. This is why rural people in India have been in bitter conflict over nuclear power plant projects for many years. In fact, governments that have promoted nuclear power have always had to bribe, bully and deceive rural communities into accepting projects that benefit others. Yes, we all like to have electricity, even the rural poor, but not to the detriment of the true essentials of life.
Thus, at the bottom of this Pandora’s box there really is no hope. It’s only a misleading argument that the present trend must continue. Economies and energy consumption must grow forever.
The hopeful solution to the Jevons paradox is a self-imposed limit on energy use. Societies have to shift their values and set policies that establish limits on energy consumption. This can be done by deliberate restraint, but there is some evidence that it is also happening already through undirected mechanisms. In a much better TED video than the nuclear debate, Amory Lovins showed data that indicates GDP growth has become detached from energy consumption. In other words, the Jevons paradox has been solved. Hybrid cars are worthwhile because there is a practical limit to how many cars we need and how far we have to drive them. Lovins' data show that in the US, the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar of GDP has declined by half since 1976.
It might be hard to understand how this could be so, but it is likely that the Jevons paradox tapered off as industrial societies reached the limit of material goods needed to provide a decent life. After people have all the basic stuff, their houses are full. Thus every developing society enters its post-consumerist phase. After this point, jobs shift to producing what can be called intangible, perceived or badge value. The downside of this is that so many people feel like they don’t produce anything worthwhile. They just push information around, try to sell services for which people feel no natural need, or they join the ranks of the “evil” advertising industry. But it was ad man Rory Sutherland on the TED stage who made the essential point about what is needed to maintain full employment and preserve the ecosystem at the same time. I let him have the last word:

    … what we create in advertising, which is intangible value -- you might call it perceived value, you might call it badge value, subjective value, intangible value of some kind -- gets rather a bad rap. If you think about it, if you want to live in a world in the future where there are fewer material goods, you basically have two choices. You can either live in a world which is poorer, which people in general don't like. Or you can live in a world where actually intangible value constitutes a greater part of overall value, that actually intangible value, in many ways is a very, very fine substitute for using up labor or limited resources in the creation of things.
Here is one example. This is a train which goes from London to Paris. The question was given to a bunch of engineers, about 15 years ago, "How do we make the journey to Paris better?" And they came up with a very good engineering solution, which was to spend six billion pounds building completely new tracks from London to the coast, and knocking about 40 minutes off a three-and-half-hour journey time. Now, call me Mister Picky. I'm just an ad man... but it strikes me as a slightly unimaginative way of improving a train journey merely to make it shorter. Now what is the hedonic opportunity cost on spending six billion pounds on those railway tracks?
Here is my naive advertising man's suggestion. What you should in fact do is employ all of the world's top male and female supermodels, pay them to walk the length of the train, handing out free Chateau Petrus for the entire duration of the journey. Now, you'll still have about three billion pounds left in change, and people will ask for the trains to be slowed down. 


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