Sustainability is the Wrong Model for Development, Renewability the Wrong Model for Energy
Disclaimer: This is written with a very, very rudimentary understanding of both nuclear power and evolution. All errors and misconceptions of mine are deficiencies in my ethos and arguments against me.
There’s been a lot of well-intentioned hype going around about sustainable development and renewable energy in recent decades, based on the premises that it is best not to waste finite resources and that technology can conquer the limitations former generations faced. While not wrong on its face, the notion has a glaring flaw- that it is at odds with the nature of human society, the human condition, and nature itself.
Implicit in the sustainability and renewability narratives is the notion that human happiness and prosperity is best served by a state of harmony with nature. To a degree, this is very true, and a law trespassed against in more ways than one. But the sustainability/renewability narratives use ‘harmony with nature’ in the wrong sense.
Most pleas for renewable energy and sustainable development emphasize the necessity for man to leave as miniscule a footprint on the natural environment as possible- to take as little as possible in, and put as little as possible out. Where possible man ought to use natural rather than artificial means. This model assumes that nature is, and that humans inhabit, a closed system with finite resources, where all parts do their purpose and none transgress that purpose nor harass other parts. This model of nature looks very much like the internal organ system of a complex organism- many various parts each with a specific purpose, the sole necessity being to balance the division of resources so that each part can fulfill its purpose, which is beneficial thereby to all other parts.
Unfortunately for the organism model, nature is much more complicated than this. Alongside the principle of HARMONY is the principle of COMPETITION, the natural chaos which forms constraints upon all effort and directs various organisms towards certain evolutionary paths, and various systems towards certain temporary balances. The important thing is that there is CONSTANT CHANGE; not revolutionary, for the most part, but evolutionary and unstoppable. The balance of nature, in a spatial sense, is completely temporary and changing every second. If there is a permanent balance, it is only in a temporal sense, across time.
Observe the changes in an organism over the course of years, in an ecosystem over the course of hundreds of years, in geology over the course of thousands and millions of years, in a galaxy over the course of billions of years. Never is one thing the same thing again; Herodotus admonishes that one cannot step into the same river twice. The evolutionary processes which drive the development of all things do not allow any of them to remain stationary. No organism is bound by duty to ‘leave things as they found them,’ though humans, who affect things more quickly, ought to bear this principle in mind even though they cannot follow it perfectly.
And the principle which all things best move towards is GROWTH. The multiplication of a species’ numbers, the increase in an organism’s territory, the security of gains; these are the things that allow for more freedom of action and, at a baser level, sheer survivability. Competition for growth reaches even into harmony, when various organisms strive to fill a niche only one can fill.
Moreover, human society does not and has never inhabited a closed system; its resources, while finite, have always been sufficient for further expansion, and interacted with those of Outer Space, and as we now exist at the edge of the space age, it seems that our future will bear only further expansion, to a point that might as well be infinite. This does not imply that wise management of resources is unnecessary; but it does assert that further quests for resources are both necessary and inevitable.
The course of human history has seen three states for any political entity, from the individual to the civilization, to exist in. The first is expansion. The second is stagnation. The third is decay. In expansion, the entity moves forward and advances its interests and level of development; it sharpens its skills and hardens its virtues. In stagnation, such growth ceases, and attention is given to the maintenance of present levels of development. In decay, it declines in all ways, and its virtues erode and give way to its vices; its greatness saps and the entity grows weak.
It is critical to note that no civilization is fated to enjoy expansion forever; by natural processes, societies slip into stagnation and decay. But it is crucial to recognize what is what. Societies, like all things in nature, are better off when they are GROWING, and therefore growth ought to be encouraged, not discouraged.
Sustainable development, and the primary use of renewable resources, provides sufficient energy and management for a society that is no longer growing. And because of its use of renewable resources and sustainable development, that society is no longer free to convert resources into further growth. With no further growth, there can be no further innovation in technology or society or economy, and stagnation and all its spiritual discomforts must inevitably set in. In such a state, the joys and duties of life are unrecognizably diminished.
Human beings seek, in energy sources, things that will provide massive returns; that is why coal, oil, and gas have been so wildly successful and popular in the past. But sustainable development in energy, by its very definition, only provides enough energy to make up for what energy has been lost, in a cycle. There can be essentially no returns here. Were renewable energy able to be efficient enough to generate more energy than necessary, and fuel further booms in growth, and thereby violate the principle of sustainable development which its supporters love and cherish, then perhaps it could become a viable and economical energy source able to power the next generation of human adventurers. But so long as it cannot (and the technology does not appear anywhere near as potent, though probably much more sustainable than fossil fuels,) become the MOST potent, MOST efficient, MOST economical form of power out there, I do not see sustainable technologies like wind and solar power becoming the dominant method of powering our civilization.
Instead of renewable energy, I would advocate for the ascension of and investment in whatever is capable of becoming the most potent, efficient, and economical form of energy. Some have told me nuclear power, and I personally am of the mind that reformed nuclear energy- particularly if fusion is developed as soon as is hoped- will be the core, dominant energy source for human civilization after oil. Oil, coal, and natural gas are the most potent sources nowadays, but as has been demonstrated again and again, we cannot be sure how long they will last, and they are immensely harmful to the health of individuals and the environment as a whole. In the present boom, their use should not be discouraged; but all booms turn to busts, and shale oil is no exception. Nonetheless it seems that oil will sputter along, for at least the next century or more, as a critical component of global energy supplies; wise nations, however, will start investing in and investigating new supplies.
The various forms of totally clean power- hydropower, windpower, geothermal power, wave power, solar power, etc- all have their uses, and all ought to be encouraged. Various areas will probably specialize in their own localized sources, and the smaller the political entity, the easier it seems it will be for it to be shift towards renewable energy capable not only of sustaining but of increasing growth. However, it is hard, so very hard, to imagine entire nations and national programs fueled by such programs; more likely is that another more certain source of energy will lead the way in providing the core of every nation’s power. I think there is reason to believe that that way is nuclear.
Now I am no expert, nor am I particularly well-informed on the consequences of nuclear power. But I do know that it is relatively longer-lasting, reasonably cleaner, and generally more dependable than oil, coal, or natural gas, and it has proven itself to be economically viable. I understand that much of the hype against it is based on unreasonable populist paranoia, though there is indeed a danger in its potential for catastrophe. I am not unaware of its huge expense, and I doubt it would be viable for a good many developing countries.
However, the United States and its fellow developed nations might find themselves at the forefront of energy development and civilizational progress were they to invest more heavily in nuclear energy, while reforming their management practices. No other form of energy is so reliable, nor so conducive to an electric economy, nor so generally safe and advanced as nuclear energy; and for that reason, Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction novelist, in describing the future societies of the universe, considered those run on traditional coal and oil to be barbaric, and only those fueled by atomic power to be advanced.
Engineers and Statesmen, bring forth the future of Mankind, the true Atomic Age so vainly hoped for in the last century! Let us not remain dependent on the decadence of fossil fuel, nor cast our lots with the unproved perfect dreams of renewable energy. Let us march forth into the future on the saddle of nuclear power, understanding its imperfection yet potential, fully aware that Man’s expansion to the universe depends on the ingenuity, pragmatism, and imagination of our own generation.