Welcome to the Wind Age

The passing of the Nuclear Age symbolises the explosion of self-doubt, and the slow death of ambition.

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

The gas hob on my cooker has failed a routine gas inspection, and the nice men disconnected it. I have a few days to experiment with the joys of microwave cuisine – or, as the nice men suggested, getting my husband to take me out for dinner.

This level of petty domestic drama is the closest I normally get to thinking about energy – how things are powered now, and how they will be powered in the future. Gas and electricity are just there, and how they get there doesn’t really matter. You notice them only when something goes wrong with the supply, or when the bill comes through; then, you just want more of it, and cheaper.

Not that you can say this in polite company. What was once the energy question – how to power the maximum amount of things most efficiently at the cheapest cost – has become the energy problem – how to power a toaster without harming the environment/risking human health/running out of energy sources, and so on and so backwards. Just as the advanced Western world had got to the stage where we could take a constant energy supply for granted, it seems, we have to keep reminding ourselves that we cannot take it for granted, and thinking of new ways to reign ourselves in. Which is depressing, pathetic and daft.

Of course, we are not headed for a world where you cannot run a dishwasher and a tumble dryer at the same time. We need energy, and we’ll get it. And yes, there does need to be a discussion about where the energy of the future will come from – no advanced society should be dependent on just one source. But the energy debate that is currently going on is only partly a practical one. Beneath the discussion about oil v gas, or wind v nuclear, is a struggle to find an appropriate symbol for the era we live in. Whatever practical solutions are arrived at, it seems pretty certain that, metaphorically at least, we are headed for the Age of Wind.

The UK government’s recently published Energy Review – filled with blatherings about ‘radical agendas’ and the need to put the UK ‘on the path to a low-carbon economy’ – has been greeted with delight by most environmentalists (1). The actual review seems to call for a bit of everything – nuclear, wind, gas, etc. But as Geoffrey ‘Greener than Green’ Lean, environment editor of the UK Independent on Sunday, pointed out in the New Statesman: ‘Contrary to cynical advance briefing by some environmentalists, this is far from being a pro-nuclear tract.’ (2) In fact, the government has shown a clear commitment to renewables (of which wind seems to be favourite). The government might accept the need for a couple of nukes when it comes actually to making electricity, but it has shown clearly where its emotions lie.

Windmills are pretty if you are on holiday in Norfolk or Amsterdam. But how did we end up wanting them as a symbol of advanced modern society? How did we get from the Nuclear Age, where the successful application of a scientific breakthrough meant that people believed we never needed to worry about sources of energy running out, to the Wind Age, where we give ourselves over to the unpredictability of nature and look to little Denmark as a model?

Well, it wasn’t because of Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, or the other nuclear scares and accidents that still play heavily on our minds. What is surprising is how few such disasters there have been. There are legitimate concerns about the disposal of nuclear waste, but these are blown way out of proportion – this is a practical problem needing a solution, yet it tends to be discussed as an apocalypse in the making. What really killed the Nuclear Age was an explosion of self-doubt across the Western world, where we stopped trusting in science and politics and started believing in our own nightmares.

Nukes always had a troubled history, due to their tricky association with the A-bomb. Even those who marvelled at the possibilities afforded by nuclear power may have recoiled at US President Harry Truman’s comment on 6 August 1945, when he heard that the Japanese city of Hiroshima had been flattened, that the event was ‘the greatest thing in history’ (3). Scientists, too, reacted with horror to the devastation wreaked by the bomb, and this dented their confidence in nuclear.

The idea that nuclear energy can be blamed for the political decision to bomb Hiroshima is as misguided as the notion that the jet engine is responsible for the terrorist attacks of 11 September. But the fact that nuclear power was intimately linked in the popular imagination with the terrifying threat of nuclear war laid it open, from the start, to a host of doubts and preoccupations that had very little to do with energy supply.

The Nuclear Age of the 1950s and 60s postwar boom rode over such concerns. This was a time of relative optimism, of high levels of faith in science and trust in politicians, of a sense that the post-fascist world could be reshaped and moved forward for the good. But this optimism bled into a growing sense of discontent, which reached its pinnacle in the 1970s. Nukes became a symbol, not of progress and safety, but of danger and distrust.

The USA’s bloody wars in Vietnam and Cambodia showed that modern conflicts were not ‘just wars’ fought for the benefit of world peace and democracy, but that they were liable to end up as out-of-control military adventures which politicians would stop at nothing in order to win. The Second Cold War of the Reagan and Thatcher years made real the spectre of a world war with nuclear weapons on all sides which, it was widely imagined, would end in the total annihilation of both West and East. The anti-war movement, in particular the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), developed a preoccupation with technology around the issue of nuclear arms. When the women’s peace camp was established at the cruise missile base in Greenham Common in the UK, the nuclear weapon came to symbolise everything that radicals were supposed to hate in modern society: from war and patriarchy to money and non-vegetarianism.

Not everybody went to Greenham Common – but the negative symbolism of the nuke was infectious. In this climate of fear, cynicism and obsession with a particular technology, nuclear energy – certainly in the UK – didn’t stand a chance.

If you did not trust politicians with nuclear weapons, why would you trust them with atomic power stations? The deathly and cancerous consequences of something going wrong are, after all, similar. In the UK, belief in nuclear weapons and energy alike were strongly associated with Thatcher, whom the left believed (with some justification) to epitomise everything that was wrong with capitalism in the 1980s. The anti-Thatcher movement, however, got too personal too quickly. Whatever she believed in, for her own scurrilous ends, a left-winger had to believe the opposite. Fine, if this led to the questioning of the Falklands War or a defence of the miners’ strike. Not so fine, once it became irrational about things like energy.

Thatcher liked nukes – ergo, those of us who hated her also hated anything atomic. The attempt to tie everything into the nukes debate went so far that a popular left-wing argument linked Thatcher’s fondness for nuclear power with her determination to smash the coal industry – as if closing the power stations would help the miners keep their jobs. The simplistic circularity of this argument clearly raised the question: so you hate nukes, but where do you go from there?

I was just old enough in the mid-1980s to own a badge bought from the CND child’s catalogue, with a picture of a teddy bear and the slogan ‘I want to grow up not blow up’. Looking back, it was the child’s slogans that really summed up the anti-nuclear movement by then (there was also a t-shirt saying ‘Why should I tidy my room when the world’s in such a mess?’). The anti-nuclear demand was, simply, ‘Stop’. Stop moving forward, and start asking why we need these power plants anyway. Stop, and ask what’s more important – keeping safe, or better cheaper energy production. Limit your demands of the future to the demand that it should be nuke-free. And in this sense, the techno-fetishists have won.

Current UK prime minister Tony Blair is a self-confessed admirer of Thatcher, and as we watch him on his non-stop military world tour, it is hard to think of him as a peace campaigner. But his party’s politics represent all the pragmatism and self-doubt that killed off the Nuclear Age, and have ushered in the new Wind Age. Today’s politicians do not fight against public cynicism and fear, but roll over to accommodate it. That’s why, in the UK government’s much-leaked Energy Review, there was an apologetic bleating about the possibility of building a couple more nuclear power stations, as well as exploring new green and sustainable forms of energy production, and stating the need to tighten our energy consumption belts.

The practicalities of nuclear versus other forms of energy sources is not the major issue here. It is likely the case that, as former Financial Times science editor David Fishlock argues in the UK Spectator, Britain is slowly converting to nuclear power – and already, ‘nuclear power provides about 25 percent of the nation’s electricity’ (4). But what does that matter, if the symbol of our ideal future is a society powered by wind?

Any vision of the future that involves building grand projects and taking a few risks is tainted with the prevailing sense of limits that came out of the failures of the past. Rather than attempting to overcome those failures and look to a more progressive future, today’s politicians simply redefine the future in more manageable, low-key terms, where we pootle along with wind power and other silly little things and go nowhere very fast.

It’s not just politicians. Even private companies, which one would think stand to gain most immediately from a new Nuclear Age, seem more keen to apologise for themselves and to suggest alternatives. When announcing, on 26 February, a £9billion scheme to build nine nuclear stations to replace the UK’s ageing reactors, British Energy and British Nuclear Fuels stressed that going ahead with their plans ‘must not get ahead of public opinion’ (5). They worry that everybody hates them – but so what? Is it right that electricity generation should become an issue of etiquette? Shouldn’t it just happen, in the most effective way?

The choice is not whether we grow up or blow up. It’s whether we grow into a brighter future, or allow ourselves to be blown over by the irrationalities of the Wind Age. Who wants to live in Denmark, anyway?

Read on:

spiked-debate: The future of energy

(1) The energy review, Performance and Innovation Unit, February 2002

(2) ‘Future looks good with 2020 vision’, Geoffrey Lean, New Statesman, 25 February 2002

(3) See Science and the Retreat from Reason, by John Gillott and Manjit Kumar, Merlin 1995, p24. Buy this book at Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(4) ‘Atomic Britain’, David Fishlock, Spectator 23 February 2002

(5) £9bn scheme to build nine nuclear stations, Guardian, 27 February 2002

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