The long road to green serfdom

Germany’s decision to ditch nuclear power should be a wake-up call to all those who favour development.

Colin McInnes

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Topics Science & Tech

German chancellor Angela Merkel is no slouch. The holder of a PhD in quantum chemistry, she understands better than most the technical intricacies of nuclear energy. It is therefore all the more surprising that such a savvy, technocrat politician has been manoeuvred into legislating a national prohibition on nuclear energy.

Let’s be clear about the magnitude of Merkel’s decision. To deliberately abandon the single largest source of cost-effective, reliable and clean energy in Europe’s largest economy is nothing short of jaw-dropping. As recently as 2008, Merkel declared that the then proposed gradual phase-out of nuclear energy was ‘absolutely wrong’. So just how did she get boxed into a corner and make such an economically and environmentally regressive decision?

The answer is not, of course, a Damascene conversion to renewable energy, but modern political dynamics that can allow minority parties to have a disproportionate influence on key national policies. Merkel well knows that nuclear energy is the lowest-cost means of generating reliable, clean energy, but she also understands that her party needs green votes to stay in power. Her capitulation on nuclear energy is a dangerous step along the road to green serfdom.

The sacrifice of abundant, low-cost energy to the downright irrationality of Die Grünen in the Bundestag should be a warning. An industrial accident in Japan – at Fukushima nuclear power station – with no direct fatalities will now result in higher energy costs to German industry and consumers who can ill afford the extra expense. To try to plug the hole left by nuclear energy will require the industrialisation of large tracts of the German landscape with resource-hungry wind farms and, ironically, a fleet of new coal-fired plants. Only in the wacky world of contemporary mainstream green thinking can this be seen as a success.

Environmentalist commentators such as Mark Lynas have discovered only recently that green politics can be less than candid and is often entirely riddled with misinformation. After doing their own fact-finding, Lynas and others have expressed mild shock that longstanding green claims on nuclear energy are, in fact, demonstrably false. Similarly, environmentalist Stewart Brand underwent a conversion on issues such as the use of genetic modification (GM) in agriculture to help boost crop yields. By ripping up field trials of GM crops, mainstream greens have held back publicly funded research that could have provided patent-free GM technology to the developing world. In this case, the green serfs are ultimately the poor, rather than German electricity consumers.

These environmental epiphanies indicate a wider recognition that being green does not necessarily equate to being pro-environment, as evidenced in Germany, or to lifting the global poor out of subsistence agriculture. Lynas and others appear to have recognised that hairshirt environmentalism is unlikely to enthuse the wider public and that technical innovation is arguably the single most effective way to decouple human needs from the environment. And in doing so, both people and the natural environment can benefit.

This decoupling can be seen in the so-called environmental Kuznets curves, adapted from the thinking of Russian-American economist Simon Kuznets on development inequalities. The Kuznets curve idea is that as societies industrialise, they pollute. But then, as prosperity grows, they can afford to invest in the development and deployment of more efficient and cleaner technologies. Although controversial, there is empirical evidence that a number of pollutants follow this trend. For example, data on air pollution, mainly from vehicle exhausts, follows an inverted ‘U’ as national GDP per capita increases. Inefficient, low-tech transportation is eventually replaced with vehicles using much cleaner, more fuel-efficient engines.

It can be argued that the current growth in global carbon emissions is just a sign that we’ve yet to reach the top of that particular Kuznets curve. To reach the top, and then slide down the other side, will require growing global wealth that can be invested in energy innovation and infrastructure. At present we simply cannot afford the large-scale deployment of efficient, clean-energy technologies, and so most countries burn coal rather than fission uranium or thorium. Stalling or reversing growth would prevent us from reaching the point where we can benefit from these new technologies.

Growth can be both socially and environmentally progressive because it is driven by productivity – doing more with less. In some sectors this has led to an effective dematerialisation of economic activity. For example, while the developed nations used countless miles of copper wire to build a communications infrastructure, many developing nations are leapfrogging directly to wireless communication networks, simultaneously reducing material inputs, improving bandwidth and reducing cost – a process termed ‘ephemeralisation’ by US polymath Buckminster Fuller.

In contrast to the perceived excesses of growth, many greens offer a zero-growth outlook, articulated as a distinctive vision of a sustainable future where the sun always shines and wind turbines always spin. For some, this steady state has a genuine appeal that resonates strongly. For example, while re-localisation of economic activity through ventures such as Transition Towns can be dismissed as a step on the road back to agrarian subsistence, some people believe it offers a powerful vision of a more equitable and contented future. But like many aspects of green thinking, it is environmentally regressive, with the low yields of small-scale organic farming annexing more land from nature, never mind more human labour which could be productively employed elsewhere. Such ideas really do take us closer to serfdom.

In contrast to this green vision of a sustainable future, growth optimists often point firmly to the past as evidence of the need for continued growth; they rarely speak of the future. Sharp improvements in life expectancy and literacy since the Industrial Revolution are used as coarse proxies for advances in healthcare and education. The implication is that the continuation of these historical trends and their spread to the developing world is sufficient alone to justify future growth.

But optimists need to provide a coherent vision of a better future and not just point to the past as an indicator of future trends. They also need to address head-on some of the constraints on future growth. US economist Tyler Cowen argues that the significant gains in productivity of the past were the result of what he terms economic low-hanging fruit. We are now left with a hi-tech ‘great stagnation’ where productivity growth has slowed and median incomes have stalled or even declined. Angry Birds on the iPhone, while fun, isn’t an innovation comparable to developments such as electric lighting or refrigeration, both of which improved industrial productivity and had a huge impact on standards of living.

In order to restart real growth in developed nations, productivity needs to improve significantly, both in production and in public services. This will require renewed investment in basic science, more risk-taking and experimentation, and putting resources into transforming production rather than just stimulating consumption. For example, current UK government investment in innovation is being directed towards applied research which can turn existing knowledge into new products and services. This is all well and good, but it is being done at the expense of, rather than in addition to, basic science. Future innovations which will have an impact equivalent to the advent of electrical lighting will come from free-thinking serendipitous discovery, a process which can be neither managed nor predicted. Rather than a ‘great stagnation’, serious investment in basic research, raising educational attainment and new organisational structures may ultimately provide a long-term step change in productivity, and so a future ‘great acceleration’.

If the Transition Towns notion of growth and a green future are one possible vision of the future, a radically different one is provided by industrial physicist Cesare Marchetti. Written in 1979 as a tongue-in-cheek putdown to the misanthropy of the Club of Rome, his paper, Ten to the Twelfth: A Check on the Earth-Carrying Capacity for Man, details a future of up to 1,000 billion souls (10 to the power of 12) living the urban high life, while leaving large tracts of the Earth in a largely pristine state. Marchetti restates the growth-optimist view that resources are a function of human ingenuity, rather than absolutes dictated by nature.

More recently, techno-prophets have offered a heady mix of next-generation pervasive robotics to liberate humans from danger and drudgery, resource-efficient nano-scale manufacturing, radical life extension and even transhumanism as a programme to change not just the means of production, but what it means to be human. Others, such as the Promethean billionaire founder of PayPal, Elon Musk, are on a mission to kickstart a real economy in space and exploit the untapped resources of the solar system. Through such future technical prowess, humanity can ultimately be the planet’s saviour rather than its destroyer. As physicist Freeman Dyson notes, thinking humans have an intrinsic duty to ‘reconstruct nature’ so that ‘humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper’.

In looking to a future of growth we need to restate that the Industrial Revolution was an escape from millennia of Malthusian stagnation, superstition and brutality, changing the course of human history for the better. For all of its faults, the resulting pulse of economic growth has been nothing less than a spectacular success. But we also need to provide a clear vision of a future which is more compelling than mainstream green sustainability and provides a renewed direction of historical travel.

The greatest future danger to humanity is not the nuclear energy feared by German greens, climate change or the other calamities that form the cataclysmic imagery of green eschatology. It is a paralysis of inaction due to risk-aversion, coupled with a wider technological pessimism that has robbed us of a coherent vision of a better future. It is up to optimists to argue for that better future, but it needs to be robustly articulated in a popular and progressive vision. The alternative is either long-term economic stagnation or the long road to green serfdom. Germany’s nuclear decision should be a wake-up call.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde. Visit his website, Perpetual Motion.

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