The way in which the environmental movement splits over the issue of splitting the atom for energy is a fascinating phenomenon. I have compared this in-fighting and factionalisation — with some poetic licence, of course — to the Reformation of Western Christianity. On the one hand, we have those who say that the Church’s doctrine besets its attempts to do God’s (Gaia’s) work. On the other, those who want to remain with the tradition.
The issue is only superficially about choices of technique — nuclear versus renewable sources of energy. Like the Reformation, the schism is generated by the turbulence going on around those engaged in the battle, and is more an attempt to navigate political and social chaos for temporal ends than it is an attempt to get souls into heaven. As argued here often, environmentalism, to the extent that it has been absorbed by the political establishment, is much more a response to the political climate than it is a response to a crisis developing in the atmosphere. The crisis is in politics, not in the skies.
Apart from a few gratuitous insults on either side, the dispute that has rumbled on for a few years has so far been largely technocratic and conducted with political and personal respect. In the latest skirmishes, the four former heads of Friends of the Earth (FoE) politely wrote to the prime minister advising him to drop nuclear power on cost and other grounds; whereupon the hacks also wrote to No 10 saying this advice undermined government climate change policy. Over the next month Porritt, Burke & co will issue four or five more intellectual blasts, and will convene a press conference, and we can expect the hacks to respond.
Until now it has been a classic “fundi” and “realo” split with the pros’ (the realos) desperation to address climate change set against the antis’ (the fundis) conviction that nuclear takes too long, is too expensive and won’t actually work.
But now, the dispute is getting personal and much closer to the political bone with the fallout potentially damaging the whole idea of “environmentalism”. First we have Lynas suggesting that nuclear protesters are not really environmentalists at all, then Monbiot doubted Burke’s commitment to the environment – despite his 40 years’ active service. Now, in an extraordinary exchange of emails between Monbiot and Theo Simon – who is one half of the renowned radical protest band Seize the Day – all opponents of nuclear power are said to have made their arguments “with levels of bullshit and junk science”.
Imagine that… Environmentalists, getting technocratic and accusing each other of peddling bad science, and of not adhering to the principles of environmentalism. And imagine that, Vidal, accusing other campaigners and journalists of being ‘hacks’, and hurling ‘gratuitous insults’at each other. (But no doubt, that same invective is acceptable, when used to diminish critics of environmentalism.) If it shows us nothing else, it shows the intellectual dishonesty at work here. Neither pro- or anti-nuclear environmentalists seem able to reflect on the substance of antipathy towards nuclear energy.
Vidal offers a synopsis of the exchange between the now pro-nuclear George Monbiot, and the anti-nuclear campaigner and musician, Theo Simon. Vidal quotes Simon:
We need more than ever to champion a vision of the kind of creativity which a democratic revolution would rapidly liberate. Nuclear … can give no ultimate assurance of it’s safety or its costs. Neither can it demonstrate the kind of long-term resilience which may prove necessary if runaway climate change does, in spite of our efforts, develop. Resilience is to my mind something which we should be designing into our energy production plans now, as the future is so uncertain for our children. Nuclear requires a stable and continuous technocratic society to exist for centuries.
I always find it amazing when environmentalists invoke ‘democracy’. It is even more surprising to hear an environmentalist complain about nuclear energy needing ‘a stable and continuous technocratic society’. Environmentalism has entirely failed to develop into a democratic movement, and indeed far more often than not demands that political action to ‘tackle climate change’ should happen in spite of popular opinion, and in lieu of a mass political movement or democratic contest to legitimise any such action. And, of course, the action that is demanded is almost without fail the construction of large, powerful, far-reaching political authorities at the supranational level, beyond the reach of democracy. What are these global bureaucracies, if the aren’t an attempt to build a ‘continuous technocratic society’? Environmentalists are hopelessly naive, and seem incapable of reflection on their own ideas. Vidal concludes:
We are starting to get to the heart of what it means to be green today. One vision can justify a corrupt and odious state if it can make an odious technology work to overcome a terrible danger. The other argues that there are far better ways to achieve the same end without the resulting damage to society and the long-term dangers that the technology entails. The questions raised are profoundly difficult and need to be debated, but personal attacks are inflammatory and really help no one.
Vidal makes an interesting claim. It’s not simply that nuclear power is environmentally dangerous, it’s that in order to overcome the danger, it is necessary to build state apparatus which are inherently prone to ‘corruption’ and ‘odiousness’. He paints too polarised a picture of the debate forming within the environmental movement, and paints one half of it too rosy. Amongst the other impulses driving environmentalism and its opposition to various other possible choices of technique are things like this little gem:
Giving society cheap, abundant energy… would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.
The quote is from neo-Malthusian, Paul Ehrlich.
I wonder, then, what makes Vidal believe that nuclear power leads us inevitably towards a corrupt government, and what makes Simon believe that it takes us inevitably towards ‘continuous technocratic society’?
First, there is the obvious contradiction, mentioned above. Simon is not as against ‘continuous technocratic society’ as he protests. Take for instance, his claims in his letter to Monbiot:
In my opinion, the boundaries drawn around my behaviour by the duty of care and the precautionary principle that stems from it are in line with the biological interests of my species and with maintaining the integrity of the biosphere. In other words they are as inviolable as the 7 planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (and used by Mark in “The God Species” as the springboard for his own reactionary ideas). That means I have to create ways to live within them and still thrive. That means, like it or lump it, I’m going to have to do it without nuclear.
You can read my review of Mark Lynas’s ‘The God Species’ at Spiked. Meanwhile, Simon continues…
At COP15 I concluded that capitalism (yes Mark, I’m an unashamed anti-capitalist!) could not respond effectively to the challenge of climate change, because it’s primary motive will always be profit and competitive advantage, even where planetary well-being is concerned. At the very least, a large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives are needed, and this in turn requires a big degree of political control being exerted over capital, which may or may not be possible. It’s that uncertainty which is the difficult bit. I don’t think that you believe we can find the political will or the social base for a meaningful green revolution to occur in time to reduce UK emissions by other means than re-embracing nuclear. I also think that you have forgotten that you yourself are a subjective factor in determining the political landscape, as am I. What is necessary is to encourage and empower a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding. Your current commitment to nuclear in Britain cuts across that agenda, and to paraphrase your email to me, potentially undoes all your other good work.
I’m not interested here, in arguing either way, whether or not Simon’s desire for state intervention can be legitimised through a democratic process. It seems painfully obvious, however, that the ‘left’ has failed monumentally in absorbing environmentalism, to build ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’. Hence, the ‘left’ (if it includes those parts of the political establishment which have gone green) has turned away from democracy, to emphasise instead technocratic approaches to climate change — including attempts to engage the public with its objectives by ‘communicating climate change’, which invariably involve scaremongering. Simon has the ‘large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives’ he wants. He just didn’t get them by building ‘a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding’.
There is an extraordinary technocratic flavour to Simons argument. It talks about balancing ‘biological interests’, and justifying state interventions on that basis. I would suggest that this is the fundamental mistake he makes. Individuals aren’t equipped to make decisions about their ‘biological interests’ at the level of ‘species’, only global bureaucracies informed by ‘the worlds top climate scientists’ are. And so in reducing politics to a matter of biological survival, Simon creates the basis for the ‘continuous technocratic society’ he claims to object to. Let me suggest then, that it is not nuclear power, but renewable energy, and demands for austerity and asceticism from the environmental movement that give rise to technocracy. Even Mark Lynas’s revision of Ehrich’s Malthusianism, and ‘limits to growth’ still locates the basis for political authority (i.e. technocracy) in the necessity of survival, in the face of a (mostly imagined) environmental crisis.
So let’s be blunt about it, you’re either going to get an odious state regulating the nuclear energy industry, or you’re going to get an odious state regulating whatever environmentalists want to regulate, lest your desires, ambitions, or interests threaten to trespass beyond ‘planetary boundaries’. After all, it is desires, ambitions, and interests which, in a democratic society, are negotiated in politics. Environmentalism sweeps them to one side, and suspends normal politics, to emphasise the need for survival. Your own sense of your own interests — whether they are best served by socialism or capitalism — is diminished, on the basis that the issue is the interests of the ‘species’.
Simon’s prose is incoherent, absurd, and contradictory. The pro-nuclear green argument isn’t much better. It only offers a future in which the lights stay on for slightly longer. It doesn’t allow a public debate about which technique is best, nor what the priorities for our energy policy should be. We don’t get to decide between, perhaps a bit of environmental damage on the one hand, and energy that is affordable on the other. We don’t get to discuss what institutions or regulatory frameworks are necessary for the operation of various techniques of producing energy. And we don’t get to argue about what we want to use energy for.
Vidal and Simon end up with their dystopian views of ‘odious’ and corrupt governments presiding like monoliths over the rest of us because it is the vision they desire, just not precisely the vision they are arguing for. That is to say that they presuppose the inevitability of technocratic and undemocratic society because they desire a society run along technocratic, not democratic lines. They complain about technocracy and democracy, because they confuse their own will for ‘democratic’ will, and the decisions they make for the decisions that panels of experts would make; forgetting that what makes institutions either democratic or technocratic is the way they function, not the decisions they produce. And for their part in all this, the pro-nuclear environmentalists have not overcome this short-sightedness and failure to reflect on their own ideas and ambitions. Environmentalism’s Reformation won’t make any difference to those of us who don’t share their faith.