Stewart Brand, the driving force behind the Long Now Foundation, has been popping up on my radar recently. He published an article in MIT’s Technology Review last month, outlining several environmental heresies that a growing number of iconoclast environmentalists are exploring, despite going against current environmental thought.
For starters, the global population boom appears to be leveling off, and quite rapidly. Turns out that once people move from the countryside into the cities, population growth is stopped in its tracks and quickly drops below replacement levels. More children are economically valuable in a rural, agricultural setting, but too many children quickly become a liability in urban life. And our species is rapidly becoming an urban species. In 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, by 1900 it was 14%. This year 50% of the planet’s population lives in cities, and by 2020, nearly two thirds of humanity will live in an urban environment. His thoughts about cities are published in Tim O’Reilly’s blog, under the heading O’Reilly Radar > A World Made of Cities.
And that’s not all. Brand also comes to the defense of genetically modified foods and nuclear power, two anathema subjects for environmentalists. Brand posits that GM crops will be not only be necessary to feed the world’s population, but the increased productivity of these crops will allow some land currently under cultivation to revert to natural habitat. Likewise, he suspects that the fears of ‘Franken-food’ are grossly exaggerated, and that ecosystems can handle an introduced gene far more effectively than we believe.
As for nuclear power, Brand echoes the sentiments of James Lovelock. Nuclear power offers the best hope against staving off the worst ravages of global warming in the next century by reducing carbon dioxide emissions at power plants. Additionally, the heat generated by nuclear energy can power electrolysis, providing a ready source of hydrogen for fuel cells. Like Lovelock, Brand points out that new pebble bed reactor technology is inherently safer than the antiquated fuel/control rod system used in current reactors.
Of course there are naysayers that point out their objections to GM foods and nuclear power are not because of the science involved; rather, their concerns are with the soulless global megacorporations that control the technology. Egregious examples include Monsanto suing farmers who save part of their crop to plant the following season, locking farmers into a lifetime of dependence on the corporation for genetically modified seeds; and attempts to market terminator seeds, which force compliance with this corporate extortion by producing seeds which are only viable for one generation, producing sterile, inert seeds for harvest which are completely edible, but unable to germinate. I can think of nothing more vile than this terminator technology; a willful exercise of murderous violence by a gigantic megacorporation against the world’s poor.
As for nuclear power, how many screw-ups should an industry have? Brand concedes that another nuclear accident would probably be the nail in the coffin of future reactor construction. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl demonstrated the dangers of nuclear power, and for all intents and purposes, it looks like the nuclear power industry learned nothing from their mistakes. Pebble bed reactors sound promising, but the technology is being developed by the Chinese and South Africans, not the US nuclear industry. Instead, the President’s call for more nuclear power plants includes provisions for new nuclear power plants using the tradition control rod/boiling pressurized water system and further research into nuclear fusion. Opponents of nuclear power like to point out that massive construction on new nuclear power plants on the scale that China is planning and the president is proposing will only provide few years of power because of the dwindling supplies of uranium. Here’s a typical quote:
At present there are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as the nuclear industry suggests, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. Considering that no new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical. Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years.
I think it is only fair to point out that statistic is skewed. Current reactors use U-235, which is only 0.07% of the planet’s uranium. New reactors can be designed to use U-238, which constitutes the other 99.03% of earth’s uranium, and could power nuclear reactor for billions of years. For what it’s worth, thorium can also be used as the fissile material in reactors, and it is three times more abundant in the earth’s crust than uranium. So that argument is a load of hooey. Don’t get me wrong, nuclear power has it’s problems, mostly in the storage of expended nuclear fuel. But I still think nuclear power offers a clear, proven way to reduce global warming.
I’ve gone on far too long with this post. Obviously I spend a good deal of time thinking about these things and brooding over the end of civilization. Luckily a great many people far smarter than me are also spending a lot of time thinking about these problems. For those interested in continuing the discussion, MIT started up a blog to discuss Brand’s ideas and the excellent WorldChanging group blog offers up ample material on this subject.