Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fissile logic

Last year we watched helplessly as a cold opaque death spread across the Gulf of Mexico.  Now it’s business as usual.  We have to have oil, after all.  This year we watch helplessly as a hot transparent death spreads into the ocean, the atmosphere, and the local groundwater in northern Japan.  Next year it will be business as usual.  There is not enough oil, after all.

I listened patiently as the kid explained that we need to continue to develop our nuclear power capability.  It is really a fairly new technology, he said, and it will take us some time to work out the bugs—little things like what to do about the waste and how to avoid accidents.  The risk of accidents, by the way, can be eliminated eventually because accidents are either directly caused by human error or are the result of poor engineering.   

I started to ask how human error can be taken out of the equation, but he continued without stopping and pointed out how dirty coal was and how solar and wind technology are nowhere near what we need to provide for our escalating energy needs.  For one thing, solar and wind energy have to be collected far away from the urban centers that need the energy.   You are then left with the problem of getting the energy to where it is needed.  With nuclear, you can locate the power generation right where it’s needed, in the heart of the city.  We still have a way to go to ensure 100 percent safety, but we simply have to continue.  It would be stupid to set aside such a potentially beneficial technology just because there are some risks associated with its present state of development.  What if right after the airplane was invented we said “these things are too dangerous,” and then set the technology aside and never developed it?  Where would we be now?

Let’s see.  Without the airplane?  No World War II, no Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no Vietnam, no Iraq I and II, no Afghanistan, no predator drones—no 911!  It would be hard to overestimate the global homogenizing impact of air travel, or the degree to which the jet-setting lifestyle contributes to alienation and general dehumanization.  “Please take off your shoes and then either step into the scanner or allow me to fondle your genitals.” And then there’s the carbon footprint associated with injecting the byproducts of fossil fuel combustion into every square foot of troposphere.  I’m not sure what life would have been like had air travel been resigned to a novelty technology—counterfactuals are notoriously hard to navigate—but I’m fairly confident that it would have been a more human life than what is forced upon us now.

Where will we be if we set aside nuclear technology now?  We won’t, of course.  We have to continue—but not for the reasons the kid thinks.  We have to continue because to continue is built into the design of the machine.  It is a technological imperative.  It is the inertia of innovation.  Because we can, we must—and regardless of the cost or the risk.  The same deadly logic applies to genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

Next year it will be nuclear business as usual, and we will watch helplessly as a bloody convulsive death in the form of an artificial virus—a triumph of nanoengineering—spreads through the population.      

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