How ironic that Germany, which inadvertently initiated the atomic age, should also be the first scientifically advanced nation to recommend abandoning it. Along with carbon-based fossil fuels! Remember that before World War II, Germany was the foremost scientific nation.
Of course, the United States first developed both of these energy sources, but it developed the atom bomb because it mistakenly assumed that Germany was about to do so. Hence the inadvertence.
The compound disaster of a major earthquake combined with a monstrous tsunami at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, has initiated a widespread reappraisal. There have been prior atomic power plant accidents—at Lucens, Switzerland in 1969, Three Mile Island in 1979, and Chernobyl in 1986, but powerful industry lobbies have minimized the implications. For example, there is a widespread media bromide to the effect that Chernobyl imposed less than a hundred deaths among “worker heroes” who subsequently buried the plant to contain its contaminations. Actually, a 2009 report by the New York Academy of Sciences coauthored by several Russian scientists calculated a toll of several hundred thousand premature deaths in the affected region. Remember that ALL media are owned by a handful of people, so what you know mostly depends on what they are willing to release for public consumption.
The current German reappraisal was initiated in April by chancellor Merkel and her science advisors; with details in a governmental energy policy statement in June. China, Japan, and Italy also announced reexaminations of current policy. But not the United States, which has 104 atomic power plants in operation.
The mere announcement of a policy reassessment of course immediately generated opposition, with no real assessment of options. But since public apathy is generally the bane of policy-making, could there be a better time to assess the several presumptions that underlie present dilemmas? People are beginning to pay attention. The looming questions concern not only the hazards of atomic use, but global warming, water shortages, climbing food prices, and overextended human populations, to name only those on our hazy horizon.
But where is there an open venue? The U. S. has brow-beaten the U.N. for so long that many consider its capabilities problematic. Perhaps a thousand blogs like this one could at least pose questions that expert panels have heretofore elided. Many of the questions are not technical at all: meaning, especially, that they are not questions that naturally occur to physicists, or economists.
Nor are proposals to change the course of our civilization necessarily so radical, unless we let ourselves be scared into believing so by those who swallowed Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “There is no alternative!” Or Ronald Reagan’s lie that “Government is the problem.”
The most unexpected advantage in the German announcement is that chancellor Merkel is herself one of the best-equipped political leaders to attempt it; and that Germany is likewise perhaps the country most competent to accomplish such a transition with minimum disruption.
Chancellor Merkel is academically competent in both physics and chemistry, so more sensitive to what is feasible and what is not. As a conservative, also, she can hopefully more effectively enlist the cooperation of industrialists. Other political leaders come mostly from law or business, and are mostly abysmally ignorant of the sciences involved. Germany, if it can coordinate its mixed strivings, may thus lead the most crucial social experiment of the century and beyond. And China might consider it advantageous to become a principal collaborator in reshaping our tenuous occupation of the planet.
If, therefore, we defer argument until we see the details rationalized by technologically competent people, what else will most repay reassessment and reform? Where have we most obviously neglected what ought to be plain to everyone who can add two and two?
That obvious stumbling block, we would probably agree if we faced the question, is that of overpopulation. Evolutionarily, we depended on high reproduction to surmount our susceptibility to broken bones and infection when we were hunter-gatherers. Becoming agriculturists required many hands, and our churches, which developed at the same time--in the West at least-- internalized our concerns and institutionalized pronatalism.
Agriculture produced food surpluses for a while, and population grew apace. This initiated village life, and now 50% of us are urban. Five hundred years ago we reduced the Roman Church to just another social organization. But we hung on to many of its social institutions, including the pronatalism which, by now, has been made counterproductive by medical advances.
Importantly, The Church had considered usury unsocial, so forbade it. Freed of this constraint by the 16th Century Reformation, an entrepreneurial subset of Europeans forged a new economy based on free entry to the growing market. Based on an initial primitive accumulation of wealth—by expropriation of land and sheer taking-- this quickly (as The Church had feared) reduced society to classes of “haves” and “have nots.”
No longer having access to land, the “have-nots” must work for wages, and the struggle to keep these at a minimum became characteristic of the ensuing Capitalism. This privatized economy became global as the Unites States imposed its post-World War II military superiority. Excess population now enforces minimum wages, since being poor means being trapped because one cannot afford the education required by the increasingly technical society the new economy has built. Modifying these inequities brings accusations of fostering a demographic winter.
But we know that relative well-being fosters a demographic transition, wherein the well-to-do reduce the number of their offspring. The poor continue to overproduce themselves because they mistakenly view their young as insurance against the decrepitudes of age.
If, therefore, we are to reduce overpopulation, and the stresses this puts on social and ecosystems, we must begin by building a floor in economic well-being, so that everyone may expect a reasonable future. The Church once had such a policy, having learned that wages must support a family. We could easily do this again. The real test of an economy is thus its intelligent allocation of incomes, not the emphasis on production and profit-making that has ruled Economics in the last century or two.
Start here, and every other problem is made easier. Ecosystem overloads are first stabilized, then reduced; resources can be more equitably shared; wasteful conflicts between haves and have-nots are minimized; essential education becomes affordable; cooperation outproduces competition; etc., etc.
Let’s welcome the leadership of Germany and complement it with an awareness of the underlying problem of human overpopulation.