The Limits to Environmentalism

By Keith Kloor | April 27, 2012 11:58 am

By Keith Kloor, a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. This piece is a follow-up from a post on his blog, Collide-a-Scape.


party in Woody Allen's Sleeper
In Sleeper, Woody Allen finds that socializing is different after the 70’s.
Environmentalism? Not so much.

If you were cryogenically frozen in the early 1970s, like Woody Allen was in Sleeper, and brought back to life today, you would obviously find much changed about the world.

Except environmentalism and its underlying precepts. That would be a familiar and quaint relic. You would wake up from your Rip Van Winkle period and everything around you would be different, except the green movement. It’s still anti-nuclear, anti-technology, anti-industrial civilization. It still talks in mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age, cooing over Mother Earth and the Balance of Nature. And most of all, environmentalists are still acting like Old Testament prophets, warning of a plague of environmental ills about to rain down on humanity.

For example, you may have heard that a bunch of scientists produced a landmark report that concludes the earth is destined for ecological collapse, unless global population and consumption rates are restrained. No, I’m not talking about the UK’s just-published Royal Society report, which, among other things, recommends that developed countries put a brake on economic growth. I’m talking about that other landmark report from 1972, the one that became a totem of the environmental movement.

I mention the 40-year old Limits to Growth book in connection with the new Royal Society report not just to point up their Malthusian similarities (which Mark Lynas flags here), but also to demonstrate what a time warp the collective environmental mindset is stuck in. Even some British greens have recoiled in disgust at the outdated assumptions underlying the Royal Society’s report. Chris Goodall, author of  Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, told the Guardian: “What an astonishingly weak, cliché ridden report this is…’Consumption’ to blame for all our problems? Growth is evil?  A rich economy with technological advances is needed for radical decarbonisation. I do wish scientists would stop using their hatred of capitalism as an argument for cutting consumption.”

Goodall, it turns out, is exactly the kind of greenie (along with Lynas) I had in mind when I argued last week that only forward-thinking modernists could save environmentalism from being consigned to junkshop irrelevance. I juxtaposed today’s green modernist with the backward thinking “green traditionalist,” who I said remained wedded to environmentalism’s doom and gloom narrative and resistant to the notion that economic growth was good for the planet. Modernists, I wrote, offered the more viable blueprint for sustainability:

“Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better.”

The piece seemed to strike a chord. It was pinged around a lot on Twitter and generated some heated micro-conversations. A number of people said it was a breath of fresh air. Plenty others were critical. Some complained that I set up a false dichotomy, that I painted a simplistic, cartoonish picture of the green traditionalist, and that it was unfair to the many grassroots greens working at a local level, who have embraced technological and pro-market solutions.

I can’t speak to that last charge, since my post was written on a large canvass, with environmentalism’s representative voices—the leading writers, scientists, and big NGO’s—in mind. Collectively, these are the driving forces that shape attitudes, public discourse, green politics and policy.

If you pay close enough attention to media stories, what is said by mainstream green groups, and of course to big splashy reports put out by esteemed institutions like the Royal Society, you will notice that the beating heart of environmentalism belongs to the traditionalist, as I have characterized him/her.

For example, let’s look at Worldwatch Institute’s 2012 State of the Earth, in a chapter titled, “The path to degrowth in overdeveloped countries.” I’m assuming this path is suggested for nations such as the United States, whose citizens are fond of big cars, big box stores, and Big Gulps at the 7/11. Though Americans are still recovering from the worldwide economic meltdown, here’s how the Worldwatch Institute aims to win them over:

“The rapidly warming Earth and the collapse of ecosystem services show that economic “degrowth” in overdeveloped countries is essential and urgent. Degrowth is the intentional contraction of overly inflated economies and the dispelling of the myth that perpetual pursuit of growth is good for economies or the societies of which they are a part.”

Yes, mainstream greens are actually running on a platform of intentional economic contraction. Now, you might say, well, that’s just one environmental group. Fair enough. Let’s go to this manifesto by James Gustave Speth, in a recent issue of Orion magazine. Speth has been a leading American environmentalist for decades. He is the founder of the World Resources Institute,  a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and currently on the faculty at Vermont law school. In his Orion essay, he writes:

“Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing—underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those in affluent societies, now creating more problems than it is solving.  The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy undermines families and communities; it is leading us to environmental calamity; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting our deepest human needs.”

To understand why this is a pinched view of economic growth that also conflates a number of legitimate issues, read this piece by Robert Reich. In truth, he writes, “economic growth isn’t just about more stuff. Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)”

Poor countries tend to be more polluted than richer ones, Reich says, “because they don’t have the capacity both to keep their people fed and clothed and also to keep their land, air and water clean.” Oh, and by the way, Reich is a longtime liberal luminary and currently a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkley.

The way I see it, Speth is a green traditionalist, the kind who demonizes economic growth based on faulty reasoning and perhaps an ideology that associates growth with environmental plunder. Reich is a green modernist (though I’m not sure he’d call himself a green), the kind who recognizes that irresponsible resource extraction “isn’t an indictment of growth itself. Growth doesn’t depend on plunder. Rich nations have the capacity to extract resources responsibly.”

Do green traditionalists have the capacity to shed their long-standing anti-economic growth bias? Do they have the capacity to incorporate some of the modernist outlook and embrace nuclear power and genetically modified crops, two technologies that experts say will be necessary to expand if the worst of climate change is to be avoided? Probably not anytime soon.

In the comment thread to my post from last week, a reader recalled watching (several years ago) counterculture icon Stewart Brand in a BBC ‘Newsnight’ debate with mainstream environmentalists: “He was pro-city, pro-nuclear and pro-tech. He was also virtually shouted down.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology, Top Posts
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  • DS4119268002

    I’m so glad you mentioned the importance of nuclear power to our future. While we can’t ignore solar and wind, the only way that we could ever bring online a few terawatts of carbon “free” electricity is with nuclear.

  • phanmo

    As staunchly pro-nuclear, I have learned that I should probably just have another pint rather than say something when the subject comes up. I still grind my teeth to hear some of the comments coming from friends of mine who are otherwise relatively well informed.

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  • Vinny Burgoo

    A lot of people advocate zero-growth (AKA steady-state) economies for the developed world and, ultimately, for everyone everywhere. Has anyone ever suggested any plausible mechanisms for how to get there without the developed world’s bicycle toppling over as soon as it stops pedalling (and perhaps the developing world’s bicycle toppling over shortly thereafter)?

    I dislike consumerism as much as the next man who owns a lot of gadgets and think that (once we’re out of recession) a steady-state economy would be terrific. But if such a thing is possible, I’ve yet to see anyone explain how. Pointers?

  • Menth

    As it’s currently in vogue I’ll make reference to the latest book by social psychologist Jon Haidt and suggest that you “follow the sacredness”. The difference between modern and traditionalist greens is the ability to parse the evidence while setting aside strong moral intuitions. The sacralized vision of a pristine and untouched by the sinful hand of man, ‘Nature’ is obviously as old as the book of Genesis and likely older. It will be a joyful day when this false but ubiquitous dichotomy of “Nature- Pure, Good, Clean” and “Man-Dirty, Bad, Foreign” is finally laid to rest with the other irrational curiosities of human history.

  • Brian Schmidt

    If you look at big NGOs like Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund, you’ll find that Kloor’s critique has no basis whatsoever.

    People confuse anti-nuclear with anti-technology. I’m not especially anti-nuclear and think some of the opposition to it isn’t well-founded, but that’s just one small area.

  • Alan Nogee

    Here’s a second to Brian Schmidt’s comment #5, with some evidence.

    I am one of those who had a heated twitter conversation with Mr. Kloor after his last piece. I predicted he might find some academic types who would argue along the lines of his green traditionalist cartoon — and here he has. But the fact is that the mainstream environmental groups — national, as well as many regional and local groups — who are actually working on climate and other major energy issues — are all vigorously advocating the kind of positive, technology-based agenda that Mr. Kloor accuses them of disfavoring.

    Since Mr. Kloor seems not to have the time to actually research what the mainstream environmental groups are recommending, let me provide some links:

    Union of Concerned Scientists Climate 2030 Blueprint (on which I worked):

    Natural Resources Defense Council: An Economic Blueprint for Solving Global Warming


    World Wildlife Fund:

    Sierra Club:

    Environment America:

    I don’t believe you’ll find any of them recommending economic contraction or “back to the land” movements as “solutions.” They are all full of serious proposals to transform our energy system to support a modern, growing, clean energy, job-creating, economy. The UCS study includes a detailed economic analysis, using a modified version of the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s National Energy Modeling System, of clean energy scenarios.

    What Mr. Kloor really seems to object to is the general lack of inclusion of new nuclear plants in the scenarios recommended by mainstream greens. It is strange that Mr. Kloor seems to regard support for this 50 year old technology as the prerequisite for being a green modernist, despite the fact that the industry’s economic predictions for this technology have never been borne out. More on that some other time.

    Alan Nogee, Clean Energy Consulting
    former Director, Clean Energy Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

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  • Russell Seitz

    Brian, have you ever tried to find people at NRDC or EDF with whom to discuss new developments in environmentally relevant science and technology ?

    They seem rather thin on the ground, but that may just be degrowth in action.

  • Mary

    @Alan Nogee: which of those organizations support GMOs?

  • saptarshi

    i see that exporting waste to the developing world was conveniently left unaddressed. also robert reich is a neoliberal economist from effing yale. of course, he would prescribe IMPF friendly pro-growth economic policy.

    word to the wise, keith kloor, just because critics of growth trade in descriptive (instead of prescriptive) rhetoric, it’s very easy to be dismissive, but only masochists (or the 1%?) would argue that industrial capitalism is working out very well.

  • Frank Johnston

    The International Energy Agency is gravely concerned about the limits to growth and the constraints that greenhouse warming places on fossil fuel use. They are alarmed at the slow shift to renewables. The IEA has never been seen hugging trees or wearing love beads.

    Frank Johnston

  • Brian Too

    @7. Alan Nogee,

    You can quote all the examples you want, but there are scads of counter-examples too.

    I consider myself an environmentalist but there are focus and attitudinal differences where I find myself at odds with many environmentalists and their messages. For instance I find that hard-core environmentalists like to talk about first principles and seems to have little flexibility to account for circumstances.

    What do I mean? Well, for one thing, the planet is facing a huge population bulge. Authoritarian and control oriented measures to do something about this have failed everywhere except China. What has worked? Ironically, growth. As in, raise the standard of living, raise educational levels, increase GDP, increase lifespan, provision better healthcare.

    So the reality is, until our population levels stabilize and start to decline a bit, the environment is going to take a hit. Yet rather than focus on the fact that rates of population increase are falling, environmentalists invariably focus on the absolute growth. As though we had a humane choice!

    Here’s another example. Our energy needs cannot be quickly or easily switched to renewables. It’s such a huge problem, with no ideal choices, that we’d cause more hardship by conducting a forced march to change. It’s a worthy problem for discussion but what it really needs are demonstration projects, pilot plants and the like. Focus on what can be done and become enablers for the change you want.

    I can easily reel off examples where environmentalists wind up sounding like the Voice of Doom. Most of the organizations you list have fallen into that trap at one time or another.

    Here’s a message of hope. The Earth is strong and adaptable. If we only make a few changes, she will stay strong. Here’s what you can do…

  • Alan Nogee

    Mary, Sorry I don’t work in that area. But also don’t see how whether mainstream environmental groups support or oppose a couple of specific technologies justifies a broad brush characterization as ‘traditionalists’ as defined by Kloor.

    Brian, Yes, you and Mr. Kloor may find any number of examples of individual environmentalists painting gloomy pictures or advocating economic contraction. But if one is going to broadly critique the mainstream environmental movement in this way, surely the fact that virtually every national (and regional) environmental group working on climate policy has put together hopeful scenarios, based on advanced technology and continued economic growth, and is actually working to implement them, must be relevant. There may be individual environmental leaders advocating no-growth, but so far, not a single national advocacy organization has made such a recommendation part of their policy prescription or agenda.

    With respect to the realism of those scenarios, I’d welcome specific critiques of any assumptions in UCS’s Blueprint, which I spent several years working on. UCS went to great effort to benchmark technology cost and performance assumptions based on real-world experience. Interestingly, however, the cost of wind and solar technologies has decreased faster than UCS projected in 2008/9. Analysis by collaborative projects involving the Department of Energy labs, utilities, and renewable energy industries have found that even higher renewable energy penetration targets are feasible. And leading states are achieving greater rates of efficiency improvements than in the UCS scenario.

    Personally, I would also like to see more positive messaging from DC enviro groups. Years of experience has shown them, however, that the most effective communication strategy is not to focus on either gloom and doom, or to lead with solutions alone, but to pair clear assessment of problems together with workable solutions. Anyone who takes the time to look will find lots of both.


  • Mary

    @Alan Nogee: I see, only YOUR tech of interest counts. Gotcha.

    See, now as a supporter of plant science, I feel entirely isolated from the mainstream enviro organizations. But who cares.

  • db

    Its funny that you use the word modern. One of the places that environmentalism would be unrecognizable vis-a-vis the 70s is in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning. Perhaps landscape architecture especially – all fields concerned with modernity and technology. Today, there is a dynamic and creative embrace of technology in these fields. I’m not saying there aren’t problems in green building, but if your ‘sleeper’ environmentalist was an architect she would wake up to a very different world.
    Also funny you quote Speth, someone active in the 70s, to characterize contemporary thinking. Reich as well – he actually co-wrote an article with a UC Berkeley architect on architecture and environmentalism in 1969. Certainly there are numerous economists and policy-makers thinking creatively about a technological post-environmentalism – why not talk about/to them? I’m not sure the question is wether ‘traditionalists’ will become ‘modern’, but when we stop identifying environmentalism with the traditionalists.

  • Asteroid Miner

    Reference: “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart. The fear started thousands or millions of years ago with the fear of witches, wizardry, magic etc. The design of the human brain is very bad. See “Religion Explained” by Pascal Boyer.

    “The Rise of Nuclear Fear” by Spencer Weart needs “Religion Explained” as background. A lot of modern first world people do magical thinking rather than logical or scientific thinking [not all logical thinking is scientific]. That is, they think of technology and things they don’t understand as magic. That is especially true of anything “nuclear.”

    The US government did a lot of propagandizing about nuclear things in the 1950s. Some US government officials used secrecy as an instrument of political power at the same time. The secret is:


    Nature is an open book. Nature is the same everywhere. Any country with enough money, sanity, scientists and uranium can make a nuclear bomb. Most that could, chose not to. Iran seems to be stuck by a lack of something cultural. Uranium is mineable in many countries.

    The following seems to be too complicated for many people:

    Bomb = bad
    Reactor = good

    There is no possible way that a reactor could ever become a nuclear bomb. Chernobyl did not. I will have to tell you a little about how to make a bomb to explain the difference. Nothing classified. See:

  • Robert

    Earth abides.

  • Keith Kloor

    Alan Nogee,

    It’s disingenuous to suggest that there is an important distinction to be made between environmental think tanks and advocacy groups. There is not. You suggest that such think tanks and “academic types” (as I have cited) don’t characterize environmentalist thought or have much sway with environmental advocates. That’s like saying conservative think tanks and conservative thought leaders don’t influence conservatives or conservative rhetoric.

    I also find it curious that you would downplay the importance of environmental writers and academics/scholars/thinkers, which belies the history of environmentalism. From its origins, the environmental movement has been hugely influenced by a number of scholar/scientists, from Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to E.O. Wilson and Bill McKibben.

    The fact is this: In recent years, the “de-growth” movement has gained currency in environmental circles, both in the U.S. and Europe. Here is an article in NRDC’s magazine on the influential British economist, Tim Jackson, the author of the book, Prosperity Without Growth. (Oh, hey, as I discussed above, it so happens that a major report just released from the UK’s eminent science institution recommends economic contraction in developed countries.)

    And look here, another article on the virtues of “de-growth” at Greenpeace’s site, from one of it’s founders:

    More to come. While I’m at it, I’ll also see if I can find a few encouraging words about the environmental and health benefits of genetically modified crops. I know environmental groups and green advocates have so much to say about that, too.

  • Charles Justice

    Rachel Carson is still right that Pesticides are dangerous to all life including ours. John Muir is still right that we need to stay connected to the natural world. Global Warming is the first evidence of Limits to Growth. More will soon come. Economically we will be forced into negative growth whether we like it or not.

    We’ve thought we’ve proved Malthus wrong by 200 years of technological and agricultural progress. But it was all contingent on cheap fossil fuels. When energy becomes more expensive and harder to extract we are on the descending side of peak oil. We will no longer be able to choose to increase energy consumption we will be faced instead with using less and less energy.

    Yes, let’s use more renewable energy, and let’s conserve energy. We need to do bothfor our health as well as a way of keeping sustainable. But renewables cannot replace our prolifigate use of fossil fuels which are far more concentrated forms of energy. We will have get healthier and reduce car use. This is not going to kill us. Everyone will benefit in terms of less obesity, better hearts and lungs, reduced diabetes, and longer more fufilling lives.

    We can’t base our principles on wishful thinking. The Earth is a finite planet, it cannot sustain infinite growth. So let’s learn to live with those consequences while we can still learn.

  • Mary

    What a lot of people forget about what Rachel Carson also said (hat tip to Pam Ronald) :

    “A truly extraordinary variety of alternatives to the chemical control of insects is available. Some are already in use and have achieved brilliant success. Others are in the stage of laboratory testing. Still others are little more than ideas in the minds of imaginative scientists, waiting for the opportunity to put them to the test. All have this in common: they are biological solutions, based on understanding of the living organisms they seek to control, and of the whole fabric of life to which these organisms belong. Specialists representing various areas of the vast field of biology are contributing–entomologists, pathologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists, ecologists–all pouring their knowledge and their creative inspirations into the formation of a new science of biotic controls.”

    I happen to think that putting the best tech tools in farmers hands around the world is even more important that the nuclear discussion–because we need these tools with or without that wrestling match. In fact, we will need faster and more precise tools in a more rapidly changing climate.

    And it’s remarkable how one’s position aligned with Rachel Carson, and eager to see reduced chemical inputs, and pest controls based on natural tools like proteins and plant hormones–gets ones ass kicked right out of the discussion. Try to show up at a UCS group meeting with that perspective and see how far that gets you. Nevermind Greenpeace actually mowing down projects that included nitrogen-efficient wheat.

    How would you feel about Greenpeace if they were destroying climate science experiments and recording devices? It’s not just benign dislike–it’s active and willful hindrance. And it’s not based on science, it’s based on ideology.

  • Hendrik Van den Berg

    Oh my, in this published rant Keith Kloor exhibits the very same human arrogance that stimulated the varying mixture of growth and destruction over the past 200 years. The quote in the article says it all: “the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better.” The author might as well have evoked the term “white man’s burden” to boot.

    The fact of the matter is that humans have been very fortunate over the past 200 years, having been able to apply their limited understanding of nature to pick the low-hanging fruit that nature provided to increase their presence on Earth. In so doing, they lost track of the fact that in the long run we humans must live in, not exploit, our natural environment. We cannot shape it to our wishes. We just do not have enough technology to transform enough resources to gain enough power over nature to make it conform to our precise wishes, provided, of course, that 7 billion people could ever agree on what we want from nature. We are just not that smart, folks.

    It is the kind of mind-boggling arrogance displayed in this article that effectively justifies and encourages the most self-serving business interests and let’s them capture the easiest resources for their personal profits, while the rest of human society, and the rest 0f the natural world, is forced to deal with the uncertain consequences. For example, these business interests (and apparently Kloor too) see no problem manufacturing highly potent radioactive materials fuel our foolish consumption binge and then leaving them simmering in easily damaged pools of water next to nuclear plants all over the world. This is not very likely to work out very well. To see these accidents to happen justified here is stunning, to say the least. I would urge a bit of humility and caution before we plow ahead with such blind faith in humanity’s very limited abilities.

    I suppose that in the eyes of Kloor and other pro-business interests, such a call for caution makes me one of those luddite traditional environmentalists. So be it. But we traditional environmentalists are not going away because after years of evidence and experience, we have a much more realistic understanding of nature and the complexities of the ecosystem. We understand that the Anthropocene is a dangerous time, and we had better move around carefully if we are to survive, much less flourish. We have not found solutions to all the problems humanity has encountered as it enters the Antrhopocene, and there is no reason to believe we will find them as our growing footprint multiplies the problems relative to the diminishing gains from more material consumption.

  • Dave Gardner

    Kloor, as most cornucopians do, offers no proof that perpetual economic growth is possible. Charles Justice’s comment above is on the mark. We are at the end of growth, whether we like it or not. It just remains to be seen whether…

    … we gracefully embrace the end of growth and align our societal goals with something more meaningful that is physically possible and can really deliver good lives, or

    …we go down fighting.

    It’s not looking good at present, primarily because Kloor and millions of others cling to their blind faith in growth everlasting, and refuse to see the evidence that technology is not solving our problems. Oceans are acidifying. Fisheries have collapsed and continue to do so. Fertile soil is being depleted. Fresh water crises are forecast by all, not just environmentalists. One billion people are malnourished or starving.

    Technology has a role, and none of the environmentalist Kloor disparages in this piece have advocated turning our back on technology. But blindly believing we can just party on and technology will clean up our mess is a naive and unproven approach. If technology is working out so well, how come we can’t eat the fish? How come we can’t feed 7 billion? How come we can’t stop desertification? How come we can’t get the Colorado River to flow all the way to the sea?

    The solution is SO simple – it’s to get over ourselves and our growth and domination imperative. Just like enjoying a slice of cheesecake, moderation is not a bad way to go.

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  • MattM

    When we have availability of a decent amount of food and water for everyone on the planet and aren’t extinguishing species, poisoning our waterways, trampling over the rights of communities to lay pipelines or Frack on farmland, mowing down our forests, fishing out our oceans, then I might be prepared to listen to this. Until then, I think this article is just conveniently avoids little inconveniences like this.

    And please stop using science will save us. Until we start using science primarily for things other than to accelerate destruction, it’s a pretty lame argument.

  • Sheryl Dudley

    As a pragmatic environmentalist from WAY back, I’ve often wondered if the ‘strict’ environmentalists have ever considered what would happen if they got everything they wanted instantly. I do believe the consequences would drive them insane to know the catastrophe they’d brought to the world. (Old saying – You must be careful what you wish for; new saying – unintended consequences.)

    It’s nice to begin hearing some voices of reason. Is zero population growth good for the world? Maybe so-maybe not. If we have all we want as a species right here, then, what motivation would we have to reach for the stars… other than curiosity. It’s always best for humans to have some outside stimuli to drive exploration and… the dreaded growth. (Potato famine; religious persecution, et. al.)

    There needs to be long-term and short-term plans in the environmental movement. Also, the plans need to be more pragmatic in their approach to climate change. For the US, I’d suggest converting to natural gas and add a tax that’s just spent on renewable energy R & D. (Administered by civilians; not the political hacks.) That alone accomplishes 3 things: 1) drives the economy with the conversion construction 2) diminishes the green house gases long enough for us to find renewable ‘green’ solutions 3) stops sending money to the people that hate us in the Middle East.

    Mary’s right… it’s not about science or even logic; it’s ideology.

  • Bob Rollins

    Kloor attempts to contrast the new and old environmentalism. Perhaps a more simple comparison would be that the oldsters want to stop growth and that the newbies want it to head in a different direction. One of the problems in this discussion is the term, “Growth” What is it? How is it measured? Is it measured by relative monetary wealth? Is it measured by human population? Is it measured by our intellectual and scientific understanding of environmental evolution? As all of these measures have continuously increased, sometimes haltingly, so the must all be considered in a discussion of growth, and often they are not. It is impossible to move backward in time, or to stop time in its tracks with the world “out of balance”. It may be best to move in future time to goals which stress a better balance in those measures. With the wide differences in monetary wealth (consumption), population (birth rates, health care), and our understanding of our environment, changes will continue. Is it possible to evaluate and accept directions which would lead to a brighter future? We are getting closer to solutions, but not much closer to acceptance. Do we want the dinosaurs back? Can the world survive without polar bears?

  • BillZ

    > … nuclear power and genetically modified crops, two technologies that experts say will be necessary to expand if the worst of climate change is to be avoided…

    All experts, Mr Kloor? Or just a few that share your ideological beliefs, and who are often in the pay of nuclear and GMO corporations? What about the many experts who say we do not need nukes or GMO crops?

    How about the International Energy Agency report released a few days ago that said we need to rapidly deploy renewables but said nothing about nukes? Is the IEA now just a bunch of day-dreaming hippies? Or how about Germany abandoning nukes and going 100% renewable? Do you think the Germans are a bunch of anti-technology tree huggers?

    And how about the evidence that shows GMO crops repeatedly fail to deliver on promises of higher yields? If the product is so good why did Monsanto need to bribe government officials in Indonesia, or lie in their adverts in France?

    Rather than environmentalists being blindly opposed to certain technologies, it’s the ‘free market’, pro-corporate, pro-consumption-at-all-costs gang that are blindly pushing technologies that will not help to reign in the environment-destroying capitalism that is at the root of all the looming crises that face humanity and most life on the planet.

    P.S. If the best people you can use to prop up your argument is Lynas, Gooddall and Brand then it’s a testament to how weak your argument is.

  • Alan Nogee

    Keith Kloor,

    I see. It’s ok to generalize that “environmentalism” hasn’t changed since the 1970s, and the the “green movement” is “anti-technology” and “anti-industrial” because some environmental groups publish thought pieces and interviews in their newsletters with people who question the nature of growth and how it’s measured, even though:

    a) their detailed analyses, recommendations and visions of the future are entirely structured around pro-technology pro-growth industrial assumptions; and

    b) the actual policies that they work hard to achieve are all consistent with pro-technology and pro-growth policies.

    The modern thing to do, I guess, would be to never even tolerate any discussion of problems associated with traditional ways of defining and measuring growth at all.


  • Michael Jensen

    I’m dubious of any model that requires magical thinking, whether that is a harmonic convergence of Aquarian energy fixing our human condition, or a technology fix for an ever-more-consuming society.

    I’m especially dubious when it comes along with ad hominem sarcasm, self-promotion, and self-satisfied cynicism.

    There is no instance in nature in which continuous growth and increasing consumption in a finite environment ended well. Maybe humans are the exception, and we can magically innovate ourselves into the best of all possible worlds, but in general, ignoring the limits of the natural world seems a fool’s bet.

    I’m all for innovation, and recognize that technology and science have the possibility to mitigate what we’ve done to our world. But to believe that science and technology is the answer, while simultaneously ridiculing what many scientists are recommending, seems not just contradictory, but even self-serving for your argument.

    We cannot exploit millions of years of accumulation of oil, coal, groundwater, and topsoil in a couple of hundred years, while treating the oceans and atmosphere as a bottomless pit for waste, without serious consequences. To continue with the same basic approach of extract-and-consume-and-grow — the model that got us balancing on the precipice of multiple tipping points — is madness.

    To imagine otherwise requires a truly blind faith in God, or the marketplace, or I suppose human ingenuity. Blind faith ignores reality.

    The snide assertions embedded in the article makes it pretty clear that the writer cherishes blind belief over rational observation and analysis.

    Alas, so do many others, especially deniers, energy company shills, and corporate apologists, as well as those they convince to doubt.

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  • Brian L

    Regardless of whether we reach carrying capacity and crash as has been repeatedly predicted by any one paying attention to environmental constraints (Malthus and the limits of growth are not incorrect in their theory, only in their knowledge of technology and available resources) traditional growth on earth cannot continue indefinitely.

    All economic activity (and all activity in general) requires a non trivial amount of energy. Regardless of source (fission, fusion, solar, orbital solar, anti matter) all energy use produces waste heat. This heat must all be radiated into space at a rate dependent on the surface temperature of the planet. After four centuries or so of continued exponential growth (at current rates 3%/yr) this energy dissipation requirement results in an average surface temperature high enough to boil water.

    In the end it is not a question of whether traditional growth (GDP and all that) on earth will end but rather how it will end. Those convinced that perpetual traditional growth can happen are either planning to live in space, in favor of building really really big radiators, or don’t understand the physics.

  • Brian L

    As a side note I am not anti growth. Growth has numerous benefits as well as draw backs but in general has been good for the human population and, in some ways, the environment. Manufacturing was becoming cleaner before being out sourced.

    However it bothers me that the myth of perpetual growth in the form of ever increasing economic well being is still widely accepted. We live in a universe with absolute physical constraints and in one form or another, this century or the next, they will eventually come into play.

  • Marco Valente

    @mr Kloor:
    I enjoyed a lot reading this article and by the end of it I could really tell in which of the two categories I would fit. The post raises some relevant points, and some other points to me more questionable.

    Some alarmist reports in the past carried similarities with some Malthusian prophecies: very true indeed! I am sure there have been many alarmist prophecies who didn’t turn out to be true, or entirely correct. At the same time, I would also list i) some near-catastrophes that were severely underestimated; ii) some negative events that did happen, despite the warnings; iii) some predictions that turn out to be correct over time, and yet the cries for attention still go unheeded.

    i) had humanity not seen the impacts of CFC’s on the ozone layer in time, catastrophic consequences would have come. this post mentions the Anthropocene and not to rail against it but rather “embrace” it. The very realization that we are in an era of our making has happened mostly starting from the evidence of the risk we (as humanity within the biosphere’s capacity to support us) had run to damage the ozone layer to an extent that would severely undermine our quality of life. Even worse would have happened had industrial production adopted bromine instead of CFC’s

    ii) At times negative consequences did happen, despite the warnings. Collapse of the cod fisheries in Canada in the early 90′, for example. To listen to the warnings that fisheries were actually at risk would have helped.

    iii) Recently a climate prediction from 1981 has been evaluated on the RealClimate blog. And turned out to be quite precise. Legions of scientists have been telling us about the risks of climate change and there is still so much resistance even now to accept its reality. I can easily understand their frustration, then.

    On the positive vs negative visions, I see that positive visions are essential to get engagement and excitement about a world that we want, not just about a world we want to run away from. On this, I acknowledge there is a broad spectrum of differences in the realm of what the author here would call the “old environmentalist”. I disagree though in saying that nothing has changed since the ’70 (I wasn’t around then) since I see a solutions based approach in a few of the think tanks and influential authors. Among many: Amory Lovins and Greenpeace and its renewable energy transition.

    Modern environmentalists are more pro-growth and technology? Good point but you need to acknowledge that it needs unfolding underlying assumptions. The first: growth of what? Growth of our economy (GDP as we have known it) has been linked to negative impacts that as a society we are trying to solve with more growth. It’s since the 70’ies that Jay Forrester uncovered this paradox when he was explaining the drivers of many societal problems: the key problems are unwanted side-effects of economic growth, and to solve them society pushes for ever more growth (by the way, Forrester was an essential mentor of the same Dana Meadows who wrote the Limits to Growth report). Today this paradox comes to the fore again, but just in different terms: to afford eco-efficiencies and breakthrough technologies that can solve today’s sustainability challenge you must first have a high level of prosperity, and to get that prosperity you must keep pushing for economic growth (the same growth that has been a driver of our problems, perhaps?) I would buy the argument of keep growing, only if fundamental issues about the way we measure it were addressed. Only a handful of countries are considering seriously the issue of changing the metrics. That, too, may be a dogma that needs to be demystified. If we all agreed that GDP can change to mean quality of life without environmental destruction, I bet many of the “environmentalists” that I know will be on the new “pro-growth” side.

    @mr Alan Nogee: Pretty much echo your views on this. And as a consequence the question of “what we mean by growth” then may be the bigger conversation we may need to have.

  • George Clark

    Why did Revkin publish this bit of nonsense? For example,it’s true we’ve never yet had a global Malthusian collapse, but we’ve experienced a lot of local examples–they ruins of those civilizations give anthropologists and archeologists their daily bread. Rich countries go green by outsourcing their CO2 producing factories to China (or Vietnam), dumping their toxic waste on the shores of Somalia (terrible what those pirates do–eh?) or into China or the black districts of South Africa. Consider this: the biomass of the earth cannot grow (but can shrink by a large factor); the amount of water on the earth is fixed, thus no growth dependent on water is possible. Ca. 200 million years ago, large carbon dioxide emissions from volcanoes in Siberia, over a period of 5000 years, raised the temperature of the earth enough to reduce its biomass by ca. 90% and a few million years were required to bring life back to its former level. Revkin keeps telling us at the top of his column that we must find food, water, and shelter of another two Chinas in the next decades. Quite simply, we can’t and we won’t. As one of the commentators noted, earth is resilient and will survive, but it often carries on with mass extinctions–and we are likely to join that common but unpopular mode of adaptation.

  • Sarah

    First, many people who read the reports of scientists have reason to be very concern. They certainly do not have to be environmentalists. If it was suddenly discovered that an asteroid was coming this way, I don’t think “environmentalists” would be the only ones concerned.

    Even thought the reports about impending problems with climate change are pretty darn gloomy, people(environmentalists -those who are constant advocates for the natural world- and others trying to solve future problems, have found that talking about the gloomy is not very effective as people tune out to avoid it. So carefully worded positive posturing is important to the general public. And I guess to you. I would avoid trolling environmental advocacy sites to see what those with great concerns are communicating to each other. Just stick with the mainstream reports and I think you will be less critical, and most of what you say will be unfounded.

    For those of us concerned about global warming, technology is the main key to advancing from fossil fuels. Duh.

    Nuclear power has serious environmental risks, but we will have too pull back from it slowly as offshore wind, large scale solar are going to take time. We don’t really need to be cheerleaders for nuclear. It’s here. Wouldn’t anyone want to replace it with renewable eventually? It’s just a question of how soon.

    It just seems too bad that someone with your ability to write, think and research can spend one’s time coming up with this distorted theory. By doing this – creating divisiveness, criticizing people who are trying to form solutions, trying to stereotype large groups of people,etc, you are just part of the problem.

  • Eleanor

    As an environmentalist, it is not the technology, itself, I object to; it is the cultural attitudes which determine the type of technology we develop and the uses we put it to. As long as we in “the West” image ourselves as separate from, superior to, and rightfully in control of the rest of nature — an image which is at odds with the facts — we are doomed to continue down a self-destructive path. The rest of nature was here long before humans put in an appearance, and will be here long after our departure from the scene. However, we might be around a little longer if we recognize our true position within nature — a position of utter dependency — and develop and use technologies that take that dependency into account.

  • Pythagoras

    I’m guilty as charged! I believed in the 1970s that the world economy was headed toward economic and environmental overshoot and am more convinced daily of the situation.

    Kloor is typical of those who criticize “The Limits To Growth” without ever having read the book. What Dana Meadows hypothesizes is that there are insufficient price signals early enough to permit us to invest capital wisely and thus we will tend toward overshoot.

    Two good modern examples of this are the pursuit of deep water oil in the Gulf of Mexico. The major oil companies have invested billions in deep water and are finding either that the risks are higher than anticipated, e.g. the Deep Water Horizon disaster, or that the Returns on Investment are lower than anticipated, e.g. the poor returns on the Thunderhorse platform. Yet, despite these hazards, we’re still pursuing declining returns and riskier investments in even more offshore and deep water drilling, and in arctic exploration where insurance is difficult to come by.

    The other example is the current investment bubble associated with shale based natural gas. As been reported by industry insiders (Art Berman), all the major gas companies are producing at about 50% of their cost. Furthermore, every gas well drilled uses the equivalent in steel as 300 cars and yet has a lifespan of 3 years. This sure seems like approaching a limit when one compares the situation to conventional gas plays whose lifespans lasted decades.

    Even if we were to commit heavily to nuclear power (which I’m opposed to primarily because it burdens our children and children’s children with the issue of nuclear waste, not the hazard necessarily mind you, but the economic issue), we have decades before we redevelop the engineering knowledge and manufacturing infrastructure to bring nuclear to scale quickly.

    Probably the best place to see the near term consequences to limits to growth would be in the price of airplane tickets. The cost of fuel is now 50% of the cost of an airplane flight–less than the cost of the crew, less than the cost of the capital. Who believes in this time of worldwide economic weakness that we’re going to see fuel costs decline lower than this percentage in the future? It isn’t going to happen. We’ve been spoiled over the past two decades about the ease of travel. As the world’s demand for resources increases and the discrepancy in relative wealth decreases, we’ll see our ability to use fuel-hungry pleasures decline.

    And this Mr. Kloor is the Limit To Growth.

  • Russ Finley

    Everyone is defending or attacking environmentalist caricatures that exist largely only in their imaginations. Just as importantly, we need to be asking how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

    The arguments against nuclear by people claiming to be scientists remind me of the tactics used by the Discovery Institute to promote intelligent design.

    Alan Nogee, former member of the Union of Concerned Citizens says in comment 8:

    “…What Mr. Kloor really seems to object to is the general lack of inclusion of new nuclear plants in the scenarios recommended by mainstream greens…”

    Nice try Nogee, but that tactic is easily countered with a list of mainstream greens who are very much pro-nuclear power. Go read James Hansen’s “Storms of My Grandchildren.”

    Way back in 2005, when your UCS&C was still participating in the lay media’s biofuel love fest, environmental writer, George Monbiot courageously wrote an article called “Worse than Fossil Fuels” and was immediately and viciously denounced by environmentalists. Today, we see the UCS&C has jumped on Monbiot’s band wagon denouncing palm oil biodiesel and corn ethanol. You really need to go read that article:

    And when you are done reading that, read “The double standards of green anti-nuclear opponents”

    Nogee says:

    “…It is strange that Mr. Kloor seems to regard support for this 50 year old technology as the prerequisite for being a green modernist, …”

    Stranger still is the fact that airplane technology is over a century old. Using your reasoning, a Sopwith Camel biplane:

    …is the equivalent of an F-22 Raptor:

    It would be refreshing to see you come up with an original argument as opposed to parroting what you find on Google searches, which you wouldn’t be parroting if you applied any critical thought to them like a real scientist is trained to do. Would you like to see a list of radically new nuclear designs that are on drawing boards all around the world?

    Nogee continues:

    “…despite the fact that the industry’s economic predictions for this technology have never been borne out….”

    Riiight. Let’s apply the common sense test to that remark. Twenty percent of all of the electrical power in the most energy hungry nation on the planet is being provided at highly competitive rates by nuclear power plants, which, according to your own UCS&C literature, also produce less GHG emissions than solar:

  • Brian Schmidt

    Keith Kloor at #20 provides two links that allegedly support his position that major NGOs back some type of primitivist, back to the land, anti-technology position. I urge people to actually read his links. First both of them are interviews, not statements of positions of the organizations themselves. Keith doesn’t like that the organizations are talking to these economists, apparently.

    Secondly, if you read what they say, it’s not all that crazy. Things like “Yes, growth is not innately evil. However, growth is not innately ‘good,’ and can become destructive even in nature.” Elsewhere, that renewable resource technology innovation is a good idea, that growth in poor countries is a good idea. These aren’t hippie concepts, coupled with the the idea that unlimited growth is the philosophy of cancer.

    I would agree that many on the left are too comprehensive in their opposition to GMOs, just as many on the right are way too knee-jerkingly supportive of them. I don’t know enough about the mainline groups like NRDC and EDF to comment on their position though. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about GMOs, like encouraging overuse of herbicides and genetic contamination of wild relatives of domesticated plants.

    If you consider that virtually all big enviro NGOs support public transit, then you’ve got proof Kloor is wrong about them being anti-city. Public transit works far better in dense city environments and is also a good place for technological upgrades.

  • Gaythia Weis

    In my opinion, Keith Kloor’s “Sleeper” experiment would have turned out much differently if one were frozen in the 70’s and then brought back to life much earlier, in the 80’s, that is, during the Reagan administration. I personally was heavily influenced by the rise of environmentalism to pursue a career in analytical chemistry and groundwater geochemistry. Even then, the “greenie” stereotype was only a stereotype, this was a highly technical career choice, and I was certainly not the only one making such a choice. The election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency lead to considerable cutbacks in alternative energy and environmental research, and governmental regulation and oversight. This made my own progress towards my professional goals more difficult. But it wasn’t, of course, just me, the EPA budget for example was cut by 30%, derailing many careers. Because of this slip backwards, never comprehensively addressed by the two Bush administrations or that of Clinton, much alternative energy and environmental progress was cut short and still needs to be revitalized.

    It is also true that too much of the time our media focuses on a false either/or balance. I think that the same issue is apparent here. There really is some great scientific and policy work coming out of mainstream environmental groups. Some of this has been highlighted above by Alan Nogee in his comment #8. As shown in the links that Alan Nogee gives, there is much material that is available should the media choose to report on environmentalism in a more well rounded an intellectually complex way. Additionally of course, on the part of those wishing to discredit the environmental movement, there is real motivation to artificially magnify the extremist “greenie” view and to inhibit more rational discussion.

    I do not think that the mainstream environmental groups are beyond reproach. But I believe that “mushy metaphors from the Aquarius age” or the anti growth focus of the Royal Society report mentioned above are only a small facet of the problem. Many groups have been slow to adapt concepts of environmental justice. Some groups do seem elitist. In attempts at forming partnerships with corporations, I think that some groups have come too close to corporate interests and greenwashing. There really are groups with “big splashy” reports and big lobbying effort. We really do have a government that is sometimes more responsive to these sorts of efforts than more citizen driven ones. And these may be the loud voices that are picked up by the media looking for a point/counterpoint presentation. But does that make groups with any of these failings “the beating heart of environmentalism”? I don’t think so.

    I can feel some of the dismay that Kloor feels in that I see many issues, fully apparent in the 1970’s or 80’s still have not been more fully addressed. And again, efforts at addressing these issues seems threatened. I believe that we are again at the same sort of critical juncture, in which after a hopeful period in which it seemed progress was being made, corporatist forces may again effectively push back. I do hope that it turns out that “Groundhog Day” is not the appropriate movie metaphor. One of the mechanisms for combating the closing off of environmental progress is an effective media, willing to report on issues in a non-stereotypical and well rounded way.

  • m

    LOL – nice article.

    A shame the noise of environmentalists drowns out the real problems. Pollution for example.

    I forget who coined the term, but it was said…

    “We have entered the Dark Age of physics. Too many physicists are pursuing Dark Energy and Dark Matter and forgetting about the classical science. And in swoops the Environmentalists with their voodoo and apocalyptic prophecies. It is like I am standing beside a huge fire and go to light a cigarette, when the guy next to mee says “Hey Man – put that out. It is too hot””.

    Oh wait – now I remember who said that. It was Larry the Cable Guy.

    Wiser words never spoken – and by the looks of some of these posts, too many people here who have obviously never taken a Grde 10 physics class.

    I cant stop laughing at the post blaming this on Ronald Reagan. I can hardly wait to print this off and show my students.

  • Alan Nogee

    Mr. Russ Finley,

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to have a full debate on the side issue of nuclear power here. But some very brief responses to your critique of my comment:

    * I’ve read both Monbiot articles and agree with most of them. Yes, UCS and other greens have become more discriminatory over time between “good” and “bad” biomass, and Monbiot was ahead of the curve on this.

    * I agree with most of Monbiot’s double standard post. Note that he says:

    “Nor did I suggest that nuclear should replace renewables, or produce any higher proportion of our electricity than it does already. But I did point out that most of the countries that might abandon nuclear power are likely to replace it not with renewables but with fossil fuel, and that this is a major change for the worse.”

    I had a twitter conversation just this weekend agreeing with this point: that Germany’s accelerated phase out of nuclear will raise carbon emissions, especially since they are planning to build new coal plants as part of the replacement power. (UCS also does not generally support early retirement of existing nuclear plants, except where there are some plant-specific safety issues.)

    I am more optimistic than Monbiot on the prospects for renewables. The UCS Climate Blueprint (and subsequent studies by others) show that we could get to at least 40% renewables, and 85% power plant CO2 emissions reductions by 2030. After that, it is agnostic about whether the economically preferable option would be advanced renewables with storage, advanced nuclear, coal or gas with carbon capture and storage, other options, or some combination.

    * I have read a fair amount about other nuclear designs and have commented and tweeted consistently that Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), in particular, warrant further research as the best hope for economically viable nuclear plants. It is simply too early to determine whether the traditional diseconomies of smaller size reactors can be outweighed by the potential economies of manufacturing and improved financial prospects of modular reactors.

    * Your attempt at “common sense” economics is correct that the operating costs of existing nuclear plants are highly competitive (which is why it doesn’t make economic or carbon sense to phase them out early). However, it ignores the very high construction costs which make new nuclear plants very uncompetitive (and the fact that existing plants were allowed bailouts of over $100 billion in uneconomic capital costs). For a fairer perspective on nuclear economics, you might want to read the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor

    or John Rowe, the former CEO of Exelon, the utility with the country’s largest nuclear plant fleet.

    or the recent special issue of The Economist:


  • Gaythia Weis

    All forms of energy production need to be evaluated on a cradle to grave basis, looking at the total energy budget and resources used. The nuclear power industry is currently operating with “profits” generated without any clear idea as to who is going to be held responsible for waste disposal, and how society develops the political will to determine how safe is safe enough and to implement such a plan and maintain it through the generations necessary to do so.

    I personally believe that in looking at current nuclear technology, from mining, through plant building and decommissioning and waste disposal and maintenance, the lines between “how safe is safe enough”, sensible use of scarce resources and a positive energy budget are so narrow as to make nuclear energy an undesirable avenue to pursue relative to some alternatives.

  • Dean

    The idea that environmentalism is frozen in time is just silly. Yes, some of the same debates exist, and presumably will for a long time, and for good reason.

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  • David S

    Is now the appropriate time to point people to Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors?

  • Alan Nogee

    Keith Kloor,

    I never responded to your statement:

    “You suggest that such think tanks and “academic types” (as I have cited) don’t characterize environmentalist thought or have much sway with environmental advocates. That’s like saying conservative think tanks and conservative thought leaders don’t influence conservatives or conservative rhetoric.”

    I did not make such a generalization. Only that “de-growth” thinkers and think-tanks have not influenced the US environmental movement in that direction.

    Whether an individual or institution influences a movement on an issue is an empirical question. If I were writing about this subject, I would look at a) what the influential thinkers are saying, and b) whether advocates and activists follow their recommendations in the their positions and actions.

    Unfortunately, you haven’t looked at part b, whether the organizations that advocate and organize for environmental policy have adopted anti-technology and anti-industrial policies and actions or not. The documents I cite show that mainstream national environmental group energy and climate policies are the opposite–pro-technology and pro-growth. Joe Romm’s response showed that the bills they have supported also reflect those policies.

    With respect to your hypothetical with conservatives, I suspect conservative think-tanks have been quite influential on the conservative political movement on many issues. But here too, generalization is inappropriate. For example, as I note in another comment, Cato’s Jerry Taylor has for many years argued strenuously against wasteful nuclear subsidies and investments. (2001: ; 2011: )

    Unfortunately, he has clearly failed to influence conservative activists and politicians–to adopt his views in this area, while he has no doubt been highly influential in others. For better or worse, no-growth academics and think tanks–however influential they have been on other issues– have similarly failed to influence mainstream national environmental groups to adopt their views in this area (assuming they are accurately represented.)


  • Mephane

    The nuclear power industry is currently operating with “profits” generated without any clear idea as to who is going to be held responsible for waste disposal, and how society develops the political will to determine how safe is safe enough and to implement such a plan and maintain it through the generations necessary to do so.

    Indeed, there is a double bias that generelly tends to paint nuclear (fission) power in a better light than it actually is:

    Economically: Companies running nuclear power plants are rarely responsible (financially or legally) for what happens with the nuclear waste, and certainly not at all for the long-term disposal/storage of that waste.
    Energetically: What is the actual energetic bottom line of nuclear (fission) power if you count in everything, from the uranium mine to the hundreds or thousands of years long caring about nuclear waste.

    Most assertions, particularly those done in politics, end at the point where the customers receive electricity and the company receives money, and even neglect the environmental damage cause by some uranium mining sites.

    The sum might in the end still be positive, but certainly less than some people might want to have us believe. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-nuclear by default, I just don’t consider the overall benefits of current nuclear power that great when everything is accounted for. And in terms of risk versus reward, I just see too little long-term reward justifying the risks imminent to the technology. (And the underlying problem that human greed often enough leads to theoretically safe technology being implemented in a fundamentally unsafe way simply because it costs less that way. There is just stuff that I think we, as a civilization, are not yet mature enough to handle sensibly.)

  • EdgePenguin

    What a ridiculous, cartoonish, strawman of environmentalism. Also, your description of people who disagree with you as ‘traditionalist’ and those who agree as ‘modernists’ is a pathetic, partisan framing device. As is constantly equating an openness to technological solutions with an openness to markets.

    Opposition to infinite growth of a finite planet is not, in most cases, a consequence of mindless Earth-mother worship. Its a consequence of understanding the Laws of Thermodynamics, a little bit of school level physics that most economists and market fundamentalists simply don’t want to hear about.

    I don’t know anyone who suggests growth is inherently evil. Growth for currently underdeveloped countries is viewed as necessary by all but a handful of anarcho-primitivists on the fringe of the environmental movement (whose words I am sure you will be careful to cherry-pick and dishonestly present as mainstream). The problem is, if the planet simply won’t take more growth from the developed economies, or even won’t supply us with the raw materials we need to grow, we are going to have to restructure our economic systems to function without growth.

    If this puts someone into an anti-market position, so be it. But you cannot assume that a dislike of markets came first and is being rationalised after the fact. To do so is referred to in intellectual circles as an ‘ad hominem’ attack.

    I think that the author of this rather poorly-written piece needs to learn to have respect for the viewpoints of others, especially when said viewpoints are backed up by science (as the case against endless growth quite clearly is.) Perhaps then he will be fit to debate with adults.

  • Ridahoan

    Many good points here. Yes, the author clearly is out of touch with post Dave Foreman environmentalists. There is certainly a romantic neo-aboriginal group out there that advocates back to the Pliocene, and they can throw great parties, but no one looks to them for solutions. Solutions, of course, are the key, and every serious environmentalist has know that for decades. Even the most misanthropic environmentalist understands that man is the top predator, and that all solutions must therefore work first for the humans that interact with the environment.

    I for one think many of the more pro-technology folks are a bit star-struck. Technology is generally overbought, and there are always plenty of people to profit on the failed projects. As a biologist, I certainly understand some of the potential of genetic engineering, but it is fraught with difficulties. Stewart Brand here seems to have caught the bug — he cites brilliant but borderline maniacal biologists such as George Church to preach the goodness of genetic engineering. If you’re biologically literate, check out Church’s ideas sometime on creating bacteria with a separate chirality. This would be very useful in bioreactors as these engineered bacteria would be immune to phage (virus) predation. At first it is true that these bacteria would not survive outside their human cages, as they would require unnatural chiral compounds as building blocks. But, soon other human cages will produce bacteria to make those blocks, and eventually the two shall meet. Once in the ocean, bacteria reproducing without phage predation would turn the ocean into green soup practically overnight. Another apocalpytic prediction? You bet. Start messing with the power of exponential growth of bacteria with a doubling time of hours if not minutes and … well, that makes harvesting nuclear energy look simple. On paper, in theory, and perhaps under the strictest regulatory environments, there are many technological solutions. Now, back to our world, in which economic expediency will be the major factor.

    Remember that the technology pushers are also relying on apocalyptic predictions, and when big money and green causes meet, I don’t trust that it is always the public’s best interest that will be served. I for one think the problem of global mixing of species will do away with much of what ecologists measure as animal and plant diversity, global warming or not. And for this the genie is largely already out of the bottle, the apocalypse is here, but it is largely invisible, and heck, most humans will hardly even notice it. A nice park and lawn will still be had.

    So it does, in the end, of course it comes down to values. As Max Weber pointed out, rationality is a means to an end. Those doomsayers who predicted the end of the human species were of course a bit silly. Humans will make it if we do not destroy ourselves with weapons (by far our greatest threat). We could survive as a biological species in cubicles powered by nuclear energy. The technophiles may have no problem with a future where aesthetic harmony from those cubicles is found by plugging in to the next Avatar virtual reality. But, when it comes to values, I am not ashamed to state that I’d rather be hunting with in the mountains than doing what I am now. In this manner I’ll always share more with my neo-aboriginal friends than those star-struck by technology.

  • Russ Finley

    Alan Nogee in comment 42 said:

    “…I don’t think it’s appropriate to have a full debate on the side issue of nuclear power here…”

    You sure can’t have a serious debate on twitter. I’m confident that the author and his publisher would have no problem with it, if that’s what you are insinuating.

    “…Yes, UCS and other greens have become more discriminatory over time between “good” and “bad” biomass, and Monbiot was ahead of the curve on this…”

    You missed my point, which is that, unlike organizations like the UCS&C, Monbiot will always be ahead of the curve on any number of issues because he is not only a critical thinker, but he also has the courage to speak the truth when he knows he’s going to be attacked and ostracized by many fellow environmentalists. He has received death threats for his stances on biofuel, solar, and nuclear. Herd mentality organizations will always be playing catch up to the likes of Monbiot. The use of the word scientists in your name strikes me as being deceptive because it bestows a false sense of legitimacy, capitalizing on the public’s positive image of science. It is the scientific method that ferrets out truth, not people who earn a paycheck doing science. The method was created to get the truth from scientists who are every bit as susceptible to self-deception and rationalization bias as anyone else.

    The following out of context Monbiot quote suggests that he does not favor expansion of nuclear energy:

    “…Nor did I suggest that nuclear should replace renewables, or produce any higher proportion of our electricity than it does already…”

    Monbiot is very much in favor of nuclear energy. From The Moral Case for Nuclear Power:

    “…As the committee points out, the maximum likely contribution to our electricity supply from renewables by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. Where will the balance come from? …nuclear power is eminently attainable. Unlike CCS, it has already been proven at scale and will produce low-carbon electricity from the outset…”

    “…UCS also does not generally support early retirement of existing nuclear plants, except where there are some plant-specific safety issues…”

    Not that it matters what the UCS&C supports, but it takes a lot of hubris to assume you have the expertise and authority to advise nuclear safety regulators. When do you plan to start dictating to the FAA and aviation industry how they should build, inspect, and repair airplanes, which have killed an order of magnitude more people than nuclear?

    “…I am more optimistic than Monbiot on the prospects for renewables…”

    …which is nullified by your pessimistic take on the prospects of nuclear. However, look at his above quote. The CCC made the same estimate for renewables as your blueprint, which he does not dispute. He appears to be no less optimistic than you.

    “…The UCS Climate Blueprint (and subsequent studies by others) show that we could get to at least 40% renewables, and 85% power plant CO2 emissions reductions by 2030…”

    I’ve read a number of those studies. They are for the most part, spreadsheets populated with lots of assumptions. None of them prove we could accomplish that goal. They only suggest that it might be possible given sets of assumptions. The probability of achieving that goal is greatly diminished without nuclear. This article might help explain to you the problem with 40% renewables and no nuclear:

    “…After that, it is agnostic about whether the economically preferable option would be advanced renewables with storage, advanced nuclear, coal or gas with carbon capture and storage, other options, or some combination…”

    It is very unlikely that there is going to be an “after that” even with a lot more nuclear. The idea that you would throw a proven technology like nuclear out of the solution set is utterly naive and irresponsible. You prefer to bet our children’s futures on carbon capture, an untested hypothesis? A global super grid capable of getting the planet all the way to 40% renewables is also an untested hypothesis–both extremely expensive options.

    “…It is simply too early to determine whether the traditional diseconomies of smaller size reactors can be outweighed by the potential economies of manufacturing and improved financial prospects of modular reactors….”

    The missing link in the nuclear cost argument you echo is the fact that renewables cost even more, especially if you account for a super grid rebuild. It is equally too early to assume renewables could meet 40% of global demand. Another attempt at a common sense test; I’m a big fan of solar but it would cost me $80,000 to replace my electrical use with solar panels, never mind the inevitable grid use fee, maintenance and replacement costs. Most certainly, a price on carbon would make nuclear of any size very popular.

    “…Your attempt at “common sense” economics is correct that the operating costs of existing nuclear plants are highly competitive (which is why it doesn’t make economic or carbon sense to phase them out early)…”

    My “attempt” is correct? There’s something amiss with the use of that word here.

    “…However, it ignores the very high construction costs which make new nuclear plants very uncompetitive…”

    I don’t follow. I pointed out that existing nuclear power is highly competitive. You agreed then created a strawman. I never claimed that the old economic model of custom built, one of a kind, nuclear power plants is economically viable. A custom built car would cost millions.

    “…and the fact that existing plants were allowed bailouts of over $100 billion in uneconomic capital costs…”

    The above sentence reminds me of a study about oil subsidies (not by the UCS&C) that included things like …roads. The number is grossly exaggerated and even if it were not, divide it by the amount of energy produced and compare it to the subsidies per unit energy of simple technologies like solar and wind. You’ll find that even with this bogus number nuclear comes out ahead of renewables in this metric.

    Your links to studies of the costs of conventional custom built new nuclear power plants are supporting my argument for government support of superior nuclear technology, which includes a great deal more than just the small modular reactors. An approved standardized cookie-cutter modular design could very well make large nuclear plants feasible again, much to your chagrin.

  • fletch92131

    I’m not usually on the side of Robert Reich, but if what he is referring to:
    “economic growth isn’t just about more stuff. Growth is different from consumerism. Growth is really about the capacity of a nation to produce everything that’s wanted and needed by its inhabitants. That includes better stewardship of the environment as well as improved public health and better schools. (The Gross Domestic Product is a crude way of gauging this but it’s a guide. Nations with high and growing GDPs have more overall capacity; those with low or slowing GDPs have less.)”
    then I think Mr. Reich would be in total agreement with Indur M. Goklany, writing Chapter 10 of The True State of the Planet, who argues that Richer Is Cleaner, Anything that retards economic growth also retards ultimate economic cleanup, and that traditional pollutants like smoke and particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and fecal coliform began to decline when per capita incomes reach $3280, $3670, and $1375, respectively, in a given country’s development.

  • Alan Nogee

    Russ Finley,

    First, let me clarify that I no longer work at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and speak only for myself. Since I supervised the analysts who prepared the electricity section of the 2009 UCS Climate 2030 Blueprint, though, I refer to that report as “ours.”

    I’ve reordered some of your comments to make it clearer where we agree and disagree. In comment 51, you said:

    “This article might help explain to you the problem with 40% renewables and no nuclear:

    Interesting article. We both disagree with David Roberts on his view that the nuclear phaseout in Germany makes sense from a climate perspective. I also agree with you that an increase in renewable energy does not necessarily mean the end of baseload power, and that energy storage enables higher levels of baseload on the grid at least as much as it enables higher levels of intermittent renewables. As you point out, it comes down to the economics of each of the options. That’s where we disagree.

    “The idea that you would throw a proven technology like nuclear out of the solution set is utterly naive and irresponsible.”

    Agree. The UCS Blueprint didn’t throw nuclear out. It looked at costs and benefits with the best assumptions available at the time. It concluded that four nuclear plants would go ahead, based primarily on subsidies available at the time, and that no more were economic. Four plants are going forward today.

    “I’ve read a number of those studies [such as the UCS Climate 2030 Blueprint.] They are for the most part, spreadsheets populated with lots of assumptions.”

    The EIA National Energy Modeling System used in the Blueprint is far more complex than a spreadsheet model, but results can vary considerably depending on assumptions, of course. The UCS analysis transparently compared key technology cost assumptions with actual data on project costs available at that time (the last quarter of 2008). See for example, the graph on Appendix D, p. 19 comparing UCS’ conservative nuclear cost assumption with the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projections at that time, and with actual project cost estimates at the time.

    UCS’s nuclear construction cost estimate of $4,400/kW in 2006 dollars is equal to about $5,000/kW in today’s dollars for “overnight” costs, i.e., pre-financing. EIA has raised its overnight nuclear cost projection considerably since that time, to where it is now $5,275/kW, slightly higher than the UCS 2009 assumption. Table 8.2,

    You probably saw the news two days ago that nuclear construction costs continue to rise, and that total costs, including financing, for the Florida Progress Levy plants are now projected to be in the range of $10,000/kW, even though customers are already paying over $5 per month toward nuclear construction that won’t be completed until 2024, at the earliest.

    Meanwhile, while nuclear (and coal) capital costs have continued to rise, the cost of wind turbines has significantly decreased, and is substantially lower than UCS’ 2009 projections. Cf. Slide 4, vs. Fig. D-4, p. 6, in the UCS Blueprint Appendix D.

    The cost of solar photovoltaics have also declined by about 20% from what UCS projected in 2009. Cf. Slide 9, with Figure D-6, p. 9 in the UCS Blueprint Appendix D.

    Of course, the recent trends are highly consistent with long-term trends. When I started studying energy economics, in the mid-70s, nuclear costs were about $1,000/kW, compared to as much as $10,000/kW today. Solar PV modules (pre-installation) had just declined from $100,000/kW to $20,000/kW, compared to as little as $1,000/kW today.

    If you want to place a faith-based bet on a nuclear future go right ahead. I’m betting on renewables.


  • Russ Finley

    Alan Nogee in comment 53 said:

    “…I also agree with you that an increase in renewable energy does not necessarily mean the end of baseload power…”

    Necessarily? Three out of the five forms of renewable (hydro, biomass, geothermal, wind, solar) are usually used as baseload.

    “…It concluded that four nuclear plants would go ahead, based primarily on subsidies available at the time, and that no more were economic. Four plants are going forward today…”

    More than likely, the number of projects presently going forward is just now passing through four …which has to happen to get to five and six etc. I seriously doubt that your study had anything to do with the decisions to launch these projects.

    You just expended almost 300 words and provided five links to support the straw man argument I pointed out in my previous comment.

    Again, I’m not defending the economics of building custom designed, one of a kind conventional nuclear power plants just as I would not defend spending a million dollars for a custom designed car. That argument was settled by the market in the seventies and eighties by the failed attempts to fund that economic model for nuclear power. Your study as well as the studies you link to are a superfluous, non-novel, feeding frenzy on a band wagon. And, as I said before, the missing link in the nuclear cost argument is the fact that renewables are at least just as expensive. Fossil fuels are cheap as long as we don’t have to pay external costs.

    I’m critiquing your contention that nuclear should not receive government assist on the grounds that it is a mature industry. Read Nuclear Energy is Not a Mature Industry:

    “…If you want to place a faith-based bet on a nuclear future go right ahead. I’m betting on renewables…”

    I’m betting on both. “Faith-based” would better describe your contention that renewables can or will scale as much and as fast as you predict. The percent of our energy that comes from renewables has gone from roughly 11% to 10% in the last 20 years: 6% hydro, 1.3% biomass, 0.4% geothermal, 2.2% wind, and less than 1% from solar. Wind has made the biggest inroads, going from 1% to 22% of renewables contributions.

    I’m very supportive of getting renewables to scale as far as is economically feasible. I suspect that I own more solar panels than you do. I’m just also very supportive of getting nuclear to scale as far as is economically feasible. It is our only proven weapon capable of going toe to toe with King Coal when it comes to providing baseload.

    The National Renewable Energy Laboratory calculated that by 2020, wind energy production variability could be almost 60 times more than the variability of power demand. There is no known technology capable of dealing with that magnitude of variability.

    As a common sense test of the price of solar, I encourage readers to Google one of the solar cost estimators used by solar installers to drum up business. They are likely biased to underestimate costs but even so, the price tag you will end up with to replace 100% of your electricity without government subsidy will knock your socks off, depending on your zip code. In Seattle the cost is enormous ($76,000), especially if you are hoping to offset your Nissan Leaf, as I am. Just keep in mind that for solar to scale to any meaningful quantity, would also require massive expenditures to alter the grid, resulting in a combination of taxes and monthly grid use utility bills for solar users and probably for everyone else as well.

    The magnitude of the problem is bigger than most realize. Here is a graph from a study where they held the contribution of nuclear constant so as to not loose membership:

    The odds of success are obviously very low with or without nuclear so discussions like this are mostly academic.

  • Bob S

    Thank you commentator number 8. Being somewhat peripherally involved in these groups i concur that this take on current environmental groups is accurate. We are pro-technology when appropriate but largely anti-nuclear for the very good reason that there is still no safe way to deal with waste stream. If that makes us out dated then so be it. Just because the author and some commentators want us to move into a brave new world of ‘realistic’ (my quotes) environmentalism this does not and should not mean pretending that nuclear energy has suddenly become clean when any reasonable study will show that it is not, even if it would be convenient that it were so, so that we can continue to use energy at our current and projected levels. I too wish for this. But wishes won’t necessarily bring about a new energy paradigm.

    So the upshot is we do have to find new ways to create clean(er) energy to maintain our current consumption rates but must accept that unless there is some fantastic new source that is not likely to happen unless we choose to ignore reality and choose to continue down the path that environmentalists have been working to change since at least the 1970s.

  • Russ Finley

    Bob S says in comment 55:

    “…We are pro-technology when appropriate but largely anti-nuclear for the very good reason that there is still no safe way to deal with waste stream….”

    Some environmentalists are not pro-technology and some are pro-nuclear. The debate about environmentalists is nonsensical. There is no agreed upon definition of what an environmentalist is. In a world where almost all non-nuclear electric power generation comes from coal, how can anyone who is anti-nuclear call themselves an environmentalist?

    Anti-nuclear groups are responsible for the fact that nuclear power plants have to store their waste on site. The fact that they can store their waste on site is proof that they generate very little waste. It can be stored in safer places if anti-nuclear environmentalists would allow it to happen. It can also be reprocessed to reduce volume ten fold and turned into solid glass blocks. It may eventually be used as fuel by breeder reactors in the future.

    “…this does not and should not mean pretending that nuclear energy has suddenly become clean when any reasonable study will show that it is not…”

    I suppose we now have to define “clean” but nuclear energy is very clean by my definition and especially when compared to fossil fuels. Renewables can’t do it all.

    The old guard enviros have been indoctrinated by anti-nuclear propaganda which is easy to disseminate because it’s so easy to sensationalize by our readership /ad hungry lay media.

  • The Problem is Leftover Hippies

    The problem with the environmental movement is the association with leftover hippies…
    …And for good reason.

    I – a mid-career professional – was recently a part of an emerging grass-roots effort with folks in their 30’s. Then, the leftover hippies found out about us and wanted to join. One woman interrupted our discussion and said, “I’m an old grass-roots organizer from the 60’s, and the way you do it is…” These folks wouldn’t listen to anything anyone without gray hair suggested and the ones who were retired seemed to think they needed something to keep them busy as they appeared to want to take over. The whole thing dissolved.

    Another time I attempted to become part of an organization that had spent the past 15 years or so trying to save a particular green-space. After a few months of involvement, I felt comfortable enough to say to one of the leaders, “You’ve made great efforts to save this green-space, but if you don’t pass the baton to younger people then the green-space will be gone in another 10 years.” He argued and told me that some of the gray-hairs in the group had a lot of spunk left. I upped my estimate, “OK, then 15 years.” Today, 10 years later and as we speak, the green-space is being plowed up!

    Every asset has an inherent disadvantage.

    The personality traits that propelled the environmental movement were assets 50 years ago, but have become the fatal flaw of the environmental movement today.

    Many environmental groups are asking the same question… how do you get younger people involved? But that question was not asked early enough. While grass-roots environmental groups are so concerned with environmental sustainability, they’ve not given a thought to their own institutional sustainability. By time they figured it out, the the 70’s+ grass-roots activist can’t well recruit a college student in her 20’s. The determination and persistence that propelled young people in their 20’s 50 years ago into a national environmental movement are the same characteristics that prevented organic evolution within their own movement.

    Another commenter noted that mega-NGO’s are not like that. But relying on that becomes a top-down institution. How do you revitalize people on the streets?

    The Occupy Movement gave a glimpse of hope. But as I sat and watched an older city worker (with a very long braided pony tail that extended to his pants) as he disassemble one Occupy encampment, I thought – they just don’t get it!

  • George

    I do not think the older folks are your problem.

  • myth buster

    @48. Mephane

    Most people have no comprehension of how energy dense uranium is because it is so far removed from anything we encounter in our daily lives. A small pellet of uranium that you could hold between your thumb and your forefinger has as much potential energy as one ton of coal. Yes, enriching uranium requires a lot of work, but the energy payoff is enormous. A coal fired power plant must be refueled every hour, whereas a nuclear plant can produce twice as much electricity and run for 18 months before needing to be refueled.

    The 60,000 tons of used fuel still contain enough recoverable plutonium to power the entire U.S. reactor fleet for seven years with existing technology. Though uranium is a parts-per-million contaminant in coal, the uranium that can be recovered from the fly ash contains more potential energy than the coal released when it was burned. Most of the difficulty surrounding disposing of used fuel comes from the alpha-emitting actinides that produce a lot of heat, but can be recycled into reactor fuel.

  • Sydney Veterinarian

    “And please stop using science will save us. Until we start using science primarily for things other than to accelerate destruction, it’s a pretty lame argument.”

    @MattM Can’t sum it up better myself well said

  • Pingback: A few trends in environmental optimism | This Changing Life()

  • peter steager

    Rich nations do indeed have the capacity to extract resources responsibly but you would be hard pressed to make an argument that that is 1) What they are doing now and 2) what it appears to be they will be doing in the coming ten, twenty, thirty years. Romantic environmentalists may well be living in a dream world but, looking at the earth since WW2, they are not exactly stupid in seeing development and growth as the enemy. It is one thing to say that the capacity is there, another thing entirely to convince people that it will be utilized wisely. I would dearly love to see a rash of hopeful signs but, sadly, what I mostly see is business as usual…full speed ahead. Now I know you will say that even if there were hopeful signs, the radical environmentalists would not be convinced and here I agree entirely with you. We are stuck with these guys for the foreseeable future; a thorn in our side, a kind of naive innocence that perhaps is a good thing. I don’t know. What do you think?


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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