World's Fair

I had the chance to interview Rebecca Solnit for The Believer. It’s on shelves now, in their September issue. They’ve also put the full text of it on-line at their website. (Here it is.)

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To quote the interview’s intro, Solnit is the author of twelve books. She is a journalist, essayist, environmentalist, historian, and art critic; she is a contributing editor to Harper’s, a columnist for Orion, and a regular contributor to Tomdispatch.com and The Nation; she’s also written for, among other publications, the L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the London Review of Books.


She talks in the interview about writing, activism, Thoreau, politics, knowledge, mystery, nuclear power, and beauty. She’s done a good deal of work arguing against nuclear power and arguing for the cause of environmentalism in general. When I asked her how she replies to those who claim that “nuclear is the only answer,” she said this:

Well, the first problem is that they still think like big science–that there is “the answer.” In fact, there are hundreds of little answers that don’t include nuclear, including scaling back our consumption and travel and building better and using a lot of the elegant new engineering to do everything more efficiently and actually doing something about all the renewable energy sources that are out there–maybe having a new renewable/sustainable energy project like the Manhattan Project or race to the moon if they want some big-science action. A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they’ve always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing. Or so they think. My friend Chip Ward–a brilliant, uproarious writer and antinuclear/environmental activist in Utah–points out that, presuming we’re looking for “the answer,” nuclear power isn’t it. It takes insane amounts of carbon-producing endeavor to mine and refine the uranium ore, build the power plants, and if we started tomorrow they wouldn’t be online anywhere soon enough to make a difference in the narrow window we’ve got. So even in carbon-emissions terms and the race to stop screwing up the climate, they’re not the answer.

She also had this line, which I quite like: “A lot of what people are trying to hang on to when they embrace nukes is the opportunity to do things pretty much the way they’ve always done them: sloppily, wastefully. Nukes are the last best chance of not changing.”

The nuclear part is just one fifth of the discussion, but since I’d devoted some posts to that issue in the past I highlight it here for the blog readers. It isn’t the only science related aspect in her work, but it may be the most direct.

But please read the entire interview. There are a series of excellent lines and, by following the entire piece, you get a good sense of how writing, art, beauty, nuclear wars (“for nuclear testing in Nevada was a war, against the desert and its inhabitants”), and the pleasures of engagement and wonder fit together in her body of work. Then go check out her new book (published just last month) for visions of hope and community, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. (Here’s one recent review of it.)

Comments

  1. #1 Sigmund
    September 4, 2009

    “When I asked her how she replies to those who claim that “nuclear is the only answer,”"
    I must say, that’s a rather strange question.
    In every serious discussion of the issue I’ve read nuclear power has never been described as the only option – rather its been one of a number of options and probably a temporary stopgap option at that until we come up with a better solution.

  2. #2 the15th
    September 4, 2009

    “So even in carbon-emissions terms and the race to stop screwing up the climate, they’re not the answer.”

    “Even”? What else is there? I guess coming up with a working solution to those problems isn’t as morally and aesthetically satisfying as living “slowly” as a form of “resistance” and fighting “big science.”

  3. #3 John
    September 4, 2009

    Nuclear is not “the answer.”
    Nuclear is “the question.”
    “Yes” is the answer.
    :)

  4. #4 Eamon
    September 4, 2009

    In full agreement with Sigmund @1 – It’s a very strange question.

  5. #5 Pareidolius
    September 5, 2009

    Uh oh, it went on. My bullshit light. It was triggered not by her smug, dismissive prose, but by two words, “big and science”, in that particular order. Big Science is bad. We know this because Big Pharma is bad, and Big Agribusiness is bad, and Big Box Stores and let’s not forget the Big Bad Wolf.

    I’ll tell you what is big and bad, our population. If 7+ billion people grew their own food and made their own things and we eschewed efficient, modern, centralized production techniques for everything we need, there would be no natural world left. “Big Science” is the only thing that will allow us to have wilderness and anything resembling a modest quality of life at those population levels.

  6. #6 Tom
    September 5, 2009

    There is, I think, at least one possible fallacious argument here: surely once you’ve got nuclear reactors running you can use the power they generate for further uranium extraction and refinement, rather than carbon-releasing fossil fuels?

    The inherent distrust of “big science” is a big, red flashing light to me too, and not just because any qualification in science or engineering is noticably absent from Ms Solnits list of achievements above – it seems to me that the days are largely gone when science was still at a sufficiently basic state of advancement that lone researchers could contribute to it with negligible external input; even those scientists and engineers who today seem, at first glance, to work alone and isolated like the world-changing visionaries of yore, still have a great deal of support from “big” institutions, and the economies of scale that they bring – “big” industry to supply complex test equipment and materials, and “big” education to actually get their knowledge up to the advanced level of the status quo in order that they may then push beyond it.

    It’s also worth pointing out, as I think anyone reasonably familiar with thermodynamics and the physics of power generation would, that “big” power generation is, in many circumstances, the optimal solution. It’s essentially as fundamental as the physical scaling laws; of the ratio of surface areas (which usually represent the route by which useful energy is usually lost; conduction through cylinder walls, friction in bearings, etc) to internal volume (which is what generates the power, piston cylinders or turbine manifolds for example), a ratio which tends to fall as scale goes up.

    As a general rule, this very strongly suggests that when producing non-thermal useful energy (electrical or mechanical shaft work), all other things being equal, one should be able to make much more efficient use of the fuel or other heat source available with a small number of very large, centrally located machines and a distribution grid than with a great number of small machines generating power locally. Conversely, I note for completeness, in the case of generating useful heat, I’d suspect small scale on-site fuel consumption is better – using electricity to produce heat inevitably means you’ve already lost plenty of the original heat energy of the fuel burnt at the power plant when it was converted to mechanical energy for transmission, due to physically unavoidable losses like the Carnot efficiency.

    This isn’t all there is to it, however; in the case of renewable energy like solar power, distributed generation could possibly work better for two reasons. The first, which is not really physics so much as politics, is that if every individual has a small photoelectric panel or stirling engine and mirror array in his or her back yard or on the roof, especially if they fed excess power back into the grid but even if the ratio of collection area to yard space is quite small, it will probably present a far larger total collection area towards the sun than (ironically) the NIMBYs would ever be likely persuaded to allow to be built at a much smaller number of large, dedicated solar power plants. The second is that the amount of available power in the sunlight that continuously bathes the planet is actually so enormous that even very inefficient extractors could be quite viable, especially since, unlike fossil or fissile fuels, there’s no way to actually control the rate at which the sun consumes itself, and the energy is there whether we use it or not; under such circumstances, even the most inefficient solar generator is probably an improvement.

    I’m not, I should stress, saying that “big” is the only concievable way to go, or that it’s the best; what I am remarking is that to have merely a total distrust in “big” anything, especially “big power” or “big science,” and sufficiently so to actually use such a scare phrase, is a worryingly simplistic and, dare I say, fundamentalist attitude when you consider how complex and often ambiguous each individual issue can really get, like my brief discussion of power generation above (and that itself, I should stress, really was quite brief and simplistic). It may turn out, as with the solar example above, that highly distributed work on some other framework could outdo the large, unmanoeuvrable monoliths that still dominate most aspects of human society – the open source, p2p and other distributed computing movements have demonstrated one alternative model already. I don’t think we are there yet, though. There are already a number of embryonic movements trying to extend something like this structure from the world of pure data to the world of tangible matter and energy; attempts at off-grid living with local, small-scale renewable power generation, personal 3D printers and other fabricators, etc, but I suspect it will be some time yet before such systems are mature and reliable enough to take over some of the responsibilities of the established, monolithic system of physical production.

  7. #7 nails
    September 6, 2009

    It is kind of hilarious to see the comments follow the exact pattern that she was complaining about, and having people say that her use of the phrase “big science” means she is automatically wrong.

    People looking at it as a matter of “we need x amount of energy to keep things going” ignores the fact that maybe needing that much in the first place is a huge problem that should be examined, maybe keeping things going will cause unsolvable problems later. Scientists aren’t really in the professional realm of correcting social problems like rampant consumerism and globalization but they should think about it. I don’t know why that is controversial.

  8. #8 Sigmund
    September 6, 2009

    nails said: “Scientists aren’t really in the professional realm of correcting social problems like rampant consumerism and globalization but they should think about it.”
    No, scientists are certainly not involved in deciding how billions of poor people around the world should be denied the lifestyles of those in the developed world.
    Consumerism and globalization are presumably euphemisms for market capitalism. Apart from a need to regulate this system ts certainly not clear that there is an inherent problem that need to be eradicated.
    Lets get away from vague feel-good notions and talk specifics. There are billions of individuals around the world that are close to the stage of industrialization of their societies, with the resultant effect on CO2 levels.
    Many scientists feel that this is the big problem we need to address but not by preventing industrialization of these regions.
    We can reduce some of the waste and emissions from the west but the potential for future CO2 increases is really in places like east asia, india and africa and there is very little we can do to prevent this without straying into ‘controversial’ policies. Perhaps you have some ideas to solve this problem you would like to share?

  9. #9 Peter Scott
    September 6, 2009

    I want to address her particular objections to nuclear power, rather than trying to deconstruct her psychology.

    1. Carbon cost of mining and enriching uranium ore: the lifecycle CO2 costs per kilowatt-hour for conventional light water reactors (including construction, fuel mining/enrichment, etc.) are about the same as wind power, and about half that of solar power. To call this “insane” is ignorant at best. Also, the CO2 costs of fuel could be decreased further by using breeder reactors that use fuel far more efficiently. Russia has some of these in operation, and they are building more.

    2. It takes a long time to build them: this is mostly due to anti-nuclear hysteria, and partly due to poor project management decades ago. Have a look at China sometime. Their goal is to build about 100 new AP1000 reactors in the next decade, and the way they’re doing it is instructive. They’ve build several enormous factories to produce modules for the AP1000 plants. An AP1000 plant is made of about 250 modules, each one factory-manufactured and transported to the building site by rail or barge. The plant’s construction schedule is carefully designed to finish in a mere two years, by carefully tracking dependencies and setting up weather barriers to keep construction going constantly. Since they’re building in bulk, they can have experienced work crews for each stage of construction, and train an operator corps on a single type of reactor. They’re getting impressively small costs — orders of magnitude smaller than the costs of “renewables” — and building at a speed that would make wind and solar manufacturers bow their heads in shame. The obstacles aren’t technical anymore; they’re political. And your friend is hindering.

    And if Solnit wants to talk about innovative new engineering, maybe she should look at the fourth-generation nuclear reactors. From pebble beds to liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, they tend to have a few things in common: inherent passive safety, smaller unit size, mass production, and (often) more efficient fuel use. Our current nuclear reactors are nowhere near as good as we could do. The problem is that people have declared nuclear to be dead, and so in the absence of investments in radical improvements, we’ve been stuck with evolutionary improvements on current designs.

  10. #10 Neuro-conservative
    September 6, 2009

    Isn’t she just precious?

  11. #11 MadScientist
    September 7, 2009

    Not only is the question loaded, but the answer is vague and meaningless when you think about it. That’s all nice hippy greenie stuff to say, but does it mean anything? It’s easy to spout all those things she says when you’re not really involved in looking at solutions. On a slightly different topic – if only I had a dollar for all those people who think we can simply shut down all coal-fired power plants overnight and still enjoy our comfortable city lives – I’m not exaggerating, such clueless people really exist.

  12. #12 Bursa haber
    September 7, 2009

    That’s all nice hippy greenie stuff to say, but does it mean anything? It’s easy to spout all those things she says when you’re not really involved in looking at solutions.

  13. #13 Dr. James Singmaster
    September 7, 2009

    We already have an energy overload in the biosphere being the main cause of the climate crisis with carbon dioxide helping and also more importantly for CO2 causing serious problems with changing acidity in the oceans. The energy overload comes from releasing trapped chemical energy by burning fossil fuels and from releasing trapped atomic energy in using nuclear reactors. Rising temperatures in air, water and soil indicate in the biosphere increased kinetic-heat energy that can not escape. So we need to forget nuclear energy as it will always be contributing more energy to the overload speeding warming to the point of no return. More comments of mine on this including a way to remove some of the energy and CO2 overloads by using pyrolysis in several ways to remake charcoal can be read by googling my name.
    Dr. J. Singmaster, Environmental Toxicologist, Ret.

  14. #14 T_U_T
    September 7, 2009

    and from releasing trapped atomic energy in using nuclear reactors.

    now you blew it. This shows you have no clue you are talking about.

    solar yearly energy flux 3,850,000 EJ
    total nuclear power 50 EJ
    0.0013 %

  15. #15 Mike Olson
    September 8, 2009

    Public perception is always an issue in regards to technology and science. Everybody feels good about saving the planet…which we surely need to do. But, virtually every media outlet under the sun has horror stories of “science” gone awry. Generally, science seems to mean something that most folks don’t understand. Mention chemicals and you get a poor response. Organic chemistry…sounds better til these folks realize plastic is part of organic chemistry(organic, good! chemistry, bad!). The greatest example of this was the petition drive to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide, with a description of it’s various problems and issues.

  16. #16 Bursa haber
    September 8, 2009

    I’ll tell you what is big and bad, our population. If 7+ billion people grew their own food and made their own things and we eschewed efficient, modern, centralized production techniques for everything we need, there would be no natural world left. “Big Science” is the only thing that will allow us to have wilderness and anything resembling a modest quality of life at those population levels.

  17. #17 Stew
    September 8, 2009

    Why so fearful of the word “big” being used when applied to science. Isn’t it obvious what she means when she says it; big meaning big MONEY science and perhaps not well spent at that. Being that the money pot for science is indeed shallow at the best of times, I’d be worried how this will eventually work out within many of the other scientific disciplines, if America did go nuclear full bore; the real possibility of thousands of reactors across the country, needing expensive material and human resources, perhaps forever, could limit the funding of, if not the actual pursuit of scientific research, for an equal amount of time.

    Besides this, I also have a concern with the general attitude I see expressed, more and more it seems, among some scientists or students of science, when confronted by a literary or enlightened mind, such as Rebecca Solnit’s. She isn’t anti-science, nor for that matter is she always correct, but she does serve a critical function in questioning the value of the work done through the use of science.

    Rachael Carson pissed off a whole lot of chemists, agro-scientists and their employers as well, still does, after publishing her ground breaking and inspiring book, criticizing and accusing the lot of gross ill-responsibility. She certainly is not the one who must answer for why we all will have to endure, within our bodies, let alone the larger environment, the very same poisonous chemicals and pesticides used to grow our food. In fact I have never heard or read of any regrets for the suffering caused, only rationalizations that now we can feed billions, but without realizing the true cost to be paid in the long run.

    When the population itself becomes part of the experiment, then I believe using the term big science as a pejorative is perfectly appropriate, when considering the amount of extraneous scientific effort that will be needed and money spent, undoing the unanticipated, deleterious effects of the previous big experiment. I suspect that part of the rising cost of health care today, is directly related to the consequence of a history of farming through chemistry and that we will pay an even bigger expense if nuclear is fully adopted as I described, but with thousands more reactors to deal with around the world as well.

  18. #18 Marion Delgado
    September 9, 2009

    Sigmund, I am shocked. “The only option” is exactly what I hear from the nuclear plant boosters I encounter. They are completely dismissive of anything else.

    I should collect all such arguments, I guess. The fact that I’ve seen that approach at least a thousand times on the internet and at a dozen presentations, though, is why I’m deeply surprised you would say that.

  19. #19 Marion Delgado
    September 9, 2009

    One last thing – calling anything “Big Science” is just silly, given there’s an ongoing war on science right now, from market fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists alike, and given that science is not that well-organized – it’s completely segregated and atomized and moreso every year.

    It should be, if anything, “big technology” or “Big Tech.”

  20. #20 NBA
    September 9, 2009

    That’s all nice hippy greenie stuff to say, but does it mean anything? It’s easy to spout all those things she says when you’re not really involved in looking at solutions.

  21. #21 Brian X
    September 9, 2009

    I’m going to put it like this. I am a strong supporter of advancing the cause of nuclear power, but I don’t think it’s *the* answer, any more than solar or wind are. The big problem is the obvious one — nuclear power, as it’s currently implemented, is extremely dirty. In order to be workable, there has to be less paranoia over fuel recycling — there’s insane amounts of depleted uranium out there that could be converted into plutonium for burning in reactors, given proper security in the process — and more research into reactor safety.

    Nuclear is not a perfect solution, but we need every alternative we can find; after all, wind won’t work in a large city (where there’s no room for windmills), and solar won’t work in areas like the US Pacific Northwest or the British Isles. With further research into safety and security, nuclear can fill a lot of those gaps.

  22. #22 nails
    September 9, 2009

    Well, I am really confused. This comment is just weird:

    “No, scientists are certainly not involved in deciding how billions of poor people around the world should be denied the lifestyles of those in the developed world. Consumerism and globalization are presumably euphemisms for market capitalism. Apart from a need to regulate this system ts certainly not clear that there is an inherent problem that need to be eradicated.”

    Consumerism and globalization mean exactly what those terms actually mean. They are not euphemisms because you assume they are. Perhaps actually looking up what those terms mean is in order before deciding that they are not a problem, or that regulating capitalism is a solution to them.

    A highly annoying thing about posting on scienceblogs/skeptical parts of the internet is that there are all these rants against willful ignorance (when it comes to creationism for example), but there is an unending supply of people who do not see any value in learning basic ideas of non science areas of study and have an opinion anyway. Double true if it is something that seems unmasculine because it is popular to associate those arguments to women or hippies. It is the same thing; not learning something because it suits you right now, because it is easier and you do not personally feel any problem with forming an opinion based upon what you assume a position to be instead of looking into it and finding out. People should feel shame when they display such contradictory attitudes about critical thinking and truth depending on when it suits them.

  23. #23 Sigmund
    September 9, 2009

    Marion Delgado,
    The very obvious source of power for the earths population is through harnessing the energy received from the sun.
    We haven’t got sufficiently efficient solar cells yet but when they eventually arrive this will probably by the major future means of generating electricity. Nuclear power, in most debates Ive heard, is generally seen as a temporary solution to global warming until we get to the stage that solar power can take over. Unfortunately at the moment we don’t know when we can hope to make the breakthrough with the sort of solar cells and batteries that will make this possible. It may be in a decade or it may be in 200 years. We cannot wait. Something must be done in the meantime.

    nails,
    rather than diverting the debate by pathetically pretending this is some sort of sexism issue you might try addressing the relevant points of contention.
    How, in practical terms, do we cope with the amount of CO2 that is going to be released by the industrialization of the third world?
    Globalization and consumerism is critical to the way of life of billions. These things are not going to go away and certainly not when no better alternative looms. As others have mentioned to remove these factors and return to an agrarian economy would result in massive environmental destruction and hugely increased death rates. Its possibly good for the climate but that is not certain.
    Again, what is your practical suggestion?

  24. #24 jar
    September 9, 2009

    And so it goes. If there’s a stereotype of the ignorant /brash scientist eschewing all forms of self-labeled irrationality that don’t fit within the narrow confines of his worldview, it is Sigmund. I like to think Sigmund read the post from nails and decided it would be fun to act out precisely and with extreme attention to detail the character that nails paints. If so: success. But I fear that’s probably not the case.

    I find myself venturing to scienceblogs less and less these days. Maybe I’ve grown tired of web 2.0 – let alone web 3.0 platforms. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just too frustrating. I had the vague notion that this was to be a place for discussion of science related topics. Instead, it seems a podium for scientists to bash anything non-science. I can’t really blame the blogs or SEED or perhaps even the individual users for their seemingly vulgar displays of ignorance. I like systems, so I’ll blame this on a system – whatever that system happens to be. It does make me wonder, though, about our endeavors to generate more scientists and engineers. Exactly what kinds of scientists and engineers are we trying to make? I think about friends and colleagues engaged in the efforts of universities to provide some sort of new model for science and engineering education. I think about how important their work is in creating a new kind of critical thinker. And when I read these posts, I recall just how crucial (if seemingly hopeless) that work is.

  25. #25 brc
    September 9, 2009

    Sigmund, I find your comments problematic and under-considered. You began this comment thread by expressing displeasure that my question assumed there was a “nuclear is the only answer” crowd. You thus start off the above thread of comments by diverting the debate: you say there should not even be one. You claimed there was no such view and that the question was strange. Not only did several of the commenters after you express the precise view that nuclear is our only option, there easily and very quickly disproving you, but take a look at some of the other blogs at scienceblogs – Built on Facts, for example, also carries a list of commenters suggesting that nuclear is the only answer. Marion saw this too and noted it in a reply comment above. You also avoid, in your first reply, a confrontation with the larger points Solnit refers to, doubling the diversion away from her discussion. Also, you apparently didn’t read the interview that was quoted (or even the set-up I gave above which noted that the nuclear comments were but one part of a longer discussion about other things) and because of that offered diversion #3 through some belief that Solnit’s point was to propose solutions to the industrialization of Africa (your comment #8). Then you go on to ignore (apparently willingly, as Nails called you out on) issues of consumerism and globalization, which offers a fourth point of diversion from the discussion that I wrote the post about. Yet most egregious of all, you then have the gall to accuse of Nails of “diverting the debate”!

    I accept that you don’t follow Marion and Nails’s points. Maybe you don’t understand them and in that case I won’t criticize you. But to use what appears to be a lack of comprehension about their points as a means to claim that, for example, Nails is “pathetically pretending this is some sort of sexism issue” is just ugly and small.

    I thought the accusation that *someone else* was diverting away from the debate here was the kicker, but then I was struck by a further irony: You began by offering the view that of course nuclear is not the only answer and nobody would claim it to be. In this, you’re offering a view that says this is not an either/or situation. Saying that nuclear is one among several options seems right to many people. I happen to disagree with that, and I disagree even more forcefully with the idea that nuclear is the only answer, but on the “one of many” side there’s a subject of debate at least. That’s a point that can withstand legitimate intellectual and moral debate. Later, though, when others note that the issues go beyond technical measurements alone (your comments lead one to believe that technical details alone underlie your view, that “technical means are the only answer,” if I may), you claim that if one questions consumerism than one is claiming we need to go back to pre-industrial economies. As if the issue is either/or – either nuclear waste and danger or 16th century agrarianism.

    The bigger issue is this: if we want to say there’s more to solving energy and climate problems than nuclear technology alone, then we also have to acknowledge that there’s more to solving energy and climate change problems than new technologies alone.

  26. #26 Loiz
    September 12, 2009

    This delusion about boutique energy sources, which already failed in rich and resourceful Germany and elsewhere, is rather staggering. Yes building 26 new coal plants (in Germany) is a failure of energy policy, which ever way you look at it. Europe now builds/plants 50 new coal plants.

    Nuclear power is the only stable, scalable, and virtually emission free energy source we have. Nuclear energy also happens to be the safest energy source, in terms of deaths per generated unit energy, than any other power source.

    Nuclear energy does not need to be perfectly ideal, to be the best choice of available technologies, which it is.

    Nuclear “waste” is a fuel for advanced nuclear reactors, which will be soon necessary once we become serious about displacing fossil fuels, 85% of our energy supply.

  27. #27 Joe S.
    September 13, 2009

    Rebecca Solnit appears to prefer better people to better energy. So do I. But I know how to make better energy, and I don’t know how to make better people. And I’m terrified of those who do.

  28. #28 Alan St.
    September 13, 2009

    Don’t you think education is about making better people, Joe S.? That if people know more they will be better than if people know less? I mean not just knowing like trivia or something, but thinking about things, if people learn more ways to think about problems that will be better than if people have fewer ways to think about problems?

  29. #29 lezbiyen sikiş
    April 20, 2010

    One last thing – calling anything “Big Science” is just silly, given there’s an ongoing war on science right now, from market fundamentalists and religious fundamentalists alike, and given that science is not that well-organized – it’s completely segregated and atomized and moreso every year.

    Thanks for this useful article

  30. #30 LiderPaylasim
    May 16, 2010

    Rebecca Solnit appears to prefer better people to better energy. So do I. But I know how to make better energy, and I don’t know how to make better people. And I’m terrified of those who do.