The fuel crisis of 1974 has forced realization upon the world that oil and natural gas are in limited supply, and will not last forever at current high usage levels. The United government is pushing ahead with Project Independence, a plan to move away from reliance on other countries for fuel supplies, as well as decreasing dependence on current energy sources.
A major sector of Project Independence is rapid construction of numerous, giant nuclear power plants to gradually replace existing plants reliant on coal, oil or natural gas. The nuclear plants are being pushed onto the scene by the same companies responsible for the energy crisis. American oil companies also own close to 90 percent of the mineral rights for mining atomic fuels.
Because of this powerful lobby, billions are pouring into nuclear energy development, with only a trickle flowing towards alternatives, such as wind, solar or methane produced energy. As nuclear technology rushes forward, increased numbers of citizens' groups, scientists and nuclear technicians have come forward to warn of impending, permanent ecological damage.
With the danger signals flying for nuclear power, few critics have yet dealt with the potential socio-economic changes the new technology will bring. In the following article, Richard McMath speculates on the nuclear society, and presents some alternatives. McMath is a graduate of the University of Michigan in architecture, and is currently a partner in Sunstructures, Inc., a small Ann Arbor based group of designers, who design and construct solar energy systems and wind power systems for local buildings.
"Any technology gradually creates a totally new human environment." -Marshall McLuhan
Energy not only runs our machines, it runs our lives. Energy technologies alter the kind of society in which we live, now and in the future. Nuclear power is dangerous for more than simple ecological reasons - it can radically alter our physical and social environment, and probably not in a positive direction. By looking at the power our energy sources have over our lives, the need intensifies to develop alternative energy sources (solar, wind and methane).
A FOSSIL FUEL SOCIETY/1975 For our survival we currently depend on fossil fuel energy sources. Almost 90 percent of the energy utilized in providing for our basic needs of food, heat, light, and electricity is produced from fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas). All fossil fuels possess the following characteristics: they are concentrated forms of energy, are not freely distributed, and are in limited supply because they are a material commodity.
The harnessing of fossil fuels requires the concentration of huge amounts of capital. A costly, complex technology is required to distribute these fuels on a large scale and convert the material commodities to energy. The wells to drill and explore; the tankers, rail cars, and pipelines to distribute; and the refineries and stations to process and sell these fuels - not including replacement, maintenance, organization of labor and personnel, and publicity techniques - are beyond the ability of an individual or even small community. A technology developed to utilize energy sources that are concentrated and not freely distributed has helped sustain a social/economic system characterized by a concentration of wealth, power, and profits for the few at the expense of the many.
Regardless of how much we depend for our survival upon fossil fuel energy sources today, they are limited in supply and will soon be depleted (estimates vary from 50 to 150 years if present rates of consumption continue). We have no choice but to soon shift our dependencies to other sources of energy. Two possible directions lie immediately before us - the harnessing of nuclear energy and the harnessing of solar energy.
THE NUCLEAR SOCIETY/CIRCA 1984 Although the production of nuclear power relies to some degree on fossil fuels (e.g. uranium), it requires a totally new technology to harness these sources. This technology will have completely different characteristics than existing technologies and, therefore, different potential social consequences. Even after assuming that nuclear technicians can solve some of the ecological problems resulting from the production of nuclear power, there are strong social reasons why we must not rely on nuclear power for our survival needs.
Try to imagine living in a society heavily dependent upon nuclear power. One of the problems inherent in the use of nuclear energy is the potential for fabricating destructive weapons from nuclear fuels and wastes. The "ultimate crime" would be the use of such weapons for criminal intent or personal gain - one could construct such a weapon and threaten to use it unless his/her demands were met (similar to recent politically motivated hijackings). The consequences of such an event could be disastrous on a global scale, and in this case, it will be too late to capture the criminal after the crime has been committed. The police, in the interest of "protecting the citizens," must try to anticipate and prevent this crime before it happens. This control can only come about in two ways - by constant surveillance to the end that criminal intentions be known in advance with police action taken before the premeditated crime becomes a reality; and by imposing a climate of social conformity through propaganda, re-education and strict law enforcement. Citizens must be taught to accept what police power is and what it can do. Re-education must make police power acceptable, justify its actions, and give it a sociological structure among the people. If the police are in charge of our protection (as they will argue), how can we deny them indispensable improvements in their methods? The police will be in a position through perfection of their methods to attain total control. They will argue that it is necessary that everyone be supervised. This does not necessarily imply a reign of terror or arbitrary arrests. The best technique is one that is most subtle. Every citizen will have to be thoroughly known by the police and must continually be under discreet surveillance if the "ultimate crime" is to be prevented.
It will also be necessary to guard and protect nuclear fuels and wastes as they are being transported along our highways. This will require an envoy of police escorts to accompany the fuels and wastes, and a large number of police will have to be positioned at strategic points along the transport route. The administration will argue that for the sake of efficiency of the labor force involved and, of course, to save the taxpayers money, this police force should not sit idle along these transport routes. They can be busy enforcing traffic laws along our highways when not guarding nuclear fuels. They must be put to work even when there are no fuels being transported. This will result in constant surveillance of our highways and strict enforcement of laws. We will literally be watched everywhere we travel. The large scale application of nuclear technology could create nothing short of a police state. This form of "government" is totalitarian in nature.
Nuclear fuels possess the same power concentrations as fossil fuels, but to an even greater degree. Only multi-national corporations or the state have the means to finance, construct, and operate the technology necessary to produce nuclear power. Only the state can assume a position of regulating and controlling all aspects n the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants. No other organization has the means to perform these functions "in the interest of the people." The state must also assume the position of doing most of the research and development of nuclear technology, as only the state can take the risks involved without the fear of not making a profit on the investment. The production of nuclear power involves a very complex technology that can be developed only by technicians trained for years in a specialized field. It is beyond the individual's ability to understand all the workings of a nuclear power plant. Technically speaking, the control and production of energy can no longer be in the hands of any other agent but the state.
The organization that controls the supply of energy also controls and directs the economy. This s true now in most the world, and especially of the United States, as recent events have shown (observe recent profits and power of oil companies). The state's involvement necessarily increases with the development of nuclear technology. It must perform the tasks of research and development, regulation, of construction and operation of nuclear power plants, training of specialized technicians, setting of prescribed safety standards, and dealing with other countries from which fuels are imported. The state, as the agent of nuclear technology, increases its control over energy and therefore the economy. This tends to replace the free market system - the first step towards the end of capitalism.
This does not mean that a socialist system will emerge in the United States ï with the advent of nuclear power. Nuclear technology creates a police state as has been already described. With the disappearance of humanitarian goals, socialism is rendered unfeasible by the sheer weight of technology. Social equality becomes a myth as the result of the emergence of an aristocracy of specialist technicians - the few who understand and control the complex technology of nuclear power production.
The large scale application of nuclear technology will intensify those trends already in existence today - concentration of power, profit by the few at the expense of the many, definition of the individual's needs in terms of the mass, and control and understanding of the energy harnessing technology by a few, select technicians. The Faustian dream of selling one's soul for omnipotent power is perhaps in the process of being realized not only for one person but for all. What price are we willing to pay for such power? Indeed, the social, human and moral costs are already too high.
"Our highest faith now is the machine rather than the spirit . . . The only reality worth mentioning is the one that can be seen, touched, tinkered with, improved - or, at times, exploited. Get into the machine you have made and ride it wherever it takes you. There is no other road to salvation; or to damnation if that makes a difference."
". . . This machine operates only at full speed. Unfortunately, it cannot be steered. " Bruce Cattori "The machine that we've built will never save us ..." Jimi Hendrix
THE COMING SOLAR AGE The development of an alternative technology which harnesses solar, wind, and methane energy sources, will not only render the "laws" of the existing socio-economic system in this country obsolete, but will create a totally new human environment as well. The inherent characteristics of alternative sources of energy are completely different and in some cases, quite the opposite, of those of fossil fuel energy sources. Solar energy and wind power are diffuse forms of energy, are freely distributed and are renewable (i.e. not in limited supply). They are clean sources of energy, and no wastes are generated in their production because they are produced by purely natural forces. They cannot be bought or sold because they are natural commodities. We do not have to convert a material fuel to energy in their utilization; they are already pure energy.
The basic tenet of our economic system, the law of supply and demand, will be rendered meaningless through the use of energy sources that are not in limited supply and are distributed freely. As supplies of a product dwindle - whether it is because they are being depleted or because methods of production are being controlled and manipulated to reduce them - prices increase and those in control of production amass a greater concentration of capital and power. This does not hold true for solar energy because it will be renewable for as long as the human race survives.
The application of solar and wind energy technology will create a number of small, decentralized, self-governing communities . . . We no longer would have to rely on multi-national corporations or the state for the supply of energy essential to our survival. On the other hand, with nuclear power social equality becomes a myth with the emergence of an aristocracy of specialist technicians - the few who understand and control the complex technology of nuclear power production.
A complex technology and hence, a concentration of capital are not necessary in its production and distribution. In the case of fossil fuels (including nuclear), material is being used to produce energy. With solar and wind power, energy is already being produced at no social, ecological, or economic cost. This makes it unnecessary to produce and distribute energy - the basic function of the utility companies - which eliminates our dependence on that sector of the economy. We no longer must rely on multi-national corporations or the state for the supply of energy essential to our survival.
One may argue that although the energy sources themselves are not in short supply, the materials used in the technology to harness these sources (solar collectors, wind generators, etc.) are limited in supply. This fact cannot be disputed. One can point out however, that these tools can be built from a number of different materials and resources without relying heavily on just one or two. Most metals and even "trash" items (aluminum cans, old oil drums, etc.) can be used in the fabrication of these tools. Many of these materials can be recycled and used again. Before arguing that these materials are in short supply, one must look at our present level of consumption. The amount of metal implements produced for the military for war in one year is probably more than the amount needed to produce solar collectors to heat water for every family in the country for 30-40 years. The materials are there. It is our responsibility to use them wisely.
The fact that solar energy is freely distributed and diffuse means that it can be more readily applied on a small-scale, decentralized basis. These inherent characteristics have a number of social implications. First,it shifts our dependency from the corporate state to ourselves and the laws of nature. Second, it reverses the trend of the growth of densely populated urban areas. The wide scale application of solar energy technology wilt create a number of small, decentralized, self-governing communities. These communities will be almost totally self-sufficient for their energy needs.
The design and construction of the buildings and dwellings will respond to local climatic conditions of sun and wind. This will generate a wide variety of dwelling forms and community cultures as opposed to the Sinai desert of monotonous, energy-consuming suburban developments being constructed today. Presently, the same, standardized, high-power technological methods are used across the continent. The person-made environment based on alternative energy sources will indeed be a diverse and suitable place to live.
A final social implication is that the potential for violence, whether accidental or intentional inherent in fossil fuels is non-existent in solar energy. lts diffuse form makes it almost impossible to use for destructive purposes. We do not have to live with the constant fear of a catastrophic accident.
The characteristics of solar energy are also beneficial to an individual's mental and psychological well being. Solar technology is relatively easy to understand and simple to build. Most people can understand the workings of a solar heating system after one explanation. The construction of a system is small and simple enough so that most people can build it themselves (without the need for highly specialized technicians). Thus, we become dependent upon something we have knowledge of and can control according to our own individual needs. The utilization of solar energy will create a greater awareness of nature and the environment. When your energy supply "is coming from your own backyard" rather than a remote power plant whose fuels have been transported from thousands of miles away, you become aware of the origins of that energy - the natural forces around us, creating within a person a deeper respect for nature, the environment, and earth as a whole.
In the final analysis, solar energy is the one source from which all other terrestrial sources are derived. By shifting our dependency from fossil fuels, the very foundation of our present socio-economic system, to free, renewable, non-pollutant, decentralized sources of energy, we not only restore a degraded environment, but initiate the first steps towards lasting and constructive social change. This is what we have been trying to achieve. We now have the means at hand. All that is needed is the belief that it can be done and the commitment to do it.