Against the specialist, the expert and the technocrat

nuclear monument

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Photo: akeg.

In these days of ecological overshoot, about the only experts I can abide are climate scientists. Without the facts we get from scientists, what would we say to climate science deniers?

So I’m glad to see more climate scientists step out of the ivory tower in the world’s hour of need.

But sometimes I wish even climate brainiacs would stick to their labs and leave public policy alone.

Smarter than a sixth grader?

I’m thinking of the scientists who have shown themselves so wise on the danger of fossil fuels but so foolish on the promise of nuclear power: the two Jims in particular, James Lovelock and James Hansen that is, who say that nukes offer civilization’s only salvation from climate hell.

After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, any sixth grader can understand that nuclear reactors are too risky today and that radioactive waste is too dangerous to the future.

But it takes an expert to be truly seduced by the atom.

Of course, neither nukes nor any other fancy energy source is going to ride in and save global consumerism from running dry. We’ll just have to face the hard reality that technocrats will die denying — namely, the sooner we embrace a way of life that’s lower tech and more local, the better chance humanity will have for a decent future.

Now, with Fukushima looking worse and worse, I’m not high on experts.

Not just the experts who gave us nuclear power. Also the experts who gave us GMOs and factory farming, collateralized debt obligations and military drones, Tumblr and Pinterest, abstract expressionist painting and post-structuralist literary criticism.

And let’s not forget the lobbyists who gave us thousand-page bills in Congress.

Any technocrat, in fact, who uses human happiness as an excuse to make the world more complicated. You can have ‘em all.

A gift to be simple

If Better Living through Science is on track to turn nature’s green and pleasant land into a vale of tears, then I’ll take Worse Living through Just-Winging-It, thank you very much.

That’s why this quote from Sir Albert Howard speaks to me. A pioneer in the organic farming movement well known today by readers of Wendell Berry or Joel Salatin, Howard was the kind of expert that the non-expert could love. Just see what he has to say about experts from his 1947 essay “How to Avoid a Famine of Quality”:

The greatest danger to avoid in future work is fragmentation — that curse of science, of administration, of education and of our present way of life. It has arisen because knowledge has grown at the expense of understanding. The inevitable result has been a plague of so-called experts, for the most part men and women who have wasted their lives in learning more and more about less and less, all sublimely unconscious of the fact that at the end of the road along which they are traveling will be found the ideal expert — an individual who knows everything about almost nothing.

Front page slideshow image by Scott McLeod.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. James R. Martin says

    Spot on Erik!

    I agree with all that you said — except for your take on abstract expressionist painting, *some* of which I find quite brilliant and artistically nourishing. I’d not replace all other styles of painting with it, any more than I’d insist on exactly the same breakfast meal each morning.

    I especially appreciated this part: ” … the sooner we embrace a way of life that’s lower tech and more local, the better chance humanity will have for a decent future.” Ample ecological design techniques and technologies now exist (and they are certainly mostly “low” tech) which, taken together, could put an end to most of the harm we’re inflicting in short order — while maintaining a high quality of life (not standard of living). As far as I can see, the only reasons that these soft/simple techniques and technologies are not being implemented en masse is that (a) most people are unfamiliar with them, mostly because (b) they have been rendered ignorant of the very need for them by (c) a cororate capitalist consumerist “system” which seeks only to enrich a few at the cost of … well, everyone and everything else.

    Ideally, Transition Voice magazine will help to address these issues. It is clear that it is the very culture itself which needs changing — and that cultutres appear as wholes. So where to begin? Since everything is intertwined anywhere is just the right place.

    But people are going to need to come together and create support and connection. The old destructive culture is largely held together with the glue of our need and desire to belong, and so we need to create refuges of belonging for the mutant and the outsider who knows the present world is now utterly obsolete, and why. It should not be so lonely to be awake.

  2. Helena Handbasket says

    This article suggests we revert to a simpler, more localized economy. Into that I read agrarian. The planet cannot sustain 7 billion people in an agrarian lifestyle. Billions of people would die if we followed this advice. Is the author asking for volunteers?

    Given the end of fossil fuel availability, even disregarding climate change: hydro, bio-fuel, wind and solar offer no valid solutions. Nuclear is the only option which isn’t dependent on a massive depopulation of the earth.

    The author’s argument against nuclear is invalid as well. It’s scary to sixth graders, so we shouldn’t use nuclear. I, for one, am glad sixth graders don’t run the planet.

    Radiation from nuclear energy hasn’t killed anyone since Chernobyl Remember the positive-reactivity weapons-producing reactor that was built without a containment dome and performing experiments, yet the amateur operator didn’t follow the testing procedure resulting in an explosion? About 500 people died. In 1986. Get over it. Chernobyl did. The wildlife there is thriving. It’s vacant of humans by decree – not by necessity. Yet coal kills tens of thousands every year. And nuclear is scary.

    But Fukushima! Oh, that’s right. Fukushima currently releases 1/4 the radiation that a coal plant does in normal operation. 15,000 people died in a Tsunami, Two people died when equipment fell on them. No one died from radiation. And 45 people died at a nearby hospital when supplies were delayed due to FEAR of radiation. By the way, nuclear is scary.

    But nuclear waste! Ahh. Coal ash is more radioactive (per kilowatt-hour electricity produced) than nuclear waste from a reactor. The radioactivity of our nuclear waste stream can be reduced a thousand-fold. France does it. It’s not that hard. Molten salt reactors would reduce it further.
    We forget coal ash does its own damage. It’s carcinogenic. And you cannot grow, dig or build on a site where it’s stored. We have hundreds of thousands of acres which are uninhabitable due to coal ash. And, uh.. Nuclear is scary. Yeah.

    The author doesn’t suggest we stop using coal because it kills people. But he wants us to believe Nuclear energy kills people. Nuclear isn’t perfect. But it’s far better than all our other options.

  3. James R. Martin says

    Helena Handbasket said: “This article suggests we revert to a simpler, more localized economy. Into that I read agrarian. The planet cannot sustain 7 billion people in an agrarian lifestyle. Billions of people would die if we followed this advice. Is the author asking for volunteers?”

    Pleasel forgive me for jumping into a response to this claim before continuing to read Helena’s further words.

    This claim, or claimes very much like it, are made all of the time by those who like to insist that any sort of response at all to our rather dire eco-social crisis is necessarily a non-starter which can only go nowhere. I always respond with my assent to the observation that humankind is in overshoot, then dissent when it comes to the claim that “billions must die” — presumably of famine or some other catastrophic or deadly material need.

    The main argument brought forth by those who insist that the current population of humans can only be sustained within an industrial economy / system is premised on the ostensible very low yields of non-industrial food production per acre or hectare relative to industrial agriculture. But these claims are found to be false, provided that what is under discussion is not productivity per unit of labor (time), in which industrial agriculture is the obvious winner. It is now well known that non-industrial, indeed “agrarian,” food production methods exist which are even more bountiful per acre or hectare of land than industrial methods. These are non-competitive in an industrial food marketplace, generally, as a result of their being much more labor intensive. But in a collapsed or collapsing industrial system I imagine people will still want to eat, and be willing to labor to do so.

    I presume other basic needs can be met in a similar fashion, provided that people have access to the land base which makes productive labor … well, productive.

    The principal cause of privation in the world is disparity in access to resources, not resource scarcity. This is more a social and political problem than anything else.

    All this said, I’m in complete agreement that humankind is deep into overshoot. But we must realize that human carrying capacity is best understood in relation to impact per capita, as in Paul R. Ehrlich’s I = PAT equation.

    I = P ∙ A ∙ T


    I is the impact on the environment resulting from consumption
    P is the population number
    A is the consumption per capita (affluence)
    T is the technology factor

    The US Environmental Protection Agency has reported that Americans waste about half of all of the food it produces or imports. And in essentially every way, the American economy is geared toward the fulfillment of wants, not needs. Most of the rest (at least) of the so-called “developed world” falls somewhat short of America in terms of waste, overproduction and overconsumption. But the point is established that we’ve got considerably more “wiggle room” for meeting actual needs than folks like
    Helena Handbasket suggest. That is, if we’re willing to cooperate and share (which brings us back to the social and political nature of our problem).

  4. Helena Handbasket says

    James, thank you for the info. So there are two paths. The argument of which path to take may very well be moot. Both require faith and significant changes. You want to change everything about our culture, and I’m not against that. I simply don’t see that as realistic.

    I want to change misinformed minds about the safety of nuclear energy, change our electric generating plants, and end fossil fuel use. I expect the depopulation will happen regardless, so you may get your wish to experience an agrarian planet. I wish you sunny days, warm nights and strong muscles.

    For the rest of us who enjoy having mechanical servants, I will continue to preach the value and near-magical qualities of nuclear energy. Peace to you.

  5. James R. Martin says

    “So there are two paths.”

    I think there are thousands or even millions of paths. Not two. But certainly we might usefully describe these thousands or millions as belonging to two basic types of approach. One approach involves extraordinarily complex artificial contraptions, such as nuclear plants. The other approach prefers much simpler techniques and technologies with which to meet human needs. In the first of these, a great deal of faith and trust must be given to “experts” — as Erik pointed out in his excellent article. In the latter approach, vastly less such faith and trust is necessary, because the tech is simple and straightforward enough that anyone can readily understand how it works and what the risks are.

    It’s worth noting here that a vast improvement — in terms of lowered pollution, etc. — can be had by empolying already existing simple-tech, like various solar home (and water) heating technologies … using utterly simple methods and materials, e.g., sheet glass. This could begin immediately … if only people were to CARE enough to do so! (Yes, mosty retrofit). So might it be that various proposed, ostensibly “new generation” nuke plants might amount, by analogy, using a chain saw to slice butter? A butter knife will do, won’t it?

    “You want to change everything about our culture, and I’m not against that. I simply don’t see that as realistic.”

    And I don’t see it as realistic to attempt to safely (or otherwise) replace near-current fossil energy levels with nuclear, thus preserving industrial civilization as-we-know-it.

    Rather than explaining my reasons here, I’ll offer a book.: “Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer” by
    Helen Caldicott . I’d also recommend exploring the writings of Richard Heinberg, especially those parts of his writing which explain “peak net energy”.

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