Turning the clock forward

The next stop in my tour through my book A Small Farm Future is Part I, which begins with a long chapter outlining ten crises that one way or another seem set in the coming years to thoroughly upend the world we’ve known.

As I see it, these crises are such that for good or ill a small farm future awaits many of us or our descendants. So after Chapter 1, the rest of the book is basically about how people might try to accentuate the good and mitigate the ills of this likely future – a difficult journey, with no guaranteed endpoint.

I’m not going to reprise what I say in Chapter 1 here on the blog, much of which in any case will be familiar to readers here. But in this and the next few posts I’d like to extend and further explain my thinking around some key points from this chapter, and also cast forward to Chapter 2 where I try to put the implications of our present crises into a wider political context.

I was a bit horrified to discover that a couple of readers assumed I’d placed the ten crises (starting with ‘Population’ and ending with ‘Culture’) in order of importance. The truth is that the ordering is somewhat random, based on ease of exposition, but generally trends from immediate or ‘proximal’ issues like climate change towards what I see as the deeper underlying ones in our politics, economics and culture. More importantly, I see all these crises as complexly interlinked, and scarcely amenable to simple, one-shot, technical solutions.

Still, we live in a world that’s complexly interlinked through the medium of cheap and abundant energy. Therefore it’s unsurprising, if ironic, that mainstream discussion of our present crises often emphasizes simplistic (albeit technically complex), one-shot solutions, primarily in relation to energy. It seems worth saying a little more about this, building on my analysis in Crisis #3 of Chapter 1 (pp.28-36), to address both the complexities and simplicities of energy.

My starting point is this article featuring Zion Lights, once a spokeswoman for Extinction Rebellion (XR) but now decamped to Mike Shellenberger’s pro-nuclear lobby group, in which she critiques XR for “peddling the notion that the solution to the climate crisis was to turn the clock back to a simpler time”.

I’ve said it before on this blog, but I guess it just has to be repeated again and again – few people in the environmental movement genuinely want to ‘turn the clock back’ to the past, and there was no point in the past that ever really was a ‘simpler time’. There are, however, quite a number of people around nowadays who apparently want to ‘turn the clock forward to a simpler time’ by imagining there are straightforward, one-shot solutions to our present problems like nuclear power or renewables that will make them simply disappear so we can get back to business as usual. Given the likely failure of such solutions, the point of looking at the past is not to recreate it but to try to learn what we can from people who of necessity lived in lower energy societies, because we’ll probably be inhabiting one ourselves soon enough.

But will energy options like nuclear power really fail to deliver the goods? Not long after reading the Zion Lights article I got involved in a Twitter exchange (yes, I know) with various nuclear enthusiasts – the sort where the condescending putdowns make you curse the day social media was invented, but where you keep going because you’re learning something, even though you end up feeling kind of dirty. Suffice to say that if some of these guys were put in charge of making the PR case for nuclear power, we can be certain it won’t happen.

One of the participants asked me to provide rational objections to nuclear power, and presented some “actual data from 2060” to show how nuclear could feasibly replace fossil fuels (a pie chart of energy projections provided by the Chinese government, as it happens) but quit the debate after I suggested that, er, actual data from 2060 doesn’t yet exist. Another participant – Dr Tom Biegler – linked to this paper he’d written about energy futures in Australia and suggested I read it. I’ve now done that and am ready to lay out my rational case against turning the clock forward to a simpler time when nuclear energy has solved our problems. It’s a sevenfold one, as follows:

1. The major resource and biophysical crises we face today on Earth, and many of the cultural and political ones, are ultimately traceable to humanity’s worldwide investment in powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. I’m doubtful that any satisfactory long-term solutions will be found without radically dissipating that capital and political energy. But nuclear power absolutely relies upon and justifies powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states. Therefore I see it as incompatible with sustainable human culture.

2. Current nuclear technologies produce small but significant quantities of high-level waste which, as I understand it, remains dangerous for generations and has not yet been rendered safe – largely because it’s too expensive. It seems likely that it will be even more expensive for future societies, and probably beyond their technical capacities. Dr Biegler writes of the need to combat “deep-seated anti-nuclear sentiment” in relation to issues including waste disposal. The best way of combating this ‘sentiment’ is surely to solve the issue giving rise to it. In the meantime it seems to me quite rational not to further invest in technologies until their products can be made safe for future generations.

3. If we could swap out all fossil fuelled energy for nuclear-powered electricity, we would still be facing numerous resource crises concerning water, nitrogen, phosphorus, metals and soil, along with political and economic crises. One response to that might be to say that at least with abundant nuclear energy we’d have one less crisis on our hands. But it’s surely reasonable (rational, even?) to suggest that the very multiplicity of these crises is telling us that our problems aren’t fundamentally about energy, and nor are the solutions.

4. Talking of water, nuclear power stations such as the gigantic Hinkley C now under construction not too far from my home are often located next to the ocean because of their need for abundant water. But given the uncertainties about future climate change and sea level rise, it might be rational not to do this.

5. There are only about 30 countries worldwide generating nuclear power, mostly rich ones with extensive electricity infrastructures. Electrifying and transitioning most of the other countries to nuclear power within the next few decades is, to say the least, unlikely, and in any case would raise numerous further problems. The climate impact of feasible nuclear transitions therefore seems likely to be slight.

6. Bringing together the previous points, I do not trust a society that commits itself so insouciantly to capital-accumulating state centralism, to leaving dangerous waste as a legacy for future generations to deal with, to meeting systemic crisis with piecemeal solutionism, and to policies that benefit the few and not the many. Is my mistrust rational? I think so, but others might say it’s merely emotional or spiritual. If so, then I guess I’m for mere emotions and spirituality, and against rationality.

7. But, against such spiritual arguments, I’ve heard people make the case for nuclear power through the analogy of a physician treating a critically ill patient: however spiritually misguided the patient was in their lifestyle choices that led to the illness now killing them, the physician’s job is to try to keep them alive using whatever technologies are available. By analogy, nuclear power may save the life of our present civilization, however decadent it is. We can worry about its spiritual improvement later. As I see it, though, the patient may still be showing a few vital signs, but in truth they’re beyond salvation and the physician shouldn’t waste scarce time, money and material resources in heroic but fruitless attempts to save the unsavable. It would be better to devote them to more promising ends, such as founding a renewable culture. In this view, nuclear power is what Duncan McLaren nicely calls a “technology of prevarication”.

But is the patient really unsavable? That’s a tricky one, and will only be answerable with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, Dr Biegler provides some numerical analyses in his report that give us a little purchase on the issue. I’ll discuss them in my next post.

24 thoughts on “Turning the clock forward

  1. Other problematic issues with nuclear:

    1. Extending the lifetime of the world’s uranium supply involves fuel reprocessing and the salvaging of plutonium from spent fuel. If the entire world is to be supplied with nuclear power for the long term, the entire world will have to accommodate itself to universal nuclear weapons capacity. When the NPT went into force in 1970, the existing nuclear powers committed themselves to eliminating nuclear weapons. That has never happened. Imagine what the world would be like if every country could easily produce nuclear weapons.

    2. Nuclear power produces heat and electricity. While the heat might be useful if small, modular nuclear plants were ubiquitous (which they are not), the production of electricity as the primary output means that everything must be electrified. This will require a four to five-fold increase in electrical transmission capacity. To be fair, this is also true of most renewables except for ethanol and other biofuels.

    3. Like renewables, the lifetime energy cost of a nuclear plant is almost entirely up front. Building out huge new numbers of nuclear energy facilities (like huge new numbers of wind, solar and hydro) would require a massive expenditure of energy, mostly from fossil fuels, which would guarantee that climate warming would be unstoppable. From a climate perspective, we have waited until far too much CO2 is already in the atmosphere to be able to afford an additional gigantic pulse of carbon from replacing our energy infrastructure with either nuclear or renewables.

    For many decades, governments have been urged to gradually convert fossil fuel energy systems to non-carbon energy supplies. Some countries, like Germany, have made weak attempts to do so, but the big emitters, like the US and China, have burned carbon in increasing amounts. We are now securely pinned inside the Energy Trap that Tom Murphy described almost a decade ago.


    • Looking at UK transport to replace carbon fuels it will take 6 nuke stations the size of the new Hinkley point , I have yet to see any serious numbers about gas cenral heating and cooking , considering the chinese are building hinkley as the UK no longer has the heavy engineering capacity to build one nor the finances to pay china the UK is giong to have to get used to powerdown / electricity shortages .

  2. I’d like to submit an eighth point for your consideration in the case against nuclear power.

    It seems to me that everyone’s analysis is much too short sighted. Sustainable needs to be thought of in terms of centuries, not just one more cycle of construction or one more generation.

    Let’s say that a world scale effort to build the hundreds of nuclear plants called for is undertaken a huge cost and huge use of raw materials. The lifetime of a nuclear plant is somewhere around 40-60 years. DOE and NRC are even sharpening their pencils and touting 80 years. But then what?

    Fossil fuels are an essential input in providing not just the mined raw materials, but powering many steps along the way that don’t lend themselves to conversion to electrical power. Either maintenance or demolition at end of life, or both, are also committed to in building even more complex infrastructure. How many more buildouts of nuclear power plants could be done as fossil fuels phase out? I doubt even one more.

    Trees, plants, and life in general will be harvesting energy and making it available for the wider ecosystem well after we are gone, so our plan for a truly sustainable energy source will need to be based on natural materials, even if we build windmills and watermills with them. Our society and economy will need to be designed with that limitation in mind. It just sounds scary to us who have only ever had thousands of energy slaves at our beck and call.

    • “It just sounds scary to us who have only ever had thousands of energy slaves at our beck and call.”

      Yes. This.

      Surely everyone recognizes that our current energy and technology regime is vastly different from the environment that our species evolved in.

      It occurs to me that for us to be truly adapted to this current way of living entails our becoming substantially different as a species than we were even 500 years ago. Likely we are part way down that road already.

      I also heartily concur with your extended life cycle viewpoint.

      Whenever I read about energy futures, the writers just assume that we will always have available our current vast quantities of cement and steel. Both of them can be made with electricity or wood heat, but only in tiny amounts. Our current use of tonnes of coal always seems to get glossed over.


    • Just a little perspective .
      I have a friend that worked in the Australian uranium “mines ” they burned through 6 semi tanker loads of diesel a day .

  3. I think nuclear *could* be viable in some sort of “small home or neighbourhood reactor” context, especially if the startup/manufacturing energy were to come from e.g. wind. The thing that would make this viable would be that it would be expensive enough to encourage a lot more efficiency. However, I think the likelihood of this actually happening is very low indeed. It’s a pretty weird thing to pin all our hopes of saving the world on. Neighbourhood composting seems a lot easier.

    Even if nuclear energy could “save” us, though, we would still need a small farm future, because nuclear energy of any kind doesn’t lead to the petrochemical by-products used as pesticides in industrial-scale agriculture.

    • because nuclear energy of any kind doesn’t lead to the petrochemical by-products used as pesticides in industrial-scale agriculture.

      As I’m not exactly sure where you’re headed with that observation, I’ll only offer that the technology exists to manufacture pesticides and most other oil based products from the plant oils we currently have to hand. Oil seed rape, Canola, sunflower seeds, cotton seeds, palm, and…. wait for it… yes, even soybean produce seed oils that can substitute for petroleum. So the next question perhaps is not whether future energy sources which are not fossil based could supply us with oil based goods and services, but which of the present panoply of oil based items we really need.

      Pesticides might be considered in the same vane as a knife, a hoe, a scythe, or a pitchfork… tools in the tool kit. Used properly they provide service. Used improperly, they cause harm.

      • Clem,

        Is it possible to produce that much plant-based oil without the petrochemical industrial inputs most of those crops are grown with in the industrial farming pattern?

        At very least, I can imagine petro-chemical pesticides becoming much more expensive than they are now. I’m not against well-considered use of pesticides, whatever their source; there are always trade-offs. But plant oils grown using petrochemical pesticides and petroleum fuels aren’t really fossil-free, they’re just one step removed. Same problem as burning “bio-fuel” directly.

        • In today’s industrial farming paradigm where fuels (mostly fossil in origin) are needed to produce broad acre crops there would be serious issues trying to replace all petroleum with biofuels (plant oils or carbs for ethanol). Where plant oils can reasonably substitute is in the pesticide world where far-far smaller amounts of oil are necessary. As an example, in a conventional corn production, Midwest US, one may use less than a gallon of oil per acre for all pesticides (in the final product formulation). I can’t speak to the energy requirement to manufacture that volume of material, could dig into that if needed. It can’t be a much – the fuel to transport product to destination is likely greater. The amounts of oil to run equipment for planting, maintenance, and harvest will run an order of magnitude greater.

          Next then is to ponder whether an oil crop like soy can produce enough oil per acre to facilitate the pesticide manufacture. Not a problem from a volume perspective – a fair expectation for a soy crop is about 550 lbs of oil per acre. The more difficult proposition from a small farm perspective is the chemistry to turn the oil into pesticide. It can be done… next to compare the trade-off with labor. Herbicides are likely the most significant pesticides – employed on nearly all conventional acres (fungicides and insecticides deployed as needed).

          An advantage to a small farm paradigm is that with ‘more eyes per acre’ there should be less prophylactic use of herbicides. Resorting to post and spot sprayed material would likely reduce volumes even more.

          But plant oils grown using petrochemical pesticides and petroleum fuels aren’t really fossil-free, they’re just one step removed. Same problem as burning “bio-fuel” directly.

          First off, any use of a biofuel is carbon neutral – the carbon in the plant oil originated in the atmosphere. With petrochems to produce the crop there is some fossil element, but in small farm efforts more of the labor can be substituted with human and animal power for planting and harvest. At some point in the transition from petro only to small farm and plant oil derived pesticides the whole effort actually becomes carbon negative – taking more C from the atmosphere.

          • OK — small-scale oilseed farming for pesticide manufacture *might* be viable, then. Or, at least, as viable as any micro-nuclear fantasy I can come up with!

  4. Thanks for the Duncan McLaren bit… later in the thread he makes this observation (his 10/10):

    Innovation and finance. An important area. Will the Government support divestment and stock-market rules that prevent climate-trashing investments, as well as supporting new innovations?

    I’m not a Twitterer (if that is a proper word use)… so I’m likely missing something. But if the goal espoused by McLaren is Government intervention in the stock market for specific end goals… cue the dramatic and futuristic music of John Williams. But that happens all the time one suggests. I suppose. And I do imagine that market powers, within agreeable bounds, can find beneficial solutions. So – agreeable bounds… and we’re back to political contesting.

    I don’t currently have any olive trees planted on my little slice of heaven. Might need to remedy that. Not so much for the olives as for the branches. Their supply might hopefully find a market…

    [in postscript I might observe that the European olive industry is struggling at the moment – olive trees being overburdened by disease. Olive tree breeders are on it, but once they find solutions there will be market dynamics that could find some former olive growers in a pickle. Will their economic plight be folded into a narrative that the olive breeding effort is culpable in their downfall?]

    • Hey Clem,

      You are going to need to wait until you are in Zone 8 or 9 before you can keep those olive trees alive.

      Either that, or let the warring parties into your greenhouse to clip a twig.

      But that Poncirus trifoliata, on the other hand…

      • I live in zone 8 it will not grow olives its too cold , we used to plant peach trees that managed on 200 chill hours , I can now get fruit on trees that manage on 4/600 chill hours the 200 rds flower too early and get frosted loosing the crop .

  5. Nuclear energy technology for the entire world? The relatively simple technology for safe drinking water hasn’t spread around the world yet. “2.1 billion (29% of the world) do not have access to safe drinking water.” [Our World in Data]

    Nuclear energy benefits the richer countries, while the externalized costs of nuclear energy affect the whole world.

    • What happens if, in all the debate here and in other forums, we substitute the word *fire* for the tern *nuclear energy*.

      Fire benefited the early adopters (though I’m also guessing they got burned until they learned to manage it)… fire in the wrong hands or in certain contexts is not a good thing… ash (the byproduct of fire – spent fuel) is not a pleasant substance to deal with… of course global warming results from fire, as a runaway nuke will also warm the planet. Fire and nuclear decay (fission) are both natural processes that occur absent the hand of man…

      Just a thought.

      Sure, a thought one can mull over by a quiet fire with his or her favorite companion and the beverage of their choice. Not sure I can imagine the same scene next to a quiet nuke… but maybe one day???

    • Clem wrote, “What happens if, in all the debate here and in other forums, we substitute the word *fire* for the tern *nuclear energy*.”

      Okay, I’ll try it, using what Chris wrote above.

      “Fire absolutely relies upon and justifies powerful, strongly centralized, capital-accumulating political states.”

      “Current fire technologies produce small but significant quantities of high-level waste which, as I understand it, remains dangerous for generations and has not yet been rendered safe.”

      “Fires are often located next to the ocean because of their need for abundant water.”

  6. Thanks for the fun debates above. Maybe I’ll just pitch in on a few things.

    Joe’s point 1 was one of the things I had in mind under the ‘further problems’ I mentioned in my point 5. Perhaps current US-Iran relations are suggestive of the difficulties awaiting global nuclearization.

    To Joe’s point 3, Tom Biegler cites a figure of 12kg lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions added to the atmosphere per MWh of electricity generated by nuclear power. If you extrapolate that figure into a large global build out of nuclear power stations, it doesn’t amount to an awful lot of emissions. But I’m slightly suspicious of the 12kg figure. Any thoughts?

    To Steve C’s point about multiple cycles of construction, the nuclear boosters would presumably say that once we’ve achieved full electrification and nuclearization then the process will be more or less self-sustaining energetically. Personally, I have my doubts. Again, any thoughts?

    To Clem, Kathryn and Steve L’s discussions, questions loom over when quantitative differences becomes qualitative ones. For sure, if we could build small nuclear power stations locally raised from local energetic and fiscal capital, power a high energy economy similar to our present one from them and process nuclear waste to make such things as soap or compost from it, then no doubt the upending of the world we’ve known that I mentioned above could be deferred. But is this realistic? Or is it more a case of turning the clock forward?

    And to Clem’s question of olive breeding, I guess this is another front in the battle we joined here: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2020/11/both-hands-now-an-introduction-to-a-small-farm-future/#comment-212126 to which it seems olive branches have now been spared from the breeding efforts and mutually offered. Guess I’ll just say that breeding disease resistant olive trees will inevitably be folded within a wider socioeconomic framing, with the likely result that some will gain and some will lose. As I see it, the breeders should neither be uniquely targeted nor uniquely exempted from any resulting praise or blame going around.

    • Tom Biegler cites a figure of 12kg lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions added to the atmosphere per MWh of electricity generated by nuclear power.

      That’s a reasonable figure. Let’s consider the consequences.

      A 1 Gw plant will generate roughly 8 million MWh per year. Over the lifetime of the plant, say 40 years, the plant will generate 320 million MWh resulting in carbon emissions of 3,840,000 tonnes of carbon, 70% of which must be expended during construction of the plant. Multiply that figure by the 10,000 or so nuclear plants that would be required to electrify all energy supply and you get a pulse of carbon equal to 4-5 years of current emissions from the energy sector.

      Then consider the wholesale change in all the equipment needed to use all that electricity. Every gas furnace needs to become a heat pump. Every vehicle in the world needs to be replaced with an electric vehicle. Millions of miles of new transmission lines need building. My guess is that the all-in carbon cost of converting to electricity is about equal to a decade’s worth of current emissions. This carbon cost would be roughly the same from renewables as well.

      I just don’t think we can add an additional decade’s worth emissions to current emissions without causing too much damage to be repaired even though all the worlds energy would then become free of carbon emissions (yes, even enough energy would be available to rebuild all the nukes). Perhaps if we had spread the carbon cost over the last three decades it would have worked, but not now.

      And then there is the problem of finding all that “extra” energy for the conversion. Where’s it going to come from? Are all the fossil fuel suppliers going to double production for the next decade to allow the building of all those nuclear plants? Even if they wanted to, I doubt they could do it even if we were willing to pay the price.

      • Thanks for that Joe. Looking at my calculations, I realised that I made an arithmetical blunder. But even so, by my calculations a global build out of nuclear would still only use about 2% of allowable emissions for a high probability of staying below 1.5C. However, I think your points about electrification, cars etc are persuasive

    • Let’s set aside the fear-mongering and hyperbole (and, to be frank, unabashed racism) that drips from the linked article and focus on what it is that the Justice for Black Farmers Act sets out to do: “the bill would spend $8 billion per year on buying land on the open market, to be granted to Black farmers, specifically small farmers (there’s a maximum of 160 acres per grant). That money would also be used to increase funding to agricultural programs at historically black colleges and universities…” Given the historical inequities that black farmers and landowners have faced (and concomitant advantages and opportunities from which white farmers have benefited), does this really seem so unreasonable? For anyone unfamiliar with this history, here’s some background:

      “Black agricultural landowners have lost 98 percent of their land, some 12 million acres, over the past hundred years. Following the Great Depression, the New Deal doled out loans and grants to help farmers keep their land, but those in charge of distributing that assistance were white, and Black farmers were frequently denied loans and shut out of the process. The machinations of government agriculture agencies was often opaque and overlooked by the general public, and the great dispossession of Black farmers went on steadily under the radar.”


  7. I like how the bill specifies that the land grants would be “restricted in perpetuity for agricultural use, but with an allowance for constructing or improving and maintaining 1 primary residence and housing for farmworkers on the land,” and prohibits “animal feeding operations” (with limited exceptions).


    (a) IN GENERAL.—Before conveying a land grant under section 203(a)(2), the Secretary shall attach to the land an easement requiring that the land be—
    (1) restricted in perpetuity for agricultural use, but with an allowance for constructing or improving and maintaining 1 primary residence and housing for farmworkers on the land; and
    (2) subject in perpetuity to the conservation requirements that—
    (A) an animal feeding operation may not be operated on the land, with the exception that an animal feeding operation with fewer than 299 animal units may be operated during times of the year that outdoor access is not possible due to weather conditions; and
    (B) the land shall be subject to applicable highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements in effect on the date of enactment of this Act under subtitles B and C of title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985 (16 U.S.C. 3811 et seq.).”


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