08/09/2012 - 15:14

Progress, crisis, and ingenuity

This Roundtable asks participants to assess, against the backdrop of climate change, nuclear power’s appropriateness for the developing world. In this essay, however, I would like to consider a related but broader issue -- human beings’ prospects for continuing to thrive on a planet whose ability to support human life is increasingly under stress.

I was recently invited, along with a number of co-authors, to write a paper on water resource management. In the paper, we argue in favor of the idea that the world has recently undergone a transition from the geological epoch known as the Holocene to a new epoch, the Anthropocene. That idea, associated with Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen among others, hinges on the notion that Homo sapiens is now affecting the very forces that will shape the Earth of the future. For example -- and significantly to this Roundtable -- radionuclides are now being found in the sediment of many rivers at levels much greater than would be the case under normal background conditions. This increase in radionuclides can be precisely dated to the mid-1940s -- which coincides with mankind’s capacity to split the atom. That is, future sedimentary rock will be formed from sediment that has been altered by human beings.

All this highlights a profound dilemma faced by the human race. The dilemma relates, on one hand, to the viability of the planet’s life support system; and on the other, to growth in human population, economic activity, and technological capacity. The planetary life support system is a dynamic equilibrium in which complex variables interact to create a set of environmental conditions conducive to life; if the equilibrium goes too far out of balance, conditions conducive to life will degrade. Meanwhile, human population has grown rapidly for centuries and looks set to continue doing so for decades more; global economic activity has increased markedly as well; and technological advances continue apace. This has created ever-increasing demand for energy and water, among other resources, and has placed great stresses on the biosphere.

Those who see the planetary life support system as finite argue that it cannot be expected to support unlimited population growth and economic development. They argue that if human beings fail to curb their population growth and economic activity, the support system that has allowed intelligent life to evolve in the first place will be overrun. This is the essential attitude of Malthusianism, which predicts that the inevitable outcome of human expansion is catastrophe. But a competing discourse -- the Cornucopian viewpoint, which is sometimes associated with the late University of Maryland professor Julian Simon -- holds that humans through their ingenuity will manage to solve the problems that arise from population and economic growth.

I believe in humanity’s capacity to learn, innovate, and adapt so as to sustain intelligent life on this planet; thus, I count myself as a Cornucopian. Part of what attracts me to Cornucopianism is that it allows dilemmas to be converted into something different -- problems. The problems revealed through the Cornucopian lens are complex, and are likely to become more complex over time. Nonetheless, problems are receptive to solutions in a way that dilemmas are not.

Human beings are distinguished from other species by their ability to innovate, but people must now innovate fast enough to address the stresses that human life places on the planetary support system. Fortunately, mankind’s technological progress over the years has been quite impressive. For example, it was only a few decades ago that the atom was split for the first time. But by last year, when a grave accident developed at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, the damage was contained reasonably well despite difficult circumstances, and the lessons learned from this incident can be incorporated into future designs for nuclear power facilities. To my mind, the outcome of the Fukushima accident provides support for a Cornucopian view of the world.

I do not consider myself an especially ardent advocate for nuclear energy. But I do believe that if the human race wishes to survive, all options that might benefit humanity’s chance of survival must be explored, and these options include nuclear energy.