Home' Technology Review : May 2005 Contents TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
and endishly collaborative Argentine ants take over the ground,
and not a thing can be done. Volunteers like me get o on yank-
ing up invasive French broom and Cape ivy, but it s just sand cas-
tles against a rising tide. I can t wait for some engineered
organism, probably microbial, that will target bad actors like ze-
bra mussels and eat them, or interrupt their reproductive path-
way, and then die out.
Now we come to the most profound environmental problem
of all, the one that tr umps everything: global climate change. Its
e ect on natural systems and on civilization will be a universal
permanent disaster. It may be slow and relentless---higher tem-
perature, rising oceans, more extreme weather getting progres-
sively worse over a century. Or it may be "abr upt climate change":
an increase of fresh water in the north Atlantic shuts down the
Gulf Stream within a decade, and Europe freezes while the rest
of the world gets drier and windier. (I was involved in the 2003
Pentagon study on this matter, which spelled out how a climate
change like the one 8,200 years ago could occur suddenly.)
Let s Go Nuclear
Can climate change be slowed and catastrophe avoided? They
can to the degree that humanity in uences climate dynamics.
The primary cause of global climate change is our burning of fos-
sil fuels for energy.
So everything must be done to increase energy e ciency and
decarbonize energy production. Kyoto accords, radical conserva-
tion in energy transmission and use, wind energy, solar energy,
passive solar, hydroelectric energy, biomass, the whole gamut.
But add them all up and it s still only a fraction of enough. Mas-
sive carbon "sequestration" (extraction) from the atmosphere,
perhaps via biotech, is a widely held hope, but it s just a hope.
The only technology ready to ll the gap and stop the carbon di-
oxide loading of the atmosphere is nuclear power.
Nuclear certainly has problems---accidents, waste storage,
high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weap-
ons. It also has advantages besides the over whelming one of be-
ing atmospherically clean. The industry is mature, with a
half-century of experience and ever improved engineering be-
hind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile
Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale,
meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed
design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost
fuel. Finally, they o er the best avenue to a "hydrogen economy,"
combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal
The storage of radioactive waste is a sur mountable problem
(see "A New Vision for Nuclear Waste," December 2004). Many re-
actors now have elds of dry-storage casks nearby. Those casks
are transportable. It would be pr udent to move them into well-
guarded centralized locations. Many nations address the waste
storage problem by reprocessing their spent fuel, but that has the
side e ect of producing material that can be used in weapons.
One solution would be a global supplier of reactor fuel, which
takes back spent fuel from customers around the world for re-
processing. That s the kind of idea that can go from "Impracti-
cal!" to "Necessary!" in a season, depending on world events.
The environmental movement has a quasi-religious aversion
to nuclear energy. The few prominent environmentalists who
have spoken out in its favor---Gaia theorist James Lovelock,
Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, Friend of the Earth Hugh
Monte ore---have been privately anathematized by other envi-
ronmentalists. Public excoriation, however, would invite public
debate, which so far has not been welcome.
Nuclear could go either way. It would take only one more
Chernobyl-type event in Russia s older reactors (all too possible,
given the poor state of oversight there) to make the nuclear taboo
permanent, to the great detriment of the world s atmospheric
health. Everything depends on getting new and better nuclear
technology designed and built.
Years ago, environmentalists hated cars and wanted to ban
them. Then physicist Amory Lovins came along, saw that the au-
tomobile was the perfect leverage point for large-scale energy
conser vation, and set about designing and promoting drastically
more e cient cars. Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the
road, performing public good. The United States, Lovins says,
can be the Saudi Arabia of nega-watts: Americans are so wasteful
of energy that their conser vation e orts can have an enormous
e ect. Single-handedly, Lovins converted the environmental
movement from loathing of the auto industry to fr uitful engage-
ment with it.
Someone could do the same with nuclear power plants.
Lovins refuses to. The eld is open, and the need is great.
Within the environmental movement, scientists are the radi-
cal minority leading the way. They are already transforming the
perspective on urbanization and population growth. But their
radicalism and leadership will have to increase if humanity is to
harness green biotech and step up to its responsibilities for the
global climate. The romantics are right, after all: we are indi-
visible from the earth s natural systems. ■
Stewart Brand founded The Whole Earth Catalog and cofounded
the Well, the first electronic community. His books include The
Media Lab, How Buildings Lear n, and The Clock of the Long
Now. Today, he works with the Global Business Network and the
Long Now Foundation.
Malthus Was Wrong
As wealth grows and is increasingly distributed toward low-income countries,
population growth rates are expected to continue to fall, approaching
replacement rates by 2050.
projection (five-year rates)
GDP (in trillions
of 1995 dollars)
SOURCES: UNITED NATIONS, WORLD BANK
60 70 80 90 00 10 20 30 40 50
Low- and middle-
More developed regions
Less developed regions
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