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Sterling on Lovelock
Emily Gertz, 30 May 04

Earlier this week, as we noted here on Worldchanging, independent scientist James Lovelock, co-author of the influential Gaia hypothesis, wrote in the UK Independent that he supports massive expansion of the use of nuclear energy as the only solution to reversing climate change.

World Changing Ally #1 Bruce Sterling has logged his rebuttal on the Viridian list, annotating both Lovelock and a follow-up essay supporting Lovelock's position by GBN's Gwynne Dyer.

Read the entire Note at Viridian Design.

Read the extended entry for some excerpts.

Here are a few excerpts (Bruce's comments in blue):

Viridian Note 00415: Doom is Nigh

Key concepts: paranoia, handwringing fear, catastrophe, climate change, James Lovelock, nuclear power, Gwynne Dyer

Attention Conservation Notice: Spooky, disconcerting, contrarian, and goes on and on and on.

'Only nuclear power can now halt global warming'

'The ice is melting much faster than we thought'

Guru who tuned into Gaia was one of the first to warn of climate threat

James Lovelock: "Nuclear power is the only green solution

"We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger

24 May 2004

"Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, was far-sighted to say that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism. He may even have underestimated, because, since he spoke, new evidence of climate change suggests it could be even more serious, and the greatest danger that civilisation has faced so far. (((Well, yeah, if you don't count nukes.)))

"...What makes global warming so serious and so urgent is that the great Earth system, Gaia, is trapped in a vicious circle of positive feedback. Extra heat from any source, whether from greenhouse gases, the disappearance of Arctic ice or the Amazon forest, is amplified, and its effects are more than additive. It is almost as if we had lit a fire to keep warm, and failed to notice, as we piled on fuel, that the fire was out of control and the furniture had ignited. When that happens, little time is left to put out the fire before it consumes the house. Global warming, like a fire, is accelerating and almost no time is left to act. (((So, having demonstrated our keen sense of responsibility in setting our own house afire, it's time to build some nuclear reactors.)))

"So what should we do? We can just continue to enjoy a warmer 21st century while it lasts, and make cosmetic attempts, such as the Kyoto Treaty, to hide the political embarrassment of global warming, and this is what I fear will happen in much of the world. When, in the 18th century, only one billion people lived on Earth, their impact was small enough for it not to matter what energy source they used. (((Well, it mattered if you died in an 18th century coal mine.)))

"But with six billion, and growing, few options remain; we can not continue drawing energy from fossil fuels and there is no chance that the renewables, wind, tide and water power can provide enough energy and in time. If we had 50 years or more we might make these our main sources. But we do not have 50 years; the Earth is already so disabled by the insidious poison of greenhouse gases that even if we stop all fossil fuel burning immediately, the consequences of what we have already done will last for 1,000 years. Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation.

(((You know, I sense the makings of a really good, sensible deal here. Shut off the carbon. Destroy the coal companies and oil companies. Use nukes for fifty years while developing sustainable energy. Then shut off the nukes. Become fully sustainable. Legislate that all, worldwide, with global diplomacy. Leave the oil and coal in the ground. Let Al Qaeda see what the hell they get out of life when their Holy Lands are abandoned to zealots and they have no more actual revenue (other than the usual enslaved women, guns and heroin). Dedicate tremendous effort toward climate amelioration and prevention of Greenhouse changes. And then...

(((Oh wait a minute, what the heck am I saying? Of course we're going to burn all the carbon and then also *add a plague of nukes* to a world spinning out of political and military control.)))

"...By all means, let us use the small input from renewables sensibly, but only one immediately available source does not cause global warming and that is nuclear energy. True, burning natural gas instead of coal or oil releases only half as much carbon dioxide, but unburnt gas is 25 times as potent a greenhouse agent as is carbon dioxide. Even a small leakage would neutralise the advantage of gas. (((As opposed to the small leakages of nuclear power,
which are a kind of health tonic.)))

And, on Dyer:

Only France and Japan among the developed countries get most of their electrical power from nuclear energy. No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States or Britain for over twenty years: the 'fear factor' linked to the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed the market dead. (((Also the *cost,* and the *lack of any place to dump the garbage.*)))

But those were local disasters that caused limited local damage, not massive and irreversible changes for the worse in the whole planetary environment, and with better design and more attention to safety they might have been avoided. (((And, with a slightly tenser international situation, we might have been having Global Warming *plus* Nuclear Winter!)))

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Pardon me here, but where's your solution? It looks to me like you're just sarcastically ripping apart the argument, instead of proposing an alternative. We're not going to get anywhere until we start talking about solutions that can be implemented. Misdirected cynicism isn't going to solve the problem.



Posted by: Tim on 30 May 04

I have to agree with Tim. Dripping sarcasm doesn't make an argument, let alone an alternative. I have a lot of respect for Bruce Sterling, so this is really disappointing.

Posted by: Joseph D'Cruz on 31 May 04

Well, Herr Doktor Professor Sterling has always been a great exponent of creative destruction through cynicism and sarcasm. And he's mellowed with time...

Not to put words into his mouth, but I really read this piece basically as "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING, LOVELOCK? HAVE YOU GONE MAD?" put somewhat more politely.

Also, the emphasis on the relationship between massive adoption of nuclear power and rampant, run-away nuclear proliferation in an age where terrorism has just proven itself as an incredibly effective approach to producing sudden political change (of unpredicable kinds)...

Fair & Balanced it isn't, but the bottom line seems to be that we'd be better off with global warming than nuclear power, and hence nuclear weapons, in all corners of the globe.

Posted by: Vinay on 31 May 04

We have a site called OurAnswer. It is a wiki, and we host influencial declarations. Then the space is left to the public to comment those pages. The site has just started. I have added the letter of Lovelock among the documents waiting to be commented.
I also forked the comment page, with the comments made by Viridian, so that if someone wants can add (wiki style) to the already commented version, or can work on a different version.

The site is
The page is at:

It might seem a bit complicated, but it is actually quite interesting. And if we generate an interetsing commented version, we will send it back to James Lovelock

Posted by: Pietro on 31 May 04

There are some great and thoughtful responses in the comments to our original post on the Lovelock article, at

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 31 May 04

Could someone please explain to me the (mysterious) relationship between nuclear power generation and automobile and airplain operation? How, exactly, could we replace oil with electricity in any realistic world? Does he expect that all cars, all over the world, will suddenly be scrapped in favor of electric vehicles which aren't even yet competitive?? Why isn't this part of the discussion?

Posted by: Ben Weiss on 31 May 04

The issue is energy; turn oil into electricity to manufacture oil again is obviously not a good idea, but if that electricity comes from "good" sources, it can work. You may be manufacturing hydrogen instead of oil, or just using the electricity directly - it's all a matter of cost. Electric cars didn't make sense when oil was $1.50/gallon. When oil reaches $5.00, $10.00/gallon, it's not going to be hard to persuade people to switch. And maybe we should be encouraging that earlier with higher gas taxes...

More importantly, on the Lovelock article: we discussed the imminence of the climate problem and all the potential solutions back in February, with my review of the "Innovative Energy Strategies for CO2 Stabilization" -

I'll just repeat, again, the conclusions there, because there is hope, beyond the nuclear solution, especially to mind, number 9.

(1) Human-generated CO2 and the associated global warming is a big problem for the coming century, although there are some engineering strategies that could (with other side-effects) mitigate it.

(2) We're going to be running out of fossil fuels anyway in the next few centuries; without alternatives, global economic prosperity will be endangered much sooner than that.

(3) Depending on how far efficiency improvements can get us, the mid-century energy requirement from non-fossil sources is between 9 and 30 TW(thermal), or 3 - 10 TW (electric), year-round.

(4) No current renewable technology can provide that power level for less than about $10 trillion in capital investment.

(5) The best plan seems to be an adaptive one: introduce a carbon tax and technology incentives of all sorts for the renewable options, and then adjust both taxes and incentives in response to changing assessments of CO2 damage and non-fossil technological promise.

(6) Wind may be ready for large scale installation; however investments are needed in energy storage and transmission technologies to make it really practical. Biofuels are already in large-scale use: R&D investments to improve their efficiencies, perhaps including genetically engineered crops, should be supported. Solar is a little further away, but R&D there should be strengthened because of the huge potential.

(7) Nuclear fission will be around - we need to decide whether to try to make it a big part, or a small part, of our energy future (i.e. choosing between once-through and breeder fuel cycles).

(8) Fusion likely won't help by mid-century. But the long-term payoff may be large; we should continue to invest moderately in the technology.

(9) Space solar power, whether or not on the Moon, has enormous theoretical potential. Technology incentives to prove its capabilities seem warranted - investments and demonstration projects at least for photovoltaic capabilities, light-weight space construction, space launch, and wireless power transmission. all seem well justified by this and spinoff applications.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 31 May 04

By the way, in some respects, Lovelock's Gaia concept almost implies looking at our world as part of the larger universe. "Gaia" gained traction in large part from the photos of the whole Earth against the backdrop of space, from Apollo 8 and later. "Gaia"'s lifeblood is energy from the Sun; we've already started capturing a tiny bit more of that through our orbiting communications satellites. Like any growing organism, our planet is starting to extend beyond its original box, and there's enormous potential out there.

Nuclear power, at least in the form of fission plants, is a dead end. And as far as fusion goes, we already have an enormous fusion plant working for us just 90 million miles away...

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 31 May 04

lessee, france, japan, the UK, HK, germany seem to do alright and despite super-phenix, i think breeder reactors are still promising...

hmmmm, slashdot discussion!

and from way back when :D

and to reiterate, i also think it's the only hope for china, who's reliance on coal, and increasingly on oil, leaves something to be desired in terms of sustainability. from a recent morgan stanley evaluation:

China Will Have to Change Its Energy Policy

While China's energy demand fluctuates with its economic cycles, its overall trend is strongly up. I believe that China's oil consumption would double to 14 million barrels per day by 2014 from 7 million this year, unless China changes its energy policy dramatically. The problem with this forecast is that China couldn't afford the resulting high oil price. Considering the limited spare capacity in Saudi Arabia, oil price could exceed $80/bbl in ten years. China would have to spend $300 billion to import crude and related products per annum by then. It would be a huge drag on the Chinese economy.

China has to either become much more energy-efficient or find substitutes for oil. Nuclear energy, for example, could be a viable alternative. But, it takes 10 years to build a nuclear power industry. China has to act soon if it wants to adopt the nuclear option. The alternative is to limit the growth of the automobile industry. The current growth trend could triple China's fleet size to 100 million by 2014. Unless China changes the current trend, it would be too late to slow oil demand.

Posted by: reflexorset on 31 May 04

plastic discussion :D;sid=04/05/28/01372178

and, fwiw, a new twist on china's nuclear power ambitions...

Cheney also suggested that U.S. companies be tapped to sell nuclear reactors to China as it seeks to substantially boost its use of nuclear power. China issued an international bid earlier this year to build four plants, and Westinghouse Electric Co. LLC is competing with Japanese and French firms for the multibillion-dollar contracts.

Premier Wen Jiabao told Cheney that the Bush administration should ease restrictions on exports of high-technology products to China and grant it full market status "as soon as possible" as part of a "five-point agreement" to develop bilateral trade, the official New China News Agency said. Full market status would insulate China against charges it is dumping its goods by selling them abroad for less than they cost to produce.


Posted by: reflexorset on 31 May 04

Ben, the "how do you power cars with nuclear power?" question is answered, at least in prototypes, by fuel cells.

Electricity from the nuke is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen by electolysis.

The hydrogen is stored either under pressure in (carbon fiber?) tanks, frozen, or in a metal hydride. Somehow(!) it's safely loaded into the car, then the fuel cell turns it back into electricity by combining it with oxygen from the air.

It's fairly workable in theory and the technology is coming along apace - most of the major automakers have a billion or two in R&D going on the assumption that fuel cell cars are the way of the future.

Posted by: Vinay on 31 May 04

How do you fly an airplane on fuel cells though? (Yes, I know NASA has done it, but that was an ultra-ultra light experimental plane that did not go very fast.)

The thing is, we'll need combustible liquid fuels for a good while yet, but we can make them - even if indirectly for example using electricity to make fertilizer to grow plants that can be turned into alcohol or bio-diesel, etc. Or there may be better ways found to turn CO2 back into usable fuels.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 1 Jun 04

Sterling should have done better; his response was devoid of any meaningful argument, and frankly sounded like a petulant 13yo kid who's only just discovered sarcasm. Pathetic.

Posted by: aramaic on 1 Jun 04

As always, and unlike several other readers, I thoroughly enjoy Bruce Sterling's razor-sharp wit. Stupid ideas deserve vitriolic responses, especially when stupid ideas come from people who really should know better.

As for some reader's comments that all Bruce did was tear down without supplying any answers, well, large portions of Bruce's Viridian Design archives devote themselves to exactly that.

It behooves anyone coming up with a technological solution to look at the underbelly of the tech before going public, as it were. So - where do we put the nuclear waste generated by these "vital" power plants? And how do we prevent another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl? (Although I really don't mind the Involuntary Parks thus formed!) And how do we cool down these nuclear reactors when the rivers that supply their coolant dry up like in France in 2003? (


Posted by: Frank Shearar on 2 Jun 04

Bruce's commentary was pretty insipid. For one, he essentially argued that nuclear power == use of nuclear weapons. This makes about as much sense as arguing that petroleum power == use of fuel air explosives; billions of barrels of petrol are consumed with nary a FAE detonation.

He also insinuated that reactors generate weapons-grade byproducts. Not all reactors need to be fast breeder reactors, and transparency through international institutions like IAEA can effectively limit the spread of fissile materials to those who use it for power generation.

While I disagree with Lovelock's thesis that nuclear power is the obvious short-term fix, Sterling's rebuttal is meaningless and trite.

Posted by: Ethan Fremen on 2 Jun 04

In reply to frank's post above:

"So - where do we put the nuclear waste generated by these "vital" power plants?"

The best solution IMO would be to use the Sun. Launching rockets to hit the sun is fairly simple given it's high gravity and containers can be built to hold the nuclear waste that can survive a rocket failure and survive harmlessly at the bottom of the ocean.

And how do we prevent another Three Mile Island or Chernobyl?

To quote this NRC article: "However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well-respected organizations have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, most of the radiation was contained and that the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment."

And Chernobyl was the result of running a plant with all safeties turned off and running at a near meltdown rate. Seems pretty easy to aviod.

And thank you Ethan Fremen for pointing out that Nuclear Power != Nuclear weapons. This fear of Nuclear power is really naive and misplaced. The worst nuclear power disaster in history, Chernobyl, killed around 5,000 people (including fallout). Where as 5,395 miners died in Chinese coal mines in 2002. That's one year in one (rather large) country.

Posted by: Thomas Paine on 3 Jun 04

People! Eyeball the current global barely-there efforts to round up enriched uranium before you get too confident about tracking and controlling fissionable materials. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. cheerily distributed this stuff to allies during the Cold War, and now policial will and money to gather it up are in short supply. Will that be changing in the near term?

Shooting nuclear waste into the sun is certainly a nice use of a big natural resourse, although it will entail the dumping of millions of pounds of hydrocarbons into Earth's atmosphere in the process.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 3 Jun 04

I'd understood Bruce's use of the term "nuke" to mean "nuclear reactor".

As for launching nuclear waste into the Sun, think about the consequences of an explosion in the launcher on the launch pad or, even worse, halfway up into orbit. This has happened several times in the very recent past (Ariane 5 and the two Shuttles).

Thing is, America still has no idea what to do with the 30,000 tons or so of waste they've generated thus far - they shove it in the ground and pray that the (up to now) geologically stable disposal sites (WIPP, for instance) stay that way for, say, the next 10,000 years until the stuff's decayed enough to be safe.

As for nuclear plants != nuclear weapons, well, sure, powerplants don't pump out weapons-grade plutonium, but they DO output very radioactive stuff - and, wrapped in C4 and a briefcase (or whatever) you have a very nasty dirty bomb on your hands. Sure, it won't vaporise New York - it'll merely render Manhattan uninhabitable for, say, the next 200 years or whatever.

As Emily points out, governments won't be able to keep control over this waste.

So why generate it at all when we can rather start putting solar panels up on our rooftops RIGHT NOW?


Posted by: Frank Shearar on 3 Jun 04

Dealing with nuclear waste is a lot simpler than everyone has made it out to be. An very easy and safe way would be to encase the wastes in glass blocks and drop them in the subduction zone in the middle of the Atlantic. By the time the glass either melted or wore away they would be so deep in the crust that they would be long dormant by the time they reached the surface again. using the natural processes of the earth to make dangerous materials safe has always seemed to be the best way to go about it. The only thing lacking is the political will to do so.

Posted by: John Hamill on 5 Jun 04

The fact is most of that "waste" is actauly fuel and can be reused. Of the rest the simple and amazingly obvious solution is to use it all in one very large nuclear thermal energy plant. It is after all nice and hot and will stay so for quite some time might as well use it to make more energy.

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Jun 04

I wonder how many of our theorists here have actually had to deal with the social, financial and technical reality of dealing with nuclear waste.

Posted by: Zaid Hassan on 6 Jun 04



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