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Worldchanging Interview: Bill McKibben on Creating the Durable Future
Emily Gertz, 11 Apr 07
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Bill McKibben is one of America's leading environmental writers. HIs first book, The End of Nature (1989), was well ahead of its time as the first book for a general audience about global warming. In his latest, Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, McKibben examines the unintended and intertwined consequences of both fossil fuel dependence and economic globalization. Strengthening local economies is essential to creating an ecologically sustainable future, says McKibben, as well as more genuine satisfaction with our modern lives. He urges you to buy your copy from your local independent bookstore. McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Emily Gertz: You've got a lot going on: you've been helping to organize a day of nationwide demonstrations for action on global warming on April 14, and you have a new book coming out.

Bill McKibben: To me, they're the emergency response to the situation we're in, and the long-term response to the situation we're in.

EG: Why don't we start with the emergency response -- what's the Step It Up campaign?

BM: I should say at the beginning that it's really not my forte, this organizing stuff. I'm a writer; I wrote the first book on global warming way back in 1989. And I've watched with increasing despair over the years, as we've done nothing in this country.

So, last Labor Day, I organized with a few friends a 50-mile walk across the state of Vermont for climate action. It was entirely successful: we had a thousand people at our final rally, which is a lot in the state of Vermont. The papers the next day said this was the largest rally on global warming that there had yet been in this country, which struck me as pathetic.

So, we decided to see if we could do a modest national campaign. When I say "we," I mean me, and six Middlebury College students who were getting paid $100 a week. We launched a web site on January 10th, asking people if they would organize rallies in their home communities to fight global warming on April 14th, and told them that we would try to link these all together via the web into some interesting thing. We expected we might get a couple of hundred at most -- a hundred, maybe two hundred if we were lucky.

After about just over two months, we had nine hundred and fifty-some rallies scheduled in all fifty states. It's clearly going to be the largest grassroots environmental protest of any kind since Earth Day 1970.

We're very hopeful that this is changing some of the feeling about this issue on Capitol Hill; we're getting a lot of Congress people coming on board. One presidential candidate, John Edwards, endorsed our demand for eighty percent cuts in atmospheric carbon emissions by 2050.

It's taken off amazingly -- not because we're great organizers, but because people are really ready to try and do something about this problem. They realize that screwing in a light bulb is a really good thing, but they also realize that it's not solving the problem. You almost feel that as you're physically turning the light bulb. So they want to figure out how to be active as citizens as well.

UncleSam2.jpg What's really remarkable is the degree to which we've been able to organize this odd hybrid of a thing: local demonstrations about climate change. And they're happening in the most amazing ways. People are scuba diving in the coral reefs off the Florida Keys, which are endangered by global warming, as underwater demonstrations. Or skiing down dwindling glaciers in the Rockies, or gathering thousands of people in blue shirts in lower Manhattan, a kind of Sea of People that will show where the water's going to be when the sea level starts to rise. It should be fantastic -- all that creativity.

But we've also been able to make it national, using the web. I think it's a beginning of a new kind of political organizing, that's able to be dispersed and yet add up to more than the sum of it's parts.

EG: Have you heard of the concept of the second superpower: civil society powered by networked communications -- like the internet and mobile phones -- which allows seemingly a seemingly scattered constituency to become a real counterweight to government power?

BM: Well this is a perfect example of that. I can't imagine how we would have possibly organized this before the web; we would have needed a huge organization. Instead we're going to pull off this enormous thing with a budget of about $100 thousand: seven of us sitting in a room, and tens of thousands of people in their local communities, working really hard to make those local events happen.

EG: What moved you out of the more standoffish journalist's role into organizing?

BM: It's not the very first time I've moved off that role a little bit. A few of us protesting in Washington about six or seven years ago were the first people arrested in this country who were demonstrating about global warming. But the time wasn't right. It couldn't catch on.

Now the time is right, it is catching on, and it's been a pleasure to be a small part of enabling that to happen.

EG: What's changed since you wrote your book about global warming, The End of Nature, in 1989?

BM: For along time, nothing changed. But in the past three years a couple things changed. The science has gotten a lot worse; we really understand just how high the stakes are. Hurricane Katrina blew open a door in the public's consciousness. And Al Gore walked through that door with his movie, and really educated people.

What we're trying to do now is to capitalize on that education, and turn it into action.

EG: Your new book, Deep Economy, isn't just about global warming: it's speaking to broader kinds of dissatisfaction that Americans are feeling with their lives today.

BM: Absolutely. It's interesting; one of the bad effects of fossil fuel is that it's destroying the world. And another is that in odd ways it managed to make our lives less happy instead of more. The endless expansion of our economy stopped producing more satisfaction about fifty years ago. That's when Americans started to become steadily less happy and less satisfied with their lives.

It's remarkable, that statistic, because that same fifty years has seen us treble the amount of stuff that we have. If any of the things that we tell ourselves all the time about the economy were true, those numbers would move in the same direction, not opposite directions. But the fact that they're moving apart like that should cause us feel a little sad that we've wasted this much effort and caused this much damage to the environment without accomplishing anything in terms of human satisfaction. And it should make us think a little harder about what we're going to do in the future. The idea of "more" and "better" being the same thing is very tired now, and you can't make much of a case for it with the data. So it's time to think more cleverly.

EG: How are we going to make that case to countries like India and China, where they're still barely on the cusp of "more"?

BM: I don't think that's the first place it needs to be made. We spent a hundred years getting rich putting carbon in the atmosphere. We can't very well say, well, we used it all up, so you're going to have to think of something else. The Chinese are smart; they know that coal is the cheapest possible option. If they're not going to use it, then they should be recompensed to some degree for that. There's an international deal waiting to be made, and everyone knows its basic outlines. The only question is whether we'll step up and make it or not.

The book talks a lot about China in particular. There are many places in China where people are still at a point in their economic development where "more" and "better" are pretty closely linked. If you're living eight to a room in a hovel in rural China, trying to support your family on a half-acre of not very good farmland, then it's pretty easy to understand why a little more income, and the chance to eat a little better, and maybe have two rooms instead of one, would be a pretty attractive proposition.

One of the big questions for the world is whether China's going to develop on a more European or a more American model. It makes a big difference, because Europeans use half as much energy as Americans do. They consume less. They live in somewhat smaller houses. They take public transportation, which they tax themselves to pay for. Their disposable income is about two-thirds of what an American's is. They have less in the way of material goods, but they take their productivity in guaranteed health care, in guaranteed education for their children, in a guaranteed retirement even if they're not rich, and on and on and on.

EG: In Deep Economy you offer the example of a Norwegian office worker who sits at her desk at lunchtime and eats the sandwich she brought from home, and doesn't feel deprived; she feels very content. Compare that to America, where if you're not going out during lunch hour and spending $15 on a big bowl of salad, you're missing out.

BM: Our perception of what is necessary is out of whack. The world is telling us so: the temperature is going up. And our own society is telling us so: if our consumption was making us unbelievably happy, then there would be no hope of changing it no matter what damage it was doing. We'd have a Pavlovian reaction and just keep hitting the lever. But since that's not true, there's some real hope for things to begin to change.

We're beginning to see it happening: farmers markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy, and that's not because they're old-fashioned and rustic. It's because these are people who are using a combination of old and very new ideas about agriculture to produce good food and produce good livings, and do it for a lot of people. And they're also able to make the rest of us happier because we've got something good to eat, and we've got a place to buy it that's way more congenial than the supermarket.

Sociologists last year followed shoppers around farmers markets and around supermarkets. They found people having 10 times more conversations in the farmer's markets. That's a big number. And they were using about 10 times less energy to feed themselves than the rest of us who were just ordering takeout from two thousand miles away every night of the year.

EG: In your book you describe the Intervale, an area of a couple hundred acres in Burlington, Vermont that's been reclaimed by organic farmers, and now supplies a significant amount of fresh produce to the city, which is the largest in Vermont. But the population of Burlington is pretty small, around 200,000. How do you imagine something like that playing out in a city on the scale of New York?

BM: It's harder to imagine in New York, until you start to reflect on the fact that 75 years ago, the New York metropolitan area supplied all its own food, not just the 10 percent that the Intervale's managing to supply in Burlington. We call New Jersey "the Garden State" for a reason. Some of that soil -- too much -- is covered up with housing developments, but there's still a lot of it left.

There's a lot of land north of New York, in Westchester County, and beyond, all the way up into the southern tier of the state of New York, good and productive land that's been growing into scrub forest for two or three generations because we weren't growing food on it; we've been buying it all from the Midwest. It's quite possible to imagine the remarkable expansion of the very successful green markets all over the city extending to the poorer parts of Brooklyn and Queens, as well as the one in Union Square.

And it's quite possible to imagine lots of other changes. The building code in New York City should make sure that every new skyscraper is a net energy producing building, which wouldn't be hard -- it's huge panels of glass exposed to the sun. We should be working hard to reduce energy use across the city with all the interesting technologies that we've figured out. New York is already a pretty green place in terms of its energy use, and it could get greener still.

EG: What sobers me is the power of some of these government-supported industries to resist change. Big Ag has been getting subsidies to grow corn to feed beef cattle and to export. And now the inexorable weight of the system seems to be making corn-based ethanol a central point of a new national alternative energy plan -- even though it's perhaps the worst way to go about creating a fuel alternative.

BM: You're essentially exactly right about the enormous, cycling power of those self-reinforcing subsidies.

EG: Where do you see the fault lines in reforming the system?

BM: The only way to beat it -- and it may not happen -- is with really strong citizen political action.

I remember interviewing John McCain some years ago, in the Senate, and he said, global warming is an easy call for us. Exxon made $40 billion dollars in profit last year, and that buys a fair amount of influence. We hear every day from these fossil fuel lobbyists, and we never hear a thing from our constituents about global warming.

I'm sure it's the same thing with industrial agriculture.

EG: Last year I heard you speak on a panel that included representatives from Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and Dupont. It struck me that you were going against the prevailing enthusiasm for the consumer green movement, but were genuinely excited about some of Dupont's commitments.

BM: The consumption that we do have should be green. People need light bulbs. There's no reason not to buy a compact florescent light bulb; in fact, we shouldn't even sell anything else. But the man from Wal-mart made a very revealing point when he said, the reason we want to sell these things is they'll save our customers X numbers of millions of dollars of energy, and we know from our studies that they will spend 38 percent of that or something shopping at Wal-mart for things they couldn't afford to buy before.

That's the problem! It's going to take not just more efficient technologies; it's going to take a different approach to the endless growth cycle of our world. And solely turning it over to the corporations to make those changes isn't going to work. We need to fashion the playing field to restrict a lot of things about what everyone can and can't do, and empower a lot of things that are impossible now precisely because of the power of those huge corporations. It's very difficult to do responsible agriculture in a world where we subsidize irresponsible agriculture. It's very difficult to get renewable energy going in a world where we subsidize destructive energy.

The Coke guy was similarly interesting. Yeah, they're doing whatever they're doing to be greener; but they're also trying to sell people with perfectly good water supplies yet more plastic bottles of water. If there's any commodity on earth that symbolizes the pointlessness of our economy, it's got to be bottled water. It's a product that would actually be useful in certain parts of the world that have terrible water supplies, but of course no one there can afford it, and it's completely unnecessary in all the places that they're selling it.

EG: That's the inherent contradiction of a place like Whole Foods: it makes it easier for many people to buy food that's healthier, and often sustainably produced, but there's a whole wall of little bottled drinks greeting you at the checkout line. It's not really discouraging you from making those choices, it's encouraging them.

BM: Those choices will only be discouraged as our economy begins to change to reflect the real cost of energy. If the cost of energy reflected the damage fossil fuels are doing to the environment, we would not be shipping water in little plastic bottles around the continent on trucks.

That's the first half of the economic revolution that we need. The second half is to start asking, "What is an economy for?" Is the point of the economy to grow larger all the time, and is it our job to help that happen? Or is the economy meant to service the needs of people, and to make them more satisfied than they were before?

If that's the answer, then we need an economy that not only values environmental damages correctly, but also that promotes those things that human beings need, like community, as much as it promotes accumulation and acquisition.

EG: What are companies like Dupont doing that you find so exciting and encouraging?

BM: In those sorts of primary producer categories, people are doing much more straightforward work. They want to save some energy, so they're saving it: they reconfigured their systems to allow them to do things far more efficiently. It didn't require a lot of preaching, it just happened. There's not the same kind of gamesmanship that's going on in the consumer sector.

EG: Do you imagine that we're going to see legislation mandating carbon caps in the country this year?

BM: I don't know about this year; it's possible that President Bush is such an idiot that we won't see anything until he leaves office. But if not, then we'll see them in the first two months of the next presidential administration. The only question is if they're going to be tough ones or not. The industries know this; they're going to try and cut an easy deal. We have to make them cut a much harder deal. And when we do, all the kinds of technological change we need to make will be much easier.

Right now, the force of economic gravity works in the wrong direction. Every good thing has to fight against that force, because we assess no penalty on fossil fuel for its environmental devastation. If we did, then that economic gravity would work to support a thousand great technological and cultural changes, and we would really start to see, not a thousand flowers bloom, but a thousand solar panels unfold, a thousand windmills spin.

EG: What about nuclear power? Some very prominent environmentalists, like British scientist James Lovelock, are supporting expansion of nuclear as the only way to produce the amount of energy modern societies need without contributing to global warming.

BM: If you want to hand me $2 billion to build a nuclear reactor, I can show you two billion things to do with it that would get you a lot more carbon bang for the buck, mostly to do with conservation. Spend that money going around your state and refitting every industrial motor to make it three times as efficient. Go stuff insulation in every old house in your state. Take your $2 billion and go to Wal-mart and buy compact florescent bulbs, and mail them at random to everybody in the phone book, and you'd get more bang for your buck than building a nuclear power plant.

The one thing I will say is that it's very useful to talk about it, because it allows people to understand that a new coal-fired power plant is at least as dangerous as a nuclear-fired one. A nuclear power plant carries risks; a new coal-fired plant carries the absolute certainty of climatic destruction.

EG: Americans are not well known for embracing energy conservation.

BM: It's only going to happen if it's driven by the economic system. And that's what all this carbon cap and trade stuff is about. The effect is going to be drive up the price of fossil fuel, and cause people to conserve, and to invent the technology that will allow us to conserve more easily.

EG: So you're not necessarily looking for a big moral transformation?

BM: No. We just need enough of a political outcry to cause us to start changing the rules of the game. And once we change the rules of the game, all kinds of things will happen, including that we'll build local economies that work in a much more congenial fashion than the economies we have at the moment.

EG: Do you imagine that someday in a city like New York, most people will have some chickens growing backyard in addition to going to work on Madison Avenue?

BM: No, I doubt that. I think that self-sufficiency is the wrong goal, and it feeds right into our American individualist thing. Sufficiency in a region or a locality is what we're after. Even that's not going to be total; you can't produce everything. But the trajectory should be in the direction of regions that are able to take better care of their own needs. Redefining efficiency in that direction will be really helpful.

EG: One thing I think about when I read materials, such as your book, that discuss the need for this sort of transformation for ecological and environmental reasons, is that certain types of human rights that were realized in the 20th century came directly as a result of modernization. I'm thinking of women's rights in particular. I worry that when we talk about a resurgence of localism and regionalism, we're not considering whether or not that type of flexibility in who we are in society is going to erode.

BM: That's a very good question. The problem with localism in the past is that it's also been parochial and stifling. We happen to live in an era with this great new technology, the web, which allows people to live locally and be part of something large. The metaphor that I like to use for it is a society that's easily able to trade recipes with people around the world, but doesn't have to trade ingredients with people around the world. That can trade ideas, which are easily portable, and doesn't have to move oil through pipelines that we need to defend with soldiers.

I think that it's much easier than it's ever been in the past to imagine a localized world that isn't parochial, where people are much better citizens of the world because they're good citizens of their own place.

Full Disclosure, or Way Small World Department: Bill McKibben is a board member of and contributes to Grist Magazine. I have written several articles for Grist, and occasionally contribute to the magazine's blog, Gristmill.

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Nice interview, Emily.

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 11 Apr 07

The answer provided about nuclear power is not a comparison that is consistent with the reality of the business situation.

Saying give me the money that would be spent on a nuclear power plant and then I use it for a giveaway of conservation does not provide the same result. It does payback the loan for 2 billion to buy the business or provide the returns to pay the cost of the loan and profit to the company that the company needs.

Here is a study of the economics of an actual nuclear power plant.

It is paying about $59 million in corporate taxes. That means it is making about $240 million in net profit after servicing its debt and expenses.

So for the giveaways to be rational comparison, how does the principle and debt servicing get made on the conservation giveaways and where is the project return on investment ?

If I take out a $2 million loan from the bank to buy a Starbucks, but instead give the money to you to insulate my neighbors houses then how is the bank repaid and how do I make the $200,000 per year in profit that I was expecting and needing from that Starbucks? The neighbors have to pay me back the savings on their energy bill. But they also need to get paid to install the installation or they will not do it. CFL bulbs are at stores now in California for less than $1 subsidized by PGE. They are still only about 2-5% of the newly installed bulbs.

I think conservation and efficiency should be promoted, but we cannot just say that it will happen and then if it does not continue drawing more of the installed coal power. We have to conserve and change the backend power so that it is clean. That is why nuclear is the current answer to cleaning up the backend power

Posted by: Brian Wang on 12 Apr 07

Nuclear is NOT the answer because:
1) The bloody waste! What are we going to do with it? Yes, MAYBE the U.S. will handle it effeciently and safely, but do you really trust China to do the same? Or what about India, on the border with Pakistan, do you want lots of radioactive waste sitting there? And what about places like the Congo, or Nigeria- do you really trust nuclear materials NOT getting into the wrong hands of a rebel group there?
2) The cost! All the financial numbers I see for the cost of building nuclear power plants say the same thing to me. THESE COST WAY TOO MUCH!! Each plant costs billions and billions of dollars, and will cost a lot even with subsidies. If we're willing to spend all of those massive sums of money on nuclear, then why not spend it on solar, wind and conservation instead?
3) The Energy needed to build the things. You look at any nuclear power plant, they're HUGE. Think about all the energy just needed to keep the lights on in those places, just to run them. Is that really the best way to have an energy system?
4) The lifespans. Nuclear power plants built fifty years ago are now having to be decommssioned. That means despite their MASSIVE cost, MASSIVE infrastructure and SERIOUS potential for being dangerous, whether in intentional weapon form or not, THEY ONLY LAST FIFTY OR SIXTY FRIGGIN' YEARS AT BEST!?!? I don't think that's the best use of my tax money or anybody else's.
5) The water situation. The nuclear industry doesn't publicize this at all, believe me, but in France in 2003, during their massive heat wave that hit Europe and killed 30,000 plus, a number of nuclear power plants had to temporarily shut down. That's because the large amounts of water that are required to keep the nuclear materials cool and prevent them from overheating, had to be diverted to other uses, such as drinking water, in a country that desperately needed it in a serious heat wave. As Climate change affects more and more places, and as water supplies become and more and more precious in an ever more populous world, the LAST thing we need are big-ass power plants that suck up that water.
6) The centralization. Like most other mainstream energy industries, nuclear is one that is designed for few-and-far-between concepts of energy supply, in other words a centralized energy network. Centralization is pretty much always bad for the resiliency of any energy system, and greatly increases the likilihood of brownouts and blackouts, because it means that if just one power plant goes off line, many, many people can lose their power supplies. Resiliency is key.
7) Uranium IS a finite resource. There will be such a thing as Peak Uranium, and it almost certainly will be in the 21st century. If we attempt to make much of the world's energy supply come from Nuclear, that Peak will come all the sooner. What do we do then?

To me it has long seemed that in the Western world the ONLY reason, whether they'll openly admit to it or not, that people get enthusiastic about Nuclear Energy, is because its a supposedly "clean", non carbon-emitting energy source that allows us to keep up our current LEVEL of energy consumption in this country and society. Basically we could all just re-plug our electric lines into nuke plants and go along our merry way, still being the energy hogs that we are.
The truth is, right now, in 2007, we COULD genuinely have an economy that depended entirely upon Wind and Solar energy, plus a HELL of a lot of conservation. We can do that, RIGHT NOW, if we wanted to. The difference, the BIG difference between that very sustainable solution and Nuclear is that with that second option, we couldn't keep up our huge houses, our many many electronic gadgets, the generally wasteful electricity use that we've all become so accustomed to. With wind, solar plus conservation, we'd have to Drastically change our lifestyles. With nuclear, we wouldn't have to do much of anything. That's why people get excited about Nuclear, whether they say it or not.

Posted by: Geoff Trowbridge on 12 Apr 07

I applaud and welcome Bill McKibben's energy, drive, and strong intellectual contribution to the awareness of climate change. Bravo!

But I'm concerned with his rigid certainty that solutions have to be anti-consumer-choice, growth-limiting, and that regions should necessarily be self-sufficient.

Every time a person is born, the economy has to grow to support the increased population. Everyone wants to improve their standards of living. And some parts of the world will always have a competitive advantage in some products. Globalization has been the result of both increased efficiency and consumer demand.

The key is to establish a regime of sustainability and accountability, then let people readjust to the new pricing regime on their own. McKibben may be very surprised at both the intelligence and practicality of consumers, and the resilience of the global transport network. Once the improvement in efficiency and shipping methods occurs (there's been talk of things like attaching large kite-sails to container ships, resulting in 2/3 or greater fuel savings, then there's the possibility of revitalizing rail-transport, barges, electrifying and hybridizing tractor-trailers, etc.).

It seems to me that green industry is one of the greatest growth-engines imaginable: with it people get to have their products AND take care of the planet. What could be better?

McKibben's recitation of a version of Jevon's paradox while discussing Walmart's motivation for selling CFL's also strikes me as unrelentingly negative. Jevon's paradox only applies to closed systems with severely limited resources. Once the transition to renewable energy and the cradle-to-cradle product cycle is complete, there will be no limits on energy or consumer products. Jevon's paradox will therefore no longer apply.

I think it is disingenuous to say that an excess of consumer goods has made people unhappy. If I had to postulate a cause for the consumerist unhappiness, it would be people's core-level knowledge that they are living far out of harmony with planetary systems--and thus on borrowed time.

I think a good case can be made that people need to take care of their own happiness through self-actualization, and that it should not and does not have anything to do with what they do or do not consume. Problems of scarcity in the world still far outweigh the problems of abundance (obesity, traffic, ennui, etc.).

We therefore need strong sustainable growth to help lift the "under-consuming" half the world out of poverty, and bring the "over-consuming" half back into balance with nature.

I urge McKibben to temper his anti-consumer-choice rhetoric, because his message is otherwise spot-on.

Posted by: BlackSun on 12 Apr 07

Getting people to conserve is hard.

In 2005, U.S. consumers spent about $1 billion to buy about 2 billion lightbulbs--5.5 million every day. Just 5%, 100 million, were compact fluorescents.

The Walmart promotion and the Al Gore push is trying to get it up to 200 million or 10% of bulbs this year. There are cheap ($1 and even saw 49 cent promos) 40watt bulbs in california supermarket checkouts, but they are still not moving that well. Not much difference between the lowest price and pay your own stamp for a free one.

Complaints against the CFL, I have asked people personally and there is link below with people talking about them:
Don't like the look /color of the lighting.
The swirl type won't fit in my table and floor lamps.
It has to do with color temperature for us. We're really, really picky and can be put in bad moods with bad (wrong color) lighting.
Like the soft, warm glow of traditional lights.
Traditional bulbs are cheaper.
More prone to power surges than traditional bulbs.
Some of them make noise (like a high-pitched whine) when running in quiet places.
Problems when run on a dimmer switch
Not bright enough to read by.
Give headaches to some people.

Walmart sold sold 40 million of the energy efficient bulbs compared with about 350 million incandescent bulbs. It was from August 2005 to August 2006 — not in 2005.
after a series of steps to promote the energy efficient bulbs.

2005 title 24 introduced to force more better light usage when californians remodel their homes with a permit. But when people remodel and flip homes most changed back to incandescent because the house looked better for resale. They got a higher price because the house showed better. When I speak to contractors and real estate agents this is common practice to circumvent title 24.

In 2005, only 28% of americans said they "plan to install measures to conserve energy at home before this winter," according to a survey taken last month by the National Oilheat Research Alliance.

I think the statistics (actual bulbs purchased) and surveys (how much people will conserve) bear out my statement that conservation is not as straightforward as McKibben (or Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute) make it sound. You have to perform more policy shifts. Trying to change taxation (of fuel usage and product efficiency ) and the incentives in the USA to say match Europe is very tough. Recent measures to tax gas to support renewables failed in California (a state more disposed to that than other states)

Another problem with negawatts.
If one group saves wattage and the price for electricity and capacity stays low then places like ISP server farms will suck up the capacity. Places that make money with a business model to put up more electricity sucking devices (and each one generates profit) will sop up negawatt savings. I have worked at companies where last year we were queued up and planning for months around the fact that massive server farms had tapped out on electricity until they got more buildings wired up and shipped in truckloads of backup power systems and air conditioning or until the city could run more power lines.

My next post will address Geoffs points.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 12 Apr 07

1. 95% of nuclear "waste" is incompletely burned nuclear fuel.

There is reprocessing of the existing nuclear material in France and Japan.

The longest lived "waste" is incompletely burned uranium. So that material is reprocessed in France, japan, uk, russia etc... They turn it into MOX fuel. The longest half life of the remaining material is 30 years.

There have been molten salt reactors built in the 1960s that can burn through most of the uranium.
The reason they were not used is that the current boiler reactors are quickly adapted submarine reactors.
The better features of molten salt reactors address our current preferences.

More advanced topic of reactor design is detailed at this website.

So the "waste" from all the current style of reactors can be 95% reprocessed and is being reprocessed in other countries.
There are other types of reactors that were made and can be built which can be more efficient with uranium.

India is planning to make Thorium reactors because the country has a lot of thorium and wants to be energy resource independent.

China and India have nuclear plants now. I have not seen reports of any problems with their handling of nuclear waste.

How long does coal waste hang around? What is the half life of mercury ? Coal is the source of 50% of the USA electrical power and 80% of China's.

Bottom Line: nuclear material from our current once through reactors can be handled. 98% reprocessed or completely burned. Remainder has half lives of 30 years or less and each of the components has other uses. But storing for one hundred years is no big deal. Plus if it does leak it does not make a bee-line for your lungs. One can always put them into other containers if the current ones have problems. Safer than the fossil fuels by thousands of times.

2/3/4. Cost is relative. They cost 1500 to 2000 per KW of generating capability, but they can make the company that builds them 12-25% return each year. If I buy Microsoft for $80 billion then I got it cheap because of the income stream (12 billion per year). If I pay $40 billion for Ford then I paid too much.

Energy. If I spend 1 unit of energy making it and then it produces 10 times that over its lifetime then it was worth it.

Plants are getting extended to 60 years and more, but those being decommissioned and have already earned back the money spent to make and operate them and the energy invested in building them.

5. Water. Water for cooling can be from salt water sources or can use waste water. A proposed plant in California is indicating it would use waste water for cooling.

6. The case for decentralized power is a peripheral feature. Saying that you prefer decentralized does not indicate that a centralized option is not viable. Indicating that there are transmission losses is something that can be factored in along with the fact that nuclear has 90% capacity factor versus about (16 to 30%) for solar and 35% for wind. So you need 3 to 5 times more installed Kilowatts of solar to match the same installed kilowatts of nuclear. Solar cells produce DC which must be converted to AC when used in currently existing distribution grids. This incurs an energy loss of 4-12%.

7. Peak uranium is a fallacy. The case was made and shown to be false in the comments at theoildrum.
The nuclear waste contains enough uranium for 500 years at current rates of usage.
Uranium is energy dense and doubling its price only adds 5% to the cost of the electricity supplied.

Because of the 30 year lack of new nuclear power plants there was a stoppage in uranium exploration and mine development. Now they are looking for Uranium.

2005 reserve figures
Reasonable Assured Reserves recoverable at less than $US130/kgU (or $US50/lb U3O8) = 4.7 million tonnes.

Additional recoverable Uranium is estimated to be 35 million tonnes

Japan has proven the ability to extract uranium from seawater. It is cost effective at $120/pound. The Black Current off Japan carries approximately 5.2 million tons a year. The world's oceans have 4.6 billion tons. 66500 tons used per year now.

Plenty of Uranium and we can use it 50 times more efficiently with high burn reactors OR we just reprocess it repeatedly.

8. Let us compare possible deaths related to other energy sources.

-Coal over 1 million people die each year from air pollution from coal. (figure from the World Health Organization) Particulates from coal cause increased heart and lung disease. No accident needed. It is just happening.

thousands more dead and sick from mercury and arsenic from coal. (that little issue of mercury in fish, perhaps you have heard about it with warnings about feeding children tuna). 60000 extra deaths per year in the USA which has cleaner plants than China and India. 5,000 to 10,000 dead each year in the coal mining accidents.
Coal does not just kill it increases the sickness of people. Perhaps 25% increase in medical costs. (medicare problems made worse by coal)
40% of rail traffic is for moving billions of tons of coal. So 40% of rail maintenance is a subsidy for coal.
Also, the billions of tons of coal pollution includes thousands of tons of uranium and thorium. Instead of using it sensibly for nuclear power one would rather have coal industry dirty bombs. More radiation released from coal than from nuclear energy.

Chernobyl, 50 people died and few thousand sick.
That is a regular half hour for coal. In a 30 minutes, coal has killed the one incident in 40 some years for nuclear. Toss in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still less than 3 months of coal. 1952 london fog, 14,000 die over 2 weeks from weather that trapped coal pollution.

-Oil also contributes to air pollution. (plus some people die when people fight over the oil. Perhaps you may have heard about some these incidents)
Blow up a refinery that is located in a populated area. It would kill thousands.

-Hydro. Blow up one of the big dams. How many people get killed in the flooding.

9. Terrorists. An overhyped issue. How many dead from terroism including 9/11. Less than air pollution. Less than coal mining. Less than criminal murder in the USA. Less than traffic accidents. Why is terrorism driving policy ?

10. NIMBY. You don't want a nuclear plant. Yet do you go vacation in France ? It is the most popular vacation destination. You just got closer to the 58 nuclear plants around that nation. People move closer to nuclear reactors all the time. The existing nuclear reactors are beside all the high density population centers. People have extended vacations and move for work to places with nuclear reactors all the time. Often they look around and say, isn't this place nice. Clean air, lovely countryside etc...

East coast USA, California all have most of the people and most of the nuclear plants. Where do people move to work? The coasts.

Canada most of the plants in Ontario. Where are most of the people.

11. Proliferation.
Proliferation has not killed anyone. The only nuclear bombs used were by the US. Any country that has gotten them since has not used them. Proliferation has killed no one.
Proliferation to who? 40 countries now have nuclear material and know how sufficient to make nuclear bombs.
200 million people were killed in wars and conflict in the 20th century. How many were killed by nukes?
It is taking Iran and N Korea a long time to get their nukes. They have the main know how since AQ Kkan told them in the 1980's

Nuclear war is also overhyped. Tokyo firebombing killed 100,000 over a few days back in WW2. Over 2 years of operation rolling thunder in Vietnam, the US dropped 500 times the bombs that tokyo firebombing did.

What are the real incremental risks from more nuclear reactors ? We are mainly talking about more reactors in the USA, China, India, Russia, S Korea, Japan. All places that either have nuclear weapons or can easily make them. All places that already have nuclear reactors.

The enrichment and the weapon making do not use the power generating reactors. It is why Isreal has nuclear weapons and no power generating reactors.

So the 20 years where people have not been seriously building more nuclear plants in the US has cost an extra 27,000 lives each year from coal pollution. 200 plants could have been built for less coal usage. Letting real people die in the tens of thousands each year in the US and in the millions around the world because we have screwed up sense of risk and irrational fears and beliefs.

We can turn this around and we should do it quickly. Filtering devices can be cheaply and quickly placed on all coal power stations. Then we can ramp up the nuclear and alternatives. But be realistic about alternatives and conservation, it will take a long time to scale them up.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 12 Apr 07

Emily: I enjoyed your interview with Bill. You and WorldChanging readers may enjoy seeing his presentation "Being Good Enough" from the Singularity Summit at Stanford University:

Best regards,
Tyler Emerson

Posted by: Tyler Emerson on 12 Apr 07

McKibben says: What sobers me is the power of some of these government-supported industries to resist change.

As I showed in my prior posts here is a failure on McKibbens part to really consider solutions that are aligned with the profit seeking motivation of companies. This does not mean supporting coal companies or oil companies. But it does mean picking allies and working with those who could help effectively change the world. And promoting plans where those allies make money.

If people and companies are resisting the change that you want and have for 18 years, then you have to consider and understand the details of their position and not just dismiss it out of hand as invalid and as a "power to resist change".

Also, if global warming is the concern, then why do you want to resist nuclear energy as part (not all) of the solution ? If GE or one of the other companies builds more nuclear plants how is that reducing the number of windmills or solar power that another division of GE makes ?

China makes a new coal plant each week. Coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power for air pollution and global warming.

In World War 2, the US was fighting Germany and Japan. Say we are fighting coal (killing one million people and 60,000 americans each year and half of the global warming problem) and oil (somewhat related to Iraq War 2 and 200,000 deaths per year, plus air pollution deaths and half of the global warming problem). Should the US have started fighting the Soviets (Nuclear power, almost zero deaths, global warming contribution only because we are still not converted from oil and coal to power mining and construction) at the same time back then ?

With reprocessing and high burn reactors we can have a very good nuclear system. Why do you not want to save lives now and get help in reducing the global warming problem ? Beat coal and oil first or is doing that faster not a priority ?

Get GE and other nuclear companies with deep pockets help work the political system.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 13 Apr 07

Thanks for the kudos, Geoff M and Tyler.

>I think it is disingenuous to say that an excess of consumer goods has made people unhappy. If I had to postulate a cause for the consumerist unhappiness, it would be people's core-level knowledge that they are living far out of harmony with planetary systems--and thus on borrowed time.

You are mis-stating McKibben's ideas. Stuff is not making us unhappy -- it's just not making us happy.

Ths past several generations of Americans -- from "the greatest generation" to Gen Y -- have lived in a culture and an economic system that told us having a gajillion choices in the gajillions of things we buy would make us happy and content. But for many people, that hasn't turned out to be true.

And I doubt that many people in urbanized society have any feeling of being "out of harmony with planetary systems" or "living on borrowed time." In my experience, most people are very concerned with what's right in front of them (their jobs, their families, their lunch, the gadget in the store window they don't yet have), and don't spend a lot of time considering themselves in relation to larger systems of any sort.

>McKibben says: What sobers me is the power of some of these government-supported industries to resist change.

Actually, I said that. What McKibben and I were discussing at that point was the power that certain key industrial sectors -- like Big Agriculture -- have in our political system, compared to the individuals whose interests are supposed to be represented by the political system. And since the system works pretty well in advancing the interests of these industries, they have no reason to change how they do things, no matter how much it's wrecking the climate, unless they're forced to by sustained political pressure on the system from us.

There is only so far I can go in representing Bill McKibben's views, of course. But I believe it's much too simple to say he's "anti-consumerist." He's saying that despite the amount of stuff the average American has, he or she is dissatisfied with the quality of his/her life. And at the same time, creating most of that stuff has wrecked the climate. So why not reconsider both, instead of continuing to behave as if neither can be changed?

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 14 Apr 07

How long does McKibben think it will take to
1. Change the rules of the game sufficiently if enough places (US, China, Europe, India, Japan etc..) ?

2. Once the rules are changed then what is the realistic projection of how quickly things will change happen and to what degree (since a big moral transformation will not happen ) ?

Specifically related to some global numbers around global warming gasses, air pollution and deaths from those causes. High, medium and low scenarios would be nice.

Is the 80% cut of CO2 by 2050 target good enough ?

If we added mass production of nuclear power plants then would not the CO2 goals be reached sooner.

29 nuclear plants are being built now around the world and will be completed over the few years. China is targeting 100GW by 2030 and 300GW by 2050 for nuclear power. India is targeting 50GW by 2040. Japan is looking to increase to 60% of its electricity from nuclear. Russia, South Korea and other nations are also planning a lot more nuclear power. Just continuing on our present course would increase nuclear power from 443 plants and 370GW now providing 16% of the global electricity up to 25% of electricity where demand more than doubles. This does not include significant up-powering possibilities from changing the fuel in nuclear plants to cylinders (donuts shaped) and adding nanoparticles to allow for safe operation at higher temperature. (MIT study) This would boost power at water boiler reactors by 50%. Nuclear power could then provide 37% of global electricity and reduce the CO2 generated by 20%. that would seem to be 25% of the target for 2050. If efforts for nuclear power were doubled then it could help with 50% of the reduction.

3. Is there any dispute that nuclear is and can reduce CO2 ?

A significant contribution in either case. It is not a zero sum game, we can try to efficiency and try to build nuclear and try to build alternatives.

1000 reactors at 2 billion each is 2 trillion dollars. that is less than 1 year of the current US federal budget.,_2007

Over 43 years, even 5000 or 10,000 reactors are affordable and buildable. Especially with research now into mass production, reduced construction times, more efficient reactors.

The costs would be spent around the world and again those are investments with returns.

There are about $137 trillion in capital assets in the world.

There is talk of needing $17 trillion for investment to meet global energy demand.

If the projects have the returns then the investment will be made.

If GDP growth can be increased globally then there will be more funds to invest. A bigger pie available for everyone.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 16 Apr 07

You'll have to read Bill's book and try to ask him all these questions, Brian! I'm afraid I can't channel his answers.

Knowing the basics the relative environmental threats of climate disruption vs. nuclear energy (radiation-spewing accidents, radioactive waste), I sometimes find it a tough call. From a security perspective (flooding, intense disruption of agriculture, aquaculture and fishing, struggle over water supplies, destruction of infrastructure vs. greater capacity for parallel generation of weapons-grade nuclear materials), some might also call it a draw.

But from an economic perspective, nuclear is a lousy call all around. As I understand it, the reason it even seems to be profitable is because nuclear development is intensely subsidized by the federal government. And the Bush administration is now incorporating expansion of nuclear power into some of our overseas economic cum energy agreements -- the "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" -- and is stipulating that the reactor waste will be returned to us for reprocessing. Although this arguably reduces the risks of spent fuel being reprocessed into weapons-grade materials by other nations, it also de facto supplies the U.S. with a stockpile of raw material for the same purpose.

If the federal government was underwriting and promoting the expansion of truly clean energy sources, and conservation, with anything resembling the zeal that it's bringing to expanding nuclear energy, then perhaps support for short-term use of nuclear to get through the crux period of the next decade would make sense. But as things currently stand, that would be politically naive.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 17 Apr 07

Can you point me to your numbers and research on energy subsidies Emily ?

Also do you have a contact or best way to send these questions to McKibben. I am perfectly willing to talk to him about it. Although I also would like clarity on the details of your position and that of worldchanging, because I have been told that worldchanging has an evolved environmental position grounded in political and economic reality. Thus I want to help your group to have more facts to help push policies to save lives and the environment and not to scared of exaggerated risks and having misunderstandings of things that are not actually risks.

The numbers that I have found

Show proportionally more support for solar, geothermal and wind (for direct subsidies and R&D)

If you are saying that government insurance (like argued here )
against liability is the big deal, I think that is a perfectly proper thing for government and society to underwrite.
1. Since there have been no accidents there has been no claims and therefore no actual costs to this point
2. It is still cheaper than coal and oil. Air pollution generates a 25% increase in medical costs to societies. 40% of rail costs and subsidies. Real costs as was as hypothetical liablilities.
3. Coal spews more radiation than nuclear and not by accident. 20,000 tons of uranium and thorium each year globally. Coal also has more toxic waste. What is your position Emily on how quickly truly alternatives can be ramped up to displace all coal power ? and then all oil? It does not seem to be just adding clean but being able to get rid of the old dirty and deadly.
4. nuclear should be made better with no fresh water used for cooling but waste water or salt water. Ideally the thermal heat should be used for useful things.
5. There are cheaper and more efficient ways to get nuclear weapons material than taking from nuclear power plant waste. How did the US and Russia make thousands of nuclear bombs before there were that many operating nuclear power plants ? Who cares if the US has more nuclear materials for nuclear weapons. It does not change the situation, which the US has a lot of bombs and is not increasing its stockpile and has not used them in war since 1945. The US already has thousands of nuclear bombs. (mostly the more powerful fusion bomb variety.)

6. If the US makes 20-50 nuclear power plants over the next 30-50 year as it appears like it will do is helpful but the main issues is that if the majority of people in US, china and India really understood the details of energy then mass production of nuclear power could eliminate coal and oil usage entirely. I am also for mass production of solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels and anything not coal (and then later oil).

Posted by: Brian Wang on 17 Apr 07

Ignore the request for Bill McKibbens contact info. I found Bill McKibbens contact I found it at

Posted by: Brian Wang on 17 Apr 07

Very interesting study; thanks for pointing me at it.

That the government may have historically given proportionally more R&D and incentive support for solar, geothermal and wind than for nuclear (from what I could tell in my admittedly quick read, this study does not take into account programs initiated, discontinued or announced by the Bush administration in 2006, a pretty important year for both) does not de facto mean that the economics of nuclear are sound.

And, there are other kinds of support that need to be factored in to get a more complete picture of how much goes to which industries. For instance, the government is footing the very expensive bill for the R&D of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. And it's clearly representing the nuclear industry in very high-level talks with foreign leaders. I don't know that the latter isn't happening for renewables, I'm just saying that all of this is quantifiable support and needs to be added up.

It may well be proper policy for government and society to underwrite liability in the case of energy generation. By the same token, it might be a good idea to compare the relative levels and possible costs of liability for nuclear energy, vs. renewables, and see which will be more cost-effective to underwrite.

Similarly, while it might be true that there is "little" risk of spent fuel from the next generation of nuclear power plants being reprocessed into weapons materials, or that it is not a particularly efficient way to do it, that is not the same as saying there is no risk and that no one will do it, however inefficient. Governments do incredibly inefficient things all the time, because it serves their beliefs and policies to do so.

Meanwhile, I know of no risks that any side products generated directly from wind, solar, geothermal, or hydro that can be used in making weapons.

Your points on the health, environmental and related economic tolls of coal-fired power are well taken; they are not issues that came up in my conversation with McKibben, or that I dispute.

My opinions are my own and not necessarily those of And as I indicated in my earlier response, I'm not entirely opposed nuclear power on its own merits to help stave off the worst of the impending climate disruption. (Which is quite a transformation in my opinion! I even bought a GE dishwasher recently, albiet used).

What I am not doing is advocating nuclear in a vacuum that omits other economic, social and political realities from consideration.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 18 Apr 07

> might be true that there is "little" risk of spent fuel from the next generation of nuclear power plants being reprocessed into weapons materials, or that it is not a particularly efficient way to do it, that is not the same as saying there is no risk and that no one will do it, however inefficient.

So we are comparing a little risk of more nuclear weapons being made. Which by itself kills no one. Until there is another gating factor of the risk of another nuclear weapons being used. The countries that are already nuclear powers already have thousands or hundreds of nuclear weapons. The US and Russia have been decommissioning nuclear weapons. So if another weapon is built by one of the existing nuclear powers the increased incremental risk is that use all of their existing nuclear weapons and then use the new weapon. So what is the difference if they unloaded 5000 nukes or 5001 nukes ?

Also, as I noted the real risk of war is and continues to be conventional war. People in Iraq, USA, Africa, middle east are dieing from old fashioned chemical bombs and bullets.

If there is a war with Iran it will not be nuclear.
A war with North Korea would be primarily non-nuclear. Plus they already have some weak nukes and the risk would be unchanged with more nuclear plants in the US, China, India, Japan, S Korea, Russia etc...

So it is the little risk of a risk with almost no real difference Versus 100-200 people actually dieing every day from coal pollution in the USA and over 2000 people dieing worldwide from coal usage. Triple those numbers for all fossil fuel pollution.

Society underwrites all of those costs in lives, damaged health and damaged property from coal and fossil fuels now.

I am not saying you have to agree to nuclear power and never change your opinion as the situation changes, I am saying that you should admit that it is needed now and that this year, next year and for many years thereafter solar, wind etc... are not ready.
the loss for each of us the one new coal plant that is built every week in China. And the 150 new coal plants the US is planning to build in the next few years.

Plus the installed base of coal in the US, China, India which are not getting displaced.

Since your article was posted April 11. China completed another coal plant and over 21000 more people died from coal pollution. Of course they would have died anyway since they were probably in the hospital terminal with cancer and/or heart disease. However, the sooner we can effectively start slowing the production of new coal plants and get to the day of replacing the existing ones then the more lives we will save. Every day does matter.

Each GW plant less coal does save lives local to that region. 100 - 1000/year depending upon how dirty the coal plant is.

$20-30 billion on Yucca Mountain. to be blunt. So what? A trillion or two on the Iraq war. Over 200 billion per year in increased medical costs and environmental damage from coal and oil in the US alone. Your house is burning and you are wondering how much different fire exstinguisher costs and whether one might be added to a large stockpile in a weapons arsenel which has only been opened twice 62 years ago.

Is my view of the social, economic and political reality off-base ? Who is dieing now and why ? How much real difference would another nuclear weapon make and how do we really make the materials for them ?

If it is just the risk of all out nuclear war that you think might be increased then if there was all out conventional war the same body count could be had. Destroy air defences. Bomb all infrastructure. Blockade and contain the border. Poison the water and maybe spread some flu. Almost everyone in that zone dies within 30 days. Fortunately people who could do this have mostly chosen not to. Just because you are afraid of one thing (nukes and nuke war) does not mean you should not consider how really dangerous something else is. (conventional war) And use increased risk prevent you from getting on board with trying to speed up the saving of lives.

All of the vulnerable mature people (40-60 years old)
have real increased risks of cardiovascual disease and cancer. All of us have reduced health to one degree or another from the pollution. My own allergies are made worse. Myself and friends and others with asthma. The heart condition of older relatives.

What do you and/or Worldchanging say to those who are dieing or ill from air pollution ? We will support some measures to make coal and oil cleaner but we will cannot fully endorse nuclear power at this time because we are little scared of it (even if the proof and the links to clear INCREMENTAL INCREASED fatalities is tenuous) but we admit it would remove 99% or more of the problem in a straight comparison between nuclear and coal and not 100% because we are still using coal and oil.

The world is already very risky. We need to make choices which can lead to saved lives.

Posted by: Brian Wang on 19 Apr 07



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