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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, November 13, 2006

the warm glow of togetherness

It's Remembrance Day here in North Vancouver: gray, chilly, rainy. Kim was home from work, providing us with our fourth straight day of sleeping in. It's a relative thing, since both of us are awake a fair amount in the night (between about 4:00 and 6:00 this morning in my case), but when you can lie in till after 7:00, it's still excellent.

I seem to be reading these days rather than writing. This morning, over coffee, I pressed further with James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia, his plea for the world to wake up to the severity of global warming, and his suggestions for how best to preserve civilization. His prescription is that while we develop sustainable sources of energy for the future, we must immediately press forward with nuclear energy--as much as we can build, as fast as we can build it. He deplores the bad name that nuclear power has got, and the destruction of its reputation by environmentalists. In one chapter of his book he does his best to rehabilitate it.

According to Lovelock, the so-called green energies, such as wind power, solar, and tidal, are decades away from being able to produce power on the scale needed to maintain our way of life. He is dismissive of biofuels, since these can be produced only through still more extensive agriculture, and the conversion of so much of the planet to agriculture already is one of the key contributors to Earth's current environmental crisis. He dismisses hydrogen as well since it, like electricity, is not properly a source of energy at all, only a carrier of it. Hydrogen must be produced, and this process requires energy from some other source.

He is enthusiastic about nuclear energy (fusion energy, in particular, although this is not yet available) because it represents a genuine source of energy (fusion is the same energy that powers the sun and other stars), the technology to produce fission energy already exists, and, watt for watt, nuclear power is safer than any other major source of power generation, including coal, natural gas, and hydro. Watt for watt, fewer people have been killed by nuclear-power generation than by any other form of energy production, and that by a large margin.

Hydro power, in the period 1970-1992, had the worst record, at 883 deaths per terawatt-year (a measure of power output over a year). All these deaths were "public"--that is, people not involved in the hydro industry itself. No doubt they were due to one or more dam-bursts. In comparison, nuclear power resulted in 8 deaths per twy over the same period, and all those were workers in the industry itself.

(Coal and natural gas resulted in 342 and 85 deaths per twy respectively.)

Lovelock points out that our fears about radiation-induced cancer are vastly overblown. Approximately one in three of us dies of cancer in any case, due mostly to our lifelong exposure to the most powerful carcinogen of all: oxygen. Against this, even serious nuclear accidents, such as that at Chernobyl in 1986, contribute relatively little extra risk. The people who have died of Chernobyl cancers have been the workers who put out the fire and who cleaned up the site.

I must say, he has infected me with his sense of urgency about this. Although I have long regarded global warming as an important issue, he has persuaded me that it has actually more the nature of a crisis--one that humanity as a whole must deal with immediately. There is no reason at all to doubt that the Earth can return to a climate regime such as it had at he dawn of the Eocene epoch 55 million years ago, when it was 5 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today. And there is ever less reason to doubt that that is exactly what it is doing right now, while we watch.

Will humanity wake up and work together on this? Or will we take comfort, like lemmings, in behaving just like our neighbors, enjoying a feeling of solace and togetherness as we plunge of the cliff together? "It's not my fault--I just did what everyone else did..."

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