Here’s the great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824:
To take away England’s steam engines to-day would amount to robbing her of her iron and coal, to drying up her sources of wealth, to ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power. The destruction of her shipping, commonly regarded as her source of strength, would perhaps be less disastrous for her.
The wealth and power of a country are strongly related to its energy resources, whether those resources take the form of human slaves, steam engines, hydroelectric dams, oil and gas wells, or nuclear reactors. The fact that Russia possesses energy resources on which many other countries depend has been an enormous factor in that country’s ability to invade Ukraine and in Putin’s belief that the world will let him get away with it.
Wealth and power are sought, in one form or another, by most people. Showing James Boswell around the Boulton & Watt steam engine factory in 1776, Matthew Boulton summed up his business one simple phrase:
I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have–POWER.
Yet the leaders of the West have, with few exceptions, chosen to reduce the relative power of their countries through their opposition to fossil fuel production and use combined with hostility toward further development of nuclear energy—or even the continued operation of existing nuclear plants. There has been little evidence of serious thinking about realistic limitations of intermittent power sources, even as countries have rushed to make themselves dependent on such sources…nor is there much evidence of serious thinking about the critical-mineral dependencies created by a large-scale switch to wind, solar, and batteries.
So what explains the choice of this path? Has mechanical power ceased to be an important factor in political power, in the destinies of nations? Hardly, as the Russia/Ukraine example makes clear. Or do we somehow have a generation of leaders who don’t care about political power? That, clearly, is also not the case…at least as far as the personal political power of those leaders goes.
I think there are several factors at work:
First, there is the widespread scientific and technical ignorance among political leaders and influential media people. I’ve noticed, for example, that American media coverage of energy storage projects almost always refers to kilowatts, megawatts, and gigawatts as if these terms indicate the storage capacity of a battery or other storage system. They do not. (A 100 megawatt storage system may provide 1 hour, 4 hours, or 20 hours worth of 100-megawatt electricity depending on its megawatt-hour rating. Measuring electrical storage capacity in megawatts is like measuring the capacity of your car’s gas tank in horsepower.) More generally, there is a widespread failure to comprehend just how difficult and expensive it is to store large quantities of electricity and an assumption that if we invest enough in wind and solar, the power will be available on winter nights and in the middle of prolonged snowstorms, ‘somehow’.
Second, there has been a general de-emphasis on the physical attributes of the economy under the belief that we are now in a ‘digital’ or ‘virtual’, or ‘post-industrial’ age. Enterprises and people dealing with physical things have lost political power relative to those that deal in words, images, and code. The Western leaders of 1950, or even 1970, would have been a lot more cautious about deliberately creating energy dependency on a likely-hostile power.
Third, many politicians–and many of the academics and other “experts” advising them–simply do not identify closely with their own nations and with the people and culture of those nations. This is also true of a high proportion of influential media figures. There is a strong thread of belief in the U.S. Democratic Party that America is too wealthy, too powerful, too dangerous–that it is country that is “just downright mean,” in the words of a former First Lady. The same is true of much of the Left in other Western countries. And if you think these things about a country and its people, you’re not likely to want to increase–or even sustain–its power.
That’s true especially if you decouple the power of your country from your own personal power and well-being. And I think “progressive” politicians, and many members of academic and even business elites, often do see themselves as inhabiting a transnational space in which their personal well-being is not strongly coupled to that of their countries.
Fourth, in a world in which organized religion has become increasingly marginal, there are a lot of people looking for causes in which to believe. ‘Green energy’ is such a cause, and the specter of Climate Change gives it apocalyptic power. And when people believe they are facing the apocalypse—that the planet is soon going to burn—they’re not likely to look too carefully at those things advertised to avoid the burning.
Fifth, societies across the western world have become much more risk-averse. The question of why this shift has occurred, and of its positive and negative attributes, merits a separate article—but it’s pretty obvious that it has happened. And the consequences for energy development have been very significant, particularly in the case of nuclear energy.
Sixth, there are the personal financial motivations of leaders and other influential people…and even outright corruption. To what degree has Germany’s acceptance of dependence on Russian energy been motivated by the financial interests of powerful and influential individuals…just as a lot of America’s acceptance of critical manufactured product dependence on China has been substantially motivated in a similar way? That factor is surely not a minor one.
Finally and most disturbingly, there is a nontrivial set of people who believe that the general populations of their countries live too well, and that there are too many of them. “It’d be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy,” wrote anti-nuclear leader Amory Lovins, “because of what we would do with it.” A Forbes article from 2018 points out that:
Neo-Malthusian conservationists often hid their motivations. When asked in the mid-1990s if he had been worried about nuclear accidents, Sierra Club anti-nuclear activist Martin Litton replied, “No, I really didn’t care because there are too many people anyway … I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end is fine.”
I remember that when a major electrical blackout was going on—in New York City, I think it was—several caller-in to an NPR radio program said things like:
I’m glad when these things happen, it teaches us a lesson
We deserve this, because we’re so wasteful
At the extreme, this attitude shades off into outright anti-humanity and nihilism. During the Covid-19 era, there have been memes circulating with messages like “Humans are the real virus” and “The earth is healing in our absence.” There is a meme which shows a “world without bees” as a dry and dismal desert…ok, that may be fair, but some versions of the meme go on to portray a “world without humans” as a beautiful jungle, with noble and happy animals all apparently getting along with each other just fine.
It would be impossible to say how precisely how such attitudes have influenced energy policies, but I’m quite sure the influence is there.
So there have been many factors, from ignorance to greed to nihilism, driving unworkable energy policies. What are the prospects for change?…Is the shock of Ukraine invasion sufficient to lead to a wiser choice of policies? There are at least some grounds for hope. The German government has decided to build two LNG import facilities, and to consider extending the operating life of nuclear plants planned for closure. The EU, even prior to the invasion, has signaled a willingness to consider nuclear as a ‘green’ energy resource—possibly even natural gas under some circumstances.
However, there is pushback. The German nuclear operators have rejected the calls to keep their plants running beyond the existing deadlines: most likely, I would guess, they fear another change in the political climate and just want to get it over with. An article in The Guardian fears that ‘big oil’ will use the invasion to derail the Green Revolution and favors a ‘Marshall Plan” to rapidly expand ‘renewables’ around the world (I didn’t see any mention of the word ’nuclear’ in the article, nor any consideration of critical-minerals problems) And the US ‘climate envoy’, John Kerry, rather pathetically hopes that Putin, in the midst of his assault on Ukraine, will “help us with respect to what we need to do to stay on track with the climate.”
In the US, the Biden administration has shown no serious interest in increasing domestic oil and gas production…the CEO of Devon Energy, for example, expressed surprise that in this situation the administration has not even contacted him about expansion possibilities.
And returning to the subject of nuclear power: will the Russian attack on a Ukrainian nuclear plant lead to a setback in the growing acceptance of nuclear and a return of the “it’s just too dangerous” viewpoint? (Indeed, it has even been suggested, by Victor Davis Hanson, that Putin’s attack on this facility might have been motivated by a desire to discredit nuclear and hence to preserve the long-term market value of his more important exports)
So, while there are signs of hope, it is by no means guaranteed that the Ukraine events will lead to more rational energy policies throughout the West. And in any case, the fact that we have allowed ourselves to get into this situation at all does not speak well for Western governments and media, nor for the political rationality and maturity of the populace of those countries. We have not been conducting ourselves as serious people and serious nations: we need to begin to do so, before it is too late.
I mentioned the extreme risk-aversion which pervades many of our societies as a factor in energy policy…and I am reminded of a passage from Walter Miller’s great novel A Canticle for Leibowitz:
To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of . But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.