Friday, July 22, 2016

Nuclear democracy

Decentralized small-scale renewable energy is sometimes justified on the basis that it would be intrinsically more “democratic” than nuclear or other large-scale forms of electricity generation. A new book called “Energy Democracy: Germany's Energiewende to Renewables” makes this exact case as it suggests that moving ownership of energy production to the community level will not only lead to lower greenhouse emissions but also strengthen democracy. In terms of emissions, it is becoming increasingly clear that renewables have not been able to displace fossil fuels to any larger degree (in fact, German emissions have been going up, as recognized in a recent article in the New York Times and elsewhere). However, the second claim about democracy is definitely worth scrutinizing as well.

In his book “The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective”, Bo Rothstein argues that the Nordic democracies in particular are characterized by a high level of “generalized social trust” thanks to universal welfare arrangements and an impartial state founded on the rule of law. Modern societies depend on such trust in abstract systems. This is true for everything from commercial aviation to advanced medicine or, for that part, nuclear energy.

Thanks to the permanence of large-scale social institutions, individuals can enjoy the freedom and security necessary to shape their lives according to their own dreams and ambitions. Reliable electricity, safe drinking water and efficient public transport are all examples of the material basis necessary for a modern life. Understood in this way, decentralized energy is essentially a retreat from the kind of universal welfare state of the 20th century as it replaces trust in our society-wide ability to respond to future contingencies with a “prepper”-mentality preoccupied with local resilience.

Nuclear power, especially its future which is highly dependent on both the continuing operation of existing reactors and vast public investments in new technologies, is extremely symbolic for how we understand the future of modernity and democracy more generally. As I write in my recent article in Globalizations:

“For some time it has become obvious that the welfare state stands at a disruptive juncture. Either it can try to protect itself from the world by imposing an international apartheid system as it falters under growing migratory pressure, rising costs for retirement, and a self-inflicted energy crisis or it can confront those fears with a politics of radical engagement and accelerate the transition to a world of universal affluence with an abundance of clean energy and open borders”

Nuclear energy is our best hope for making possible a world in which 7-10 billion people can live modern lives while at the same time reversing the effects of global climate change. To believe in nuclear energy is to believe in the potential of our democratic institutions and in our collective ability to build a better future.


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