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Before reading further, please read this article, by Stewart Brand, from Technology Review. Brand recommends having a rethink with regard to four controversial topics affecting us today: population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.

The general thread running through popular responses to these four subjects is alarmism: assume the worst. Nuclear power is the classic example: the assumption that increased use of Nuclear Power lead to another Chernobyl? Well, there was a time when trains were the suspect. (40 miles an hour? You will not be able to breath!) Aircraft were doomed to fall out of the sky on population centres. The Internet will lead to people losing their jobs, and will be abused.

Well? Accidents have happened. Trains have crashed, planes have fallen onto populated areas. The Internet has fallen foul of those predictions. Do we stop flying, or do we learn to do it better, more safely? Do we work to make the Internet better? So it can be with nuclear power: Chernobyl was a poorly-designed, poorly-maintained, poorly-managed reactor: nothing about it was typical, representative, or justification for the avoidance of nuclear power generation.

To me, these questions are related to the Tragedy of the Commons, as described before. The article I’ve linked to covers the wider background to the issue, and suggests a possible solution: intelligence. In the original article, linked from there, the section “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable” covers some of the ground I have, but this latest article appears to paint a more rosy picture than before. If the world’s population growth peaked in 1968, it’s been declining for my whole life so far. Good: fewer, and better (educated) people are what this world needs.

In the same way, a useful technology must make good use of the commons, not waste it. For nuclear power, this means we need real solutions to the problems of radioactive waste, which can ruin our common air and water supplies. Population, urbanization, etc? People who pay for what they take, not rely on welfare handouts. As we have seen, that starts with population, too, on a family scale. Urbanization is partly the result of too many mouths to feed, and partly the response to the city’s powers of wealth generation. It’s not a zero-sum game – we can do all these things better than they were done in the past.

But most important of all, I believe, is intelligence, fostered by education. People can do the right things for themselves, if they know how. Knowing what you should or should not do, which actions are beneficial and which are harmful. It’s not a guaranteed fix: just look at the number of SUVs on the road, driven by people deluded into thinking the increased fuel consumption is justified by improved safety. (One word: no).

It will all come out in the wash, as my mother used to say – see, I was listening – but do we have time?

Written by brian t

April 11, 2005 at 4:22 pm

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