So why are so many environmentalists around the world anti-nuclear?

Jesse Velay-Vitow

It doesn’t take an economist to see that we are in the midst of an energy crisis. Anyone who has frequented gas stations is well aware that fuel prices increased nearly 50% during the last year before settling down more recently. This rapid increase in prices doesn’t just affect what we pay at the pump, but what we pay to heat our homes as well. Both of these are examples of inelastic demand. In other words, as the price of fuel increases, demand doesn’t fall.
This is partially due to global supply chain issues and the actions of the Russian government but is also caused by fuel taxes and the costs imposed on oil companies by regulation. One of the main drivers of this regulation is the environmental movement with the purported aim of weaning western society off fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. Opti-ons like wind, solar, and geothermal are often discussed, but one of our best options is consistently abs-ent from the discussion: nuclear energy. Understa-nding why nuclear power is strangely absent from the alternative energy discussion requires a close reading of the history of environmentalism as well as the nuclear disarmament movement. What we will find is that there is a dark anti-human streak running thr-ough these ideologies. A centuries-old solution looking for a problem: depopulation.
Thomas Malthus was the first to raise the concern that if population growth is exponential and food gro-wth linear, we will eventually breed ourselves into starvation. Although there is abundant evidence that we exert control over how many children we have, and that resource development is not necessarily linear, Malthus’s belief that population control or even depopulation would be necessary still persists. It was and is a solution in search of a problem.
No matter if it is climate change, food availability, or energy usage, there have always been those who say that the solution is to reduce the number of people using those resources. This shows itself in such obviously anti-human sentiments as calling us a cancer on the planet, but also in more subtle ways such as assuming that the planet would be better off if the industrial revolution had never happened. When viewed through this lens, the curious alliance between the environmental and anti-nuclear movements begins to become clear. If we do use nuclear power, the energy crisis will abate and we will no longer need depopulation as a solution.
The story of nuclear power arguably begins with the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert, an event which prompted the two most famous quotes about nuclear power as a force of destruction: J. Robert Oppenheimer’s poetic paraphrase of the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become death the destroyer of Worlds,” and Kenneth Bainbridge’s far blunter “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” The eventual use of two nuclear bombs by the Americans on the Japanese during WWII cemented the understanding that nuclear power could very well end humanity. This impression was strengthened by the following decades during which the world stood on the precipice of nuclear war.
However, in a parallel that Oppenheimer must have been aware of, connecting nuclear power to the Hindu god of destruction implies that it might also sustain or create. Shiva is, after all, only one-third of the Trimurti. What Shiva destroys, Brahma creates and Vishnu preserves. Correspondingly it didn’t take long for the science behind nuclear bombs to be directed at more productive aims. Just over six years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world’s first nuclear power plant EBR-1 generated electricity.
Since then, nuclear power has been expanded as an energy source, but not to the degree that one might expect. This is partially due to the efforts of the disarmament movement, which cautioned that nuclear proliferation for power generation was equivalent to nuclear proliferation for offensive capacity. This has guided American foreign policy for decades, leading to the prevention of nuclear energy capabilities in Iran among other countries. Although the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons does purport to have the peaceful development of nuclear energy as a subsidiary aim, in practice the two have been hard to separate. This might explain why non-western countries have had issues adopting nuclear energy, but why have we in the West dragged our feet? Let’s start with the safety objection.
For those of us who were born after 1980, our closest touchstone for the dangers of nuclear power is the Fukushima Reactor disaster of 2011. Chernobyl is a pop history fact and 3 Mile Island is long forgotten. Fukushima may have only killed one person. Even for those with longer memories, these disasters shouldn’t serve as a deterrent to pursuing nuclear energy. Technology and regulation have improved dramatically. In fact, the majority of radiation deaths in recent years have been radiotherapy accidents, not reactor meltdowns. Combine this with the fact that reactors have become increasingly safe, and that the next generation of reactors physically can not melt down, the safety concern seems moot.
If concern about safety does play a role in the slow pace of nuclear energy infrastructure development, it is limited to the preference that nuclear power plants should be further away from population centers. So how do we explain that a country as large and sparsely populated as, for example, Canada only has four operating nuclear power plants? On the surface, it would seem that nuclear power fits somewhere between fossil fuels and solar/wind in terms of environmental impact. So why are so many environmentalists around the world anti-nuclear?
To answer that we have to look at the history of environmentalism as a movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is often cited as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Her focus was the use of pesticides and how they affected not just human beings, but the environment as a whole. This was a departure from the tradition of viewing pollution through the lens of its effects on human beings.
From the very beginning, we can see two strains of thought embedded in the environmental movement. The first is pro-human: we must protect the environment so that we can promote human health, flourishing, and happiness as well as take into consideration the well-being of non-human life. The second is profoundly anti-human, and sees human endeavors as fundamentally opposed to the natural order. The extreme logical consequence of this perspective is anti-natalism and depopulation, the idea that it is morally right to reduce or eliminate humanity. It is a sentiment that is similar to Malthus’s wish. With this in mind, the opposition to nuclear energy begins to make sense. With nuclear energy, we would no longer be at risk of our population growth outstripping our energy production. Popula-tion restriction would no longer be necessary.
The anti-human ideology finds a useful weapon through the re-working of Malthus’ original arguments. In neo-Malthusianism, rather than focusing on food as a resource, the same argument is applied to population and some other required resource—in this case, energy. The argument is exactly the same: human population grows in an unlimited fashion, but energy growth is limited. Therefore, we must place controls on the growth of human population. To preserve the validity of the neo-Malthusian argument, energy capacity can not be allowed to increase. This explains why many of the purported Green parties (though with some exceptions) have opposed nuclear energy to this day. It also provides some explanation as to the opposition to cleaner forms of fossil fuel use. This manifests as a doctrinaire divestment of all non-renewable energy sources. What has historically been an implicit call to reduce human populations now has become quite loud. Greta Thunberg has pivoted from calling for carbon reduction to human population reduction and even the end of capitalism!
It is hard to come up with a vision of the future that respects less the philosophical traditions of liberty and humanism than one wherein nuclear energy development is hamstrung for the purpose of immanentizing population control. We have seen what level of state control is required to effectively curb population growth in China’s one-child policy. This is to say nothing of the long-term negative effects of population reduction on the economy and innovation more broadly. Greater population allows for more specialization. In a world of 8 billion, we have the ability to allow scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs to explore their passions. It only takes a few capable and lucky people to change the world, and the more of us there are the better the odds are that this will happen.
One possible way to push back against the specter of Malthus is to reinvigorate the strain of environmentalism that views human flourishing as an end and that sees an increase in humanity as a good thing. In the same way that Malthus and his adherents have been proven wrong time and time again by the fruits of human ingenuity in agriculture, technology, and logistics, he will be proven wrong again when it comes to energy. Investment in nuclear energy is the surest way to ensure human flourishing and usher us forward into a future where energy concerns no longer apply.