Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Prosperity and Energy and Convenience Revisited. Warning: Feminist Angle


I wrote a post about how access to energy improves lives in in the third world-- It's the Energy. Why I Love Nuclear. Karen Street, of A Musing Environment blog, read that post. She suggested that I should probably say that I did not mean to encourage rich people to be wasteful of energy. In her opinion, while energy is essential for people in the third world, many people in developed countries use it wastefully.

I thought about her comments and realized that energy makes life better, even if you already use a fair amount of energy. In my answering blog post, Prosperity for Rich Folks, I said that something that looks like "waste" to one person can be very important to the life of another person. The example I used was big refrigerators. I honestly can't imagine how I would have worked and raised two kids without an American-size refrigerator, though many would consider it wasteful.

In response to my post, Karen posted an excellent argument for conservation and moderation in Are we richer if we make perceived convenience the priority?

Karen defined the problem clearly, and I planned to answer her post. Yet...time went by, as it so often does. I didn't get around to writing an answer. However, this morning, Rod Adams posted about efficiency versus abundant energy, and that made me think about the subject again.

Can Nuclear Do It?

The crux of the matter is whether nuclear can provide enough energy for rich people to live a life we consider convenient. If nuclear can provide abundant energy, then everything is fine. If not, I am burning the world's limited supply of fossil fuels for my lifestyle. Karen points out that there is no peer-reviewed study that shows nuclear can provide this level of power for everyone.

I think nuclear can provide large amounts of inexpensive power to everyone in the world. I cannot prove this. Perhaps others can. One could argue that I should live a life of deep energy frugality until it is proven.

By the way, about deep energy frugality. Karen absolutely walks the talk. She has not owned a car since 1991. I have the greatest admiration for her. Karen not only lives a careful life, but she is a clear thinker. As she pointed out, the crux of the matter is whether inexpensive, low-emission power is abundantly available. Or not.

What is Convenience, Anyway?

Back to my fridge. I can't prove that nuclear can provide enough energy, but I do want to talk a little about word choice. I don't like the words Karen used in her essay title: Are we richer if we make perceived convenience the priority?

In my opinion, "convenience" and "perceived convenience" are pejorative terms for people's choices. I chose certain material things (a big fridge, say) because then I could live the life I wanted to live: a scientist AND a wife and mother. My desire to be a scientist and a mommy may have been inappropriate according to some people's ideas. Perhaps it it took too much energy (my own car! a big fridge!) But it was, indeed, what I wanted to do with my life. This is beyond mere "convenience."

So, it boils down to this. If energy is abundant, then my choices were all right. If not, I would have had to choose. I could work, or I could have kids. I believe it is truly as stark as that. Being a working mom is tough enough, using every possible support you can get. If I had to hang the laundry in the morning and take it in if it looked like rain, if I had to shop every day for my family, it would have been impossible to combine motherhood and career.

Aside: I read an early interview with Dr. Chu right after he became Energy Secretary. He talked about biking to work every day at Berkeley. Someone asked him if his wife also biked. He answered something like: "No. She doesn't bike. She needs a car to carry the kids and groceries." My feminist antenna went on full alert. I thought: "Ah, he stays on his bike, riding along on the moral high ground, while she does the schlepping. So admirable! Or maybe, not so admirable?" Yeah. I'm cynical. End Aside.

The Bottom Line

In poor countries, women are liberated from lives of poverty and endless childbearing by access to energy. In rich countries, women are liberated to have both children and careers by having abundant energy. Nuclear power can provide that energy. That's how I see it. I don't have the statistics to back this up, but that's how I see it.

To some extent, a blog is a set of opinions. This is my opinion on women and energy.

The image is a painting by Albert Anker: "Excess" From Wikimedia.


Anonymous said...

Political restrictions have narrowed our nuclear choices to the single most wasteful method of using our nuclear heritage---once-through uranium burnup. An array of other existing, realworld technologies will allow a more parsimonious use of terrestrial heat resources.Simple reprocessing (in use in France) would at least double the amount of available energy extracted from already-mined, already-refined minerals. Unpressurized melt technologies like Lead/Bismuth Eutectic are in use in Russia, having been proved in her Alfa submarines, and now to be exported on her floating powerplant ships.America's Hyperion reactor is an offshoot of this technology.Our huge stockpile of thorium is available for yet another unpressurized melt system, and Japan has proved its method of extracting yellowcake from seawater, tapping a mineral reserve that could last 3 million years, without use of breeder reactors. IAEA estimates a worldwide market for 1000 lead cooled mini reactors by 2020.

This planet is eminently endowed, in a mineral sense, to have its now-wasted energy reserves channeled by nuclear science into the uplift of human existence on a long term basis. In a climate more tolerant of nuclear endeavor, breeder reactor schemes can extend the mineral endowment into the multiple millions of years---- beyond any future time now dealt with by any except apocalyptic religious visionaries.

I oppose the destructive waste of energy. I would support a ban on gasoline powered all-terrain vehicles except by first responders, and the use of motocross motorcycles. The misuse of these supposed toys has permanently marred the countryside in the lower 48, and has destroyed entire ecosystems in Alaska, (where tundra never heals). I would restrict the size of outboard boat motors to 25 horsepower except for first responders. I would likewise restrict frivolous air and cruise ship travel, and impose international standards mandating nuclear minireactors plus sail assist, on all ocean going vessels. I would support T. Boone Pickens' widely rejected windpower corridor, if coupled with an aggressive shift to electric automobiles and/or hydrogen powered automobiles.

I myself did not own an automobile until age 35. I have coupled my job-seeking & home-seeking quests into a single unified endeavor, where I now live exactly one mile from my job. My wife and I compost, and use this resource on our 1/2 acre vegetable farm, where we produce potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, 4 kinds of beans, peppers, & corn, and are now in "high canning" season, storing our produce for year round use. I have been on 3 cruises, and a total of 18 airplane trips in my life, and intend to never do either again in my lifetime. We compact our recycle.

We have not installed solar panels or a windmill, because overseas-manufactured parts externalities negate the economics of their use, and foreign jobs upheld by current supply modalities do not help America. When proven 100% domestic supplies exist, we may install. I am as green as you can get, while not "going hermit", and I air condition my house, and maintain a spa & a pool.

Egyptian mummies have been found, their lungs riddled with the kitchen smoke which eventually killed them, and Earth's current "Fossil Fuel Splurge" will be looked back on as an age of ignorance, a bigoted time of superstion, bad health, and world conflict due entirely to this early rejection of the terrestrial heat resources gifted to mankind by the planet. For those not familiar with the new diction... the phrase: "terrestrial heat" is the new definition of heat coming from minerals, without any combustion taking place.

G. Murphy
Hudson Valley

Meredith Angwin said...

For some reason, the last paragraph of Mr. Murphy's post was left out of the comment I received through Blogger. Also, I only received the comment many hours after he sent it.

Mr. Murphy sent me a separate email with the complete comment. Here's the concluding section.
As far as "wastefulness" as a concept....credible third world research has found that when money is available to inhabitants of the world's growing megaslums, it is often wasted on alcohol, tobacco, display articles such as faux-luxe watches and gambling when falling into the hands of males, and is more often saved, or channelled onto profitmaking when falling into female hands. Favela households waste little, with micro-industrial production taking place in the very shacks where families sleep. As Favela standards rise, and first world hopes become reduced, it is possible to spy out the convergence point, giving all of us who live long enough a chance to participate in a future "whole earth" living standard.... appearing to us as Favela life..... and appearing to favelites, as "American life".

Do your own imagining.

and have a nice day


DunnJH4 said...

Did you ever see this Ms Angwin? Vtdigger said "... Angwin’s blog is worth reading because her analysis is clear and notably devoid of nuclear industry PR blarney."
Just thought you should know!

Meredith Angwin said...

Thanks for sharing this with me! That's great!

donb said...

Meredith Angwin wrote:
I think nuclear can provide large amounts of inexpensive power to everyone in the world. I cannot prove this.

Perhaps not provable at this point, but we certainly do know that there is sufficient energy stored in nuclear fuel (uranium and thorium) to power the entire world at US-style consumption rate for millions of years.

I may be a cockeye optimist, but I believe that with such immense energy potential, this energy will be unlocked for us to use. I have such confidence because we are doing it partially already. Advanced methods to do this have already been demonstrated. And a number of really bright people are working on even better methods.

Karen Street said...


I am answering your post in parts. The first part you identified—we need to know, can nuclear do it? I look at what experts say in Is nuclear power necessary? Is it sufficient? (

I am still considering your other points and will respond separately. Thank you for providing a challenging discussion.

Rod Adams said...


As usual, another thoughtful post. Even though I am obviously not female, I consider myself a feminist. As the father of two professional daughters (naval officer and nurse) and the son and grandson of two professionals (teacher and accountant) I have always supported the importance of energy enabled choices. As an occasional student of American history who just finished one more novel about the civil war, I also think hard about the fact that the "energy supply" that enabled wealth to develop was often the hard working muscles of people who had no choice at all about where they lived and worked.

I recognize the value of not wasting energy, but I also defend freedom. Who am I to judge the decisions of others unless I walk in their shoes. Granted, I will definitely look askance at a single person driving a Hummer to work, but I admire my Naval Academy classmate who drives a 12 passenger van that gets about the same mileage as a Hummer because she is home schooling her 9 children, the first two of which are now doing very well in college.

I personally would not make that choice, but it is right for Mary and her husband.

Meredith Angwin said...

Karen Street asked me to post the following for her.


We can all think of examples where people benefit from more energy, even if we are restricted to females, a slight majority of the human race. These examples are important, in showing a real dilemma that we face. It's not just the white hats vs the black hats, but a set of choices, all of which have some call on us. I can add to your list: when I travel I learn about other places and other ways of being, and become less sure of myself.

I am interested in what Meredith and Rod have to say about the following:

• what does it mean to say that there is not enough nuclear to supply all low-GHG electricity, let alone all energy, by 2030 or 2050. By 2100 possibly, but not today and not 2050? Why do so many scientists and experts focus on this point? I ask this because I heard a discussion where people ignored the problems of pollution until someone said she had respiratory problems and didn't come into the room when there was a fire in the fireplace. For many, this provided a tangible example of pollution, which until then had been an abstract concept. What will be the human consequences of using fossil fuels through at least 2050, if those who are most fervent about stopping can see no way that this will happen? (fervent and part of the peer review community).

• Do you EVER see any behavior as "too much" if the actor does not?

Rod Adams said...


There are very few peers who agree with me on this one, but I honestly believe that we can be producing enough power from nuclear energy systems by 2050 to reduce fossil fuel consumption rather dramatically - perhaps by 60-80%.

The key is by doing nuclear so well that we push the cost of energy down to the point where only the easiest to reach fossil fuel sources can compete.

There are a few markets that nuclear cannot serve - notably in transportation systems where weight is a big issue. I see the impossible markets as automobiles (unless we have electrified roads for traction cars) and short to moderate range aircraft.

All others are technically possible, especially since the cost per unit of heat with our very wasteful once through cycle is just 50 cents per million BTU compared to about $10-20 per million BTU for petroleum products.

Meredith Angwin said...

Karen. I think that the potential of nuclear is just beginning, and a world of energy abundance is ahead. With nuclear, I feel we are at the stage the world was in regard to coal when the steam engine was first invented. What the steam engine could already do was amazing (the trains incredibly fast-- 40 mph). What was ahead was so amazing people could not even imagine it.

I think we are at that stage with regard to nuclear. I will punt, however, on attempting to justify this with facts and figures, and I guess I also don't worry very much about whether this is happening by 2050 or 2075 or...whatever. You did a careful blog post on the subject, and I am in no mood to quibble.

On the other had, I don't understand your last question. "Do you EVER see any behavior as "too much" if the actor does not?" Unfortunately, nuance does not come across well in cold type. Clearly, we have all seen someone get drunk and think they are having a great time, seen a marriage broken up by gambling addiction, seen people neglect important relationships in a fruitless search for money and power. Yes, the world is full of behaviors that are "too much" even if the person doesn't recognize it.

So your question must be something different than I am reading it. Are you asking if I ever judge someone else's behavior as inappropriate? Of course I do. Do I think "something ought to be done about people who don't follow the golden mean?" Well, no. G-d did give us free will, after all. It's not my part to make sure everyone is moderate in all things.

As a matter of fact, it would be awful if everyone WAS moderate in ALL things. As George (my husband) says: "Moderation in all things, including in moderation." In other words, sometimes you just gotta bust loose and be immoderate.

I have this awful feeling that you are asking me if I think people can behave badly. Or if people can be sinners. Or something. This is somewhat more theology than i am comfortable with. However, I will answer unequivocally. Yes. People can behave badly. That goes with free will. There would be no possibility of virtue without the possibility of evil.. And..when in doubt, read Areopagetica.

Okay. Since I probably didn't understand the question, I shouldn't even have tried to answer.

Karen Street said...

Again, we're not talking about whether there is enough energy—eventually there will be enough clean energy. When people talk about the solutions to the energy problem, all too often we're talking about different energy problems. The one I harp on is limiting the addition of GHG to the atmosphere—not whether there is green energy in 2050 or 2075, but what are the cumulative GHG emissions each decade this century, and what are the consequences?

Re "too much", I'm pretty much sticking to climate change here, or maybe some fossil fuel pollution, so unless we're paying attention to the energy required to make all that alcohol, and the bottles, and to run the ambulance for those who drink and walk in front of a car.... I was wondering if there are cars that are too large or vacations too excessive? Leaving your air conditioner running while you dash to Bali, that sort of thing. I don't tend to think in terms of sinner, but I sometimes wonder if I ate a bit too much, though I enjoyed every morsel. In the context of climate change, is it possible that some will say, I enjoyed myself, but I did too much, and I'm not sure that feel good about it?

It sounds to me a little like we're talking about apples and oranges. Rod and Meredith are talking about enough clean energy and I'm talking about cumulative GHG emissions. This may explain part of the difference in perspective.

Meredith Angwin said...

Karen. I don't think you asked the question correctly, then. My direct quote from you is as follows.

• Do you EVER see any behavior as "too much" if the actor does not?

That question covers a pretty broad range of activities. You wrote: "EVER" and "any behavior". I read it and interpreted to I ever judge anybody as doing any behavior in a way that is too much, even if they don't notice that they are out of line.

If you didn't want your question to cover such a scope, I do think you should have phrased it differently. Maybe said something about greenhouse gases.

To answer the question you meant to ask. I really don't know enough about about greenhouse gases. I think nuclear can solve much of the problem, but I leave it to others to figure out if it can solve enough of the problem, fast enough, etc etc etc.

Meredith Angwin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.