Why George Monbiot is Wrong

Posted on April 16, 2011

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For anyone interested in environmental issues, George Monbiot is a household name. He writes on green issues for the U.K.’s The Guardian (guardian.co.uk) , maintains a blog (monbiot.com), and has authored a number of books on environmental issues. But since the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear catastrophe, Monbiot has jumped squarely into the pro-nuke camp.

He did so with an article entitled Going Critical that ought to be read to appreciate this rebuttal.

Since then, he has entered into a “yes it is”, “no it isn’t” Monty Python-like argument with anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott, and others, over the safety of nuclear energy. Monbiot argues that the greatest peril facing humankind today is climate change and that we need the electricity being produced, today, by fossil fuels. Watt for watt, he argues, nuclear energy will kill fewer people than coal.  On renewables, Monbiot argues they become too expensive as they scale up, and, therefore, they are not suitable.

But Monbiot is wrong about nuclear as an energy solution.

To demonstrate this, I will use a fictional character I will call Hugh Mannity. Hugh has many bad habits and insatiable appetites. One of his bad habits is junk food. As a result of a steady diet of fat, sugar, and sodium, Hugh, suffering from obesity, type-2 diabetes, and a host of other health issues, is at a very high risk of a fatal heart attack or catastrophic stroke in the next few years.

Hugh, and his utterly dependent family, begin to debate the merits of switching from a steady diet of McDonald’s fare to a steady diet of Subway fare. They will debate the relative fat, sugar, and sodium contents of each restaurant’s menu choices. They will argue they are constantly exposed to fat, sugar, and salt no matter what they eat. They will bicker, at length, over what level, if any, of dietary exposure to fat, sugar, and salt is safe. But they will not consider an entirely different diet of healthy food choices and moderate quantities because, well, Hugh needs all those calories, and the economy depends on Hugh and others like him to keep growing. Consider the soy farmers of Brazil, the corn farmers of the mid-west, the feedlots, slaughter houses, global supply chains, transportation and distribution networks, etc …  Who will think of children of the industrialists?

What Hugh and his family fail to recognize is that the greatest risk to his mortality is not the impending heart attack, but the diet and lifestyle that gives way to the impending heart attack. And likewise, the greatest threat facing human civilization and existence is not climate change, but our much vaunted, non-negotiable way of life and prolific consumption of our renewable and non-renewable natural resources all anchored to plentiful and cheap fossil fuel energy.

Monbiot tells us why we need the energy produced by coal and nuclear. We need them, he says, to “drive our textile mills, brick kilns, blast furnaces and electric railways – not to mention advanced industrial processes”. So why not a scaled down economy whereby we live within our ecological means? Because, Monbiot tells us. “The moment you consider the demands of the whole economy is the moment at which you fall out of love with local energy production.”

So, for Monbiot, the demands of the global industrial economy take precedence over sustainability and ecological health. That is the same argument of the coal lobby and politicians who are dragging their feet or outright refusing to take action on climate change including our own Prime Minister.

And if we apply Monbiot’s logic, along with his statement that “energy is like medicine: if there are no side-effects, the chances are that it doesn’t work”, then we may as well accept coal as the best medicine available, in particular if we agree we “need the energy” to “meet the demands of the whole economy”.

But, even all of that aside, there is no evidence that nuclear energy will have any discernible impact on the impending threat of climate change. In his book Heat, Monbiot argues we need a 90 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. That leaves us with 19 years to replace 41 per cent of the entire world’s power generation with nuclear.(1) And even if that could be accomplished which is beyond doubtful, it would represent only 35 per cent of global emissions from fossil fuel sources.(2) However, we only need to replace that energy if we accept Monbiot’s premise that we “need” it to power the “demands of the whole economy”, or, for clarity, to sustain the unsustainable status quo.

Like my fictional character, Hugh, Monbiot is attempting to address a consequence of bad habits by negotiating the consequence rather than changing the habits. As much as Hugh must face up to the necessary changes in his diet and lifestyle if he hopes to live to a ripe old age, so must we, as a species, face up to the fact we must dramatically change our ways or perish. I would highly recommend Monbiot and the rest of us become accustomed with the “small print” of local energy production because the small print of the global industrial economy reads “for a limited time only”.

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