Renewable Ignorance

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWe are all born pig-ignorant. Upon having accumulated a lifetime of knowledge we all promptly die. Ignorant babies replace learned elders. Knowledge is a depleting resource; ignorance is renewable. Yes, libraries and data banks grow, but knowledge finally has to exist in the minds of living people to be effective and evolve — unread books, unseen videos, and un-accessed hard drives are inert.

Like Sisyphus we push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again. Progress is not completely illusory. However, it is 3 steps up followed by 2.5 steps backward. Successive generations repeat earlier mistakes. They also invent new ones. Any solution to a given mistake is usually forgotten within 2 or 3 generations and we have to learn it again. But it is not all bad — after all, babies are delightful and happy while old people are grumpy — ignorance is bliss. Life consists of more than knowledge. Life expectancy has increased, so the old know more when they die, leaving the babies with still more to learn.

A massive transfer of knowledge each generation is an unavoidable necessity. This transfer is not automatic. It requires two decisions. The old must decide what knowledge is worth their effort to teach, and the young must decide what is worth their effort to learn. Some knowledge passes both filters and becomes the basis for guiding the future and for discovering new knowledge. Other knowledge fails to pass one or both filters and is lost. Just as the world is always only one failed harvest away from mass hunger, so it is always only one failed generational transfer away from mass ignorance.

What do we know about these two generational knowledge filters? What do they let pass and what do they filter out? I really don’t know the answer, but I have one speculation, taken from E. F. Schumacher’s reflections on Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes. Aquinas said that even uncertain knowledge of the highest things is worth more than certain knowledge of the lowest things. Descartes believed otherwise, that only knowledge that had the certainty of geometry was worth retaining, and uncertain knowledge should be abandoned even if it pertained to higher things. These two filters have very different selection biases. In their extreme forms they represent opposite errors of judgment about what knowledge to keep and what to jettison.

Which error are we most likely to commit today? I believe we overemphasize Descartes and pay too little attention to Aquinas. I take Aquinas’s “higher things” to mean purposes, knowledge about right purposes. Lower things I take to refer to techniques — how to efficiently do something, assuming it should be done in the first place. We have overdeveloped our relatively certain knowledge of technique, and left underdeveloped our less certain but more important knowledge of right purpose. The old seem more interested in teaching technique than purpose, and the young obligingly seem more interested in learning technique than purpose. So we develop more and more power, subject to less and less purpose. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, the more science makes the universe comprehensible and subject to our control, the more it also seems to render it pointless, and the less our control is guided by purpose.

These thoughts remind me of a public debate I participated in at LSU in the 1970s regarding the construction of the River Bend Nuclear Power Plant near Baton Rouge. I presented economic and safety reasons for believing that the plant should not be built, that there were cheaper and safer alternative sources of electricity, etc. After my presentation a nuclear engineering consultant from MIT made his rebuttal on behalf of Gulf States Utilities. It consisted entirely of presenting a scale model of the reactor core and explaining how it worked. He never replied to any of my arguments or said a word about why the reactor should be built. But his exposition of technique easily won the public debate. Afterwards everyone crowded around his model pointing to this and that, asking how it worked. “How to” questions of technique totally displaced “what for” questions of purpose. Maybe I needed a scale model meltdown of a reactor core! Maybe I needed a course in public relations. I might as well have been whistling Dixie.

Also I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who was the film curator for the Library of Congress. He told me that digital recording techniques were now so advanced and cheap that the Library would soon be recording and preserving everything that appeared on TV, or YouTube, or the radio, or Twitter, etc. Historians and scholars could then decide what was important and valuable. Librarians would avoid this difficult qualitative decision, and at the same time feel good about themselves for not imposing their value judgments on future historians. While I understand this point of view I cannot share it because it seems to me yet another example of “how to” questions displacing “what for” questions — a displacement likely to be continued by the “value–free” future scholars for whose benefit this almost infinite attic of junk is to be saved.

Knowledge is offered as a panacea these days. Young people are urged to go deeply into debt to “get a degree,” and are assured that the growth economy will allow them to pay it back with interest and still come out ahead. Many have been disappointed. As one who has spent over forty years in universities I am doubtful about this exaltation of knowledge, even though in arguing for a steady-state economy I have appealed to physical limits, not knowledge limits, leaving open the question of how much qualitative development could be supported within a biophysical steady state without quantitative growth. Also the “knowledge limits” I have appealed to are themselves knowledge — knowledge of physical limits, mainly the laws of thermodynamics, rather than any inherent limits to knowledge itself.

Although I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical growth to the extent possible, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Furthermore, knowledge, even when it increases, does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or cancelled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth. New knowledge must always be something of a surprise — if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy — frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gasses was recently new knowledge, as was discovery of the ozone hole.

One thing I have learned about universities is that much of what is taught in them today is based on the labor theory of value — “It was hard for me to learn this, so it must be worth teaching it to you.” This is a poor generational filter, and is even found in economics, which of all disciplines should know better! Also, much abandoned knowledge should have made the cut but did not. Indeed the whole field of history of economic thought has been cut from the curriculum to make room for more econometrics — the art of pretending to measure ephemeral and tenuous correlations among ill-defined variables in a world where the relationships to be measured change faster than the data for estimating them accumulates. The classical economists’ concept of the stationary state economy did not totally disappear, but almost.

Is just trying to save everything a solution? No. Do I have a solution? No. So I will stop here and simply ask that we all, young and old, pause, and calmly consider the proper balance between the “what for” and the “how to” questions as filters for the generational transfer of knowledge. Let’s help the babies deal better with the perennial problem of renewable ignorance.

Surely We Can Do Better than Nuclear Socialism

by Brent Blackwelder

They were in the news a half century ago when they were called “too cheap to meter.”  Now “absolutely safe” nuclear reactors are once again in the news.  As the horrifying scene in Japan unfolds this month, many politicians and media pundits are acting as if the only electricity choice for the U.S. is nuclear reactors or coal power plants.  This is a false choice.

A sustainable economy requires a sustainable energy supply, one that is not subject to the vulnerabilities of big central energy systems.  A steady state economy would run on a decentralized set of renewable energy sources that is clean and resilient.  It would be an economy powered by the sun, the wind, the natural heat content of the Earth, and other renewable sources. Advanced designs for where we live and how we travel would be a key part of this energy transformation. For example, buildings would be designed to generate power rather than requiring external energy supplies for cooling and heating.  And let’s not forget about conservation – we need to set up the economy such that it uses less energy in the first place.

The energy system that would run a steady state economy does not have the severe security problems that plague current systems, nor would it require massive subsidies in the form of liability limits, loan guarantees, externalization of  health damages, etc.  You don’t have to worry about a solar or wind “spill” contaminating the air, land and water; you don’t need liability caps for a wind farm or for solar collectors on roofs; and finally, you don’t need to bill consumers (instead of stockholders or investors) in advance for a nuclear reactor that may never be completed.

The strength and resilience of decentralized power, its superior employment intensity, and the potential for community involvement are all features that make a different energy model very attractive. Various European nations such as Spain, Germany, and Denmark have demonstrated the huge potential of wind and solar power, as has the state of Texas in the case of wind with 9,700 megawatts installed.

But look at the powerful forces today pushing nuclear reactor construction in the southeastern U.S. and obstructing the clean energy path of the future.  Even after the terrible nuclear meltdown in Japan, two big southern utilities, South Carolina Electric & Gas and Georgia Power, announced that they are not pausing to consider some lessons to be learned before proceeding full speed ahead with four new reactors.  To pay for two new reactors at Plant Vogtle, Georgia Power has begun billing its Georgia customers this month for the intended construction. Ironically, the proposed new reactors being billed to Georgia consumers are intended to supply customers in Florida.  Consumers and taxpayers are bearing all the risks, not investors.

The energy systems used to power the global economy are highly vulnerable to extreme weather events, sabotage, terrorism, and war.  The Japanese catastrophe this month certainly brings to mind the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979.  But the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have supplied many less well-known disasters.  A brief  review of some of the accidents will accentuate the difference between the polluting energy of today’s economy and the clean energy future that would, by its very nature, avoid these messes:

  • In  July of 1979, at the Navajo community of Church Rock, New Mexico, an earthen dam at United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill broke, releasing 95 million gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Rio Puerco.  The spill sent contaminants over 100 miles downstream.  This unpublicized spill is estimated to have contained over triple the amount of radiation (curies) that the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor released in the very same year.
  • Last year tornado warnings near Detroit forced the shutdown of the Fermi 2 atomic reactor.  This was the same site where a meltdown in 1966 nearly irradiated the Greats Lakes Region.
  • For much of 2010 the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was an ongoing saga of futility and despair.
  • In July of 2007 a major earthquake in Japan badly damaged one nuclear reactor in a complex of nuclear reactors.
  • In December of 2008 a Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, which was storing the contaminated ash from one of its power plants,  burst and  sent a toxic stew of waste 100 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill into a tributary of the Tennessee River.  Despite assurances that such dam bursting was unusual and would never happen again, scarcely a month had passed when yet another coal waste reservoir (this one in Alabama) failed and spewed contamination downstream.

Vulnerability lessons are not new.  After World War II German military leaders pointed out that the U.S. could have ended the War two years sooner by bombing the big coal power plants. Instead the allies were bombing individual industrial sites like steel mills, failing to recognize that the big coal plants powered 80% of Germany’s manufacturing.   In contrast, Japan’s electric power was provided by a huge number of small dams that were not attractive targets for attack because no single one was crucial for the power system of the nation.

The energy for a steady state economy can be supplied by a huge number of solar panels and wind mills as outlined by physics professors Jacobson and Delucchi at Stanford University (Scientific American, November, 2009) and by many others.  It would be a refreshing change to see President Obama propose such an ambitious solar/wind plan in the aftermath of the meltdown in Japan, but he seems content merely to suggest a thorough review of nuclear reactors.

Before having to hear how high the costs of renewable energy are, I’ll close with a brief reminder of the government subsidies the U.S. nuclear industry is slated to receive.  Here are some components of the $46 billion being offered up over the next 5 years in addition to the cap on liability for any accident:

  • $22.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactors;
  • $12.3 billion in nuclear waste fund liability payments;
  • $3 billion for mixed oxide activities; and
  • $1.9 billion for fusion energy.

For more details, please see the green scissors report.

Seeing this list of handouts, one might think that Republican leaders would recoil at what might be termed nuclear socialism.  One would think that the Tea Party activists would revolt at the sight of this massive government program to fund something that Wall Street would not touch even before the catastrophe in Japan.