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The News That Matters about the Nuclear Industry

- Nuclear Power and the Tragedy of the Commons

The nuclear industry is the latest and most devastating example of “the tragedy of the commons”.

The idea of the commons is an old one – that we don’t look after things that belong to us all.  The idea goes back to around 300 BC. Aristotle said “that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it.” In 19th century England, this idea was applied to common farming ground   – with the agricultural revolution’s ruthless exploitation  of common land  – so that the  land became useless for agriculture.

In the 20th Century the full tragedy of the commons began to unfold.  Human populations increased and without care, used those parts of the world’s ecology that are shared .

On the one hand people took resources such as fresh water,  the seas, and the living things within them. On the other hand, people dumped their rubbish into shared parts of the planet –  into rivers, seas, wildernesses. The air itself became a waste dump, as human activities poured dust, gases, various chemicals into the atmosphere.

With the nuclear industry, as with other industries, and particularly the energy ones, earth’s resources are gouged out of the land, and poisonous wastes are released. The difference with the nuclear industry is that it leads to the devastation of environments, through atomic weapons testing, and to the perpetual problem of radioactive wastes.   The latest idea, Thorium nuclear reactors, shows just how environmentally horrible is the nuclear radioactive waste problem.   Those who promote Thorium reactors proudly boast that with these the radioactive wastes last only 300 years!   Just the bare 300 years to secure and guard toxic radioactive wastes!

The Fukushima nuclear radiation is still going into the sea.  Japan has little idea of how to temporarily secure this waste, and no idea of how to permanently secure it.  Nor does any other country have a way to secure nuclear wastes. Finland’s much praised underground repository will quickly be filled, and still the nations plan to continue making the stuff!

The present radioactive pollution is bad enough, and the worst form of the various pollutants that humans send into their common global environment.

But – it doesn’t  have to get worse.

Humans are exraordinarily adaptable. We are, as David Brooks has recently put it: “Social Animals” . The great underwater explorer and philsopher,  Jacques Cousteau said  – “However fragmented the world, however intense the national rivalries, it is an inexorable fact that we become more interdependent every day.”

As social animals, people have got to learn, and fast, how to take care of our global commons. With information, everyone’s self-interest will be the motive to change our ways.  As the planet is finite, it’s obvious that its resources are not infinite.  It’s capacity to take in wastes is not infinite.  Therefore human activities will have to be restrained by human agreements, by laws and regulations.

Here, we run up against an odd but powerful philosophy.  This is a sort of religious belief held by many people – that “all regulation is bad”.    We know from economies like Pakistan’s, and Russia’s immediately after the downfall of the Soviet regime, that “no regulation” is bad.  I think that it’s up to the communicators in this world to point out that “some regulation is good and necessary”

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In the 20th Century, the idea of “The Tragedy of The Commons” was explored in 1968  by Garrett Hardin:  -

the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the “freedom of the seas.” Professing to believe in the “inexhaustible resources of the oceans,” they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction…….the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in — sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight.

Jacques Cousteau, the great underwater explorer and film-maker described and deplored what humans were doing, especially to the oceans. Cousteau recognised the danger of radioactive wastes:

from  Wikipedia:  In  October 1960, a large amount of radioactive waste was going to be discarded in the Mediterranean Sea by the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA). The CEA argued that the dumps were experimental in nature, and that French oceanographers such as Vsevelod Romanovsky had recommended it. Romanovsky and other French scientists, including Louis Fage and Jacques Cousteau, repudiated the claim, saying that Romanovsky had in mind a much smaller amount. The CEA claimed that there was little circulation (and hence little need for concern) at the dump site between Nice and Corsica, but French public opinion sided with the oceanographers rather than with the CEA atomic energy scientists. The CEA chief,Francis Perrin, decided to postpone the dump.[5] Cousteau organized a publicity campaign which in less than two weeks gained wide popular support. The train carrying the waste was stopped by women and children sitting on the railway tracks, and it was sent back to its origin.

Cousteau:  If we go on the way we have, the fault is our greed [and] if we are not willing [to change], we will disappear from the face of the globe, to be replaced by the insect.”

Garrett Hardin:  Being selfish by using a shared group resource can hurt others. But it doesn’t always have to”.

“Some of the common pastures of old England were protected from ruin by the tradition of stinting—limiting each herdsman to a fixed number of animals (not necessarily the same for all). Such cases are spoken of as “managed commons,” which is the logical equivalent of socialism.   ………. Even when the shortcomings of the commons are understood, areas remain in which reform is difficult. No one owns the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, it is treated as a common dump into which everyone may discharge wastes. Among the unwanted consequences of this behavior are acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and the erosion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Industries and even nations are apt to regard the cleansing of industrial discharges as prohibitively expensive. The oceans are also treated as a common dump.

Solutions to the tragedy of the commons

Garrett Hardin: Yet continuing to defend the freedom to pollute will ultimately lead to ruin for all. Nations are just beginning to evolve controls to limit this damage. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/TragedyoftheCommons.html

Garrett Hardin “Some of the common pastures of old England were protected from ruin by the tradition of stinting—limiting each herdsman to a fixed number of animals (not necessarily the same for all). Such cases are spoken of as “managed commons,” which is the logical equivalent of socialism.   ………. Even when the shortcomings of the commons are understood, areas remain in which reform is difficult. No one owns the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, it is treated as a common dump into which everyone may discharge wastes. Among the unwanted consequences of this behavior are acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and the erosion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer. Industries and even nations are apt to regard the cleansing of industrial discharges as prohibitively expensive. The oceans are also treated as a common dump. Yet continuing to defend the freedom to pollute will ultimately lead to ruin for all. Nations are just beginning to evolve controls to limit this damage.” http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/TragedyoftheCommons.html

JOHN M. GROHOL discussed the ways to solve the tragedy of the commons    “Since that time, we’ve had a great deal of research into this phenomenon that’s resulted in a few common solutions, as outlined by Mark Van Vugt (2009). These solutions include providing more information in order to reduce uncertainty about the future, ensuring people’s need for a strong social identity and sense of community is met, the need for being able to trust our institutions that we put in charge of our “commons,” and the value of incentives for improving oneself and responsible use, while punishing overuse. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/07/29/the-tragedy-of-the-commons/

The ideas of “endless growth”, and “no regulation of the free market” make no sense in the face of the ecological disaster now threatening the common environment of Earth

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