Monday, 21 February 2022

Rethinking Energy as Moral Energy

Nuclear fusion is again being offered as the solution to human energy needs.


By Andrew Porter

On February 9, 2022, scientists working in an English village near Oxford announced that in December they were able to generate a few successful sustained seconds of nuclear fusion. An article for CNN by Danya Gainor and Angela Dewan declared that:

‘A giant donut-shaped machine just proved a near-limitless clean power source is possible’. 
The energy machine generated a record-breaking 59 megajoules for over five seconds. Heat ten times hotter than the center of the sun – as high as 150 million degrees Celsius. The process generates tremendous pressure. And then the magnets overheat.

This kind of development is almost universally hailed as an advance. It promises to one day meet energy demand that burgeons with increasing human population. Such energy may be able to utilize the deuterium and tritium in seawater to power houses and businesses – as the crisis of climate change applies heat and pressure of its own. But I want to suggest that finding a source for more energy should not be the world's focus, as reasonable as it sounds. That there may instead be better uses of energy possible for us.

One person may argue: ‘We live in a contemporary world with vast energy needs and we have to develop the technology to address problems’. This the voice of what is considered ‘realism’. But as Shira Ovide, a New York Times writer, says: ‘Climate change and other deep-seated problems are hard to confront, and it’s tempting to distract ourselves by hoping that technology can save the day… But technology isn’t magic and there are no quick fixes.’ Another person may contend that the kind of worldview that got us into this mess will not get us out. So it is worth asking what really is beneficial, not just short term but long term.

The ‘glitzy’ new advance in nuclar fusion seems, on the surface, to be of benefit. But our high-energy-use ways are unsustainable and damaging. It seems to me that the task for communities, nations, and humankind in general is, in this time of planetary pressure and the retooling of mindsets, to generate human ecology, so we might live within natural parameters and carrying capacities. This is the opposite of finding new ‘resources to exploit’ for untenable practices and assumptions.

Now you may ask, ‘Well, if it's cheap and renewable, why not embrace nuclear fusion?’ Behind this question is the hope that there will be no reckoning, that we will not have to mend our planet-damaging ways. But our energy needs to be mental, cultural, and philosophical. Peter Sutoris, anthropologist of development and the environment, and author of Educating for the Anthropocene, says:

‘We must face up to the harsh reality that for all its achievements, our civilisation is deeply flawed. It will take a reimagination of who we are to truly solve this crisis’.

Who can seriously argue that it is not time to craft a new human way of being on Earth? This ‘new human way’ I imagine as much simpler, low-tech, and integral with other life forms.

The likelihood is very strong that people at all levels will reject a shift away from grabbing more energy. Rising sea levels will submerge huge swathes of coastline because of the industrialised world's aversion to ecological ways of life. But thorough-going, Earth-friendly ideals, were they chosen, could be the crucial spur to enact positive change in societies and provide an aim for what's accepted, embraced, and funded. The ‘tokamak’ fusion machine near Oxford cannot provide the needed energy. What is most pertinent for our time is inferably moral energy – along with philosophical clarity –  to steer us all away from human excesses and towards an attunement to natural limits. This is to suggest that the fusion that’s optimally generated is internal. 


That’s the real enterprise – the energy use – worthy of our savvy.



8 comments:

Bill Braden said...

In the short run, nuclear power (or other technological fixes) will be needed to head off climate disasters. In the long run, a moral readjustment such as you describe would be preferable. But you would have to persuade farmers in India that their way of life, hard as it is, is not only necessary, but preferable to the energy-spending lifestyle of the better-off. And persuade the better-off to change their ways. It will take a while.

Keith said...

The essay evokes, Andrew, several central notions sprinkled throughout that, unfortunately, I found undecipherably abstract: ‘mend our planet-damaging ways’, ‘craft a new human way of being on Earth’, ‘better uses of energy’, ‘generate human ecology’, ‘ecological ways of life’, ‘thorough-going, Earth-friendly ideals’, ‘attunement to natural limits’, ‘the fusion that’s optimally generated is internal’, and ‘inferably moral energy’. I would have liked explanations of what these notions mean in terms of concrete measures humankind might take to bring about whatever tangible changes you envision. I felt left wishing those holes to be filled.

Keith said...

Thank you, Andrew, for introducing the topic of fusion; the technology goes underreported. That being said, I do see the promise of this technology differently — eventually as a game-changing source of energy.

These ‘miniature suns’ tout major selling points: Deuterium, available from the oceans, and tritium are inexhaustible. Zero carbon emissions — it’s clean. No long-lived radioactive waste. A safe, nontoxic by-product. No runaway risk — unlike Chernobyl and Fukushima.

And here is the best part: prodigious amounts of energy longer term to fuel both the developed and developing world. While marrying energy production with sustainable environmental stewardship.

Much science and engineering are still needed to get to fusion on a commercial level, where energy out vastly exceeds energy in. Several countries are taking earnest runs at it, and progress is happening. The tokamak your essay refers to is just one variant.

The trajectory toward fusion may take a few decades; however, planning to get energy generation ‘right’ is worth it. When it comes to global energy, I suspect fusion will prove transformative.

Andrew Porter said...

I think events will confirm that energy use by humankind beyond that of, say, 18th century Native Americans is unjustified and unsustainable. Even currently, inordinate energy use and all its accompanying hubris shows tremendous planetary damage and its accompanying moral ugliness.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Andrew.

I went hiking on a mountain once with a young girl in the party. We came to a great tree, which was dead. She took out her water bottle, said kind words to the tree, and poured out all her water on its roots. Her sentiments were heart-warming, however they were not very useful.

There are heart-warming sentiments about our planet, and the future of its people, yet none seem to identify the mechanisms which cause the trouble. Physical science, of course, has caused this ruin. But no, that cannot be. But yes, it must be. People are confused about this. We need to identify what is really the matter with it.

The other problem is a loss of moral energy as you say, all the more so as we enter a pluralistic society. Yet at the moment, there does not seem to be more than stumbling in the dark. We have not got over Hume yet (or Pascal, from whom he borrowed), who considered that we cannot take an arrangement of things and reach any ‘ought’ from it. Or can we? But then how?

Assumed in this piece, I think, is that we ourselves will implement the solution. Yet if we ourselves precipitated the chaos, can we be that starry-eyed? Rising sea-levels, that’s merely a practical problem, although a formidable one. I think the real problem is the things we don’t see, because of the deficiency of human knowledge, or should I say method.

docmartincohen said...

I tend to agree with Andrew: "Who can seriously argue that it is not time to craft a new human way of being on Earth? This ‘new human way’ I imagine as much simpler, low-tech, and integral with other life forms." But what is simplicity? Are the wind turbines simple? They certainly are compared to nuclear fusion. But not to medieval windmills.

Unknown said...

I agree that this kind of development is almost universally hailed as an advance. It promises to one day meet energy demand that burgeons with increasing human population. Such energy may be able to utilize the deuterium and tritium in seawater to power houses and businesses – as the crisis of climate change applies heat and pressure of its own. But I want to suggest that finding a source for more energy should not be the world's focus, as reasonable as it sounds. That there may instead be better uses of energy possible for us.
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Ken said...

Nuclear energy also faces major ethical challenges. Nuclear power generates toxic wastes that remain hazardous calcium productsfor thousands of generations. Even assuming that the operation of nuclear power plants can be made safe, disposal of nuclear wastes can jeopardize the health and safety of countless future people.

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