How We Can Get Clean Energy—Fuel and Human Progress

Editor's note: this is the first in a three part series on how we can get clean energy. Part I details Biden's War on Fuel, Part II answers the question "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" and Part III provides an answer to "What Needs to Be Done?"

There are only two ways that modern industrial society can be powered: fossil fuels and nuclear power. The mastery of wind, water, animal, and solar power (via biomass), moved humanity from the Stone Age to the Enlightenment. It enabled global commerce under sail, the creation of metals, ceramics, glass, paper, and numerous other artificial materials (and all the devices and instruments that they enable,) and provided the mechanical energy to liberate the large majority of people—particularly in the West—from enslavement to lives of manual labor. But by the 19th century, these sources of energy were no longer sufficient to sustain the further growth of the very society that they had created.

That society, however, had the tools to give birth to a new one. Equipped with access to global knowledge, printed books, and literate populations wielding that science along with steel tools, drills, and other mechanisms, it was able to invent the technologies required to unleash the power of fossil fuels. Thus liberated from the limitations of pre-industrial energy sources, humanity was able to grow exponentially further in numbers, power, and knowledge—in sum creative capacity—to the point where it was able to discover and invoke the laws of chemistry and electricity. These, in turn, not only allowed the creation of new materials ranging from gasoline, plastics, fiberglass, aluminum, and silicon to uranium, but of scientific instruments unveiling deeper laws of nature, and, with them, new and still vaster powers hidden within the last of these.

As Alex Epstein makes clear in his seminal book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, coal, oil, and gas have been of extraordinary benefit to humanity. Compared to what came before them, they have improved human life in every way, from doubling lifespans and unchaining mobility, to freeing us from living amidst of the unhealthy stench of animal waste. They have come with certain problems of their own, notably air pollution—particularly from coal—but these effluents are far smaller and less obnoxious than the pollution associated with a comparable amount of animal or biomass power.

But they are causing global warming. As a result of fossil fuel combustion global temperatures have risen an average of 1C since 1870. Fossil fuels are also changing the Earth’s atmospheric chemistry, with CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere threatening to change the chemistry of the oceans, with potentially very negative effects on marine life.

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Environmental activists concerned about these issues have focused on using carbon taxes or production limitations to increase fuel prices, thereby dissuading people of limited means from using fossil fuels. I believe this campaign to be unethical. The primary problem in the world today is poverty. Energy is a basic good, both in itself, and because food prices, being highly dependent on transport costs, largely track fuel prices. All sales taxes are regressive, but because they target basic goods, and do so on the basis of mass, rather than cost, carbon taxes are ultra-regressive. A $50 discount store dress incorporates the same amount of carbon in its production as a $500 high fashion dress. A conventional sales tax would hit the expensive dress 10 times as hard. A carbon tax would increase the cost of both by the same amount. So really, carbon taxes are just a scam for transferring the tax burden from the rich to the poor.

But whether or not you agree that carbon taxes are unethical, there can be no question that, as a method of reducing carbon emissions, they have been a spectacular failure. In the three decades since the early 1990s, when climate warming alarms first aroused world leaders to action, global CO2 emissions have doubled—just as they did from the 1960s to the 1990s, the 1930s to the 1960s, and 1900 to 1930. This is because energy use is fundamental to living standards, and people, not wishing to be poor, will do whatever it takes to position themselves to be able to use more of it.

Human living standards have improved in direct proportion to worldwide fossil fuel use.

In 1920, the average global per capita income, in today’s dollars, was $1,000 per year, and the world used one billion metric tons of fossil fuels. Today, those figures have both grown twelvefold, to $12,000 per year and 12 billion tons, respectively. That’s an extraordinary improvement, but an annual income of $12,000 per year, typical of countries like Brazil, is still not that much.

In the United States the average income is $60,000 per year, and we still have a lot of poverty. Furthermore, $12,000 is the average. There are many countries a lot poorer than Brazil. In order to raise the entire world to a decent standard of living, global energy consumption is going to need to at least quintuple—and that requirement does not even account for population growth. We still have another century to go, doubling our energy production every 30 years, to approach the necessary goal.

Regardless of all the global warming festivals, UN proclamations, and street antics of extinction movement activists, world energy use is likely to double by 2050. Unless something better is made available, that energy is going to need to be provided by fossil fuels.

Biden's war on fuel

The Biden administration approach to this situation has been to try to suppress North American oil and gas production. As Marc Thiessen wrote in the Washington Post on February 24th:

He [Biden] prioritized climate change over energy independence and launched a policy of energy disarmament. Biden rejoined the Paris agreement and canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, which by itself would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas — far more than the 538,000 barrels we import every day from Russia). He suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and sought to deliver on his campaign promise to ban all “new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters.” And he made clear his intention to tax and regulate the fossil fuel industry out of business, promising that his administration would “end fossil fuel."

The effect of these policies is to drive up the price of fossil fuels, making the Russian and Saudi oil industries more lucrative, taxing the populations of the US, Europe, Japan, and most other Western nations, to enrich our enemies. It is a policy to increase funding for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, except for the depressing effect on global economic growth of higher oil prices, this policy will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, as, contrary to the beliefs of Democratic Party thinktanks, neither Russian nor OPEC oil is carbon free.

There is, however, an alternative energy source that is far more abundant than fossil fuels, and which causes neither carbon emissions nor conventional air pollution. This is nuclear power.

Nuclear power is proof of a fundamental economic fact, to wit: There is no such thing as natural resources. There are only natural raw materials. It is human creativity that transforms raw materials into resources.

Fossil fuels are also proof of this statement. In Napoleon’s time, no warlord contemplating territorial conquest would have considered oil or gas as significant resources of a target nation, or as vital resources of his own. Fossil fuels only became resources once we understood their potentials, developed technology to acquire them and transform them into attractive forms, and invented machines that could make good use of the product. But this change occurred well outside of living memory, so we now take it for granted that oil is a natural resource.

Nuclear power, however, makes the case more clearly. It is a technology born from scientific understanding of forces and phenomena invisible to the naked eye, offering energy in quantities vastly exceeding anything available from fossil fuels. The amount of nuclear energy in a kilogram of uranium is equivalent to that obtained by burning two million kilograms of oil. Ordinary granite typically contains five parts per million uranium, giving it 10 times the energy content of an equal amount of oil! Think about that. With the help of God, Moses reportedly drew water out of a rock. With the help of science, we can draw fire from rocks.

It is important to be clear on this point: The fire does not come from the rock. It comes from thought. That was also true of powers offered by fossil fuels, sails, and domesticated horses, for that matter. None of them existed before thought, either. But nuclear power is fire created purely from thought. It is dramatic proof of the unlimited power of the free human mind. Moreover, this fire comes without smoke.

Now, one would think that environmentalists, concerned about “the existential crisis of climate change,” would support nuclear energy. But of course, they do not. In fact they seem to hate it with a passion—even exceeding their animus towards fossil fuels and all other technologies. Many people are understandably baffled by this. But the reason for it is simple. The environmentalists hate nuclear energy because it would solve a problem they need to have.

The Biden administration, unfortunately, is beholden to environmentalist organizations for a significant chunk of its electoral funding and support. So it cannot cross them. Thus in February 2022, even as Putin was gearing up his fossil fuel funded invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission moved to curtail the duration of the operating licenses of several nuclear power plants.

This is not the way the free world ought to be dealing with either the long-term problem of growing carbon emissions or the more immediate threat posed by Russia or other petrotyrannies.

Why are we making ourselves the captive customers of our enemies when we hold in our hands a far cleaner and vastly more abundant source of energy than anything they can provide?

The answer is terror. We have been scared out of liberating ourselves by those claiming that nuclear power is too dangerous to use. In the next part of this series we shall examine their scare stories and show that they contain no truth whatsoever.

Editor's Note: Part II in this three part series deals with the question "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" and Part III provides an answer to "What Needs to Be Done?"


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/04/14/how-we-can-get-clean-energy-fuel-and-human-progress/
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Is Quillette in the pocket of the uranium industry?

Yet another pro-nuclear article! Excoriating, demonizing, trivializing those wrong-headed “environmentalists”, silly folk. We should all just embrace nukes and that will solve all our problems.

There was a time when these sorts of arguments were made on behalf of coal. I believe it was Winston Churchill who switched the British Navy from coal to oil (I haven’t checked). And as recently as the 1990s my electric co-op was furiously pushing coal.

The image of the Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugging environmentalist is kind of dated - how about we just drop it. And rather than mocking anti-nuke folk, how about answering their question: “But what to do with the waste?” That has been the elephant in the room for half a century now - just 'cause it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s been well-answered.

(By the way I used to work in the nuclear waste disposal profession.)

Nowhere in this article do I see mentioned that predictions of the U.S.A. hitting “peak oil”, though roundly derided, actually came true on schedule. Nowhere do I see mention of the fact that the world hit “peak carbon”, I believe a couple of years ago. Boosting carbon is dumb and dated.

Look. The problem with extractive industries is that eventually you run out of stuff to extract. Fracking and shale oil extraction bought us some extra time but those resources will run out. A 4th-grader can see that. And there is the issue of air pollution, global warming. To the author’s credit they do mention that.

As for nuclear, all these articles (this is approximately the 3rd or 4th Quillette article pushing the same pro-nuke line in recent months) ignore a simple reality. That is, our human nature.

Quillette in other areas does a good job of puncturing dumb ideas that go against human nature. For example the misgendering craze that is going on right now. People just naturally see other humans as either male or female - it’s part of who and how we are, the “beautiful lie” that we can all just stop being non-binary, is well-criticized by Quillette. It just won’t fly.

Communism was another beautiful lie. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” - it sounds great. And families actually do run this way. But it doesn’t scale (and even within families causes great tensions, even the breakup of families). That is because of natural envy, the visceral, primal hatred of seeing someone else get something they don’t deserve. People (and other primates, this truly is “primal”) hate freeloaders, people hate the idea that someone else gets something they don’t deserve, hasn’t earned, “while I slave away and get shafted.”

So why does Quillette, and all these authors singing in harmony, ignore the fact that humans hate and fear a threat that is deadly and invisible?

My father died of radiation overdose. It was an agonizing 18-month death that no creature should ever endure. Fortunately most people don’t have such a personal connection, experience.

From a pragmatic point of view, let’s do this thought experiment. Let’s imagine that Quillette continues to pump out this pro-nuclear nonsense, which I’ve been reading now since the 1970s and is therefore pretty old hat. Let’s suppose that 100 such publications, blogs, news channels - all of it, the whole media and information-dissemination industry - pump out that kind of propaganda, designed to convince people that nuclear is a good way to go. Then imagine that there is a decision to be made. Maybe a referendum; something like that.

All I need to do, would be to let people know of the HBO documentary Chernobyl and encourage them to watch it, tell their friends. A web site or two, some networking so that people are exposed to actual other humans who can attest that radiation kills, maims, horrifically destroys. The experience becomes viral and the issue is decided. Nobody’s going to accept that risk. The hypothetical referendum that I’m positing; I’d easily win it. If these nonsense-spouters keep it up I may just take up the charge.

But that is not necessary. The “referendum” has actually been held. The direction was abandoned a long time ago and as a world, we’re not going to change course back again. Nukes are out, solar’s in, so is wind. It’s the wave of the future whether anyone likes it or not.

There is only one wrinkle left and it will be solved - in fact it’s well along in the process of being solved - by the very same human energy, determination, and creativity that the author cites. That is storage of course and the technology exists today. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are on the market now and if we needed to we could convert to a hydrogen economy. There are plenty of other solutions and in the meantime electric cars (and snowblowers, and post hole diggers) are selling like hotcakes.

There have been studies done on diseases, what makes particular diseases more or less scary, repugnant to people, threatening. (Sorry I don’t have time to look them up, cite them.) Diseases such as leprosy and smallpox are horrific because 1) their etiology is invisible - you can’t see the threat, can’t guard against it, and 2) the visible effects of the disease are horrific.

The same principle applies to nukes. You can’t see the threat. If it comes for you you have no way to defend yourself. And the results are horrific.

Give it up, Quillette. I know you’re Australian in some sense and I know that Australia is or was a uranium producer. Is it the case that your whole organization is nothing but a fancy, well-executed shill for the nuke industry? I’m beginning to suspect just that.

This really stains you.

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Stan, that was excruciating to read made only slightly less dull by the ad hominem headline you placed in bold letters at the top which generously foretold the coming tedium. You do, rather gloriously, embody that familiar phenomenon that we often encounter in internet comments sections: the interminable comment with a string of vague but incendiary accusations against an army of straw men. Comments like yours are so effective because there is so little coherent enough to respond to. And anyway, anyone foolish enough to respond will only be treated to a second wave of straw men impervious to the weapons of real argumentation. It’s hard not to admire your preternatural aversion to brevity and clarity. But I’ll manage.

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I appreciate the shout-out to Julian Simon’s work, even if his name wasn’t mentioned in the article. The last part about environmentalists reminds me of a line Glenn Reynolds uses a lot: “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the people who keep telling me it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis.”

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Actually the first post was perhaps worse. We’re supposed to save the world from a +1.5 C degree armageddon by emulating the “whites” in reducing our birthrates and driving our Teslas to work?? Maybe both of these “posts” are the product of the Russian “disinformation” initiative to discredit nuclear power we’ve been hearing about. (I think I’m just kidding about this, but who can be absolutely sure anymore?)

These are prime examples of the increasing derangement of our discourse that follows our (justified) loss of trust in journalistic and governmental institutions.

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I didn’t even want to poke that hornet’s nest. Let sleeping Californians lay.

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Actually, Supergroove, I found Stan’s HEADLINE to be quite effective. And once I muddled through his verbosity, I found myself agreeing with one of his main points: nuclear has its downside. Mr. Zubrin did not address Stan’s concerns --which concerns I share.

That said, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that human activity is contributing significantly to climate change. The climate is just too complex for us to make such a determination. (FDR tried to tame the economy in the 1930s and the economy, as it turns out, was too complex for his Brain Trust.) The inputs to computer models and the feedback loops are beyond our understanding. Also, I suspect slight warming is probably good for mankind.

Lastly, does Mr. Zubrin have to refer to Russia as “our enemy?” These days I see Canada as more of an (ideological) enemy. Yet I don’t consider either an “enemy.”

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Perhaps we should wait for the promised second installment of his essay before passing judgement on his omissions.

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I follow what you’re saying. But since this is a three part series, I figured he’d get around to the downsides (i.e. trade-offs) of nuclear energy. The “But the nuclear waste!” argument is a red herring. France has been recycling spent fuel for decades. We have enough fuel stored in the Yucca Mountain waste - if we employ the French method of recycling - to power our reactors for something like a hundred years. The anti-nuke stuff is incoherent because what the activist really desire is an intractable problem for which they receive grants forever, never to solve.

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Here’s the great French scientist Sadi Carnot, writing in 1824:

To take away England’s steam engines to-day would amount to robbing her of her iron and coal, to drying up her sources of wealth, to ruining her means of prosperity and destroying her great power. The destruction of her shipping, commonly regarded as her source of strength, would perhaps be less disastrous for her.

For ‘steam engines’, substitute today the oil, gas, and nuclear resources that underlie most of the West’s prosperity and power. Yet much of the West’s political leadership is eager to throw these things away, without serious, realistic, and coherent thought about alternatives. Why?

See my post Deliberate Disempowerment.

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Because the West’s political leadership won’t be impacted. They will continue to fly to global warming conferences in private jets, eating endangered sea bass, and masturbating in front of the cameras.

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It’s not a bad idea, but for a couple of problems. Green hydrogen is distinct form grey hydrogen. The former is expensive and extracted from water, the latter is somewhat cheap and extracted from coal. Grey hydrogen also produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

I’m not saying it can’t be done- simply that the s-curve of price needs to come down substantially for green hydrogen to be a feasible alternative to deploy at scale.

The other problem is that it highly unlikely that electric battery manufacturing is going to scale up to the extent that it will be able to meet global demand. There are some measures which make a lot of sense- electric scooters deployed to the developing world at scale could change the culture of road use, before cars become an embedded inevitability. Car sharing apps should be a factor fitted requirement with smartphones- which generates an automated message if another user happens to share the same route and times to work. And remote working is a positive development which is likely to stay.

But using hydrogen as an adjunct of solar and wind simply isn’t feasible. We’ve seen the experiments of both Germany and California, and they are both abject failures in terms of energy production suppled at scale, green and cheap. By 2025 Germany will have spent $580B to make electricity nearly 2x more expensive & 10x more carbon-intensive than France.

It also goes without saying that many of the more recent price reductions in solar PV have been supplied with the benefit of forced, free labour.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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It’s in the process of happening. Unfortunately, American and European protectionism and subsidy of its agriculture (which would have been better deployed protecting medium to high value manufacturing), set the developing world back in terms of what is needed to surmount to high rates of population growth which is a function of absolute poverty (living on under $1.90 a day).

Three factors are necessary to cut population growth. Education for women and girls. Access to birth control. Access to economic opportunity. That’s it- the irony is that China didn’t need a one child policy, other than perhaps over a much shorter scale. Their economic developments means they can’t convince their young population to have more kids, no matter how hard they beg.

Economists have found that implementing the Doha round would have created $2,000 of economic good for every dollar spent. The one dollar is to compensate Western farmers for lost capital and income. The $2,000 is the value creation which comes from giving more of the developing access to compete more freely, in critical areas like agriculture.

I think the compensation figure is too high. One of the few good things about NAFTA is that it allowed Mexican avocado farmers to complete freely and fairly. Far from eating into Californian avocado farmers profits and markets, it actually greatly increased the global demand for avocadoes and stimulated the markets of the Californian farmers.

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Well, there are some aspects of the Green Revolution that simply don’t work in Africa. The soil is so variable for example, so the benefits of nitrate-based fertilisers, for example, aren’t as clear cut as they are in the West. Of course, there are some forms of subsidy one wants to keep, catastrophic loss due to weather for crop losses (only) is an example (we wouldn’t to pay to rebuild in areas subject to systemic risks). There are plenty of areas where subsidy is a bad idea though.

The power of French farmers. Germans first, French second. Don’t get me wrong. Their produce is bloody fantastic. You can taste the terroir in a French tub of creme fraiche, for example. But ag subsidy held the Africans back from developing meaningful agriculture of their own- to the point that they could generate surpluses substantial enough to start to cap ex and scale.

Of course, it doesn’t help that they copied the worst of the West in terms of government. Bureaucracy is all very well and good in a developed economy, but their tax levels and government structures prevented any meaningful prospect of inward investment for the longest time. The more successful African countries kept their colonial institutions, but functioning courts and property rights are a far cry from the worst habits they’ve picked up from us- especially in terms of bureaucratic barriers to compete.

What’s your take on soil carbon sequestration? I can see possibilities to changes in grazing practices, and I think there is a lot of practical merit in testing your soil to find optimum nitrate levels, and other inputs. But some of the more grandiose claims of the green farming lobby seems hopelessly optimistic to me. I don’t doubt that the right farmer, with the right work ethic and ability to sell his own products into the market, can make a good living on a 300 acre farm, as opposed to 2,000- but what worries me is the labour inputs that would go into a less intensive industry. I can see it as a form of value farming, the agricultural version of Häagen-Dazs- but I am somewhat dubious of the increased food costs we might needlessly inflict on lower income households.

What’s your view? It’s rare I get to chat to someone on Ag. It’s one area where I am looking to increase my knowledge.

Here is the problem.

The 7th great extinction of the biosphere is not (yet) mostly due to the climate impact of humanity.

Rather, it is due to the easy ubiquity of humanity encroaching on the living space of other animals and plants.

Suppose we cracked fusion. Suppose we found a way to provide clean energy superfluously for humanity.

Wouldn’t that result in humanity extending the encroachment into pristine natural areas?

Who controls the humans? What are the human incentives in a world of free energy?

Nobody is asking the right questions.

Greta is an autistic child. I appreciate her sense of Manichean absolutism.

It’s not the real world tho, is it?

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Maybe it was satire? I couldn’t tell.

True, but only part of it, I think. Historically, national leaders have identified personally with the power of their nations and sought to increase it, by fair means or (all too often) by foul. Napoleon did not need to invade Russia to live in luxury. The present crew is different, at least in the US and I think in several other western nations as well. As I said in the above-linked post…

There is a strong thread of belief in the U.S. Democratic Party that America is too wealthy, too powerful, too dangerous–that it is country that is “just downright mean,” in the words of a former First Lady. The same is true of much of the Left in other Western countries. And if you think these things about a country and its people, you’re not likely to want to increase–or even sustain–its power.

That’s true especially if you decouple the power of your country from your own personal power and well-being. And I think “progressive” politicians, and many members of academic and even business elites, often do see themselves as inhabiting a transnational space in which their personal well-being is not strongly coupled to that of their countries.

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Thanks for substituting “etc.” at the tail end of my post. I don’t think I was fully awake when I wrote the original. It was, shall we say, “excessively graphic”.

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