14 August 2007

Nuclear Energy

At a man’s death, his debts are paid out of his estate, and anything left over goes to his heirs. It is an ancient innovation of our society that if a man dies in debt, then that is tough luck for the debtors, not for his heirs. What assets he actually has left are shared out among his creditors, and any leftover debt is cancelled.

This is of course still rather tough in the heirs, who get nothing, but not as tough as things used to be: in earlier times, and in some societies up to the present day, debts could be inherited from generation to generation. At one time, men would even sell their children or themselves or both into slavery until their debts were paid off.

In ancient Athens this practice was ended by Solon. Received wisdom today is that Solon was a wise and just man, but in his day he was probably considered a major pinko, perhaps even a dangerous radical, and his new laws the end of the world. Thanks to Solon, today the State steps in, waves its magic wand, and declares the children free of debt.

While one must feel a little sorry for the foolish or unlucky money-lender who takes a haircut when a debtor dies early, it seems safe to say that this cancelling of the debts of the deceased is a Good Thing, and that it has liberated and energised our society. No longer can entire families be left in a state of hopeless debt-slavery only because they had the bad luck to have a silly ancestor.

But imagine that this is not the case today. Imagine that the State does not or cannot wave its magic wand. And imagine that someone gets into a state of utterly hopeless debt, a debt that he has no hope of repaying and that his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren have no hope of repaying. And imagine he got into this state through something as frivolous as throwing the world’s biggest party: a lifelong orgy of drinking and fine dining and dancing and drug-taking and frequenting the most expensive brothels and glamorous prostitutes. How outraged you would be on hearing this story! How sorry you would feel for the children and grandchildren! How much you would want to shake this man and ask him how he could accumulate such a debt through such frivolous, pointless self-indulgence and condemn his descendants to eternal slavery! How he could be so stupid and reckless and irresponsible and cruel as to impoverish to the very people he should have nurtured and enriched! How frustrated you would be that he is already dead so you can’t punish him for his sins as he deserves, that the worst you can do to him is to piss on his grave!

Now imagine what it is like to be his children, to be condemned to a lifetime of grey drudgery for the sake of your parent’s good time, and that this grey drudgery will be passed down to your children and their children... Thanks to your father – it wasn't your fault – you have nothing better offer your children.

Now, indulge me for a moment and imagine that you are that man. What do you think you’re doing? Why are you doing it?

You see, the 20th century, and particularly the latter half of the 20th century, was precisely such an orgy. We have pissed our inheritance – petroleum – up against the wall. We are now about to run out of money and therefore the party that has lasted pretty much a single lifetime is about to end. The music will stop, the laughter will die down, the cold light of dawn will creep into the room, we will begin to feel cold and hungry and hung over and tired and miserable... most of all we will feel bored... and we will have nothing but boredom and a hand-to-mouth existence to look forward to for the rest of our lives and for the rest of eternity.

Then, gliding into the room like the Serpent in Paradise comes a stooped figure looking remarkably like Monty Burns... it’s an archetypical usurious moneylender. He offers to lend us an unimaginably huge sum of money so we can keep the party roaring! His pound of flesh is our descendents in slavery forever – never mind! Sell them! The show must go on! The lights come back on, the music starts back up, the bodies strewn about the place come back to life, cups are filled, the dancing begins and the party winds up again. Soon the music is thumping and the party is pumping... the fun begins again... there is enough money in the kitty to keep the party going for one more single lifetime. Who cares? That’s our lifetime! Why should our parents have had all the fun? Why should we be the ones to pay the price? Why not double the debt and let our children pay!

You see, petroleum lasted about a lifetime and it came with a price: global warming. There is enough uranium to last about a lifetime too, and this form of energy also comes with a price: the poisonous waste has to be stored for for about 10,000 years.

Now, 10,000 years is a long time. From now to 10,000 years ago goes back to the beginning of farming. The very first village ever started about 10,000 years ago. Think back to the time of Jesus and the Roman Enpire: as strange and alien and weird as they were, that was a mere 2,000 years ago. If 1 BC looks weird to us, then 2,000 BC must have looked just as weird to the Romans! King David must have looked to Jesus Christ like William the Conqueror looks to us. And if 2,000 BC looked primitive to Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar, then 4,000 BC must have looked just as primitive to the people of 2,000 BC! And 6,000 BC must have looked primitive to 4,000 BC! And 8,000 BC must have looked primitive to 6,000 BC! That’s 10,000 years. Now imagine you have to store deadly poisonous stuff for 10,000 years. And not just poisonous like a regular poison but something that is to poison what poison is to your mother’s cooking – and you have to store that from the time of the pyramids to the today...and back again. Look at the pyramids! When “modern” scientists finally opened them – they were empty! They’d already been robbed. They’d already leaked. And that was only 5,000 years.

Worst of all, once incurred, there is no possibility of a cancellation of this debt – because it is incurred according the unbending laws of Nature, not the flexible laws of Man. There is no getting let off the hook for this one.

And you not have to store it, but in about 70 years (less than from WWI to today) they will have to store it and keep it safe when they didn’t even get to enjoy the benefit of that energy! They will be paying the price when they got none of the fun. We will have slash-and-burn farmers guarding a whole stack of superpoison.

Even worse, they will have no energy to allow them to guard that superpoison, because they won't have oil and they won't have uranium. If there is an earthquake then bad luck – there’s nothing they can do. Plus, there will be terrible worldwide wars as we no longer has the energy to sustain 6 billion people – or 9 billion or 12 billion – on the planet. As we return to the Middle Ages, using wind power and animal power since there’s no oil or gas or uranium, we won’t be able to make the fertilisers and pesticides that keep 12 billion people alive. The starving billions will then fight like drowning men over the last scraps of food – and all the while they are supposed to take the time and effort to guard this superpoison. Who’s going to feed the guards and the scientists who look after the nuclear waste? The planet will look like Rwanda – everyone starving and desperately trying to scrape together enough food to keep themselves alive. It will be Armageddon: brother will make war against brother, billions of corpses will lie rotting unburied, the cities will be empty... Eventually, the nuclear storage sites will be neglected, then forgotten... We will return to the Dark Ages... Then people will start being born with 3 eyes, 2 heads, no arms and everyone will wonder why...

Uranium is forever.


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