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Victory Conservation

by Miriam Axel-Lute on March 30, 2011

The disaster unfolding in Japan over the past few weeks has, not surprisingly, energized anti-nuclear advocacy. As well it should. Assertions of safety for something that complex always need to be qualified. They are never actually planning for the worst case scenario, such as, oh, massive earthquake, tsunami, and backup power failure. But scenarios like that do happen. And catastrophic failures will only happen more often as climate change increases our levels of extreme weather events and peak oil and social unrest makes our backup fuel supplies less reliable and the temptations to cut corners on maintenance and safety increase.

At our own Indian Point nuclear power plant, which has recently been rated the most vulnerable to earthquakes in the entire country, the reactors can only withstand fire for 27 minutes. If you can’t imagine a scenario in which the responsible fire-fighting parties are delayed longer than that, you haven’t watched enough movies. Or ever called 911.

But when anyone says that the risks of nuclear power are too great, the response is always “Given the urgency of climate change and peak oil, what do we do instead? Solar and wind are great, but they just won’t be enough, fast enough.”

It is tempting to respond to this by challenging whether nuclear would be an effective climate change solution (a hotly debated topic) if even if we could set safety aside, or by listing all the ways in which current projections about solar and wind could be accelerated, including, for example, diverting our massive nuclear and oil subsidies and military spending toward them. It’s tempting to talk about wind turbines on top of office buildings and shopping plazas, about small-scale hydro and geothermal, green design in new buildings, super efficient appliances, and insulation in our attics.

All of that is important. But if you consider the costs of nuclear, coal, and hydrofracking unacceptable and realize that their use is unsustainable anyway, the most uncomfortable reality is there’s really only one answer: we have to use less energy. Dramatically less.

The challenge to that, of course, is “People just won’t do it.” This is easy to believe. It’s hard to give up conveniences. The way our current economies work, most of us spend so much time working to earn a living that it takes substantial changes in other areas of our lives to make the time and attention to shift to lower-energy lifestyles. I know I’m a long way from where I want to be and could be.

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. During World War II, our nation pulled together with shared sacrifice and victory gardens. And, as my husband likes to say, they’re still talking about how proud they are of it. Sharon Astyk, a local farmer and writer on peak oil topics, recently wrote about talking to a group of students who were protesting a new coal plant in the Appalachians (bit.ly/fU69aX). She challenged them to think about what it would take to reduce their own electricity use by three quarters, since that’s how much of their region’s electricity comes from coal. The library wouldn’t be lit for nighttime study. All their food needed to fit into a dorm-sized fridge, including the cafeteria portion. They were reluctant, but when she asked them if they would have been willing after 9/11, a much greater portion of hands went up.

Her point: sooner or not that much later we will all need to adjust—and that stands a greater, perhaps the only, chance of success if we all feel ourselves to be doing it as part of a larger narrative, one that gives meaning to our sacrifices. (Around here, that narrative might involve protecting our kids and grandkids from a reactor meltdown by making the plant unnecessary.)

Astyk didn’t spell this part out, but I think a corollary to her point is that guilt doesn’t work. If it did, her initial question to the group of already anti-coal students would have been enough to make them commit. On the other hand, pulling together, the excitement of belonging to a movement of people who are working toward the same goal—that can be motivating. Together in a community, norms can shift. You can identify and celebrate the up side of your shared sacrifice–more time outside, more awareness of seasons, more community interaction, new “rituals of non-consumption.”

Happily for us, there are many ways to tap into such a community. One such, the Hudson Mohawk Reskilling Festival, is coming up on April 9 at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy. Sharon Astyk will be speaking, and the day will be full of tours and workshops on ways to be more self-reliant in an urban setting. See you there.