Science in the New Millennium – A Humanitarian Issue

It was a total blast this week to be invited by Suzy Hobbs-Baker, Director of the Nuclear Literacy Project (aka @popatomicstudio) to join a panel discussion on communications at the International Youth Nuclear Congress in Burgos, Spain. Sharing the platform was one of my long-term twitter buddies, Ben Heard, Director, ThinkClimate (aka @benthinkclimate) all the way from South Australia. So cool to meet in real life at last. We were also joined by the wonderful and insightful Valerie Faudon French Nuclear Society, SFEN (aka ‪@ValerieFaudon) passionate nuclear advocate and expert, David Hess from the World Nuclear Association (aka @6point626)  and the very smart and talented President of the North America Young Generation Network, Felix Meissner (aka @fmeissner359 ) Thanks so much guys. You rock.

Here are some notes from the three key points I made on the question of science in the new millennia – a humanitarian issue.

Firstly, wow, isn’t science amazing?

Secondly, isn’t science scary?

Thirdly, how we reconcile these two things, moving away from the deficit model, (which I agree with Suzy is defunct).

>>>>> Isn’t science amazing?  Alice Bell first opened my eyes to these ways in which we are surprisingly remote from many aspects of our lives that are nevertheless deeply connected to our sense of identity. She said: Look at my smart phone! I love my phone. I’m very attached to it. It’s probably a lot like yours in many ways. We all customise our phones of course, in particular ways: the home screen, the apps we download, the case. All our phones look very different and are intimately personalised. Yet how many of us know how they actually work? Where do the components come from? Where do phones go when they die? This is not just in terms of the impact on the environment from manufacturing these items, but often also the social and moral implications for our society relating to privacy, for example, and our relationships with each other.

On a macro scale, we benefit hugely from scientific advancement: we live longer, healthier lives, are better fed, safer and more comfortable than any generation before us. We have great hair products! Aren’t washing machines wonderful!

Yet we still have a long way to go.

Globally, five billion people still wash their clothes by hand – because they lack access to electricity for pumped mains water, and power. Where will the electricity come from to meet growing demand from the inevitable, and welcome, rising prosperity? A constant stream of cheap reliable electricity is the bedrock of our quality of life.

>>>> Isn’t science scary! Ok so we love science, but the rapid advances in science and the changing modern world can be a little overwhelming. When we scale this up to big ideas like climate change or nuclear power, which are much more abstract, and much less personal and fun than smart phones and washing machines, it is sometimes possible to feel that science has imposed itself on us, leaving people feeling disempowered and helpless.

So in a way it’s not surprising that “small is beautiful” continues to be a defining idea in mainstream environmentalism. The focus on renewables in particular may be linked to a desire to be back in control, on a small scale, using simple technology that anyone can understand, and powered by nature itself.

So it is important to understand that we perceive things as much in emotional terms as rational, which is why the deficit model is defunct. It’s not just what we think about things, it’s how we feel about them.

For example, explaining the science of GMO’s is not going to make people feel better if they believe their food is no longer ‘natural’ and could pose an invisible threat, right there on their plate.

We have some big challenges ahead, especially in the climate and energy space. How will we take people with us on this journey to completely replace our fossil fuel infrastructure, and then triple it, to meet rising demand for electricity?

It seems obvious that nuclear energy needs to play a big role in meeting these challenges.

>>>>> A new, post-deficit model, social contract: Values Alignment.

Now we tend to think people have a problem with nuclear – perhaps because they don’t understand the science, or the technology. Well, like my smart phone, maybe I don’t need to understand how it works in order to love it.

Interestingly, current research published last year by the UK Energy Research Council suggests that it is not in fact technology itself that people are attached or opposed to: it’s the values that the technology represents.

For example, we know there is a strong public preference for solar energy. We also know that this is because it is perceived by people to be ‘renewable’ ‘fair’, ‘just’ and ‘clean’. The UKERC report gives this example:

If we point to a solar power development supplying the UK but residing in North Africa that has been revealed to be causing local environmental contamination and land-use territorial disputes, this would not fit the public preference for solar energy. This is not because it is no longer renewable but because in this instance it would no longer be seen as ‘fair’, ‘just’ or ‘clean’.

Therefore, the key idea here is to whether nuclear energy can align with public values in order to become more socially acceptable?

What do people want from their low carbon energy?

The UKERC report, Transforming the UK Energy System: Public Values, Attitudes and Acceptability, identifies key values people are looking for. They wish it to be Efficient and not wasteful. People hate waste! 

People want their energy system to be environmentally conscious. People want choice and control, and justice and fairness.

For me, the key insight from the UKERC report is that: Public acceptability may only be achieved if it is rooted, in a significant way, in people’s value system.

I am confident that nuclear energy can deliver these qualities. But we also need to ensure that these principles of values alignment are embedded in our communications.


Suzy asked me to speak to the question Science in the New Millennia – A Humanitarian Issue. To set the scene, Suzy reminded us about this seminal piece on a new social contract for science (1998):

In the late 1990’s the science community realized that there were many scientific issues colliding with policy, public health and environmental issues. They concluded that they had a social responsibility to share their knowledge, which culminated in the creation of a social contract for scientists. Here is the abstract:

As the magnitude of human impacts on the ecological systems of the planet becomes apparent, there is increased realization of the intimate connections between these systems and human health, the economy, social justice, and national security. The concept of what constitutes “the environment” is changing rapidly. Urgent and unprecedented environmental and social changes challenge scientists to define a new social contract. This contract represents a commitment on the part of all scientists to devote their energies and talents to the most pressing problems of the day, in proportion to their importance, in exchange for public funding. The new and unmet needs of society include more comprehensive information, understanding, and technologies for society to move toward a more sustainable biosphere—one which is ecologically sound, economically feasible, and socially just. New fundamental research, faster and more effective transmission of new and existing knowledge to policy- and decision-makers, and better communication of this knowledge to the public will all be required to meet this challenge.


Decoupling: a new ecomodernist paradigm for humans and nature

It may be sad that Gywneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are “consciously uncoupling”, but happier news is that human consumption appears to be “decoupling” from environmental impact.

I’ve just returned from an optimistic and enlightening Dialogue meeting run by the Breakthrough Institute in Sausalito, California. (I know – it’s a hard life.) Winner of the event’s ‘paradigm prize’ was Rockefeller Institute environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel. His research shows that modern economies, like the US, have progressively lightened their diet in terms of energy, water, land and materials consumption, largely from a peak in the early 1990’s.

When we look at the data, it is easy to understand the environmental klaxons of 1960’s and 1970’s. The steady state economics of Herman Daly, which still largely defines the mainstream environmental paradigm, is a response to a neo Malthusian environmentalism. It looked then as if a growing, resource-hungry population would consume far more than the world’s carrying capacity could maintain. This has been popularized through the concept of ‘one planet living’ (or ‘peak-Earthers’ in the States).

However, in his essay the Liberation of the Environment, Ausubel carefully sets out the data to show a different trend emerging: trajectories that lessen pollution and conserve the environment, despite rising consumption to meet the needs of a growing population living increasingly rich, energy hungry modern lives.

At the heart of ‘one planet living’ is the meme that ‘if everyone on Earth was to consume at the level that the developed world currently does, then we would need three planet Earth’s worth of resources.’ Hence, lowering environmental footprints, through reduced consumption is at the heart of mainstream environmental thinking. In fact, Ausubel shows that although consumption has continued to rise over the past 25 years, this trend has “decoupled” from environmental impact. The key driver here is the urge to raise economic value through increased performance efficiency, particularly noticeable in energy.

Two tendencies have defined the evolution of energy systems. One is that the energy system is freeing itself from carbon. The other is increasing efficiency. By transitioning from wood to coal, then oil and increasingly to gas, Ausubel tracks the benefits from moving to a cleaner energy system, whilst reaping the societal benefits of growing energy use. “People want modernity”, Ausubel says.Energy systems in India and China are right now roughly equivalent to nineteenth century western patterns at the advent of the industrial revolution. Robert Wilson crunched the numbers and found that although China “now consumes half of the world’s coal, its per-capita coal consumption is far from unprecedented. China now consumes around 2.7 tonnes of coal on a per-capita basis. However, Britain had per-capita coal consumption of 4.6 tonnes in 1913, almost two times higher than China’s today. In fact China’s per-capita coal consumption is actually lower today than Britain’s was 150 years ago. Therefore, unless China sees a reason to transition to other fuels, its coal growth is far from over.”

So while there is a role for energy efficiency, the goal is arguably more to reduce carbon intensity than overall consumption.


I found it particularly interesting that, along with projected decarbonization; food production decoupled from acreage; and more efficient water use; Ausubel also points to a trend towards dematerialization. Even plastics peaked in the 1990’s. Lower material intensity of the economy is good news for nature, enabling less waste, and the preservation of natural resources.


Linus Blomqvist, research director at the BTI expanded on the theme in his talk, for example showing how intensification of agriculture has allowed humans to nearly halve per-capita cropland. However to achieve these savings: “A low footprint planet will very likely also have to be a high-energy planet.”

So if rising consumption is “decoupling” from environmental impact, is it time to re-evaluate anti-growth environmentalism? The question is more than an environmental one. It’s social and moral. Arguably, our modern lives in the West have distanced us from nature. We spend a small fraction of our time outside, for instance. Ausubel makes the wry comment that: “The achievement of ten thousand years of human history is that we have again become cave dwellers with electronic gadgets.”

The moral question relates to the need for growth in emerging economies. 1.4billion people around the world have no access to electricity and almost 600million of them live in Africa. Roger Pielke Jr, professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder wrote recently, anti-growth environmentalism risks “keeping poor people poor.”

The sad thing for the environmental movement is that Malthusian logic of an impending catastrophe may be resurrected without recalling what happened to Malthus. His fear that population would outgrow available food supply was disproven by his failure to predict technological innovation. Before long, agricultural yields per person were significantly higher. In the US, the debate continues to kick off between traditional environmentalists and pragmatic environmentalists about whether a “Good Anthropocene” is a contradiction in terms, or an aspiration.

Personally, I think optimism about technology and the human future is a far more innovative, pragmatic and engaging narrative than a pessimistic perspective. It is in this that the so-called ‘new environmentalism’ differs from the old, and why technological optimism is the real force for a green future.

First published on Business Green