Ethical basis for environmentalism

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Zamfir
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zamfir » Wed May 07, 2014 5:51 am UTC

Nuclear safety experts were genuinely surprised by Fukushima. Not because something unexpectable happened, pretty much all of the accident sequence parts were in the books as possibilities to guard against. But people treated them basically as abstract possibilities, events they did not expect to see happen anywhere in their lifetime. I wasn't there yet in the 1970s, but I have understood that the situation was similar before Harrisburg and Chernobyl. Before 1979, core meltdown was treated as entirely theoretical possibility with vanishly small chance of happening.

So what's the point of calling people 'luddites' if they don't believe the experts? Evidence suggests that even the best experts cannot reliably answer the core questions of nuclear safety. That's not a knock on them, it's apparently very, very hard to judge the safety of nuclear reactors to the desired degree.But it makes it a bad example to show the ignorance of environmentalists.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby jseah » Wed May 07, 2014 12:31 pm UTC

It's like that tale told of aircraft and cars. Misplaced priorities perhaps?

I'm not aware of the exact numbers but I don't think nuclear has a worse safety record than aircraft. Or cars. Or food.
Heck, I would not be surprised if in a purely nuclear plant run power grid, more people die of poor electrical safety in the network on average than from the nuclear power plants.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zamfir » Wed May 07, 2014 1:10 pm UTC

Perhaps. Experts could have said, 'we expect to see a nuclear plant release core contents every few decades, but that's OK if we weigh our priorities right'.

But we didn't. We said 'the core damage frequency of a GE-style boiling water reactor is of the order of 1 in a hundred thousand reactor years, and containment failure is significantly less likely again'. In other words, it would take many lifetimes to see one large release accident anywhere.That was an attempt to sidestep the public discussion about acceptable amounts of damage, because the industry expected to loose that discussion.

Environmentalists didn't accept that argument, and claimed that releasing accidents were far more likely than experts said . That's why they were considered ignorant, because they did not agree with expert opinions on the risk of nuclear accidents. But the experts were wrong on this particular issue, and the environmentalists were right.

In that light, it's a weird example to show the bad luddism among environmentalists. It's an example where luddism turned out to be a good guide to reality. Doesn't mean it always is, but it was in this case.
Last edited by Zamfir on Wed May 07, 2014 1:24 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Wed May 07, 2014 1:10 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Nuclear safety experts were genuinely surprised by Fukushima. Not because something unexpectable happened, pretty much all of the accident sequence parts were in the books as possibilities to guard against. But people treated them basically as abstract possibilities, events they did not expect to see happen anywhere in their lifetime. I wasn't there yet in the 1970s, but I have understood that the situation was similar before Harrisburg and Chernobyl. Before 1979, core meltdown was treated as entirely theoretical possibility with vanishly small chance of happening.

So what's the point of calling people 'luddites' if they don't believe the experts? Evidence suggests that even the best experts cannot reliably answer the core questions of nuclear safety. That's not a knock on them, it's apparently very, very hard to judge the safety of nuclear reactors to the desired degree.But it makes it a bad example to show the ignorance of environmentalists.


We have a reasonable sample set of nuclear power plants in operation. Deaths from coal per year are estimated in the thousands. We could have a fukushima every month and come out ahead on safety. As for environmental damage, sure...there was some. Again, though, comparing to coal....

Yeah, humans are bad at dealing with low incidence, high impact events, but of all the things in this world to worry about, nuclear power should rationally be pretty far down the list.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby leady » Wed May 07, 2014 1:31 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Environmentalists didn't accept that argument, and claimed that releasing accidents were far more likely than experts said . That's why they were considered ignorant, because they did not agree with expert opinions on the risk of nuclear accidents. But the experts were wrong on this particular issue, and the environmentalists were right.


or is it that with the current number of nuke plants the risks are correct, but the disasters per lifetime has become one?

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zamfir » Wed May 07, 2014 2:15 pm UTC

Nope, there are 450 reactors or so. So a 1E-5 CDF (fairly typical) would be 1 instance worldwide every 200 years if all reactors had that CDF. Core damage means any damage to the core, not a full meltdown with containment breach, that should be rarer still

It's not like CDFs are the alpha and omega of reactor safety. They are really more a calculating tool to estimate the relative risks between various aspects of the plant systems, and the total figure just rolls out of the process as a side effect. Most experts would not consider a CDF as a totes reliable best estimate of risk.

But many industry and regulatory people did use them that way, and experts did not complain. And from my personal experience, knowledgeable people did really expect 'large release' incidents to be not-in-my-lifetime rare, even if they privately would consider CDF numbers as perhaps overly optimistic.Fukushima really shocked everyone I knew in the industry. They knew something like it could happen, but honestly did not expect to see it in the real world. Even though, in hindsight, they could have known.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Wed May 07, 2014 3:52 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Nope, there are 450 reactors or so. So a 1E-5 CDF (fairly typical) would be 1 instance worldwide every 200 years if all reactors had that CDF. Core damage means any damage to the core, not a full meltdown with containment breach, that should be rarer still

It's not like CDFs are the alpha and omega of reactor safety. They are really more a calculating tool to estimate the relative risks between various aspects of the plant systems, and the total figure just rolls out of the process as a side effect. Most experts would not consider a CDF as a totes reliable best estimate of risk.

But many industry and regulatory people did use them that way, and experts did not complain. And from my personal experience, knowledgeable people did really expect 'large release' incidents to be not-in-my-lifetime rare, even if they privately would consider CDF numbers as perhaps overly optimistic.Fukushima really shocked everyone I knew in the industry. They knew something like it could happen, but honestly did not expect to see it in the real world. Even though, in hindsight, they could have known.


Even if an event were 1/200 years, average lifespans would put odds at seeing such an event at something like 1/3. If you think the 1/200 odds are optimistic, odds of such an event happening in your lifetime are even higher.

1/200 years does not mean "it won't happen for 200 years". It means every year there is a chance. And this year has exactly the same chance as the year before fukushima. We're not "safe" for a while or anything. Events can and do cluster.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Zamfir » Wed May 07, 2014 5:43 pm UTC

As I said, core damage is supposed to be a stage before a large release, with significant barriers yet to breach. At this point the numerics become less precise, because it was always recognized that post-core damage situations are inherently hard to predict. Still, people do make estimates of large release frequencies (I have made some minor contributions to them), and they are significantly lower still than the CDF. Several times, 10 times, sometimes more.

In this framework, Fukushima was literally off the scale. People did not consider such a combined destruction of multiple reactors, effects on the fuel pools, ongoing for weeks on end. No estimates, no design considerations, no planning precautions.

So, people did not expect to see another Harrisburg-like event in their lives, especially in a western plant, but they would not be greatly surprised, more disappointed. But the actual events were way beyond that, in the realm considered so improbable that you wouldn't waste effort to think about it.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby elasto » Thu May 08, 2014 8:01 am UTC

I'm still not sure that's the correct conclusion to be drawing.

Experts might estimate the chances of a catastrophic asteroid impact to be one in ten-million - and if one hit us tomorrow that wouldn't mean the estimation was wrong, it might just mean we were very unlucky.

I don't know if Fukushima means the experts were wrong or if we were just very unlucky. Honestly, the only people who can judge if they were wrong or not are the experts themselves - not you, me, or any alarmists. (You may be an expert, I couldn't say)

Anyhow, as previously noted, Fukushima was pretty catastrophic as nuclear incidents go and yet it doesn't even register when compared to yearly coal/car/etc deaths.

We should use it as an example to learn from (eg. iirc it was the fact the backup power generation got flooded that was the 'weak link'?) and move on. Certainly the lesson learnt should not be to turn away from nuclear. For example, Germany has done that and, in geopolitical irony is now more dependent on Russian gas. Is that really a better thing for all concerned?

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby morriswalters » Thu May 08, 2014 10:30 am UTC

It speaks to the mindset. If you believe a thing can't happen you won't plan realistically.
Investigation Committee on the Accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Stations of Tokyo Electric Power Company
The panel said the government and TEPCO failed to prevent the disaster not because a large tsunami was unanticipated, but because they were reluctant to invest time, effort and money in protecting against a natural disaster considered unlikely.[7] "The utility and regulatory bodies were overly confident that events beyond the scope of their assumptions would not occur . . . and were not aware that measures to avoid the worst situation were actually full of holes," the government panel said in its final report.[15] TEPCO had even weighed in on a report about earthquake risk and asked the government to play down the likelihood of a tsunami in the region, the report said.[7] The panel's report faulted an inadequate legal system for nuclear crisis management, a crisis-command disarray caused by the government and Tepco, and possible excess meddling on the part of the prime minister's office in the early stage of the crisis.[16] The panel concluded that a culture of complacency about nuclear safety and poor crisis management led to the nuclear disaster.[3]

The basis for the statistics assume that the underlying mechanisms of failure are understood, and more importantly, given the attention they have to be given. We need nuclear power, but the free market may not be the best way to achieve it, because of the tension between management who must show a profit and technicians who must operate the plant and prevent accidents.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby leady » Thu May 08, 2014 11:26 am UTC

lol - even the report you cite highlights that governments have less of a long term incentive so thats an interesting assessment. They provide illusory mitigation from risk (well if bob the bureacrat says its fine...). Its the same logic as per the financial industries regulation.

Even Fuka as a disaster is massively overplayed, living near it isn't that different from living in Cornwall (sits back and awaits jokes about cornwall...). I mean I wouldn't go swimming there because like everyone, my brain for some reason likes natural radiation over human created radiation, but i do recognise the irrationality :)

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby morriswalters » Thu May 08, 2014 12:05 pm UTC

leady wrote:lol - even the report you cite highlights that governments have less of a long term incentive so thats an interesting assessment. They provide illusory mitigation from risk (well if bob the bureacrat says its fine...). Its the same logic as per the financial industries regulation.

Even Fuka as a disaster is massively overplayed, living near it isn't that different from living in (sits back and awaits jokes about cornwall...). I mean I wouldn't go swimming there because like everyone, my brain for some reason likes natural radiation over human created radiation, but i do recognise the irrationality :)

I never said the government should run them. Is it overplayed, I dunno, would you like to buy some cheap property? No close neighbors and plenty of quiet. Actually a good strategy might be to fill the zone with newer reactors. On higher ground of course. When the manager wants to do an upgrade and the bean counters say nyet, he can point over his shoulder at the cost of not doing it right the first time.

However to return to the topic at hand. I would say self preservation is the ethical basic of environmentalism. We evolved out of one set of conditions and it would be in our self interest to make sure that whatever we do doesn't create a condition where cockroaches become the dominant species. The trick I suppose is to identify what conditions that might exist that would finish us, and then work out a way to avoid them.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu May 08, 2014 1:15 pm UTC

leady wrote:lol - even the report you cite highlights that governments have less of a long term incentive so thats an interesting assessment. They provide illusory mitigation from risk (well if bob the bureacrat says its fine...). Its the same logic as per the financial industries regulation.

Even Fuka as a disaster is massively overplayed, living near it isn't that different from living in Cornwall (sits back and awaits jokes about cornwall...). I mean I wouldn't go swimming there because like everyone, my brain for some reason likes natural radiation over human created radiation, but i do recognise the irrationality :)


The logical conclusion is as it's a failing exhibited in both public and private sector, it's simply a human failing. We are a bit weak at dealing with rare events, and time scales longer than a lifetime(even that is much longer than most planning timescales). Even so, nuclear power is a worthwhile pursuit. Yes, the reality is imperfect, but it's far less imperfect than options that are being used right now.

Hell, I see environmentalists protesting wind turbines because of bird strikes, solar panels because of reflections...and they sure as hell don't like natural gas and fracking. We've got to use *something*, and a lot of it.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby leady » Thu May 08, 2014 2:21 pm UTC

Don't get me started on Fracking - they even protest in the north of England and theres nothing left up there to destroy :)

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Thu May 08, 2014 5:15 pm UTC

Zamfir wrote:Nuclear safety experts were genuinely surprised by Fukushima. Not because something unexpectable happened, pretty much all of the accident sequence parts were in the books as possibilities to guard against. But people treated them basically as abstract possibilities, events they did not expect to see happen anywhere in their lifetime. I wasn't there yet in the 1970s, but I have understood that the situation was similar before Harrisburg and Chernobyl. Before 1979, core meltdown was treated as entirely theoretical possibility with vanishly small chance of happening.

So what's the point of calling people 'luddites' if they don't believe the experts? Evidence suggests that even the best experts cannot reliably answer the core questions of nuclear safety. That's not a knock on them, it's apparently very, very hard to judge the safety of nuclear reactors to the desired degree.But it makes it a bad example to show the ignorance of environmentalists.


Another problem -- two other problems, really -- with this form of ideological "gotcha" is that it takes the most extreme and ill-informed opinions of some environmentalists as representative (while many, although not most, environmentalists have decided to support nuclear power to fight climate change), and on the other hand it blames a small minority of not-very-powerful people for what is in fact a broad consensus. Few people are comfortable with a nuclear reactor being built near them or their families. 40% of Americans believe nuclear plants are unsafe. It's not that environmentalists have gotten there way; it's that nuclear power is genuinely not very popular with the public.

Now, corporate America will push through lots of things hated by the general public, as long as there's a profit in it. For nukes, there's hasn't been cost overruns for nuclear plants have been over 150% of the original estimates, consistently. It turns out to be a very expensive way to generate power, even with the federal government providing free insurance against disasters, free long-term waste disposal, and lots of cheap money.

Image

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with nuclear power being expensive -- if we were to charge a reasonable carbon tax, then nuclear along with other low-carbon options like wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal might turn out to be cheap. But unfortunately many of the nuke boosters I personally have had dealings with are also market fetishists, and don't want to accept that nuclear power, even being heavily subsidized as it is, is not profitable for anyone without further government intervention, and that, rather than the fears of environmentalists, is the chief reason the industry is in decline.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu May 08, 2014 5:23 pm UTC

EMTP wrote:Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with nuclear power being expensive -- if we were to charge a reasonable carbon tax, then nuclear along with other low-carbon options like wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal might turn out to be cheap. But unfortunately many of the nuke boosters I personally have had dealings with are also market fetishists, and don't want to accept that nuclear power, even being heavily subsidized as it is, is not profitable for anyone without further government intervention, and that, rather than the fears of environmentalists, is the chief reason the industry is in decline.


Eh, it's okish at best. Maybe given the right environment, it could be more cost effective than the status quo. *shrug* Most likely, there are some risk/cost tradeoffs, and given existing skepticism of nukes, there will be simply too much resistance to anything that is perceived as reducing safety at all.

In any case, the ol' saw of "power too cheap to meter" is definitely not a thing.

However, human life is traditionally considered to have at least SOME monetary value. If you calculate in the health costs of coal, etc, I'd wager that would make nukes look a little better.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Thu May 08, 2014 5:52 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:
In any case, the ol' saw of "power too cheap to meter" is definitely not a thing.


However, human life is traditionally considered to have at least SOME monetary value. If you calculate in the health costs of coal, etc, I'd wager that would make nukes look a little better.


All low-carbon sources do. They look better when you factor in the damages of climate change, and still better when you factor in the damage to human health caused directly by air pollution -- which is still an important problem.

That's where a carbon tax helps balance the negative externalities and put non-fossil fuels on a level playing field. Unlike Germany's heavy subsidies of wind and solar, it doesn't tie us to a particular technological solution.
"Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life."
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu May 08, 2014 6:44 pm UTC

EMTP wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:
In any case, the ol' saw of "power too cheap to meter" is definitely not a thing.


However, human life is traditionally considered to have at least SOME monetary value. If you calculate in the health costs of coal, etc, I'd wager that would make nukes look a little better.


All low-carbon sources do. They look better when you factor in the damages of climate change, and still better when you factor in the damage to human health caused directly by air pollution -- which is still an important problem.

That's where a carbon tax helps balance the negative externalities and put non-fossil fuels on a level playing field. Unlike Germany's heavy subsidies of wind and solar, it doesn't tie us to a particular technological solution.


I agree on a theoretical basis, but on a practical basis, we have some severe obstacles to overcome before any such thing could be arranged. Irrational fears of tech that is comparatively safer can cause misvaluation, as a direct example. Of course, companies are ruthlessly pragmatic in evaluating costs, but PR campaigns have a cost too. So, irrational fears can make the optimal solution appear less so, even if you DID manage to get everyone to adopt a perfect tax on externalities, which is no mean feat in itself.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby elasto » Thu May 08, 2014 9:19 pm UTC

The fact that nuclear is low-carbon isn't the only benefit. It can also make a country self-sufficient for power.

This doesn't much matter in the case of the US - which has near boundless supplies of coal, oil, natural gas and so on - but for many less-blessed countries, energy-independence ought to matter more than it does do; The constant instability in the Middle East and Russia's recent forays ought to highlight that.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby speising » Thu May 08, 2014 9:31 pm UTC

the likelyhood of catastrophic accidents isn't the only concern with nuclear power. there's also the problem that it produces nasty waste we have no way of disposing safely. sweeping it under the rug is no solution.
then, the nastinesses bad guys can do with the stuff, like dirty bombs.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Thu May 08, 2014 10:33 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:
I agree on a theoretical basis, but on a practical basis, we have some severe obstacles to overcome before any such thing could be arranged. Irrational fears of tech that is comparatively safer can cause misvaluation, as a direct example. Of course, companies are ruthlessly pragmatic in evaluating costs, but PR campaigns have a cost too. So, irrational fears can make the optimal solution appear less so, even if you DID manage to get everyone to adopt a perfect tax on externalities, which is no mean feat in itself.


I think we need to think about ways around the public's fear of nuclear power. For example, this:

Spoiler:
Image

The potential benefits of building nuclear power stations on floating platforms, much like those used in the offshore oil-and-gas industry, were recently presented to a symposium hosted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers by Jacopo Buongiorno, Michael Golay, Neil Todreas and their colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with others from the University of Wisconsin and Chicago Bridge & Iron, a company involved in both the nuclear and offshore industries.

Floating nuclear power stations (like the one in the illustration above) would have both economic and safety benefits, according to the researchers. For one thing, they could take advantage of two mature and well-understood technologies: light-water nuclear reactors and the construction of offshore platforms, says Dr Buongiorno. The structures would be built in shipyards using tried-and-tested techniques and then towed several miles out to sea and moored to the sea floor.


Another potential work-around is the construction of a smart grid (something that we need anyway to make the power grid more robust and efficient) which can send power along several thousand km of lines with less than 10% transmission losses -- which would allow power companies to "venue shop" for a site far from the people who consume the power, where NIMBYism is weaker.

Of course that would require a broad-based reform of the utility system . . . which is a whole different problem.
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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Fri May 09, 2014 12:57 am UTC

speising wrote:the likelyhood of catastrophic accidents isn't the only concern with nuclear power. there's also the problem that it produces nasty waste we have no way of disposing safely. sweeping it under the rug is no solution.
then, the nastinesses bad guys can do with the stuff, like dirty bombs.


*shrug* The original ore is radioactive too. Using it as fuel inherently uses some of the energy found. Keep the hot stuff sequestered. The hotter it is, the faster it cools. That's manageable. The stuff with ridiculous half-lives will inherently produce low amounts of radioactivity. So, you could literally mix it back in with lots of dirt, dump it back where you mined it, and accomplish a net reduction in radioactivity of the earth.

Now, this doesn't make sense for all of it...because some radioactive isotopes are actually valuable for medical, etc reasons, but the nuclear waste is much, much less of an issue than people make it out to be.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Mon May 12, 2014 7:51 pm UTC

3) Many environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet (or at least the biosphere), however, human impacts on the planet seem far less extreme than ice ages, major meteorite impacts or periods of highly active volcanism. Over geological time-scales the biosphere has recovered perfectly well from these and other mass extinction events. Indeed it seems likely that humans will make the planet uninhabitable for humans (or at least human civilisation) before they cause permanent damage to the biosphere as a whole.


I would like to address this claim, specifically, because it is common, but despite that, very ill-thought-out.

In saying that human impacts aren't extreme, the first mistake is one of timescale; you are comparing human impacts over a few thousands years (and the overwhelming proportion of those impacts in the last one hundred years) with 4 billion years of geologic time. Simply by the law of averages, some amazing things have happened in the course of that 4 billion year history, but it's not reasonable to compare the events over four billion years with the events of two hundred years as if you expect them to be comparable.

The second, related problem is the rate of change. While the magnitude of some natural changes dwarfs human-caused changes to date (like the extinction of 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates 250 million years ago) these changes, in almost all cases, occurred incredibly slowly by human standards, over thousands or tens of thousands or millions of years. (When you look at these events with scales of millions or billions of years, as we often do in looking at the earth's history, they of course look near-instantaneous.) When you compare human-caused changes to ice ages, for example, you are comparing an event that slowly evolved over thousands of years to something unfolding over decades.

The speed with which we are warming the earth, melting the glaciers, leveling the forests, and acidifying the oceans is incomparable to anything we know of in the Earth's history short of a giant meteor impact (which is, see above, quite rare). Compare these two graphs:

A) Image

It looks like temperatures gyrate violently with or without human influence. But look at a tighter time frame:

Image

We are changing things much more rapidly than they have changed in the past.

If humans go away, naturally the influence of humans will eventually vanish and the earth will return to "normal." But while we are here (and we will probably continue to be here, even if many people die in the coming centuries and civilization retreats from its high water mark) we exercise a different, and more pernicious impact on the biosphere than a giant asteroid impact or an ice age. We not only destroy, we occupy and exploit. When an asteroid make a species extinct, land (or water) and energy are freed up and made empty and other life will eventually fill that niche. If humans cause an extinction by seizure of the habitat and resources and putting them to use supporting humans, there is no niche empty and biodiversity will not recover in the same way.

Of course one could argue that a biosphere will eventually grow up around us, that our history will be brief in geologic time, that other species' welfare or even human welfare don't matter in the grand sweep of the universe's history. But at that point you've arrived at nihilism and if you want to go there, there are shorter and easier routes.
"Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life."
-- Alan Watts, "The Way of Zen"

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Mon May 12, 2014 8:01 pm UTC

EMTP wrote:
3) Many environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet (or at least the biosphere), however, human impacts on the planet seem far less extreme than ice ages, major meteorite impacts or periods of highly active volcanism. Over geological time-scales the biosphere has recovered perfectly well from these and other mass extinction events. Indeed it seems likely that humans will make the planet uninhabitable for humans (or at least human civilisation) before they cause permanent damage to the biosphere as a whole.


I would like to address this claim, specifically, because it is common, but despite that, very ill-thought-out.

In saying that human impacts aren't extreme, the first mistake is one of timescale; you are comparing human impacts over a few thousands years (and the overwhelming proportion of those impacts in the last one hundred years) with 4 billion years of geologic time. Simply by the law of averages, some amazing things have happened in the course of that 4 billion year history, but it's not reasonable to compare the events over four billion years with the events of two hundred years as if you expect them to be comparable.

The second, related problem is the rate of change. While the magnitude of some natural changes dwarfs human-caused changes to date (like the extinction of 96% of all marine species and 70% of all terrestrial vertebrates 250 million years ago) these changes, in almost all cases, occurred incredibly slowly by human standards, over thousands or tens of thousands or millions of years. (When you look at these events with scales of millions or billions of years, as we often do in looking at the earth's history, they of course look near-instantaneous.) When you compare human-caused changes to ice ages, for example, you are comparing an event that slowly evolved over thousands of years to something unfolding over decades.


Yeah, but if life on earth survived more dramatic, more rapid changes, it'll likely survive this one too. That assessment is fair. It doesn't rely on the assumption that our actions are TYPICAL, merely that there is a demonstrated ability for life to survive extreme changes.

Obviously, a goodly portion of life usually doesn't. Particularly large creatures. Beetles will probably live. There's a goddamned lot of beetles. Humans? Ehhhh. The question is mostly if we technologically innovate faster than we flatten the planet. If not, it catches up to us, we die off, along with a bunch of stuff, and things continue on. Meh.

If we DO, though, the future gets much more complex. And the question of how to do so is extremely non-trivial. At a minimum, it seems a safe bet that you'll want to harvest at least the low hanging fruit in terms of reducing how fast change happens, giving us more time for innovation. It seems a foregone conclusion that emissions are, for the forseeable future, rising, not falling...and thus, warming is not so much an "if", but a "how much". Calculating actual effects is going to become very relevant very soon.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Mon May 12, 2014 11:54 pm UTC

Yeah, but if life on earth survived more dramatic, more rapid changes, it'll likely survive this one too. That assessment is fair. It doesn't rely on the assumption that our actions are TYPICAL, merely that there is a demonstrated ability for life to survive extreme changes.


Right, but "Earth not a lifeless husk" is a pretty low bar, surely?

It would be naive to think all life on Earth is going to be extinguished by human actions. However, not only will humans suffer, but the rest of the creatures on Earth will become less numerous, and less diverse.

Obviously, a goodly portion of life usually doesn't. Particularly large creatures. Beetles will probably live. There's a goddamned lot of beetles. Humans? Ehhhh. The question is mostly if we technologically innovate faster than we flatten the planet. If not, it catches up to us, we die off, along with a bunch of stuff, and things continue on. Meh.


I think technological innovation is too narrow a frame. We have plenty of the technology we need to address our current challenges, but we struggle to work together as a species on common problems, to establish and maintain governments that work in the interests of their people and operate fairly and democratically, and as individuals and as groups we struggle with selfishness, short-sightedness, ignorance and intolerance.

Going forward, we will continue to improve our science and our technology, until and unless, as you say, we get flattened. But we aren't using the technology we have today in the most intelligent way to advert disaster; so I can't be confident that more technology will necessarily give humans better results overall.

In short, we have a lot of growing up to do as a species, and unlike progress in science and technology, the road to improvement is murkier and less certain.

At a minimum, it seems a safe bet that you'll want to harvest at least the low hanging fruit in terms of reducing how fast change happens, giving us more time for innovation. It seems a foregone conclusion that emissions are, for the forseeable future, rising, not falling...and thus, warming is not so much an "if", but a "how much". Calculating actual effects is going to become very relevant very soon.


Predictions are hard, as the poet said, especially about the future, but you're right that if you were making a disinterested projection, it seems likely that for the time being emissions will get worse, not better. And of course that is only one of many serious environmental problems that we face.

Calculating effects is a work in progress. This week, three research groups reported on the Antarctica ice sheet, and our understanding of what's going to happen has advanced considerably:

1. The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is toast. Stick a fork in it; it's done. That's 10 feet of sea level rise, hopefully over hundreds to a few thousand years (but we've heard that before.)

2. Large parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are likely to go the same way. The one particular piece the researchers were studying can be expected to contribute 13 feet of sea level rise ultimately, although unlike with WAIS, an irreversible, climate-independent process is not thought to have begun (yet).
"Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life."
-- Alan Watts, "The Way of Zen"

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Tue May 13, 2014 8:40 pm UTC

EMTP wrote:
Yeah, but if life on earth survived more dramatic, more rapid changes, it'll likely survive this one too. That assessment is fair. It doesn't rely on the assumption that our actions are TYPICAL, merely that there is a demonstrated ability for life to survive extreme changes.


Right, but "Earth not a lifeless husk" is a pretty low bar, surely?

It would be naive to think all life on Earth is going to be extinguished by human actions. However, not only will humans suffer, but the rest of the creatures on Earth will become less numerous, and less diverse.


Oh, sure...but evolution is something without goal or direction. It is extremely difficult to assess overall value to a given direction on an evolutionary scale.

Now, I'm quite content with establishing that it's bad for humanity...that's fairly safe grounds, and most people are self-interested enough that "bad for human life" is considered relevant. If anything, the less sensitive viewpoint is more problematic...the "the worst'll be after my lifetime, so screw it" attitude. I hear that a lot.

Obviously, a goodly portion of life usually doesn't. Particularly large creatures. Beetles will probably live. There's a goddamned lot of beetles. Humans? Ehhhh. The question is mostly if we technologically innovate faster than we flatten the planet. If not, it catches up to us, we die off, along with a bunch of stuff, and things continue on. Meh.


I think technological innovation is too narrow a frame. We have plenty of the technology we need to address our current challenges, but we struggle to work together as a species on common problems, to establish and maintain governments that work in the interests of their people and operate fairly and democratically, and as individuals and as groups we struggle with selfishness, short-sightedness, ignorance and intolerance.

Going forward, we will continue to improve our science and our technology, until and unless, as you say, we get flattened. But we aren't using the technology we have today in the most intelligent way to advert disaster; so I can't be confident that more technology will necessarily give humans better results overall.

In short, we have a lot of growing up to do as a species, and unlike progress in science and technology, the road to improvement is murkier and less certain.


Ehhh. Bluntly speaking, if this is something that requires us to fix selfishness and all that, we're probably fucked. These are issues that philosophy has long identified as issues, but that remain quite firmly fixed in human nature. Any progress we've made is essentially working around it. Accepting these things as givens, and structuring incentives, etc to best utilize these facts of human nature seems to be the way forward.

Now, yeah, we probably CAN change human nature once we start tampering with biology sufficiently...but getting there is no small thing.

At a minimum, it seems a safe bet that you'll want to harvest at least the low hanging fruit in terms of reducing how fast change happens, giving us more time for innovation. It seems a foregone conclusion that emissions are, for the forseeable future, rising, not falling...and thus, warming is not so much an "if", but a "how much". Calculating actual effects is going to become very relevant very soon.


Predictions are hard, as the poet said, especially about the future, but you're right that if you were making a disinterested projection, it seems likely that for the time being emissions will get worse, not better. And of course that is only one of many serious environmental problems that we face.


Mostly I cheat and use other people's numbers. IIRC, the UN predicted an increase of about 50% in fossil fuels usage by 2030. This seems fairly reasonable. There's no will to reduce energy consumption overall, and indeed, efforts to support this have mostly been in vain. We *can* increase efficiency in certain areas, though. Even if that doesn't reduce overall emissions(as energy usage rises to compensate), it still gives us at least more productive capacity for the damage we're doing. A marginally better shot at making the tech bet pay off.

Calculating effects is a work in progress. This week, three research groups reported on the Antarctica ice sheet, and our understanding of what's going to happen has advanced considerably:

1. The West Antarctica Ice Sheet is toast. Stick a fork in it; it's done. That's 10 feet of sea level rise, hopefully over hundreds to a few thousand years (but we've heard that before.)

2. Large parts of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are likely to go the same way. The one particular piece the researchers were studying can be expected to contribute 13 feet of sea level rise ultimately, although unlike with WAIS, an irreversible, climate-independent process is not thought to have begun (yet).


Few thousand years seems maybe a touch on the optimistic side. I would not be overly surprised if it happens within my lifetime...well, say, within the next hundred years. Granted, my assumption that it seems we're going to burn all the fuels we can get at informs my pessimism here, but at least a goodly amount of sea level rise in the near future looks like a foregone conclusion. Also interesting is what happens to Antarctica without the ice. Wouldn't be surprised to see some of the land rise a bit without the weight, and the increased accessibility might prompt more exploration. I suppose the opportunity to study something like this is kind of a silver lining.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby EMTP » Tue May 13, 2014 9:47 pm UTC

Ehhh. Bluntly speaking, if this is something that requires us to fix selfishness and all that, we're probably fucked. These are issues that philosophy has long identified as issues, but that remain quite firmly fixed in human nature. Any progress we've made is essentially working around it. Accepting these things as givens, and structuring incentives, etc to best utilize these facts of human nature seems to be the way forward.


Working around it would be fine. I, too, am pessimistic, but we should bear in mind that the rule of law, representative government, political rights for women, and taboos on owning other human beings all became widespread and established in the last few hundred years. So while human dysfunction seems immune to progress, progress of a sort is being made.
"Reasonable – that is, human – men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life."
-- Alan Watts, "The Way of Zen"

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Minerva » Sun Jun 01, 2014 5:23 am UTC

I agree with environmentalism as a basic underlying ethical idea, but where environmentalism gets into trouble is where it strays into anti-technology or science-denial with regards to the actual implementation of environmentally friendly technology, for example nuclear power science-denial.

Also, environmentalism has to realistically coexist without going around killing people or mandating a global one child policy to reduce the human population, it has to realistically coexist with capitalism, with industry, with the technology and products and services that people expect in the developed world, energy-rich lives, capitalism etc - and it can, in an environmentally friendly way, through the use of things like (for example) dense, concentrated sources of environmentally friendly energy.

EMTP wrote:
Zamfir wrote:Nuclear safety experts were genuinely surprised by Fukushima. Not because something unexpectable happened, pretty much all of the accident sequence parts were in the books as possibilities to guard against. But people treated them basically as abstract possibilities, events they did not expect to see happen anywhere in their lifetime. I wasn't there yet in the 1970s, but I have understood that the situation was similar before Harrisburg and Chernobyl. Before 1979, core meltdown was treated as entirely theoretical possibility with vanishly small chance of happening.

So what's the point of calling people 'luddites' if they don't believe the experts? Evidence suggests that even the best experts cannot reliably answer the core questions of nuclear safety. That's not a knock on them, it's apparently very, very hard to judge the safety of nuclear reactors to the desired degree.But it makes it a bad example to show the ignorance of environmentalists.


Another problem -- two other problems, really -- with this form of ideological "gotcha" is that it takes the most extreme and ill-informed opinions of some environmentalists as representative (while many, although not most, environmentalists have decided to support nuclear power to fight climate change), and on the other hand it blames a small minority of not-very-powerful people for what is in fact a broad consensus. Few people are comfortable with a nuclear reactor being built near them or their families. 40% of Americans believe nuclear plants are unsafe. It's not that environmentalists have gotten there way; it's that nuclear power is genuinely not very popular with the public.

Now, corporate America will push through lots of things hated by the general public, as long as there's a profit in it. For nukes, there's hasn't been cost overruns for nuclear plants have been over 150% of the original estimates, consistently. It turns out to be a very expensive way to generate power, even with the federal government providing free insurance against disasters, free long-term waste disposal, and lots of cheap money.

Image

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with nuclear power being expensive -- if we were to charge a reasonable carbon tax, then nuclear along with other low-carbon options like wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal might turn out to be cheap. But unfortunately many of the nuke boosters I personally have had dealings with are also market fetishists, and don't want to accept that nuclear power, even being heavily subsidized as it is, is not profitable for anyone without further government intervention, and that, rather than the fears of environmentalists, is the chief reason the industry is in decline.


I don't trust UCS as a scientifically or economically credible source; they're an anti-nuclear power activist organisation.
...suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is you play with them. They are so wonderful. - Richard Feynman

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Tyndmyr » Sun Jun 01, 2014 9:44 pm UTC

That's fair. And at least some element of the existing cost is due to the fear itself. Obviously, "power to cheap to meter" isn't actually a thing, nuke or not, but the many political and PR hurdles necessary to get a nuke plant up and running have to affect the bottom line significantly. When you account for that and the externalities of coal, I can't imagine that nuclear power is all that bad.

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Re: Ethical basis for environmentalism

Postby Crissa » Tue Jun 17, 2014 11:08 pm UTC

Every human system on Earth that involves living humans, depends on nature to continue running.

Everything.

That's a good basis.

Farms need clean water, clean soil, storm mitigation, rain generation, clean air and sources of oxygen and carbon dioxide and nitrogen. And they need it to be sustainable, since unsustainable farming results in less of all of these things. So far, our efficiency has overwhelmed our ability to destroy our resources, but those resources are truly finite as we can access them now. No farmland is being made, clean water and air made by man requires huge amounts of waste. As it is now, the basic human inputs require those pristine places to remain stable.

And even if we could supplant it, which we cannot yet, the core of human wonder, happiness, and spirituality requires pristine places.

And even if we could supplant that, we haven't yet explored all that there is to offer now - while we're killing it off - denying future humans the chance to study, learn, and benefit from those facets. From food sources to medicines, but most of all, disease mitigation.

All of those reasons are huge. And that's before we get to piddly things like ethics and 'don't be an asshole.'

-Crissa


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