Think of the Children

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It seems things don’t change much after all. Consider these recent hysterical comments. “There’s scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, age 30. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it OK to still have children?” Gyrating chanteuse Miley Cyrus agreed, saying “Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that… We [millennials] don’t want to reproduce because we know the earth can’t handle it.”

In the 19th century, Queen Victoria bore nine children. Following their queen, Victorian Era British mothers bore more than six children on average and sent them to man ships in a navy that allowed Britannia to rule the world. Recently, Prince Harry tarred the memory of his great-great-great grandmother when he announced that he would have at most two children. “We are the one species on this planet that seems to think that this place belongs to us, and only us,” he said.

These idiotic rationales resonate because two new books, Falter by Bill McKibben and The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, continue this doom and gloom worldview epitomized by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 scare book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich warned of mass starvation in the 1970s and ’80s because the planet would run out of food to feed a growing human population. Needless to say, his predictions did not come true. Instead, India and China switched from socialism to limited market economies, and their people joined the capitalist world in suffering a new crisis: obesity. Ehrlich, by the way, is 87 and, despite a career of failed predictions, is still teaching at Stanford University, where he’s been gluttonizing on U.S. tax dollars for decades.

In one of Yogi Berra’s best “Yogi-isms,” he said of a restaurant, “No one goes there nowadays, it’s too crowded.” Ehrlich and his modern-day followers unironically subscribe to the same logic: that humanity will fail because it’s been so successful. Hence, McKibben’s subtitle, “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” Within, he asks:

So why should you take seriously my fear that the game, in fact, may be starting to play itself out? The source of my disquiet can be summed up in a single word…leverage. We’re simply so big, and moving so fast, that every decision carries enormous risk.…And, finally, the new scale of our technological reach amplifies our power in extraordinary ways: much of this book will be devoted to examining the godlike powers that come with our rapid increases in computing speed, everything from human genetic engineering to artificial intelligence.

McKibben doesn’t seem to realize that this logic also implies an amplification of our potential solutions. For example, what’s called Generation IV nuclear reactors will be available in a few years. Generation IV is much safer than earlier technology, and even uses as fuel the waste created by earlier generations of nuclear power. Yet McKibben doesn’t mention Generation IV in either of his two brief, dismissive references to nuclear power. In the first, he bemoans “the decades-long cleanup of the Fukushima reactors” following the plant’s meltdown disaster in 2011. Fukushima’s Generation II reactors, designed in the early 1960s, are now considered ancient technology.

Second, in discussing a study of using battery power to store electricity generated by wind and solar energy, McKibben is forced to concede that economists “insist it would be cheaper and faster if there were some nuclear power in the mix.” However, McKibben reiterates his faith in the dogma of solar and wind, which, respectively, don’t generate power at night or when the wind doesn’t blow. “If human beings wanted to, they could figure out how to extricate us from the climate mess by producing most of our energy from the wind and the sun,” he writes.

Actually, we already know how to produce practically all our energy from emission-free nuclear power. About 75 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear reactors. In contrast, Germany panicked after Fukushima, shuttering eight reactors, with the remaining nine planned to close by 2022. California has followed suit, closing instead of fixing the troubled San Onofre nuclear plant. Diablo Canyon, its only other active plant, is scheduled for shutdown by 2025. No wonder the Golden State’s electricity costs are 70 percent higher than the U.S. average.

Put aside for a moment the many questions about whether global warming is even occurring, or whether humans are causing it if it is. If we wanted to, nuclear energy would solve within a decade or so whatever problem carbon energy or global warming poses.

At least Wallace-Wells’ book actually uses the phrase “warming.” That honest word has been verboten among activists for more than a decade, replaced by that more politically correct and amorphous nomenclature, “climate change.” Yet Wallace-Wells soon abandons straightforward writing for hyperbole, asserting that global warming poses a greater threat to humanity than the risk of nuclear war, which reached a perilous extreme during the Cold War. Nuclear annihilation was merely a possibility, he writes, “Global warming isn’t something that might happen, should several people make some profoundly shortsighted calculations; it is something that already is happening, everywhere, and without anything like direct supervisors.” No wonder young people indoctrinated into this belief system show such shrill, passionate intensity.

So, we’re all responsible, in Wallace-Wells’ view. All 7 billion humans—from billionaires to the homeless on the streets—are evil due to the sin of burning carbon to improve our lives. He ascribes to the rich “the lion’s share of the guilt” for destroying the planet. But he doesn’t acknowledge the same people also are the ones smart enough to devise solutions, and to properly allocate the capital to enact them—such as devising and building Generation IV nuclear power.

On nuclear power, Wallace-Wells disparagingly brings up the utopian advertisements from the 1950s, when nuclear power was expected to be so cheap homes wouldn’t even need electricity meters. He quotes from President Eisenhower’s 1953 “Atoms for Peace” speech before the United Nations, which contrasted how the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, which could destroy humanity, needed to be channeled into “mankind’s never-ending quest for peace and mankind’s God-given capacity to build.” Note how Ike thought God gave us the power to work together to solve even the biggest problems.

Commendably, Wallace-Wells does note the surprisingly low number of deaths from nuclear disasters—notably Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, as well as Fukushima. The lion’s share of about 4,000 deaths come from Soviet Chernobyl, which, after all, used antiquated USSR technology with poor safety considerations. He contrasts that with how “more than 10,000 people die each day, globally, from the small-particulate pollution produced by burning carbon.” That’s fine, but if Wallace-Wells were an honest accountant, he’d have to include on the other side of the ledger the billions who are alive and thriving only because of the carbon-based energy that fuels the engines of the world’s prosperous, mostly healthy industrial economies.

Instead, Wallace-Wells laments that “despite a variety of projects aimed at producing cheap nuclear energy, the price of new plants remains high enough that it is hard to make a persuasive argument that more ‘green’ investment be directed toward them rather than installations of wind and solar.”

Yet both governments and private investors such as Bill Gates have concluded otherwise and are pouring billions of investment dollars into Generation IV nuclear research, seeing it as a much more efficient investment per-dollar than green energy. They argue that with investment, the cost of Generation IV nuclear power will come down in much the same way as computer power or 3D printing.

McKibben and Wallace-Wells would have done well to heed a study published in 2017 by the Energy Options Network entitled, “What Will Advanced Nuclear Plants Cost?” It concluded of Generation IV nuclear, “In the United States, these technologies could be the definitive solution for the economic woes of nuclear energy in merchant markets. At these costs, nuclear would be effectively competitive with any other option for power generation.”

Let’s give the handwringers their due: they are right that we should conserve and not be wasteful. We should continue to clean the rivers and the skies and everything else. But we also should “subdue” the earth as God’s good stewards, and “go forth and multiply.” Perhaps Alexandria and Miley and the royals will eventually come to the realization that today’s children can solve tomorrow’s ecological problems—but only if they’re born.

[Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben (Henry Holt & Co.) 304 pp., $28.00.]

[The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books) 320 pp., $27.00.]

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