The age of humans may soon be known as the age of nuclear.
For two decades, scientists have debated whether we are living in a new geological epoch. They appear to have decided that we are and that the invention of nuclear energy should mark its beginning.
Twenty-nine of the 34 members of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) voted this week to declare the invention and testing of nuclear weapons as the beginning of the Anthropocene or geological age of humans. The two other main contenders for demarcating the start of the epoch were the rise of agriculture, which radically altered landscapes, and the birth of the industrial revolution, which has accelerated climate change.
The 1945 explosion of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the radioactive fallout from outdoor nuclear weapons testing, which continued until 1963, is physically embedded in glacial ice and earth sedimentation. Advocates for the invention of nuclear as the best way to mark the beginning of the human age note that, unlike anything done by hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists, or industrialists, nuclear activity leaves a human trace in the geology of Earth. “It is distinguishable,” argues Zalasiewicz. “It is distinctive.”
In their decision, the AWG scientists are implicitly recognizing that nuclear energy is a permanent feature of human civilization, like fire, agriculture, and gunpowder. As such, the decision by scientists to recognize nuclear as a revolutionary technology could help humankind to finally accept the technology along with its potential to lift all humans out of poverty, protect the natural environment, and end war as we know it.
Why They Hate Nuclear Power
In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged the use of nuclear energy to lift nations out of poverty as a way to redeem humankind generally, and the U.S. particularly, for the sin of having created nuclear weapons. But not everybody was on board with the project of ending poverty. Cheap energy would lead to overpopulation, deplete scarce resources, and destroy the environment, prominent scientists in the West feared. Humankind “would not rest content until the earth is covered completely, and to a considerable depth, with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots,” the chemist Harrison Brown wrote in his 1950 book, The Challenge of Man’s Future.
Brown was hugely influential among the New Left and environmentalists. One of Brown’s protégés was John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s science advisor. Holdren described Brown as “warm and witty…and surprisingly modest.” But Brown had also proposed the breeding and sterilization of humans to prevent “the long-range degeneration of the human stock.” Brown’s proposal was an extension of the ideas of 19th Century economist Thomas Malthus who had urged the extermination of the poor now so as to avoid more suffering later. “Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor,” Malthus reasoned, “we should encourage contrary habits…and court the return of the plague.” Anti-humanist ideas came full bloom in Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s 1969 Sierra Club book, The Population Bomb, which depicted poor people in India as animals “screaming… begging… defecating and urinating.”
Opposition to nuclear energy baffled humanistic conservationists. They argued that nuclear was a solution to, not driver of, overpopulation. “Nuclear power is one of the chief long-term hopes for conservation,” argued Sierra Club President Will Siri in 1966, “perhaps second only to population control in importance.” Why? Because “Cheap energy in unlimited quantities is one of the chief factors allowing a large, rapidly growing population to set aside wildlands, open space and lands of high-scenic value,” Siri explained. But the neo-Malthusians had to attack nuclear power because it meant there would be no need for their draconian policies, like forced sterilization.
Nuclear undermined the claim by Western scientists that they, under the benevolent olive branches of the United Nations, needed to control “the development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources,” as Holdren demanded in his 1975 textbook. By the early 1970s, the anti-nuclear faction had wrested control of the Sierra Club from humanistic conservationists like Siri, and began a half-century long campaign to frighten the public.
“Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power,” wrote Sierra Club’s new President in a 1974 memo to the board of directors, “will supply a rationale for increasing regulation and add to the cost of the industry.” But they hid their true motives. When asked in the mid-1990s if he had been worried about nuclear accidents, one anti-nuclear leader replied, “No, I really didn’t care because there are too many people anyway … I think that playing dirty if you have a noble end is fine.”
Their efforts worked. By 1987 the United Nations had embraced the attack on nuclear in a report called “Our Common Future.” All but one of the report’s 194 references to nuclear are negative. “The potential for the spread of nuclear weapons is one of the most serious threats to world peace,” reads a typical passage.
Rather than move to fossil fuels and nuclear, as other nations had in order to develop, poor nations should instead use wood fuel more sustainably, they argued. “The wood-poor nations must organize their agricultural sectors to produce large amounts of wood and other plant fuels,” urged the U.N. report authors. Such a demand was tantamount to urging poor nations to stay poor. There is no rich nation that depends primarily on wood for energy, just as there is no poor nation that depends primarily on fossil fuels or nuclear.
The Malthusian agenda continues today. Environmentalists insist that developing nations adopt renewables, energy efficiency, and other aspects of a low-energy lifestyle, not nuclear, even though no nation can develop without high levels of energy consumption.
In short, the problem posed by clean, cheap, and limitless nuclear energy was that it deprived Western scientists, governments, and U.N. bureaucrats any rational basis for exerting control over foreign economies and bodies.
Why They Hate the Bomb
After World War II, atomic scientists including the father of the atomic bomb and other progressive intellectuals sought to prevent the spread of nuclear energy by putting it under U.N. control. “Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind,” said Albert Einstein. “It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented,” said Bertrand Russell, “and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force.”
Looking back on the period it’s tempting to imagine that the demand for world government came in response to the bomb, but that’s wrong. The demand for world government preceded the invention of the bomb by over 150 years. In 1795, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, proposed that humankind could achieve “perpetual peace” through a deliberative, United Nations-type organization. These ideas grew until the early 20th Century when progressives led by American president Woodrow Wilson imagined that liberal values like reason and mutual understanding would allow nations to abolish war.
Then World War I broke out, undermining confidence that human reason and brotherly understanding were capable of restraining what liberals viewed as irrational passions, like nationalism. After World War I, progressives arranged what they thought a fair resolution to territorial claims, confident that such a reasonable arrangement would prevent another war. But then World War II broke out, further dashing confidence that reason would be a path to peace.
Within a few weeks after the U.S. used the bomb on Japan, a group of experts at Yale concluded it would be impossible to get rid of nuclear weapons. If two nuclear-armed nations actually did ban the bomb, they realized, and then went to war with each other, the two nations would race to be the first to build the bomb and use it on the other. It would be better for nations not to disarm in the first place.
Conservatives were more accepting of the permanence of nuclear weapons than liberals. While conservatives join liberals in seeking to oppose the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations, they do not seek to abolish nuclear as a technology.
Liberals believe they seek nuclear abolition because they care more, or are more sensitive than conservatives, who tend to dismiss liberal hopes for nuclear weapon abolition as idealistic and unrealistic. But the roots of liberal opposition lie in Kantian rationalism. What’s so distressing, for liberals, about nuclear weapons is that they — not reason, diplomacy, and brotherly love — are in the process of ending war.
Deaths from wars and battles rose along with Enlightenment values from 1400 to 1945. Since then, deaths from wars and battles have plummeted by 95 percent. “It seems inescapable that what has really made the difference in inducing this unaccustomed caution,” noted Yale historian John Gaddis, “has been the workings of the nuclear deterrent.”
After working wonders between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China, nuclear deterrence worked wonders between India and Pakistan. The two nations fought a “war” earlier this year over a disputed border region. You might have missed it because so few people died.
“In South Asia,” India-Pakistan expert Sumit Ganguly says, nuclear deterrence has “for all practical purposes, done away with the prospect of full-scale war. It’s just not going to happen. The risks are so great as a consequence of the nuclearization of the subcontinent that neither side can seriously contemplate starting a war.”
Consciously or unconsciously, liberals and progressives believe that the “perpetual peace” should have resulted from the use of reason, mutual understanding, and brotherly love — in short, from the union of nations — and are sad, disappointed, and angry that it was instead the result of a weapon.
Why We Return to Nuclear
The real problem with nuclear is, in short, that it solves our biggest problems: war, poverty, resource scarcity, environmental degradation, and climate change. As such, it deprives powerful elites in powerful nations the intellectual and moral basis for demanding control over foreign territories, resources, economies, and populations.
But nuclear also empowers relatively smaller, weaker, and poorer nations. Nuclear allows vulnerable island nations, including rich ones like Japan and England, to become energy independent of energy-rich and often domineering neighbors.
“Before we got nuclear power we were like slaves!” a South Korean nuclear engineer told me in 2017. Like Japan and Taiwan, South Korea must import coal, oil, and natural gas, while nuclear can be created domestically.
Nuclear is also the only way to solve climate change. The only two nations to have decarbonized their electricity supplies, France and Sweden, did so with nuclear. No nation has done so with solar and wind.
And nuclear allows weaker nations to defend themselves against more powerful ones. France got the bomb because it was tired of being invaded by Germany. Israel got the bomb because it wanted the ultimate form of security. And North Korea got the bomb because the U.S. government made it clear that it might invade.
The underdog nature of the bomb wasn’t obvious right away. The reason is, in part, because two large and powerful nations, the U.S. and Soviet Union, were the first to get it. It has only been since the bomb has spread to poorer and smaller nations that its revolutionary essence has been fully realized.
The alarm that nuclear initially inspired need not continue. Americans do not want to invade Iran, even if it is close to getting the bomb, given the disastrous consequence of the US invasion of Iraq, which was justified, and widely supported, as a way to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Time is on nuclear’s side. Millennials were raised to fear climate change, not nuclear, and do not suffer the same anti-nuclear hang-ups as Baby Boomers or Generation Xers, who were traumatized by apocalyptic TV shows, movies, books, and articles. As Baby Boomers die off, and Millenials age into power, there is hope that nuclear power might realize its humanistic potential to safeguard the peace, and the climate. It helps that Earth scientists have finally recognized that nuclear energy is here for good.
Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD