Whilst it would be outrageous to do as individuals, as a culture it's so prevalent that we don't often think about it.
My last post dealt at length with the venerable climate writer Mark Lynas' advocacy of nuclear power. In the Comments I cited something George Monbiot once said about the bonkers and murderous geoengineering idea of firing sulphates into the stratosphere to reflect the sun. He said that governments would choose it over carbon cuts.
if the atmosphere could one day be fixed by some heavy artillery and a few technicians, why bother to impose unpopular policies?
It is very perceptive, and exposes one of the central problems we face. Reducing consumption, even maintaining standards of comfort but having some disruption as we reorganise, will make the present population unhappy with the government. If they can find a way to avoid that, they will. If that way happens to pass all the risks, all the maintenance, much of the cost and none of the benefits on to those yet to be born, so be it. It is the idea at the core of the push for geoengineering, carbon capture and new nuclear power.
It's something Al Gore recognised when he advocated making America's electricity 100% renewable within ten years instead of having targets for 2050.
a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.
The nuclear power debate often conflates several essentially separate issues. Whilst the issue of financial cost has some bearing on climate impact (money spent on nukes is not spent on renewables), Lynas is right when he says that the issue of radioactive waste and radioactive damage are not really part of the climate equation. Psychologically and culturally speaking, though, it is a very similar issue because of the 'pass it on to the future' thought-basis.
In his most recent pro-nuclear article, Mark Lynas says that the duration of the waste threat is overblown. Despite, as Greenpeace's response to him pointed out, the fact that UK and US authorities for decommissioning say waste should be 'maintained in the repository environment for at least a million years', Lynas asserts that new technology reduces this considerably, saying
In fact, almost all waste will have decayed back to a level of radioactivity less than the original uranium ore in less than a thousand years
Oh well then. When we have enough radioactive material, properly dispersed, to kill everyone, leaving a small proportion around for centuries is no biggy.
And only a mere thousand years you say? Imagine if we were still taking care of lethal waste left behind because of Tudor excessive living, with centuries still to go.
Imagine if we were, by the time you and I die of old age, just finishing tidying up the Normans' waste legacy after a time so long that the original records wouldn't have been in English because the language didn't exist then.
Or to look at it another way, imagine if all humans who are to live in the next thousand years were alive at once. Imagine if the early 21st century ones were living high on the hog, squandering resources and becoming obese, with their toxic wastes and sewage being piped into the homes of the people from the remianing 95% of the millennium.
If we could see those people, if we had to stand in front of them, we could never justify nuclear waste. How dare we advocate things we couldn't justify to our victims simply because we'll be dead by the time they come along.
The only thing less justifiable would be climate change caused by our carbon emissions. If it came to a straight choice between the two then Lynas and Monbiot would be right to choose nuclear. The damage - and the likelihood of the damage happening - are almost incalculably greater with climate change. But, contrary to the implications from the nuclear industry and Lynas, there are other options.
The rush to nuclear might be easier, but it is far more unjust. The real issue here, as with climate change and much of our overconsumption, is the issue of inter-generational justice. It is astonishing how people can be so concerned with global justice in the present - saying we have no right to exploit people just because they are born in a different part of the world - and yet be so blase about shitting on people just because they're born in a different time.
Nuclear power - like high-carbon power - is the social-industrial equivalent of your mum putting a daily champagne jacuzzi on your tab.