Fukushima

A good article from the Guardian: Quiet voices must be heard to avert a future Fukushima. Some excerpts:

Japan's part-natural, part-human disaster is an extraordinary event. As well as dealing with the consequences of an earthquake and tsunami, rescuers are having to evacuate thousands of people from the danger zone around Fukushima. In addition, the country is blighted by blackouts from the shutting of 10 or more nuclear plants. It is a textbook case of how technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side-effects.

Yet there had been early warnings from analysts. In 2006, the Japanese professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from a nuclear power advisory panel, saying that the policy of building in earthquake zones could lead to catastrophe, and that design standards for proofing them against damage were too lax. Further back, the seminal study of accidents in complex technologies was Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents, published in 1984.

Perrow, a Yale professor, analysed accidents in chemical plants, air traffic control, shipping and dams, as well as his main focus: the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Things can go wrong with design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. Occasionally two or more will have problems simultaneously; in a complex technology such as a nuclear plant, the potential for this is ever-present. Perrow took five pages to sketch what went wrong in the first 13 seconds of the incident. He concluded that in complex systems, "no matter how effective conventional safety devices are, there is a form of accident that is inevitable" – hence "normal accidents".

Unfortunately, such events are often made worse by the way the nuclear industry and governments handle the early stages of disasters, as they reassure us that all is fine. Some statements are well intentioned. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when it is apparent that there was no basis for them. It is simply too early to say what precisely went wrong at Fukushima, and it has been surprising to see commentators speak with such speed and certainty. Most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. But they instinctively ask if they can trust those in charge and wonder why governments support particular technologies so strongly.

Industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. The pretence of knowledge is deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Likewise, nuclear's opponents need to adopt a measured approach. We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from experts is useful, but the most significant questions are ethical in character.

I've had Normal Accidents on the shelf for a while and figured now was a good time to finally read it. Perrow also published a sequel that just came out in paperback last month: The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.

In Mortal Hands

InMortalHands This new book sounds very interesting: In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke. From the book description:

This provocative history of nuclear power is perfectly timed for today,
when Americans are gravely concerned with nuclear terrorism, and a
nuclear renaissance is seen as a possible solution to global warming.
Few have truly come to terms with the complexities of an issue which
may determine the future of the planet. Nuclear weapons, it was once
hoped, would bring wars to an end; instead, they spurred a massive arms
race that has recently expanded to include North Korea and I ran. Once
seen as a source of unlimited electricity, nuclear reactors breed
contamination and have been used as covers for secret weapons programs,
from India and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran. 

The evolving
story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke,
reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons
of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented
access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear
age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear
boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful
thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are
on the verge of being repeated again, which is why this book deserves
especially close attention now.

The author has a web site for the book at In Mortal Hands.

Slow-tech by Andrew Price

Slowtech
New book by environmentalist and marine biologist Andrew Price: Slow-tech: Manifesto for an Over-wound World (only out in the UK apparently). From the book description: 

The modern world has put its faith in high-tech processes that has left it weakened and ill-equipped to withstand catastrophe. "Slow-Tech" argues for a world with greater robustness, something that is possible in surprisingly simple ways. A sailor crossing the Atlantic in a small yacht would want to minimize excess baggage. But it would be unthinkable not to carry more fresh water than seemed necessary, to survive unexpected calms or storms. Yet the imperative of profit, especially over the last century, has driven modernity towards 'lean, mean' strategies in every area of life; squeezing waste out of commercial, technological and environmental systems may make money in the short term, but is our highly geared, highly strung way of life sustainable? Andrew Price, sailor, explorer and environmental scientist at the University of Warwick argues that in the long-term, spare capacity actually pays. From the destruction of New Orleans to the loss of the world's fish-stocks and intractable problems such as MRSA, "Slow-Tech" demonstrates how the reckless pursuit of efficiency and cost-effectiveness frequently backfires. It makes the case for robustness as an equally important measure of performance in fields as diverse as healthcare, military operations and engineering.Unexpected and counter-intuitive yet convincing and timely, "Slow-Tech" offers an alternative vision for life in the twenty-first century – a rounded vision of balance and robustness that would be healthier for the planet – and healthier for us.

Bryan Appleyard has a review today in the Times. His verdict is mixed (good idea but too much about boats). I like the title.

Deep Ecology founder Arne Naess has died

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher who introduced the concept of "deep ecology" has died. (Norway Post, AP.)

His short article from 1973 in which he lays out the principles of deep ecology as contrasted with shallow ecology is online here: The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement (and probably elsewhere). Some excerpts:

The emergence of ecologists from their former relative obscurity marks
a turning point in our scientific communities. But their message is
twisted and misused. A shallow, but presently rather powerful movement,
and a deep, but less influential movement, compete for our attention. I
shall make an effort to characterize the two.

I. The Shallow Ecology movement:

Fight against pollution and resource depletion.
Central objective: the health and affluence of people in the developed countries.

II. The Deep Ecology movement:

1. Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor the relational, total-field image. […]
2. Biospherical egalitarianism-in principle. […]
3. Principles of diversity and of symbiosis. […]
4. Anti-class posture. […]
5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion. […]
6. Complexity, not complication. […]
7. Local autonomy and decentralization. […]

See also the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which has a good summary of the movement's history.

Synthetic Biology Debate

If you're in the San Francisco area you might want to check out this upcoming Synthetic Biology debate with Drew Endy and Jim Thomas. It takes place Monday November 17th and is sponsored by the Long Now foundation. Here is their description:

Bioengineer Drew Endy is the leading enabler of open-source
biotechnology. Technology activist Jim Thomas is the leading critic of
biotech, based with ETC Group in Ottawa.

"Synthetic
Biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology,
with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered
biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals,
fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and
maintain and enhance human health and our environment." — Wikipedia.

Synthetic
biology is swarming ahead all over the world, at a self-accelerating
pace far greater than Moore's Law, with a range of impacts far greater
than genetically engineered food crops. Jim Thomas raises the question:
"Is Synthetic Biology reckless or wise from the perspective of 'the
long now?'. I feel the synthetic biology community is driven by
immensely short term assumptions and motivations, and as a result the
medium term prospect for this platform holds both predictable problems
and nasty surprises."

Drew Endy says: "Jim and I have somehow managed to establish a
productive working relationship, and feel that there is now a
once-in-a-generation opportunity to develop the cultural foundations
needed to support long term and constructive discussions of the issues
existing and emerging with biotechnology—safety, equity, security,
community, and so on."

The point of Long Now debates is not win-lose. The point is public
clarity and deep understanding, leading to action graced with nuance
and built-in adaptivity, with long-term responsibility in mind.

Link: Synthetic Biology Debate (Long Now Seminars About Long-Term Thinking)

Audio and video of the talk will be available at the Long Now site after the event.

The ETC Group has a lot of good material about the issue on their site: ETC Group – Synthetic Biology.

Considering long-term ramifications of technologies

The New York Times has a good article today by Cornelia Dean about our growing need (and ill-preparedness) to consider the long-term impact of new technologies, particularly geoengineering and nanotechnology.  Excerpt:

Last year, a private company proposed “fertilizing” parts of the ocean
with iron, in hopes of encouraging carbon-absorbing blooms of plankton.
Meanwhile, researchers elsewhere are talking about injecting chemicals
into the atmosphere, launching sun-reflecting mirrors into stationary
orbit above the earth or taking other steps to reset the thermostat of
a warming planet.

This technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would
inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and
impossible to undo. So a growing number of experts say it is time for
broad discussion of how and by whom it should be used, or if it should
be tried at all.

Similar questions are being raised about
nanotechnology, robotics and other powerful emerging technologies.
There are even those who suggest humanity should collectively decide to
turn away from some new technologies as inherently dangerous.

“The complexity of newly engineered systems coupled with their
potential impact on lives, the environment, etc., raise a set of
ethical issues that engineers had not been thinking about,” said
William A. Wulf, a computer scientist who until last year headed the
National Academy of Engineering. As one of his official last acts, he
established the Center for Engineering, Ethics, and Society there.

Rachelle Hollander, a philosopher who directs the center, said the new
technologies were so powerful that “our saving grace, our inability to
affect things at a planetary level, is being lost to us,” as
human-induced climate change is demonstrating.

Link: Handle With Care