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The Nuclear Future as Story

by Andrew MacDonald

Many have observed that we live our lives in stories or narratives, scripts that persist over time. Often we can’t see the story we’re in until we step back and take a look at it from the outside. The more different sides we look at it from, the more value we can get. All stories are rich and textured; they are more than facts out there. They involve the very stuff that makes us human.

My submission looks at the nuclear future as a story. We’ll step back and look at it from the outside. I’d also take a look at “resistance to the nuclear option” as a story and see what that looks like from the outside.

So how does the nuclear future read as a story?

I’ll be relentlessly personal here. I find it bleak and depressing, a technological nightmare with people in space suits, arcane machinery amid incredible heats, flashing danger signs and mounds of toxic waste.

Nuclear future is not for me, a beautiful story. I don’t want to read or watch, and I’m not inspired to live it.

I’m reminded of something Buckminster Fuller said,

"When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

I don’t know if any of you have seen the movie that won the Oscar for best foreign film in 2006, The Lives of Others. In it an East German secret police agent has the job of listening in on the bugged apartment of a playwright and his wife. His job is to get something on them. Ever so slowly this rigid and righteous man comes to feel for the couple he is spying on and comes to cover for and protect them. He is opened up to a richer humanity and this leads him to do something for them they don’t know about but that ends effectively ends his career. But later on, after much suffering, the playwright discovers the sacrifice and finds a unique and unexpected way to pay him back. There is a multi-leveled satisfaction here as the pieces fall into place, a sense of rightness as a greater whole is seen. At the end he man who’s sacrifice has been recognized allows himself one brief but very real smile. Someone has seen him.

The Lives of Others is hardly a happy story. Only one small smile escapes the lips of the main character. Yet one leaves the theatre with the sense of having been touched by something human and true, reaffirmed in the things that we love. There’s beauty in it.

A good story has a beautiful solution to a problem, one that is satisfying to all concerned. It isn’t that some win at the expense of others; everybody wins. Or at least the more stakeholders that are satisfied, the more beautiful it is. A beautiful solution really does resolve the conflict that the story presents. There’s a sense that you got to the bottom of it, that the problem is not just covered over. A beautiful solution has a fresh unexpected quality that seems to come out of nowhere; you don’t know where it’s going before it gets there. It tends to come all at once; the whole of it is greater than the sum of its parts. The beautiful solution to a story never fails to inspire us; we remember it, maybe long enough to tell our grandchildren. All who witness the beautiful story recognize its human power and are moved by it.

A chief characteristic of a beautiful solution to a human technical problem is that it creates win / wins on many levels. In the objective measurable world it really works. But also in the individual world of value and motivation (I can buy into that) and in the cultural realm where “we the people” are motivated as a group, it works. We can buy into that. Wherever it doesn’t work in one of these realms, and to the extent it doesn’t, then by definition it starts to fail. This inquiry is an expression of the fact that uranium and nuclear energy have failed to satisfy on the individual and social levels as large numbers of people step outside the established mechanisms for expression to make new points.

My reading is that the nuclear power option, and the uranium mining that supports it, fails to inspire, satisfy and deliver as a human story. It primarily seems to create a win for those with direct financial interests in it and those who curry favor with those people. I also think it fails as a technical solution too, but others have addressed this inquiry and looked deeply into that. In short I see nuclear as too expensive, difficult to disengage from the nuclear war machine, prone to sabotage. It also leaves short and long-lasting toxicity problems. For these reasons and others it fails to create a solution in the objective world out there.

Being invested in the nuclear story leaves us blind to a better solution that may be waiting in the wings, that may require our “not knowing” and openness to the new to come into being. This is why stepping out of the story can be useful.

There is also a danger in being emotionally invested in resisting the nuclear story. In being emotionally caught in resisting anything, we tend to perpetuate it. When we’re busy hating the old and being wrapped up in it we may miss the new knocking at our door.

What we resist, persists, the saying goes. I’m using resistance here in the sense of “demonize,” put into shadow. “You’re bad and I’m good.” I’m not speaking about standing up and saying no, which is a good thing; I’m talking about the emotional investment in no stops everything I’m speaking of the emotional repulsion, the sense of superiority that puts us above another. “I’m not like that, but you are.” Preachers who resist evil and are secretly drawn to indulge it are practicing this kind of resistance. The Bush administration’s demonizing of Iraq and now Iran has elements of it, and are good examples of the slippery slope that can result from stories of that kind.

Emotional investment in resistance in its pure and simple form is not creative. It says “I’m right and you’re wrong. Don’t you understand.” It can’t see what value there may be in the others position, though it suspects that none is there. It leads to a rigidification of views on both sides. When we hold to this position we make the other less human than ourselves and so unworthy of respect. We create the conditions out of which no real solution can come.

I do think there are better and more beautiful stories, perspectives that are more comprehensive than others. My point is that we can look at what is much more clearly, communicate more effectively if we aren’t frightened of, and reacting to those who hold the other view. Those who we want to influence won’t change by being hated and denounced.

The trick is to create the new without being driven by the past. One future story I like a lot, one that doesn’t seem driven by a blame mentality is that of George Monbiot in “Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.” Monbiot shows in technical detail how a society like our own could live sustainably on the earth, and create value for everyone. Each of us here is dreaming up a future story our own way. So this is the challenge before us, to create a big tent story about energy that creates a win / win at the level of the “I” (I can invest in this), the culture (we can invest in this together), and it has to meet the objective world’s criteria too – it does the job.

It’s a story that we’re a part of writing today.

Thank you.

Andrew MacDonald lives in Ottawa. He’s a life coach currently writing a book on the secret lives of men.