Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Faustian Bargains and the 80 Year Slow Motion Train Wreck

There are moments when abstract concepts become real, and about our survival. We can call these existential moments. I had my existential moment about global warming in 1971 when I heard Jerry Olson talk about the topic at a very informal gathering of people who worked for the ORNL-NSF Environmental Studies Project. Alvin Weinberg had his existential moment about the same subject at about the same time, and with Jerry Olsen initiating him as well. The same year Alvin Weinberg coined the phrase Faustian Bargain to describe the relationship between society and nuclear energy.

Weinberg first used the phrase "faustian bargain in a 1971 speech. In an 1972 Science article "Social Institutions and Nuclear Energy", Weinberg repeated the content of the 1971 speech. In the article Weinberg wrote,
We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer -- in the catalytic nuclear burner (breeder reactor) -- an inexhaustable source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. . . .

But the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions that we are quite unaccustomed to. In a way, all of this was anticipated during the old debates over nuclear weapons. . . . . In a sense, we have established a military priesthood which guards against inadvertent use of nuclear weapons, which maintains what a priori seems to be a precarious balance between readiness to go to war and vigilance against human errors that would precipitate war . . .

It seems to me (and in this I repeat some views expressed very well by Atomic Energy Commissioner Wilfred Johnson) that peaceful nuclear energy probably will make demands of the same sort on our society, and possibly of even longer duration.
Weinberg repeated the same message a year later. In the conclusion to his November 1972 Nuclear Safety speech, Weinberg stated,
We nuclear people have made a Faustian bargain with society. On the one hand, we offer - in the breeder reactor - an almost inexhaustible source of energy. Even in the short range, when we use ordinary reactors, we offer energy that is cheaper than energy from fossil fuel. Moreover, this source of energy, when properly handled, is almost nonpolluting. Whereas fossil fuel burners must emit oxides of carbon and nitrogen, and probably will always emit some sulfur dioxide, there is no intrinsic reason why nuclear systems must emit any pollutant - except heat and traces of radioactivity.
Yet Weinberg saw that the benefits of nuclear energy came at a cost,
the price that we demand of society for this magical energy source is both a vigilance and a longevity of our social institutions to which we are quite unaccustomed.
Yet this contention has turned out to be untrue. As I pointed out in a post on this speech, by the time Weinberg delivered it, the molten-salt reactor technology which he had led Oak Ridge scientists in developing was off the table. but that promise has not been forgotten. Yet Weinberg still knew of the unique promise of molten-salt reactor technology.

What exactly was Weinberg getting at with his Faustian Bargain? There are in fact two Faustian Bargains known to literature. The first, found in Marlow's play the Tragic History of Doctor Faistus and Gounod's Opera Faust. In both Faust signs an agreement to obtain the services of Méphistophélès' master Lucifer, during his life, in exchange for the surrender of his soul after death. At the end of the story, Méphistophélès collects on Faust's bargain, dragging him down to hell.

In Marlow's Doctor Faustus, Faustus says,
Si peccasse negamus, fallimur, et nulla est in nobis veritas;

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and there
is no truth in us. Why, then, belike we must sin, and so
consequently die:
Ay, we must die an everlasting death.
What doctrine call you this, Che sera, sera,
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu!
These metaphysics of magicians,
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters;
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, and omnipotence,
Is promis'd to the studious artizan!
All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyed in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this,
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;
A sound magician is a demigod:
Here tire, my brains, to gain a deity.
This surely does not express the ambition which Weinberg had in mind in his 1971 speech. The end of that Faust is depicted in Gounod's Opera Faust:

There is another Faust tradition, this one linked to the great German poet, thinker and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In a paper written shortly before his death in 2006, Weinberg made explicit his intent to refer to Goethe's Faust.
In Goethe’s play, Faust is assisted and put up to mischief in his endeavors by the devil. This assistance is arranged over the course of the discussion of a number of contract- like arrangements: In the Prologue, Mephistopheles (the devil) suggests to God an experiment with a virtuous human being named Faust. Mephistopheles claims that it will be easy for him to make Faust forget his striving in return for an easy life on Earth. God, reluctantly, agrees to the experiment, knowing that Mephistopheles will fail in his attempts.

Interestingly, Mephistopheles does not explicitly suggest to God a deal that goes beyond Faust’s death. This would be too irreverent towards his master, even for Mephistopheles. God, on his part, does not enter into a contract with anyone else, this would mean to step down to the level of the contract partner. So this preliminary discussion is not a bet or bargain, but in a sense it is part of the ‘‘Faustian Bargain’’.

In Part I of Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles offers Faust a bargain similar to the one that the bridge builders and other innovators were thought to have accepted. His offer, however, is not the experiment he has discussed with God. Mephistopheles suggests to Faust a bargain, his services here on Earth in return for Faust’s soul . . . .

Faust accepts Mephistopheles’s services, leaving open, however, his fate after his death. Instead he offers to make a bet:
Weinberg points our that Mephistopheles encourages Faust to work for greater Energy and speed. The Goal of Goethe's Faust is clearly that of the 18th century Enlightenment,
The restless striving for more power and success derived from knowledge, energy, and other resources; along with the striving for unattainable perfection in love and virtue; are the main themes of Faust II. This Faustian drive is described as an essential element of human existence. It creates wars and suffering, but it is essentially human in the Faustian sense to live for continuous progress.
In Goethe's play, Faust says,
If e’er upon my couch, stretched at my ease, I’m found, Then may my life that instant cease!
Me canst thou cheat with glozing wile
Till self-reproach away I cast, –
Me with joy’s lure canst thou beguile Let that day be for me the last!
Be this our wager!
Weinberg agrees with the economist, Hans-Christoph Binswanger, that Faust's bargain
is that Mephistopheles helps Faust to overcome time, to become immortal by being part of eternal progress, while Faust promises never to rest and never to pause striving for further progress . . . .

In the end Faust’s soul is not left to the devil. The angels, carrying Faust’s remains up into heaven, sing:
"For he whose strivings never cease, Is ours for his redeeming."
Boito depicts the death of Goethe's Faust.

If Weinberg undersood the Faustian Bargain interns of Goethe's Faust, then what was Weinberg striving for? As I have often pointed out in 1971 Weinberg was striving for three things,
* Nuclear safety
* Control over CO2 emissions, which Weinberg understood threatened the future of humanity
* The Development of Thorium Breeding Molten Salt Reactor technology, which Weinberg believed would fulfill his first two goals
In all three goals, Weinberg faced protagonists, Congressman "Chet" Holifield and AEC Reactor Research Director Milton Shaw. Not long after he made the "Faustian Bargain Speech, Weinberg was told by Congressman Hollifeld, that it was time for him to go.

I have attempted to explored the background of Weinberg's Firing on Nuclear Green. Alvin Weinberg was involved in a conflict between National Laboratory Scientists, and the leadership of the Washington DC nuclear elite, including Congressman Chet Hollifeld and AEC Reactor Research Director Milton Shaw. In addition to disagreements over the safety of conventional reactors, the conflict for Weinberg involved a radical approach to reactor safety, which would solve many conventional reactor safety concerns. That approach was embodied in the development of the Molten Salt Reactor. Undoubtedly, what Weinberg had learned from Jerry Olsen in 1971, added to his motivation in the struggle for Nuclear Safety and the development of Molten Salt Reactor Breeding technology. Weinberg's Faustian bargain had as its goal the rescue of humanity, from the consequences of a quest for energy.

During the struggle Washington DC elite were telling the scientists, further striving toward nuclear safety is unnecessary. Weinberg was responding, we have made a deal with society and our side of the deal is not yet complete, and indeed it may take a long time and a lot of hard work to complete. The benefit of the deal to society is a low cost abundant supply of energy. The benefit to scientist are twofold, first they get to explore and to know the secrets of nature. Secondly they get the respect of their fellows for benefiting society by striving to fulfill the bargain.

In 2006 Alvin Weinberg explained,
The image has been used and the phrase quoted over and over again, both because the term was well chosen and because, very often, it has been misunderstood.

The two elements of the Faustian Bargain were both present in the early nuclear enterprise: the temptation of the easy, carefree life it offered (electricity too cheap to be metered), and the bargain it struck (continuous striving was promised). The service electricity provides could be used to pursue progress in all kinds of ways, as long as the obligation was kept to look after the nuclear waste (and, for that matter, other fissionable material as well). If the obligation were shirked, it could, in an extreme scenario, mean the end of humankind.
Weinberg added,
The phrase Faustian Bargain was also misunderstood. The same year that Weinberg’s paper appeared in Science (1972), John W. Gofman wrote an article in which he painted a sketch of what was needed, institutionally, to keep nuclear waste safe (Gofman, 1972). Not only was there a need, in Gofman’s view of the Faustian Bargain, for a perpetual institution (like a priesthood) to look after these wastes, but also everyone had to bow to the whims and wishes of this institution. In other popular publications, the Faustian Bargain was presented not as a human condition, but as a devilish complot by one group of humans to enslave the rest.
The term Faustian Bargain has been used during the subsequent years to characterize many ‘technological fixes’ of immediate problems with potential negative long-term consequences.
Fulfilling the Weinberg's Faustian bargain meant solving all of the problems associated with nuclear power, so that nuclear energy could be made available to the masses without any reason for fear. It also meant solving the CO2 emissions problem.

Weinberg's critics, including Ralph Nader and Amory Lovins were afflicted with a paranoid fear of nuclear power. Even though Weinberg held out the possibility of safe, clean, cheap and peaceful nuclear power as the goal of the Faustian bargain, Nader and Lovins weren't ready to buy the vision. Even if Weinberg's vision could be fulfilled, they weren't buying.

Instead Lovins and Nader held out Fustian bargains of their own. Nether seemed to have experienced the deep existential encounter with Global Climate change that Weinberg had, and both had confused visions of its remedy. Lovins envisioned coal as a non-nuclear bridge to soft energy and thus preferable substitute for nuclear power, that would gradually be replaced by soft energy around 2020. Lovins thus was no opponent of coal to generate electrical power in practice. Thus if anyone ever made a Faustian bargain, Amory Lovins did. Armory Lovins, who was warned about what he was doing by Alvin Weinberg, sold his soul for lumps of coal, and now has lost his soul completely and forever. Lovins soft path failed to offer a path to a carbon free existence, and seemingly never will.

Ralph Nader was always more concerned about the fate of coal miners than about what coal was doing to the environment. Nader's Faustian bargain involved the sale of his soul for government regulation of business and industry. Nader triumphed when General Motors and Chrysler nearly went bankrupt, but his Faustian bargain brought him presidential campaigns that lead to failure in his life's ambition. And for his country, Ralph Nader's crusades have not brought a low carbon non-nuclear coal substitute, and I wonder if he really cares.

Many so called environmentalists, including Ralph Nader, Amory Lovins, David Roberts, Mark Z. Jacobson, and Joe Romm simply ignore problems with "Green energy" solutions. In 2007 I had something of a one sided dialogue with David Roberts, via the comment section of the Grist blog. Roberts relentlessly championed the green technological fixs, and was convinced that renewables and efficiency offered all of the solutions, even when other people raised seemingly raeasonable objections. When those renewable fixes did not make sense, Roberts took big leaps of faith, telling us about miraculous solutions to all the renewable technology problems. I learned quite a lot from the discussion with Roberts, but unfortunately Roberts was not willing to learn anything from me.

Roberts pulled out all of the stops on Green objections to nuclear power. I responded to his objections by pointing out both flaws in Roberts statements of facts, and in his reasoning, as well as the advantages offered by molten salt reactors. Roberts responded by raising the question of scalability and I responded by pointing to the potential for mass production of small MSRs which could be built very rapidly and in large numbers in factors. Roberts appearantly had never heard of factories, and did not understand my point.

I knew about Molten Salt Reactors because my father had worked on the development of the technology over a 20 year period of time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Because he was working under contract, neither he nor I stood to gain any money from MSR development. My father had also made a significant contribution to the development of conventional Light Water Reactors.

I did know enough from my father to know that he considered the MSR to be a remarkable reactor that offered many potential advantages over conventional nuclear power plants. He had found working with Molten Salt Reactors difficult and challenging, and he had made significant contributions to the development of MSR technology.

MSR were safe, could, at least in theory, completely eliminate the problem of nuclear waste, would not increase proliferation, and in factories could be built in very large numbers over a short period of time.

There were significant problems with with the Faustian bargain Roberts offered. The United States Government has had efficiency improvement programs for over 30 years, and while these programs have produced small but steady improvements in efficiency, they have not produced the sort of improvements Roberts envisioned. Roberts did not offer good reasons for expecting future rapid improvements in efficiency. Secondly, economist note that big increases in efficiency sometimes produce increased use of energy. In some instances the increase may be greater than the energy saved, while in other instances the increase only partially offsets the energy savings. Thus efficiency gains, although desirable, may not constitute the sort of energy panacea which the Green Faustian bargain claims efficiency to be.

By 2011 the goals of the Green Faustian Bargain are receiving more and more. It has been repeatedly pointed out to Amory Lovins, that the predictions which he made with respect to the soft energy path, have failed to come to pass. In 2011m human energy needs are still wedded to coal, and to other fossil fuels, contrary to Lovins' predictions. Amory Lovins 1976 claim for coal use in the soft path.
Coal use 2001 to 2010, the reality that Amory Lovins refuses to acknowledge.

The 80 year slow motion train wreck

I use the phrase Slow Motion Train Wreck, to describe the inexorable advance of time from the 1971 Spring day when I first heard Jerry Olsen talk about Carbon Dioxide Emissions and Anthropogenic Climate Change. 50% of the time we had to set things aright then has been lost. We seem unwilling to make the commitment to the "Faustian Bargain" our energy
desires requires of us, if we want to survive. We must strive for a post-carbon energy order. If we are unwilling to strive, we will not survive as a civilization.

In a recent Forbes interview with Michael Tobias (MT), University of California-Berkeley Environmental Scientist Dr. John Harte laid out the dangers:
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summarizes the results of these calculations and concludes that under “business as usual” trends in fossil fuel consumption, by 2050 the planet will on average have warmed between 3 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit. . . . hat warming is the result of both the direct heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gases and certain feedback processes. The latter will increasingly occur in response to the direct warming, causing further warming. As polar and glacial ice melts and snow cover decreases, temperatures will rise as less sunlight is reflected by our planet and more is absorbed by the remaining, darker surfaces. . . . There are many of us in the scientific community who believe that any number of important feedback processes are not being accounted for in the current IPCC projections. For example, from ice core data informing us about temperatures and atmospheric greenhouse gas levels over the past million years, we know that when the planet warms a little from any cause, it responds by releasing from the land and sea to the atmosphere huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. These greenhouse gases contribute to further warming. Because this process is not reflected in current climate projections, we can expect that there will be further emissions from our soils and our oceans. These will create additional warming beyond what IPCC currently projects. . . . The evidence for these additional feedback effects is starting to pour in. Rising methane emissions from warming tundra soils and waters are being observed, and field research shows that warmed temperate ecosystems release additional carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Forest damage from wildfires and bark beetle infestation, both of which are triggered by warming, will also result in the carbon stored in trees flowing to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. By some estimates the additional warming could raise mid-century temperatures by as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit.
For most people on Earth, the threat is not get real, and climate change skeptics deny the very possibility that there is any danger to our well being. The Climate change skeptics are offering a Faustian Bargain along Christopher Marlow's lines, "Sell your soul to the temptation to take it easy. Don't pay attention to the voices of scientists that warn of the dangers of climate change". They are willing to sell their souls for any energy headless of what the bargain will cost them. They are assured by Talk radio that Anthropogenic Global Warming is not real, it is a Liberal hoax. Or they are assured by Amory Lovins and Greenpeace that nuclear energy is a deadly illusion that will not rescue us, we will be saved by efficiency and renewable energy.

We have warnings that post-carbon renewable energy plans are doomed to failure, There are enormous problems with solar and wind as a major human energy source. Even if these problems can eventually be overcome by science, it is unlikely that that will occur before 2050 when scientists like Dr. Harte say that we face big and in many respects very unpleasant environmental changes.

In a response to a pro-reneables comment, I received on Nuclear Green, I noted,
Anonymous, I do not put great stock in NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory0 studies, because they tend to pass on Renewable Industry propaganda claims as if they were facts, and consistently downplay the bad news in their data. For example, the latest Eastern Interconnect study clearly demonstrated that rising wind penetration would lead to increased electrical costs, but this was not one of the conclusions that was featured in the press release, or in the executive summary. A preliminary finding of the Western interconnect study of wind and solar has been that renewables will primarily displace CCGTs, while leaving coal largely untouched. Thus the carbon mitigation of high penetration wind and solar was much less than would be assumed if we did not have that information, but the NREL study failed to draw the obvious conclusions about the relative carbon mitigation costs of of renewables verses nuclear. I am not impressed by the 30 GWs of German PV. The capacity factor of German PV is likely to be under 10%. That means that the 30 GWs of PV capacity will probably produce under 3 GW years of electricity every year. Displaced generators are likely to be CCGTs, and German cloud conditions will likely requite a large number of OCGTs to be kept spinning. With the looming shutdown of German nuclear plants, the carbon emissions from the operations of of the German electrical system are likely to rise rather than fall. Thus we must consider the opportunity costs of the German FIT. What Germany will have is a hugely expensive electrical system that will almost certainly produce more CO2 than it does now. If PV farms are as cheap to operate as you claim why do they need such huge subsidies?
Thus the Faustian bargain offered by anti-nuclear environmentalists, like Amory Lovins, does not really lead to heaven. Instead it seems to lead straight to an energy hell, with little energy to cope with increasingly challenging environmental conditions.
The situation we face, a disastrous change in climate caused by human-carbon based energy sources, best be described as a slow motion train wreck. From 1971 when I first learned of AGW till 2050, the date which climate scientists say is the cut off point for avoiding, serious, long term consequences, consequences which I call the train wreck, is 80 years. Hence the 80 year slow motion train wreck.

In a review of "NON-NUCLEAR FUTURES: The case for an ethical energy strategy" by Amory B. Lovins and John H. Price, published in Energy policy in December, 1976, Alvin Weinberg pointed to a Faustian bargain Lovins was offering his readers and society,
Despite its title, the book is not concerned with non-nuclear futures. The reader of a book so named is entitled to get from the authors a reasoned description of a feasible non-nuclear future. The authors excuse this omission with the assertion (p159), 'To show that a policy is mistaken does not oblige the analyst to have an alternative policy.' But this is inadequate. This is not dealing with a hypothetical issue, but a real one. It is not enough to point out the deficiencies of nuclear energy; one must deal with the situation that would arise if Lovins and price were successful in their onslaught: should the society indeed turn away from nuclear energy, what then?
Here Alvin Weinberg exposes Amory Lovins' Faustian bargain with our society. Weinberg Ferrets out Lovins' fundamental assumption about energy and society,
(p xxi), 'Low-energy futures can (but need not) be normative and pluralistic, whereas high-energy futures are bound to be coercive and to offer less scope for social diversity and individual freedom.
Weinberg raised a problem with Lovins' low-energy, high freedom claim, by pointing to an inevitable tradeoff between energy and time. The more energy we have, Weinberg argued, the more freedom we have to control our time. Weinberg pointed to a truth problem in Lovins' argument
So much of the argument is at the border of Science, or even trans-scientific, that one cannot prove the authors to be wrong, any more than one can prove the nuclear advocates to be wrong.
Weinberg put his finger on the greatest single environmental flaw of Lovins' argument, his failure to identify CO2 emissions from energy as a major environmental issue, and his willingness to accept carbon emitting coal as a substitute for nuclear energy. Weinberg wrote,
the authors regard net energy analysis as a convenient device for casting nuclear power in an unfavorable light, a feat they attempt to accomplish by ignoring significant comparisons, - nuclear and non=nuclear of the same doubling time and relative effects of heat release and CO2 release.
In response to Lovins recommending a coal burning bridge between the period when nuclear power was considered acceptable and the time when all energy would come from renewable resources, Weinberg asked,
Can we really ignore CO2 during the coal burning fission free bridge?
Lovins countered that he
worried about the climate effect of the release of CO2
but that nuclear power would not prevent CO2 emissions from high coal use. Clearly then Lovins offered a Faustian bargain with his anti-nuclear energy scheme. In 2010, long after a process which Lovins forecasted would have begun to shift human society from fossil fuels to renewables, coal use for energy continues to rise. If Lovins worried in 1976 about the climate effects of CO2 emissions, he did not worry sufficiently. Lovins Faustian bargain put society clearly on track for a climate disaster, and in 2010 Lovins still has not figured out how to avoid the disaster without nuclear energy. The Lovins Faustian bargain is still in force, and until we are willing to listen to Alvin Weinberg, we will continue to follow Lovins to perdition.

I offer two serenades for those who do not wish to strive to avoid the train wreck:

1 comment:

Klaus Peters said...

This is an truly excellent post.
It tries to show things in a bigger picture, instead of the usual comparison of cost, sustainability etc. (which are fine as well!) between nuclear and non-nuclear options.

The sidenotes concerning literature and the videos of theatrical performances did a great job in breaking the usual habit of cold, hard science, too.

I'm happy I took the time to read this, it was both entertaining and informing. "Infotaimend" at it's best.


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