Gary Snyder: James Lovelock’s Arguments for Nuclear Power “Demented”

This past weekend the Ojai Poetry Festival featured the great American poet Gary Snyder, who read to a large crowd of listeners mostly from work written this century, especially his 2004 book of haibun called "Danger on Peaks." (Haibun, we learned, is a mix of prose and haiku: Japanese professor Nobuyaki Yuasa has described it as having a relationship "like that between the moon and the earth: each makes the other more beautiful.”)

Snyder read poems linking the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 by the Taliban to the destruction of the Twin Towers, as well as an indelible recent poem called "No Shadow." He concluded with his classic "For All," the ending to which was recited by all the poets and the crowd.

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He then went away from poetry for one moment to warn of a recent trend towards nuclear energy.

"Some people who should know better," he said, mentioning Stewart Brand, were calling for the construction of new nuclear power plants to hold down carbon emissions. Snyder objected vociferously, arguing that climate change would not destroy life on earth, though it might things difficult for humans for a few hundred years, and he specifically went after the famous British scientist James Lovelock, the man who first formulated the concept of Gaia, for saying nuclear waste is overly feared as a pollutant.

To dramatize the point, in his recent book "The Revenge of Gaia" Lovelock has personally agreed to dispose of a nuclear power plant’s waste:

I have offered in public to accept all of the high-level waste produced in a year from a nuclear power station for deposit on my small plot of land; it would occupy a space about a cubic metre in size and fit safely into a concrete pit, and I would use the heat from its decaying radioactive elements to heat my home. It would be a waste not to use it. More important, it would be no danger to me, my family, or the wildlife.

Snyder argued to the contrary that nuclear waste remains a serious threat, and further, that any move towards nuclear energy and the large-scale enrichment of uranium would surely increase the risk of the spread of nuclear weapons. He bluntly called Lovelock’s plea for more nukes "demented," and warned the crowd:

Keep your eyes peeled for trick arguments trying to lead us back to nuclear power.

Just this week on these pages Joseph Romm brought up an argument against nuclear power I hadn’t heard before, that rising temperatures in cooling water sources will make it more dangerous and less practical than in the past. Perhaps so. I am no expert on the subject, but Lovelock makes a strong case. For those interested in hearing more "trick arguments" from one of the leading scientists of our time, read on…and I for one will be interested to hear from those able to put them to rest.

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5 thoughts on “Gary Snyder: James Lovelock’s Arguments for Nuclear Power “Demented”

  1. What has proven interesting in all the nuclear power pro- and con- arguments is that they do not involve people with any actual experience or intimate knowledge of the topic. (Nuclear industry spokespeople are sometimes the exception, but they have a job to do.) Would you buy a car based entirely on advice from people who don’t drive? Probably not. Or – – would you make a good car purchase if you’ve never driven before yourself? No – you need some background to make better decisions.

    I’ve tried to provide some of that background in my novel “Rad Decision”, which is based on my 20 plus years in the nuclear power industry. It covers the good AND the bad. The book is available online in serial form, at no cost to readers, at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com and is also in paperback at online retailers.

    The aforementioned Stewart Brand thought enough of it to say “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.”

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  2. I have always admired Snyder’s poetry and personality, heard him read in Boston long ago, but when “Snyder objected vociferously, arguing that climate change would not destroy life on earth, though it might make things difficult for humans for a few hundred years….” as reported here, I was taken aback. Gary, DIFFICULT? for a few HUNDRED years? What have you been smoking? Maybe I shouldn’t ask.

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  3. Snyder wants us all to think beyond our span of eighty or so years, and our cultural limitations. I admire this hard-won far-sightedness, personally. But I fear Snyder is underestimating the risk of a major climactic shift this century. If Lovelock is right, for example, such a shift could mean the end of the forests Snyder so loves in the Sierras…for the next 200,000 years.

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