I’ve been engaging in a little debate over at the Oil Drum, on the relative merits and risks of nuclear plants (for generating electric power, that is). My primary pro-nuke “learned friend” has come right out and said openly that in his (I am pretty sure he is male) opinion, Chernobyl and Fukushima are no biggie:
If we keep up the failure rate of every 25 years, then we might have perhaps eight such zones in a stable state, as in 200 years, the first exclusion zone (Chernobyl) will be back to normal.
Eight circles with 30 kilometers radius = 22600 km^2, that’s like New Hampshire, or half the size of Denmark. Not much. I think you may choose to get worked up about me saying this, but you guys need to get down to Earth and put things in perspective.
[...] I take the costs. I get power, my child gets power, his child gets power and the grandkid also builds a new plant with the knowledge and economic growth the nuke has provided him with. The easily handled waste is nothing in comparison to that.
I’m going to skip the “global cannibalism” aspect of this argument (since we’ve already gone there). I’d like to touch on another aspect of the “economic growth” mantra, and that is the assumption that if X is good, more of X must be better — that more of what we want is always better than “enough”. We like toys, so some toys are better than no toys, and more toys are better than some toys. We like stimulation and novelty — some novelty is better than no novelty, so more novelty is better than some novelty. And so on.
There are several real-world cases in which either “what we want” is not good for us, or “too much of what we want” is not good for us. These cases are erased by the Party of More (the neolib/cornucopian social contract of ever-expanding markets lifting all boats).
For starters, we might consider the curious case of dogs and chocolate. Most dogs like chocolate — they really like chocolate. They will eat prodigious quantities of chocolate given the chance. But the odd thing is that chocolate doesn’t like dogs. It contains theobromine, a toxin which humans can filter out and excrete quickly; the canine liver apparently doesn’t do nearly so good a job of filtering this particular compound, and the theobromine stays in the dog’s body for far longer, causing discomfort and even cardiac arrest. The dog is vulnerable to the toxicity of chocolate, as well as to the reward/addictive properties that endear it to other eaters.
Are there things to which we humans are vulnerable, which can damage us, yet which seem very tasty and desirable, so that we want to consume large quantities? I suggest that there are, and that More of these things is not, therefore, a Good but a Bad. Obvious “vulnerability window” substances are alcohol, sugar, etc. But there may be vulnerabilities in our personalities — or souls, if I may trespass for a moment on theological territory — to certain desirable things which have toxic effects. Back to this later.
Aside from idiosyncratic vulnerability, there is toxicity via brute overdose. Kitchen salt is not severely toxic, but if you eat enough of it you can make yourself quite ill. Eating just a little too much of it over a long time can also make you ill in various ways (hypertension for example). Another case where More is not a Good but a Bad: the substance is not in itself harmful in moderation, nor is the consumer uniquely vulnerable to it, but too much of it is not good for anyone.
Now combine these possible toxicities (literal or metaphorical) with what we know of the habituation effect. We are gratified by experiences like novelty, ownership of positional (Veblen) goods, the act of choosing and acquiring things, social status, sexual excitement, achievement, comfort, and so on. But if we experience one of these gratifications frequently or continuously, it loses its “thrill” — we become habituated.
To rediscover the thrill, the feeling of gratification which we remember, requires one of two strategies: (a) go without the gratification for some time and then re-encounter it later, or (b) increase the intensity of the gratifying experience. Simple example: if you spend some time hiking in the back country or cruising in a small boat, you will be living on “camping food” for a while, without fresh fruit and vegetables for the most part (unless you do some successful foraging). The taste of the first fresh vegetables — a sweet carrot, a crisp fresh apple — after a few days of deprivation, is an unforgettable thrill. Two weeks later, back in “ordinary life,” with supermarket produce always available every day of the week, an apple is just an apple and a carrot is just a carrot. Moreover, a 5lb bag of apples isn’t any more thrilling than one apple.
Habituation is a concept we all understand as part of the pathology called “addiction”: the addict receives large neurochemical rewards for the first few experiences of the stimulant of choice, but thereafter the “thrill” or gratification from each subsequent dose diminishes and the addict responds (according to simple logic) with the More strategy. More of the same substance re-creates the original experience… sort of. But by now, neurophysical changes are taking place so that the absence of the substance is not just dull or tedious: it’s unpleasant or painful, and it takes a baseline consumption level just to feel “normal.” More is not only not Good — it’s not even “more” any more
[Though I've been thinking about these topics for many years, Nate Hagen's recent article prodded me into this exploratory essay. He goes into more detail about diminishing returns, novelty, appetite, etc., possible reasons why we hominids might have these proclivities, and implications for cultures and societies and their resource bases.]
I’m going to herd the cats (tentatively) in two parallel directions from here (with no pretence at making any kind of finished argument, position statement, or proposal — just asking Socratic questions). There are two areas in which we notoriously insist that More=Good. One is energy/technology: it’s quite heretical to suggest that technological progress may not result in a better life for one and all, or that higher energy consumption may not equal greater happiness. Another (for liberals at any rate) is sex.
Sex is good, so more sex is better, and so 24×7 sexual stimulation and titillation is therefore a great good and should lead to increased happiness.
A recent study suggested that a sample of “normal” men (whatever that means) were oddly affected by viewing photographs of attractive women.
Male participants answering the war-related questions “showed more militant attitudes” if they had viewed the photos of attractive women.
Men did not adopt more aggressive attitudes when answering questions about trade or other international issues after viewing similar photographs, but they responded with heightened belligerence specifically to war-related questions. It seems like our neuroscientists report every few months the result of some new brain-scanning experiment that co-locates the neural clusters for aggression and sexual arousal in males, so it’s not entirely surprising that sexual stimulus might elicit some kind of competitive or aggressive response. If this is the case, then (contrary to the claims of the “safety valve” theorists), a continuous visible presence of, say, pornographic imagery in a culture could lead to a more pervasive state of aggression and militaristic enthusiasm among men in that culture.
Like dogs and chocolate, might men be vulnerable to certain types of stimulation which have potentially harmful side-effects even though they seem tasty and whet the appetite for more? In other words, could this be another case where More is not the same as Good? (I am sidestepping for now the whole question of the aggressive content of porn as a form of propaganda and the social justice issues involved in its production, and concentrating solely on the individual and social effects of porn on the male consumer — begging a whole bunch of questions in fact, but sometimes it’s interesting to approach an apparently intractable problem from a different angle.)
Male porn consumers report a consumption spiral similar to other habituation effects, in which initial exposure is highly gratifying or stimulation, but repetitive exposure nullifies the effect and novelty is required in order to jolt a jaded palate. This is not the response predicted by the “safety valve” theory, which suggests that porn satisfies male sexual appetite in a “harmless” way (again begging the question of harm done in the course of producing it) and should result in lowered demand and appetite.
From a marketing standpoint, habituation is wonderful news. It means that consumers can become locked in an escalating spiral of consumption (therefore spending more and more to achieve the same result); it’s good for sales. If there are “externalised costs” associated with meeting that demand (and when aren’t there?), however, the habituation effect may be extremely negative for the community. Giving men “everything they want” (in the form of sexual stimulation via porn) may just up the ante for what they expect and want; indeed, with the ubiquitisation of porn over the last forty years has come an increase in demands placed by men on their female partners to re-enact sexual practises depicted in porn.
Maybe getting “everything we want” (predict and provide) is not the same thing as getting what is good for us, or what is good for our community. There is plenty of published testimony emerging that even committed relationships can suffer from “too much sex” (for reasons related to habituation, overstimulation, etc); that frequent and intense lovemaking (a Good Thing, right?) can actually lead to alienation and disaffection. Counterintuitive, and yet quite consistent with other human experiences around appetite, satiation, stimulation, habituation, and so on.
Proponents of technocornucopianism also believe that More is Good; they believe that more energy consumption always means happier people, and that more energy consumption means growth — like the debating opponent quoted above, who believes that with sufficient electricity each generation will enjoy a superior life to the one before it, ad infinitum. However, one major side effect of the explosion of cheap energy unleashed by the fossil fuel era has been that humans can now consume planetary resources far faster and more lavishly than ever before. Like dogs and chocolate, we seem unable to stop consuming even when the result may be to make us very ill. We also become very swiftly habituated to energy availability and technological novelty: what seemed really cool just five years ago is already dated and “backward,” and we expect and demand fresh “breakthroughs” and “miracles” on a regular basis.
Anyone who could magically provide humanity with energy “too cheap to meter” today would, contrary to popular opinion, not be doing us any favours; they would be accelerating the drawdown of our last reserves of topsoil, forests, fish, freshwater, etc. More is not necessarily Good; if you have a friend who’s hooked on heroin, giving him more heroin is not such a great idea.
Aside from the “externalised cost” of planetary liquidation, many of the benefits of this explosion of cheap energy turn out to have associated disbenefits even for their recipients: the convenience and thrill of personal flying carpets (aka automobiles) and affordable private entertainment technologies is not unrelated to an epidemic of sedentarism and related pathologies plus atrophy of many social networking behaviours and skills; to the re-engineering of urban and suburban environments and architecture to new, alienating, crime-encouraging, pedestrian-hostile forms; to the death of traditional urban centres, and so on [obligatory Jane Jacobs hat tip]. More — more GMOs, more and bigger cars, more “sophisticated” pesticides, more “advanced” pharmaceuticals, more automated industrial processes, more “streamlined” commercial protocols — is not looking so much like Good as it used to. [Obligatory hat tip, as ever, to Illich and his "watersheds" meme.]
An overdose of cheap energy might be as bad for us as an overdose of salt.
Or maybe we are uniquely vulnerable to, say, technology and energy? Have we considered the possibility? Why is an iPhone so damned attractive, when you can’t eat it and it has no particular scent? Someone on a doomy discussion thread recently [apologies if it was one of our readers -- I'm a bit scattered lately due to overwork and having a hard time remembering where I saw/read things] mentioned field observations of chimps compulsively handling plastic objects (iirc to the exclusion of normal social and gathering activities), hypnotised, fascinated by the slick unnatural surfaces. Maybe there’s something about the seamlessness and perfection of manufactured objects that pushes buttons we don’t even know we have. Certainly we’re wired for laziness (apparent high EROEI), and hence primed to embrace with enthusiasm anything that looks or smells like a free lunch (aka labour-saving devices or “energy slaves”).
E M Forster speculated about where this vulnerability might lead us (“The Machine Stops”).
OK, running out of steam here and it’s nearly bedtime for this chimp, time to break out of that fascination with the glowing little screen and the smooth plastic keyboard. Time to summarise, or wind this ramble up somehow.
So the questions I’m left with — and I’ve reached this same point from different starting gates over the last few years — are “when is More not equal to Good?” and “what does Enough mean?”.
Exploring “when is More!=Good” has led me to these talking points of idiosyncratic vulnerability, overdose, and habituation which I think could do with more exploration.
Because all our arguments with the technocornucopians, the would-be providers of nuclear power, those who dream of space elevators, the Growth Merchants, the entire economic orthodoxy of our time — all those arguments are with people whose fundamental credo is that More=Good. To combat that fundamental belief we need compelling stories, counterexamples, other ways of seeing the pattern of More and Consumption in which negative consequences are well understood, vivid, immediate, easily understood.
Like dogs and chocolate.