Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism

In the final issue for 2015, the journal Technology and Culture included an essay from Danish-based researchers Rens van Munster and Casper Sylvest called “Pro-Nuclear Environmentalism: Should We Learn to Stop Worrying and Love Nuclear Energy?” Sylvest, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Southern Denmark, and van Munster, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, used the essay to examine the ideological commitments and assumptions of pro-nuclear environmentalism by performing a critical, historical analysis of the nuclear-environment nexus through the prism of documentary film. The authors now share some of their thoughts behind the topic in a Q&A.

How important is it for a journal like Technology and Culture to provide an audience for this essay?

It is immensely important. The list of inspiring essays and articles that have been published in T&C is a long one, and since we are interested in bringing the study of politics and the historical study of technology closer together, it is really an ideal outlet; it also brings our work to the attention of a new audience and we hope this piece can be part of an increased dialogue on questions of technology and global politics.

We are also extremely pleased to be publishing in T&C for an additional, perhaps somewhat more personal, reason. More than 50 years ago T&C published a piece that has been particularly important for the development of our own work; namely Lewis Mumford ‘Authoritarian and Democratic Technics’ (1964). Over the past 4-5 years we have run a research project on “Globality and Planetary Security” (GAPS), sponsored by the Danish Research Council, and the bulk of this project has been devoted to unearthing a new history of nuclear political thought, if you will. Mumford is among a group of thinkers that we designate nuclear realists, and who in response to the thermonuclear revolution of the 1950s formulated a global form of political thought that was as insightful in its analysis of nuclear weapons as it was resolute in its opposition to these weapons.

Writing about these nuclear realists has opened new ways of understanding the convulsions that atomic and thermonuclear weapons produced and it has allowed us to explore links between nuclear technology and the environment or between nuclear technology and understandings of the future. Most of our findings are included in the book Nuclear Realism: Global Political Thought during the Thermonuclear Revolution, which will be published by Routledge in April 2016.

How did you come to use documentaries such as Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise as the prism for your essay?

We have for some time been interested in visual representations of various forms of global politics, from war and law to migration and economics. We soon discovered that one of the most prominent forms in which such questions are mediated is the contemporary documentary. And yet, outside film studies few attempts have been made to understand the attractions and power of this genre and art form. So back in 2012-2013 we collected a group of international relations specialists and asked them to write on one or more recent documentaries of relevance to their field. We subsequently published these essays in an edited volume entitled Documenting World Politics (Routledge, 2015).

During this process we came to reflect on the politics of the documentary, its history, its strategies and its attractions to political actors. It also involved watching a lot of films, of course. And among them were the productions of Robert Stone, most notably Radio Bikini and Earth Days. Given the subject and openly political agenda of Pandora’s Promise, it invited deeper analysis.

What is the greatest difficulty in separating the vision of nuclear weapons from the promise of nuclear energy?

The short answer here is: history! Since the dawn of the atomic age – in fact, since way before 1945 when the potential of atomic energy was undeniably demonstrated to the world – it is a source of energy that has been shrouded in ambiguity. For every dystopian nightmare of atomic warfare there has been a series of utopian, redemptive visions of peace and prosperity.

In fact, the very distinction between military and civilian nuclear energy is the central point of contestation in nuclear politics. As the current debates about the Iran deal illustrate, the distinction is also fundamentally unstable and throughout the history of the nuclear age we can see how people have struggled to uphold, transgress or break down this distinction. Our conceptions of technology are at the very heart of this instability. Given the risks associated with technological failure and the inherent dual-use capacity of large parts of nuclear technology, the central question becomes whether humans indeed master human-made technologies, or whether anthropogenic technologies may change our values, aspirations and climate, either subliminally or more directly. This tension is exactly what is at stake in pro-nuclear environmentalism.

Where do you hope the conversation goes from here concerning pro-nuclear environmentalism?

Well, first of all, as we argue in the essay – we hope that those advancing the cause of nuclear energy will adopt a more reflexive and humble posture in the years to come. The nuclear age is filled with examples of technological utopianism and hubris. Climate change is the contemporary challenge, and it is also true that nuclear energy is part of the contemporary energy mix and likely to remain so for some time. But before we promote or adopt a strategy to fundamentally nuclearize global energy provision, we should think carefully about our history with this technology, with the risks and dangers it involves and about the political values such a strategy would serve. We don’t think pro-nuclear environmentalists have provided convincing responses to these fundamental questions. Perhaps this really is the time to imagine our future – including the future of energy – anew?