“We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours.”
In the process of spring cleaning I happened across a cardboard binder with a yellowing, handwritten sticky label reading “An Older View Regarding Inalienable Rights.” Inside was a xerox copy of a 69-page document dated January 9, 1979 from an administrative proceeding before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC-SECY-78–560) in the matter of the petition of Jeannine Honicker for emergency and remedial action.
Specifically, my client, Mrs. Honicker, the mother of a leukemia survivor, had petitioned to close the federal nuclear fuel cycle on constitutional grounds after learning that leukemia had been administratively deemed a necessary concomitant of the program, along with cancer, birth defects and numerous diseases that resulted in shortened lives for many citizens living downwind or downstream of licensed facilities. Include yourself there. In the course of the proceedings the NRC had stipulated to a number — 1.7 million — for fatalities from routine, “permitted” operation over the next 25 years.
There was no legal authority under the Atomic Energy Act for the agency to make that decision, so we had filed a proceeding to suspend all the licenses that had been issued illegally. Fortunately there was no requirement to post a bond against potential damages to the licensees from the shutdown, because what we were doing is called administrative rulemaking. Nonetheless, the industry took us seriously enough to send a limo full of lawyers to the front gate of The Farm to receive instantaneous service every time we made another filing. I was a billion-dollar liability.
Put aside the arguments of the petitioner, later backed by the courtroom testimony of our experts, that the number used by NRC was at least 10 times too low, that it did not account for accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, that it did not look out beyond 25 years, or that it did not account for the unknowns (at that time technetium and the isotopes of carbon were unaccounted for). The lowball number they gave sufficed for our purposes. In Mrs. Honicker’s view, one would have sufficed.
Flipping through the 69 pages of the “Comments of the Petitioner’s staff on the NRC staff response to her petition for emergency and remedial action,” we came to what was really the core disagreement. The NRC staff’s position — the position they urged upon the five Commissioners who would ultimately decide and whom the US Supreme Court would later, on four occasions, decline to second-guess — was that:
“Even if low-level radiation can induce cancer and genetic effects, future discoveries in the prevention and cure of cancer and genetically related diseases and genetic engineering may negate many of these effects.”
As we read it now, 39 years later, the words strike a familiar chord. That’s what we are being told about climate change, or to paraphrase:
“Even if climate change can induce catastrophic warming of 4 degrees or greater this century, ending mammalian life on Earth, future discoveries in renewable energy and negative emissions technologies may negate many of these effects.”
The view we espoused in our response document was fundamentally at odds with that view. I wrote:
“The NRC Staff suggests that genetic engineering may be the answer to the radiation problem we created. It is irresponsible for this generation to require future generations to submit to genetic engineering in order to have normal children. This kind of tinkering with life is symptomatic of the attitude with which the NRC has approached the entire question of large-scale biological experimentation on the people. The nuclear fuel cycle is already compulsory, random, genetic engineering. But there must be a right not to be genetically engineered, certainly as a matter of freedom of religion, and also as one of the rights reserved to the people by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution.
“Loss of life is certainly avoidable. One need only refrain from conduct that increases the loss of life by one’s own hands….”
“In equivocating risks, making them seem inconsequential, the NRC Staff is attempting to make present schemes of planned civilian deaths seem consistent with congressional intent and the Supreme Court’s holdings that risks are to be allowed when there is reasonable assurance of public safety. But the standard established by Congress for taking risks as a society included establishing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect and preserve public health.”
“These are rational, reasonable and timely objections. They are questions that should have been addressed before the present nuclear fuel cycle was embarked upon. Is any human life insignificant or terminable by government license for ever-greater electric power production?”
We knew back then, even as we see now, we were talking past each other. This exchange of formal comments that would form the basis for review by no fewer than 23 federal judges over the next several years represented the collision of separate worlds. In his latest masterpiece, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann expresses that dilemma better than most:
“Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species, the other regards stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.
“The conflict between these visions is not between good and evil, but between different ideas of the good life; between ethical orders that give priority to personal liberty and those that give priority to what might be called connection.”
“These arguments have their roots in long-ago fights. Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether natural law truly is a guide for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the ideal character of citizens. Robert Malthus scoffing at the claims of William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet that science could overcome limits set by the physical world. T.H. Huxley, the famed defender of Darwin, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, contending whether biological laws truly apply to creatures with souls. John Muir, champion of pristine wilderness, squaring off against Gifford Pinchot, evangelist for managing forests with teams of experts. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon betting whether ingenuity can outwit scarcity. To the philosopher-critic Lewis Mumford, all of these battles were part of a centuries-long struggle between two types of technology, “one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.” And all of them were about, at least in part, the relationship of our species to Nature — which is to say, they were debates about the nature of our species.”
We knew in 1979 that, in our dialogue with NRC staff, we were speaking past each other. We had tactical awareness of this impasse and to whatever extent possible we tried to bridge the gulf. We challenged the wizards on their science, not their religion. We used catch phrases and framing that might better resonate with their worldview, not ours. We spoke of personal liberty rather than connection to the natural world. We spoke of the bedrock rights of free men in voluntary association being carelessly discarded without adequate scientific study of likely consequences, such as erosion of liberty. We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours.
Later in Wizard, Mann inserts nearly whole cloth his award-winning 2012 essay for Orion, The State of the Species. With it he profiles the late gaian theorist Lynn Margulis, who took a jaundiced view towards both techno-cornucopians and enviro-Luddites. Mann writes:
In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.
Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.
If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.
It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.
Since those long ago days when I was a young attorney crusading for justice on behalf of Mrs. Honicker, much has changed but much has not and likely never will. There are those that like to cast the difference between human tribes in terms of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, peace-lover or warmonger, Stewart Brands or Derrick Jensens. These battles rage, sometimes even violently.
It is a talent of our species to have this range of checks and balances — instincts of protection to rein in our penchant for reckless adventure; a cautious optimism to counteract the remorse of our eventual demise, individually and collectively. We need all sides heard, that we become whole.
These days I think of it more as though our species has been going through adolescence. We are a very young mammal, evolutionarily speaking — 200,000 years since walking upright out of Africa, 100,000 years of vocalizing our thoughts (perhaps after communing with mushrooms), 70,000 years since the Toba near-extinction event forced our retreat to caves and clothing — our species is but a blink of the eye for older fellows like snapping turtles, sharks and dragonflies.
Like all teenagers we chafe at boundaries, push the limits, make unreasonable demands and fail to connect the dots between our conduct and its consequences. That part of our brain that sees into the future is still only crudely formed — unshaped clay-dough.
To my way of thinking the Wizards are our wild younger siblings. The Prophets, and I rank myself among them, are at least aware enough to grok how much we don’t know. Will we survive our feckless teenage siblings’ wreckage? It’s still too soon to say.