NUCLEAR WINTER: An Alarmist Frets Losing her Idealism
So, admittedly, I just finished listening to a Radiolab about bad people (murder, necrophilia). And I rediscovered this Rilo Kiley song bemoaning “all the good that won’t come out of us,” and I’ve been playing it on repeat. But I’ve begun to worry about becoming evil. By which I mean ever-so-slightly adjusting my expectations of what’s achievable in the “real world.”
It wasn’t so long ago that I could do anything! I was in fifth grade, I’d won both the stamp-design contest AND the spelling bee (I believe the word was “Wednesday”), and no one had yet explained to me that, in life, you actually have to be good at something in order to be the best. This was also my most creative period: every week, I began writing a new novel and moved onto the next as soon as I’d designed the cover and come up with names for the characters. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t a writer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, my education at a cushy liberal arts college did little to get me to scale back my plans for the world: Bring architecture to the people by letting them build their own houses! Turn the Port of L.A. into wetlands! Re-write U.S. water policy to mimic indigenous American traditions! (Can’t make this stuff up—those were real essays I wrote.) But in the two years since I graduated, the walls have started closing in around me. Change doesn’t feel so possible anymore, nor does my ability to incite it.
This hit me while I was prancing about in nature with a bunch of college girlfriends. We were in Canyonlands, Utah, with enough time on our hands to discuss just about anything, so of course we talked about nuclear power. All of us had done environmental things in college, and nuclear power generation had always seemed like bad math: avoid emitting carbon by creating radioactive waste, something exponentially more toxic.
But suddenly, we were coming down on different sides of the issue. The only one of us with any real authority—the one who works at an energy company—was beginning to accept nuclear as an alternative to coal. She said that no one within the industry believed other renewables could be viable as a base power source, at least not in time to slow global warming.
I lost the debate, which may be why I’m still thinking about it. Not about the relative viability of nuclear power, but about the effect our first jobs have on our notion of what’s possible. Few of my college professors challenged me to make my ideas realistic or even accessible to people with different sets of assumptions. I found this extremely liberating, not least because it allowed me to believe that all my ideas were good ones. (See essay topics, above.)
But it made it easier to dismiss my college-age self as a know-nothing when I got my first real job at an organization that builds affordable housing. Some of my colleagues have been at this for 20 years, so I assume they speak from experience when they tell me we have to sacrifice a baby elephant on the steps of City Hall to get this thing built. Hey, they’re the experts.
This is the part that keeps me up at night (or, more accurately, has me staring moonily out the window after lunchtime): we go from college to the working world and toss out what we learned in school in favor of what we learn from people with “real-world experience.” But when they tell us how the world works, they’re giving us their interpretation of the things that have happened to them. Maybe if the same things had happened to us, we’d have come to different conclusions.
Of course, my co-workers have lots to teach me, and not just about slaughtering elephants. But I wonder what learning the ropes from insiders does to my ability to make my own path. (I’m assuming it has a negligible effect on my ability to make copies.) How will I know if their ideas are worth keeping when their biases are the foundation I’m starting from? Are they teaching me the grammar, or putting words in my mouth?
I think it’s really important to hold on to the time when our ideas weren’t limited by code requirements or government funding. I’d even argue that our ability to disregard constraints is closely related to our ability to innovate. Yeah, nuclear power may have been the only real carbon-free option for the last four decades. But I hope we don’t resign ourselves to a creepy-looking power supply just because the experts tell us to.
[Well, G, in my inability to win this one on facts and logic, I have now demonized experts and advocated the total abandonment of reality. I guess that means you still win.]