Sunday, September 25, 2022

Atomic Age?

“No scientific subject has ever aroused quite the same mixture of hopes and fears.”
 —Nobel-Prize-winning English physicist Sir Edward Victor Appleton, on atomic energy
One of the first places in the United States where nuclear power was put on the ballot was in the California county where I was born and grew up. It was also the first time U.S. citizens shut down a nuclear plant project with their votes.

Partly in reaction to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the country had gone on a spree of building nuclear power plants. One was proposed to be built ten miles west of the town of Wasco, which would have put it about twenty miles from my own home town. At first, the project was non-controversial, but as things progressed, opinion divided. My father’s boss was one of the main leaders in the campaign against it.

The area was politically conservative, which should have made it supportive of energy independence and of the cash the project would have injected into the local economy. The concerns, though, were over public safety and, most importantly, the fact that nuclear reactors require huge amounts of water for cooling. Locating it in a place with extremely hot summers and which gets about six inches of rain a year did not make a lot of sense to farmers who, even in the best of times, are in a perpetual struggle for water. In an advisory vote in March 1978, voters rejected the project with a 70-percent majority.

Popular culture has always conspired to make us fear atomic power. The world’s first general awareness of the split atom was two bombs wreaking havoc on Japan in 1945. Nearly every bad thing that has happened in horror and monster movies since the 1950s onwards has been caused by nuclear radiation. In 1979, James Bridges’s movie The China Syndrome, a made-up story about safety coverups at a nuclear plant, put atomic fear in people. That alarm was magnified by the nearly concurrent partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. Four years later Mike Nichols’s based-on-true-events film Silkwood, about the mysterious death of a nuclear plant whistleblower, heaped on more paranoia.

Subsequent accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union) and Fukushima in Japan did nothing to make people more comfortable with nuclear energy. The thing is that, with a little digging, we find that these events are not always exactly as we collectively recall them. No one actually died as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of Chernobyl, around 30 first-responders died. There was an increase for a time in thyroid cancers among those living near the plant, but few of those were fatal. In Japan in 2011, thousands died, but all fatalities were because of the earthquake and tsunami. No one died from radiation exposure.

Are nuclear plants safe? No source of energy is completely safe, but nuclear is clearly statistically safer than, say, coal. But is it safe enough? I don’t know the answer. Only society collectively can decide what is safe enough and what tradeoffs are acceptable or the least bad. Most people who know a lot about this stuff seem to be saying that, if the world is serious about trying to alter humankind’s contribution to climate change, then the real choice is between mass adoption of nuclear (which emits no carbon) or a serious dismantling of the modern economy. Renewable energy sources like wind and sun are appealing, but there are limits to how much they can provide. Over the summer the European Union quietly designated nuclear fission as green energy. Without a lot of fanfare five years ago, John Kerry (now a special presidential envoy for climate) changed his stance on nuclear from anti to pro.

What European country produces the most electricity carbon-free? Easily, that is Norway. Virtually all its electricity comes from hydroelectric plants. Others with low carbon footprints are Sweden, which gets 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear, and France, which normally gets 70 percent from nuclear. (Due to some problematic maintenance, several French nuclear plants are currently offline.) In one of the worst positions is Germany. In the wake of Fukushima, it began dismantling its nuclear program while also continuing to make itself dependent on Russian gas imports. Now with the war in Ukraine, it depends on coal imports.

One of the most outspoken voices for nuclear, coming from the left, is author/activist Michael Shellenberger, who has twice run for the Democratic nomination for governor of California. He features in a documentary I saw at the recent Galway Film Fleadh and about which I wrote on my movie blog: Frankie Fenton’s Atomic Hope. The film is extremely thought-provoking and well worth seeing for anyone interested in the topic. What is interesting is how the nuclear debate is playing into the climate-change discussion. The movie has been surprisingly well received in some climate activist quarters.

It seems to me that that the nuclear energy alternative more or less forces the hand of climate crusaders. If people truly believe that the current climate trajectory has existential consequences for humanity and that altering human behavior is the only hope of affecting that trajectory, then doesn’t nuclear power have to be considered as possibly the only way to accomplish that without societal breakdown?

Two key questions thus are 1) is the production of nuclear energy reasonably safe enough to adopt widely and, if we’re not certain, 2) do we have enough confidence in climate computer models to take the risk anyway?

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Meanings, Hidden or Otherwise

“I don’t think this kind of thing [satire] has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted. I think the people who say we need satire often mean, ‘We need satire of them, not of us.’ I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War.”
 —Musician, singer-songwriter, satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer
“There are times I was not sure if it was fantasy or a political satire (loved Bob) or both. If it was a political satire, I was a little unclear as to what was being satirized.”

So wrote an early reader of my newly published novel Last of the Tuath Dé, and she was by no means alone in wondering if it was actually meant to be some sort of Swiftian parody. That pleased me. I mean, the part where she wasn’t sure.

To be clear, the aim of the book (it’s a sequel to my earlier fantasy adventure The Curse of Septimus Bridge, about a nice young Seattle woman’s induction and baptism of fire in the profession of demon hunting) was really no more ambitious than to provide some escapist entertainment—perhaps mainly for myself but hopefully for others as well. But the provocateur in me doesn’t mind if the book also gets readers to think, question and wonder.

My Dallas Green books (Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead, Lautaro’s Spear, Searching for Cunégonde) are all firmly entrenched in particular times and places, and there are frequent references to contemporaneous events and politics. Such real-world stuff generally doesn’t intrude on my fantasy books, but this time the story involved the end of the world being brought about by, among other things, a worldwide collective madness of a religious/political nature. It was going to be hard to avoid parallels—inadvertent, unintended, subconscious or otherwise—with real-world events. Indeed, now more than ever people seem to be finding themselves alarmed by what they see as fanaticism among those they disagree with.

I know from experience that, in reading my book, readers will reliably overlay whatever sociopolitical template suits them. When the Zen’ei, harbingers of the apocalypse in this story and magnets for Mercenaries, cultists and fanatics, trash the major cities of the world with their unthinking violence, I have no doubt that many will nod knowingly and think of the stop-the-steal protestors, trespassers and rioters of January 6. At the same time, I will not be surprised if other readers read the same text and see it as a representation of that segment of BLM protestors and/or Antifa activists who wreaked havoc in several major U.S. cities during the summer of 2020.

So, which is the right interpretation? The answer is: yours.

Once literature is out there in the world, it has its own life. You—and maybe even most readers—may take lessons from my work that are completely different than anything that was in my mind. I know I have certainly done that to other artists’ works. Authors may tell me they intended one thing, but their work may tell me something completely different. There are necessarily two participants in any single literary transaction.

So, is that it? Am I some mealy-mouthed relativist with no positions of my own?

Don’t worry. I did slip in some strongly held beliefs and personal principles. Look hard and you’ll find them.

Or if you don’t want to look hard, then I’ll just tell you what some of them are. Like these:
From Chapter 9:
  “They insist on their own language. Mercenaries call themselves Legionnaires. They call demons ‘hants,’ and for them Demon Hunters are ‘Hant Oppressors.’ ”
  “That is no accident. To control words is to control the mind.”

From Chapter 19:
  “But he fills the world with lies. He should have been stopped.”
   “Do you remember none of my lessons? You can’t stop lies. If you begin suppressing lies, it is not long before every uncomfortable thing you hear sounds like a lie.”

From Chapter 22:
  “… This may surprise you, but I realized you were right. I had never believed the conspiracy theories before, but the more I thought about yours, the more it began to make sense.”
  “You do know, don’t you, it’s not a conspiracy theory if it’s true?”
There may be others, and it might be worth reading the book to find out. If you want to do that, then click here (or on the book’s cover over on the right-hand side of this page) to go to my book blog where you will find lots more information about the new book as well as all my other ones. And you will also find links to many online sellers of the paperback and digital editions.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Too Big to Concur?

Kavanaugh Burns Down His Home Just To Get It Over With
 —Headline on the satirical newspaper web site The Babylon Bee, June 24

Is the United States simply too big to hold together?

Americans, like most everyone else in the world, tend to take the size of their country for granted, but when you live for a while in a smaller country, you begin to notice things. For one thing, a national consensus seems easier to achieve.

For example, let’s take the abortion issue. Historically, Ireland was predominately Catholic, socially conservative country. Yet when social mores evolved, people went to the polls and voted to legalize the procedure through a change to the country’s constitution.

Is there any possibility something like this could happen in the U.S.? It’s hard to imagine, despite the fact that in the U.S. abortion could be legalized (or banned) nationally simply by an act of Congress. The cumbersome constitutional amendment process would not even be necessary.

One of the arguments for overturning the Roe v. Wade precedent was that abortion is mentioned nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. By contrast, the issue actually was addressed in the Irish constitution. That document’s 1983 Eighth Amendment said, “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

Four years ago Irish voters repealed that amendment, making it possible for their elected representatives to legislate on the issue. That was seen as a huge victory for women’s abortion rights. Ironically, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling, America is now in the same situation as Ireland (abortion being a legislative matter), but because of the different context, it is seen as a setback for women’s abortion rights.

Upon the Eighth’s repeal, Ireland’s government promptly legalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That’s pretty standard in Europe. The UK and the Netherlands permit the procedure during the first 24 weeks, and Sweden 18 weeks. Other countries range between 10 and 14, except Malta, where abortion is outlawed altogether, and Poland, where it’s allowed only in the case of rape, incest or saving the mother’s life.

Ireland’s law actually matches fairly closely the general U.S. opinion. Polls have consistently shown Americans favor legal abortion during the first trimester but not in the second or third ones. So why doesn’t Congress or state legislators simply put that into law? Why does the public debate always seem to be conducted between those who either want abortion banned entirely and those who want it guaranteed until the day before a baby’s birth?

Simply put, it’s hard to compromise when your position is tied to your core beliefs about humanity. If you truly believe a zygote has a human soul, then you’re going to consider its elimination murder. That makes it a public matter. If you believe that a woman’s physical autonomy is paramount, then you’ll conclude the fate of a zygote, embryo or fetus is a concern only for the woman carrying it. That makes it a private matter.

How do you reconcile public policy when society is divided between those two world views? Obviously, it happens because we can see that democratic countries, like those in Europe, arrive at legislative solutions—and as it happens, ones not so far off from the polling in the U.S. I mentioned.

Here’s the rub. The overall national opinion in America is not uniform in every geographical sector. Some states already have very liberal abortion laws on the books, while others have laws (old and new) that ban the procedure. (Some of the so-called trigger laws may possibly be revised since Roe’s revocation is now a reality and not merely theoretical.) So, is that the solution? A patchwork of abortion policies decided (ultimately) by the voters in each state? That may satisfy people who look at the issue with a certain legal detachment, but it does not make people happy who have strong beliefs in the human values mentioned above. Living in a state with an abortion policy you agree with is small consolation when people just across the state line have the opposite situation.

To a certain extent, the same is true about how people feel when talking about national borders—but there may be more detachment in that case. I don’t think, for example, Germans fret about the lack of abortion rights in Poland in quite the same way that Washingtonians think about the situation in Idaho. Washington and Idaho, after all, are part of the same country.

Or are they? I mean, in a cohesive, social sense? That brings me back to my original question. Is the U.S. too big to contain its diversity of world views and human values? It all comes down to how strongly people are tied to certain beliefs and how motivated they are to defend them—or impose them on others.

Monday, April 11, 2022

History and Context

Our weapons are not weapons with which cities and countries may be destroyed, walls and gates broken down, and human blood shed in torrents like water. But they are weapons with which the spiritual kingdom of the devil is destroyed.
 —Influential Anabaptist religious leader Menno Simons (1496-1561), whose followers were known as Mennonites
Many words have flowed on the war in Ukraine. Given the going price of talk (cheap), allow me to throw in mine for what they’re worth (two cents).

Since my main gig is film blogging, I can begin by recommending two movies. When Russia invaded Ukraine last month, I was at a film festival, specifically the Dublin International Film Festival. By complete coincidence, one of the films I saw there was Elie Grappe’s Olga, a fictional story about a teenage gymnast forced into exile during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests and Revolution of Dignity during 2013-14. In the movie we see Kyiv as the modern, glistening city it was and, hopefully, will be again. We also get a crash course in how Ukrainians rose up against a corrupt, pro-Russian government and chased it from power. It’s a useful reminder that the current war has a context and that Ukraine has a history that didn’t begin only when the country started showing up daily in our newscasts.

The other movie is one I saw three years ago at the Galway Film Fleadh and which I recently rewatched. It was directed by Oscar-nominated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland and is based on the true story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. It is called Mr. Jones after the film’s central character and also after a George Orwell character that may have been inspired by him. The film recounts his journey to Moscow in 1933 where he was determined to learn how Stalin was funding the Soviet Union’s military buildup. On a visit to Ukraine (then part of the USSR), he slipped away from his handlers to see firsthand the devastating famine caused by Stalin’s policy of wheat exports. Such an atrocity was seen as impossible in the minds of other western journalists, who idealistically saw the Soviet Union as the way to the future and to modernity. The most egregious example was The New York Times’s Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for articles debunking Jones’s famine accounts, which had appeared in The Times of London. Despite Duranty’s clear journalistic malpractice, his Pulitzer has never been revoked. Jones was kidnapped and murdered in Mongolia in 1935, presumably by the NKVD (Soviet secret police).

Beyond film recommendations, I offer my own strange connection to Ukraine. As far as I know, I have no Ukrainian ancestry, but it so happens that four of my great-grandparents were born in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast region of Ukraine, which is currently under Russian occupation. Several earlier generations were also born there. They were farmers who did not mix much with people outside their own German-speaking community.

They began as a Dutch Anabaptist movement and fled persecution in the Low Countries in the early-to-mid-16th century for Poland’s Vistula Delta region where they were valued for their skill in building dykes. In the mid-to-late-18th century, they were invited by Catherine the Great to settle in what is now Ukraine. This was territory recently won by Russia in a war with the Turkish Ottoman Empire and which had been dubbed New Russia or South Russia. In return, the devoutly pacifist Mennonites were granted special status which, among other things, exempted them from military service. During the reign of Tsar Alexander II in the late 19th century, the government moved to strip the special status, prompting many of them to emigrate elsewhere. Families resettled all over the world, and that is how my maternal grandparents came to be born in Kansas, live for a time in Oklahoma and then finally settle in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

What my family history tells me is that, while Vladimir Putin insists Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, it is actually a conquered territory that Russia has used as a buffer against perceived threats and which Moscow has treated brutally for generations. No wonder so many Ukrainians (though not all, it should be noted) would prefer to be part of the democratic liberal community of Western Europe.

To much fanfare, the European Union has kicked off the long, bureaucratic process of admitting Ukraine as a member. Depending on how events on the ground develop, this could turn out to be farsighted, provocative or merely symbolic. The dilemma for Europeans is whether Ukraine will eventually be seen as a new and shining outpost of Western values or wind up as an unfortunate sacrifice to Russia’s paranoia about its security. Would such a sacrifice even satisfy Putin?

To put it another way, will Ukraine be Finland in 1940 or Hungary in 1956? Or more worryingly, Poland in 1939?