Melting reactors, dissolving forks and sacrifice

As we know from the unfolding drama in Japan, nuclear power is frighteningly dangerous. There are no guarantees that a disaster won’t unfold, one that can affect generations to come.

But those who are concerned about climate warming see nuclear power as the only viable”clean” energy to sustain the needs of the industrial world. This is why President Obama has put nuclear power back on the agenda. Wind power, solar and water alone won’t be sufficient to keep the industrial world humming along at its present pace.

So we are forced to choose: nuclear on one side; coal, oil and gas on the other?

Those making these decisions in Congress have decided that while they ponder this dilemma, they cannot bother with some smaller choices that don’t amount to much. If you are in Congress and use one of the three cafeterias, once again you can get your coffee in Styrofoam cups and use utensils that are made of good old plastic. Not wanting to waste taxpayers’ money on silly programs, Congress has consigned its short-lived re-cycling and composting program to the garbage bin.

The program “failed to produce significant savings in carbon emissions,” a Republic spokeswoman explained. The total savings amounted to taking one car off the road for one year.

There were also complaints about the utensils used in the cafeterias. Spoons dissolved in hot liquids, knives bent and forks “could not penetrate the lettuce.”

The newly elected Representatives can laugh at their predecessors’ efforts at climate control. But it seems to me that if we reject the nuclear option but also want to reduce carbon emissions, we may have to put up with forks that don’t penetrate lettuce and programs that don’t amount to much by themselves, symbolic as those gestures may be.

To put it another way, if we are serious about solving the hothouse problem, everyone needs to change how they live and sacrifices are required. We really aren’t entitled to more and larger things year after year. We aren’t entitled to new cars, TVs, vacuum cleaners and new clothes before the old ones wear out.  Material progress isn’t a god-given right.

Dissolving spoons and bending forks is the least of it but compostable utensils make a point. It is one of many, many changes that will have to be made. Real sacrifice will be required to get us out of the dilemma. We may have to have mandates on not only how fuel-efficient a vehicle is but where can drive them and how often we can get a new one. Recycling in the Washington cafeterias amounted to removing one car from the roads, but what if we didn’t allow cars at all in downtowns and what if we had a now unimaginable mass transportation system.

Sacrifice, real sacrifice, was made during WWII because we knew what faced us if we lost the war. We lived with ration coupons, we did with less. And we did fine.

The choice between nuclear power and fossils fuels is one that we have to make, unless we consider a third alternative. And that alternative is the most difficult of all because it will require a re-thinking about what is important and what it means to live a good life and a willingness of those who have much to do with less.

Good parents have always made sacrifices for their children. Good people have always thought about the future. And good government calls on people to rise above themselves when the times so require and to spread the sacrifice across the board. As is written in the New Testament, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

I don’t think the biblical injunction was in the minds of those who complained about re-composted utensils in the cafeteria. I think theirs was a cynical, silly and ideological response. Sacrifice is what others do—teachers and sanitation workers and minimum workers and retirees and people who rely upon public transportation to get to work. Don’t ask what I can do for my country, just reduce the taxes of those most able to pay.


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