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A Note to Subscribers

Because of postal delays and a national paper shortage, the January and February issues were delivered later than usual. We apologize for the wait, and hope to resume our normal schedule as soon as possible.

Habit for Humanity

Meghan O’Gieblyn’s article [“Routine Maintenance,” Essay, January] captures what is unnerving and infuriating about Silicon Valley’s automation boosterism. Turtlenecked executives bloviate about the need to be “flexible” and “creative” in order to compete with machines, while hiring workers on temporary or limited contracts out of which people can hardly make stable lives.

For Karl Marx, and the other thinkers O’Gieblyn cites, the independence that comes with financial security is what makes it possible for people to live ethical lives, to mold their habits in accord with an inner purpose. By contrast, existential insecurity—the defining feature of the freelancer or the gig worker’s life—short-circuits that experience. Lives of routine and repetition are lived as lives of dull compulsion. Our insecurity creates a scarcity mentality. When we have less than we need, we devote the majority of our mental energies to fantasizing about climbing out of scarcity traps.

Will automation finally realize a vision of post-scarcity, by rendering human labor obsolete? I am skeptical. Still, with current technologies, we already have the ability to raise everyone in the world out of material insecurity, and can do so while remaining within the bounds of planetary sustainability. But in a post-scarcity world, we would still need to work. Perhaps we could even find joy in dull, repetitive tasks, if our work became the basis of a shared freedom. I have no doubt, as O’Gieblyn avers, that in such a world, people would not simply leap between novel experiences and creative flights of fancy. Since our individual lives are limited, we depend on everyone else freely pursuing and sharing their passions to experience all of what life has to offer.

Aaron Benanav
Berlin

 

O’Gieblyn writes beautifully about the relationship between technology, habit, and happiness in the aftermath of the innovation that birthed the modern age: the mechanical clock. Initially, timekeeping was the domain of Benedictine monks. Though their religious devotion intersected with technological innovation, timekeeping would turn them away from the divine. “In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon,” Neil Postman wrote, “the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.” Postman, quoting Lewis Mumford, noted that the arrival of the clock meant eternity was no longer “the measure and focus of human events.”

Marx foresaw a similar effect. He thought capitalism’s tendency to minimize labor costs provided the foundation for a different kind of world. “The amount of labor necessary for the production of a given object is indeed reduced to a minimum,” he wrote. “This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labor, and is the condition of its emancipation.” Just like those devout orders centuries before, the desire of firms, shareholders, and bosses would have unintended consequences.

As we enter a future in which artificial intelligence will reshape the workplace, we’ll need to craft new modes of discipline—not only individually, but as societies, with constraints. The hope should be that this is in the service of personal flourishing, rather than pointless trinkets and bullshit jobs.

Aaron Bastani
Southsea, England

 

 

Fuel Me Once

Polls show that nuclear energy is most supported by those who understand it best, and most opposed by those who understand it least. Andrew Cockburn is in the second camp. Picking at details to fearmonger in his recent article [“Spent Fuel,” Letter from Washington, January], he completely misses the big picture.

It’s true that an experimental reactor in the United States melted down in 1959, and that an Ohio energy bill involved a corruption scandal, and that the Vogtle nuclear plant was a fiasco. But every industry has such episodes. Because nuclear’s record is imperfect, should we reject what may be our best shot at solving climate change?

After six decades, we know that nuclear energy is, along with renewables, the safest of energy sources—hundreds of times safer than the fossil fuels it displaces. Coal smoke, oil and natural gas explosions, and dam bursts all cause more suffering and death than nuclear accidents. Nuclear can also decarbonize national grids. In just fifteen years, France’s electricity grid went from being powered by mostly fossil fuels to predominantly nuclear energy and became one of the cleanest in the world.

Used radioactive fuel, the dreaded “waste” that Cockburn writes about, has never harmed anyone. It is contained in concrete canisters, makes up a tiny volume of material, and eventually will be burned in new reactors or buried safely. Yet Cockburn repeatedly rejects expert knowledge: a mother knows better than her pediatric oncologist, a lone researcher understands Chernobyl’s effects better than the U.N. agencies tasked with that assessment, and antinuclear activists have better insight into reactor longevity than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That’s not following the science.

Luckily, most people no longer share Cockburn’s views. Nuclear energy as a response to climate change now has majority support among Americans, a bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress, support from the recent administrations of both parties, and is championed by leading climate scientists. Nuclear energy offers a practical route to decarbonization and has the political support to succeed.

Joshua S. Goldstein
Professor Emeritus of International Relations, American University
Amherst, Mass.

 

Andrew Cockburn responds:

I must thank Professor Goldstein for so succinctly conveying the essence of my argument. By casting itself as the preeminent climate warrior, the nuclear industry has shucked a lifelong record of economic disaster, dependence on public subsidy, poisoning of large tracts of the earth’s surface, and a death toll lurking in plain sight in cancer statistics, along with other serial crimes. In return, it has been rewarded with the fervent embraces of ignorant and credulous observers happy to dismiss any dissenting voices that dare to challenge “the science.” Thus a mother who discovered that her child and dozens of others suffered from rare and often lethal childhood cancers in a sinister cluster adjacent to the site of a long-concealed nuclear accident is derided by Goldstein for not having accepted an oncologist’s ill-informed assertion that there was no environmental connection. A “lone researcher” (he seems to mean Kate Brown, a professor of the history of science at MIT) is chastised for suggesting a higher estimate of Chernobyl’s lethal effects than those of the deeply compromised WHO and IAEA. How dare she question her betters, merely on the evidence of official records from the affected countries!

Were Goldstein, a scholar of international relations, less eager to tout what he thinks is “the science,” he might check his nuclear facts, such as the industry’s supposed lack of carbon emissions—news to anyone living near a reactor construction site or a uranium mine. But let’s take the professor at his word. The 1957 Price-Anderson Act, which shields the industry from almost all financial liability consequent of a major accident, is up for renewal in 2025. I wonder whether nuclear advocates like Goldstein, who must surely consider its protections unneeded, will call for the law to lapse. That would be a sincere declaration of faith. I have to say that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the leading industry trade group, has confirmed to Harper’s Magazine its unequivocal support for the act’s “permanent or long-term extension.” It would seem the industry lacks Goldstein’s confidence in the enduring safety of its operations. Little wonder that legitimate polls reveal nuclear power’s ongoing deep unpopularity among the general public.