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Energy Without Hot Air

The - almost - straight facts on energy from Cambridge physics professor.
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
23 November 2008

David MacKay, physicist at Cambridge's Cavendish laboratory, has written and made available for download a wonderful looking book: Sustainable Energy: without the hot air. The whole PDF is here. Chapter 1 is here. The book goes on sale in early December here.

The author takes seriously the scientist's role in teasing apart Fact from Value. He -- mostly -- want to give us facts.  Here is from the end of the introduction:

I went straight to the nuclear power chapter, because I think this is the issue where fact and value get most confused. Witness, for example, Mark Lynas's apostasy in the eyes of the Green party after he came out "not-against" nuclear.

David MacKay does a masterful job of the facts on nuclear power. It doesn't make any of the ethical questions go away, but it clears the air.

One of the political implications that I got from the chapter---and this is a forecast, not a desire---is that nature will not do the work for us of forcing change to our energy-hungry way of life. I have often thought of the political configurations around energy/environment issues with this kind of matrix:

Politically and ethically, people sympathise with materialists or simplicitarians. In their judgement of "facts" they tend towards the pessimistic or optimistic in terms of the sustainability of energy-rich life-styles. Value and facts overlap for the pessimist/simplicitarians and for the optimist/materialists.

I am suspicious of conclusions that derive from this convenient overlap. I think of myself in the bottom right corner---a simplicitarian energy optimist. Vast amounts of energy are plausibly available for human use, and nuclear energy does not pose a climate change threat. That is why I think that politics and consciousness need to do the work of changing our lifestyles. Nature will not ride to the rescue.

I have asked David if we could do a group read of the book. He's happy for us to do it, and we are working through the technical headache of translating the book into html. If you'd like to get involved -- and even lend a hand at creating the html, get in touch with me at tony dot curzonprice at opendemocracy dot net.

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