The International Writers Magazine: Power Politics
Is The End of the World Really Nigh?
The way we talk about nuclear power is not helpful to anyone. The recent leak at the Fukushima power plant has brought nuclear energy production back to the headlines.
The chairman of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, Shunichi Tanaka, described the plant as being ‘like a haunted house…mishaps keep happening one after the other’. Tanaka said he didn’t know if it was an ‘appropriate’ description, but it is not unusual to associate nuclear power with an unsettling metaphor. In the light of the current search for new forms of low-carbon energy production, how useful is the way we talk about nuclear energy production?
Almost an inversion of Eisenhower’s description of the pre-nuclear world as an ‘old chamber of horrors', Tanaka’s haunted house metaphor is a new one to add to the mix. Traditionally, however, the most popular unsettling metaphor associated with nuclear energy is apocalypse. It was widespread in the 1960s, 70s and 80s when it captured the global imagination from children to the entertainment industry, and has recently seen a resurgence.
Apocalyptic metaphor is neither new nor exclusive to nuclear. Every age of every civilization has had its own version of apocalypse. It even appears in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. In recent years we’ve had quite a few different versions: the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War years, Y2K, climate change and now Syria. Now nuclear has been resurrected too, and updated for the new millennium with a dash of climate change. This is possibly quite fitting as there seems to be a corresponding return to the ‘with us or against us’ foreign policy strategy so familiarly employed by Cold War governments.
Perhaps what is so genuinely unsettling about this new nuclear apocalypse is who is using the metaphor. We’re all so used to seeing apocalypse turn up as a narrative scenario in films, books and comics that when it is used by people in a position of power it’s difficult to take the thing the metaphor is describing seriously. So when the Minister for Climate Change and Energy uses it in an attempt to motivate and persuade, its power to affect is reduced by it having featured in 2000AD.
Moreover, the apocalyptic frame is alarmist, and not conducive to action. Alarmism scares people into inaction, which breeds only inertia, not change. It presents a warning (‘this will happen if…’) that presents one possible future scenario as a definite one. This scenario is used to justify present actions (‘this will happen if we do/don’t do this…’). This scenario relies on a process linguists call ‘contingent necessity’, in which a sequence of events is given shape and meaning by its imagined end-point. What this means is that one possible future scenario is used to justify current actions: this possible scenario is presented as if it were definitely going to happen.
Unsettling and alarming it may be, but this particular flavour of apocalypse is also linguistically interesting. What makes it so interesting to is how it differs from the norm. Usually the metaphor of apocalypse works in one direction only: it identifies one particular thing or action (or group of things or actions) that will, if left unchecked, bring about the end of the world. In the case of our new nuclear apocalypse the metaphor works in two directions diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand, apocalypse will be brought about by investing in nuclear power, and on the other, it will result from not switching to nuclear. The pro- and anti-nuclear camps have mobilised exactly the same metaphor to make opposing arguments. In both cases, the metaphor undermines the argument.
First, here are the frameworks for both sides.
The case against nuclear:
The apocalyptic scenario of the case against nuclear stems from investment in nuclear. Greenpeace made a video in 2008 in which a plane is flown into a nuclear reactor beside a beach where a family is playing. It is little more than an own goal. For a start it is factually inaccurate: potential terrorist threats are widely considered to be more likely during the transportation of uranium than on reactors. In terms of the metaphor, it combines apocalypticism with a presentation of nuclear as the Frankenstein’s monster of energy production, standing against all that is natural. All that is natural is, of course, represented by the family. The overall effect is one of fatalism: nuclear catastrophe is presented as the inevitable result of nuclear as a means of energy generation. This fatalism is a manifestation of contingent necessity: this one possible scenario is presented as a surety if nuclear becomes a greater source of energy production.
The case for nuclear:
In putting forward the case for investing in nuclear, politicians and scientists are, very much like the Greenpeace example, combining the metaphor of apocalypse with contingent necessity. This time, the apocalyptic scenario the result of non-investment in nuclear.
Ed Davey’s 7th February speech to the Commons mobilised apocalyptic metaphor as the inevitable outcome of non-investment in nuclear: “Are there risks? Of course, but the risks to the country and to the planet if we do not meet this challenge are infinitely worse.” James Lovelock steps the metaphor up a notch, and in his 2003 book The Revenge of Gaia states that the risks of nuclear energy are ‘insignificant compared with the real threat of intolerable heat-waves’. The fatalism of ‘infinitely worse’ and ‘intolerable’ is undeniable. David Cameron has recently used a corresponding fatalistic argument in favour of maintaining Trident at current levels in the face of Lib Dem opposition, describing it as ‘a continuous sea deterrent’.
A lot of what we’re getting here is not just contingent necessity, but contingent necessity based on one possible scenario, and a worst-case scenario at that. As we saw with the Cameron example, contingent necessity is not just being used to justify a switch to nuclear power generation, but also to justify nuclear armaments, and even nuclear attacks.
A good example of apocalyptic metaphor mixed with contingent necessity being used to justify a nuclear strike appears in a New York Times opinion piece published in April: a (possible, fictional) worst-case scenario is mobilised by the journalist to justify a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the US against North Korea. Buoyed up by ‘might’s and ‘could’s, the article argues that if the US does nothing, North Korea’s behaviour could cause global nuclear war:
‘If North Korea is left to continue its threatening behaviour it will jeopardize the fragile economies of the region and it will encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons… Most of all, North Korean threats will encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit. The Iranians are certainly watching. If North Korea can use its small nuclear arsenal to blackmail the region with impunity, why shouldn’t the mullahs in Tehran do the same?’
Both sides of the nuclear debate are given purpose and political weight by an identical imagined end-point projected onto the future. In the words of Ed Davey, investment in nuclear is for the benefit of ‘our children’, for ‘future generations’, for ‘2050 and beyond’. By invoking future generations, especially children, Davey is trying to claim a moral stance for his argument. Contingent necessity is used in ways like this by both sides to denote not just purpose but moral responsibility and urgency: act now before it is too late!
© Kate Pond October 2013