Every year since 1961 the Wall Street Journal has run the same two-part editorial—“The Desolate Wilderness…And the Fair Land”—on the day before Thanksgiving. Part one offers a snippet from Governor Bradford’s account of the pilgrims’ tearful departure from Delfs-Haven and harrowing first contact with a “hideous and desolate wilderness.” The second part, penned at the apex of the American Century, seeks to renew the colonial taming of wilderness quest “in a time of troubles.” It first surveys admiringly what the Protestant work ethic has wrought across the continent since Plymouth landing. Beholding a “fair land,” the traveler-narrator imagines still greater days ahead: “America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.”
Yet America the bountiful and free, we are told, is wracked by division within and under threat from “unpredictable strangers” without. Sounds all too familiar.
How might this country move forward? By reminding ourselves, the traveler-narrator intones, “that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men…the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.”
Come late November, I wager the WSJ will seek once again to renew the pioneering spirit and promise of cornucopia so dear to its privileged readership. Despite mounting troubles, we must keep the economy humming along through hard work, ingenuity, and savvy investments. Putting turkey on the table depends on it.
In recent decades a quite different message has been delivered by scientists: large-scale changes to our political economy are required if humanity hopes to avoid climate catastrophe and mass species extinction. On this view, the WSJ’s delusional faith in perpetual economic growth threatens our collective future. Environmental-justice activists thus invoke the precautionary principle and demand alternatives to business as usual. Systemic risks provoke a moral politics of precaution on many fronts, from local protests against new pipelines to statewide bans on fracking to the signing of a global climate accord.
Under the banner of “integral ecology,” Pope Francis calls in Laudato si’ for a judicious use of the precautionary principle when weighing technological and environmental risks. A precautionary approach “makes it possible to protect those who are most vulnerable and whose ability to defend their interests and to assemble incontrovertible evidence is limited. If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof” (LS #186). Techno-economic development is welcome, provided it allows all stakeholders a say, considers the full range of options, is open to ongoing assessment, and does not put human and environmental health unduly at risk. Importantly, neither business interests nor cost-benefit analyses ought to be privileged in the decision-making process. Eco-social justice demands no less.
Trouble at Turkey Point
As a case study in today’s precautionary politics, consider the ongoing battle over energy policy in Florida. Operated by Florida Power & Light (FPL), Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station sits twenty-five miles south of Miami along the shore of Biscayne Bay. The facility’s five power units, which supply nearly all of south Florida’s electricity, include two aging nuclear reactors. Projecting increased demand, investor-owned FPL plans to build two new nuclear units at a projected cost of $20 billion, with ratepayers footing the bill.
Local opposition to FPL’s plan has grown in recent years. Eighty thousand citizens have signed a petition against nuclear expansion. Concerns include the utility’s impact on local groundwater sources as well as Biscayne National Park, an organizational culture of silence at Turkey Point, limited evacuation options if a major incident occurs, and mounting climate-related risks.
Keeping nuclear reactors cool requires huge volumes of water. Turkey Point’s unusual system circulates water through a 168-mile-long series of canals (from the air, it looks like a giant radiator). In recent years the heavy, hyper-saline canal water has helped push an underground saltwater plume further inland toward drinking water supplies. A $200 million remediation effort, ordered by the state, is ongoing.
FPL says their new reactors will be cooled with wastewater from a nearby sewer plant, which then will be injected into salt-water caverns deep underground–a disposal option that raises concerns about eventual seepage of contaminated water into local aquifers. Opponents point to the utility’s poor track record in managing the forty-year-old canal system, while some hydrologists question how safely sequestered the new wastewater will be, even if it is deposited far below fresh-water sources located closer to the surface.
Managers of Biscayne National Park, a marine sanctuary ten miles east of Turkey Point, worry that FPL operations could impact already stressed coral reefs. As ocean water turns more acidic and its temperature rises due to global warming, any changes to bay waters from Turkey Point effluent introduces an additional risk factor. A 2016 report found that tritium, a radioactive isotope, has leaked from the unlined canals into local groundwater and the bay. While tritium levels are low, biologists worry that canal water contamination may elevate ammonia and phosphorus levels, which in turn could harm the bay’s marine life.
Despite these and other concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s environmental impact statement (EIS) concluded in 2016 that no adverse impacts of significance should prevent issuing licenses for the two new reactors. According to the NRC, construction and operation of the additional nuclear units will result in mostly small and only some moderate impacts to natural and human/cultural resources within the area. No large impacts, single or cumulative, are anticipated.
In a separate review, the NRC found no safety issues related to new plant production, yet whistleblowers allege a persistently hostile work environment at Turkey Point in which workers are afraid to raise safety issues out of fear of retaliation. From 2005 to 2011, the NRC received 160 anonymous complaints from the utility’s workers—far more than any other U.S. nuclear facility. Where speaking up should be the norm, a dangerous silence prevails.
The surrounding Miami-Dade County population has grown significantly since Turkey Point began operating its nuclear units in 1972. NRC emergency planning designates two danger zones ringing nuclear reactors, one a plume pathway zone with a ten-mile radius that deals with exposure to and inhalation of airborne radioactive contamination, the other an ingestion pathway zone, fifty miles in radius, which focuses on radioactively contaminated foods and liquids. Over 160,000 people now live within ten miles of Turkey Point, and 3.5 million reside within fifty miles. Local officials fear too many people inhabit these danger zones and that feasible evacuation options fall far short of what is needed for moving a large population to safe areas in a timely manner.
Finally, critics voice concern over Turkey Point’s bayside locale and vulnerability in the face of rising sea levels, more severe hurricanes, and stronger storm surges. In response, FPL reminds detractors of how the containment buildings at the facility withstood a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew (Cat-5) in 1992 and says it plans to build the new reactors on reinforced platforms twenty-six feet above sea level. (The old reactors sit twenty feet above the sea.)
In 2010, four of the region’s counties formed a compact for long-term collaboration on climate-change adaptation. Their 2012 climate-action plan calls for a regional and state-level commitment to greater energy efficiency and deployment of alternative energy technologies supported by a renewable energy portfolio standard, innovative financing options, and changes in building codes, land-use rules, and architectural designs. Given the regional compact’s preferred strategy, the expansion of nuclear power at Turkey Point seems unnecessary to many.
Despite strong public support for conservation and renewable energy, the Sunshine State’s political establishment so far has ignored or blocked reform proposals. Yet the situation in Florida is fluid, not frozen. Resistance to the risks imposed by Big Energy likely will increase as the waters rise, stronger hurricanes roll through, and alternative energy costs fall. As public trust erodes and demands for transparency grow, a space opens for local leaders, counter-experts, and concerned citizens to challenge a nuclear-powered growth agenda.
In April 2016 a Florida appeals court overturned the governor’s green-lighting of nuclear expansion at Turkey Point. FPL then informed the state it planned to postpone construction until 2020. As expected, though, the utility received in 2018 the NRC’s final approval for a new nuclear license.
FPL also is on track to receive from the NRC a second twenty-year extension to continue operating its older nuclear units using the controversial cooling canals. The first nuclear facility to apply for a second twenty-year extension, Turkey Point will set a precedent affecting the future of ninety other first-gen plants around the country that also may seek to operate twice as long as originally designed.
The turkey problem
In contemporary “risk society” (Beck), policy-makers and an increasingly wary public grapple with uncertainty, complexity, and vulnerability as environmental conditions change, technological innovations race ahead, and often hidden dangers multiply. While some continue to display confidence in expert projections and precision systems, others recognize the limits of prediction and control. The former view is exemplified by the NRC’s rosy assessment of limited risks at Turkey Point, the latter by those who argue the current trajectory of techno-economic development in south Florida imposes unacceptable risks to human and environmental health. These two camps reflect opposite poles in today’s politics of precaution.
In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb reminds us of the “turkey problem,” the age-old philosophical problem of induction and limits of human foresight. Imagine a turkey fed well for months in the run-up to Thanksgiving. As time goes by the turkey comes to expect—in the normal routine—a daily feeding. Yet on a Wednesday in late November, something altogether unexpected happens to the unwary bird. Taleb asks: “What can a turkey learn about what is in store for it tomorrow from the events of yesterday? A lot, perhaps, but certainly a little less than it thinks, and it is just that ‘little less’ that may make all the difference.” And as Taleb notes, our blindness to “black swan events” only adds to the danger.
In a risk society fewer people gobble up the assurances of safety fed to them by authorities without first asking hard questions. In the case of Turkey Point, the more one learns the harder it is to swallow the promises. Yet the seriousness of the situation may not sink in if we sit down to read the paper and find ourselves captivated once again by dreams of technological triumph and affluence without end.
Sustainable abundance for all
Both idea and ideal, integral ecology points toward a world of sustainable abundance for all rather than affluence for the few. In Laudato si’ Francis calls for dialogue and collaboration around alternative approaches to sustainable development through, for example, adoption of zero-waste production processes (LS #22) as well as a rapid transition to renewable energy systems and sustainable agriculture (LS #26, 180). Making good on the promise of integral ecology requires democratic renewal and sustained pressure on elites from civil-society forces. At several points, the pope expresses gratitude for the new pioneers, the builders of tomorrow’s more just, sustainable society.
From now on, no one gets a pass on the politics of precaution, for we are all involuntary members of risk communities facing a future at once uncertain and in our hands. Rather than bow our heads and play the turkey, we might question the pilgrim myth of endless expansion. Instead, like pilgrims of a different sort, we might learn how to put our stock not in the sustenance of a colonial politics of extraction and capital, and instead practice an abundance rooted in economic sharing and democratic mutuality.