Our July/August 2006 issue centered on energy–as did most of the letters we received after publication.
The Nuclear Option
Matthew Wald did a great job reviewing the current state of nuclear power (“The Best Nuclear Option,” July/August 2006). I know how complex the subject is; I spent 13 years in the naval nuclear-power program, 10 years working on spent-fuel recycling and production of breeder-reactor fuels, and 10 years consulting for the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense.
Yes, nuclear power is an obvious choice for production of electricity as an alternative to fossil fuels. The required technology is available, as indicated by the more than 400 nuclear power plants operating in 31 countries. The next step in our country will be to recycle the spent-fuel discharges. The technology to do that is also available and is being used around the world.
Another step will be to use breeder reactors, in which more fuel is produced than charged. Breeders will be used to accommodate depletion of uranium ore and the need to mine it.
A New Way to Get Ethanol Cheaply
In his article on the production of ethanol (“Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol,” July/August 2006), Jamie Shreeve writes, “Processing ethanol from cellulose–wheat and rice straw, switchgrass, paper pulp, agricultural waste products like corn cobs and leaves–has the potential to squeeze at least twice as much fuel from the same area of land, because so much more biomass is available per acre.”
Instead of using “waste products” to restore the fertility, improve the texture, and increase the water-retaining capacity of land, the policies advocated by Jamie Shreeve would degrade our land. You cannot “squeeze” land for long before it becomes infertile.
Irma Esrig Cohen
In his July/August editor’s letter, Jason Pontin writes that “it is now settled fact that our industries are changing the weather.” His statement creates the impression that the MIT community is substantially in agreement with the belief that industrial emissions are “quickly and ruinously” changing the climate, with only the rate in doubt. But within the MIT community there is not unanimity in the fear of catastrophic climate change due to industrial emissions. I refer readers to a July 2 Wall Street Journal article titled “Don’t Believe the Hype.” The writer, Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT, effectively demolishes the campaign to convince the public of scientific unanimity on the severe imminent danger of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Pawleys Island, SC
Jason Pontin is right to advocate Pigovian fees, which are paid to governments for the use of scarce public resources (fish in the sea, the environment’s tolerance for carbon dioxide, etc.). They enforce a constraint with a minimum of central planning.
Pontin briefly describes another remedy for pollution: capping emission limits, then allowing polluters to trade emission credits. He rightly says that such “cap and trade” schemes don’t work very well. I’d like to add that they aren’t fair and can amount to a land grab. For hundreds of years, common resources from acreage to radio bandwidth have been given away. Even if cap-and-trade does not encourage industrialists to pad their emissions now, it is unjust to give such property rights to polluters.
Jason Pontin writes that “the rich world will never voluntarily accept any reduction in its accustomed manner of living, nor will the poor world surrender its legitimate aspirations to wealth.” That’s one way to look at it, but is it not possible that we will simply run out of certain resources if we don’t use less of them? The slowly growing practice of “voluntary simplicity” attests to the fact that individuals can unilaterally decide to live simply and consume less.
I read with interest James Fallows’s piece on the new wave of Web-based applications sometimes called Web 2.0 (“Homo Conexus,” July/August 2006). In using these new programs, he sometimes found that while a new online service was impressive, he was just too old to enjoy it. Unfortunately, I often feel quite the same way. I enjoy reading about exciting technological innovations, but–nose pressed to glass–cannot really participate.
I also liked Fallows’s observation that trust, in general, is important to Web 2.0, but would like to add that Web 2.0 demands a specific kind of trust between a given application’s makers and users. Desktop software, such as Microsoft Word and the Thunderbird e-mail client, is the same day-to-day. Not so with Web 2.0. One can log on to Gmail or Yahoo Mail and find that the interface has radically changed and that the arrangement and filtering of one’s e-mail has been altered.
New Haven, CT
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