Refreshingly pragmatic and non-partisan, The Case of Nuclear Weapons: How to Defeat Global Warming and Create a Free, Open, and Beautiful Future (Polaris Books, 2023) by Robert Zubrin offers a comprehensive history of advances in energy technology. It also provides a taxonomy of enemies of nuclear energy, including Malthusians and “degrowth” advocates who, ironically, would limit the world’s only scalable clean energy technology in the name of environmental protection. The book launches a compelling and detailed defense of one of humanity’s most promising yet misunderstood energy sources. Policymakers across the political spectrum would do well to heed Zubrin’s call for reform and liberalization in what he calls the “regulatory boost and strangulation of the nuclear industry.”
Zubrin takes no risks, refusing to play games of political tribalism (i.e., believing that climate change “has become politicized to the point where opposing parties have chosen to deny it or exaggerate it roughly”). While he presents the potential of nuclear energy to reduce emissions as a huge advantage, he also notes: “The existential threat to humanity is not climate change. These are the ideologies of despair.
Specifically, when people see the world as a zero-sum battle for scarce energy and limited resources, such desperation can restrict freedoms and even produce unthinkable atrocities. As Zubrin writes, “If the belief persists that there is not much to do, then the haves and the have-nots are going to have to clash, the only question being when.” He defines the production of abundant energy not only as an economic imperative but also as a moral imperative.
Although the main idea of the book may be to promote nuclear energy as a solution to certain societal problems, Zubrin’s most striking insight does not lie in the specifics of his argument for nuclear energy, but in his larger double thesis on the relationship between the abundance of energy (regardless of the source of the energy) and freedom. He writes that energy technology “is the foundation of freedom.” It posits both that free societies are better able to produce energy and that access to more energy liberates humanity.
Zubrin recounts how, as civilization has become more and more energy-intensive, our use of energy has freed humanity – especially women – from hard work. “Motor mills had the same meaning for women in the twelfth century as washing machines had for women in the twentieth,” says Zubrin. He quotes the ancient Greek poet Antipater of Thessaloniki, who praised the reduction of women’s working hours by the water wheel with these words:
Hold your hand from the grinders, you grind the girls. Even if the cock crow announces the dawn, sleep. For Demeter (the goddess of harvest and agriculture) imposed the work of your hands on the nymphs (of the water), who jumping on the highest part of the wheel, turn its axis; with encircling cogs, it spins the hollow weight of Nisyrian millstones. If we learn to easily feast on the fruits of the earth, we taste the golden age again.
The water wheel that saves women from waking up at sunrise for the mind-numbing task of grinding grain to make bread is just one more example of how advances in technology throughout history have no doubt benefited women even more than men.
The harnessing of energy and the mechanization of labor have freed countless people from exhausting toil – a liberating process that continues in many countries as more and more households to access electricity and labor-saving devices such as washing machines. Given the number of tasks now delegated to electric machines that have traditionally fallen to women, it is perhaps unsurprising that many prominent advocates of an energetically abundant future powered by nuclear power are women, or, as Zubrin alliteratively puts it, a “beautiful friendly force of fierce women”. fission freedom fighters.”
Of course, as Zubrin would probably agree, access to energy only does not create freedom, although it can help counter the mindset of scarcity that is so often the enemy of freedom. One need only look to the oil states of the Gulf, blessed with both massive oil deposits and authoritarian political systems, to find evidence that energy abundance is insufficient to propagate liberalism or gender equality.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia did not even issue driver’s licenses to its citizens until five years ago. It is clear that freedom leads to abundance of energy. It is more doubtful that the abundance of energy necessarily leads to freedom writ large, although it at least defuses scarcity-based logics to limit human freedom. (Unfortunately, authoritarians have invented many other justifications for restricting freedom.)
While abundance of energy and freedom can be mutually reinforcing, if humanity were to choose just one, the choice seems clear: institutions and policies of freedom. History shows that free people in lands devoid of natural resources can innovate to achieve a high standard of living. (As Zubrin points out, “it is human ingenuity that turns natural raw materials into resources.”)
Consider The whirlwind of Hong Kong transformation of the free market from a barren island into a gleaming metropolis in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberty is the source of prosperity and innovation, and the energy to fuel modernity. As Zubrin notes, when it comes to environmental challenges, again, “Freedom is not the problem. Freedom is the solution. Prosperity is not the problem. Prosperity is the solution. “
Zubrin also writes that “human progress must and inevitably will result in continued exponential growth in the production of human energy”. Whether humanity generates this energy with nuclear reactors or finds an even better solution, the relationship between many aspects of freedom and energy is worth pondering.
Zubrin’s book shows the urgency of releasing the abundance of energy. He argues convincingly that a future of abundant energy could help preserve the freedom that scarcity often puts in jeopardy. Embracing freedom is the surest way to fuel the future.