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Talking Nuclear with Socrates

By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association

A July 6 posting (“The future: No doomsday cult required”) noted some of the baggage one can find among advocates for new energy systems. Such evangelism tends to be connected to long-developed beliefs about the unsustainability of our moral and spiritual culture and/or the profit-based corporate world and/or our environmental practices.

As advocates for nuclear energy, we’re often not just in a conversation about energy. Sometimes we’re really on the fringes of a bigger battlefield that’s shaped by hundreds of years of ideology. And the views of those we’re talking to reflect that. As they see it, humans are self-destructively selfish and materialistic. We’re now a plague on the planet (two-thirds of respondents agree with this statement!).   Profit-obsessed corporations have made us that way, and capitalism is rapidly failing.  This is why our energy systems have to change, and fast.

As advocates in the public policy space, our conversations sometimes have either to work around or get beyond these unstated, perhaps unconscious views. The July 6 posting wrapped up by saying that we can do this. How so?

Socrates
Socrates

The Greek philosopher Socrates gave his name to a method. It involves asking respectful questions about another person’s thinking, in a way that may induce them to think more deeply about those beliefs and possibly discover for themselves what underlies them. That can lead anyone to more sound and balanced beliefs.

Based on a few chats from this summer (with a bohemian environmentalist, a solar energy salesman, a climate campaigner, and others), here are questions that might be used constructively in the conversations we’re likely to have about energy systems.

Why do you believe that? Did you accumulate some evidence, or is this an intuitive belief?

What’s the objective you’re trying to achieve with what you’re proposing? For example, do you hope to (a) reduce GHG emissions? (b) reduce land use or some other environmental impact? (c) reduce costs? (d) become independent of the public electricity grid? (e) some other purpose?

You express a view about future energy use (or production). Is this view something that you think will happen, or should happen, or both? What forces favour it happening, and what obstacles are in the way?

What investments need to be made for what you propose to happen? Who do you think should make those investments? If this happened quickly, wouldn’t some of society’s existing investments be made uneconomic (“stranded”)? Who would bear that cost?

You expect certain new or improved energy technologies. How ready are those technologies today? How sure are you that they will materialize? What kinds of scaling-up, testing, standardization, and cost reductions will be required in order for them to be widely adopted? How fast is the technology we currently use being replaced? Considering all these factors, how long might it take until most people use the technology you foresee?

Why are you so sure the electricity grid should change to become less centralized, or should be broken up altogether? How does the system currently fail to deliver the result you want?

What benefits do you expect, for yourself and for others, from selling power into the grid, or from going “off grid” entirely? What will be the effect on those who are not able to do these things, who must stay in their current relationship to the power grid?

Asking these questions doesn’t demand that the other side sit still and listen to your point of view. Rather, it shows interest in exploring the other side’s viewpoint, as well as willingness to take it seriously. Asking such questions helps the other side to probe, to question seriously and perhaps to improve, what it says it thinks.