George Monbiot and nuclear power: how a liberal talked himself into a dead end


It created a small stir in late March when British journalist and columnist George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that the ongoing nuclear accident at Fukushima in Japan had convinced him that the use of nuclear power needs to be expanded in order to counter global warming. Monbiot has a reputation as a supporter of environmental and other progressive causes, so his article was undoubtedly some comfort to an industry in need of comforting.

Monbiot’s lead argument didn’t rise even to the level of childishness. It was that, despite the earthquake and tsunami impact on the nuclear reactors, “as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation”. Even if the Fukushima radiation release had been over when Monbiot wrote – which it wasn’t and still isn’t – no one had had an opportunity to determine how much radiation had been absorbed by anyone. That doesn’t mean that radiation is harmless, and Monbiot was obviously using “lethal dose” to mean something that would kill you before the issue date of his next Guardian column, not something that would reduce your remaining life expectancy from 40 or 50 years to 20 years.


Several anti-nuclear and environmental writers have demolished the bad science of Monbiot’s attempts to present nuclear power as relatively harmless. Here I want to look at a different question: what is it that causes a liberal supporter of an environmentally sustainable world to endorse a technology that creates poisons that will last for several hundred thousand years?

What Monbiot himself said in his Guardian article was that he had plumped for nuclear because the alternatives were technologically inferior, or at least no better. All of his article concerns the technological suitability or acceptability of other forms of energy production, compared with nuclear. While many of these technological arguments are false or distorted or debate with straw positions, there is a more important point. How much energy we consume and what forms of energy production we use can’t be decided on a purely technological basis. They are first of all social-political issues: what is possible is determined more by who rules than it is by technology.

For example, Monbiot has in the past advocated energy-saving and alternative energy measures for the UK that in themselves are sensible and feasible: banning incandescent light globes, creating a national coach network to replace most private transport, “the closure of all out-of-town superstores, and their replacement with a warehouse and delivery system”, the construction of large offshore wind farms to generate electricity, an end to road expansion, strict energy-efficiency requirements for buildings. These measures, as Monbiot wrote, are “drastic but affordable” (Guardian, October 31, 2006). None of them are technologically infeasible. But none of them have been implemented.

Such measures would damage the interests of major capitalists and/or require harsh restrictions on the “rights” of capitalists. That is why they will not be carried out by a capitalist government. (By contrast, Cuba’s socialist government has already implemented one of Monbiot’s proposals, replacing incandescent globes with compact fluorescent throughout the island.)

Choosing between evils

When a technologically feasible measure such as improved public transport is rejected or ignored by capitalist governments, Monbiot looks around for some other technological “fix”, one that he hopes will be acceptable to the powers that be. Unfortunately, the currently dominant methods of energy production – nuclear power and the burning of fossil fuels – are highly profitable and will not be given up by the capitalists without a fight. Because he won’t look beyond capitalism, Monbiot is reduced to trying to choose the least destructive of capitalism’s preferred methods. As it happens, he gets that choice wrong. But even if he got it right, he would still be choosing between evils, choosing between different methods of destroying human life and the environment on which it depends.

Instead of trying to choose the least unpleasant disaster, we should draw the logical conclusion that we need to replace capitalist government with a working people’s government that can take the necessary measures that capitalist governments always avoid. But if he did that, Monbiot would be a revolutionary rather than a liberal, and he probably wouldn’t have a Guardian column for very long.

Views, Discussion & Debate
The World