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Amartya Sen on dangers of climate change ‘obsession’ and nuclear power and need for a new ethics of environmentalism

September 4, 2014
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Amartya Sen has an important piece out in the New Republic magazine, on the links between environment and development. It’s quite long, so I thought I’d offer my precis service. He argues that the attentionAmartya Sen to climate change is disproportionate, not because we should think less about it, but because we should worry a lot more about other environmental issues, particularly poor people’s access to energy. He particularly dislikes the way the nuclear industry is using concerns over climate change to come back from the dead.

It’s the kind of significant, lofty piece that he excels in. He identifies two big problems: ‘Despite the ubiquity and the reach of environmental dangers, a general normative framework for the evaluation of these dangers has yet to emerge. Second, a much more specific problem: the failure to develop a framework for assessing the comparative costs of different sources of energy (from fossil fuels and nuclear power to solar and renewable energy), inclusive of the externalities involved…. One of the externalities—the evil effects of carbon emission—has received enormous attention, which in its context is a very good thing, but there are other externalities that also demand our urgent attention. These include the growing danger from the rapidly increasing use of nuclear energy—in China and India especially…. The dangers of nuclear energy have received astonishingly little systematic attention in scientific and policy discussions.’

On nuclear:

‘There are at least five different kinds of externalities that add significantly to the social costs of nuclear power: the possibly huge effects of nuclear accidents (as in Chernobyl and Fukushima); the risks of terrorism and sabotage (a strong possibility in countries such as India); the consequences of possible nuclear theft (a potential everywhere, but particularly strong in less well-guarded plants); the difficulties in safely disposing of nuclear waste (which will grow over time cumulatively and possibly quite swiftly if the world comes to rely more and more on nuclear power); and nuclear reactions that may be set off if and when a nuclear power plant is bombed or blasted with conventional weapons in a conventional war, or even in a rather limited local skirmish.’

Smart move (& getting smarter)

Smart move (& getting smarter)

On solar:

‘An alternative that seemed very small in possible use only a few years ago, but which is coming into more and more serious consideration now, is renewable power through using solar energy, wind power, and the power of waves. Recently the costs of these renewable sources of energy, particularly solar, have been falling very fast—quite a bit faster than was expected. This has happened rapidly in China, helped by technological innovations but also by governmental subsidies to the solar-panel industry. This has influenced the costs and benefits of solar energy outside China as well—quite substantially, for example, in India, mainly through the cheaper costs of imported Chinese solar panels. America and Europe have tended to keep out the cheaper—and heavily subsidized—Chinese panels mainly in the interest of their respective “domestic” solar-panel industries.’

On how we think about the environment:

‘There is a need for greater clarity in deciding on how to think ethically about the environmental challenges in the contemporary world. Focusing on human freedom—including our freedom to think about what responsibilities we have—along with our interest in our own quality of life can help in this understanding, and shed light not only on the demands of sustainable development, but also on the content and relevance of what we can identify as “environmental issues.”

The environment is sometimes seen—simplistically, I believe—as the “state of nature,” including such measures as the extent of forest cover, the depth of the ground water table, the number of living species, and so on. It is tempting to go from there to the conclusion that the best environmental planning is one of least interference, of leaving nature alone. This approach is deeply defective.

The environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit. Even though many human activities that accompany the

But shouldn't be?

But shouldn’t be?

process of development may have destructive consequences (and this is very important to understand and to address), it is also within human power to enhance and improve the environment in which we live. Indeed, our power to intervene, with reason and effectiveness, can be substantially enhanced by the process of development itself. For example, greater female education and women’s employment can help to reduce fertility rates drastically, which in the long run can reduce the pressure on environmental destruction, including global warming and the decimation of natural habitats. Similarly, the spread of school education and improvements in its quality can make us more environmentally conscious. Better communication and a more active and a better informed media can enhance our awareness of the need for environment-oriented thinking. It is easy to find many other examples of interconnection. In general, seeing development in terms of increasing the effective freedom of human beings brings the constructive agency of people in environment-friendly activities directly within the domain of developmental efforts.

He concludes by proposing four ‘broadenings of our vision’:

‘First, if the fulfillment of our human existence lies not merely in our living standards and need-fulfillment, but also in the freedoms that we enjoy, then the idea of sustainable development has to be correspondingly reformulated. We must think not just about sustaining the fulfillment of our needs, but more largely about sustaining, and extending, our freedoms (including, of course, the freedom to meet our own needs, but going well beyond that). The sustaining of ecosystems and the preservation of species can be given new grounds by the recognition of human beings as reflective agents rather than as passive patients.

The second broadening concerns the extension of public reasoning from the tendency to appeal to people’s self-interest to explicit recognition of the need to take into account the interests—and the freedoms—of future generations. Many changes have occurred in the past by the force of new reasoning, whether it be the unacceptability of slavery or untouchability, or the need for social safety nets for the underprivileged, or the right to medical attention seen as a social entitlement for all. The battles have not been easy, and the one on sustainable development will need engagement and political commitment.

The third broadening is the need for the enlargement of scientific focus from mere avoidance of dangers to the positive possibilities of enhancing human choices and freedoms, and for avoiding the biases in environmental thinking that have come from an overconcentration on the richer parts of humanity, and the comparative neglect of research that can expand the generation, storage, and efficient use of environmentally safe energy, particularly in poorer countries, including those in the tropics. In thinking about expanding human freedom today and sustaining it in the future, we have to take fuller note of the need for greater energy use for a large number of deprived people in the world.

Finally, as far as the avoidance of dangers is concerned, there is an urgent need for moving from any one-dimensional priority to facing the multifaceted threats that environmental dangers pose. It is odd, for example, that the possible negative effects of nuclear energy have figured much more in public fear than in scientific attempts to provide an assessment.’


  1. Thanks Duncan for this excellent summary and flagging of Sen’s article! It is a strong argument to consider the broad question of environmental futures for all of humanity, including but not limited to addressing mitigating and adapting to climate change. Strange, then, that Sen limits this to a comparison of nuclear vs. solar, without mentioning another of the World Bank’s supposed clean energy sources – hydropower, which produces significant energy without carbon emissions (once the dams are built that is), but at sometimes huge cost to indigenous societies and environments – in India, China, Southeast Asia, and for that matter some parts of the USA. A framework for assessing these costs and benefits outside of GDP and power production is missing as much or more than for nuclear power!

  2. Not wanting to restrict discussion of this rich article to big dams but….just to emphasise that even without the massive environmental costs + increasing risks of international conflict (Ethiopia v Egypt e.g.) even the simplistic economics of big dams don’t add up – see http://bit.ly/DamStudy – yet it doesn’t stop them being built….

  3. As an ex foodie (as in food aid monitor/emergency food security advisor) I’ve always been inspired by the clarity of Sens thinking and this article is no exception, so thanks Duncan for calling it to our attention. “Energy Justice” is long overdue for millions of poor people, especially those living in rural areas and informal settlements and BIG projects like dams and nuclear aren’t the best solution for all the reasons mentioned. Similar to what’s happened with cell phones “off the grid” household electricity from renewables like solar and wind, as suggested above, have a lot of potential, more than I think is being fully considered by policy makers and others. It also puts the power (pun intended) into the hands of people themselves.

  4. My big hope is that nuclear Fusion will become a viable energy source. Unlike current nuclear power stations, fusion does not create long lasting radioactive waste (it combines hydrogen atoms to make helium rather than splitting uranium). There is a center for fusion energy research at Culham near Oxford and they predict that fusion power stations could become viable within 30 to 40 years. The fuel source is easily extracted from sea water.

    The technological challenges are still huge and because the payback time is way beyond the election cycle or the investment cycles of the biggest energy companies it doesn’t appear to get the funding that I think it deserves.

    (Their claim that the process does not leave behind a residual lethal waste had better be correct – I did a tour of the site and was in touching distance of the generator when it was off.)

    1. Hope you’re right Pete, but I have a nagging feeling that nuclear fusion is the energy source of the future…. and always will be!

  5. The bigger battle on energy is about oligopoly, centralised power generation against distributed power generation. This is where the power struggle happens. Solar – nuclear – dams – coal are just different elements of the same discussion. Here too (cfr Easterly) the experts present a political discussion as a technical problem.

    I refer also to a recent publication of Morgan Stanley (http://www.cleanegroup.org/blog/solar-storage-threatens-utility-model-says-morgan-stanley/#.VAkbVWSSxvl).

    Electricity seems to be the end of pipe power of the future: the source makes energy a commodity: while e.g. gas stoves work only with gas, when your stove is electric, it can work on power from gas, nuclear, solar, hydro. But also it can be locally produced (on the roof) with a back-up from the local dam, backed up with a bigger dam, a coal plant, a nuclear power plant.

    The traditional power companies need to keep power generation centralised, because with a power monopoly comes “power” and monopoly benefits. In Europe we saw that with the democratisation of solar power on everybody’s roof, suddenly parliaments started to take decisions on the energy future. Before this was the preserve of big ministries aided by the oligopolies (http://timharford.com/2014/08/monopoly-is-a-bureaucrats-friend-but-a-democrats-foe/).

    These parliamentary decisions seemed foolhardy at first (e.g. supporting the expensive distributed solar power investment) but with hindsight just very intelligent (see Ukraine and Saoudi Arabia).

    In developing countries, where centralised power is quite common, the choice for solar seems to prioritise big stand alone investments above a distributed citizen-owned system. Big dams instead of smaller units.

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