Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
University of Chicago Press, 1986
ISBN 0226902110

Pages 53-4

As the Ford Foundation’s Nuclear Energy Policy Study Group explained: “When analyzing energy, one must first decide whether ordinary rules of economics can be applied.” The group decided that, yes, energy should be considered “an economic variable, rather than something requiring special analysis. After that decision had been made, of course, the rest was simply a matter of putting Btus or kilowatt-hours in the numerator and dollars in the denominator and worshipping the resulting ratio as gospel.

Even those who held unorthodox viewpoints in this debate found it necessary to uphold the supreme importance of this criterion. Thus, Amory B. Lovins, a leading proponent of soft energy paths, wrote of this method: “While not under the illusion that facts are separable from values, I have tried ... to separate my personal preferences from my analytic assumptions and to rely not on modes of discourse that might be viewed as overtly ideological, but rather on classicial arguments of economic and engineering efficiency (which are only tacitly ideological).”

To Lovins’s credit, he consistently argued that the social consequences of energy choices were, in the last analysis, the most important aspect of energy policy making. In his widely read Soft Energy Paths, Lovins called attention to “centrism, vulnerability, technocracy, repression. alienation” and other grave problems that afflict conventional energy solutions. Lovins compares “two energy paths that are distinguished by their antithetical social implications.” He notes that basing energy decisions on social criteria may appear to involve a “heroic decision,” that is, “doing something the more expensive way because it is desirable on other more important grounds than internal cost.”

But Lovins is careful not to appeal to his readers’ sense of courage or altruism. “Surprisingly,” he writes, “a heroic decision does not seem to be necessary in this case, because the energy system that seems socially more attractive is also cheaper and easier.” But what if the analysis had shown the contrary? Would Lovins have been prepared to give up the social advantages believed to exist along the soft energy path? Would he have accepted “centrism, vulnerability, technocracy, repression, alienation,” and the like? Here Lovins yielded ground that in recent history has again and again been abandoned as lost territory. It raises the question of whether even the best intentioned, best qualified analysts in technological decision making are anything more than mere efficiency worshippers....

As Paul Goodman once noted, “Now, if lecturing at a college, I happen to mention that some function of society which is highly centralized could be much decentralized without loss of efficiency, or perhaps with a gain in efficiency, at once the students want to talk about nothing else. That approach is, indeed, one way of catching people’s attention; if you can get away with it, it is certainly a most convincing kind of argument. Because the idea of efficiency attracts a wide consensus, it is sometimes used as a conceptual Trojan horse by those who have more challenging political agendas they hope to smuggle in. But victories won in this way are in other respects great losses. For they affirm in our words and in our methodologies that there are certain human ends that no longer dare be spoken in public. Lingering in that stuffy Trojan horse too long, even soldiers of virtue eventually suffocate.