Breaking Bad and the New Mexican Nuclear Uncanny

The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer. He sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.
-William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch [1]

Western civilization’s social, man-made, and natural environments are dysfunctional, decaying and polluted. This dystopia is familiar to everyone because we see it in the mass media and we see it reflected in popular entertainment. It is common for film and television writers to choose the decline of empire as a central theme of their work. Disaster movies are all too familiar, and high quality cable television dramas such as The SopranosMad Men, and Breaking Bad come to mind as examples of long-form fiction that cover the topic better than any two-hour movie could. Yet, in spite of the apparent interest in the grand theme of the rise and fall of empire, these works reveal the extent to which both the producers of mass entertainment and its audience are unconscious of the fact that their stories are tales of the nuclear age.
"Radioactive nation building: … the long-term effects of participating in national-cultural logics that mobilize resources in the name of security and community, but that do so in ways that are unsustainable and that create both social and material toxicity." (p. 213) (Review of the book here.)

Noam Chomsky wrote, “If some extraterrestrial species were compiling a history of Homo sapiens, they might well break their calendar into two eras: BNW (before nuclear weapons) and NWE (the nuclear weapons era).” [2] As significant as this break in history was, it is seldom portrayed in popular entertainment. Nuclear weapons appear occasionally in disaster movies as terrorist threats or other such plot devices, but the real stories of the nuclear age, of the victims and veterans of nuclear testing, for example, remain hidden. Films such as Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July told the fictional stories of Vietnam veterans, but there is yet to be a Hollywood film about a veteran who came back from the Nevada Test Site, or a story told about the hibakusha of the Bikini Islands.
The generation that lived through the rupture between these eras was much more aware of how the atom bomb had transformed society. In the book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin wrote:

“Nineteen forty-eight was the crucial postwar year,” Ginsberg explained. “It was the turning point. Of course the atom bomb had already gone off in 1945, and Kerouac and Burroughs and I had talked about it, but the psychological fallout from the bomb—the consciousness—didn’t really hit until 1948. There was the splitting of the atom and the splitting of the old structures of society and also a sense of the inner world splitting up and coming apart.” Like many other writers around the world, Ginsberg turned the atom bomb into an all-inclusive metaphor. Everywhere he looked he saw apocalypse and atomization. [3]

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, there is no mention of the atom bomb until the final pages of the story, set in Mexico, yet it delivers the explanatory punch of the tale. The refusal of the characters to take part in the post-war economic boom, and all the preceding delinquency and mad wanderings of these “best minds of a generation” now seem to be explained by this painful consciousness of how the world had changed:

Strange crossroad towns on top of the world rolled by, with shawled Indians watching us from under hatbrims and rebozos. All had their hands outstretched. They had come down from the backmountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer and they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and banks and reduce them to jumbles like the avalanche heap, and we would be as poor as them someday and stretching out our hands in the samesame way.” [4]

What I seek to illustrate here is the decline of nuclear consciousness in popular art, using the masterpiece TV drama Breaking Bad [5] as a prime example. The nuclear age is implicit in nearly every frame of the series, even though the story never explicitly touches upon any aspect of America’s nuclear past. Centered on a high school chemistry teacher who embarks on a criminal career as a manufacturer of crystal methamphetamine, Breaking Bad is set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a state which was ground zero for much of America’s nuclear program. In The Inconceivable Atomic Legacy of New Mexico, Sam Gilbert wrote:

A former Los Alamos scientist, who requested anonymity, told me, “The US nuclear complex is either unacknowledged or considered antiquated Cold War stuff. But look at the world today—Iran and North Korea, the global investment in nuclear energy, and the meltdown in Japan. It’s coming full circle, with New Mexico at the center.” … in his book The Nuclear Borderlands, author Joseph Masco describes New Mexico as “the only state in the US supporting the entire cradle-to-grave nuclear economy.” This includes uranium mining, nuclear weapons design and testing, the largest single arsenal of nuclear weapons, and the country’s only permanent depository for US military industrial nuclear waste. [6][7]

New Mexico is home to Los Alamos National Laboratories, the primary site of the Manhattan Project and still a leading nuclear technology center and waste storage facility. Sandia Labs in Albuquerque “strives to enhance the nation’s security and prosperity through sustainable, transformative approaches to the world’s most difficult nuclear energy challenges.” [8] In the south of the state, there is Alamogordo, site of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear test in 1945. In the southeast corner of the state is Carlsbad, site of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), the nation’s only nuclear waste repository. It functioned for fifteen years before recent failures and radiation leaks raised serious questions about the viability of all such plans to bury nuclear waste. [9] Finally, in the northwest corner of the state there is Church Rock, the site of the July 16, 1979 uranium mine tailings breach (occurring to the hour on the 34th anniversary of the Trinity test) that went into the forgotten history books as America’s worst case of environmental radiological contamination—worse even than the famous Three Mile Island disaster, which occurred just three months earlier. [10]
All of these nuclear sites have made New Mexico a nuclear state, a state that has grown and benefited over the last seventy years thanks to infusions of federal spending on defense, nuclear weapons, and nuclear energy. In all this time, New Mexico has received more federal funds than it contributes back to the federal government.
Thus the broken society depicted in Breaking Bad is the product of the nuclear technocratic economy that dominated the state in the late 20th century. New Mexico is an extreme case, but if other states and other nations look similar it is because they too have been affected in the same way by defense and security spending.
Breaking Bad was, however, not consciously created as a story about the nuclear legacy. The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, had originally chosen southern California as its backdrop, but he was asked to film in New Mexico strictly for the financial incentives offered by the state. For a while he considered how to set up his shots to look like California, but then he decided it would be simpler just to set the whole story in Albuquerque.
The central character of Breaking Bad is Walter White, a teacher and a chemist. The fact that he has never done any work related to American defense or nuclear programs is another indication that the writers of the series had no intention to write a “nuclear” story. It’s implausible that someone with his skills wouldn’t be working at one of the national laboratories if he had become dissatisfied with teaching high school.
By the second season of the series the producers seemed to become aware of the nuclear backdrop to their story. They staged one scene (season 2, episode 7) in The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque (depicted by its name at the time, The National Atomic Museum). The scene is crucial, as it is a turning point at which Walt decides to go from being a minor producer of meth to running a large-scale operation, instructing his distributors to build the network exponentially and conquer new territory. The metaphor of the nuclear chain reaction is well placed in the story. It essentially represents Walt's decision to “go nuclear” in the scale of his drug empire. He explicitly tells Jesse, his young partner responsible for distribution, to go for exponential growth, with the nuclear chain reaction serving as one of the many science metaphors Walt uses when instructing the young men under his care. In one scene Jesse is shown wearing a T-shirt with a pumpkin face doubling as a radiation symbol. 

"Those three I met? They should each have three, six, nine sub-dealers working for them. Exponential growth. That's the key here." (22:46-25:36) Jesse's pumpkin face T-shirt bears more resemblance to the symbol for radiation.

     Nonetheless, the museum setting stays implicit in the background, as none of the characters refer to it in the scene, and nuclear history is never referred to again. The story creators and their characters think about New Mexico as a “nuclear space” as much as a fish thinks about water, but the side-effects of the nuclear science economy permeate the environment of police stations, junk yards, strip malls, drug dens, suburban swimming pools, Indian nations and, most of all, the surrounding desert that serves as a constant reminder of what nuclear technology threatens to deliver on thirty minutes notice. Furthermore, the plague of crystal meth addiction at the center of the story underscores a fact of life in the techno-scientific age. Nuclear weapons are essential, so it is humans who must adapt or be anesthetized to what the construction of a nuclear-weapon state demands.
Whether the creators of Breaking Bad were aware of it or not, the setting seems to portray what Joseph Masco meant when he wrote of New Mexico’s “nuclear uncanny”—an anxious “new cognitive orientation toward everyday life” and “reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.” New Mexico is a “home to both the hyperwealthy and the poorest of the poor, one that is simultaneously sacred space, US experimental laboratory, tourist fantasy land and national sacrifice zone.” [11] Vince Gilligan was probably quick to realize that it was a stroke of luck to have his story’s location moved to New Mexico, for the setting itself seems to be a central character or even a creative force in the narrative. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine it would have struck such a chord with its audience if it had been set elsewhere.

In Breaking Bad, radioactive hazards never play an explicit 
part in the plot lines, yet the season three DVD cover features 
barrels of nuclear waste. Was this an error, or a subtle reference 
to the New Mexican techno-scientific landscape?
It’s also worth noting, before discussing Breaking Bad further, that the creators of the show seemed interested in the radioactive background of their story after it had concluded. In the “prequel” series Better Call Saul, which chronicles the early years of Walter White’s “criminal” criminal lawyer, Saul (then known by his actual name of Jimmy McGill) experiences a “meltdown” while calling bingo numbers at a seniors' residence. Here's how he expresses his New Mexico state of mind:

None of us is ever leaving this godforsaken wasteland… I mean what is it with this place? It's like living inside an Easy-Bake oven. Look out that window. It's like a soulless, radioactive Georgia O'Keeffe hellscape out there, crawling with coral snakes and scorpions. Did you ever see the movie The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a documentary! God forbid your car breaks down and you have to walk ten steps. You've got a melanoma the size of a pineapple where your head used to be. So you ask why, if that's how I feel, why do I live here... why? [12]

The Hills Have Eyes (1977, with a re-make in 2006) is a horror film set in New Mexico, in which a family is lost in the desert and tormented by mutant humans born from a nuclear testing site. 
As Breaking Bad begins, our non-smoking hero is diagnosed with lung cancer, while the aunt of his young partner in crime has been stricken the same way. Cancer is the affliction that has made them “break bad.” The nuclear economy has not given rise to any form of equitable social system with health care and death benefits for the widow of a high school teacher. The money flowed for nuclear weapons, but not for those now suffering from the plutonium blowing in the wind. On the Western frontier it is still every man for himself, so in the face of death Walt concludes life as an upstanding citizen is for suckers.
Besides these cases of cancer, Walter Jr. has cerebral palsy, adding to the pall cast over the technological landscape. Many people accept such afflictions as naturally occurring, but at the same time we have the uneasy feeling that something is amiss. Formerly rare conditions seem to touch every family on every street. Walter’s radiation treatment burn is recognized by his scientifically illiterate partner because it is such a common sight.
While the story portrays these physical diseases, Breaking Bad is mainly about the social disease of addiction and the war on drugs, and thus it follows in the literary tradition of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in portraying drug addiction as a metaphor for the organizing principle of modern life: addiction to power and control, to consumption, to machines, to oil and uranium, and addiction to making others addicted. As Cold War spending declined in the 1990s, New Mexico was primed to turn from one kind of fix to another.
Into the breach comes Walter White like a latter day Robert Oppenheimer, a man of science reluctantly tempted into an evil scientific endeavor that will happen with or without his participation. Oppenheimer made an atom bomb, whereas Walter White makes a neurochemical weapon of mass destruction. Incidentally, we can note that the criminal undertaking involves the same toxic secrecy and insecurity that nuclear-weapon states require. Walter comes to his life of crime first telling himself that his motives are pure. He will take just enough to save his family. If he doesn’t do it, someone with lower motives will do it anyway, with an inferior product.
Oppenheimer, the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, described his participation in the same way. He said famously about the first nuclear detonation:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. [13]

The historian Alex Wellerstein explained in his interpretation of this quote that Oppenheimer was not claiming god-like powers, as many people have understood his words. [14] The story from Hindu scripture shows that the prince did not want to serve in the war, but here the god stood before him and proved his divine power by taking multi-armed form, and convinced the prince that it was in his interest to submit to the fate that was demanded of him, as Vishnu would carry on with his plans with or without the prince’s participation. The destruction was ordained to happen—someone more evil might have made the bomb first, or conventional bombing would have ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki anyway. To put it in the simpler language of the contemporary Dionysian gods Jagger and Richards, Vishnu was saying, “I’m simply dying for some thrills and spills. If you can’t rock me, somebody will.” [15]
It may seem odd that these rational men of science justified their participation in the nuclear weapons program by comparing their necessary obedience to the US government with the superstitions of an ancient belief system, but that system was just a portrayal of a dilemma inherent in the exercise of political power. They had to participate because the train was leaving the station with or without them. Some of the scientists might have felt morally off the hook at the time, but it is well known that Oppenheimer was more remorseful and tormented as time passed. He told President Truman, speaking for himself but implicating Truman as well, that he had “blood on his hands.” He favored putting the atomic bomb under international control and was against the development of the hydrogen bomb. Unlike Einstein and scientists who left the nuclear weapons program, Oppenheimer stayed on in the hope of changing the system from within. However, his dissenting opinions became less welcome as American anti-communism became extreme, and he eventually lost his security clearance.
As the story of Breaking Bad progresses, Walter’s hands get bloodier as his motives become darker. When he obtains more than enough to provide for his family, he still wades in deeper, like Macbeth trapped by the “insane root that takes the reason prisoner” (Macbeth I.III.83). He is in a place he never intended to be at the outset, in the same way every junkie never set out with a plan to become an addict. Breaking Bad has been called a great modern tragedy, and the parallels to Macbeth run deep. Some of Macbeth’s lines would fit right into the mouth of Walter White: “It will have blood; they say blood will have blood” (III.IV.122), or “I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” (III.IV.136-138).
As Walter White succumbs to his addiction to power, he takes on the pseudonym Heisenberg, which is perhaps the story’s only explicit reference to nuclear physics. The name serves as a metaphor for the moral enigma that is Walter White. Werner Heisenberg was famous for formulating the uncertainty principle, which states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known. Heisenberg’s life itself contained many uncertainties, as it was known that he conducted research into nuclear fission in Germany during the early 1940s, but the extent of his enthusiasm for building an atom bomb for Hitler remained a mystery.

graphic from www.infobytes.tv/breakingbad 
Walter White is an enigma in the same manner. Can we observe at which point he loses our sympathy and becomes loathsome? While we observe, we can measure one aspect of his nature, but not others. Is his addiction to power any different than the addiction of a meth addict, or any different than that which we see in our institutions and corporations and in global politics? To the police he is like a subatomic particle: the meth kingpin Heisenberg’s existence may be known but his meth-making cannot been observed. When his actions are observed, his mind and his nature are unfathomable. Robert Oppenheimer alluded to this when he said, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.” [16]
Walter White uses science in one other way to hint at duality and ambiguity. In his mundane role as a chemistry teacher, he tells his students about chirality, the property of asymmetry derived from the Greek word for “hand,” a familiar chiral object. An object is chiral if it is, like a hand, not identical to its mirror image. As a metaphor for moral agency, Walter is hinting that people too are chiral opposites with Jekyll-and-Hyde like properties, just as a molecule’s potential is changed when its orientation is reversed. Walter may appear to others as a benign teacher and family man, but when he is flipped he is capable of things which no one expects of him.
In the finale, Walter White admits to his wife that he didn’t really do it for the family. He did it because he was “good at it.” He knows he will die soon, by cancer or violence. He knows he has lost his family, that his son will despise him forever, but he has not come to his wife one last time in order to apologize. He wanted to admit to all past excuses and speak the truth, but what he says falls short of showing contrition. Later, when he is dying of a gunshot, he staggers to his lab equipment and dies caressing his precious creation. He bears a great resemblance to other men of science who gave up their lives and scruples for the chance to express their genius. No regrets, and sorry, not sorry. As Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it, and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success.” [17] For Oppenheimer, that later argument was ruinous, both personally for himself and for the world he tried to warn about the necessity of eliminating nuclear arms. [18] Breaking Bad is a work of art that has much to contribute to discussions over what should be done in the aftermath of the many “technical successes” of the 20th century.


The promotional trailer for the final season of Breaking Bad features Bryan Cranston reciting the famous poem Ozymandias that provided the title of one of the episodes.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:`Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

This post was revised on August 24, 2014


[1] William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (New York: Grove Press, 1959), in footnotes. See also Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader (Grove Press, 2000), which notes the irony in Burroughs having attended the Los Alamos Ranch School before it became the birthplace of the atom bomb. The school was purchased by the United States Army’s Manhattan Engineering District in 1942.

[2] Noam Chomsky, “How Many Minutes to Midnight?” Chomsky.info, the official website of Noam Chomsky, August 5, 2014. https://chomsky.info/20140805/

[3] Johnah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), preface. Ginsberg's concern with the nuclear threat continued throughout his life as he participated in protests in the 1970s at the Rocky Flats plutonium pit factory, and wrote a poem titled Plutonian Ode.

[4] Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking Books, 2007). The original draft of On The Road was typed in 1951, and later published in a much-revised format in 1957.   

[5] Vince Gilligan, creator, Breaking Bad, Sony Pictures Television (2008-2013).

[7] Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton University Press, 2006). The publisher’s synopsis on the back cover states: “The atomic bomb… is not just the engine of American techno-scientific modernity; it has produced a new cognitive orientation toward everyday life, provoking cross-cultural experiences of what Masco calls a ‘nuclear uncanny,’ revealing how the bomb has reconfigured concepts of time, nature, race, and citizenship.”

[8]  Sandia National Laboratories, TechnologyDeployment Centers, http://www.sandia.gov/research/facilities/technology_deployment_centers/

[10] Linda M. Richards, “On Poisoned Ground,” Chemical Heritage (now known as Distillations), Spring 2013. https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/on-poisoned-ground

[11] Joseph Masco, 35.

[12] Better Call Saul, Sony Pictures Television, Season 1, Episode 10, “Marco,” written by Peter Gould. Original air date April 6, 2015, AMC Television.

[13] Robert Oppenheimer as interviewed for “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” an episode in the semi-regular NBC television program NBC White Paper, 1965.

[14] Alex Wellerstein, “Oppenheimer and the Gita,” Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy Blog, May 23, 2014. http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2014/05/23/oppenheimer-gita/

[15] Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “If You Can’t Rock Me,” It’s Only Rock and Roll Universal International Music, 1974.

[16] Robert Oppenheimer as interviewed by Edward R. Murrow for “A Conversation with J. Robert Oppenheimer,” an episode in the semi-regular CBS television program See it Now, January 4, 1955.

[17] Robert Oppenheimer testifying in his defense at the April 13, 1954 security hearings, United States Atomic Commission, Volume II, 266.

[18] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Vintage, 2006). Most of the biographical information on Oppenheimer comes from the preface of this book.


Reasons to Oppose the India-Japan Nuclear Deal

If you agree that the India-Japan Nuclear Agreement is a bad idea, please put your name on the petition.

In late July and early August, a leading member of India’s Coalition for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Kumar Sundaram, visited several Japanese cities in order to speak to the mass media and Japanese citizens about the proposed Japan-India nuclear energy agreement. He timed his visit to Japan to precede that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the end of August. Modi will meet with his Japanese counterpart in hopes of finalizing a deal to allow the purchase of vital components of nuclear power plants that are proposed or under construction.
Mr. Sundaram wished to draw attention to numerous problematic aspects of India’s nuclear energy ambitions, negative aspects which the mass media, intellectuals and politicians have failed to criticize sufficiently.
On July 31, Mr. Sundaram gave a press conference in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. During his hour at the microphone, he gave a detailed explanation as to why he believes the plans for nuclear energy development in India will lead to disastrous consequences for both India and foreign countries. This report summarizes the information given by Mr. Sundaram, with additional background information and commentary.

The Nuclear Energy -- Nuclear Weapons Connection

Since India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974, it has had pariah status as a nuclear power. Like Pakistan and Israel, it possesses nuclear weapons but never signed the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In response to India’s first test of a nuclear weapon, the Nuclear Suppliers Group was formed by Canada, West Germany, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States in order to stop exports of nuclear technology to countries that refused to sign onto the NPT. In 1998, after another nuclear test, India faced further sanction, but the pressure decreased after Western nations shifted their emphasis to “the war on terror.” At the same time, their nuclear energy suppliers grew more interested in exporting nuclear technology to developing nations, and the Indian market was too tempting to ignore. During the G.W. Bush presidency, ways were found to skirt around the problems with India’s status as an intransigent possessor of nuclear weapons, and thus the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement came into force in 2008. This waiver made India the only known country with nuclear weapons which is not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but is still permitted to engage in nuclear commerce with the rest of the world.
In addition to the US deal, India now has bilateral arrangements with France, Canada, Russia, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, and Australia. The present push for a Japan-India agreement could be seen as a multi-lateral effort that aims to facilitate nuclear deals for multinational corporations. 
The preferential treatment for India set an obvious dangerous precedent. It signaled to other nations that there was a double standard, and it suggested that if they too defy international agreements to not develop nuclear weapons, they merely need to endure rogue status until pragmatic considerations force other nations to legitimize their nuclear power status. It signaled to China that the US was tacitly approving India’s nuclear weapon status in order to have a strategic balance to China in the region. It signaled the same to Pakistan, with the added message that its political instability would prevent it from getting the same treatment as India.
In spite of the opening for nuclear energy created by the US-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement, there was still a drawback in the works. The major American corporations that want to build India’s reactors have become American-Japanese hybrids such as GE-Hitachi and Westinghouse-Toshiba. Other corporations building plants in India are dependent on parts from these companies. In order for construction to proceed, a Japan-India deal is necessary, but traditionally Japan has taken a hard line against nuclear weapons proliferation, the obvious reason being its status as the only victim of nuclear weapons in an act of war.
The present Japanese government is willing to abandon the strong stance on disarmament and non-proliferation and instead just pay lip service to the issue, as it did this month with regard to the 69th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Times of India reported that on August 10th, the foreign ministers of India and Japan, Sushma Swaraj and Fumio Kishida, met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum to exchange what, to my skeptical eye, was no more than cynical pieties regarding the Hiroshima memorial. The Times report played up the fact that Kishida is from Hiroshima, as if that necessarily makes one sincere on nuclear proliferation issues. Then it portrayed an Indian parliamentary observance of silence for Hiroshima as a blessing by the people of both countries for everything that the two nations are planning to do with regard to nuclear energy development. After this brief ritual of mutual flattery, both ministers emphasized it was time to cut to the chase, to finally sign a civilian nuclear trade deal, regardless of the numerous valid objections their own citizens have. 
No matter how much the Indian and Japanese governments would like to pretend otherwise, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy are inextricably linked, especially in South Asia. For India, the primary motive for pursuing nuclear energy is to obtain legitimacy for its nuclear weapons. In this pursuit, all other considerations have been ignored. The government has not considered whether nuclear energy is worth pursuing in terms of its social, environmental and economic costs.

Neglecting safety, local opposition, environmental damage, economic viability, and the decline of nuclear energy in developed nations

Mr. Sundaram pointed out that even among various Indian government agencies the methods of developing nuclear energy have not been unanimously approved. Official environmental reviews have raised strong objections. Even among those who are, in general, supportive or undecided about nuclear power have voiced objections about the methods and the scale of the nuclear expansion. Nonetheless, diplomatic imperatives always sideline these concerns.
For example, after the Bhopal disaster, laws were strengthened to make foreign corporations liable for the damage they may cause, but these laws are now being rolled back in order to please the corporations that are building nuclear reactors. The citizens’ right to information is being curtailed for the benefit of foreign corporations as well. The comptroller and auditor general raised severe concerns about nuclear regulation, and secretaries from eight ministries said they are not in a position to deal with a nuclear emergency. Local opposition to plant construction has been brutally oppressed, with trumped up charges of vandalism and violence laid on peaceful protesters. Five thousand people have been charged with sedition because the government now construes opposition to nuclear energy as treason. Nonetheless, the protests continue. Security agencies now keep files on organizations such as the Coalition for Nuclear Peace and Disarmament (CNDP), Greenpeace, and individual activists (including Mr. Sundaram) because they are defined as threats to national economic security. If they obtain funding or cooperate in any way with groups and activists abroad, they are viewed all the more as traitors.
During the question period after the news conference, I asked Mr. Sundaram to speak about the front end and back end of the nuclear cycle; that is, to describe India’s record in dealing with safety and environmental issues in uranium mining and processing, and issues in the disposal of nuclear waste. He said there have been significant health and environmental impacts from mining, all documented by independent scientists, but the government has continued with complete unaccountability. As for the waste problem, the government is in “complete denial,” asserting even that there won’t be any waste to worry about for another thirty years.
Mr. Sundaram concluded by emphasizing that the pursuit of nuclear energy is an anachronism. India has been targeted by multinational corporations who can no longer make profits from nuclear energy in the countries where they built plants in the past. In this sense, India might be the lynchpin that the global nuclear industry is depending on for its survival. Indian elites are allowing themselves to be used in this way in order to legitimize the nation’s status as a nuclear power, but they have failed to consider whether it is necessary for any other reason. Since India has a chronic trade deficit, these very expensive, high technology deals will be financed by debt that the country cannot afford. Nuclear energy should be opposed in India because it is an undemocratic, unsafe, uneconomic, unaccountable expansion of a technology that will bring horrors and great costs on the nation’s most vulnerable people.


Review of The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude

Review: The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude
by Andrew Nikiforuk, Greystone Books, 2012


The contemporary understanding of the energy crisis has become focused on the need to reduce the effects of global warming. This singular focus has had some unfortunate effects on the public imagination as we seek innovative responses to energy problems. Much of the public discourse centers on the hope of finding new technologies and new sources of energy that will meet all energy needs so that fossil fuels can simply be replaced and everyone can carry on as before. This preoccupation has led to a neglect of older analyses of humanity’s relationship with energy sources, analyses which existed well before anyone was concerned about global warming. This article discusses this issue by reviewing the book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude,1) by Canadian author Andrew Nikiforuk.

Energy as a Social Problem

In the late industrial revolution, when fossil fuel use sharply increased, the critical analyses that emerged were focused on social disruption much more than on environmental effects. These discussions of the social effects of energy use are now much neglected, but they are still essential because no solutions will be possible without addressing the fundamental issues underlying the use of energy. It is as if modern civilization has forgotten what was achieved with the exploitation of energy: within a span of two centuries, humans made a revolutionary change in the way they got things done. We went from using humans and animals to do work to using the energy stored in fossil fuels and uranium. We found new types of servants and slaves.
One of the few contemporary works to address this matter in recent years is The Energy of Slaves. This book provides an excellent discussion of the authors of the 19th and 20th centuries who decried the effects of the new servitude of machinery, and the author relates their analyses to the contemporary dilemmas that come from a dependence on fossil fuels, and in particular he focuses on the social and political impacts on various nations, states and provinces that have become de facto but often unacknowledged petro-states.
As the title suggests, Nikiforuk explains that our relationship with energy is one of master and slave, so he begins with brief histories of slavery in Rome and in the early Industrial Revolution. The comparison of the energy crisis with the historical problem of slavery is more than an analogy. The new servitude is a continuation of the same problem in a new form, one which suggests the necessary energy transition will be as contentious as the labor movements and emancipation struggles of the past. If we get it wrong, our way of life may collapse like Rome’s, which never gave up its addiction to slavery. The Roman Empire just kept trying to acquire more slaves until the unquenchable demand led to decline and invasion from regions that once supplied the slaves.
19th century America provides the most well-known example of a shift away from the old form of slavery toward another. In the emancipation struggle against slavery in America, nothing was given up without a long, vicious fight. Progress was imperfect and incremental, achieved through flawed work-around solutions like the Emancipation Proclamation. Living conditions, and relations between the former masters and slaves were hardly improved by the legal changes that ended slavery. No one had answers for how the freed were supposed to survive and live as equals in their new circumstances, but those who wanted slavery to end knew that society had to make a blind leap into an uncertain future. They just pushed through the necessary changes and left it to future generations to figure out the rest of it.
The emancipation from modern slavery, from machines, fossil fuels and other harmful sources of energy, may proceed in the same way. We can expect something similar as a disordered (in a good sense of the word) global patchwork of innovative confederations emerges in the emancipation struggle now underway, each one undergoing its own series of blunders, conflicts, political compromises and bold leaps into the unknown. Some will change faster than others. No one will be able to say with certainty what will work, but we do nonetheless know that the devolution to a low-energy society is necessary. It’s a leap of faith that has to be made.
If Nikiforuk’s theory about energy slaves seems strange, readers should note that he has merely presented an overview of numerous philosophers, sociologists, economists and scientist of the industrial age who have covered this topic before; people such as:

Bernard Beaudreau, Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, Buckminster Fuller, Mohandas Gandhi, Ivan Illich, John Ise, Leopold Kohr, James Kuntsler, Lars Lerup, Alasdair MacIntyre, J.R. McNeill, Donella Meadows, Robert Putnam, Francois Quesnay, Hyman Rickover, John Ruskin, Eduard Sacher, E.F. Schumacher, Vaclav Smil, Frederick Soddy, Pitirim Sorokin, Joseph Tainter, Alfred René Ubbelohde, Thorstein Veblen, and Graham Zebel… 

Many of these writers lived during the time of transition, when the effects of new energy sources were more obvious to those who could see what was being traded away for the new comforts. In the early 20th century it was common to read newspaper commentaries denouncing fathers who took their families on automobile “joyrides” on Saturday afternoons, wasting gasoline and recklessly speeding past sights they didn’t stop to appreciate. The oil industry was condemned not so much for its pollution but for the moral depravity and chaos that sprang up in every oil boomtown. Critics were alarmed by the social disruption and the spiritual effects of easy access to luxuries like travel and time-saving appliances. Once, only the very wealthy had servants, but now the new energy slaves were within the grasp of the average person.
Nowadays, these concerns are likely to seem quaint, or be a little hard to grasp, because modern people have no knowledge of a time when their machine slaves were not available to them. The natural struggles of existence are now so unfamiliar that it may be hard to understand how dramatic the changes were. We are also inclined to see this new form of slavery as a good thing in many ways. A book published one year before The Energy of Slaves, Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,2) claimed that the modern era has seen a rapid decline in war and violence, and he advocates for a greater appreciation of what has been achieved. However, Nikiforuk does not share such enthusiasm for modernity, as his book makes it clear that modernity has come at a heavy price to segments of the world population that Pinker overlooked. Direct violence may have declined, but structural violence and ecological violence have increased. What we have gained in the present, in some lucky parts of the planet, comes at a high cost to others, and the costs being passed to future generations make all claims about a decline of violence highly contingent.
Scholars of slavery note that the relationship leaves both the master and the slave chained to each other and diminished in human dignity. This is not to say the two suffer equally, but this insight is useful in understanding how we degrade ourselves in our relationship with our non-biological slaves. For the master, there is a loss of freedom that comes with the dependency on energy slaves, and the pernicious effects of the arrangement take longer to become apparent. In addition to the creation of a gross dependency that makes the master lazy, unhealthy, dumb and unskilled in the basics of survival, the use of energy resources creates environmental damage and new social relationships, the worst of which is the miserable servitude (an enduring kind of human slavery) still required to extract energy resources in remote locations under inhumane conditions. Extractive operations tend to be work camps of single men, distant from functioning communities composed of women, children, the elderly and persons performing a variety of occupations.
It’s important to note here that these considerations were apparent before people were conscious of global warming, and they are just as relevant as ever. Even if global warming were not a concern, there would still be many good reasons to favor a less energy-intensive lifestyle and to focus attention on the underlying problems of population growth and an economic system that depends on infinite growth on a finite planet. Reassessing our relationship with our slaves will be good for souls, with the added benefit that there will be fewer tailings ponds, oil spills and deaths from lung disease, and less mercury finding its way into the ocean food chain—to mention just a few of the benefits aside from reducing the effects of global warming. Furthermore, even if we could exploit an ideal limitless and clean source of energy (such as the elusive nuclear fusion) for all of our “needs,” the pernicious effects of the master-slave relationship would not disappear.
One way Nikiforuk elucidates this point is in his description of all the ways that the petro-state erodes democracy, citizenship, and political consciousness. Just about every state, province and nation that has been afflicted with the resource curse suffers in the same way. Petro-states are more corrupt, and their influence tends to go beyond the immediate interests of the industry toward the promotion of retrograde social policies like religious fundamentalism, whether it is in the US or Saudi Arabia. Petro-states buy off their citizens with cheap fuel, low (or no) taxes, and, in some cases, provide imported slaves (the “guest workers” of Qatar, for example) so that their citizens don’t have to have contact even with their machine slaves. The ease and comfort bought with oil brings passivity and obliterates the will for individual agency in political life. Henry Miller might have been one of the first to see what was happening when he came back to America in 1939 and called it “the air conditioned nightmare.” His book of this title is full of lamentations about what a pitiful, lazy and cowardly people he saw in his now-unfamiliar homeland, people eager to chase the dream of borrowing money to own a car to commute to a job in an air conditioned office.3) (Yes, there were air conditioned office towers in 1939).

Dependence on energy complicates political participation in other ways. It requires greater centralization, standardization, complexity and concentration of power as resources become scarcer and the search for them becomes more desperate. America’s dysfunctional relationship with Saudi Arabia is a an example of how strained this system has become. Within this large system, people lose physical and mental strength, and the basic skills to shelter and clothe themselves, to gather and grow food, and to form communal bonds. They build cities in places with no natural supply of water or a hinterland to provide food. Citizens are left with little choice but to be consumers, cubicle drones and organization men and women because no one is really engaged in producing the essentials of life. One might want to drop out and go back to the land, but the land is likely to be fracked, contaminated or claimed by state bureaucracies and corporate title. There is, essentially, no space left for individuals who want to go off the grid and establish innovative ways of rejecting the energy–intensive lifestyle. The dropout is on his own with no direction home.
Nikiforuk also covered the problem of technological solutionism and the naïve and limited view of engineers, technocrats and economists. The former two always see problems as having technical solutions, but the solutions become ever more complex, costly and elusive. The sociologist Jacques Ellul was stunned at the narrow thinking he saw among scientists when he wrote, “When these technocrats talk about democracy, ecology, culture, the Third World, or politics, they are touchingly simplistic or annoyingly ignorant.”4) Each problem has only one answer: more technology. One could add that F. Scott Fitzgerald touched on this point when he wrote in The Great Gatsby we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” and forever separated from the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”5)
Standard views in economics imagine that wealth expands by increasing financial capital and the exchange of goods, yet economists who focus on energy inputs see that economic growth depends on having access to energy supplies with a high EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested), an observation that was made in the 18th century by a neglected French contemporary of Adam Smith, Francois Quesnay, and later by other economists such as Frederick Soddy and Eduard Sacher. The economic contraction of recent years may be the outward sign that economic growth has stalled because we have entered the era of extreme energy, “the process whereby energy extraction methods grow more intense over time, as easier to extract resources are depleted.”6) The easily exploited resources are gone. The pursuit of the dregs has led to the use of more complex and dangerous techniques to get sources with less EROEI, the kind exemplified by the Alberta Tar/Oil Sands where the oil gives only an EROEI of 5 or 6,7) far below the world average of 20, which itself is down from about 30 one century ago.8)
A good way to understand why technical fixes won’t succeed is to rethink the standard view of food supply and population growth. A common perception is that future population growth and human welfare depend on expanding the food supply and delivering energy to the poorer regions of the world. However, the record shows that population grew very slowly before the Industrial Revolution, but grew exponentially afterwards. One hundred years ago the global population was a little over a billion. Now it is seven billion. Obviously, the use of hydrocarbon energy to produce fertilizer, and other technologies dependent on energy inputs, enabled the population to grow to seven billion. Interestingly, the International Energy Agency noted that 1.3 billion people presently have no access to electricity, which is about the same number that had no access to electricity in 1880—that is, all the people alive on the planet at that time.9)
People who hope for a technical fix to population growth imagine that a breakthrough in fusion energy, or a rapid expansion of nuclear energy, could deliver clean and consequence-free energy to meet all of humanity’s “needs” (a term that is assumed to be quantifiable and definable), in a world where everyone lives a First-World life style, with low birth rates coming naturally as higher affluence emerges. Yet there is no reason to believe that unlimited energy supplies would not lead to more population growth and greater desires and greater environmental impacts. It would be a dystopia rather than a utopia in which human intellect and mental abilities would be diminished. We would come to resemble the vegetative human blobs depicted so effectively in the children’s film Wall-E, or also in the crude satire Idiocracy, in which a soldier, selected for his perfectly average IQ of 100, is put into a long, suspended animation so that he will wake up in the distant future. He wakes up five hundred years later and is hailed as a genius by relative comparison to everyone around him, including the American president.

The robots were cuter than the humans in Wall-E

The quest to meet all energy “needs” is as spiritually empty as the wish to never work or suffer. As we face the environmental and social consequences of extreme energy, those who thrive will be the ones who fight for emancipation, those who can accept the old precepts which all the great religions teach. Be humble. Walk softly. Accept life’s limitations and the inevitability of suffering. Those who are trying to create a social system of low energy intensity have recognized these limits, but they are scoffed at by the techno-optimists whose false concept of helping the poor is to expand various alternatives to fossil fuels that present new sorts of hazards.

Alternatives: Nuclear, Hydro and Renewables

The Energy of Slaves didn’t cover nuclear energy and other alternatives in detail, but it bears mentioning that the dilemmas of slavery apply to other sources of energy as well.
Nuclear energy in particular is as problematic as fossil fuel, and it exemplifies the downward-spiraling pursuit of more costly and complex forms of energy in a time when all the easy resources have been tapped. As carbon sources decline, many countries consider nuclear to be an alternative, but an expansion of nuclear would just be a desperate turn toward something that offers no solution to the problems created by fossil fuels.10) Nuclear has a significant carbon footprint11) because there are carbon-energy inputs involved in mining, processing, construction, deconstruction and the eventual abandonment of spent fuel in some way, yet to be invented, that we hope will minimize its contact with the ecosystem and never result in harmful effects on future generations. The cost of nuclear waste stewardship is, for all practical considerations, eternal and infinite. The only stage of the process that has no carbon footprint is the fissioning of uranium and plutonium, which is labelled as a “clean” process only because, amid the singular focus on the problem of global warming, the definition of “clean” has come to mean “free of CO2.” The deadly radiation emanating from irradiated nuclear fuel rods is supposedly “clean.”
The failure of a nuclear power plant can be a long-lasting, high-impact catastrophe, so nuclear technology requires complex and expensive measures in risk management and government regulation. The costs of the precautions and insurance liabilities are so high that private investors no longer have any interest in new nuclear plant construction. Nuclear technology leaves most of its burden to be carried by future generations that won’t have benefited from the energy, while in the present it contaminates remote people and places, seldom seen by the users of the energy, where uranium is taken from the earth.
The Hanford Reservation, just one nuclear facility in Washington State, is estimated to need a further $100 billion to clean up, but “clean up” is a dubious term. The Department of Energy admits it doesn’t presently have the technology to solve all of the problems on the site.12) The accumulation of spent fuel now stored at nuclear power plants is a similar conundrum. There is no solution on the horizon. It is hard to imagine how an energy-starved nation with a contracting economy is going to have the desire or the resources to deal with this problem at hundreds of other decommissioned nuclear sites. During its productive lifetime, a nuclear power plant at least has a product to sell (electricity), something for which there is market demand, so it can be financially viable for a few decades. However, during its long period of dismantlement and storage of its radioactive parts and fuel rods, it has nothing to sell. There is no mass market demand for radioactive decontamination. It is simply an unpayable mortgage left for people of the future to deal with, assuming there will always be large states with the technical capabilities to effectively manage this legacy.
Renewable alternatives are much less problematic that nuclear, but they have limitations, downsides and carbon footprints as well, and they are merely technological solutions to what is at its root a social problem. Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth,13) stated in 2012:

We try to reduce the share of fossil energy as we use more alternative sources like wind and solar. Then we work to make our energy use more efficient, insulate homes, optimize engines and all that. We work only on the technical aspects, but we neglect the population factor completely and believe that our standard of living is getting better, or at least stays the same. We ignore population and the social elements in the equation, and focus totally on just trying to solve the problem from the technical side. So we will fail, because [the impacts of] growth of population and living standards are much greater than [what] we would save through efficiency and alternative energy. Therefore, the CO2 emissions will continue to rise. There is no solution to the climate change problem as long as we do not address the social factors that count.14)


In the years after the publication of The Limits to Growth there was controversy over the accuracy of its dire predictions. They were based on the assumption of the continuation of present trends, so disaster could have been averted through changes in political, economic and social structures. Yet in 2012, Dennis Meadows was pessimistic in noting that those changes hadn’t occurred over the past forty years, and dire crises are now upon us. He added, “We are basically now just as programmed as 10,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors could be attacked by a tiger, he also was not worried about the future, but his present survival.” In The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude, Andrew Nikiforuk has made a valiant attempt to make us look at the root causes of the energy crisis and see beyond the obvious modern-day tigers.


1) Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Greystone Books, 2012).
2) Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking Adult, 2011).
3) Henry Miller. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (New Directions Publishing, 1945).
4) Jacques Ellul, The Technological Bluff (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990), p. 29.
5) F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925).
6) “What is Extreme Energy?” The Extreme Energy Initiative. Accessed August 9, 2014
7) Adam R. Brandt, Jacob Englander and Sharad Bharadwaj, “The energy efficiency of oil sands extraction: Energy return ratios from 1970 to 2010.” Energy 55, no. (June 15, 2013): 693–702. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544213002776
8) Andrew Nikiforuk, 210.
9) “Energy Poverty,” International Energy Agency, http://www.iea.org/topics/energypoverty/ .
10) “Nuclear Power and Climate Change: Forget about the Myths.” Don’t Nuke the Climate. Accessed August 9, 2014. http://www.dont-nuke-the-climate.org/spip.php?article423&lang=en
11) Sovacool, Benjamin K. “Valuing the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Nuclear Power: A critical survey.” Energy Policy 36 (2008): 2940-2953, http://www.nirs.org/climate/background/sovacool_nuclear_ghg.pdf .
Sovacool’s survey shows the various ways that nuclear energy’s carbon footprint has been quantified. A definite figure cannot be provided because the calculation involves variables that depend on reactor design, quality of uranium ore, and so on. Regardless of the debate over the size of the carbon footprint, honest pro-nuclear advocates admit that the nuclear energy is far from being a zero-carbon source of electricity, as is so often claimed in the industry’s propaganda for the general public.
12) Les Neuhaus, “After $40 Billion, America’s Biggest Nuclear Dump Is Still Leaking.” WhoWhatWhy, July 14, 2014. http://whowhatwhy.com/2014/07/14/after-40-billion-americas-biggest-nuclear-dump-is-still-leaking/ .
13) Meadows, D. H.; Meadows, D. L.; Randers, J.; Behrens III, W. W., The Limits to Growth: a report for the Club of Rome's project on the predicament of mankind (Universe Books, 1972).
14) Rainer Himmelfreundpointner,Dennis Meadows: ‘There is nothing that we can do,’” Church and State, June 3, 2012, http://churchandstate.org.uk/2013/04/dennis-meadows-there-is-nothing-that-we-can-do/ .