The Nuclear Place: A dialectic essay on the conflict between utilitarian ethics and place-based values in the siting of nuclear power utilities

The Quantock Hills in Somerset constitute England’s first ever designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, and the area’s distinctive character, Jurassic coastline, and cultural heritage are such that it has been deemed in the best interest of the United Kingdom that it be protected. But in recent years, the area has been subject to variant environmental threats ranging from extreme flooding of the nearby Somerset levels (Ransome, 2014), to the prospective build of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station (hereafter: Hinkley)—a shining-white castle on the coast, looking north from the Quantocks to the Bristol Channel, and Wales beyond.

EDF Energy said in January 2018 that Hinkley will come online by the end of 2025, and offers developers vital experience in lowering the cost of “subsequent” nuclear power utilities in the UK (Vukmanovic, 2018). As well as prospectively enabling further nuclear developments, it is hoped that Hinkley will itself provide 7% of Britain’s power needs, and was initially projected to begin operations last year. However, Hinkley’s development has been blighted by logistical mismanagement and fierce, organized local opposition (Watt, 2017) that can be broadly characterized via the lens of place-attachment, and sense of place—fears concerning the economic and physical threats to the local environment, so important to the residents of the picturesque towns and villages of the Quantocks and surrounding Somerset.

In this dialectical essay, I will do my best to adopt the neutral position of a local Member of Parliament (MP) with the power to influence the final decision to commission or oppose nuclear operations at the site. I will attempt to illustrate the type of intrinsic (inherent value) and extrinsic (anthropocentric value assigned by the community) arguments commonly made by local residents and local environmental activist organizations, via the lens of place-based motivations. In particular, I will draw inspiration from arguments made to me by Bridgwater resident—and StopHinkley.org campaigner—Roy Pumfrey during a 2016 interview. To counter these arguments, I will illustrate an act-utilitarian vantage, arguing for maximum economic and environmental benefit both to the people of Somerset, the land itself, and the wider UK. After portraying and then reviewing both arguments, I will then make my “final decision”.

 

Part I: A Meeting of Maximum Benefit

Act-utilitarianism is a form of consequentialist ethics that, in short, states that an act is morally justified if—and only if—it produces the best possible results for the greatest number, in any given situation (Lyons, 1965). Thus, the Utilitarian’s arguments must be sufficient that commissioning nuclear operations at—the under-construction—Hinkley will maximize well-being to such a degree as to render all counter arguments to its commissioning, on balance, inadequate. In being a consequentialist philosophy, utilitarianism holds that any decision—including my final decision to lend my support or not to Hinkley—is morally righteous or evil solely on the basis of the consequences of the decision (Smart & Williams, 1973).

(Bykvist, 2010) points out that act-utilitarianism is in the business of establishing why an action is right or wrong, in a normative sense, and not what is right or wrong. And so, according to Bykvist, the Utilitarian must pit the “right-making features” of commissioning nuclear operations against the “wrong-making features”, and act according to the subsequent weighting of pro vs con. If I too am to act in a utilitarian sense, I must listen to the Utilitarian’s arguments for Hinkley, and pit them against the Local’s arguments, and thus deduce which course of action I should take in the belief that it will maximize well-being. This is often referred to as maximizing act-utilitarianism (Bales, 1971).

“If we make most better off,” begins the Utilitarian, “or even some better off and none worse off, then we must do so. Let me show you how Hinkley will make most of us better off.”

Procedurally, first she must identify the available options. In this specific case, I have only two real options in my capacity as MP for the area: lend my support for the commissioning of nuclear operations at the site; or resist the commissioning, thus tacitly lending my support to the vocal local opposition groups. Concurrently, I must also decide on my units of measurement in each case. It is all very well to tout the validly of fair scaling and weighting, and concepts such as “sum-total well-being”, but measuring such concepts might prove statistically illusive. Well-being, pleasure, sum-total happiness; these are not easily quantifiable, nor do they constitute static statistical models such as to lend themselves to a cursory t-test.

“So first we must attempt to define the concepts,” says the Utilitarian. “You represent the peoples of Somerset; what does being well, or maximizing pleasure, mean to them?”

“Above all things, I must protect them from physical harm.”

“Safety,” she nods. “Well, let’s start with the most obvious concern: catastrophic failure—the kind that engineering analysis proves to impossible, but which happens anyway.”

It makes sense to talk about engineering analysis and risk assessment, as these procedures and concepts may conceivably be viewed as a manifest, if simplified, versions of applied utilitarianism (Altham, 1983). “Is the risk worthwhile”, “does the benefit outweigh the cost”, are other ways of saying: “is well-being maximized”. Indeed, the conditions for passing a nuclear engineering risk assessment in the UK are comfortingly stringent (see: Hayns, 1999; Orayeva, 2018), far more stringent than any basic form of act-utilitarianism that would put no minimum differential value on how greater the “good” must be. Just that it is greater (in theory, a single unit greater would suffice for me to act morally according to act-utilitarianism, even if that entailed a 49% risk of harm). Thus, if we are to construct our quantification of safety and risk upon a foundation of numerical, empirical, professional risk assessment, we are building on solid ground.

So what are the risks, and how risky are they? Startlingly, the Utilitarian informs me that nuclear accidents, having serious ramifications for the life of humans, the environment, or the facility, happen more than you doubtless wish to imagine (Rogers, 2011; Rose & Sweeting, 2016; World Nuclear Association, 2016). They can, and have, taken the form of nuclear meltdown; decay heat; transport accidents; equipment failure; human error; natural disasters; and lost source accidents, where hazardous materials are stolen or, unbelievably, misplaced (Toro, 1991). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA, 2017) has recorded over 100 such “nuclear and radiation accidents,” at the direct expense of at least 70 human lives, followed by many indirect deaths due to radiation induced diseases. But the exact figures are often the source of fierce debate. Studies of Chernobyl’s death toll, for instance, run from 4,000 deaths at the low end (World Health Organization, 2005), to near 1 million at the high (Grossman, 2010). Regardless, nuclear reactor accidents are the epitome of low- probability/high-consequence events, and have the potential to affect large areas and populations. But just how worried should those downwind of Hinkley be? Should the people of UK be preparing for killer clouds of nuclear chaff?

“The risks are very low,” reassures the Utilitarian. “The dangers are exaggerated, probably informed by popular media, and impressions of radioactive spider-men, and the boggley thrice-eyed fish in Mr. Burns’ pond.”

Accusations of exaggerating risk is a running theme in the nuclear debate. A recent French report (Sermage‐Faure et al., 2012) suggested a possible excess risk of childhood leukaemia in the close vicinity of nuclear power plants. Yet, other studies provide evidence that the hypothetical risk increase in the areas surrounding nuclear utilities can be down to a simple statistical fluctuations (see: Hill & Laplanche, 1990; Iwasaki, Nishizawa, & Murata, 1995; Janiak, 2014). The truth is, for every 1 person killed by nuclear power generation globally, 4,000 people die due to coal energy production (Wang, 2011). That’s not taking into account the 3 million people that the World Health Organisation (2018) say die every year as a result of ambient air pollution, in large part caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“And how many more will die as a direct result of climate change, if current projections hold?” asks the Utilitarian. Indeed, the numbers that might die due to heat, displacement, diaspora, war, famine, flooding and other severe weather events run so colossally high as to almost render them meaningless to the finite human psyche (Gasparrini et al., 2017).

“So, as far as risk goes, transitioning to cleaner energy could well maximize well-being in Britain, although perhaps not my constituents in the immediate vicinity,” I ponder. “But what impact will a single nuclear power-plant in my constituency realistically have on mitigating global temperature rise, or other environmental concerns?”

“Don’t think of it like that,” advises the Utilitarian. “We don’t have to prove the fruition of our outcomes to act-morally. All we need to do is consider the likelihood of potential impacts.”

As stated, in the most liberal of optimistic scenarios, Hinkley could provide up to 7% of the UK’s energy needs, which is the equivalent of powering 5million homes. In theory, no harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases are emitted during the nuclear process of generating electricity, just harmless steam (US Energy Information Administration, 2017). Indeed, as EDF state, Hinkley C could potentially offer low carbon electricity for decades, avoiding 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year—that’s 600million tonnes over its 60 year lifespan. Although this in itself will not single-handedly solve rising global temperatures, there is the potential to act as a paragon for other projects, catalysing the proliferation of reduced-carbon energy production.

Further, in the US, and other developed nations, the transport sector is a major climate forcing, contributing up to 30% of national green-house gas emissions (Union of Concerned Scientists, n.d.). But, if electric vehicles catch on as fast as some researchers project, the US could reduce oil usage by 21 million barrels per day and cut CO2 emissions 3.2 billion tons a year—equivalent to 60 percent of total US emissions today (Leahy, 2017). If the same projections hold for the UK, a serious source of energy—other than fossil fuels—will be required to power those vehicles, as it currently takes—depending on the car and driver—about 20–25 kwh of electricity to travel 100 miles (Berman, 2011). So, again, from a utilitarian stand-point, the potential well-being is again maximized if safe, clean nuclear operations are commissioned at Hinkley. Maximized not just for the immediate environment of Sedgemoor District, or the wider South West Region, but for the nation as a whole and, long term, even the global system. Even a miniscule contribution is, in this context, desirable, as even a tiny amount of increased well-being is theoretically superior to the zero gain in environmental well-being should nuclear generation be blocked.

“We’ve talked about safety and the environment as components of well-being,” I say. “So let’s now talk about the economy—my other primary contribution to the well-being of my constituents.”

“Construction is already bringing jobs to the area,” says the Utilitarian, eagerly. “If Hinkley isn’t built in your constituency, zero new jobs are created as a result of your decision to help block operations. But on the other hand, if you help enable operations, EDF Energy says 4,000 new jobs will be created during construction, and then up to 700 jobs for the next 60 years while Hinkley is in operation. More jobs means more money coming into the area. And with such a lightly populated constituency, more workers will have to come in from outside the area, maximizing well-being for families around the wider UK, and opening vacancies in other areas of the nation. From a utilitarian vantage, this is a simple one, lending itself to straightforward market valuation.”

Whilst economic profitability and reduced unemployment in my own region, and regions outside, is undeniably a strong utilitarian argument; I think of my upcoming appointment with the Local, and I consider the exchange rate of economic well-being to emotional, all-round well-being. Doubtless, economic variables have an affective impact on our well-being, but money is only one sort of wealth, only one sort of value. The Utilitarian speaks of explicit value, but what of implicit? I think of Somerset and the lush green of the Quantock Hills, and I don’t have to imagine the cold wind in my hair as I ramble in-between pubs on a Sunday, because I have been feeling it for a good portion of my life. Glacial rivulets streaming over my face. How will the wind feel in the future if I commission not only the production of nuclear energy downwind, but the storage of nuclear waste?

Nuclear waste must be initially stored onsite for 3-5 years although, depending on storage and the facility, may be kept onsite for more than twice that, or even indefinitely (Federovich, 2007). And storing radioactive waste beyond that is perhaps even more problematic, with some isotopes used in nuclear power generation requiring storage for upwards of 240,000 years (Forsberg, 2003). From a utilitarian standpoint, this raises further issues of stewardship and our obligation to future generations, as well as safety management for millennia.

As if anticipating my hesitance, the Utilitarian tells me that, for any new power station, spent fuel will be stored on the power station site until a national repository is available. “That’s no different to what happens now with our with our Sizewell B power station in Suffolk, which is the same sort of power station we are proposing at Hinkley Point,” she says.  “We’re confident that we have the technology to store it safely as long as it needs to be until a national underground repository is available.”

Using logic and reason, and a good deal of numerical fact, the Utilitarian has weighted positive effects on well-being, against the negative effects. She has defined well-being in terms of health and safety, economic prosperity, and environmental well-being. In each case, she has provided me evidence that Hinkley’s potential positive results on general well-being far outweigh any risk to person, property or the environment. Staying true to the tenants of act-utilitarianism, she has portrayed my choice to either support or oppose Hinkley as a simple, dichotomous moral quandary, in which my only morally viable option is to choose the path that will maximize well-being. From the Utilitarian’s logical, generalized vantage, it is clear that supporting nuclear operations at Hinkley is correct choice. However, the restrictive, simplified vantage of act-utilitarianism is only one perspective. And one which raises some major questions that I will address in my surmising, only after I have heard from the Local, and imagined his conflicting viewpoint.

As she leaves my office, the Utilitarian turns and leaves me with a final thought: “The world is a source of material, a utility for us to exploit, Mr. Kirkpatrick. It has always been thus, and our survival as a species has always been predicated upon our ability to manipulate fauna and flora and physical space. And now, contemporary man has the ability to manipulate the atomic foundations of the universe—our universe—to the benefit of not only our kind, but the environment in which we thrive. Our relationship is symbiotic and, as Utilitarians, we must strictly weigh the cost of our actions and inactions, and then act with the greater good of all those affected in mind.”

 

 

 

Part II: The Local and His Place

The relationship between close proximity to utility-scale facilities and opposition to those facilities has been well documented (Swofford & Slattery, 2010; Devine-Wright, 2011). Although, too often opposition to energy utility siting has been glibly characterised via the “not in my back yard” (NiMBY) framework (Devine-Wright, 2009), obscuring the myriad socio-psychological variables that influence perceptions of environmental threat and risk—antecedents to active opposition (Larson & Krannich, 2016; Papazu, 2017).

More and more, research is now erring towards an investigation of place in order to explain people’s attitudes towards governmental and corporate encroachments into, and potential despoilments of, local environments. Sense of place refers to the concept that that a physical location can develop a wide range of meanings to an individual or a community—meanings parasitic upon not only the physical aspects of that locale but also the socially constructed, implicit meanings it has accumulated over time (Tuan, 1977; Cresswell, 2004). Heavily related is the concept of place attachment; the emotional bond between person and place (Lewicka, 2011). But how important, objectively are these concepts? Should notions of placeness be sufficient to usurp a nation’s desire for clean(er) energy?

Yi-Fu Tuan (1977) wrote about place as a product of human perception and experience. It is about “stopping, resting, and getting involved”. As a cultural location, place became a concept through which scholars could conceptualize the relative position of people within webs of social, cultural, economic, and similar relationships (Guthey, Whiteman, & Elmes, 2014). So it is important to separate place from an unadulterated conception of geographical location. Irish itinerant communities—residing in most towns and cities across Britain and Ireland—may find a sense of place in the organization of their tight-knit travelling communities, in their mobile dwellings, the social construction of their groups and norms, in their shared cultural heritage and bonds of tradition (Helleiner, 2000; Roosvall, 2017). Yet this sense-of-place and attachment to community is not limited by, or necessarily dependent upon, the permanence of a physical locale. Irish travelling communities, and other such itinerant communities globally, typically feel free to transport their shared place to any number of geographic locations around the British Isles, hinting at place-creation as a phenomenon of the mind, not wholly parasitic upon geography.

That is not to diminish the importance of physical characteristics and location in constructing a sense-of-place, and engendering an individual’s attachment to that place. When the Local talks of his place—to his mind—he does not talk explicitly, omnisciently of the cryptic cerebral processes of his ontology. He talks empirically of the various objects and events that give rise to his sensation of symbiosis, of his connection. The house that birthed the home, the hills that birthed the getaway, the solitude born of the spinney. But as significant as place-ties are to us humans—as exemplified by the example employed in this paper—person/place bonds have become strained and fragile as globalization, increases mobility, and encroaching environmental problems threaten the existence of, and connections to, places of priceless importance to their constituent communities (Scannell & Gifford, 2010).

And so the Local comes to me, his common representative, his voice to the Crown, to bid me to rethink my support for Hinkley.

Like a Dickensian ghost he whisks me, the bureaucratic miser, from behind my desk in Westminster. And we are transmogrified (if you’ll permit us) to the village of Spaxton, Somerset, nestled in the Quantock Hills. And from whose hedged, narrow roads snaking to Bridgwater, you can easily glimpse the faraway geometrics of Hinkley under construction. Yellow-painted diggers and tippers and pallet-trucks flitting about the monstrous blocks of concrete.

That is the threat,” says the Local, flicking a disapproving glance at Hinkley far below. “How can they call this ‘clean energy’? Look at the dirty trucks, heaving with fumes. They roar through our streets and villages, polluting our ears, and the air we breathe. They’re staining everything that used to be clean and beautiful around here. I can’t sit and gaze at the Channel anymore without seeing that… mess.”—he shakes his head—“I’ve lived here my whole life. How can they start reshaping my place when I don’t want them to?”

Place attachment is stronger for settings that evoke personal memories, and this type of place attachment is thought to contribute to a stable sense of self (Twigger-Ross & Uzzell, 1996). Like The Lamb Inn, where the Local met his wife. The Friendly Spirit in Cannington, where he proposed to her. Where she said yes. Where the locals cheered and bought them drinks. Where the old men perch at the bar and talk of how this place used to be—and year after year their numbers grow fewer and are not replenished. In Spaxton, the Local shows me the Church of St. Margret where he was Christened and married, where he hopes to rest in the shadow of the 12th century Norman stonework, his faithful progeny tending to the bell heather around his headstone, restricting its growth to just the right amount of wild. As dusk falls, we sit on the porch of his father’s old farmhouse and listed to the foxes fight, a hallucination of tortured infants. Spirits squealing upwards into the glassy autumn skies. He considers the moon, mottled with blots of altocumulus, and he remembers to me how—as a child—their squeals used to keep him awake night, terrified. All of a sudden, his place was menaced with nature and, through new-born eyes, he first comprehended the violence and threat inherent in a land he’d long mistaken for tame. And over the years of his daughter’s childhood, he would take over his father’s farm and instruct her in the management of that threat. He would show her the foxes and their dens, and the badgers and their setts. He would train her to secure the coups, to interpret the barks of the semi-domesticated shepherd dogs that roamed the property. He would dab her stings with mulched dock leaves, and steal handfuls of blackberries for her from the Lord’s copses. He would walk and talk and teach with her, long after she’d moved to Taunton with Mike, then Bridgwater with Tom, before marrying Pete at St. John the Baptist’s. Its tower jutting imperiously from the cornfields of Hatch Beauchamp, that summer.

As Manzo (2005) notes in her study of the experiences and places that create place meaning, ‘‘It is not simply the places themselves that are significant, but rather what can be called ‘experience-in-place’ that creates meaning’’. This meaning-creation is not just restricted to the psychology of the individual, either. Place attachment can equally be conceived of on the group level. Does the school, the pub, the rugby club not inform its own, idiosyncratic, communal sense-of-place? Does the football club not fight to vanquish the colourful interlopers that would dare to diminish the group’s pride of place, their namesake location? Fealty to place, and the community gelled within, is a thing worth playing for and worth fighting for, the world over. And often, to some, a thing worth killing and dying for.

When the floods ravaged the Levels, historical community bonds were reinvigorated via contemporary, shared plight. An ephemeral flash of the Dunkirk spirit remembered to the locals by their elders. Rescuers sailing to save their stranded neighbours.

“They were not for moving back then,” says the Local, “And they won’t be for moving now, come high-water or EDF Energy.”

“Nobody is asking them to move,” I point out.

“No,” says the Local, “You are instead moving the place from underneath them. Changing the landscape, the scenery, the population. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty that you are despoiling with an eyesore. This place belongs to us, yes, but it also belongs to all Britons. The tourist industry feeds thousands of families, and sustains our communities, our way of life.”—he motions towards Hinkley, and the hazy land, indecipherable on the far-side of the channel—“Why come here to battle with work-trucks and lorries, to suck in construction fumes, to risk a heaving nuclear safety-hazard nearby (not to mention a toxic storage site) when you can go across the water to South Wales? Our quaintness and quiescence is what draws the tourists here over the majesty and rawness of the Welsh national parks. What happens if we lose the business? We lose our businesses, our business owners, our workers, our visitors. Our people. Our place.”

“The whole planet is changing,” I lament. “Ultimately, we must all adapt to change. The Utilitarian argues that transition to low-carbon energy sources are a must.”

“Then why not wind, or some other renewable? We have hundreds of miles of coastline. Why wasn’t wind an option, why wasn’t the community offered a choice?”

“Ratings,” I mumble, shaken. “Or… I don’t know. Cost analysis suggests…”

“How can any of this be quantified?” the Local interrupts.

His point is well made. A prime vantage overlooking the seascape of the Chanel, the quality of the air itself—all these things can be attributed monetary value by estate agents and economists. But what is the market-value of meaning? What objective, numerical value can be placed upon the existential experience of those generations that have made this location a place? From the early Celts, to the Romans, to the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex, to the Northmen invaders and the Norman invaders and the American mink and sciurus carolinensis—all came to this land and become the land. For millennia, this place has been accruing meanings, and its meanings have created a place. But the utilitarian would reason to overlook all of this, and turn their place into a mere instrument to enhance the betterment of an invisible many, to most of whom this place is all but meaningless. And so no place at all.

The Utilitarian, she might argue that her analysis holds precedent due to her detached empiricism. But the Local, he argues that such detached empiricism is easily usurped by the devoted empiricism of his outlook. “Are my arguments not observational?” he asks. “Are they not experiences in the purest epistemological sense? We locals are not irrational. Our hold over this place, and it over us, is not metaphysical. Hume-like, on the one hand I present you with the weight of combined anthropocentric experience; and on the other hand I present the academic assemblage of utilitarian data, unique only in its uniformity and applicability to almost any locale.”

It is a powerful argument, emotive and entirely rational, like all of his arguments. The Local is not only capable of making affective appeals to emotion, but also logical appeals capable of combating utilitarian arguments on their own proving grounds of reason, experience and rationale. He has illustrated the difference between place and location, and the immeasurable and yet very real phenomenological attachment a human can develop to a place—founded upon memory, emotion and affect. He has shown me that people of all backgrounds, tourists and visitors included, can author their own sense-of-place and attachments, and feedback these private cosmologies into the collective conceptualization of a land, its flora and fauna, its very being and character. He has pointed out that “clean energy” isn’t all that clean, in the immediate sense, when the small Somerset roads are clogged with traffic and gargantuan, fossil-fuel burning work-vehicles. He has hinted at the dire potential consequences of nuclear tragedy, and raises issues of toxic waste-storage, and the negative effect that such issues have on how the area is perceived by locals and visitors alike. He rightly points out other options, such as coastal wind-farms, and the fact that the government missed an opportunity to engage the community up-stream of okaying nuclear development.

There is no doubt in the Local’s mind that nuclear power here in Somerset will be bad for the locals, the land, and the environment. More importantly, the story of his life is intrinsically linked to this land. When I think of the Utilitarian’s will to maximize pleasure, it’s hard not to imagine the Local’s narrative, and the many thousands of narratives just like it, putting a huge dent in that argument.

 

Part III: Support or Oppose?

The Utilitarian’s stance on Hinkley is initially appealing due to its apparent quantitative robustness, and air of generalizability. But it would be remiss of me, as a policy maker and Somerset local myself, to become beguiled by the superficial simplicity of utilitarian ethics. In hearing and empathizing with the anthropocentric value claims of the Local, I cannot help but notice how value blind the Utilitarian’s stance is. The extrinsic market-valuation of profit versus loss incorporates nothing of the deeply human, experientialist knowledge and meaning that the Local has gleaned from the land, the environment, and his inherent relationship with the area. By comparison, the Utilitarian’s argument seems removed, course, and at times even ignorant of the implicit meaning that has been worked into the land by generations of Locals, for millennia.

It is seldom remarked—understandably, due to the socioeconomic connotations and Britain’s history of violent imperialism—and yet nevertheless true, that the vast majority of Somerset locals are indigenous peoples of the British Isles. Would such areas of outstanding natural beauty mean a thing if not for the Norman architecture, the delineating hedgerows, the stone cottages, the winding roads, and the public houses? What would the knolls, the cols, the wild heather and gnarled spinneys mean devoid of the quintessential Englishness that frames them—this wilfully preserved and constructed paragon—even heterotopia—of English culture?

The roar of tarmac trucks, and the billowing steam from the engines of nuclear generation distracting from the clifftop view.

I have sympathy for the Local’s cause. In talking, it is clear that the Local perceives intrinsic value in the land and his place in it. But for me, his claim is predominantly extrinsic. It is humanity that has attributed meaning to the land. Humankind is the land, belongs to the land and, as the Utilitarian herself alluded, the land belongs to humankind. But how much of humankind? In scaling and generalizing, the Utilitarian makes no allowances for the special-case of the Local, to my eye. The Local’s well-being is a single unit in the general sum, as is my well-being, as is the Queen’s, as is the Northern miner’s, as the Scottish bank clerk’s, as is the Ulsterman’s mother holidaying in the West Country. In adopting the macro-perspective, the Utilitarian neglects the micro, and the necessary affordances she must make for phenomena such as sense-of-place, and place-attachment. Such concepts are difficult to quantify, even qualitatively, but if they are to be taken into account, surely they deserve scaling appropriately. I.e. The Local’s emotions, opinions, and knowledge of the environment must count for more, democratically, that some Briton’s far removed. How can we weigh the displeasure of the Local against the incognizant, general well-being of a person breathing marginally cleaner air, 100 miles away?

This brings me on to my second major criticism of the Utilitarian’s stance. It precariously undemocratic. She would have me ignore the voice of my constituents—who voted me into office, who sent me to London to speak on their behalf—in favour of a much larger population and ideal. This places me in a tricky position. Whilst I have a duty to the United Kingdom, and certainly want to do all in my power to tackle climate change, that is not specifically my job. My job is to consult with my constituents and represent their interests. I am not, nor would I want to be, an emperor with the power to sum the well-being of my 66 million subjects and, with the waft of my hand, decide what is probably in their best interests according to statistical analysis. I am a civil servant, a commoner with a voice. But act-utilitarianism would have me betray my office. All things are necessary and moral should the consequences potentially be an overall averaged net-gain in well-being. This is not hyperbole. Act-utilitarianism in its purest form would allow for me to act in any number of self-serving or treasonous ways, without limit, should the overall positive outcomes necessitate me doing so. What a lofty, Machiavellian ideal it is that would allow for unethical actions to achieve a moral outcome, whose fruition would only beg more questions concerning the ontology and epistemology of morality. Whilst such actions have not been demanded of me by the Utilitarian, she nevertheless sees only the big picture. Whereas I serve the Local—a quantum brushstroke on the larger canvas.

Yet, the Utilitarian has outlined some very tangible and positive gains to the Local and his neighbours. Outcomes that I, as an MP, find very desirable: thousands of new jobs, a boost to the economy, potential boosts to the environment and overall well-being of the region, even the globe. Further, the area will likely profit from the exposure, become a leader in cleaner energy and not simply a summer playground for tourists. A caricature of Englishness. Far from being a detriment to the tourist industry, as the Local reflexively predicts, such exposure might increase awareness of our region and inspire more visits from around British Isles and beyond.

But what of renewable alternatives such as wind-farms? The Utilitarian would be quick to point out that a few coastal windfarms won’t quite cut it in terms of providing the country the energy independency it requires. Besides, from my first-hand experience in Somerset, locals aren’t too keen on windfarms dotting the picturesque scenery either (see “Wind turbine plans are rejected,” 2012), opening themselves up to claims of nimbyism. Whilst we obviate any radioactive storage requirements, or potential for catastrophic meltdown, by having wind-farms, we do not solve the other main issues that seem to motivate proponents of place-based ethical arguments. Namely: the engineers and materials and traffic keep coming; the “eyesores” keep springing up on the coastline, disrupting the spatial aesthetic; the ratings and temperament of both wind and machine result in highly-variable power generation. The Utilitarian would advise that the same problems persist, but the payoff is lesser, thus nuclear is the option to go with.

Nothing-at-all is no longer an option. For every argument that might be levelled against commissioning Hinkley, the fact is that the Utilitarian can counter by simply broadening the horizons of possible effects. For example, if we take into account the Local’s well-being only, we cannot morally commission Hinkley, as the negative effect on him far outweighs the meagre financial positives; and where there was once no nuclear utility on his doorstep, there is now. So we broaden our catchment, and we see general increases in well-being throughout the constituency, but arguably still not clear advantage enough as to risk diminishing their place-based attachments and perceptions. And so, again, the Utilitarian is free to broaden the catchment further and talk of national power needs, regional employment, national economics and carbon requirements. And on the national level, we start to see the Utilitarian ethic nose-in-front. But the Utilitarian need not stop there. The Utilitarian is free to amplify her argument still further, and add global well-being to her summation of total-well-being. In an age of climate inaction, the world needs cleaner energy and examples to follow. Every small amelioration of global CO2 levels is a massive bonus to positive environmental action. What’s more, the wider the catchment the less powerful any negative effects on overall well-being. If clean, nuclear power generation in the UK might contribute to lessening pollution on a global scale, then the benefits to a Latvian become meaningful, as do the presumably non-existent negative effects, resulting only in positive contributions to the scaling of benefit versus cost.

Thus the phenomenologically contingent place-based arguments of the Local are the strongest, but only on a local scale. His arguments fall weak beyond the constituency. The Local’s arguments give credence to the affects of the few rather than the effects on the many. Whilst my duty is to the land and environment of Somerset, I am, on an averaged scale, convinced that the positive impacts of commissioning nuclear operations at Hinkley outweigh the costs. The raw, data-driven arguments of the Utilitarian are difficult to argue against from the more nebulous place-based position.

As negative as the effects might be on the psyche of the Local, humans are resilient. What conservationist leaning environmental ethics often ignore is the unsettled, unstable nature of the world at-large. Somerset, like the world, has always been changing. The artifice of stone cottages disrupted what was for millions of years a Jurassic cliff overlooking a wild beach, where the catacoeloceras ammonite sat fossilizing and weathering for eons before Leon from Leicester picked it up and gifted it to his two-year-old son. The fields were once untamed before the people corralled them and made orchards of them to brew the blinding cider for which the region is now synonymous. Somerset is a utility, a beautiful one, but a utility nonetheless. Since there were humans here, this land has been reshaped and used for the benefit of the few and the many alike.

How many druids from Somerset set out 5,100 years ago to help drag the bluestone, sarsen, and Welsh sandstone the many hundreds of miles to Salisbury Plain? What a huge community effort it took for those Britons to stand those stones, and all with the purpose of refashioning nature so that they might capture the power of the sun and the moon.

Change is necessary. Change is a permanent state, and it is always accompanied by risk.

And so I will lend my support to the commissioning of nuclear operations at Hinkley. For the greater good. For the welfare of a nation and a planet. What I will concede is that the raw utilitarian stance does not fairly address the very real concerns of my constituents. I am not bound to accept any pure form of utilitarianism, or any other philosophy for that matter, and so am free to modify context and the nature of the transition. Up-stream engagement, democracy, town-halls, local panels etc., are all viable ways of engaging the community so that they are heavily involved in steering the trajectory of change that will effect them. That Hinkley must happen is my firm belief. But what Somerset becomes as a result is still a matter for the Local and his community.

 

 

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