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Nukes and foresight

People have trouble assessing, comparing, and understanding risk in our world. Incidents like the the March 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster highlight this, and wake us up to why we need to understand risk, and risk over time, better. With their broad, systems view and long time horizons, the tools that futurists use are great for improving that thinking.

Nuclear energy involves two kinds of risk: acute and chronic. The acute risks are energy plant failure, radiation releases, and core meltdowns. The chronic risks come from maintaining and protecting the nuclear plant over time, and most importantly, safely storing spent nuclear fuel. That aspect could not be more long-term in human society terms. Some products of nuclear fission have half-lives in the range of tens of thousands, or millions of years. Can we even imagine human life in 22011 or 32011? But that long period is what we are affecting with our actions today.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel use looks like a routine, manageable process with straightforward issues of price and supply. But in fact, hydrocarbons are doing ongoing, cumulating damage to the environment, a long-term, chronic problem. Because its chronic, but less visible, and less scary to people overall, hydrocarbon energy seems safer to us.

When we compare these two main energy sources, we have to understand the relationships to time and risk, and they differ, near vs. long-term impacts, acute vs. chronic risk, near vs. long-term costs, and so on.

We can benefit from exploring these differences, in helping people understand the future and the impacts of human action, near and long-term. And we can benefit from thinking about them as a way to portray, and study complex relationships in complex systems.

Unfortunately, people, including decisionmakers, tend to be weak at thinking about the broader systems and longer-term relationships. And whether they are skilled at that or not, the political pressures tend to force issues into narrower frameworks.

The tools of foresight, including systems thinking and scenarios can make a difference to getting people to understand the complex relationships and make more valid comparisons as they think through issues like this. 

So I guess the first step is to take a futurist to lunch!

Image: BlatantNews.com via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution License

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