In his signature work “The Collapse of Complex Societies”, the anthropologist Joseph A. Tainter develops a holistic model of civilisations in decline. Energy, in Tainter’s thesis, always plays the key role. The productivity of Roman agriculture in the second century was no longer capable of supporting the growing population, and attempts to solve the shortfall with ever more brutal campaigns of conquest became, at some point, too costly, and failed.

Energy wealth is not an attribute, but the very essence of complex societies. Goods must be constantly transported to and fro. People need light, power, food and information systems. Even if these are managed economically and efficiently, a modern global society is forced to become ever more energy-intensive.

Oil stores an enormous concentration of energy from the sun and plants, preserved and compressed over millions of years. To supply the kinetic energy stored in just one barrel of oil, a worker would have to do hard physical labour for almost two years, working eight hours a day. Our lifestyle floats high on this bedrock of fossil fuels – our chance to go to a cinema, to jet away on holidays, to do a thousand things we like to do but do not strictly have to just to survive. Nuclear power enhances the efficiency of fossil fuels by a further factor of 100. How should it ever be possible to do without these immense leverages?

People and cultures assess risks much differently

Energy supply is not only a question of the raw material, but above all of the design of the systems for “burning” those raw materials. Our energy system is based on centralised distribution. Refineries, power plants, pipelines and gas stations require many billions of investments in fixed capital costs, and nothing symbolises this “cathedral organisation” better than a nuclear power plant. If one wants to run a complex society on biomass, hydro, wind and tides, this pyramidal system must be replaced by a highly intelligent “Green Grid” set up for swift input-output operations.

One consequence would be changes to patterns of mobility. Production would once again shrink to the regional level, settlements would have to adapt, and houses would have to become micro-power plants. The result of all this would be a massive green economy stimulus package.

The semi-catastrophe at Fukushima may have put an end to any concept of a global energy distribution grid. Since people and cultures assess risks much differently, paths are now diverging. In Germany and a few other countries, we will take the difficult but honourable path toward a “Green-model Germany”. Other countries will take the path to nuclear power even more systematically. And the technology will also be systematically improved.

Ulrich Beck and the Risk Society

Technical evolution is always born out of failures and disasters. The aircraft we fly in today are as safe as they are because in their early years they took an incredible toll in lives. As for automobiles, in 1970 alone 21,000 people were killed in accidents on West German roads. By 1998, that had dropped to just under 8,000 for the unified Germany.

By 2030 world energy demand is projected to increase by 40 percent. Some countries will be ultramodern, high-tech Green, and Germany may be at the top of these. Nonetheless, the current share of about 18 percent of nuclear energy will have barely changed. Thanks to Fukushima, nuclear power will be safer, even “meltdown-proof”. Procedures to radically reduce the amount of radioactive waste are just around the corner. Even these, though, will never entirely banish the residual risk – which is, all the same, constantly shrinking.

When the book Risikogesellschaft (“Risk Society”) was published in 1986 by the sociologist , we witnessed the birth of those terms that seemed to offer a plausible explanation of the world, finally grasped as a whole for once and for all. The basic thesis of Risikogesellschaft maintains that the modern world produces steadily increased risks for the individual.

The residual evil thesis

But that’s absolute nonsense. The further we look back in history, the higher were the mortal risks. In hunter-gatherer societies, up to half the population perished at the hands of other men. In the peasant world, our ancestors died from influenza, plague and war, and in the last century two terrible wars killed many tens of millions. Risk society? We live in the safest of all previous worlds.

Perhaps we are just unable to grasp the reality. Odo Marquard cleverly termed this failure the “residual evil thesis”: “The more negative things vanish from this world, the more worrisome – precisely because the supply of it has been reduced – the negative itself becomes. The increasing scarcity of evil makes the truly dreadful precious.”

For the world and our common future, the split-energy scenario does not have to be all that bad. “Green Grid” against “New Nuclear” is an evolutionary contest that over the long term will increase the fitness of civilisation. Beyond 2030, the two strands will come back together, and we will be living in a cleaner, safer, high-energy, greener civilisation. But perhaps this is just what we fear most. For where, then, the sweet delight in disaster?

Translated from the German by Anton Baer