Resistance against nuclear armament, inhumane technology and the power of new social movements     

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Robert Jungk speaking at a rally against the nuclear recycling plant in Gorleben, Germany.

A dominance of the scientific-technological ideas of progress lead to the dehumanization of our society. This is illustrated by defense research and the development of large-scale nuclear facilities.

Robert Jungk is among the central figures of the first peace movements against nuclear armament in the 1950s (the Pugwash movement), as well as the second one of the 1980s. These protests were directed against the accelerating arms race devised by the so-called NATO Double-Track De­ci­sion, which designated Europe as the prime arena for a (winnable!) nuclear war. The development of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative, the strategic shift of war into space, was another cause for protest. Jungk was extremely critical of the powers that fought a systematic fight on the back of the extorted population (Trotzdem, p. 257).

He also cared about dialogues and contact between East and West. The 1980’s peace movement probably played a pivotal role for Mikhail Gorbachev initiating reforms that eventually led to the dissolution of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. However, the peace dividend promised to the people, has never been paid. Defense spending is as high as it has never before. After the Cold War ended, several “hot” shooting wars occurred in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, with new arenas for confrontations coming up: China and Japan are arming themselves to an alarming extent.

Robert Jungk’s thesis might hold true: Leaving the spiral of armament is extremely hard to achieve. U.S. President Obama neither prevailed against the gun lobby, nor did he succeed with his plans of disarmament and cutting the military budget. This proves just how frustrating attempts to demilitarize the world can be.

Resistance against nuclear power seems (at least momentarily) fairly high, due in part to the Fukushima catastrophe – and rightly so. Apart from the risks of power plants, the final deposition of nuclear waste has been anything but solved yet. Safety standards in more recently commissioned atomic plants have certainly improved since their precursors went into operation in the 1960s and 70s. However, it would be highly negligent to claim them being free of risks. Furthermore, more than 20 years have passed since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – and the collective memory is known to be of limited range.

Major incidents have not surfaced recently, which might have contributed to popular protests tailing off. What needs to be explored: whether residents next to nuclear power plants have gotten used to their industrial-scale neighbors (a habituation effect) – or have they resigned? At present it seems that construction and commission of new atomic plants would not stand a political chance in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, at least.

The use of atomic energy as the main cause for the proclamation of a police state – as Jungk had feared – has not come true by now. Yet, a crisis including hushed up accidents, major quantities of nuclear material disappearing, and the danger of terrorist blackmailing could put it to the test.

Major industrial applications have changed the character of scientists. Not an interest in new insights, but the acquisition of lucrative orders. becomes the driving force.

Robert Jungk describes how the industry made fast breeder reactors (at least in Germany) palatable to politicians: great promises, a downplaying of the risks, and ­– in the beginning – strongly understated costs did the trick. He calls it “project swinging”. This means selling projects as being feasible without any solid insights just to get access to further research funds. This “audacious, speculative style of scientific advance was born in the armament laboratories of the Second World War” and initially tested on major military projects (The Nuclear State, p. 33). An enormous euphoria for technology in the 1950s – with Hermann Kahn pa­ra­digmatically arguing for “Thinking the unthinkable” – might have fos­ter­ed this approach. However, this eminent military strategist did not advocate social creativity, but technology futures such as colonies under the sea that would produce food and nuclear-powered airplanes (Hermann Kahn, Anthony J. Wiener, The year 2000. A Framework for Speculation on the Next Thirty-Three Years: London/New York, 1967).

Nuclear fusion might be considered a contemporary embodiment of this style of research. British physicist, Alexander M. Bradshaw, previously head of the German Max-Planck Research Center for Plasma Physics, praises nuclear fusion as the energy of the future, which should be ready for series production before the end of the 21st century. Environmentally friendly attributes, such as the price-competitive and more-or-less CO2-free energy generation, the short durability of the nuclear waste, make nuclear fusion an attractive choice, he claims. The scientist admits, however, that this technology is still going through development and its success cannot be guaranteed (Alex Bradshaw, Kernfusion – Klimaretter oder Utopie? Chemie Ingenieur Technik, 80: 2008, p. 308).

Nuclear fusion still wastes much more energy than it produces. The first experimental reactor ITER (Latin for “the way”) is being built in Cadarache, in southern France. Construction of the complex – a co-production bet­ween China, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. – began in 2007. It is projected to begin plasma-generating operations sometime in the 2020s.

Robert Jungk’s thesis about research, continually striving to maximize profit and having its own dynamics, stays relevant as of this day.

Major technologies will always cause discomfort in people who justifiably feel excluded from the controllability of the risks.

In Der Atomstaat (The Nuclear State, p. 64), Jungk quotes Austrian scientist Helga Nowotny, who back in the day worked at the International Institute für Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg near Vienna, saying that “opposition to nuclear power is rooted in distrust of and opposition to the power of the big international, multinational and industrial corporations with their ever greater concentration of economic strength and political influence. It is the opposition of those who feel small and impotent against the might of big industry, the bureaucratic state and big science, and who suspect that their basic rights and freedoms, which have taken centuries to win, and which have been either lost or threatened in recent history, are again being rapidly eroded.” Her finding of how this undermines democracy is still relevant as of today.

People from within the “system”, who point out drawbacks, disadvantages, risks, and the uncertainties of modern major technologies, must achieve a transparent and democratic examination of major technologies.

During his research, Robert Jungk repeatedly referred to such converts, whose identities he did not divulge in order not to endanger their jobs. They provided him with important insider information. In his book Men­schen­beben (Humanquake), which covers the second peace movement of the 1980’s, Jungk dedicates one chapter to those critical thinkers and whistle blowers, the undercover informants (Menschenbeben, pp. 19–39).

Due to the growing complexity of our societies, critics from within the “system” become increasingly important for a functioning democracy, in many different sectors. For instance, the international financial crisis would have asked for many more experts – bankers, academic leaders, and economists – to take a stand against the mainstream and its “solutions”.

Parliamentary democracy is no longer capable of establishing a critical public sphere necessary to point out the dangers of possible aberrations and to initiate policy changes.

Political parties are often entangled in the interests of industry lobbies. This undermines politicians’ ability to keep their critical distance. Therefore, it is up to a new political force – social movements, public campaigns, and civil society – to assume this role. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are the innovative political factor of the current parliamentary democracies. NGOs such as Attac, an international movement working towards social, environmental, and democratic alternatives in the globalization process, provide a good example.

Robert Jungk understood democracy as a space for an active civil society and the possibility of citizens’ self-organization. The peace, feminist, human rights, environmental and anti-nuclear movements of the last decades concur with his positions.

In Austria and Germany, most of the population opposes nuclear energy. In other European countries this did not seem to be the case for a long time. This could be due to improved safety standards achieved by the anti-nuclear movement. There have not been any reports of bigger nuclear accidents recently. The issue of the final deposition of radioactive material has been mostly put off by politics. Yet the Fukushima catastrophe has somewhat changed the picture; in Japan, as well as in other technology-affine countries, such as France, active resistance has grown, with results still pending.

Movements in favor of a lifestyle beyond consumerism, non-alien­ating workplaces, new ways of decentralized energy production and nutrition sovereignty, new forms of neighborhoods, and economic co-operation lead to a cultural renewal of the prosperous democracy.

So far, Jungk’s belief in a people-centered democracy – one that he shares with Erich Fromm, an eminent psychoanalyst and critic of consumerism, with Ivan Illich and Leopold Kohr, the advocate of Menschliches Maß (The human scale) – has not (yet) or only partially come true. The power of the entertainment and event industry, mass media, as well as massive propaganda of the advertising industry apparently have a greater grip on peoples’ brains and hearts than utopian dreams about a simple, solid, and sensual lifestyle that has swapped competition for co-operation and community spirit.

Klaus Firlei, the president of the Robert-Jungk Foundation, calls this phenomenon experience capitalism, which heavily interferes with the former private sphere of feelings and experiences for profit’s sake. The Western, resource-intensive lifestyle spreads throughout all continents and spans the whole globe. One third of the so-called transnational consumerism class now lives in Southern countries, fostering a meat-centered culture, a fixation on cars and technological devices. This goes hand in hand with a high consumption of energy!

Hans Holzinger

Who was Robert Jungk?
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