Peter Weish was a graduate student at the prestigious University of Vienna. He was supposed to be studying molecular biology but got pulled into the national referendum to stop the Zwentendorf reactor. It was Austria, it was 1978, and it would prove to be a defining moment in the nation’s political history, and it happened on a train.
Austria is a tiny country, currently with a mere 8.5 million people and a geographic size about that of South Carolina. It is also a country with tremendous self pride, especially in feats of engineering. In the early 1970s the Germans had jumped onto reactors in a big way, and Austria was doing what it could to catch up.
The Zwentendorf ground breaking was in 1972, immediately after construction began an earthquake destroyed the initial foundation which had to be laid again. And after 4 years and about a billion Euros (or the equivalent in Austrian Schillings at the time) the reactor was completed.
Opponents of the the widely popular reactor challenged it and the then Chancellor (like President) Bruno Kreisky decided to bet his political future on the project. He agreed to a referendum of the reactor complex which was nearly finished. Kreisky was a socialist. The labor unions were backing him and the project. Austrian heavy industry was backing the project. The technocrats, which the country has an abundance of, thought this was a lovely plan. What could go wrong?
Turned out it was the train from Salzburg to Vienna that changed history. On his train was the industrious Peter Weish, grad student at U of Vienna. He knew Austria’s only Nobel Prize winner, Konrad Lorenz, because he had taken a class from him. Lorenz was riding in first class, Weish walked through on his way to the dining car. Lorenz recognized him and asked what he was up to in Salzburg. An animated Weish told of the organizing work he was doing around stopping Zwentendorf. Lorenz and his wife were fascinated by Weiss’s thinking and critique. The story has it Lorenz paid for an upgrade to Weiss’s ticket so he could ride first class and continue his story.
At the end of story Weish mentioned that there would be a big rally in Vienna on Sunday. “We should go.” Konrad said to his wife. “And you should speak.” His wife advised.
Turns out in some things technocrats are the same the world over. Often when justifying their fantastically expensive adventures they turn to lines like “Oh it is too complex, you would not understand it, you should trust the experts, they will do the right thing.” Lorenz found this reasoning infuriating.
“If a scientist tells you something is too complex to explain they are either incompetent or lying. ” Lorenz boomed at the rally. It was a turning point for the country. If the most respected scientist in the land was saying the technocrats were misleading the public, then clearly the reactor should not be build.
The referendum was very tight. Over 60% of the country voted and 50.5% voted to stop the reactor. Within months of this vote, the Three Mile Island accident in the US occurred and many Austrians felt vindicated in their “no” vote.
But the amazing thing is that the country having been so divided, quickly became the most powerful and unified voice in the EU parliament for nuclear safety and blocking other reactor initiatives. It is thought the referendum woke up the whole country and gave it unified direction.
There has been a long history of state and rate payer handouts which have built the nuclear industry in the US. By one analysis, the total value of the nuclear subsidies is in excess of the wholesale value of the all the electricity which these reactors have produced. When states deregulated electricity production and distribution, the utilities requested and mostly received many billions in bail outs from rate payers or tax payers to pay for what were called its stranded assets. Nuclear subsides started much earlier than this with the Price Anderson act which requires mostly the state or rate payers to pay for insurance claims in the event of a serious nuclear accident.
With the recent decommissioning of Vermont Yankee (which ran for more than 40 years, and thus its full design life) we discovered the decommissioning funds collected from the sale of electricity do not cover the decommissioning bill. They actually don’t even come close to covering them. The current estimated cost of decommission performed by the operating utility for this closed reactor is US$ 1.24 billion. The problem is the amount raised is only US$665 million.
This problem is not unique to Vermont. When the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) looked at decommissioning funds in 2009, it found that 27 of the nations reactors did not have sufficient funding for decommissioning (this is about 1/4 of the entire US reactor fleet). Then when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed the NRC’s work in 2012, it found the NRC’s decommissioning formulas were 30 years old and underestimated decommissioning costs in 3/4ths of the reactors studied.
The latest proposed boondoggle bailout comes from deep in the heart of reactor country. Exelon is the largest nuclear utility in the country, with 22 reactors – almost 1/4 of the total US fleet. With increased renewables investment, declining solar panel costs and cheap natural gas from fracking, nuclear economics are looking pretty grim. When Exelon’s home state of Illinois announced last year what it was willing to pay for electricity, Exelon panicked because a number of their reactors can’t operate profitably at anything like these low costs per kWh.
Large utilities are powerful political players. Exelon pushed on the state government to investigate how to keep these uneconomic reactors open, claiming that they were needed for reliability, tax revenue, local jobs and climate friendliness. The Illinois state legislature sent instructions to 4 state agencies to investigate these claims and they have just reported back. Exelon was very unhappy with their report. What they found was:
- Illinois does not need these reactors for grid reliability
- Providing huge bail outs in the name of increasing tax revenue is silly
- Closing the reactors would cost 2,500 jobs and it would likely create 10K new jobs in renewables and efficiency
- Less expensive wind power is better for the climate than these reactors
The reason this is so important is that if Exelon with it’s tremendous political power can not get Illinois to bailout reactors, it might well be the case that no one can, with the likely exception of Virginia, where the legislature does everything Dominion wants, even when it makes no economic sense.
The activists who fought this reactor did an amazing job, ultimately forcing the state of Vermont to vote against it’s continued operations and the Governor to demand it be closed. An act which had no direct effect, because the utility which owned Vermont Yankee hid behind the pro-industry Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which granted the plant a licence extension. But the political waters for the continued operation of this lie and error plagued reactor had been set. And ultimately the will of the people prevailed over the power of the nuclear establishment.
Vermont governor, Peter Shumlin, said: “Today, thanks to investments in renewable energy such as solar, Vermont’s energy future is on a different, more sustainable path that is creating jobs, reducing energy costs for Vermonters and slowing climate change.” Shumlin was a strong advocate for the closure of the reactor once its license expired.
The New Orleans based Entergy Corportation bought this reactor in 2002, hoping this trouble plagued reactor would turn out to be a cash cow. They admit they were wrong. “This has been a bad investment for us,” said Barrett Green, an Entergy finance executive who recommended both that Entergy buy the plant and later that it be closed. But bad economics are not enough to close reactors any more. Were it not for the political organizers in Vermont, Entergy would be seeking the same kind of non-market solutions which Exelon is looking for in Illinois.
Literally thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of people across the small state of Vermont are responsible for this win. But i feel like i need to name some names.
Deb Katz herded the cats that is the Citizen Action Network and ran some of the most fun action camps i have ever been to, and i have been to a lot of action camps.
Jim Riccio kept Greenpeace honest (a very tricky task) and focused on the one we could win.
The whole lovely staff at Beyond Nuclear wrote reports, educated the press, supported activists and helped in innumerable other ways to shut this plant down.
And a special thanks to the guy who got me up to Vermont Yankee in the first place, who was behind the scenes and occasionally quite out in front. My friend and mentor Michael Marriote from NIRS.
The science is not in on fracking. There is lots of anecdotal evidence that fracking causes all manner of problems, including contaminated water supplies and possibly even earthquakes. But especially when compared to other conventional energy generation techniques, including tar sands and nuclear power, it is unclear if banning fracking should be an environmentalist’s top priority.
There is, for example, no evidence at all the fracking leads to breast cancer (contrary to the borrowed graphics in my Pinkwash post). Yes, there are lots of nasty chemicals in fracking fluids, and certainly lots of them are toxic. But as my toxicologist and environmentalist friend Will Forest is fond of reminding me, “The first rule of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.” Volumetrically, the amount of these chemicals being put into the water supply may well be so tiny as to not be a huge problem.
We can still unhesitatingly celebrate the New York ban anyway, for several reasons. At the top of the list is that fracking technology in the US has been promoted by the oil industry with a principal focus on profits. Dick Cheney famously exempted fracking companies from the Clean Water Act, creating what is oft referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, after the company he once ran. Fracking companies have successfully avoided even listing all the chemicals they use in the process, siting the importance of their “trade secrets,” again prioritizing profits over public health, while also impeding the investigation of health science. The EPA has been a tool of the oil industry, and not just under Bush/Cheney, revising their critical findings almost whenever the industry complains.
Gasoline prices in the US are low, largely because of fracking. The US enjoys a significant competitive advantage over both Europe and Japan, with natural gas prices of 1/3 to 1/4 respectively. The oil industry estimates that unconventional oil and gas production will more than double the current 1.7 million jobs it provides by 2035. But none of this economic “good news” should change our mind about the NY fracking ban, or any other state’s effort to ban this controversial process.
What is the absolute worst case here? Let’s assume the industry is right. If it turns out that there are no or only minimal environmental effects due to fracking, the science comes in and proves that this fear-based campaign to stop fracking in New York was a complete mistake. Then the fantastically powerful oil industry will simply get the next governor of NY to reverse the ban (which they’ll likely attempt anyway) and all that will have been lost is next quarters profits.
We can afford to wait.
“Who is this ‘We’ you keep referring to?” One Facebook commenter wrote recently. It is a great question actually.
In this particular case, i was referring to the intentional communities movement. “We” are consuming dramatically fewer resources than our mainstream counter parts, because we are sharing.
But i also use it identify Twin Oaks and Acorn specifically, as large, established, successful, income sharing communities.
i regularly refer to the anti-nuclear movement as “we”.
Sometimes “We” is the infamous Star Family
Often i use the word “We” to denote the entire set of people who want to change the world for the better.
Occasionally, it is the term i use to describe polyamory activists.
But of course the most simple approach is the just do the simple translation in your head. When i say “We”, it is always safe to compress it down to simple mean “i”
I often start tours of the community with the following rant:
You have two options today. The first is that you can get a good tour. In this, we wander around campus for 3 hours, and i tell you entertaining and informative stories, and you walk away thinking it was probably better than a movie. The other option is you can have a great tour. This however takes work on your side. You need to listen to me for a bit and then start asking yourself “Why couldn’t i live here?” This will result in you having a bunch of questions which are not part of my standard script. When you start interrupting my endless rambling and start asking these questions, you will get a great tour.
We get thousands of questions in the communities movement, many of them simple and demographic (how many people, average age, average stay, number of years since founding, how many kids, cows, cats, etc). Many of these are boring, at least to us who answer them all the time. And answers to many of these can be found on the communes FAQ page.
And every so often we get some get someone really clever who is thinking about good questions and the stock answers just don’t have it covered and so it is with a recent student inquiry from Appalachian State University who sent the following set.
1. How has living at Twin Oaks changed your life?
2. What are the benefits and/or challenges of income sharing?
3. What does egalitarianism mean to you, and do you think Twin Oaks is a role model for this?
4. What kind of sustainability practices does Twin Oaks implement/practice?
5. Why do you think Twin Oaks is one of the longest-enduring communities in the US?
6. Are the decision making processes at Twin Oaks effective and equitable?
7. Does Twin Oaks represent equal opportunity for all members?
8. How is the quality of life different at Twin Oaks (In comparison to living outside community)?
9. What are the most beneficial/negative factors of community living?
10. Feel free to comment on anything that you find note-worthy about Twin Oaks community.
I thought at first i could answer them with links back to my blog posts, but a significant number can’t be answered that way. So here goes.
How has living at Twin Oaks changed your life?
i worry about money much less. i hardly worry about crime at all. i spend less time doing political organizing work. i spend more time outdoors. i spend less time commuting. i spend more time lobbying or trying to influence people who i know and less time trying to influence people who i don’t know (at least face-to-face). In terms of polyamory, i have become much more part of the Old Guard. I am more focused on propositional politics than opposition ones. It is much easier to deal with my choice to get arrested for political protest than when i had a straight job, and thus i do it a bit more often.
What are the benefits and/or challenges of income sharing?
There are a bunch of benefit. You can work less and have more. You need not worry about being fired, or about not having your basic needs met. And you are also modeling an ecologically friendly way to live, which if applied widely, would actually save the world. The challenge is that it is off-the-chart-difficult for people to trust each other. Even when it is clearly to everyone involved that they will be better off by pooling resources, people don’t want to do it and would rather work much harder so that their stuff can sit at home idle all day while they are working to pay for it.
What does egalitarianism mean to you, and do you think Twin Oaks is a role model for this?
There is quite some disagreement as to what is meant by egalitarianism. Some people think it simply means “equal access to all collective assets (potentially modified by extraordinary need).” Others think it means “every hour of work is equal to every other hour of work and that there is no such thing as “women’s work” or “men’s work”. Still others think it means we are trying to create a society in which everyone is equal in as many aspects as possible, especially economically. Regardless of which definition you use, Twin Oaks is absolutely a role model.
What kind of sustainability practices does Twin Oaks implement/practice?
So i think the two main sustainability models for Ecovillages are Dark Green or Net Zero. Twin Oaks follows neither of these, and actually energy self-sufficiency is no where near the top of our agenda. Despite this we have super impressive numbers for our climate damaging gases being mitigated by this high sharing lifestyle. Central to all this progress is radical sharing. If there is a single thing we need to export to the mainstream, it is how to avoid brittle agreements and share better.
Why do you think Twin Oaks is one of the longest-enduring communities in the US?
So, Twin Oaks is only one of the longest-enduring intentional communities if you leave out the tremendous number of Christian communities, many of which are much larger and older than we are. There are lots of differences between us and these places, most profoundly that we have no charismatic leader. And 47 years is nothing to sneeze at. Part of our success was we chose a good industry to be in early on (hammocks) and reliable cooperative business partner (in our case Pier 1). Twin Oaks has fear of change, so we are quite hesitant to change our practices, even if there are models of better ways to do things.
Are the decision making processes at Twin Oaks effective and equitable?
Twin Oaks uses a planner/manager system, which is a self selecting autocracy with a democratic cap. I actually think the Twin Oaks method is a terrible decision making system (Acorn, which uses consensus, is much better of to their meetings). This is especially problematic when we have internal overrides.
Does Twin Oaks represent equal opportunity for all members?
Not perfectly, but better than any place i have ever been or heard about.
How is the quality of life different at Twin Oaks (In comparison to living outside community)?
More security, leff privacy. More community, less personal access to money. More flexibility, less resume building opportunities. More trust in your own determination of what is good for you (how often you take sick time, what time of day you should get up, do you want to be scheduled or figure it out yourself). More values-driven people than money-driven ones.
What are the most beneficial/negative factors of community living?
For some people, the restrictions that the community places on members are quite problematic. This blog post lists many of them. And the community is a model of how to cut your carbon footprint. But again, this only happens if people feel proactive about this.
Feel free to comment on anything that you find note-worthy about Twin Oaks community.
You might find this useful. It is the re-post of an article written in for an academic press. The article is called Island.
Twin Oaks is an established income sharing community in central Virginia of 93 adults and 15 children. Now located on a 450 acre farm, the commune operates 6 businesses, grows most of its own food–organically–builds it’s own buildings, teaches it’s own kids, and repairs it’s own appliances and vehicles.
Here is some of the mainstream and alternative media coverage of us:
Russia Today circa 2012
CNN circa 2010
Frequency555 circa 2010
Mojo Productions circa 2009
Voice of America circa 2009
Central to the community’s operation is the idea of sharing resources. Twin Oaks has developed robust systems for sharing cars, bikes, clothes and businesses. These systems are in sharp contrast to the casual sharing practiced in the mainstream where brittle agreements generally lead to failure.
One of the many advantages of sharing resources is dramatically reducing our negative ecological effect and carbon footprint. The numbers below demonstrate we are already near the 80% reduction in carbon emissions that the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is recommending by the year 2050.
[Note: It is unclear if the below numbers include our income generating businesses or not. My guess is they do, and thus we are even more sustainable. But i will check and indicate here what is true.]
Gasoline: The average Virginia resident uses about 530 gallons per year. Twin Oaks consumed about 15,267 gallons of gas in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of population of 96, that would put our consumption at 159 gallons per person. That is 70% less gasoline consumed.
Electricity: The average Virginia resident uses 13,860 kWh of Electricity per year. Twin Oaks consumed 268,065 kWh in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our consumption at 2,792 kWh per person. That is 80% less electricity consumed.
Natural Gas: The average household in Virginia uses 767 therms of natural gas. Twin Oaks consumed 16,221 therms of natural gas in 2007. With an adult population on average of 87 adults, that would put our consumption at 186 therms per person. That is 76% less natural gas consumed.
Solid Waste: The average American produces 1,460 pounds of trash a year. Twin Oaks produced 18,780.00 pounds of solid waste in 2007. With an adult & child population on average of 96, that would put our production at 196 pounds per person. That is 87% less solid waste produced.
The cultural aspects of community life are as important as the economic ones. We develop our own holidays. Almost all our operations are run by volunteers. We don’t use money internally and there is effectively no crime.
In many ways , the community is an island, culturally and economically separate from it’s immediate surroundings. This cooperative model, however, is one of the very few solutions that can actually avoid the climate catastrophe the US is hurtling toward at breakneck speeds.
The original data for comparing Twin Oaks with US average consumption of electricity, natural gas, gasoline and solid waste were researched by Alexis Ziegler of Living Energy Farm.