Why aren’t Extinction Rebellion (XR) big on the topic of nuclear fusion? XR, a “non-violent, civil-disobedience activist movement,” want to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. Nuclear fusion is the easiest and the most realistic means of achieving such an impossible outcome. It’s as straightforward as “I’m feeling hungry” and “look, there’s a donut!,” but XR seem to have been strangely enchanted so that they cannot see or speak about this astonishingly fortuitous solution to all of their problems. They are not so much looking a gift horse in the mouth as ignoring the unicorn that is prancing about gaily in front of them. Sooner or later you are bound to inquire, “What the hell is going on with these people?”
Everything initially looks auspicious in a YouTube video that is made by XR and fronted by spooky little Greta Thunberg. In this video, she hangs over you with her goggling eyes and solemn mouth, as if Casper the Friendly Ghost has trapped you in a corner. Ah, but here she is, about to explain how nuclear fusion will save us all…
Greta: Lots of solutions are talked about, but what about a solution that is right in front of us?
Tychy [watching on laptop]: Excellent! Good girl! Here we go!
Greta: I’ll let my friend George explain…
Tychy: Oh no, it’s George Monbiot.
Monbiot: There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air…
Tychy: Er, I’m not sure that you quite understand…
Monbiot: … costs very little, and builds itself…
Tychy: No, I don’t think this is exactly how it….
Monbiot: It’s called… [pausing for emphasis]
Tychy: You’re going to say “a tree,” aren’t you?
Monbiot [smugly]:… a tree.
Monbiot: A tree is an example of a natural climate solution.
Tychy: I’ll stick you in a tree!
Unlike nuclear fission, which summons the mighty energy djinns by splitting an atom, nuclear fusion places two atoms under such immense stress and heat that their nuclei coalesce. Rather like how XR and nuclear fusion will hopefully join together under the tremendous fiery pressure from this article.
In the case of the nuclei, their amalgamation produces incredible surpluses of energy. Nuclear fusion does not emit greenhouse gases or leave behind any radioactive by-products. One kilogram of its fuel will supposedly generate the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuels. It is almost eerily perfect as an energy source. In popping up at this precise moment in history, when it is most needed, it is liable to be taken by the weak-minded as proof of divine intervention.
Except that the process of fusing two nuclei has never been satisfactorily completed on Earth. It goes on all the time under the lid of the Sun. But on Earth, nobody has yet built a reactor that can fuse two nuclei, in such a way as to generate more energy than it takes to power up the reactor. There’s a somewhat complacent joke amongst physicists that nuclear fusion is always thirty years away. It certainly has been since the 1940s. But now serious money, infrastructure, and political pressure are finally descending upon the technology.
An experimental nuclear fusion reactor is presently being constructed in France by the ITER project. This is being funded by the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the US, the sort of grand coalition that would normally form to repel an invasion of extra-terrestrials. ITER is meant to be completely operational by 2035. Yet the exuberance for nuclear fusion is also inspiring independent national bids. The US Navy has reportedly filed a patent this year for a reactor small enough to be installed inside a vehicle. And earlier in the month, Boris Johnson pledged £220m to build not just a reactor but an actual nuclear fusion power station, at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire.
Johnson’s pledge is to some extent intended to reinvigorate and buoy up a project that will be disrupted by the UK’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community. It is still of more lasting consequence to the environment than anything that has been so far achieved or promoted by XR.
Nuclear fusion could potentially do for the “climate emergency” what the tank had done to break the deadlock and end the slaughter of WW1. As with early attitudes towards the tank, there is a widespread disinterest in understanding nuclear fusion and a tendency to patly dismiss it as an irrelevance. I am not sure that people should have been on the streets during WW1 campaigning for the speedier invention of the tank. But since they are on the streets now, they might as well be campaigning for investment on a humungous scale into nuclear fusion.
In a way, nuclear fusion has arrived to rescue XR and to provide a song for its forlorn choir of mime artistes to at last sing. Considering the responsibility that they have assumed, XR are a political movement that are amazingly bereft of any ideas and intellectual leadership. Whenever they are challenged to explain how the UK can reach net zero carbon emissions by 2025, their stance is that we will have to somehow just manage.
When XR’s spokesperson Zion Lights was tasked with this by the BBC interviewer Andrew Neil, who brought up “the confiscation of private cars, the state rationing of meat and limiting families to one flight every five years,” she replied that, “I agree that we need to do whatever it takes.” The wildly authoritarian government that would be needed to accomplish “whatever it takes” is seemingly a stray detail that XR are not obliged to put any thought into.
In truth, they know that their own logic is marching them on towards an unprecedented authoritarianism. As an overcompensating corrective to the scariness of this, they flee into these weird displays of public childishness, to daubing infantile placards, to primary-school singalongs, to play camps, and to being dragged around the floor by police officers as if they were misbehaving toddlers. If they were campaigning for nuclear fusion, however, then they would have to surely grow up very quickly.
For a long time I have been in two minds about XR. It is easy to take an enormous enjoyment in mocking articles by the likes of Brendan O’Neill, who ultimately condemns XR as a manifestation of class warfare. For him, they are expressive of the idle and decadent middle-classes who “want to create a more austere and punishing society” for the poor. One always has to be sensible to how XR have reconnected with a latent puritanism within the British psyche. The puritans had wanted to cancel Christmas and shut down theatres because they were an insult to God. XR want to cancel Christmas dinners and shut down airlines because they are an insult to the environment. These are so obviously different excuses for the same emotional phenomenon, a ravenous and megalomaniacal fervour for self-denial.
We are trapped between the fire that is consuming the planet and the ice that is frequently XR’s implied solution:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
Even so, XR are a bit too big in what they encompass to be wholly wrong. They lay down ambitious technological challenges that potentially make them, from a progressive viewpoint, interesting and likeable. The planet really is a tip – burning fossil fuels certainly isn’t the end of history – so why shouldn’t we aspire to something more modern? And to creep back abjectly to George Monbiot, maybe mass tree planting initiatives, in which the desolate wastes of the Sahara are reclaimed by shining verdure, are something positive that XR might like to equally campaign for.