At the bottom of it all

A young Maine friend, sporting a sticker on his bicycle with the words "No Nukes," paused beside me on the village street. I asked him what was, in his mind, the significance of that slogan.

"Nukes," said he, "who wants them?" referring as a I quickly learned not to the bomb but to all manner of nuclear works, in peace as well as in war. I told him that my generation, after the portentous horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had dreamed of the time when this new force might be put to peaceful uses. It was a dream we were not quite ready, even now, to abandon.

The cyclist was already to receive no such doctrine. Indeed he was busy drumming up support for the referendum that goes to Maine voters in September -- a well-intentioned but probably unconstitutional amendment to the state constitution which, if temporarily successful, will prohibit construction of atomic power plants within Maine and will require the disestablishment of one already operating at Wiscasset. Somewhat to my surprise, the argument advanced by young friend against atomic energy was not that it was dangerous, or likely to pollute the air, or that its wastes could not be disposed of without posing a future threat.

"Do you not know," he argued instead, "that the type of energy consumed by a society determines the nature of that society -- the degree of freedom and individuality characteristic of its citizens, the very pattern of its whole cultural life?"

"Atomic energy," he continued, "is the inevitable forerunner of authoritarianism. ITs control requires a massive bureaucracy; its safe operation, a priesthood isolated from the rest of the population. As in the ultimate case of warfare, one man must push the button. With that decision arbitrarily in the hands of a single personm, every other decision becomes secondary and peripheral. Parliaments, senates, all the processes of democracy, are mere masks and shams."

I confess I was intrigued but skeptical, too, for in later life one is inclined to challenge the beautiful simplifications of youth. "Surely," I said to my friend, now leaning against his silver Takara with its twelve speeds and wide-angle frame, "you cannot seriously maintain that when coal was the basic source of energy, as it was through the 19th century, the social and cultural aspects of life were determined thereby?"

"I certainly do," he answered crisply. "A social order dependent on coal was forced to close its eyes to the hazards and degradations of life in the mines. It was compelled to accept the consignment of young children to the most deforming kind of labor. From this basic condition grew a society unequal in nature, wedded to a class structure, and complaisant before the worst horrors in prisons, schools, and factories.

"Moreover, so long as society has been dependent on oil for its energy, we have lived in a world fatally marked by imperialism. An advanced industrial nation has had its existence colored by the ever present need to go to war to protect its supplies of oil. Hence armaments, hence inflation, hence the sins of the CIA."

Before I could get a word in, I was hearing the virtues of solar power and wind power movingly exalted. "In these stands the hope for a free, equal, and peaceful society. They permit decentralization and encourage individuality. Nations are not in competition for these supplies. As they come into general use the world develops into a family of genuinely democratic people."

With these words the young philosopher put his leg lightly over this bicycle. The late evening sun was caught for a moment in its spokes and I heard the faint click of its ratchet gear-changers shifting it into high speed. For one moment more, the slogan "No Nukes" danced before my eyes.

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