Saturday, October 29, 2011

Effective and ineffective advocacy

Recently, there's been a push among supporters of nuclear energy to try and promote nuclear energy-related petitions in the White House's recent propaganda stunt online citizen petition initiative, "We the People". Some of these petition topics included advocacy of specific nuclear prototype projects (such as the integral fast reactor [IFR], liquid fluoride thorium reactor [LFTR], and others), others advocacy for nuclear energy education, and so forth.

Rather cynically, the White House decided to raise the signature petition threshold from 5,000 to 25,000 signatures in 30 days. Even still, a few petitions - particularly those related to marijuana and general drug-policy reform, managed to squeak through, along with others tied to topics such as the "Fair Tax" plan and the topic of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Taking a look at the official White House responses - released on a Friday (in other words, "trash day" in media parlance), one can tell that they simply wanted these topics to just go away. The White House takes these kinds of matters no more seriously than a local Congressional representative takes unsolicited letters from individuals: a boilerplate response that simply says, "Thanks, but we still disagree. Now please go away." Pretty clear and convincing evidence what kind of Potemkin Village propaganda fronts initiatives like these are - and a distraction from real advocacy efforts.

Contrast this with actions such as that organized by Meredith Angwin in support of the beleaguered Vermont Yankee nuclear facility. In addition to her blog, "Yes Vermont Yankee," she recently organized a pro-VY rally as a counter to some of the recent anti-VY rallies going on. Originally she expected a turnout of about 25 - and through the power of social media, managed to get over double that (60 total).

This is what effective advocacy looks like. Going out and talking to people - family, friends, and neighbors. Directly engaging with peoples' concerns, many of which are legitimate at their root (in the sense that health, safety, and economics are all legitimate concerns). And they're concerns we have answers for - especially those of us who are educated nuclear professionals.

Some of the most effective actions we can take are simply to educate people - not even evangelizing, but reaching out to organizations like schools, scouting groups, and so on. (Some of the most enjoyable teaching moments I've had so far involve teaching basic nuclear concepts to scouting groups.) One of the chief motivators behind the fear of nuclear energy and radiation is the fact that these issues are poorly understood - the more ordinary mundane they become, the less opportunity there is for the professional scaremongering class to stir up boogeymen.

It isn't always easy - people will often get intimidated when I tell them I'm a nuclear engineer. But the most common way I've found to deflect that and put people at ease is this - I tell them, "Really, it's just a very sophisticated way of boiling water to make electricity." And, bland as that sounds, that really is the root of nuclear energy - controlled nuclear fission which produces heat, which in turn boils steam and turns turbines. That's it.

Getting people to understand this, and the fact that radiation is all around them in nature, are key to allowing the public to make informed decisions on energy, rather than being emotionally manipulated by ignorance and hype.

Online petitions run for the cynical political benefit of their sponsors just won't do this. At best, they are simply used at the discretion of their political puppetmasters, and at worst fruitless efforts like these rob advocates of time better spent on more effective education and outreach efforts.

11/8/2011: To clarify a bit, following a conversation with the creator of the LFTR petition - I'm against petitions as a means of impacting governmental policy (which is next to useless). Petitions as a medium for education - which I still think is relatively limited by the medium itself - is still fundamentally the right idea, in that the goal is to begin a conversation. (Unfortunately, the LFTR petition recently expired, per the 30-day rule of the White House petition system, or I'd have otherwise provided a link.)