April 7, 2005 | 11:13 PM ET

My 1999 Passat wagon is getting a bit long in the tooth, and I'm starting to think about buying a new car to replace it.  I'm a gas-price pessimist (back when I was shopping for cars last time, everyone told me to buy an SUV -- "Gas is less than a dollar a gallon!  Who cares about mileage?" -- but I figured that couldn't last, and it didn't.

Now I'd like to buy a hybrid, though so far the selection and pricing doesn't excite me.  But everyone keeps telling me that hydrogen cars will be our salvation.  The problem is that hydrogen isn't that easy to come by, and requires a lot of electricity to make.  And if the electricity comes from big coal- or oil-fired plants, you haven't really done much.

Now Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame is predicting a turnabout in attitudes:

Over the next ten years, I predict, the mainstream of the environmental movement will reverse its opinion and activism in four major areas: population growth, urbani­zation, genetically engineered organisms, and nuclear power.
Nuclear certainly has problems—accidents, waste storage, high construction costs, and the possible use of its fuel in weapons. It also has advantages besides the overwhelming one of being atmospherically clean. The industry is mature, with a half-century of experience and ever improved engineering behind it. Problematic early reactors like the ones at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can be supplanted by new, smaller-scale, meltdown-proof reactors like the ones that use the pebble-bed design. Nuclear power plants are very high yield, with low-cost fuel. Finally, they offer the best avenue to a "hydrogen economy," combining high energy and high heat in one place for optimal hydrogen generation.
Years ago, environmentalists hated cars and wanted to ban them. Then physicist Amory Lovins came along, saw that the automobile was the perfect leverage point for large-scale energy conservation, and set about designing and promoting drastically more efficient cars.

Gas-electric hybrid vehicles are now on the road, performing public good. The United States, Lovins says, can be the Saudi Arabia of nega-watts: Americans are so wasteful of energy that their conservation efforts can have an enormous effect. Single-handedly, Lovins converted the environmental movement from loathing of the auto industry to fruitful engagement with it.

Someone could do the same with nuclear power plants. Lovins refuses to. The field is open, and the need is great.

He's right, and actually there are improved nuclear designs -- described in this article from Wired magazine -- that look safer and cheaper than anything we've had.

There are other things we might do -- orbital solar power has gotten some attention again, recently -- but nuclear technology works, is available now, and doesn't contribute to global warming.  Burning coal and oil is filthy and disgusting, and pretty much anything is an improvement.  As the Wired article points out:

We now know that the risks of splitting atoms pale beside the dreadful toll exacted by fossil fuels. Radiation containment, waste disposal, and nuclear weapons proliferation are manageable problems in a way that global warming is not. Unlike the usual green alternatives - water, wind, solar, and biomass - nuclear energy is here, now, in industrial quantities.  Sure, nuke plants are expensive to build - upward of $2 billion apiece - but they start to look cheap when you factor in the true cost to people and the planet of burning fossil fuels. And nuclear is our best hope for cleanly and efficiently generating hydrogen, which would end our other ugly hydrocarbon addiction - dependence on gasoline and diesel for transport.

It's nice to see that some environmentalists are starting to notice.

April 4, 2005 | 1:31 PM ET

Bad news for Zimbabwe --and AfricaThe Zimbabwean election was stolen.  As human-rights blogger Publius observes, dispiritedly:

This has been probably one of the saddest elections I've had to cover, because in following the struggles of democratic hopefuls against Mugabe, I have really learned that we can't just write Africa off.  In totalitarianism, there is always a critical low point where it is literally impossible for a people to fend for themselves against a government.
That's why I am so disappointed that South Africa and other neighboring countries were so keen on ratifying this obvious mockery of electoral democracy.

This disappointment with South Africa is shared by Sebastian Mallaby in today's Washington Post:

Thursday's election in Zimbabwe was not merely stolen.  It was stolen with the complicity -- no, practically the encouragement -- of Africa's most influential democrat.  If you think too long about this democrat, moreover, you reach a bleak conclusion.  For all the recent democratic strides in Africa, the continental leadership that was supposed to reinforce this progress is not up to the challenge.

The bankrupt democrat in question is Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's president.  For the past few years, he's been promising a pan-African Renaissance, a new era in which Africans would take charge of their own problems.
But do Mbeki's New Partnership principles mean anything? In the run-up to Zimbabwe's election, when the regime's thugs were denying food to suspected opposition sympathizers, Mbeki actually undercut the international pressure for a fair contest.  He expressed a serene confidence that the election would be free and fair.  He allowed his labor minister, who was serving as the head of the South African observer mission in Zimbabwe, to dismiss the regime's critics as "a problem and a nuisance." He quarreled with the Bush administration's description of Zimbabwe as an outpost of repression. He did everything, in other words, to signal that mass fraud would be acceptable.

Pro-democracy activists look at Mugabe and see a disappointment.  The frightening possibility is that Thabo Mbeki looks at Mugabe and sees a role model.

April 3, 2005 | 10:20 PM ET

The end of an era

Pope John Paul II has died.  And he wasn't just any pope, which has led to reactions across the blogosphere.   Josh Marshall writes:

One other thing that is worth mentioning --- especially for people under thirty --- is that before John Paul II, the Pope was a much more, well … parochial figure than he has been in the decades since.

The Pope didn't travel around the world. He was always an Italian. And he was far less involved in the ecumenical work that played such a role in John Paul's pontificate. All of this goes to say that for a Jewish nine-year-old and his grandfather sitting in a rec room in a Jewish retirement home in 1978, the Pope was a much more distant figure than he would be to almost any of us today.

Others echoed this sentiment, stressing John Paul II's role in the overthrow of communism.  Johnathan Pearce writes:

"Pope John Paul II was one of the great figures of our age. However controversial a figure he may have been for his views on issues like abortion, birth control and capitalism, the late Pope was, in my eyes, a hero for playing a part in giving people in Eastern Europe the confidence to bring the Soviet Empire down."

And Hugh Hewitt observed:

With Reagan and Solzhenitsyn, John Paul II represents the three forces of opposition to communism that shattered the evil empire, the Soviet Union --the American-led West, the Eastern European resistance, and the Russian dissident movement. They also represented the three spheres of opposition: political, artistic and spiritual. Each man came into the field of his greatness later in life, and each has endured hard circumstances in their later years.  I hope Solzhenitisyn is able to and inclined to write about his colleagues in the struggle that triumphed.

And some people stress that the Pope left us with a final lesson.  Donald Sensing observes:

According to this monsignor of the Catholic Church, interviewed just before 11 a.m. CST on Fox News, Pope John Paul II has refused to leave the papal apartments to enter a hospital. The monsignor also said that the pope continues to take food and nourishment but is declining further medical treatment.

He also said that if the pope was suffering from the terminal stages of cancer "it would be appropriate" to withhold food and water because "they would not be beneficial." But, the monsignor added, that is not the case in the pope's condition now.

Does this reflect how American Catholics should view the end of Terri Schiavos life?

And Kathryn Jean Lopez makes a similar point:

Much has been and will be said about Pope John Paul's most recent silent teaching—his lessons from his example of his own suffering: How to live, how to die. To respect all human life, even when sickly. I think also when you realize that he did not go to the hospital this week it was another specific lesson by example--and a striking one this week of all weeks. He took his antibiotics, he had a feeding tube, and had doctors on hand treating him, but his situation was grave and he didn't opt for any extra (read: extraordinary?) care that, perhaps, might have given him a few more days. We're not to be absolutists, but realists who are called to be protectors of this amazing gift we've been given—human life.

I wonder who'll replace him?  If you're interested in the process, The Teaching Company has made two lectures on the Papal selection process available for free. 

Personally, I disagree with the Catholic Church's teachings on things like abortion, birth control, and gay marriage -- and I think the Church's response to the priestly abuse scandals was a disgrace.  Nonetheless, John Paul II was a pivotal pope and a good man.  We'll be lucky if he's replaced by someone of similar caliber.

April 1, 2005 | 2:57 PM ET

Sandy Berger:  Admitted Thief

One of the scandals that hurt the Kerry Campaign last summer involved the theft of classified documents from the National Archives by Kerry Advisor (and former Clinton National Security Advisor) Sandy Berger.  Now Berger has pled guilty and admitted that he lied about what happened:

The terms of Berger's agreement required him to acknowledge to the Justice Department the circumstances of the episode.  Rather than misplacing or unintentionally throwing away three of the five copies he took from the archives, as the former national security adviser earlier maintained, he shredded them with a pair of scissors late one evening at the downtown offices of his international consulting business.

The document, written by former National Security Council terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke, was an "after-action review" prepared in early 2000 detailing the administration's actions to thwart terrorist attacks during the millennium celebration. It contained considerable discussion about the administration's awareness of the rising threat of attacks on U.S. soil. . . .

Berger's archives visit occurred as he was reviewing materials as a designated representative of the Clinton administration to the national commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The question of what Clinton knew and did about the emerging al Qaeda threat before leaving office in January 2001 was acutely sensitive, as suggested by Berger's determination to spend hours poring over the Clarke report before his testimony.

Whatever it was that Berger stole and destroyed, it's fair to assume that it reflected badly on the Clinton Administration's -- and perhaps on Berger's -- anti-terrorism efforts, and that Berger thought it was bad enough that he was willing to commit a crime rather than see it made public.

Nonetheless, Berger has gotten off pretty light in exchange for his guilty plea:  A $10,000 fine and a loss of his security clearance until 2008 -- coincidentally, leaving him free to take a job in a new Democratic administration should one be elected that year.

Why did Berger commit the crime?  It's pretty easy to guess.  Why did the Justice Department let him off so easily?  That's harder to say.

It seems that the big boys play by a different set of rules.  Or is Berger cooperating in a further investigation?  We'll see.

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