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Pyramids to COP27 Panels

Mark Nelson

Monday, December 12, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:43  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Mark Nelson, a co traveler to cop 27 in Sharm el Sheikh Egypt, which we have both just returned to myself a little scruff for you than Mark. My bag was lost my shaver was there, Mark, you're looking, looking pretty fly. You're back in Chicago.

Mark Nelson  1:04  

I am. Yeah, I rushed back from Egypt to get to big sport event in Oklahoma, involving my old university. So I had to be fresh, traveled all night, traveled all day, made it there just in time. And so I've now back into Chicago ready for the holiday season. Thanksgiving, an old harvest festival, repurposed to various things over the years, but now spreading around the world, despite the loss of the history, because I think a lot of people love celebrating a good agricultural harvest. And we'll get into more of that later when we talk about history.

Chris Keefer  1:42  

I mean, first off, I mean, my comp was a bit of a blur. I think it was something like 42 hours of travel for about 90 hours in country. And you know, I have been to Egypt before, thank goodness, I've visited the pyramids have crossed the Sinai I was up to Rafah that was 10 years ago, but you know, these, you know, 90 odd hours I spent in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh we're almost entirely inside the Conference Center, which was just a series of kind of large, modern Bedouin tents that had been erected to house these very flashy country, and NGO pavilions. And this was my second comp. I was in Glasgow last year. And you know, at some degree, I feel like I've missed the boat because, you know, in my role as Decouple journalist, and Canadians for nuclear energy frontman, I think I've spent a lot of my time really engaging in the civilian side of things and not spending quite enough time with the negotiations and understanding, you know, exactly the context of what cop is. So, Mark, you know, we've been dropping hints over a number of episodes, you've promised us, you know, various times that we were going to discuss the pyramids, I think this was more in relation to perhaps the the architecture and the enduring legacy of nuclear plants. You know, there's a little bit of a string of an analogy there, that we're picking up on. But also, I'm really looking forward to a broad ranging conversation today. Building off of our experiences that cop touching a little bit on your, your kudos as an Egypt technologist, amateur or not, and and getting some, you know, hot energy banse, some hot takes on on the past, present and future of energy in Egypt. This is a grab bag of an episode. I know you've put a lot of time into thinking through how it's going to run. And I'm really excited to just kind of let you let you run free and interject as appropriate. So welcome back, Mark. It's been way too long. I think it's been two or three months since your last appearance. It's great having you here again,

Mark Nelson  3:42  

right. Thanks for having me, Chris. I think first we should explain what this cop language is what you mean, co P, we both attended cop 27. That Corp actually stands for Conference of Parties. So the big mouthful, that is the official name of this meeting is that it's the UNFCCC. Cop 27. That's the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties. 27. The let me give you a really quick background of where this comes from. Back in 1992, there was a United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, where a number of countries got together and decided to start working on limiting greenhouse gases gases. This is mainly developed countries so rich countries agreeing to work together to limit co2 emissions to help stop climate change. Now, people may not have heard of cop or cop 27 or UNFCC, but many people have heard of the Kyoto Protocol that would be the agreement put together in 1997 in the I think it was called Five, so the fifth meeting. Or fourth, I can't remember what the numbering is. But in Kyoto, a number of countries agreed to create a legally binding mechanism for the limiting of greenhouse gases to stop climate change, then we many people have heard of the Paris Accords. That was a very high profile cop, UNFCC COP meeting back in Paris in 2015. That That meeting is living rent free in my head as the one where the host nation powered almost the entirety of the Conference on nuclear energy, while banning discussion of nuclear energy, and actively passing laws and rules to try to destroy its own nuclear fleet, which it is now, most has been largely successful in doing right when there's an enormous energy crisis that is destroying hope and the futures of many developing countries around the world. So cop in 2015, was in Paris, and the their, their nations from around the world submitted their plans to their self defined self created plans to limit greenhouse gases to levels that would produce 1.5 degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to the standard scientific method methodology used today. Right? So both of us were attending our second cop, when we're in the south Sinai resort town Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheikh just last week. Both of us were there in Glasgow last year, at a very weird conference where there were giant metal gates, and you had to submit self administered COVID tests every morning, showing results on your cell phone to the guards before you could go in. And they had strict mask rules, which were sort of enforced sort of not made a very weird environment. I certainly know like many people, I spent a lot of time slowly sipping a coffee cup in order to be able to talk to people with some degree of connection, as opposed to just a bunch of masked faces. That's not a pro or anti mass statement. Just, it shows you what I experienced in these conference conferences is the opportunity to have a conversation with people from over 100 countries, anywhere on the conference floor, and have typically the first conversation that other person has ever had about nuclear energy. So for me, although there's these giant negotiating rooms, these massive halls where people, leaders, ministers, officials from around the world are meeting around giant, circular or square conference table setups to get these global agreements like the ones in Paris or the ones in Kyoto. Well, for me, the excitement is just conversing with as many people as possible in a short period of time,

Chris Keefer  8:02  

for sure, for sure. Listen, just to take maybe an even a further step backwards. Jesse Freeston Decouple studios, he's dropping a video any day. And he was just, you know, going, again, going back for the cop, what's the framework? What pre what would what's is its predecessor in terms of a structure and negotiating structure for, you know, the UN to deal with hard problems? Is this kind of coming out of, you know, the Montreal Protocol on limiting CFCs? I think Jesse was saying it might have been based a little bit on the structure of arms control agreements, and that maybe that's, you know, it's one structure with which to negotiate. And you can, you know, it's a little different to say, we're going to try and have less nukes in the world weapons here and apply that model to we're going to burn less fossil fuels or have less emissions. But is that am I understanding that correctly, that this is kind of the framework that has been borrowed from other attempts to limit things like CFCs? Or weapons? And how imperfect is that when applied to something again, that is the lifeblood of civilization like, like the burning of fossil fuels?

Mark Nelson  9:04  

Well, right, big meetings, gathering as many important people in one physical space as possible, have always been important, where the hope is that, like the major conferences have allies at the end of World War Two to to figure out how to build rebuild the world, the forerunner of the UN, the League of Nations. All of these were attempts to bypass both boat, probably in both good and bad ways, bypass some of the noise and struggles of internal politics and have leaders in direct communication with each other. So the summit's big meetings in person have been going on as long as there have been more than one state at a time to talk to each other and there are times where there weren't more than one state at a time to talk to each other. We'll get to that when we get to Egyptian history. In terms of the weather, carbon It is something amenable to meetings like this. I think it's improper when people compare it to limiting the chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer. So the the fluorocarbons, that were damaging the ozone layer. In that case, there were industrial chemicals that were nearly as good that could rapidly substitute. And were not themselves the source of the energy for powering the devices like refrigerators. So refrigerants substituted out, new ones were used that make your refrigerator work just as well without leakages, causing damage to the ozone layer. So it was a problem of a wholly different nature, even if it's sort of on its surface looks like something where a bunch of nations came together to limit the emission of a harmful gas that caused damage to the environment. That's that's the part that's similar. The part that's not is that carbon has only very few substitutes, not even as an energy carrier, but as an energy source. When you dig it up, there are very few things in the world that offer the attributes of carbon without the emissions. And some of those things. listeners will know I'm being coy here, obviously, nuclear is what I like. Some of those things were blocked, hated, banned in various ways before the carbon was an issue. In other words, a lot of the entities that have come together to put together these conferences, not just the nations but the other, the other groups, the observer organizations, some of the largest environmental groups in the world, for example, adapted concern about climate change, after forming to combat nuclear energy. So it makes for a very interesting mix of people and organizations at these events. So as an example, I want to I want to show you my badge. I am not from one of the nations I was not part of a national delegation, I was not part of a party involved in the negotiations. Instead, as you can see by the word observer on my badge, I was there ticketed by the UN. So given a pass by the UN, who assigned these passes to organizations like American Nuclear Society, to send delegates to observe the proceedings, we're not supposed to interfere, we're not supposed to get involved in the negotiation, we're there to watch, to report and perhaps to influence that people are interested in having a conversation about what we know or what we've seen. And of course, we're there to learn, I learned a lot in a short period of time, not necessarily about energy, there's not much to learn on energy from people who attend that event, they tend especially worrying for me, a lot of the negotiators, a lot of the ministers, energy officials, heads of state seem to have very passing familiarity with energy, which maybe bring some doubt about what we're going to achieve at any given Climate Change Conference that really is about a byproduct of our energy system, the carbon emissions as a byproduct of our energy system. Obviously, that's only the majority of the world emissions not all. So it's something like two thirds to three quarters are from energy, and other emissions are from land use change. So they're cutting down and emission of natural carbon stocks, and also agriculture. So, right, there's the way I would frame it. These these are special times where people make connections, and have conversations they might not ever have a chance to otherwise. And it's done in an environment that I find, well, maybe I'm biased, because I managed to get a past two years in a row. Thank you very much to the American Nuclear Society for that. But it feels like an open environment truly open environment where somebody like an emergency room doctor from Toronto can directly discuss differences with ministers from Germany. And I think we should mention this, this anecdote, because I'm sure it'll be out on video. And just to describe what it meant for us at COP that you had a run in with an energy minister. So why don't you tell us Chris, I'll ask you. Tell us a little bit about why you were standing outside a room, a few doors away from the International Atomic Energy Agency's booth. Why you were standing out there for 30 minutes waiting for a meeting to end?

Chris Keefer  14:45  

Well, I mean, this builds off the legacy of cop 26 in Glasgow, where I got a tip off from a labour contact that our our Canadian Minister of the Environment, was in a workshop talking about powering past coal. And this this Canadian Environment Minister had a history as a Greenpeace activist and a long principled stance is an anti nuclear activist and I managed to get a bit of an ambush interview with him and confront him on whether his anti nuclear priors would impact his ability to listen to the IPCC recommendations, which suggests the vast expansion of nuclear energy anyway, that that happened last year. And I wanted to carry on the tradition and see if I could speak truth to power and try to arrange another interesting interaction within you know, what you've described, again, as this fairly unique venue where civil society folks can actually potentially pin down a politician and ask them a question. So another tip off, once again, from a labor source, I'm going to be pretty murky about who it was. But we heard that there was a eu Africa ministerial meeting occurring. So you know, the the energy and foreign aid ministers of Europe were meeting with their counterparts from Africa. And, you know, there was a breakthrough Institute study that came out. It was released a couple of weeks before cop, which was talking about the emissions that have resulted due to nuclear closures in the global north where nuclear plants closed, they get replaced by fossil fuels drives up emissions. It was an analysis comparing the emissions from those closures to the emissions from African countries, all sector emissions from African countries, and it was found that those nuclear closures had resulted in missions equal to 37 African countries. So I thought it'd be very interesting to try and talk to maybe the Belgian energy minister, 10 vondre, Strawson, who was there, she was the initial target, we made eye contact through the glass door while I was waiting for them.

Mark Nelson  16:46  

Let me let me set the scene Chris, we're in this massive Hall on these closed conference grounds. So this big area that's been turned into a cluster of giant buildings with huge continuous internal spaces. 10s of 1000s of people are there knowing about people dressed in super intense suits with perfect tie knots and crisply starched white shirts, all the way to people, activists, and T shirts. And folks from indigenous cultures around the world, wearing headdresses, traditional outfits, it's kind of a fascinating mix of people. And we've got these pavilions, these, you know, the temporary walls that have been put up with some amount of design work to show the identity of each of the organizations that had managed to either purchase space or be given space by the organizers to present their events and their point of view. Typically, these pavilions have maybe a little meeting room, or maybe they have a bunch of chairs out an electrician, so people can give talks, or you can have a panel, sometimes there are TVs to give to show documentaries. And so you were doing what we were doing was waiting on a meeting to end in one of these pavilions with a closed conference room, definitely a closed meeting. And there were energy ministers from Europe. And there were energy ministers from African countries, and also people from NGOs and other organizations. And this conference was one where, because all these ministers, all these officials are there for this a big event anyway, you're able to put together otherwise difficult to assemble groups of people. And you can have lots of these meetings at once. And if your kit, if you're able, if you're if you have the right agreement, you can make say forward progress. Now this one, we had African Nations meeting with European countries who had just bought up all their mobile fossil fuel supplies for themselves. Right. So there's, I think, the proper setting, there's some, you know, guards and aides in front of the door, making sure that the meeting is able to go in peace, because although there is debt, you're definitely not allowed to do unauthorized protests at an event like this. There's there's room for organic interaction. And so there you are, with your camera waiting for ministers to emerge. And you want to confront them with the fact that a small number of rich countries had electively chosen, they've chosen not because of the safety of the plant itself, but they've chosen to withdraw from nuclear early in the life of these power plants. And they'd close the amount of energy that could have powered much of the African continent by itself carbon free, while replacing that energy with fossil fuels bought from the world market in a way that is currently depriving those very same nations or meeting with with the life sustaining fuels that would power their grid. So that is I get that right. Chris,

Chris Keefer  19:42  

you you, you did a beautiful job. Very okay. So

Mark Nelson  19:45  

what happened?

Chris Keefer  19:46  

evocative? You know, I mean, this was suspension Schultz, I'd actually seen her at COP 26. In a meeting where you governments were assisting South Africa to leapfrog its coal use and moves Frates renewables following the German course. And so I'd been meaning to try and pin down 10 Vonda strat and we've done an episode on her and on Decouple I mean, she is the current green Minister of Energy in Belgium, and a former lawyer within a consortium that represented some affiliates of Gazprom in Belgium. And, you know, she's the one I guess, in charged with shutting down 50% of all of Belgium's electricity, its nuclear components. So that was the kind of target but I saw Spencer Schultz. And I thought I better carpet Diem and just talk to the first of these, these officials that I can who are most responsible for these irresponsible nuclear phase outs, you know, it was a typical politician type answer. And then she got quite enraged that we were filming the interaction. And it was pretty, pretty amusing because she ended up storming off and an attache came up and wanted me to identify myself, my girlfriend called Just at that moment, and I think you told me a little bit about this, how German folks tend to be very respectful of certain social norms. And so as this person was trying to sort of get my badge and identify me, maybe report me to some comp authorities, my girlfriend calls, and I said, Excuse me, I'm talking with my girlfriend right now. And they just kind of straightened up and apologized and walked away. It was pretty funny.

Mark Nelson  21:17  

We did get the footage, did it achieve anything?

Chris Keefer  21:20  

What was that the footage or the interaction conversation? Ah, I mean, I think there was a brief moment of potential accountability there. We were talking a little bit about the ethics of doing this, you know, it is a bit of an ambush shock interview, are you allowed to, you know, speak to these ministers, her position was certainly that, you know, journalists should be registering, maybe even pre registering their questions be approved by her, her, her her staff. I mean, my, my sense is a little bit different. My journalistic ethics are a bit different. I think if you're a public figure in a, in an event like this, it's fair game to to ask you a question. I mean, it's not a form of violence. In my mind, I think that's something that should be tolerable. But anyway, I don't want to dwell on it too much. It was an interesting interaction. And there was, to me it was it was worthwhile to be able to, again, speak truth to power and hold someone like this accountable for decisions that, you know, in addition to driving up emissions, as you were saying, Germany is currently outbidding all of these poor African countries on available global LNG and coal and making their lives a lot more miserable in the context of you know, talking about distributing a little bit of aid to Africa. You know, it's the fundamental contradiction at the heart of this conference and why it's so difficult is that division between rich and poor countries and the kind of relationships that they're in. I do want to make sure you know

Mark Nelson  22:42  

what happened while you were confronting Mrs. Schultz on camera. I actually did have a conversation, a brief one with Belgian Energy Minister Tina, Vonda Stratton, you know, what's interesting about these, I guess you never really know how you'll respond to meeting, shall we say, a famous person until it actually happens. In my case, you know, she walked out, we caught each other's attention. And I said, Excuse me, was vondre Stratton, and she turned to me with a smile. And whatever mean, this I would have probably been able to muster. If I was just having a tweet battle with somebody doing let's just be frank, Grievous damage to Europe, damage to Belgium, damage to the environment, damage to people in developing nations all over the world. We're talking about somebody in a profound position. And abusing that position to do very, very bad things in the world. And yet, when I'm just standing right in front of the Minister, I can't help but be smiley me. So here's what happened. She said yes. And looked at me. And I said, I just wanted to thank you for the possibility of keeping on some of your nuclear reactors longer. I know many young, bright Belgian nuclear engineers that are very optimistic about the future of nuclear in your country. And she was appreciative. She said, Well, thank you very much. And then she turned around and left. So what did that accomplish? I flew a very far distance and arrived at COP and finally confronted somebody who's practically a you know, you could build up as an ogre a menace in your mind for the damage, the sheer damage and destruction she is is causing in the world, even if it's on request of other parties, or even if another minister would do just as terrible things in her position. She's the one there she's the one doing it. She's the one representing a party for whom the official view has always been phased out nuclear First, clean up the ashes afterwards, right? And yet, in that moment, I just I compliment the little bitty, slimmer hope that in her in negotiations with French gas giant, on GE, who owns the Belgian nuclear fleet, that in her negotiations, somehow they will come to an arrangement that keeps more nuclear than they lose. And I don't know whether your confrontation or my platitudes, thanks. I don't know whether either of those end up meaning something in the long run, but I'll tell you what did mean an enormous amount to me. And it's the conversation conversations I had with young Egyptians. So young Egyptians, here's, here's what I'd like to say. There were people all around the world desperately trying to go to this conference from both rich countries and developing countries alike in the developing countries easier to get the passes harder to get the money to go is very expensive to travel and stay at Sharm el Sheikh during this two week period, from the rich countries, lots of funding available, people willing to fund themselves to go like you and I did. But the availability of badges is what's limited. But for young Egyptians, some of the brightest young Egyptian students involved in organizations all over their country, competed and applied to come to this conference, unlike anything else that has ever happened before in Egyptian history, the world truly coming to Egypt, to be hosted by Egypt, to discuss problems of a global nature. And I had some of the most fascinating conversations you could want. So will they change the world does not matter to me, because I was able to help young Egyptians learn about their future and in some cases, their past. So here's what I mean. Part of the reason I was talking to young Egyptians is because they were coming up and asking for souvenirs from the different booths that I was standing there. So in the case of the IAEA pavilion, I was just nearby because I had Vince going on. And I thought that the stream of visitors coming to see the giant blue atoms symbol and the various panels that were happening there. I thought that was very interesting. So I hung around the IAEA pavilion a lot. And young Egyptians would come up, they would smile, they'd say, Do you have any of those gift bags? Do you have any souvenirs, a lot of them wanted the shiny little pins, souvenir pins that various organizations were giving out. When I was there, in the second week, the IAEA had completely run out of pins. So instead, knowing exactly what they're after, I would bait them into a conversation about themselves. Why were they at the Climate Conference? What did they know about Egyptian energy, what they were learning, and then we would have a conversation about nuclear, because the most important single fact about Egyptian energy now is that Egypt is building a colossal new nuclear plant, just west of Alexandria, on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Chris Keefer  27:53  

And how aware were these young Egyptians of that fact?

Mark Nelson  27:56  

So this is what's interesting. They were aware about this fact, in only one verbal direction, but not the other. Here's, here's what I mean, if I asked, do you know about nuclear energy in their country in your country? No. Do you know about a giant power plant being built in your country? No. Do you know about a big power plant near Alexandria getting built? Not sure. Have you heard of all da ba? Oh, yes. Dub Ah, there's a nuclear plant being built, I know that we're working with. So there, it's identified with a name. But other than that it's a hazy, mysterious, unknown thing, a thing that maybe it's best not to ask about. In certain countries, people pick up on whether they should or shouldn't ask about certain things. And in Egypt, I have to say, the BA is not a project you're supposed to ask a lot about or find out a lot about. And that's interesting for me to hear. Because as I said, it's the single most important fact about Egyptian energy and arguably industry going for it from here on out. So make number one most important fact.

Chris Keefer  29:04  

Yeah, make that case. Explain that to us. And we have to get into ancient Egypt pyramids got a lot of stuff to cover mark. So again, I'm putting a lot of this on your shoulders in terms of how we structure our remaining. We'll give it 40 minutes. But yeah, but briefly, tell us why justify your thesis there?

Mark Nelson  29:21  

Sure. There was a time when the Mediterranean was truly the center of the world. For 1000s of years, it was the central economic Battlefield, the central arena of some of the great human civilizations that have ever existed. And that shifted away to different parts of the world up north to Northern Europe, to the Atlantic. But with the arrival of colossal new nuclear plants in the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, we could see a world historical shift have wealth and potential. Now, I'm not so sure about this yet. But Turkey is also a country with a massive young population, building a colossal nuclear plant on the eastern Mediterranean, along with Egypt. And meanwhile, a lot of the countries that have been historically quite powerful, have wholly forgotten where that wealth comes from, or they never knew, or they took it for granted, you can, you can pick any of our past episodes talking about the European energy system and the crisis that it's entering into. And you can get more details. But basically, energy giant energy projects are being constructed in the eastern Mediterranean in the highly populous developing countries of the Eastern Mediterranean. And they've been shut down or are being shut down in the countries of northern Europe and southern Europe. So there was a time when the breadbasket of Rome of several different empires was the Nile Valley. Now, Egypt is often importing grain. One of the things I noticed when I talked to young Egyptians, first of all, they were keenly interested in their nuclear plant, once I phrased it that way, once I presented it to them that I had come as a visitor to their country, and that I knew about this project, and that, I told them that it was a fascinating project, and that good or bad, whether they liked or disliked nuclear, or if they didn't know anything about it, they had a responsibility to learn about this project that will shape the energy future for them for the rest of their lives. It made a big impact when I said that these nuclear plants now last so long, that if the construction continues and is successful, the nuclear plant will be something their grandchildren can retire working from, with the plant still continue in operation. And you could see, you could see the impact that makes on young people who are otherwise at this climate conference told we only have a few years to live, it will be hell on earth in your time, we are failing you and your childhood, just like Greta is is destroyed. So it's a very different message for them to hear. Egypt is embarking on a tremendous journey, a journey so big, so era changing, that it connects us to the great projects in the great eras of Egypt's past. So then I learned something quite interesting. Most young Egyptians have only a passing interest in their own history, and barely pay attention to it in school, and not much is taught in school. And in fact, I asked a few about this. And some of them said, look, it's always there, you know, the pyramids are there on the horizon outside of Cairo. We know that tourists are coming from all over the world to see it. At some point, it just kind of it's just kind of there. And then I realized that I've seen this attitude before in the UK, when a castle is just another castle. Chris. When I was studying in Cambridge, I would go on these training camps to rural England with the running team. And occasionally we'd be in a town with these massive Castle Ruins. And we'd be staying at a youth hostel right by it. And I would arrive with my bags from the train, I'd get there and say, okay, sorry, I'm a few days late, everybody, how's the castle, and people would stare at me with blank faces and said, We haven't gotten to the castle. But it's looming over the youth hostel. It's right there. And they think, ah, ah, we've got nothing to do. Maybe we'll go look at the castle. And then we go and it's and it's brilliant. Because it's this massive stone structure and mint stone structure representing a completely different way of life time of world history, fallen kingdoms, I mean, the amount that you can see if you know what you're looking for in a fallen ruin is astonishing, about past attitudes. And I mean, for me, this is the big one. We are no smarter now then

Chris Keefer  33:55  

we were on an individual cognitively.

Mark Nelson  33:59  

So yeah, no, I just I think we've been modern humans for a long time. And if you look at ancient Egyptian history, one of the truly original civilizations of world history, you have the arrival of stone block architecture, you have one of the most efficient pre modern agricultural systems ever. You have stable, successful governance over generations in a row, you have the invention of writing of alphabet, the invention of literature, is things of such astonishing originality. While at the same time the technologies did not really change, the ideas kept developing, but the technologies were essentially the same from the beginning to the end of Pharaonic history

Chris Keefer  34:48  

was um, so in

Mark Nelson  34:49  

some ways, if you wanted to read narratives into this, like, oh, they didn't progress at all, the richest Pharaohs lived in mudbrick heights. They made these ridiculous money means that yeah, they're still there. But what was their purpose? Why did they even do it? Or you could put it this way. It was in the first centuries of the existence of such an office of Pharaoh, that the giant pyramids were built. And then for 2000 more years of Egyptian history, nothing of even remotely similar size was constructed. Is that a history of rot? Is it a history of stagnation? If you if you are looking at it with modernize, and you have this view of history of this constantly increasing or constantly, more sophisticated thing, then it's easy to look at Egypt as as a ridiculous past where sure they made some crazy things or maybe aliens did it humans couldn't even do that at all. Because what did they achieve after that? What what do we see from the remains of Egyptian civilization, both sides, a big pile of rocks, but if you know where to look, you see an energy story that actually does have an immense amount to tell us in our modern times, without us, falsely interpreting this the remaining evidence without contaminating it with our own biases. So I suppose I'll begin there.

Chris Keefer  36:09  

Let's let's dive in. Because you know, Decouple listeners, I think most of us are energy maximalists. And you can tell a story with a narrative structure that focuses on so many different elements, so many different lenses through which to see things but Decouple is we love it when we get a good energy narrative. So Mark, take it away.

Mark Nelson  36:25  

Sure. So in case anybody thinks I'm anti renewable, think again. I love what the Egyptian civilization built with the pyramids at Giza and some other lesser known pyramids that for me are equally fascinating. Well, they did that with nothing but renewable energy. Okay, so sun, water, wind, the famous three elements of Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, Decarbonization study, the Egyptians combined that with out slavery, without money, with Mon, mainly muscle power and ingenuity. And they took an agricultural surplus and turned it into the Great Pyramids, some of the most perfect constructions ever in the history of human civilization. So let's start with the unique environment that made this cultural innovation possible. The Nile is unusual among the great world, rivers in its regularity. Now, almost everything I'm about to say, changed upon the adding of the dams and in the south of Egypt, in Upper Egypt in the past century. So a lot of this doesn't actually apply anymore. So this is what the river that the Egyptians found. The Nile, flows from south to north, along many, many 1000s of kilometers. It is fed from torrential rains and melting snows in the Ethiopian highlands. And in the in Central Africa. So this is actually quite important. You have a really long river, that floods flooded very regularly, slowly, but steadily rose up, and then sank down over a several month period, year in year out for 1000s of years. Here's another thing, the water did not come from rains above the heads of people living in the Nile Valley. That is water was there, but it did not have to come from clouds that block the sun. So you have an interesting thing going on. You've got water, but only from the Nile, not from above, you've got the washing of millions, many, many millions 10s of millions of tons of fertile rich silt from Highlands and from along the river systems into the Nile Valley every single year. So a lot of the things that might trap you if you started farming, like your soil being exhausted, or many years in a row, a bad harvest. These were things that agriculture as it arose in the Nile Valley could work around. We had an entire episode talking about energy storage, and I briefly went on a tangent about the energy in a Mongolian army from the horses seven, six or seven horses going rapidly over new pasture land as they sweep across the steppe and conquer civilizations, right? Well, in this case, we had fresh nutrition brought every year by rain water that did not have to come from the sky above rains 1000s of miles away, brought with it the water and the nutrients needed for plant growth year in year out on the same fields for 1000s of years in a row.

Chris Keefer  39:47  

So you got your phosphorus and potassium in those silts nitrogen is that I mean

Mark Nelson  39:51  

and you washed away excess salts. Okay.

Chris Keefer  39:55  

Oh interest. So

Mark Nelson  39:56  

some of the things that trapped the Fertile Crescent we're in Not an issue in Egypt. Here's something else, transportation, the winds tended to blow South against the flow of the water, the water flows north up to the Mediterranean. So, along the Nile Valley, traffic arose very early. Now, I said traffic intentionally I did not say trade. And I did not say commerce. And I certainly didn't say colonization. These are these are things that come before the parts of the story we're telling here, which is that all we can say is in the centuries before the coming of the first pharaohs, there was a giant amount of river traffic up and down in large boats that were carefully recorded on the walls of tombs, and on the on the pottery, on daily use pottery, these big boats traveling up and down the river. As far as we can tell from the available evidence not to conquer, not to kill, not even to trade as it were, but just to move goods up and down the river. That trafficking network arose first, Pharaoh came afterwards. This is kind of important, because the story that generations of historians and archaeologists have told, I mean, going back, as long as people, outsiders were talking about Egypt, Egypt's own history is that there were people there and they were conquered, and the kingdoms, there were multiple kingdoms, they were there, and then they attacked each other, and then one conquered the other. And that's how the ironic Kingdom arose. We do not have physical evidence that this occurred. I mean, some people like to interpret available imagery, showing outsiders being picked by birds or attacked by attacked by animals as showing that there was insider outsider, but that we don't have evidence that there were internal wars of conquering or colonization. Instead, what we have is an extremely long period of farmers making more and more and more crops with fewer and fewer hands needed to supply food through the whole year. And wheat wasn't just bread, wheat was beer, and feed for animals. So with an extreme excess of solar energy streaming down from above, stored as carbohydrate chains, as starch in wheat, and then that wheat storable for years at a time. So that floods that were sort of higher and provided more crops or floods that were sort of lower and provided fewer crops could be balanced against each other over a period of years. So that is it. Because here's the truth about agriculture, here's the truth about exponential growth over centuries, a good year, and agriculture can get you 20, or 30% bonus on your effort you put in a good year might give you 40% Bonus, 40% growth, shall we say? Maybe not in people, you can't have 40% more people in one year. But you could have, say 40% more calories produced than you need that year. But what kills you, Chris, what gets you in the other great agricultural regions of the world is that a year or two where it doesn't work out, knocks you back down in a severe way. So that over an extremely long period of time, the difference between the take off growth of the Industrial Revolution or of modern, the modern age is really just a minimization of the downside shocks of the cultural extinction level, say events like three or four bad harvest in a row? Yes. So Egypt was one of the rare places on the planet, where for hundreds of years in a row, harvest good and bad could be balanced against each other by the extreme regularity of the water, nutrients and sun provided in this, this strange little hothouse at the Nile River Valley.

Chris Keefer  43:56  

And going with this, you know, wind water solar analogy that you're using very high capacity factors, we want to make that analogy, as you said, no clouds, good sun resources. So felicite, facilitating plant growth. You mentioned, you know, the current of the Nile, helping that northward traffic and the wind blowing up to move goods back down south. And really, in terms of being as as optimal renewable system as possible, you're saying storage was excellent in terms of one's ability to produce the surplus calories. So, you know, we talk often about deploying solar in Germany, where in capacity factors are 9% versus deploying it somewhere much more sunny. In terms of the kind of all renewable system this was really as good as it got in terms of geographic location and favourability. Is this kind of a decent summary of of what you've been saying.

Mark Nelson  44:47  

It was an extraordinary environment for renewable energy and for cultural creativity that came out of constant surpluses, sort of food and labor simultaneously,

Chris Keefer  44:58  

back so the biggest expression of that is Is the pyramids? Is it not? And is this a leap off to talk about? Yeah,

Mark Nelson  45:04  

I think I think the great pyramids at Giza are by far the most famous, there were a few very large pyramids built before that, and that by the preceding generations as, as Egyptian architect engineers, if we can call call them that perfected the form of the pyramid, and boy, Were there a lot of experiments, there were there are some unsuccessful pyramids out there on the horizon south of Giza, pyramids that started this steep and had to go this this way, in order not to collapse pyramids that buckled and twisted and started breaking in the middle of construction. So pyramid construction, emerged out of large scale stone block construction, which what came out of previous large tombs. So tune designs were the first pyramid of a king Joseph was the famous step pyramid, people people will probably remembers having seen images of this maybe on Wikipedia or tourist imagery of a pyramid with steps like this, that's basically several of these tombs stacked on top of each other like layer cakes. And I liked that King Josiah, because he had a he had a mustache like the two of us in his sculpture that is now in the in a museum in Egypt, found under his pyramid, basically at an at a little chamber for viewing that sculpture at the edge of the pyramid. Well, he's got his big false beard, like, many pharaohs were depicted having, but he also had a nice mustache like this. So I really, when I saw that image of King Djoser, I really felt a connection. And it was for him that the first Pyramid was built. But again, we're talking about an agricultural system. We're talking about river traffic, we're talking about arts and crafts that preceded the rise of such a thing as a pharaoh itself. Okay. So for these big for these big projects, where did the manpower come from? Well, while the floods are high and covering the farm fields, you can't plant planting happens as the floods recede, and the waters are sort of trapped in these big river flats, carefully maintained by generations of farmers. And then as the water recedes, and dries, there's enough water in the soil over the dry months to sprout the wheat and allow for a giant harvest. While the floods are high in covering the field, you don't need many of the farmers for working the fields. And many of those farmers could then be released to travel down to the sites of the pyramids at the mouth of the Nile where it starts to widen towards the delta. And basically go to these giant quasi permanent work camps were living in bunk houses, clean, dry bunk houses, and fed by copious amounts of beer, and meat meat of several different kinds. But Chris, when they're now uncovering these workcamp areas at the base of the pyramids, and they are finding insane amounts of beef bones and wild donkey bones, and even even pork bones, they're finding a crazy amount of meat was being consumed by this army of laborers who, let's also be clear, almost every single craft, every skill that went into making the pyramids was perfected by the people working together on these big projects. So although there were simple things like copper chisels, or stone cutting, or stone shaping, or stone hauling, or even the brewing and baking, each of those things was brought to the edge of perfection, in form and function to allow a giant group of people working together to rapidly build the basis of these pyramids in a very short period of time,

Chris Keefer  48:56  

I'm going to be looking for an analogy of you know, building pyramids on budget and on time and how that can inform the building of nuclear plants. We're gonna get there, I'm sure but but carry on. And

Mark Nelson  49:05  

just like nuclear plants, there are parts of the pyramid building, when you just need an immense number of people working together to shape large areas, and then areas times when you're doing very high skill, very high precision tasks, and you only need a few 100 Or a few 1000 people.

Chris Keefer  49:21  

Right, right. And these people, we were talking about this briefly over dinner one night, and your hypothesis was that this is not the kind of I think the stereotype that many of us have of you know slaves being being whipped here sounds like they're eating some some copious amounts of meat and I was just curious about that hypothesis. I was skeptical of it, not out of any kind of informed opinion but just you know, some assumptions there. I'm not sure how relevant that is to our energy deterministic discussion here about ancient Egyptian history but humor me if you will.

Mark Nelson  49:52  

Yeah. So I was I was struggling to come up with modern day equivalents because depending on the the cruelty of the labor gather system that we're comparing to either maybe it's a little bit not quite severe enough or way too severe. So let me give you an example. I was just at Oklahoma State University for the, you know, the big cross country championships for my former team. And I was reminded that there's a there's a festival, there's a festival called homecoming that a bunch of universities in the United States do, where it's an annual weekend of tons of former graduates coming back to the campus where they had often the three or four best years of their lives, and then having sort of a big party reunion combined with a football game where we ritually sacrifice young men's bodies willingly to the cause of glory, entertainment, and we keep long history books showing the results of this game each year, especially against great rivals. And at Oklahoma State, we proudly prided ourselves on having the biggest homecoming in the country. And what this meant was that the fraternities and the sororities would spend a month or more planning these enormous festival decorations of their fraternity or sorority compounds. So they would build these big they would weld like these are these are some of these kids are from the farm, they weld these big steel frames, and a lot of the ladies would work on they they call it pumping, there was a whole language for these for these decorations, these house decorations house backs, where they would make pixel art using chicken wire and, and they would they had a technique where they took a pencil, a little, a little piece of tissue paper, and they would twist and rotate it into the chicken wire. And you know, experienced pumpers could get very good at creating these astonishing pixel images, these fast images, and the more mechanically inclined fraternities could animate aspects of these sculptures to have these big faces, say rock back and forth or throw a big football back and forth. And so in the weeks leading up to these, this, you know, nation's biggest homecoming, you'd see welding sparks fly, you'd see super long hours putting in and kids would complain and say, Oh, I can barely get my classes done. I'm having to put in 10 hours of work on this. So were they forced to or not? Well, were they forced to be in the fraternity or sorority? Did they know it was coming? Do they understand the commitment? How did they keep getting the labor year after year to put in a vast amount of effort into these temporary temporary decorations, it all goes in the trash right afterwards? Right? The metal parts get salvaged, the the pumping goes in the trash. It's just for that brief moment. And yet 10s of 1000s of hours from brilliant young students were put into the art and engineering of these house decks for this one brief moment, the night before we slam a bunch of young men into each other. With if you were an archaeologist digging up this event, if frozen in time, would you call it religious? Would you call it slavery? Like what how would you if you couldn't talk to the people involved? And you didn't have written records of their social relations? How on earth would you describe this extreme commitment to this arbitrary weird set of overlapping identities? Well, I can tell you that we find chiseled cuttings on a lot of these blocks and the pyramids saying the work gang that was responsible for in placing that block. For example, one of the workings who worked on Khufu pyramid the Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest and most perfect of all the pyramids. One of the workings was called Khufu is drunk. And you can just see this as being this party. Festival obligation you are tithing your body. And as you are as as you're tithing, your body and your labor, you're getting a massive amount of beer, bread and and meats. And you're building things that are astonishing, cooperative efforts so astonishing that it's easier for us quarrelsome losers and modern age to assume it's built by aliens. Instead, it's less harmful to our egos to assume that humans couldn't even do it than to imagine the camaraderie, the organization to bring together 10s of 1000s of people on the at the at the stages of the largest constructions of the largest pyramids repeatedly to get structures like that built.

Chris Keefer  54:39  

Alright, so in the time we have left, let's pivot from these large constructions to you know, some other large constructions, namely the Dhaba plants in Egypt, and, you know, pivot a bit to what we're looking forward to in future cops, particularly cop 28. So first off, I guess lessons from the pyramids towards nuclear construction indeed, and elsewhere if we can be so bold to apply these lessons more broadly,

Mark Nelson  55:04  

yeah, sure. Here's one that people don't know, the pyramids had living temple cultures at them for sometimes hundreds of years. That is, it was not just a pyramid shining with the perfectly polished and formed casing Stone made out of high quality, lightweight limestone. There were temples at the base where communities of priests and their families lived for generations. And these temples were supplied by specially laid out farms hundreds of miles away in some case, and specially ordered meat production factories down in the delta, where a lot of the beef was was raised. for generation after generation, those specially established farms that were built during the time of the supplying of that pyramid, were part of the living endowment of the of the pyramid cult of the people continuing the rites and rituals and celebrations at the base of the pyramids dedicated to individual rulers. So they were living cultures, they were living things at the end of the great age of the pyramids, the the the obligations were smashed apart, that statues were destroyed, the priests in their families, apparently abandon the site. And that era ended. That makes me think a little bit of what a number of European countries are doing, where they're taking the great works of previous generations, ones that provide a not just a cultural logic, to modernity, where you have 250 people at a German nuclear plant that was built with capabilities and intelligence. And that may not be existing in modern day Germany anymore, it couldn't be recreated potentially without a great deal of trouble, but it operates there, and families send a worker each day to keep it going. And then Germany wants to smash that apart to end an entire way of life that they see as immoral or damaged or bad. Now, opinions are turning around, since some illusions are being smashed about energy supplies, and there's going to be a sudden appreciation of this pyramid culture, this nuclear plant operation. Culture is my guests. But it's our job to help explain what's going on in these forbidding and mysterious locations, these giant locations that stand above the lands, landscape and valleys and across Germany, these nuclear plants, if we want it not smashed up and gone forever, we've got to celebrate and explain what's happening there. And it's important for the ongoing life of the people of Germany. Here's something else, the pyramids, they were built in a time when you might say there was almost nothing else going on. There were almost no other options for what the universe could be. Although the pyramids were chosen, the elaborate details, the the engineering that went involved that went into building those are, I mean, you can see them sitting on the horizon today and know that engineering had to go in that was a result of very conscious, creative thinking. Well, eventually that was that went away that disbanded and attention was put on other things. I hope we're not in a world where the attention required to build such great works is no longer there. In fact, evidence from other countries that are building across the world shows us that we can still build such great works as a human species as a global community perhaps. And we need to reimport good construction culture, good cooperative, building culture from other places, or we just have to regrow it ourselves. Part of it is agreeing on a shared vision for the world. I wish I were out building a nuclear plant right now. I want to be involved. I feel like I'm missing out if there's a nuclear renaissance coming. I want to be on a on a worksite if I can, helping build a pyramid. But the way I see the importance of what I'm doing now is explaining to people a vision that far from just de mythologizing the fears around nuclear, I want to sell something beautiful, not just a single structure, but have a way of life, of a way of living in harmony with nature, not because we are in nature, but because we're producing our energy without harming nature. And we're doing it cooperatively with our fellow citizens because we choose to do so that's that's a beautiful vision that I think we can get behind. And if I have an excuse for not having a hard hat on and being down and in Georgia finishing up Vogel it's that I think we need to define and share this vision of cooperative prosperity and protection of nature through the use of uranium and nuclear plants.

Chris Keefer  59:58  

Well, you know, absolutely, you know, This is something I've been wrestling with is the need to develop a new aesthetic to paint a hopeful picture of how we see the world because the dominant narratives, you know, particularly the environmental narrative is one that is so fatalistic that is, so do me. And I think that's often what brings people around to our side, our way of looking at things is we're offering something else, something more hopeful, a little more faith in humanity. And it's frankly, really refreshing. But there is, you know, this is a small marginal movement. And there's a real need to sort of flesh out, you know, what the vision is what it looks like. I mean, I'm struck with pyramids, as as you know, kind of a vanity project for a pharaoh cult, and I might be misinterpreting that, or as nuclear plants are this productive base for a whole society that you know, a lot of what we heard from the Africans was, we cannot industrialize with solar, you know, industrialization to Northern environmentalist may be a dirty word, it's life and death for us. its independence from you know, ongoing colonialization or neocolonialism our ability to produce our own steel, our own fertilizer, our own cement, underpins our prosperity and our ability to be independent, make our own decisions and not be dominated by the Global North. You know, and this was contradiction, obviously, because so much of that depends upon the burning of fossil fuels. I mean, I'm kind of swinging back into some of the internal dynamics and cop. But I guess, you know, I guess posing to you that that difference, the danger, perhaps in sort of glorifying pyramids, and making that analogy as an aesthetic project, when perhaps these pyramids were more just big vanity projects,

Mark Nelson  1:01:33  

big vanity, what what would it even mean to own a pyramid though? They're sitting on the horizon as evidence of 1000 years of essentially successful harvest all adding up. I mean, of course, I see what you're saying. But I might say this, just as the pyramids were misinterpreted for millennia, as the brutal slave built whimsical structures to monomaniacal Pharaoh, God kings, I mean, I that that was the way the Greeks who actually had brutal vicious slavery represented the pyramids, which tells you something, I think the way the Greeks misrepresented, represented the pyramids, and then the uncovering of the true story of them through careful work, scientific work, and careful reimagining of stale old false stories from previous writers and thinkers. I think that actually holds a really important message for both of us, and that people have claimed that nuclear plants are the equivalent of pyramids, that they are vanity projects almost expensive, as CEOs of, of utility companies, right, like Vogel in Georgia who even knows Alvin Vogel like what does that even mean? Right? So these vanity projects to pass Pharaohs made, you know, executed by Yes, men with backbreaking labor for many people, and then a burden to support once we're there and a beautiful future once we can get away from pyramid building, that that actually is, in my opinion, closely related to the sort of anti human hate that went into redefining the nature of the nuclear energy project. And that if we can, if we can recapture the true, as far as we can tell, from the evidence available, the true meaning of the pyramids, a celebratory group project, built in the name of the chief farmer King, in a Peaceful Valley, where you had the option of constructing Greg works with the excess wheat, beer, bread and beef, that you You're incredible, efficient labor provided, then why not make something beautiful?

Chris Keefer  1:03:48  

It's so interesting, Mark, because we've known each other now for I think, close to three years. And I've always been sort of interested in what motivates this passionate renaissance man, this this, you know, near concert pianist, this energy guru, this amateur Egyptologist and architecture freak. And, you know, I know it's climate change to some degree. I know, it's, you know, concerns about conservation and environment. But there's this element to you, which I think you were telling me about this, you know, when you were in preschool, like you love building these big block structures, and kids would come and smash them down. And it's just interesting kind of getting to know you. And this interview is kind of I feel shining a lot of light on who you are, and what your motivations are, and what you value. So I think that's just a little personal reflection here of, you know, our friendship over the years and getting to know you and meeting you a few times. You know, as it happens at these comp events. It's a beautiful thing. Let's just in the few minutes we have left. Talk a little bit about our hopes and expectations for cop 28. This is occurring in the United Arab Emirates, where, you know, we did see amongst one of the very few pavilions that actually talked about nuclear energy, you know, France guilty of saying nothing, so many other countries that have you know, China Just soon to surpass both France and the US in terms of number of total reactors only had wind, solar and a combined cycle gas plant in their display. The United Arab Emirates did feature the Barakah nuclear facility, the Arab world's largest source of clean energy. They're the hosts of our next COP in 2028. So just briefly in a couple minutes, tell me about your hopes and aspirations for cop 28. And whether we'll see a little bit more on the nuclear side there,

Mark Nelson  1:05:32  

until there's an a common understanding of these climate conferences, that it's an energy problem and a wealth from energy problem that will only be solved by replacing fossil fuels by something as good as fossil fuels that makes abundant wealth like fossil fuels, I don't see a lot coming out of these conferences, that is going to change much compared to the emerging realities on the ground have an energy crisis or future energy abundance for the countries that do choose nuclear. So I don't expect I don't put a heavy burden on these climate conferences to produce, say, climate action, per se. But as cross fertilization of ideas, people and especially of nuclear energy, across cultures, I think it's going to be even better. So in Dubai, a lot of the electricity that's going to power that conference is going to come from nuclear plants. In fact, I've heard from the folks running the UAE nuclear program, very successful construction of four massive reactors at Morocco, in in long the Red Sea coast, in the UAE. I've heard that at nighttime, and especially in colder months, like the month when cop 28 is going to be held in Dubai, almost all of their load is already covered by the nuclear plants that will be on by them. So this is going to be a heavily nuclear powered conference either way, and they are proud of it. They're they know about it, and they plan to make a very big deal. And they should it's a it's a it's a message of hope to countries around the world that are being denied fossil fuels that they can see with their own eyes, electric lighting, powered by nuclear plants, they will be able to go to our nuclear plants for the first time in the lives of almost everybody there, it takes advantage of nuclear plant tours. Heck, I'm already excited about going I insist that we must share this message before and during cop 28 That you don't have to give up hope you can build your way into clean prosperity by choice, you can choose to use what remaining energy and financial surpluses we've generated from what was built by our forefathers and mothers, we can use that to build future permanent prosperity. If we build the right kind of pyramids. I can't wait to spread that message there. And based on the reception that I know, both of us were getting in these early conversations on nuclear with people around the world, I think it will be very well received.

Chris Keefer  1:08:02  

Yeah, I'm very excited. And you know, just as as way of an introduction to our upcoming episodes, you introduced me to one of your advisors, Seth Gray, he was very involved in advising the Emiratis at the beginning and throughout their their their development. So we're gonna have him on to give us some of that context. We're also going to be having his excellency Mohammed Al Hammadi, who is the head of the Emirates nuclear energy Corporation on Decouple in the coming weeks. And just in closing, and we're gonna go into this a bit more with Seth, who's recording of interview just a couple days from now, an interesting vignette, Mark. And I think something that was really inspiring to me sometimes, you know, doing this advocacy work. You go through the highs and lows of it a little bit, the victories and not yet victory, shall we say? We don't accept defeat here in this movement, but a really interesting thing that Seth was telling me about, again, we're gonna go into more detail but a young 17 year old Swedish pro nuclear activist, yeah. And students, staying up late on Friday saw that within the loss and damage agreements that were being forged, that eligible technologies for those funds, were being limited to renewable energies only. She got in touch with Seth Seth got in touch with a number of negotiators believe with the American division. And that was changed to be inclusive language that includes nuclear energy. So if you're ever wondering if you're involved in this crazy ComiCon like fringe pronuclear advocacy movement, whether you can have an impact. Absolutely you can hats off to iya amazing for identifying that and again, just the way that you know a healthy movement is not just a bunch of university aged students waving placards, we need those folks right but a healthy movement is multi generational, and it's so much stronger because it draws on you know, the experience of someone like Seth you know, a, you know, an advisor to you know, one of the most successful nuclear programs in the world and the energy of a 17 year old Swedish activist, something that's just truly inspiring. So, Mark, you're a huge part of coordinating this global movement. It's awesome having you back on the podcast. It's been too long. We've got a bunch more stuff in the pipeline, some more masterclasses coming. Thanks for making the time to decode. Cop 27 put it in context and for sharing some of your, your wisdom thoughts hypotheses on on the connection between pyramids and nuclear plants. It's finally has been delivered that promise of several episodes ago.

Mark Nelson  1:10:37  

Good to be here, Chris. Looking forward to coming back soon.

Chris Keefer  1:10:39  

All right, it will be soon my friend. Bye for now.

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