May 19, 2009

Collective Decision Making

In 1984, the U.S. Government started studying 10 sites in the United States to find a location that would act as a repository for nuclear waste from U.S. nuclear reactors. By 1987, Congress had narrowed the list to one location: Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

By almost any measure, Yucca Mountain appears to be the ideal candidate. 80 miles north of Las Vegas, it is a barren desert, without any cities are towns - practically without any living creatures at all. The site was used to test a number of nuclear weapons, and it is owned by the government. We have spent $9 billion studying Yucca Mountain, and haven't found any compelling reasons why it shouldn't be used for nuclear waste disposal.

So, some 22 years after Yucca Mountain was selected, why is our nuclear waste still being stored in much more dangerous temporary locations? Why did Energy Secretary Steven Chu say "the Yucca Mountain site no longer was viewed as an option for storing reactor waste"?

I would argue that Yucca Mountain hasn't happened because Nevada voters didn't want it to happen, and because Nevada voters have power incommensurate with their numbers. In 1980, '84, and '88, Republican presidential candidates won in Nevada by 29 percentage points or more. As the Yucca Mountain issue became more prominent, Nevada voting patterns changed dramatically. Ever since 1988, Nevadans have consistently voted for the winner of the election, who has won by less than 4 percentage points (

While it could certainly be argued that demographics accounted for much of the change in Nevada politics (a growing Californian population, for example), I would argue that the change could potentially be attributed to collective, subconscious decision making.

Just like our brains "decide" on our breathing, heart rate, etc. without our conscious input, I think that it is possible that our societal "brains" make decisions about our society without any individual directing, or even being cognizant of, the decisions being made. I would argue that there are many decisions that are made at a societal level, with inputs and responses that are not fully understood by the individuals involved.