The Validity of The Lesser of Two Evils

October 02, 2014 Tagged with: society

This article has reinforced a paradigm that I think gets ignored too often by the environmentally conscious: when considering an optional you find lacking, always consider the alternative or the default, and weigh the option against that. Because, no matter how much you don’t like what’s being offered, the alternative or status quo might be worse.

A researcher did a meta-study on what might happen if we replaced fossil fuels with nuclear power:

They next estimated the total number of deaths that could be prevented through nuclear power over the next four decades using available estimates of future nuclear use. Replacing all forecasted nuclear power use until 2050 with natural gas would cause an additional 420,000 deaths, whereas swapping it with coal, which produces significantly more pollution than gas, would mean about 7 million additional deaths.

The inverse is this: current fossil fuel usage causes a lot of deaths.  The status quo is deadly. Air pollution kills.

Anti-nuclear activists will point to deaths caused by nuclear power, which total several thousand over 50+ years (though it’s tough to estimate because the two deadliest accidents were Soviet, and they don’t talk much about fatalities). Even looking at the numbers pessimistically, it’s perhaps a few hundred per year (which is skewed horribly by the two Soviet accidents, which easily account for 90% of total fatalities).

In looking at this, you have to consider the alternative: fossil fuels.  Yes, alternative energy is great, and solar is coming along nicely, but if nuclear goes away, all that capacity is not getting absorbed by wind power, I promise you.  Which means that the alternative to nuclear power is not pure as the driven snow, and is no-doubt worse no matter how you’re looking at it.

Another example: corporate farming is undesirable for many reasons. But organic farming is not perfect due to lower crop yields and lack of scalability. As bad as corporate farming is, it generates a lot of food which feeds a lot of people. If we switch the whole world to organic farming, millions of people will likely starve as a result – people who don’t shop at Whole Foods and who likely aren’t on this continent.  I don’t love pesticides, but I love them immeasurably more than starving children.

When considering something you don’t like, it’s always easy to whitewash the alternative. If you don’t take Option A, you’ve constructed a strawman of Option B in your heads which is perfect and wonderful and righteous. I don’t think this is valid. You need to consider Option B in light of reality, and it likely has warts.

“The lesser of two evils” is a valid perspective.  If it improves on the status quo, however imperfectly, perhaps that’s the best you can hope for.


Aidan says:

Some good points, except for the one about corporate farming. We don’t have a food supply issue, we have a food waste issue. We justify the destruction of millions of acres of micro biomes through the suggestion that we have 7 billion people to feed. Organic farming is scalable, it has been done all over the planet for thousands of years. In fact food is so plentiful that we can afford to use millions of acres of land to grow corn for fuel, not food.Overall, the point of the piece is well taken, but we also need to be thoroughly educated about specific topics if we are to use them as examples, especially in a piece about “lesser evils”. We can and always should expect more.

deane says:

There’s no question that organic farming has been done for thousands of years (of course, for most of that time, it was just “farming”), but has it ever had to feed the sheer number of people we have on the planet now? Clearly no, since at any given moment we have more people than we’re ever had in history.

Even if we have a “food waste problem,” so what? We have that problem, and unless we have a solution to it, then pointing it out is not relevant. The problem exists, and we have to examine our options in light of that. Perhaps a lot of the output of corporate farming is getting thrown out. It doesn’t change the fact that we need all that output (and more).

cmadler says:

While the lesser of two evils may be valid, it’s always worth asking whether those two evils are truly the only options. Your example of farming makes a good case for this. You set up the options as corporate farming with pesticides, antibiotics for livestock, etc. being able to feed the world (“we need all that output (and more).”) versus smaller scale organic farming.

But in fact we don’t need all that output and more. Current production is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day, which is realistically more than enough for most people. The problems are waste and distribution, not simply production levels.

deane says:

You’re the second person to make that same claim, and I’ll answer it the same way –

If we have a distribution problem, fine. But that problem exists and affects the status quo. Thus, we must evaluate options in light of it.

I feel like you’re saying that Problem A isn’t an issue if we just solve Problem B. Okay, great. Solve Problem B and then we’ll talk. But as long as Problem B exists, it is a factor in the status quo and must be considered and dealt with.

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