The Validity of The Lesser of Two Evils

Posted on October 02, 2014. Filed under 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.

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