Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Think of the next generation

I have been reading some stuff about Ontario's nuclear waste problems.  The government is looking for a place to safely deposit a substantial amount of radioactive waste and of course most people are thoroughly against it - unless it goes somewhere far away, in which case it is all good.  The most troubling part of this is people using the 'we must do the right thing for the next generation' refrain.  Framing what is essentially an economic, scientific, and engineering problem in terms of morality necessarily derails the conversation and means that rational decision making becomes extremely difficult.  Morality has its uses of course but when something is portrayed as having infinite value on the basis of protecting future children we can end up committing atrocities - after all, there is no price too high!

The other thing that really bothers me about 'protecting future generations' is that it regularly is used to suggest that only one of the options has any real long term consequences.  Sure, nuclear waste that is stored as safely as possible far beneath the earth could have problems down the road.  However, burning coal instead to generate power blasts out huge amounts of garbage into the air and contributes to respiratory illnesses and deaths, to say nothing of climate change.  Wind is fine and all, but generating all the power a nuclear station could create with wind would instead hand off an immense monetary debt to future generations instead. We have to acknowledge that there are hard questions and that any realistic answer is going to have long term effects we don't necessarily understand.

When we don't fully understand the terms of a debate or feel that we can't win it using facts and rational argument there is a real temptation to resort to "Won't somebody *please* think of the children?!?"

It sounds a lot more like a concession rather than a serious argument to me but unfortunately it is much easier to tug on the people's heartstrings with emotional appeals than with hard data.  Obviously politics is rife with this sort of nonsense as everybody tries to frame their spending as helping the needy and their opponent's spending as waste that will impoverish the nation.  We need to get away from our reliance on the infinite value of moral goals and towards an understanding that the world is complicated; we must make estimates based on the best data we have and move forward.  Grandstanding on moral grounds makes for great theatre and cruddy policy.

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