Death By Activism

25 Mar

Here’s a serious problem that just came to my attention. The problem was illustrated by this article, which talks about the safety of nuclear power, but I think the lesson applies to a great many other topics.

The problem is this. Nuclear power stations are very safe, but not perfectly safe.

Supporters of nuclear power emphasise the former point  :

“Nuclear power is very safe! It takes a 9.0 earthquake and massive tsunami to cause problems even on an old reactor!”

Opponents of nuclear power emphasise the latter point :

“Nuclear power is not perfectly safe! Earthquakes and tsunamis of that power might be rare, but the consequences are horrible!”

Now suppose, one day, some genius comes up with a radically new design for a nuclear reactor. A design that, say, means that even if the whole plant breaks down and all the operators run away, nothing disastrous happens. What might the supporters and opponents of nuclear power say?

If the two sides are sufficiently polarised, this is what might happen. The supporters of nuclear power might say to themselves

“We can’t be seen to support this technology. Even if it goes ahead tomorrow, we will still have old-style plants in operation for decades. Our opponents would turn around and say ‘see? You admit your existing plants aren’t safe enough!'”

The opponents of nuclear power might say to themselves

“We can’t be seen to support this technology. It would seriously undermine our anti-nuclear message if we supported some nuclear technology!”

And so the new technology gets ignored, even though it’s clearly better for everyone.

The lesson here is not about nuclear power. It’s about political polarisation.

When environmental groups were seen as anti-business, and business was seen as anti-environment, not much was achieved. Not until someone pointed out, “hey, did you know that you can save money by using less energy?”

Political polarisation crowds out sensible, middle-ground solutions. That’s why I’m so concerned about the way the Liberal Party of Australia goes about opposing certain initiatives by the Labor government. It’s not that I agree with all the initiatives. Rather, the opposition takes the form of name-calling, ridicule and appeals to sentiment instead of sense. Labor sevres the same dish back (though perhaps not so virulently as the current Liberal leader). This leads to strong emotions, a polarised politic, and the loss of perhaps dozens of sensible middle-ground ideas.

Tony Abbott is opposed to Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax. However, he’s never proposed ways it could be amended and improved, resorting instead to emotionalist rhetoric. This means that the final implementation of the Carbon Tax will not be as good as it might have been, had Tony spent his energy instead on pointing out genuine flaws in the implementation or design.

Tony Abbott is opposed to the NBN. However, he’s never outlined a sensible broadband plan of his own, nor explained why we don’t need one. This means the final implementation of the NBN will not be as good as it might have been, had Tony thought carefully about what the NBN is, and how it could be improved.

The same thing is surely happening in US politics – how much better would Obamacare be, or the US economy, if the opposing parties were less, well, opposed? If reason, not rhetoric, was needed to carry the day?

Polarisation kills. Oppose it now!

1 Comment

Posted in Politics


Leave a Reply


  1. Neil Gerace

    March 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

    “We demand rigidly-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”