I had a delightful experience the other day, and I thought I would share it with you. I had made up my mind about an issue, was pretty sure the people on the opposite side were not particularly well informed, the whole nine yards. Everything I know about people says that even hearing someone disagree would have my digging deeper into my position. And then, in less than three minutes, I was convinced by them. And I'd like to use this to introduce the five-part series I have planned on the nature of risk.
The debate over nuclear power in America is somewhat tired. Big flashy disasters kill less people than the routine noxious emissions of coal and gas fired power plants, and so the debate largely revolves around people not taking risk seriously.
But I was talking to someone about the referenda in Taiwan lately, and they mentioned the nuclear power one. I hinted (as I like to do) that I thought the choice was pretty straightforward – it invites more sharing of political opinions than you'd think, and I truly don't mind people who think it's obvious I am wrong.
And they say, they support shutting down the nuclear power plants and maybe even increasing coal and gas fired plants until renewable energy can take a larger role. Because one disaster wouldn't just mean a lump sum of bad luck vs. the larger annuity of coal – it might mean the end of Taiwan as a country.
Because it's so tiny! The Republic of China controls some other very small islands, but there is a reason they use the synecdoche of Taiwan – it's where almost all the people are, almost 100% of the non-tourism economy, the government. And if you have no government, people, or money, the culture dies too.
For instance, while the evacuation zone after the Fukushima Daiichi disaster was limited, take a larger scope: more than a third of children in the same prefecture now have abnormal growths in their thyroid glands. So when we talk about existential risks, that's closer to the scope we want to use for comparison. And Fukushima prefecture is about 13.7 million sq km – which would be more than a third of Taiwan. If it is anything except the Easternmost third, the contamination would likely be trapped on the island and made much worse, due to local geography and wind patterns, and if it is the Easternmost third you lose a staggering majority of the indigenous cultures of Taiwan.
And that's all betting on the idea that Fukusmika Daiichi is the worst case scenario! Which it most definitely is not – I was trying to get a sense of the larger scope of the Chernobyl disaster, and suffice it to say it would represent the end of the Republic of China as it exists, were it to happen in Taiwan.
Now, as far as I can tell, such disasters require rather extreme human error, and I suspect they'd invest in preventing such events, and have already, to degrees even the much richer and disaster-preparedness-minded Japan would respect. But man, I would not bet the future of any culture on the government not making any mistakes too large.
There exists something sacred, at those larger scales. More sacred that human lives, even. To see a part of the world, a culture, a history, (and a geopolitical oddity, to boot) be swallowed by a sudden doom would be a tragedy exceeding that of the already dreadful accidental deaths we see around the world every day. It's sad, to pay a routine cost of asthma and pollution, but to protect something like that it seems fair. A cost commensurate with the risk.