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Coal and Progress are Good

In part 1, we discussed "He said, she said" reporting. In part 2, we did a little philosophical analysis. We asked, "Will burning less coal in power plants save lives?" The key issue for government regulation of coal power is whether it's within the government's proper purpose of protecting people. Read the previous parts first. This is the conclusion.

Coal has fans and haters. Electricity has proponents and opponents. Progress in general can be divisive. Some people see potential, others see new dangers. Some see improvement, others see disruption. The potential, new dangers, improvement and disruption all exist. Many people reply that we have to compromise. But we don't.

Burning less coal not only won't protect people, it would hurt people. It's a huge mistake for the government to push for it.

Philosophy is important here because it's the field which addresses fundamental issues like progress and compromise. Compromise and limiting progress are popular bad philosophy. Those mistakes make it hard to clearly see the value of coal. Bad philosophy helps enable mistakes for specific issues like industrial progress, abortion, emotions, dating and parenting.

Coal is mistakenly seen as a compromise with substantial negatives because everyone expects and seeks out compromises. A compromise is an outcome where some problem wasn't solved; it's a partial solution. People think that's the best you can do. Better philosophy explains how genuine full solutions to life's problems can be possible and should be sought. (If you are interested in more about full solutions, look over my archives or ask here.)

Progress (including industrial and scientific progress) is not a compromise. Progress looks like a compromise because it brings with it new dangers. But people have misunderstood the human condition.

The human condition is one of infinite problems. This is a good thing. It means there is infinite improvement possible, life can always be better. Whenever you make life better, it raises new problems – new opportunities. There is no way to avoid problems. If you do nothing, you will die. If humanity tries to live a "sustainable" lifestyle indefinitely, everyone will die. A meteor or plague may come, or something else. The only defense against the unknown potential problems of the future, like new diseases, is progress. The more progress we make, the more we can increase our general purpose problem solving power, giving us a chance against new problems.

Progress brings new problems, but they were coming anyway. Since that isn't avoidable by any means, it isn't a downside. And it doesn't make life bad, it's part of a good active life.

In broad outline, coal electricity, like other progress, brings massive benefits and some new problems. It has transformed life for the better. If you selectively look at the dangers it has brought (e.g. radioactivity in the smoke created), those may seem scary, and coal can look like a compromise. But if you look in a more broad way, instead of selectively, you can see the massive dangers coal solves (like working yourself to death with manual labor), as well as that new dangers are a part of life whether we use coal or not (so coal isn't really to blame).

Examining specifics, electricity makes life better with features like electric lights, computers, phones, stoves, refrigerators and motors. Electric lights give you more usable time, effectively extending your life. Computers automate tasks, saving time and effectively extending human lives. Phones enable friendships that would otherwise be impossible, making life better. Stoves make cooking safer by not having to burn wood or dung (comparing to coal plants, remember smoke is a lot worse when it's right next to you). Refrigerators reduce food poisoning. Electric motors help with transportation and factories. Factories allow mass production, which allows you to have products cheaply (meaning you work fewer hours, effectively extending your life) which help make your life better – example products include medicines, safe portable foods, tools that let you work more effectively, and luxuries that people value.

The massive benefit to human life is a theme of progress, and should be kept in mind as the main issue. People are too eager to dismissively say, "Sure there are benefits, but why not do it in moderation? Let's look at the downsides." Selectively focusing on the downsides of progress, while glossing over the upsides of progress and the downsides of non-progress, results in a biased non-objective understanding of reality.

People are worried the oceans might rise. Some lowland areas may flood. So what? That's way better than dying of cholera like people did before industrial progress. If it were a compromise, it'd be a great deal. But why compromise? Thanks to having an industrial civilization, we are powerful enough to solve problems like increasing temperatures or rising ocean levels. We can build walls, fans, or air conditioning. We can put mirrors in space or moisture in the atmosphere to reflect light. We have a lot of options.

The problems from industrial progress are speculative potential problems. It wasn't long ago that we were warned about global cooling due to industrial progress. But even if they are right, an industrial civilization is so much more able to solve arbitrary problems than a non-industrial civilization. Problems are always a concern, and technologies like coal power plants give us much better ways to solve them, including ways unthinkable to a pre-industrial civilization.

By attacking coal power, the Obama administration is making a huge mistake. Rather than protect people, it's endangering the future. Rather than try to solve the problems associated with coal, Obama wants to avoid them. But there is no such thing as a problem-free technology. Coal alternatives have plenty of problems too.

When should we switch? When other technologies work better. The government, which ruined the cleanest power industry – nuclear – needs to stop micromanaging. People will buy stuff with no coal involved on their own when it's the best option for their lives. Instead, taxpayers work to better their lives and the government takes a cut and uses it to subsidize technologies that can't stand on their own, because the Obama administration thinks its smarter than the rest of us. Obama wants to control people rather than protect people.

(This post has some ideas inspired by the book The Beginning of Infinity. I recommend reading it.)

Elliot Temple on June 17, 2014

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