I was Googling for sources about nuclear power for my new political views garden, and I came across the following statement in reference to nuclear waste:

I know that burning fossil fuels is bad, but we can’t just start another problem just because we can’t fix the first one.

I’m not trying to single out the person who wrote this (and therefore no link, and the quote has been edited for spelling and grammar which I hope has rendered it un-Googleable), but I do want to respond, generally, to the sentiment, which I think is unfortunately common.

First off, the writer is misunderstanding the history. I am happy that they are debating nuclear versus fossil fuels, which is the relevant debate, but they have it backwards. The most relevant nuclear debate in our times is not about replacing fossil fuels with nuclear. It’s about whether to decommission existing nuclear power plants, and therefore effectively to replace them with fossil fuels. Nuclear waste is the problem we have now, and burning fossil fuels is the problem we would be replacing it.

So, even if this conservative “don’t change things unless the new way fixes all problems” attitude could be justified, it actually swings the other direction: just because nuclear waste is a problem, doesn’t mean we can sign up for new problems by replacing it with fossil fuel.

I understand that we are already paying the costs of fossil fuels. But by adding more fossil fuels, we’d be paying more costs. We are, after all, also already paying the costs of nuclear waste. That argument cuts both ways.

Second off, the scales of the problem are vastly different. Fossil fuels are a leading cause of air pollution, which already kills 7 million people per year. Nuclear waste from power generation kills nobody or almost nobody. There are plenty of sources that explain this, but basically, nuclear waste is treated as appropriately dangerous and is stored safely. The waste of fossil fuels is just left in the air, where it kills people constantly. Learn more in this excellent video by Kurzgesagt.

But I didn’t write this blog post to debate the facts here, but the underlying principle:

We can’t just start another problem because we can’t fix the first one.

I reject this principle. I think it’s a bad way to live your life. I think it’s a bad way to run a business. And I think it’s a bad way to make government policy.

Problems are different sizes. Do we want a huge problem, or a smaller problem? In this case, do we want to make a huge problem we already have bigger, in order to make a smaller problem we already have smaller?

But every decision is about trade-offs. That’s why there’s pro-cons lists: both sides have cons. And really, choosing oftentimes come down to choosing what problems we think we can handle.

Do we want to risk the problem of hurting someone’s feelings, or do we risk the problem of the guilty conscious of knowing there was something we could have told them about their choices that might have helped them? Do we want the problems of enabling someone with a serious problem or the problems of not enabling them anymore?

When we choose between jobs, we choose between the problems of the jobs. When we choose between having a friend and not, partnerships, classes, activities, even what to do on a given day, we are choosing between problems.

There is no such thing as life without problems.

And if we imagine there is, and just default to the choice we’ve previously made (or, in the case of fossil fuels vs nuclear, the choice we perceive as less novel even if both options are established), then, well, that’s a crappy metric for evaluating what problems to have.

The problems we’re used to aren’t necessarily better. We haven’t been OK this whole time. The devil you know might actually be a devil, whereas the devil you don’t know might be a saint.

Yes, not changing is a good metric when it’s a close call. It might even be a good metric when you’re doing fairly well, or when you haven’t had time to gather all the data. But it’s a terrible hard-and-fast rule.

Perfect is the enemy of good, not because it exists, but because it doesn’t. It is a mirage that will stop you from ever accomplishing good.