David Heinemeier Hansson

January 12, 2022

The thrill of changing your mind

I've changed my mind on a lot of topics over the last few years, and it's frankly been exhilarating. Especially if the topic had been one left unquestioned for a long time. To me, it feels similar to the rush of solving a hard problem. When the pieces suddenly fit into place, and an elegant solution emerges, you can't help but smile.

Take nuclear power. I vividly remember the stickers from the 80s opposing it. Even looking them today, it brings warm and fuzzy memories. Together with that era's activism, like the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior. And fundraising as a kid for the Brazilian rain forest.

Further more, it seemed like a settled question: The future of energy is wind and solar! Of course it is. Renewables with no downsides, right? Wrong. Michael Shellenberger's exposition of energy sources in Apocalypse Never was as argumentatively piercing as it was intellectually compelling. It goes something like this:

  1. Wind and solar are unreliable sources of energy. The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow. But electrical grids need dependable sources of power to perform reliably and cheaply.
  2. Batteries can't solve the problem at scale. The sheer footprint needed to bridge the gap in production from renewables is enormous and unrealistic with present-day technology.
  3. When wind and solar fails to deliver the power needed, you need on-demand backup sources. Most of these sources today are extra dirty emitters like coal power plants.
  4. Thus, if you over-invest in wind and solar, you may end up with a power grid that's simultaneously expensive, unreliable, dirty, and without sovereignty. The case study is Germany, which is now at the mercy of Russian natural gas, after spending billions over the years chasing wind and solar.
  5. Besides, wind in particular is not without its own ecological drawbacks. Wind parks can wreck havoc on the migration paths of certain bird species. They take up a lot of space. (And they're a blight for the people who have to live right next to them.) Solar has a serious waste problem. Panels recycle poorly, are full of toxic materials, and often end up in 3rd world landfills.

That doesn't mean wind and solar can't be or shouldn't be part of the answer for dealing with climate change. But it does mean that betting on them exclusively is a bad idea. And that their use is not without its own problems.

Enter nuclear power. An energy source that also emits no earth-heating gasses, provides an abundance of predictable power, and has done so for decades. Countries like France already get 70% of their power from nuclear. The nuclear waste generated can be stored on-site, and the waste needed for a single person's lifetime energy consumption can fit in a coke can.

But what about Chernobyl? Three Mile Island? Fukushima? Shellenberger examines all these well-known accidents in detail, and compellingly concludes that the total number of deaths associated is but a pittance compared to all these other energy sources we're using on the daily. Their impact has largely been drawn from the spectacle of disaster. And as a result been massively overstated (even if the consequences are very real).

It's that contrast I found particularly compelling. That when we weigh the trade offs objectively, nuclear emerges as shining star. Not because there are no risks, but because they are far less than the alternatives. Like comparing flying and driving. Flying is much safer, but when a plane goes down, it's world news, and it freaks some people out. Meanwhile, 35,000 died in car accidents in the US last year. Few people fret about that.

It seems that Shellenberger isn't the only one coming to this conclusion. That nuclear power appears to be one of our very best chances at countering climate change, and the historical opposition from environmentalists now looks like a catastrophic error in hindsight. The EU just announced that nuclear can be counted as a green energy source going forward, which means its expanded use can be used to fulfill the international pledges for transitioning off green-house gas emitting energy sources. Nice.

But this goes further than just nuclear. To make progress on a range of topics, we have to be able to change our minds. To revisit our assumptions when the data changes or when a new way of looking at it emerges. This is true whether we talk about energy, vaccines, economics, or politics in general. Fall in love with the thrill of accepting the better argument – in contrast to mere social pressure – and you'll help pave the path to that better world. Not through grand solutions, but through better trade offs.