Legs To Stand On: Are Multiple (Weaker) Arguments Better Than A Few Strong Ones?

January 2, 2008

I was reading a post recently at The Sietch that discussed how the radioactive releases of burning coal (including the byproduct fly ash) and it’s potential detriment to our health is just another nail in the coffin for coal power. However, the radiation we could receive from coal isn’t really worth considering when you compare it to what we’re exposed to via naturally occurring radon and even medical x-rays: (via the USGS)

Coal doesn’t even make the pie chart.

Are “weak legs” like this one viable supports for arguments for sustainability or do they devalue the stronger ones they accompany? Is it worth it to even make the radioactive argument when issues such as greenhouse gas release, mountaintop removal, and air quality are so much more compelling? If the subject were being formally debated, an opponent could spend their entire time picking apart the weak legs and undermining your message, while completely circumventing any strong points you hoped they would have to concede.

Environmentalists shouldn’t have to grasp at straws here. We know things such as fossil fuels, over-consumerism, and habitat destruction are bad for the environment, and the people we need to convince know it too. So what’s the problem? Accountability and the bandwagon. It’s hard for individuals to see the environmental results of their shopping choices and energy use when the impact is hundreds or thousands of miles away. It’s also difficult to change when it seems everyone else lives just as wastefully. But the strongest points for sustainable practices have elements of both accountability and individuality.

Consider the “Save the Rainforest” campaigns of the 1990s. They focused on highlighting a specific area that was being destroyed, and connected it to individuals in the Western World. The rainforest is supposedly the home of miracle drugs for cancer and all sorts of unsavory illnesses. Everyone knows someone with cancer. So not only is a parrot in Brazil suffering from habitat destruction, but your great aunt as well.

It’s easy to start analyzing the details when you’re in a group of like-minded sustainable people. But when going head-to-head with an ardent consumerist, stick to the basics. They’re on our side.



  1. An excellent point. I have to admit I kind of wanted to write that article because it afforded me the opportunity to make a graphic with the three eyed fish in it.

    But I think you are completely right, when in a debate with a doubter stick to the big importation issues. Sometimes I just like to get into minutia.

  2. It took me until the end of writing this post to realize that as most of the audience of The Sietch are probably already environmentalists, discussing such minutia is likely far more welcome than yet another review of the basics. However, it would have been a shame to let all that writing go to waste.

    And three eyed fish are indeed awesome.

  3. I would like point out that flyash can be used to replace portland cement in concrete to various percentages (depending on the mix, strength required and environment it’s used in) and as such can be sequestered underground in a relatively inert, stable form and the footings of new buildings. Not only is it using a waste by product in new construction but also offsetting the use of the very high emobodied energy portland cement.

    Not using it as a selling point for coal though, just saying….

  4. You’re very right about flyash. I seem to recall from a past architecture project that it can replace up to 15% of the concrete mix, which is a great recycled content rating for a material that isn’t really sustainable to begin with. A professor of mine once offered the following quote about concrete (paraphrased):

    “Nowhere else do you build a steel building, build a wooden building around it, pour a concrete building, then dismantle the wooden building.”

  5. LOL, I never thought about concrete forming that way before! 🙂

    You can use up to 40% flyash to replace the Portland cement content of the concrete mix in footing mixes and 25% in walls and slabs.

    As an environmentalist I have always had trouble coming to terms with using concrete as it has such a high embodied energy and the production of portland cement is so polluting…

  6. I agree, unless you really need something to stand for 500 years.

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