Beware Silver Bullet Thinking

Across the world, people are passing around with great excitement the news that there might be a bug that will create oil. And, not just bio-derived oil, but carbon-negative oil. One little bug, too small for the naked eye to see, and all our problems are solved!

  • Peak Oil? Forget it. Solved.
  • Global Warming? Forget it. Solved.
  • Export of dollars overseas for energy? Forget it. Solved.
  • Failure of the Big Three Automakers to adapt to a new world? Forget it. Solved.
  • Risks to American National Security due to funding both sides of the world? Forget it. Solved.
  • Average Americans' financial challenges in face of skyrocketing gas prices? Forget it. Solved.
  • My sleepless nights concerned about the above? Forget it. Solved.

Time to roll over and go back to sleep? Forget it. At least for now. I am a techno-optimist. I believe that scientists and engineers provide part of our solution paths forward. I believe (know) that there are tremendous things being developed in laboratories and garages around the world that will help us (the US) deal with the challenges we face.

Yet, I am leary of leaping upon the latest news, the item from the laboratory, the newest press release that screams "PROBLEM SOLVED" because, for whatever reasons, those miraculous answers all too often head back to the laboratory, turn out to be more difficult and costly than first described, and end up doing less than imagined.

This is the concept of a "Silver Bullet" solution, the idea that there is something magical out there, one single path toward solving all our problems. Silver Bullets are often thrown out when it comes to Peak Oil. When it comes to gasoline problems, for example, the Republican solution path is to feed what George W. Bush called our oil addiction and empty America's limited oil reserves through a crash program of DRILL! DRILL! DRILL! (Of course, they won't mention that this drilling program will have no influence on prices for years and perhaps only a 1-2 cent impact 15 years from now.)

Vinod Khosla has been making a lot of news (and making real investments) in the idea that biofuels will be the Silver Bullet for awhile now. And, he might be right ... he might be ... But, what if he is not? What if we (the world) seized upon this magical bug and said: full stop on everything else, problem solved? If Khosla is right, problems solved and I can roll over and go back to sleep. If not? What if the Republican Party or Khosla or promises of Carbon Capture & Sequestration or the latest snake-oil salesman isn't correct and we bet the farm (and the planet's future capacity to support human civilization) on this promise of a Silver Bullet solution?

The other idea is the Silver BB, that there are a myriad of responses and answers to our challenges. Each Silver BB (and silver speck of dust ... do you compost?) is part of the a larger, system-of-systems, holistic response to our global challenges (energy, water, global warming, food, economic development, etc ...). And, if a Silver BB turns out to be a false path, to not be a precious metal but something less, then we continue with our other approaches, not having made a bet on that single Silver Bullet.

We must continue to tackle our challenges in a holistic manner. We must tackle energy efficiency. We must look toward paths for retiring coal from the electrical system. We must pursue renewable energy. We must look toward non-oil based transportation paths. We must approach our challenges in a holistic, system-of-system manner. And, we should do this in a flexible, (mainly) technology-neutral fashion, ready to incorporate (and even embrace) Silver Specks of Dust into our planning and action hoping that this Silver Dust might turn into Silver BBs that might ... might ... might ... turn into true Silver Bullets that change the game.

While I know Republican Party talking points aren't taking me to a better future, I wonder whether Khosla's bugs will solve humanity's problems. Maybe. And, I might even bet some bucks on it. But I won't bet our future.

Other cool stuff on Celsias:

Has it Come to This?
Fireworks Over Biochar

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  • Posted on May 27, 2009. Listed in:

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