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.

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Charles M. 110°

Quite agree. There are no silver bullets. But there's a lot of snake oil!

The1900s were times of unbelievable technology advancements and it is far too easy to just expect that those advances can continue. It is relatively easy to make huge strides when a technology is new, but harder and harder to make advances as technologies mature. The principle of diminishing returns applies. Often the limitations are not just technology ones (that we can advance), but the laws of physics. Unfortunately the common man just does not have sufficient understanding to have realistic expectations.

Take for example inprovements to the internal combustion engine. The first engines were horrificly inefficient, but the major advances were made by the 1920s. Since then the efficiency advances have been relatively small. Now the uneducated common man would likely think: "From 1900 to 1920 they improved efficiency by 500%. We now have far better technologies so surely they should make a further 500% improvement during the 1990s". Almost sounds reasonable unless you understand some of the laws of thermodynamics.

Unfortunately we live in a time when any nutter with access to the internet can start spinning a line of BS that the insufficiently educated common citizen cannot distinguish from reality. Look at all those "Run your car on water" ads and articles and youtube videos about a year ago. Anyone with half an ounce of physics will tell you that the energy just does not stack up. While it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of some sort of quantum mechanics breakthrough, all your BS-detector alarms should be going off.

Then add into the mix all the conspiracy theorists.... "Joe invented a car that ran on water but the govermnet/BigOil bought the patents/had him assasinated".

All nonsense that fuels disinformation and takes focus off the real issues.

There really is only viable way to reduce energy consumption with existing or envisaged future technolgies and that is to REDUCE CONSUMPTION. That's hard which is why it is always going to be easier to hope the guys in white lab coats come up with a new Silver Bullet technology.

Written in May 2009

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  • Posted on May 27, 2009. Listed in:

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