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Beware the Silver Bullet …

June 17th, 2008 · 12 Comments

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 (that “but”), 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 “Silver Bullet” solution concept, 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?

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 that might turn into Silver BBs and that might … might … might … turn into true Silver Bullets that change the game.

Will Khosla’s bugs solve humanity’s problems? Maybe. And, I might even bet some bucks on it. But I won’t bet our future.

Tags: Energy · environmental

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hiattian Climate Deception Strikes Post OPED Section Again // Apr 24, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    [...] to come, you systematically misrepresent this problem. The issue: to understand, clearly, that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A SILVER BULLET. The “public’s” readiness to be suckered into simplistic Silver Bullet fantasies [...]

  • 2 The power of “And” … // Jul 3, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    [...] the system-of-system implications, of putting together Silver Dust/Silver BBs (rather than touting Silver Bullets) weighs on my mind. This tangible example, directly understandable and relevant to any / all of us [...]

  • 3 The tyranny of the quarterly profit report: Musings on the President’s speech to the Business Roundtable // Feb 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    [...] is a sign of Obama’s understanding that he uses (often) the point that “there is no silver bullet“.  Now, sadly, “more production” for him includes fossil fuel production, but [...]

  • 4 Solar Powered Farming Can Improve Food Security | CleanTechies Blog - CleanTechies.com // Feb 25, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    [...] Each PVDI system would, over 15 years, cut carbon emissions roughly equivalent to 60 percent of an average American’s annual emissions. (Hint — another way of realizing that we need lots of silver dust rather than seeking an elusive silver bullet.) [...]

  • 5 Solar Powered Farming « Green Energy Supply // Apr 19, 2010 at 3:19 am

    [...] Each PVDI system would, over 15 years, cut carbon emissions roughly equivalent to 60% of an average American’s annual emissions. (Hint — another way of realizing that we need lots of Silver Dust rather than seeking an elusive Silver Bullet .) [...]

  • 6 Solar Cooking at the Farmers Market // Jun 7, 2010 at 5:38 am

    [...] 2010 · No Comments If embraced, solar cooking has the potential for providing a meaningful Silver BB in the fight to mitigate climate change, in the struggle to reduce health damage from polluting cooking (such as wood or coal burning in [...]

  • 7 Energy COOL: Direct Wafer // Aug 4, 2010 at 3:35 am

    [...] concept of Silver Bullet solutions concerns me and the tendency to jump on lab announcements as ‘the solution to all our [...]

  • 8 The power of “and” // Aug 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    [...] the system-of-system implications, of putting together Silver Dust/Silver BBs (rather than touting Silver Bullets) weighs on my mind. This tangible example, directly understandable and relevant to any / all of us [...]

  • 9 Solar Powered Farming - Go Green - SustainLane // Mar 3, 2012 at 3:00 am

    [...] (Hint — another way of realizing that we need lots of Silver Dust rather than seeking an elusive Silver Bullet.)NOTE: I am surprisingly happy to say that an organization that I have donated to in the past, the [...]

  • 10 Fiscal Cliff molehill vs Climate Cliff crevice // Jan 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    [...] Contemplate the corner comment “Whose Fault?”, which is a wonderful capturing of the reality that the “Climate Cliff” has multi-layers of ‘fault’. We cannot (should not) point our fingers at one thing and say ‘that is it’, there is no ’single cause’ just as there is no single magical Silver Bullet solution. [...]

  • 11 Power of ‘and’ … considering energy’s three-legged stool … // Jan 26, 2013 at 7:53 am

    [...] the system-of-system implications, of putting together Silver Dust/Silver BBs (rather than touting Silver Bullets) weighs on my mind. This tangible example, directly understandable and relevant to any / all of us [...]

  • 12 Solar Powered Farming Can Improve Food Security - CleanTechies // Mar 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

    [...] Each PVDI system would, over 15 years, cut carbon emissions roughly equivalent to 60 percent of an average American’s annual emissions. (Hint — another way of realizing that we need lots of silver dust rather than seeking an elusive silver bullet.) [...]

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