Humans are lazy, short-sighted creatures, and that makes perfect evolutionary sense. When you’re starving to death in an unfamiliar forest, you don’t have time or energy to make plans for ten years later, or to waste on superfluous activities. In evolutionary terms, laziness is just another word for efficiency. Long term planning and the capacity for delayed gratification came with the development of the higher reasoning cortex and the capacity for complex thought, and our brains have a constant battle between the impulsive, instinctual brain and the reasoned, thoughtful brain. It’s no surprise, then, that we are always looking for silver bullets.
As much as we may realize, intellectually, that we will probably spend more time and energy looking for a silver bullet that doesn’t exist than it would take to just do the task the silver bullet is intended to shortcut, that’s a hard sell to the impulsive side of our brains, and without awareness of this fallacy of human thought, entire industries and narratives have sprung up and evolved around the search for silver bullets. Gold rushes and every other get-rich-quick scheme? People looking for silver bullets. Miracle weight loss plans and exercise programs? People looking for silver bullets. Even those who know to watch for these tendencies in themselves are not immune to the lure of a simple solution to a complex problem.
“Renewable” energy and the push for electrification of everything is a perfect example of intelligent people falling for a silver bullet solution. Climate change is a massively complex topic from a scientific perspective, not even getting into the political, social, and moral dimensions of the matter. Of course the climate is changing – it’s been changing for 5.567 billion years or so, and it will keep changing for about 5.3 billion years more, until the sun dies and burns the planet to a desolate and barren cinder in the process. Of course humans have an impact on that change – we live here, after all, and could hardly help but affect the world in which we live. The extent of the change, the contributing factors, the causes versus the correlations, the effects…those are questions with more complicated answers.
A reasoned conversation on the matter is elusive precisely because people want silver bullets, not lead ones. Inundated with information, we look for quick, simple answers to questions that can barely be answered with thousands of pages and as many hours of careful research. Is the climate changing? Yes…but it’s also always been changing, so maybe we should really look at the rate of change. Or do we care about the absolute value of the change? And what are we going to compare to? Humans have evolved almost exclusively in a geological era of unusual climatological stability, as near as we can tell. Most other periods of the Earth’s history have featured more significant fluctuations and more extreme temperatures. There is also an argument that we are actually still living in an ice age. The Paleozoic Era featured average global temperatures perhaps as high as twenty degrees Celsius greater than current temperatures, and the concomitant “greenhouse” gas concentrations enabled an explosion of flora and fauna straight out of a science fiction movie: armored millipedes nine feet in length, dragonflies large enough for a human to ride on, if any humans had been around a hundred million years before the dinosaurs evolved. And we think that we can come up with a simple solution to a problem that we cannot even simply define?
Yet the lure of a silver bullet is strong, and so simple solutions are proposed. Not just proposed – they receive massive political attention, move entire industries, and change the very nature of the economy and the way people live their lives. Let’s agree on a relatively simple premise: fossil fuels must be phased out eventually as humanity’s dominant source of energy, because we use them much faster than they are replenished by the Earth’s natural processes. The silver bullet solution offered to this problem is “renewable” energy sources (which is such a silly terminology if you understand thermodynamics – energy cannot be created or destroyed, so all energy is “renewable”) and, as a byproduct required by this solution, electrification.
Rather than “renewable” energy sources, I prefer to call them “incidental” energy sources. That is, they are natural processes that will happen regardless of whether we harness them for energy or not, and so our tapping them for energy is an incidental occurrence. Water will flow and the tides will come and go regardless of if we install hydroelectric generators. The sun will shine regardless of if we install photovoltaic cells or thermal concentrators. The wind will blow whether or not we have windmills to slow it down. From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense to take at least some advantage of these energy sources.
Considering that the entire point of this post is to talk about the fallacy of silver bullets, and not climate change and electricity generation, you probably can guess that there are drawbacks to these sources, or else they would make for poor examples. Grid resiliency is the major caveat that many make against reliance upon these incidental energy sources, and they do have a point: the wind stopped blowing off the coast of the UK in September 2021, and drove electricity prices there and throughout Europe to records because wind power was unavailable. There are ways around this, like batteries, but batteries have their own drawbacks. Solar panels seem like a great idea, but the best photovoltaic cells ever developed, under laboratory conditions, can’t top fifty percent energy conversion, and the ones installed on homes and over parking lots are usually between eight and twelve percent efficient – that is, only eight to twelve percent of the solar flux incidental to the panel is converted into useful electricity. This efficiency problem is not unique to solar panels, and leads to the other major drawback to incidental energy sources: they take up a lot of space. It takes a lot more area of solar panels or wind turbines to generate an equivalent amount of energy to a more traditional power plant.
I could go on, but the point of this post is, like I said, to talk about the silver bullet fallacy, not to talk about incidental energy sources and the oft-hidden complexities of climate change. The above discussion should be more than sufficient to show that electrification and incidental energy sources are no panacea that will be the direct ticket to utopia. It’s not that solar power, wind power, hydroelectric, and other incidental techniques can’t be useful, it’s just that they are not a silver bullet solution. Just like the fuels they are intended to replace, they have their drawbacks, their caveats, their disadvantages, and a failure to acknowledge that is reckless and thoughtless.
In a way, this is just a variation on the axiom “if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t [true].” It is also a form of procrastination, a way to find some instant gratification and delay the hard work and challenges that will inevitably be a part of whatever actual solution must eventually be employed. Problems are complicated, people are complicated, the world is complicated, life is complicated, and our brains don’t have the time and think they don’t have the energy to handle all of that complexity. So they take shortcuts, and looking for silver bullets is a way of looking for shortcuts. It’s a fight with ourselves, and if we want to understand issues and find real solutions to our problems, we have to put in the kind of effort that millions of years of evolution have trained us to avoid. That means keeping in mind logical fallacies, concepts like opportunity cost, and a wariness of silver bullets.