Two different articles this week both struck the same set of nerves.
"ROHS – More harm than good?" looks at the unforeseen side effects of the EU RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) directive, especially as it applies to the use of lead in solder to manufacture computers. (Clarification: the 7% increase cited in energy usage applies to the solder applciation process, not to the computer itself as the article implies. The net effect on the computer is very small.) "The Clean Energy Scam" looks at the unforeseen effects of biofuels and goes a step farther, calling the whole thing an intentional deception of the world's population.
These articles raise a number of key points for me.
First, I've written before about the lack of magic answers, as much as we'd all love to find them. When you take any societal-scale process or product and think you've found a totally clean, side effect free, economically viable substitute for it, you're almost surely delusional. Any substitution will have other, new side effects, and we absolutely need to try to be accounting for them. (more on this below)
Second, we've got to avoid painting products and processes as "bad" or "good". Biofuels are only a scam if you believed that they didn't have any negative side effects. Everything is somewhere in the middle, its only a matter of degrees. Probably the classic case of the effect of this black-or-white mentality is nuclear power. Is it the answer to all of our energy problems? No, but it might be part of the answer. Unfortunately it got such a bad name that we stopped most of our work on it in the US, so we've lost decades of potential advancements that may have been significant.
Third, a common reaction to these scenarios is "well, only if only someone had done a complete life-cycle analysis and factored in all of the externalities, we would have known all of this ahead of time". The concept is fine and in the right direction, but there's a number of issues: 1) these analyses are amazingly complex, and we currently lack the tools to accurately do them for all but the most trivial products, 2) its very hard to factor in behavior changes by consumers, and 3) there's a core moral and societal question of the relative cost/value of these externalities. Which is worse: lead-based solder in landfills, or 7% more energy use in the solder process?
Finally, we need to be careful about passing judgement on new technologies. I believe that biofuels are going to play an important part in our long-term energy map. I also believe that those biofuels are going to be much different than the ones we are producing today. Decades of ingenuity have gone into the infrastructure, systems, cars, generators, etc that we have today. We need to let some of these new technologies mature before we pass judgement on them. Some of them may never mature, and some may look pretty bad for awhile before they do, but at this point I don't think we're in a strong enough position to be discounting any idea.
- There are no effect-free solutions. We need to guesstimate the effects of all potential solutions, measure their real effects if we put them into practice, and compare alternatives to the best of our collective ability.
- We cannot afford to paint things black or white. We need to be able to differentiate a wide range of shades of green, and be willing to give new technologies some extra slack.