“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Everyone, it seems, has a solution for the energy and environmental problems our global civilization must confront in the next two decades. Build more windmills. Grow corn to produce ethanol. Construct more nuclear plants. Clean up coal. Drill baby drill. Tap ultra-deep subsea petroleum and gas. Sequester carbon. Hydraulically fracture shale to recover natural gas. Reduce consumption. And so on. The stakes are high. Our agricultural and food distribution systems alone are huge consumers of energy that we rely on to support a world population that will soon exceed 7 billion.
As I thought about the word solutions and the specific ones that have been proposed for our energy and environmental problems, I realized that some interest groups propose solutions that they certainly know cannot work, while others propose solutions that are well intentioned but simply wrong, and still others propose solutions that solve their own problem, but create a bigger one for someone else. Why aren’t there words that we commonly use to identify and classify these wrong or simplistic solutions? If such words were in common parlance, we might more clearly identify the losers and choose the ones that will actually work.
When we think about information, we use several prefixes to qualify the root meaning. Misinformation typically refers to false, inaccurate, or incorrect information resulting from an error in comprehension or interpretation. Disinformation refers to intentionally misleading information, often in the form of propaganda. We use the same prefixes for other words, like functional. Dysfunction refers to something that does not function, and misfunction means cease to function or malfunction. Why don’t we make similar use of the prefixes dys- and mis- for the word solution?
Here, I propose that we add the words dyssolution and missolution to our lexicon. (The word dissolution is well established, of course, so I use dyssolution instead.) We might use these words analogously to the way we use the words disinformation and misinformation. A dyssolution would be a solution known by its proponent not to be valid, but that is introduced for another motive, often to deliberately mislead or for propaganda or financial purposes. A missolution would be a false solution, in essence, a bad idea that will not work or a solution that falls well short of the mark. And, finally, a malsolution would be a solution that is very imperfect and might solve a problem in one place but create another one someplace else.
Several years ago, oil baron T. Boone Pickens, appropriately concerned about declining US oil production, proposed to construct a wind farm in West Texas to generate electricity that could be transmitted back to population centers in the eastern part of the state. The project appeared to be a missolution from the outset. Although a promising plan in theory, it failed for two reasons: the existing electrical grid is inadequate to transmit the electricity produced, and the wind does not blow during the peak demand summer season.
I consider the production of ethanol from corn to be the archetypical example of a dyssolution and a colossal policy failure. Ecologists think about primary energy sources in terms of their ability to produce “net energy yield” (NEY) or to maximize “energy return on energy investment” (EROI), the ratio of the energy yield of a process to the energy used directly and indirectly to drive that process. Corn ethanol is at best break-even from a NEY perspective and would have too low an EROI to constitute more than a small bite for the gargantuan US annual 100-quad energy appetite. Yet with bipartisan support, several successive Congresses and executive branch administrations have established a minimum ethanol quota for fuel and have lavishly subsidized agriculture to grow corn for ethanol. Using corn for fuel is also a malsolution, given the specter of global food and grain shortages, and the fact that nutrient-rich runoff from corn fields makes its way down the Mississippi River to create hypoxia in Louisiana coastal waters.
So, what energy solutions make sense? First, we must diversify. No one single source will provide the energy that our modern, technological society requires. Second, we must educate our citizenry better about energy and its environmental effects. People seem to think that gas is something that comes from a pump, and they have little real knowledge of the chain of events that gets it there. The concepts NEY and EROI need to be understood by our politicians, and we need to do a better job of informing them. Most importantly, we must make energy conservation a national focus, for this will at least buy us time. Although we have made considerable improvements in energy efficiency since the 1970s, we have a great opportunity to do much more by controlling our yearning for big cars and big houses and by researching exciting new technology to extend efficiency gains.
Perhaps the Japanese nuclear power crisis will reinvigorate national discussion about the energy problem. That notwithstanding, the first step to addressing our energy problem is recognizing its gravity and immediacy. Next, we need more solutions to this rapidly escalating challenge and fewer missolutions, dyssolutions, and malsolutions.