Madhu Elecha (“elecha” means “uncle” in my native language) and I were driving back home after attending a wedding. We were having an intense debate...
“We cannot call solar panels ‘green’,” Elecha said as honks past a slow motorbike.
“Why not?” I asked, holding on to the dashboard as the car swerved. “Solar energy is renewable energy. It doesn’t release pollutants that cause air pollution, and it doesn’t release carbon, which is intensifying climate change!”
“True,” he replied. “But ‘green’ is used to describe anything that has a positive environmental impact, right?”
“Yes…..” I ventured.
“Well,” he continued, “have you considered how solar panels are made?”
“Take quartz, a major component in the panel. It is mined from the Earth. You know how mining works, right? All the trees are cut. Tonnes of soil is excavated, piled to the side and left there. As quartz is removed, clouds of dust shoot up in the air and that causes air pollution!”
So…are solar panels bad? Should we not use them because they indirectly cause environmental harm?
I didn’t have a rebuttal to Elecha then, but I now realize that environmental solutions often face such arguments. The term for this type of reasoning is called the nirvana fallacy.
The Nirvana Fallacy
The nirvana fallacy is a faulty reasoning we use when we find faults with something good because it isn’t “perfect”. We want the perfect alternative/solution. Unfortunately, the “perfect” alternative is often hypothetical or possible only in the future.
Elecha’s argument was a good example of how people use the nirvana fallacy to highlight flaws in many potential environmental solutions and tear them down.
Planet of the Humans is riddled with the nirvana fallacy…
Consider Michael Moore’s latest, highly controversial documentary: Planet of the Humans. The documentary has an important message: Humans need to rethink the way we live. Our planet is finite and cannot fuel our desire for infinite growth.
But it makes this argument by highlighting some flaws with renewable energy technologies like wind and solar.
The film argues that wind and solar are not the solutions for climate change mitigation. They are not the technologies that will take us to a more sustainable, environment-friendly future.
- Solar panels and wind turbines are made of raw materials mined from the Earth. Mining is environmentally destructive. (This was Elecha’s argument as well.)
- We use fossil fuels while building renewable energy instruments. For example, steel frames form the structure of both solar panels and wind turbines. Steel is made of iron, which is extracted by melting iron ore in a furnace. This process uses coal. Similarly, erecting solar and wind farms require concrete; concrete is manufactured using fossil fuels.
- Solar and wind technologies do not produce electricity reliably. When the sun is shining, solar panels work and produce a lot of energy. But what if it gets cloudy or starts raining? We need to keep the coal and natural gas plants on standby in case this happens. So technically, the documentary argues, solar and wind are not replacing fossil fuels. We will still need the “dirty” fuels in case these “cleaner” technologies do not work.
The argument can be summed up like this: renewable energy technology is bad because to use it, we harm the environment and depend on fossil fuels.
By this logic, walking is also harmful for the environment…
Think about it.
When you walk more, you feel hungrier. You will eat more food.
If the world’s population started walking more, it would need more food.
Agriculture will have to expand by cutting down forests—bad. We will need fertilizers to increase food production—bad, because fertilizers are made using fossil fuels. Fertilizers and pesticides pollute our groundwater, surface water and soil.
Are you now going to walk less and drive more to save the environment?
What’s the problem with this argument?
Yes, we use fossil fuels to build solar and wind energy structures. But we also use fossil fuels to build a thermal power plant or a natural gas plant.
The key difference is, after a solar farm or a wind farm is built, it does not produce any more emissions. Solar and wind farms produce energy using a “cleaner” raw material. The negative environmental impact largely stops after operations begin. These technologies will produce GHG-free electricity during their 20-25 year lifespan.
Conversely, after a coal/natural gas power plant is built, they continue to produce emissions because the raw materials they use are also fossil fuels!
If we were to discard solar and wind on the premise that we harm the environment while they are built, we have to either find a perfect energy source that doesn’t harm the environment throughout its life-cycle or live like its 16th century again.
Do these options sound viable to you?
Are electric vehicles bad for the environment?
The documentary uses a similar argument to debunk the benefits of electric vehicles. The electricity that powers electric vehicles comes mostly from burning coal, because most of the electricity in the grid is still coal-based.
So, electric vehicles are bad and will not offset emissions from conventional vehicles.
This is, again, incorrect…
We can disprove this conclusion by comparing the life-cycle emissions (emissions not just from the car but from the extraction of the fuel till it reaches the car) of conventional vehicles and electric vehicles.
Studies have compared the life-cycle emissions and found that the average electric vehicle in the US emits 4-7 times less emissions than the average conventional vehicle.
I am guilty of this fallacy too…
Last year, I described certain “red flags” in Greta Thunberg’s approach to climate action. I explained that she is being unrealistic, she does not consider the nuances of the climate change debate and is being naïve about how the world political system works.
I’ve realized that I was looking for a perfect solution: an activist that speaks the language of the politicians, eloquently explains nuances and aims for incremental change.
Greta Thunberg may not be that perfect activist. She may not understand the nuances of climate change or the political world. But her action has inspired hundreds of students to come out and march; something ideal activists engaged in nuanced discussions could not achieve.
We shouldn’t encourage the nirvana fallacy…
If we expect a perfect solution for every problem, we would get nowhere!
Imagine that you are looking to buy a new mobile phone. You log on to Amazon and compare all the models in your price range. But you know that one year later, another model that has more storage or a better camera will enter the market—for the same price! So you wait one year before you buy your new phone.
But next year, you realize that if you wait one more year, there will be an even better model in the market. Every year, you decide to wait and buy a better phone next year. How long will you postpone your purchase chasing a better product?
The nirvana fallacy is paralyzing. It makes you lose hope (because a perfect solution doesn’t exist), or it makes you wait indefinitely because something better is just around the corner.
When we are fighting a global ecological crisis…
…we cannot wait for a magic perfect solution. We need to use what we have, while constantly improving it.
I had called Elecha to discuss our old debate while writing this blog post. Thankfully, he agreed that just because solar panels cause some environmental harm doesn’t mean we should stop using them. He hadn’t succumbed to the nirvana fallacy; he just had a problem with the nomenclature. Well…I guess I can concede that.