Are you one of the millions of Internet viewers who marveled at the image of a large salmon being launched through the air? The meme, #salmoncannon, is apparently what the internet needed in August. It can also teach us about our blind spots when we work to solve problems like climate change.
For those of you who have missed the meme, the salmon cannon is a piece of equipment produced by Whooosh Innovations that uses a pressurized tube to launch fish over a dam. Videos of this technology, set to a range of music, have lifted moods all over Twitter and Facebook.
I’ve shared the salmon cannon phenomenon with students for several years as we discuss environmental problems. I show them the Last Week Tonight profile of the salmon cannon and ask them: what problem does this technology solve?
Students volunteer that the cannon helps fish migrate over a dam and offer thoughts on how this is a creative solution that may be superior to conventional technologies like fish ladders.
Then a tougher question: How does this definition of the problem limit the possible solutions? My students are sharp, so it doesn’t take them long to realize that a broader look at the problem, as in — “How do we restore healthy salmon migrations?” — invites options like dam removal that would restore the river’s free flow.
The point is not that dam removal is always a better option than a salmon cannon (hydropower is an important source of low-carbon power), but that if you start with the problem of getting the fish over the dam you may miss broader solutions. A salmon cannon might very well be the right solution (I’m not an expert in fish migration but it seems like Whoosh Innovations deserves credit for bringing in new solutions), but if you don’t even consider removing the dam you won’t know which one was a better choice.
Once you start to look for the tendency to focus on salmon cannons, you see them constantly in climate policy. People often gravitate towards a single flashy technology (nuclear, solar, direct-air-capture) and can miss the bigger picture. “How can we build more rooftop solar?” is an important policy question, but is so narrow it is essentially focused on a solution, not a problem.
“How can we build an energy system that rapidly, equitably, and cost-effectively moves to zero carbon emissions?” is a better way to think about the problem. Rooftop solar will be part of the answer, but so will utility-scale solar, wind, storage, and hydropower. The answer might also include technologies like natural gas with carbon capture and storage and nuclear.
Equally important, a broader framing of the problem also invites solutions like grid-integrated electric vehicles and retrofits to make buildings more energy efficient. Framing questions around systems can help us ask how we should change the way utilities are regulated so that they are allies and not obstacles in the transition. I am pretty sure that there will never be a viral video of utility regulatory reform but these kinds of policy changes will be critical to ensure the rest happens.
Green buildings are another hotspot for salmon cannon focused thinking. My old employer, the Environmental Protection Agency, once moved a regional headquarters from a highly walkable downtown area so that it could have a LEED-certified green building that required a lot of driving. In solving the narrow problem of finding a green building, the EPA missed a chance to invest in a downtown and reduce transportation emissions.
If you ask folks to think of climate solutions at the largest scale, they will almost certainly mention wind and solar. However, it takes broad systems-thinking to also nominate educating girls and increasing access to family planning. Detailed analysis by folks at Project Drawdown ranks these two measures as #6 and #7 out of over 80 global solutions. Similarly systems-based options of reducing food waste and switching to a plant rich diet rank #3 and #4. If we focus strictly on technology, we’re missing these important opportunities to reduce emissions and improve human health.
Salmon cannons can also show up in adaptation to climate change. Even well-engineered flood walls solve the narrow problem of keeping the water out. We will need them, but it may be better to use our infrastructure dollars for places that can be serve as public space, support local ecosystems, and protect against flooding and to think carefully about what we build in the path of future flooding.
Avoiding an undue focus on salmon cannons is one of the strengths of the Green New Deal. By setting high-level goals that reflect the need to meet both environmental and equity goals, the Green New Deal encourages policymakers to think both broadly and with ambition. If it succeeds, it can help America improve the fundamental structures of our society by leveraging market forces and government, instead of just trying to push some clean technology into existing structures and policies. The result should be communities that are not just greener, but also more livable and equitable.
So, the next time you are working on a social problem, ask yourself: Am I thinking about this broadly or am I solely focused on narrow technology fix? This is hard work, so you if you need a break, you can look to see if other flying fish are trending on Twitter.
Dr. Alex Barron is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Smith College. He previously worked as professional staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and as deputy associate administrator in the Office of Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.