Thursday, November 06, 2008

Rescuing the Insatiable Custodian from Self-Destruction

Pretermitting Darwin’s theory, God gave the earth to man to subdue and dominate. From early Stone Age to the present era of dramatic structures man has incontestably and consistently demonstrated his superiority over his immediate environment and beyond. However, at what cost to himself and other cohabitants? Man considers himself as master over all: Other forms of life and inanimate entities only exist for his survival and consumption. On the other hand, it must be accentuated that this coexistence rests on a delicate balance. Mankind and its cohabitants need this mutual dependency for continued existence.

Sustainable development ensures that the use of resources and the environment today does not restrict their use by future generations. Man has a responsibility to handover his planet to generations unborn in a manner in which they can also meet their needs and deliver same to succeeding generations. This is the custodian role man is expected to play in place of the roughneck, Hector position.

In recent times, usance of resources has become lopsided with worrying consumption patterns in industrialised regions vis-à-vis the underdeveloped regions hardly harnessing theirs while bearing the brunt of consumption consequences from developed regions. With globalisation, problems and emergencies are no longer localised. The upshots of famine in a sub-region in Africa, a civil war in any of the coalescing parts in the defunct Soviet Union, fortunes going bad on Wall Street or an insurgency in the Middle East now transcend borders. The UN is aware of this import and the G20 seems to be catching on.

Ecological footprint of a given population is "the total area of productive land and water required on a continuous basis to produce the resources consumed, and to assimilate the wastes produced, by that population, wherever on Earth the land (and water) is located." Ecological footprints and consumption patterns of citizens of industrialised countries particularly the US, raise alarms and serious concerns. According to Chad Holiday, “Given existing technology and products, for all 6 billion people on the planet to live the average American life, we would require the equivalent of 3 planet Earths to provide the required material and energy; and to dispose the resulting waste.”

The present greatest challenge is energy utilisation with particular reference to non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels. Rising energy demands (predominantly from the West and fast growing economies like India and China) in comparison with depleting non-renewable resources have made individuals, governments and corporate organisations to consider harnessing various sources of renewable energy. A most recent venture is into development of bio-fuels and bio-fuel technologies. In simple terms, it means extracting (fuel) energy (basically ethanol) from plant crops. This has resulted in a global food crisis as once again, we have failed to realise that when a problem is not solved systematically and holistically, it postpones or shifts consequences (possibly in greater magnitudes) to other spheres.

Farmers (who essentially are business men) prefer to sell crops as raw materials for bio-fuel production rather than food supplies. The resulting global food shortage is complicated by reduced crop output in major producing areas like Australia, Canada and the US (due to climate change); high price of oil (fossil fuels) for mechanised farming which is largely dependent on the use (and their attendant high costs) of fertilisers, pesticides, farm machinery and transport; and trends in local/global population and economic growth especially with increased demand for food in rapidly developing economies like China and India, whose combined population constitutes about 36% of the world’s!

In addition, more and more energy companies are outdoing one another in exploiting renewable energy sources in order to meet the world’s growing demand. They allege to spend huge sums of money in researching and developing technologies to exploit renewable energy resources. These include Gas to Liquid (GTL) fuel, wind energy, onshore exploration etc. Moreover, it is now “fashionable” for industries to portray themselves as environmentally friendly backed up with an ISO certification. To a large extent, this may be considered to be a propaganda and farce as it is known that most companies are more interested in public perception and their corporate image rather than sincerely doing business in a way that will not hurt the environment, ISO certified or not. Wrong public perception is bad for business. At the end, the motive is profit and not to stop “hurting” the environment. While it is important to invest in technologies that will help harness more resources, yet still priorities are not being set right.

Having an engineering background, I was always of the notion that technology will solve any human development problem until I was enlightened a couple of years ago during a program I ran at a UN school. In one of the modules, we were made to realise that building high-tech wastewater treatment plants (end-of-pipe solution) will not solve the problems of treating wastewater amid increasing volumes and complex qualities: Why should treatment plants be built to cope with more volumes and removing complex constituents from wastewater when these problems could be addressed at source?

Besides, it has been established that about only 10% of water treated to drinking water quality standards from our water treatment plants is actually used for the intended purpose – drinking! The remaining 90% is lost during distribution; used to flush our toilets; wash cars, clothes and dishes; for bathing, street washing, recreation, gardening and all other uses that do not require drinking water quality standards. As a result, we collect wastewater from various sources which generate too huge volumes and a complex nature for our wastewater treatment plants to cope with, hence we tend to build bigger and more complex plants. This realisation spurred me into a new thinking of social (re-)engineering.

During a fieldwork I carried out on a university campus water treatment/distribution system, it was found out that almost 50% of water treated and supplied for consumption was lost during distribution. Howbeit, the management complained of shortage of water supply complicated by an increasing population, worn-out plant equipment and inadequate funding, with a present annual expenditure of about 15 million naira (130,000 USD). The supervisor was made to realise that the first step in solving this problem was not sourcing for more money or high-tech plants. Since managers tend to grasp issues better from financial perspectives, he was told that with half of the treated water lost during distribution, it only means that 50% of annual expenditure (i.e. approximately 7.5 million naira) is money wasted, not including the man-hours and other resources invested. He was shocked!

Plugging the holes in the distribution system first (which will be at little or no cost) will deliver increased supplies to consumers and ensure more value for money. Plant expansion and high-tech facilities may come thereafter. As simple as this solution is, it is obviously not played out in our consumption pattern trends and the present approach in solving our global energy problems. Albert Einstein succinctly puts it: “If mankind is to survive, we shall require a substantially new manner of thinking.”

Two main issues are to be addressed: Production and consumption. While investments in high-tech researches are necessary, the first step in solving our energy problems is not an end-of-pipe but at-source issue. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Technology is not always the first step but a social re-orientation. After identification/awareness, the political/societal will to change should precede the technological will. This is the most difficult part – more complicated than developing new technologies. It is hard to change people’s mentality. More than half of the barriers to this new thinking will come from human motivation and attitudes backed up with arguments explaining why change is not possible. These mental locks usually kill innovation as witnessed in the Sally Fox’s cotton story.

Efficiency in production is usually thought to improve with an increased production. This is not appropriate in the light of increase in decline of resources. New thinking suggests: By using the same amount of raw materials and reducing wastes in production processes, more products can be realised. In addition, in order to buoy efficiency, only the type and quantity of material that is needed for production should be used. Moreover, our consumption patterns should be addressed through appropriate demand management.

William and Mary Cunningham and Barbara Saigo in their book Environmental Science: A Global Concern, suggest a number of demand management self-applications. These include putting off lights when not needed, using energy-saving equipment and hibernating or switching off computers when they are not in use. Others are brushing teeth using a glass of water rather than letting the tap run, shopping at a nearby location instead of far away and using coffee makers with a thermos can in place of one that needs heating. In supermarkets, operation of open cold shelves should be stopped. We should endeavour to travel the shortest possible routes to our destinations and take commercial transport rather than our personal cars. Garbage should not be disposed indiscriminately. “Waste” materials should be reused or recycled before considering the option of disposal. Waste is only a raw material in a wrong place and time. Lessons could be applied from the self-sustaining, zero-waste industrial park/brewery in Namibia which is operated on the proven principles of “Industrial Ecology”. As an example, “grey” water from bathrooms, kitchens, etc can be collected for gardening purposes.

Purchase less: Don’t buy or keep what you don’t use frequently. Ask yourself whether you really need more stuff. Avoid buying things you don’t need or won’t use. Use items as long as possible (and don’t replace them just because a new product becomes available). Use the library instead of purchasing books you read. Make gifts from materials already on hand, or give non-material gift. Reduce excess packaging: Carry reusable bags when shopping and refuse bags for small purchases. Buy items in bulk or with minimal packaging; avoid single-serving foods. Choose packaging that can be recycled or reused. Avoid disposable items: Use cloth napkins, handkerchiefs and towels. Bring a washable cup to meetings; use washable plates and utensils rather than single-use items. Buy pens, razors, flashlights and cameras with replaceable parts.

These self-applications may seem too insignificant to make any difference. However, it has been proven on many occasions how little, “inconsequential”, inexpensive, ordinary things have tipped society away from crises and degeneration towards sustenance, actualisation and rejuvenation. Technology can thereafter step in. Developing regions may consider these to be inapplicable since at the moment they hardly get enough to consume much less saving. However, this is the more reason why they should be conservative. Lessons should be learnt from the experiences of the industrialised countries. Moreover, if the global environmental/energy situation goes sorrier the less developed regions will be worse off. Howbeit, the G20 should play a more responsible big brother role.

In conclusion, man should see himself as a custodian of the earth, its resources and other cohabitants. He has a moral obligation to keep this planet sustainable while meeting his needs vis-à-vis ensuring the existence of a delicate ecosystem balance on which his very existence depends. Otherwise in his quest to meet his insatiable needs, not only will he send other forms of life into extinction but he will also self-destruct!

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