On environmental matters, who’s at fault?

Compressed digital video works by having occasional reference frames which are updated by changes. It seems to make sense to publish a reference frame on environmental matters from time to time. So here’s my first stab. Comments, as ever, are welcome.

Animals go about their business and leave no rubbish. Whatever they do leave becomes nourishment for something else – microbes, plants or other animals. Humans, on the other hand, have become adept at adapting nature’s resources to things that are somewhat less naturally recyclable, either because of their semi-permanent nature (plastics for example) or because they are mixed and, therefore, un-recyclable (silicon chips, mixed fibre clothing and so on).

We also pollute the land, the seas and the air, not to mention inland lakes and rivers. I use the generalised ’we’ even though some cultures and individuals live more in harmony with nature than others.

Not only this, but we deplete material resources at an unsustainable rate in order to satisfy the perceived ’needs’ of an ever-growing population. Oil, coal and gas are the obvious examples – millions of years to lay down, exhausted in a couple of hundred. Known sources of many metals we take for granted (silver, gold, zinc, tin, lead, copper and uranium etc) are all likely to become exhausted in the next thirty years or so. If the glaciers keep melting, then the hope is that new deposits will be discovered. Which will buy a delay, but the end result will be the same. A rising population and widening consumerism will see to that.

In case you were wondering, natural gas, iron, aluminium then coal will last longest. But that will change as we seek alternatives to materials that are being exhausted.

I sometimes watch television advertisements and they drive me nuts. The worst offenders try to get you into a new habit by inventing a problem you never knew existed and then offer you a ’cure’ for the condition. Anti-ageing creams and health drinks, for me, are the worst offenders. It amazes me that anyone falls for it. I cringe in anticipation of the “because you’re worth it” and “take care” payoff lines. But then I think, “What am I doing sitting in front of a television that cost God-knows-what in material resources and gobbles electricity?” The answer is the same for everyone else who has a television: it’s a low-cost source of information, education and entertainment.

Cars are a low cost, comfortable and convenient way of getting from A to B. It’s little wonder we’re addicted to them. Incandescent bulbs (RIP) were a great way of lighting the home. We haven’t got a decent replacement yet, although a 12 volt lighting circuit of LEDs might prove a good idea.

It seems clear that, if the human race is to survive and thrive, it needs to change its ways. It needs to become more in harmony with nature and to put a proper value on the raw materials that remain. And, indeed, to exploit them while we have them in order to build whatever infrastructure we need for the future.

Mostly, what I see is companies jumping on the green or cleantech bandwagons in order to make and sell new stuff which is going to make the world better after these new things have been bought. And, frankly, I’m not sure companies have a great deal of choice unless they are hit by legislation, loss of markets or shareholder revolt. Yet, paradoxically, these same companies are made up of individuals who probably do care about the future of their families. (I’m not even going to try and square that particular circle.) 

And governments, which require the taxes from companies in order to balance the nation’s books (ha!), are hardly likely to welcome too much shrinkage of the economy. They could replace taxes with ’fines’ but that’s probably not an election-winning strategy. They have much to lose were they to put ’growth’ into long-term reverse. Encouragement of the right things and the removal of red tape would seem the right way to go.

And consumers, the people who are persuaded to part with their cash for all sorts of nonsense, are not going to be in a hurry to consume less although they might be persuaded to consume more of the right kind of things and less of the wrong. Providing their pockets don’t suffer. Or, at least, not suffer too visibly. The recent car scrappage scheme is a good example – with the lure of a £2000 bribe – a lot of old vehicles went into the recycling loop and a lot of new cars were sold at more or less full price: a win for the showrooms, the recyclers, the manufacturers and the UK vehicle maintenance infrastructure. For the consumer, the lure of getting many times the market value of an old car somewhat eclipsed the repayment schedule and the embedded environmental harm in the new cars. I fell for it, eventually, and consoled myself that I’d bought a fuel-sipping recyclable car from a greenish car maker.

We, in the so-called developed world, are all trapped by our desires for a comfortable life whether we’re politicians, business people or consumers. We find it difficult to imagine or face up to the scale of change that’s needed in order to give future generations a chance. Professor David MacKay (see my Inside Track) has become the government’s advisor on energy. His brutal bottom line is that we (in the UK) need to cut our fossil fuel consumption by 90 percent. Can you imagine that? I’m not sure if he’s been hired in order to genuinely advise or as a way of gagging him. Time will tell.

But, if we’re to achieve that, we need to invest in alternatives energy sources sharpish and his book Sustainable Energy – without the hot air is eminently readable, online (free) or offline (£20 in paperback). Perhaps he could start a ’without the hot air’ series, taking a largely impartial look at raw materials and pollution.

The more clearly the facts are laid in front of us, the more wisely we can make our individual choices. In the end though, we will make a single choice: exploit what’s left as if there were no tomorrow (our present course) or find ways of living sustainably. The alternative, a sort of in-between approach, will merely delay our tenure on this planet.

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