Planning a path through the many layers of sustainability
It is now over thirty years since I first started to think, write, and speak about sustainable development and nearly fifty since I wrote an essay on the potentially conflicting demands of ecology and economics. One thing that being a shielded senior citizen in ‘lockdown’ during the Covid-19 pandemic has made particularly obvious is that sustainability has many layers of meaning: from respecting and seeking to maintain planetary equilibrium to ensuring that vulnerable individuals have what they need to survive. Therefore, this seems an opportune time to reconsider a strategy that is broad enough to see the big picture and shape macroeconomic planning globally whilst being designed for individuals to use in their daily decision making. Most importantly, it must include goals that are understandable in any situation and a method to measure if those outcomes have been achieved.
Managing energy and waste on a global scale
The human economy, which consists of procuring, distributing, and managing ‘goods and services’, has become globally interlinked, as have our social interconnections. Our shared technology has made us aware of issues that can affect us all, such as the pandemic caused by Covid-19 but also the greater longer term problem of a changing climate, which our actions have and continue to influence. To develop sustainably within the planetary environment in the future, I believe we need to keep in mind two simple questions that each individual and organization should ask themselves about everything they use:
- Where has it come from?
- Where is it going next?
The reason why these ideas are important is that the planet has a natural system that recycles energy through chemical and biological conversion, which we rely on and our actions are inextricably linked with. It has provided us with the raw materials that we use for every purpose from the food we eat through to our most unusual forms of entertainment. We humans have been very clever about trying to understand the world about us, using the scientific method and applying our discoveries via technology to devise novel compounds (solid, liquid and gaseous) that resist the natural process of entropy, which breaks things down so that the energy contained within them can be reused. Appropriately applied, these products have been extremely beneficial and some, such as the chemical propellants in spray cans and items made of plastic, have become so popular that their use has spread around the world. Unfortunately, as we are now discovering, when they are deposited back into the non-human environment, they create a problem, precisely because the planetary system has not evolved to recycle them. As a result, we have already created a hole in the Ozone Layer and polluted the seas with plastic products and these are just two of the recent and obvious effects. Therefore, we need, as a species, to ensure that we either reuse man-made compounds or break them back down into components that can be recycled naturally.
It is now more generally accepted (if not by everyone) that the human action most associated with measurable climate change has been burning fossil fuels, which we extract from the Earth’s crust to generate heat and power. This has led to carbon dioxide and other gasses being discharged into the atmosphere. In fact, this is part of a bigger problem caused by ‘industrial scale’ concentrations on one product or solution, which alter and damage the planet’s natural system. Large scale deforestation removes a component of the biological recycling system that would otherwise have extracted some of the gasses we have released and provided food for many creatures. We have replaced forests and wild meadows by farming methods that devote large areas of land to a single plant species or grazing for domesticated animals, which reduces the habitat available for the greater diversity of life found in nature. This, in combination with using chemicals to promote growth and eliminate pests, reduces the amount of wild food and number of natural pollinators that was previously available to meet the needs of both people and other life. Monoculture and the persistent use of fertilizer and pesticides are also associated with a reduction in the longer-term fertility of land, as well as pollution of any waterways that receive ‘run-off’ after rain or irrigation. Such human behavior can be changed but only if the relevant decision makers can be persuaded that the alternatives can meet our minimal needs as well as providing an acceptable way of life. To make this happen, what is needed is an acceptable way of measuring both our present situation and what future success looks like.
In ‘From economic development to sustainable development’ and elsewhere in this web site I have explained why money is, currently, not the best tool to help humanity see what we need to do to improve how we manage energy usage and waste disposal for our long term good. However, there is one lesson that managing our personal finances does teach that is applicable, which is that living on income is sustainable, whereas consuming capital is not. Translated into the appropriate terms this tells us that we should be primarily relying on the various forms of renewable energy (remembering to store some of what we receive to cover temporary deficiencies) and using recycled materials. Extracting fuel and raw materials from the earth’s crust should be reduced over time until it reaches net zero, in which what we take out is matched by what we put back. Similarly, what we discharge into or extract from seas, lakes and rivers or the atmosphere should also be balanced. This should answer both questions posed above about where things have come from and where they will go in a more sustainable way.
Quite understandably because I was proposing a major change to the way things are currently done, during speaking engagements, I was frequently questioned about whether renewable energy could supply sufficient output and similar lifestyle benefits to those we have enjoyed using fossil fuels. The answer is that ever since Einstein’s formula E = mc2 was demonstrated to be applicable, it has been clear that we are using only a small fraction of the energy available within nature. Another practical consideration is that even after a switch we would still be able to use the same technologies that took men to the Moon, gave us high speed trains and (with modifications) formula 1 motor racing, plus many others. There is an addition benefit that every past transition to a new energy system has prompted innovation and improvement and been associated with an overall increase in economic activity. Unsurprisingly, in the past this has had the negative consequence of some industries being superseded and others becoming less important. However, new, and improved technology creates new industries and employment. It also has the capacity to reduce the energy required for existing processes. Therefore, it can currently be demonstrated that renewable sources do have sufficient potential, especially when they are combined with more efficient use of energy.
The reason why increasing output from renewables should allow a smooth transition to a cleaner and more sustainable economy is that all of its many forms can be used to generate electricity, which is already one of the most important ways of transmitting energy. Relying on batteries for storage has limitations but current technology offers alternatives to overcome such problems and can answer the question of how hydrocarbons, such as oil and methane, currently used to power aircraft, boats and domestic heating can be replaced. Electricity generated from renewable energy can be used to split water into its components: hydrogen, which contains more useable energy than hydrocarbons plus oxygen, which would be a valuable by-product. When the two gasses are recombined to produce energy, they once again become water, which is normally present in the atmosphere and will not cause the same damaging side-effects as carbon dioxide and other byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. These two gasses are already burnt within rockets for space flight but, in combination with oxygen in the atmosphere, can be harnessed within a fuel cell to produce electricity once again and so replace batteries for storage. Because hydrogen is the lightest element using it to replace current fuels could produce energy saving benefits. Systems currently used to store and distribute natural gas and oil based products could be adapted to deliver hydrogen.
Although, in previous paragraphs, I have advocated the use of renewable energy, I understand that there is confusion about what makes a potential energy source renewable. Renewables, as I am defining them, utilize the forces that power the natural systems of this planet, specifically: the nuclear processes of fusion and fission; and gravity. These produce what we observe as sunlight, wind, tides, waves, water flow, geothermal heat, and temperature differences, all of which have already been used to generate electricity and have potential to be developed further.
It is sometimes argued that the chemical reactions that produce heat through combustion and those that allow batteries to produce a flow of electrons, together with the nuclear fission that is used to generate heat within existing nuclear power stations, are also present in the natural environment. Supporters of nuclear power point out that it produces electricity without carbon being released. However, it is the rate at which we currently use resources taken from the earth’s crust when producing the equipment to utilize these specific ways of generating energy that means natural replacement is not possible within human lifetimes. A further major problem is that each of these technologies produce residues that cannot be absorbed by natural systems and some that are a hazard to human health. However, it needs to be acknowledged that concentrating energy from any source is potentially hazardous. Therefore, a strategy to switch to any type of renewable energy-based technology should include regular reviews to ensure that we do not replace one sort of unsustainability with another.
Globally, unsustainable behaviour should be recognised as a threat to human health that is greater, even if it feels less immediate, than Covid-19. Similarly, it is affecting the disadvantaged disproportionally. However, even the extremely advantaged will not be able to carry on shielding themselves without an increasing impact on their much-cherished freedoms. There is no prospect of a vaccine nor a drug or two that will act as a cure for this global human problem because we use energy of one sort or another for every action we take for whatever purpose. Therefore, the goals we, collectively, need to adopt so that we can build a sustainable economy should be to:
- Select the materials and energy we use from renewable sources
- Recycle what we have finished using
- Reprocess all persistent and harmful residues that past action has left in the environment so that they become recyclable
- Measure our success by the progress we have made achieving the three goals above and, over time, by improvements in our environment
The first of these goals tackles the input problem I expressed as ‘where has it come from’. The second addresses the output question ‘where is it going next’ for the future. Whilst the third deals with the same question in respect of our legacy of past mistakes. The final goal provides the evidence needed to prove this strategy’s worth and results against which alternative ideas can be tested.
Adopting the appropriate new patterns of sustainable behaviour at all levels
In the language of economics, achieving the first two of these strategic goals will require changes in consumption patterns to provide demand and targeted investment in capital and stock, to change what is available to be supplied. Because the international mechanisms do not exist to produce such change though collective and coordinated governmental action, despite the work of the United Nations over the last thirty years, the strategy needs to be made to work from the ‘bottom up’. This will happen, if individuals adopt these goals to help them make decisions within the various roles that they play in human society, as far as they are able to do, when the opportunity arises. The tools that they will use will be their choice of product or service to obtain for their own or domestic use, executive decision making within groups, societies, companies and other organisations and initiating or contributing to legislation by government at all levels. When or if any one individual can achieve several or all of these will depend on their current or future influence or resources. However, anyone who wants to can take part and make a difference.
Past experience has taught me that it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list of the products or services that come from renewable sources and are recyclable because that currently will depend on local circumstances. Hopefully, availability will improve over time as demand grows. Therefore, I shall not offer examples because anything suggested may not be appropriate for someone trying to use this method of making decisions and become discouraging. As a rule, I would suggest that people make a start with stock items used for everyday consumption and then move to capital investment and this approach is also recommended to businesses and third sector organisations.
To make progress globally, governments really must give up measuring economic success by growth in the amount of their own currency that is circulating within their borders. Even before the start of the present pandemic, there was plenty of evidence that this approach did not bring prosperity to all the population they governed, especially those who were unable to attract an income from some form of participation in the monetary economy. Hopefully, Covid-19 has highlighted the value of collective support and the contribution that is made by people in lowly paid employment and volunteers. Therefore, the benefits provided by the goods and services available need to be distributed more equitably to prevent moving to a more sustainable economy becoming a cause of further inequality and disadvantage. This should become a major challenge that politicians representing all philosophies and shades of opinion must accept urgently. However, this needs to happen alongside them adopting the principal of the four goals listed above.
What I am asking everyone to consider doing is that you as an individual, as part of a household and as a participant in the three sectors of corporate society make the decision, when possible, to:
- Select the materials and energy you use from renewable sources
- Recycle what you have finished using
- Reprocess all persistent and harmful residues that past action has left in the environment so that they become recyclable
- Measure success by the progress made achieving the three goals above (however small the steps) and, over time, by improvements in the environment everyone shares
This is the renewable way to sustainable development.