Clueless sustainability

About 50 years ago no one would have thought how big sustainability and ecology would become. Those were the years of industrial plentifulness and jobs. But with industrial growth comes a cost. In the late 60ies and early 70ies awareness for the environment was on a slow rise. A historical “first” came from Rome, Italy where the “Club of Rome” published an important report which lead to the foundation of sustainable thinking and acting titled “Limits to Growth“.

Global sustainability and “thinking green”, around this period of time, only held great appeal within the hippie sub-culture and became associated with this sub-cultures image. This lead the entire movement to remain running in the background due to the social stigma granted by the majority of participants and their “sub-culture” involved. It wasn’t until the turn of the century, while slowly moving to the forefront during the 80ies and 90ies through environmental disasters alike the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown (to name the worst), that the environmental movement gained its momentum.

Thank to the documentary “An inconvenient truth”, (directed by Davis Guggenheim and about former Vice-president’s Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about global warming)  the environmental movement received public attention and appreciation. It was only then that the environmental movement became a hot topic running at the forefront. Despite the inaccuracies and faultive  (or mis-interpreted)  information portrayed within this documentary, it was a wake-up call and persuaded many companies, officials and governments to include sustainability within their policies. Despite the goodwill of politicians, officials and civilians alike there’s still one major question which boggles the minds. It’s only 2 words long: “What’s up?”.

To the climate- and environmental scientists this is a question the most frequently asked. People are concerned with nature and their environment and are genuinely interested to conserve their ways of living while still managing to enjoy the biodiversity and (pleasant) living conditions nature offers. When it comes down to sustainability, there’s 3 major themes:
– Waste,
– Energy,
– Diversity.
All 3 themes are subjected (in official policies) and measured against the 3 P’s. The 3 P’s are the pillars by which a product or policy is being measured against in order to be labelled “sustainable”. The 3 P’s are:
– People (or the social aspect),
– Planet (or the impact on environment),
– Profit (the economy).

When talking about the 3 themes (followed-up by the question “What’s up?”) the entire debate becomes more complex. Surely the stance can be taken to go all out on “Planet” but chances are this might affect “Profit” and “People” negatively. The same thing applies to both “People” and “Profit”. The entire thing even gets a higher complex dimension when it is pointed out that the 3 major themes are interlinked with each other.

But the problems aren’t with the defining and taking “sustainable” measurements, actions or attitudes. The main problem lies within defining sustainability itself and the hidden costs those measurements bring about. Let’s take for example solar energy and solar panels. While through official measurements solar panels can help to lower electricity production and costs (in some cities, states and countries you can even get an annual/monthly subsidiary for placing of having placed them), there’s the hidden costs having their impact on the environment despite their main, and popularized, “environmental friendly” statute. These hidden costs remain hidden unless a “Life-Cycle-Analysis” is being used. The promised sustainability might just take a dive towards making things worse (and it does so with numerous “sustainable technologies”).

The environmental movement, which became a runner at the forefront, gave rise to a new kind of industry. It gave rise to an industry which produces new technologies which also means production of non-environmental friendly by-products. For every new hybrid car you see driving around by the so-called “environmental-oriented” individual, an impact took place. The inconvenient truth is how many of the costs on the environment, that were (made) visible/apparent to the consumer, have now become “hidden”. There’s no conspiracy involved, it simply is through the complexity of the entire thing that one average mind fails to see the entire image (and even a great mind has troubles keeping up with all the twists and turns to see the full scope).

Every step taken has a counter-effect. So you drive an electric car now? Where does the electricity come from? The power-plant (increased productivity which means an increase in nuclear waste) or from a Closed-cycle gas turbine (increased productivity which means a raising need for coal and/or natural gasses)?

Solar energy through solar panels? The prime elements to make a solar panel are: plastic (which needs raw oil to be produced), silicium, copper-wiring and metal. All elements pertaining to the quite non-environmental friendly mining-industry. Energy through wind? Windmills would seem a favourable option. But in order to keep costs low the rotor-blades are made from the difficult (to non-)recyclable composition of polyester and polyurethane (plastics). And while it is said the blades themselves can keep on running for 15-20 years, many have to be replaced within a span of a mere 2-3 years for safety issues or deformation due to strong winds for extend periods of time. Not to mention the production of energy is subjected to windforce (no wind = no production, too much wind = no production as there’ll be a shutdown for safety and stress which can damage the turbines).

Bio-fuels? It depends which generation. The first generation of bio-fuels involve an impact on “Planet” (by loss of biodiversity as there’s a need for raising a mono-culture) and “People” (as its agricultural impact involves a loss of agricultural place for food-production). The second generation was a small step ahead as it were bio-fuels produced from inedible plants (or dispelled remains from edible ones). The problem here is once again “People” (and in a lesser extend “Planet” if there was the choice to produce non-edible plants with energy-production in mind). The problem still remains in the agricultural sector as many to the inedible plants (to us) and dispelled remains are used to feed livestock (after a bit of industrial processing). The third generation have none of the troubles involved with the first two generation. A typical example of 3rd generation bio-fuels is scum oil (oil produced from Algae). The problem here lies within application due to its chemical and physical traits. Studies have shown engines and generators breaking down more early than expected for undisclosed reasons. Other problems include the need of mechanical modifications (pre-heating before injection) which come at a cost.

With all these examples it becomes painfully obvious we’re still a far cry away from sustainable living. The problem isn’t so much the goodwill but moreover being clueless to the effects of every step and attempt taken. Even to professionals “sustainability” is a hot-debated word as to a certain extend, they’re equally clueless and can only conclude through the traditional “trial and error”-experimentation. The inconvenient truth about sustainability is how much relies on “academic guesses” and (personal) conviction. But it’s still better than coming to an apathetic stand-still and wondering why the planet suddenly became so hostile without any means to defend ourselves.

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