| | | |
Alternative Visions image So anyway, apparently the global environmental scenario isn't so good. Apparently we've done some damage to the planet. Apparently this could have repercussions for all life on earth. Even us humans. Apparently. I know this because the Pentagon knows this. According to a report released in 2003 the reality of climate change may be in fact far more catastrophic than many people have been prepared to speculate.

the pentagon

The scenario goes like this: instead of global warming producing gradually change to weather patterns over centuries, the ocean-atmospheric climate regulation system can lurch from one state to another over a matter of a few short years until it reaches a crisis point and crashes. Environmental chaos. Geopolitical instability. A lot less reality TV.

While no-one can predict when things might go pear-shaped, the term being bandied about is "not-too-distant-future". That sounds a little too like "in your lifetime" to my tastes. What's interesting is that the Pentagon's strategic planners are taking the possibility seriously. While al-Qaeda is this month's bogeynon-gender-specific-nightmare-inducement personae, perhaps Ma Nature could be next to take the heat. Although some might say she's already been getting a bit too much lately.

Of course, the Pentagon aren't the first to talk about imminent climatic collapse. The idea that global warming could slow the flow of warm tropical waters through the north Atlantic triggering a northern hemisphere ice age is not a new one. However, The Pentagon acknowledging the issue raises the possibility of bringing more pressure to bear on US policy makers than most climate scientists and environmental campaigners could normally expect. Surprisingly, the world's most powerful military machine doesn't offer any answers or solutions in their model. Perhaps that would raise too many really difficult questions.

So anyway, the latest weather forecast goes like this; things are cold in Europe, Asia and North America. Meanwhile, down south things are a bit dryer as el Nino patterns swing even more abruptly. In Australia that translates into more droughts, more flooding rains and probably a lot more sunburn. In South America, South Asia and Africa it translates into political chaos.

It's an issue we will hear more about. The mass-media approach to environmental issues has been a particular "gosh darn, ain't it bad, that global warming/ oil spill/ nuclear meltdown" kinda one. But bless the stars, someone will look after it. The government will save me. Or Jesus. Or the guy from Celebrity Thrill Kill. Or Coca-Cola espresso bars. Or maybe feng-shui.

Day After Tomorrow - spoof ad.

The science fiction apocalypso kind of story fits the model nicely. It has a certain inevitability to it that abrogates our responsibility and lets us lament and grieve for the future before it has even come... and gone. All nice little cues to preserve our thinking and maintain the status quo. Solutions aren't even on the agenda.

To look at the media sometimes you might be mistaken to think that no one has been researching alternatives in the past fifty years since we started realising there was a problem, such is our cultural avoidance of these issues.

Problems, problems, problems. All our world beset with problems. We live in a world where the dynamics of socio-political discourse demand certain expectations. There are certain ways of doing things, certain questions to ask, particular answers to give. Certain questions not to ask...

The reality here is that global warming and climate change are just symptoms of wider environmental and societal problems. Problems like overconsumption and corporate power. Perhaps our ideas of ownership and resource management are outmoded for the kind of shift in thinking that needs to happen in order to avert a very real, very un-Hollywood crisis? No hero's going to step in and save the day at the end of this drama - and the villains don't all have black hats. If things are going to change then it is people at the ground level who will do it.

And how? Quite simply actually. The solutions to the environmental problems we're talking about are actually well researched and certainly able to be implemented --- I'll get on to them soon. The difficulty comes in convincing the public, their elected governments and the corporations who rule that this is so. That's when it gets complicated. But who said saving the planet would be an easy task, right?

The State of Play

There are three main areas of current industrialised resource use that would have a massive impact on the global environment if made more sustainable. Energy production, industrialised agriculture and transportation are the most resource intensive and environmentally destructive processes we've got going at the moment. Yet they are also areas where we can make the most significant changes to our standard ways of doing things. And the means of doing so are really quite simple.

In any design system the more complex the elements within it the greater the energy needed to sustain it and the greater the risk of things going wrong. By engaging with our social and environmental world in a manner that promotes this simplicity we can hope to repair some of the negative aspects of the current consumption driven paradigms dominant in our world. The synthesis of ideas we are seeing come into being in this time offer us a unique opportunity to actively shape the world of the "future", today. These ideas which we can term loosely as "sustainability" are proactive rather than merely responsive. And it is this perhaps which defines them as methods of change.

Current modes of energy production are fundamentally unsustainable. We take coal, oil and gas out of the ground and burn it to produce electricity and energy. Wow. Very technorama. It's essentially the same thing we've been doing for thousands of years with just a bit more of an industrialised process behind it. It contributes to greenhouse gasses and other wholesale pollution issues. In Australia, one third of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by electricity generation and 97 percent of these emissions are produced by 24 coal-fired power stations, producing 170 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas every year.

Yet a recent study found that the public is largely unaware of the role of coal fired power in contributing to global warming or Australia's dependence upon it for generating power. Guess they were busy watching Big Brother during that report... Only 33 percent of people surveyed knew coal was Australia's main energy source. Most believed this to be hydro-electric, a renewable energy source. Thankfully the uptake of renewable energy resources is becoming more common but remains a vast distance behind what is needed to begin to alleviate the issues discussed here.

There are reasons for this; currently power production lies in the hands of a few globalised industrial companies who have an interest in protecting their market asset, ie, you, the energy consumer. Many renewable energy sources and technological systems allow people to attain some kind of autonomy in their power production and use, which fundamentally challenges traditional notions of free-market economics. However, many large energy companies are investing heavily in renewable technologies as reserves of oil and coal dwindle, because they have seen the writing on the wall.

So, enough about problems. We're talking solutions here.

Alternative Power Source Examples

Solar photovoltaic panels are not a new idea, but they can be used to power most modest homes. A community owned wind tower can produce energy for a variety of needs. Community based farming techniques can encourage a sense of personal responsibility and autonomy. The integrated world is fast approaching. The technology to achieve this is already in our hands.

Case Study One

Melbourne's Queen Victoria Market now hosts Australia's largest city solar power project. One third of the market's north facing roof area is covered with about 1300 photovoltaic panels. The 190 kW system should produce up to 250 MW of electricity per year (enough to power 50 homes). It is expected to reduce the Vic Market's energy use by up to 40 per cent. The project could eventually extend to the entire 10,000 square metres of roof at the market making it the biggest PV site of its kind in the world. Photovoltaics are a fantastic source of localised power production. However, they do require advanced industrial practises to be produced which have their own energy and pollution cost.

Wind Power is another potentially massive source of renewable energy in Australia. Construction has begun on the country's largest wind farm at Portland on the Victorian south coast. Eventually the facility will contain 120 generators and will produce 180 MW; sufficient to power 100 000 homes, equivalent to a city the size of nearby Geelong.

Tidal power production is touted by proponents as a huge potential energy source. Again this is a means of energy production which interacts with a natural system to generate power. There are large scale investments in tidal taking place all round the world with a recent project in Britain one day estimated to produce around 8.6 GW of electricity, which is almost a quarter of Australia's current energy needs.

solar mission Creative thinking is the key aspect of sustainability. Some power initiatives take imagination to a different level. The world's tallest structure is planned to be built in the Australian outback near Wentworth on the Murray River. EnviroMission's Solar Mission Project would see a 1km high tower used to harness solar energy to create electricity. The project involves a 3850 hectare solar collector of a clear material like glass or plastic with the outback sun heating the air under the canopy to around 35°C.

Thermal dynamics means the heated air will blow up through the kilometre high tower in the centre of the system, turning large turbines, and generating electricity. The project is expected to generate 200mw when it goes online in 2005. The potential downsides to building a kilometre high tower is that it takes a lot of concrete which has environmental and energy costs of its own. It also puts power production out of the reach of the average person and safely in the hands of the same people who currently control energy production.

hydrogen fuel cell Hydrogen power is seen by some advocates as having the potential to negate our reliance on both coal and oil. The concept of hydrogen fuel cells has been around since the 19th Century. The physics is pretty simple; when hydrogen and oxygen combine in a controlled manner this produces electricity, with perfectly clean water the only byproduct. A fuel cell controls this process to release energy over a long time-span. Like other solutions, there are some serious issues with hydrogen, though.

Critics argue that hydrogen production requires massive industrialised processes which are polluting and energy intensive in the first place. Some say it is supportive of the nuclear fuel cycle because nuclear power is being touted as a potential "sustainable" energy source due to its lack of greenhouse gas production.

Cars and Fuel

hydrogen car Hydrogen fuel cells are being widely hailed as a power source for the car industry. Australia has around 10 million cars on the road. In the US the number of vehicles on the road is increasing at twice the rate of population growth. However, existing alternative fuels offer a quick, ready and cheap alternative to the oil economy.

Biodiesel, produced from vegetable oil, offers a safe alternative to petroleum diesel fuel and comes at a fraction of the cost. When Dr Rudolf Diesel demonstrated his engine at the Paris Expo in 1900 it ran on 100% peanut oil. All diesel engines today can run on straight vegetable with a few simple alterations. Biodiesel requires no engine modification (except for seals if some older vehicles) and actually runs cleaner and more efficiently than petroleum based products. When burned, petrodiesel produces harmful heavy particulates, carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons, none of which occur with biodiesel.

Biodiesel is made by thinning vegetable oil, either freshly squeezed from locally grown plants or from waste frying oil. The process is called `transesterification', and is simpler than the word itself. It's a bit like making soap and can be conducted in your backyard or through simple industrial plants. Basically you heat and clean the vegetable oil in the presence of a catalyst such as sodium hydroxide to initiate a chemical reaction which removes the heavy glucides and fats from the mixture. This allows the fuel to move through the vehicle's fuel lines and engine without clogging up. Biodiesel is also a natural cleaning agent and lubricant and runs cleaner in an engine than the petro variety.

Commercial biodiesel is a common fixture in Europe, with hundreds retail outlets in Germany alone. As an alternative fuel it has the advantage of being cheap to make and easy to produce. In Australia hundreds of enthusiasts make it and run their vehicles on it, and the Newcastloe City Council has recently produced the first biodiesel fleet. (Also check out the Tunin' Technology video about this subject on Undergrowth's Motion Pixels section for another example).

Assuming this was adopted as a widespread alternative source of fuel, sourcing the crops for biodiesel would lead us to the question of modern agricultural practices. Big agri-businesses control food production to a frightening degree, even determining how some countries can use precious water resources and claiming ownership of entire genii of plants. Biotechnology and genetic manipulation are offered as the only answers to questions of environmental degradation and increased food-yield needs. Yet there are other ways of approaching food production that are far more holistic in their approach and practicality such as organic farming, biodynamics and permaculture.

To focus on Permaculture, the idea of permanent agriculture (as opposed to the damaging and essentially short term land practices currently in general use), offers a truly sustainable system theory that also ensures the development of a wider philosophy of living in some kind of harmony with the natural world. It began as an organic response to agricultural resource use issues and has grown into a worldwide movement which adapts its ideas and concepts to an enormous variety of individual issues. The basic tenets say that nature has a fundamental design flow that, when replicated at human level can lead to the most effective, efficient and least harmful ways of doing things. Permaculture looks to implement natural design principles in all human systems, in this way it has become a design science more than a purely agricultural discipline.

The theories associated with Permaculture have influenced design theory and perceptions of the possible in a range of reality models. It promotes integration and synthesis as powerful answers to some of the most difficult socio-cultural, ecological and environmental problems our species faces, and it does so by empowering our autonomous creativity.

This is perhaps the most powerful element to what sustainability is all about. Moving away from traditional structuralist hierarchies allows the development of powerful responses to our world and a direct fundamental engagement with it. Personal autonomy in our lives is something we all crave and it is achievable. The means are already at hand, all we need is the will to use them, the desire to attain that freedom.

It won't be delivered to us by the planners at the Pentagon, nor researchers in the oil extraction industry who don't necessarily want to talk about the means of averting environmental crisis which involves the relinquishing of the very power structures that keep them at the top of the freemarket food chain. But fear can only take you so far. Eventually you have to hope and believe in that hope if you sincerely wish to change the world.

The future is here.

We all know the world of the next century will be a different place to the one we now occupy, but perhaps it's not simply technological advancements that will create that change. It will also require a great deal of societal evolution, a kind of post-technological progress, which doesn't discard the importance of technology, but also doesn't rely upon it as the only solution.

A revolution is happening. It is a revolution of ideas, of thought and a progressive engagement with our world and its multitude of social, economic and environmental systems.

Given the state of things, it's one that has to happen.

There's not really any alternative...