Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Towards a Sustainable Future

It was the year 1899 when the then Commissioner of the U.S. Patents office was reported to have said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented." While he might choose to have retracted those words even before they had hit the wires, we might do well to pause and reflect on whether all invention can be described as progress.

As we enter an era when the level of carbon in the atmosphere continues to climb to hitherto unrecorded levels - and even while we debate the implications of that - we recognise that one of the significant costs of progress remains the environment in which we live. We have, in reality, bitten the hand that feeds us hard, and wonder at its capacity to recover and adapt.

A second thought reverberates through my mind - most, if not all of this progress has been to the benefit of the West, at the expense of other parts of the world, even at the exploitation of them. When we consider how corporations have made millions by using cheap third-world labour to produce garments sold at prices which bear little relation to their production costs, we must consider whether progress for some at the expense of the majority is really progress at all.

The cost of producing many of our staples in the West has ignored the unaccounted costs - those which appear on no corporate books or tax records. While countries debate the possibility of carbon trading schemes (which would appear one small and tenuous step towards addressing the problem), there is an unspoken need for the West to recognise the need to bear much more of the cost of our lavish lifestyles.

This struck me afresh recently as I read through the Psalms, and encountered the reverberating cry, "I am innocent, Lord". I realised that this is a cry that cannot honestly emanate from my own lips. I live in a world system which is biased in my direction. I live a lifestyle which takes far more from this planet than is just or equitable, let alone sustainable. Even as I make efforts to reduce this, I realise that I am a long way from innocence. Such is not to pile up guilt, or to deny the possibility of grace, but to underline the need to give careful consideration to the way I live, to the foods I buy, the products purchased, the use of money overall. By almost any measure, living in the West invariably and conservatively places us in the richest 10% of the planet (certainly if you are reading this on a computer!). With such privilege comes responsibility, one which isn't exercised by deferring to governments for action.

The Bible begins by creating an essential link between humans and the planet: from the dust we are formed, and to the dust we return. Our link with the earth is more than merely symbolic, or at the ends of life. Until we recognise our inherent relationship with the earth, and the inherent link between the health of creation as a whole and our own as individuals and communities, we are set on a path into territories which will raise ever more critical questions about our future.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Perhaps we don't need new innovations so much as better environmental expressions.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Voice of Fear

The suggestion that we should begin a carbon trading scheme in Australia in 2010 has set the voices of fear alight, once again proving the difficulty of conducting serious and mature political debate in this country. What is most disappointing is hearing the Victorian Premier, John Brumby, starting to forecast electricity shortages even before the complete debate about the scheme has got into first gear. The news report last night forecast shortages this coming summer, which is pure nonsense. How can a non-existent emissions trading scheme in the summer of 2008-2009 result in shortages of supply? I am unsure whether this fear-mongering is an interpretation placed by a reporter over the Premier’s remarks, but it underlines the sense of disappointment in the moral fibre of our leadership when they start playing on short-term fears. It is the type of politics we hoped to have seen the last of for some time in the wake of the defeat of the Howard government, which was masterful in such politics.
While the science of global warming has much to both commend and question, there is no doubt that in terms of the health of the planet we are entering into uncharted waters. Instead of crying “Wolf!” or doing the Chicken Little act: “The Sky is Falling!” perhaps we would hope that our leadership might point to the opportunities for innovative and creative solutions to the identified problem of increased carbon emissions. Alas, it seems that we would rather play fear and avoid responsibilities.
In Australia it is hard to justify the absence of a serious effort at solar power and other forms of renewable energy. Instead of playing fear, we should be positioning our state and nation to be at the forefront of renewable energy. So we might have to let brown coal – in such abundant supply – remain in the ground for a longer period. What loss is there if we can develop new export industries which have a healthier contribution to the planet?
It remains to be seen whether the Federal Government has the guts to do the hard work. They’ll be peppered with fear on all sides.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Priest's Job Promotion

A Catholic priest and a rabbi were chatting one day when the conversation turned to a discussion of job descriptions and promotions.
"What do you have to look forward to in terms of being promoted?" asked the rabbi.
"Well, I'm next in line for the Monsignor's job," replied the priest.
"Yes, and then what?" asked the rabbi.
"Well, next I can become a bishop."
"Yes, and then?"
"If I work real hard and do a good job as bishop, it's possible for me to become an archbishop."
"OK, then what?"
Exasperated, the priest replied, "With some luck and real hard work, maybe I can become a cardinal."
"And then?"
Growing angry, the priest responded, "Well, with lots and lots of luck and some real difficult work, if I'm in the right places at the right times and play my political games just right, maybe, just maybe, I can get elected Pope."
"Yes, and then what?"
"Good grief!" shouted the priest. "What do you expect me to become, GOD?"
"Well," responded the rabbi, "One of our boys made it!"

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Towards Clean Energy?

While governments in the West continue to argue about the best ways to tackle the ever-increasing emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we do well to note that the fastest growth in mobile phone penetration is currently happening in Africa and the poorer Asian nations, where the infrastructure for landlines is absent and the capital isn’t available to invest. Mobile phones do not require the same extensive and expensive infrastructure in order to provide access, and are at home in a society which is used to production and consumption taking place locally. It is a lesson which should not be lost on us as we consider reducing carbon emissions.
While the Victorian State Government has announced another brown coal-powered electricity generator, it perpetuates the mass-production in remote location approach which underpins most Western economies. A downside of this approach in electricity generation – aside from the massive increase in carbon emissions – is the loss of electricity in transmission, up to as much as 80%. On average we need then to produce at least twice as much electricity as is ever consumed at the point of delivery. Solar power, then, brings production and consumption to the same locality, reducing transmission loss. Here in the West, however, we are unlikely to adopt such a disaggregated approach to electricity supply. Poorer countries, on the other hand, may – as with mobile phone penetration – provide a much more creative response to the electricity needs of their communities. Introduction of solar power into such communities, while initially providing small stocks of electricity, may provide a basis for development which is both environmentally more responsible and with the capacity to grow as the minimal requirements of small communities expands.
Here in the West, the cost is large in comparison with the marginal improvement in supply capacity, in contrast with the possibilities of subsistence communities.
Such an approach should not only be feasible, but offer greater security than the current mega-production centres upon which the current electricity generation strategies are now based. There are more than enough rooftops available in any major city in this country which are available for solar panels. With over a million homes generating electricity across a wide expanse, the capacity can be obtained without further scarring the landscape, and at the same time provide a decentralised supply which is far less vulnerable to outages. Should one of our major generators falter, there would be serious disruption to supply. But solar panels on myriad rooftops offers similar continuity of supply as the internet – interconnected nodes across numerous sites which can shift the load as needed. Loss of one panel provides minimal disruption, alongside the greater correlation between production and consumption quantities.
Perhaps it is the African and Asian communities which offer the best alternative to alternative and environmentally friendly electricity, because they have much less invested in existing technologies. Might our aid and development organisations provide a lead here?