TH!NK post

The Final Choice

Published 08th November 2010 - 1 comments - 1372 views -

Last evening, in a friendly discussion with a scientist friend of mine, my idea of combating Climate Change by conscious human choice to change life-styles (with a drastic reduction of consumption) along with a conserver economy (with resource re-distribution to reduce stark differences in life style standards between the poor and rich nations – tackling poverty, malnutrition, lack of education amongst others) and effective environmental governance (managing deforestation, habitat loss, species extinction amongst others) came under serious scrutiny and criticism. While this is hardly a subject that can be discussed over a cup of coffee, the main objections that my learned friend put forward were these:

a) Human choice, in the context of life in general, is hardly conscious. A conscious choice demands a perfect informative perspective, which is a near impossibility. Therefore, humans can not consciously reduce consumption by sacrificing life styles they have gotten used to.

b) A conserver economy, by definition the one that produces just enough to be consumed by population with practically zero waste and with an emphasis on spending within means, is a freakonomy, particularly looking at a world obsessed with growth.

c) Effective Environmental Governance is an ‘ideal’ concept, not necessarily valid in a world which is far off from a consensus about the scale of the damage and it’s accountability between nations.

The questions are by no means trivial. I feel compelled to answer them.

Human choice is a highly debated issue, admittedly. How much consciousness plays a part behind human choice can also be argued. I shall prefer not to be dragged into the nature and function of human consciousness itself except mentioning that the role of consciousness being absolutely psychological and something ‘out-of-body’ is not valid anymore – in fact, if I am not wrong, consciousness is thought to be subject to the same evolutionary pressures that our genes are. Richard Dawkins has come up with the term, meme, in this context. So I am not in favor of making a sweeping comment like ‘Human choice is hardly conscious’. Not at least when I take the meaning of ‘consciousness’ as a pattern of decisions by huge number of people over a substantial period of time.

Life throws us alternatives and since we cannot live with all the alternatives, we take decisions and choose. I will admit that up to a point our decisions are questionable even by our own selves because in most cases we are unable to assess the alternatives on account of their complexities and our own limitations. And this ineptness is skillfully exploited by consumerist economy by engaging us with huge numbers of choices (for consumption). However, our choice becomes conscious in proportion with the importance of the issue with our life. Nobody chooses a life partner the way one chooses a deodorant. A deep value related question is associated with almost all severely important decisions of our lives, marriage, education, place of domicile – you name it. I find it almost paradoxical why such deep value related questions will not be associated with our ways of life, when such ways of life are connected to consumption of resources and such consumption of resources are directly linked with CO2 emission and thereby Climate Change.

The second and third questions are basically the same in as much as that a single answer would suffice.

The paradox that I mentioned here is in itself the answer. Our approach to modern life is almost cut-off from any deep value related questions about it. We have the least idea of the implications of the things we do, we buy, possess and own and waste – we have practically no knowledge about the price of our so-called growth beyond the tag that a producer put on a product. When we buy a house, a car or board a flight, we are only vaguely aware about what exactly is consumed from nature to make our choice happen. When we own and lawfully protect our right to own, we hardly understand that the total cost of such ownership can NEVER exclude the possibility of infringing upon the same right of ownership by others. All material possessions ultimately draw from the same pool of resources on earth and none can have any exclusive right on that pool. I do not hold anyone guilty for such ignorance but any circumlocution that tries to dilute this basic truth, in my opinion, should be viewed with alertness and skepticism.

Any lack of conscious intent to make a smart choice is due to such ignorance. I see the inevitability of conscious human choice to change life-styles to a radically new, low-consumption, low-waste and low-energy mode because, in my opinion, there is very little choice left to us to do otherwise. The present ‘rat-race’ is not going to continue for too long. If one such as I, at one non-descript corner of earth, with so limited understanding of things can sense it, I hope, everyone can.

In order to grasp and logically describe the technological/engineering solution of Climate Change malady, we may approach Climate Change from energy or rather power point of view. In a very simple way all our lives and matter on earth are energy transactions and power is the rate of spending that energy over unit time. Roughly speaking,  lifting an apple from floor and putting it on your table requires 1 joule of energy and if you do that in 1 second, you are spending about 1 watt of power. Running a macbook is about 40 watts, remaining alive on a hospital bed is about 100 watts – however you are not billed for remaining alive. In fact, you are only billed for a minuscule amount of your total energy consumption. Food that we consume requires lot of power, particularly meat, as the livestock are fed with lots of grain and that requires quiet a bit of power. Travel and transport again require power and your possessions like houses, cars, furniture, electronic gadgets, books, bicycles are all nothing but ‘embodied’ power – each has a story of a lot of energy consumption connected with their genesis and the stories continue even if they sit idle in your house, garage or attic. Each story has a chapter on how much CO2 or it’s equivalent it has placed in the atmosphere – the atmosphere that, say, a poor Somalian shares. Our life-styles can be evaluated on how much power we consume. You can go and check your own life’s power story by visiting this very interesting website named Wattzon.

Saul Griffith, an Engineer, Innovator and Inventor based in the US has done interesting work on calculating his own power profile and ended up knowing that his life-style involves nearly 18,000 watts. It had been shocking to him as the world average per capita power consumption is somewhere around 2200 watts. Such quantification and comparison removes a lot of opacity from our individual responsibilities towards Climate Change. Please compare your own life-style with the 2200 watts life-style. I think that will be a humbling experience. For the inquisitive reader I am enclosing Griffith’s whole ‘The Long Now Foundation’ talk at the end of my post. It’s one over hour talk but quite shocking.

Going back to our Climate Change Vs. Power Consumption discussion let us refresh our high school physics a bit.

Kilowatt = 10^3 Watts (1,000 Watts)

Megawatt = 10^6 Watts (1,000,000 Watts)

Gigawatt = 10^9 Watts (1,000,000,000 Watts)

Terawatt = 10^12 Watts (1,000,000,000,000 Watts)

The world currently runs on 16 Terawatts of energy. To get a measure of how exponentially our energy needs are increasing we need nothing more than the information that in 1990, the total energy consumption was 1 Terawatt. Anyway, this energy consumption is linked with CO2 or rather particulate carbon in the atmosphere which currently is 382 parts per million (ppm) and increasing. This particulate carbon measure is related to average temperature of earth. While James Hanson, a leading Climatologist of the US insists that beyond 350 ppm carbon in the atmosphere our world will not the same as in one we have evolved, it is almost an impossible task to go back to 350 from the current 382. With a barely bearable target of 450 ppm carbon (this will make the average temperature of earth increase by 2 degrees Celsius leading to massive loss of bio-diversity, 100 million Climate refugees and other major stresses) that we need to achieve in 25 years (or it is too late), we need to cut down our fossil fuel based power consumption to 3 Terawatts and produce all the rest by renewable clean energy (that too supposing we remain on 16 Terawatt for the remaining 25 years). Presently half a Terawatt comes from clean hydropower and 1 Terawatt from clean nuclear power (if you at all take nuclear power as clean in the long term). So 16 minus 3 minus 1 minus 0.5, i.e., 11 and a half Terawatt of power need to come from new clean renewable sources.

Saul gives a possible breakup of the this 11.5 Terawatt of power.

2 Terawatts from Photovoltaic Solar.

2 Terawatts from Solar Thermal (CSP).

0.5 Terawatt from Bio-fuels.

2 Terawatts of Wind.

2 Terawatts of Geothermal.

3 Terawatts of New Nuclear.

Saul also gives an idea what these targets mean in more prosaic terms.

• 2 Terawatts of PV Solar = Installing 100 square meters of 15% efficient solar cells every second, second after second for coming 25 years ( = 1.200 square miles of solar cells every year for 25 years = 30,000 square miles of solar cells).

• 2 Terawatts of Solar Thermal = (at 30 % efficiency) Installing 50 square meters of highly reflective mirrors every second for 25 years (= 600 square miles of mirrors every year for 25 years = 15,000 square miles of mirrors).

• Half Terawatt of Bio-fuel = something like an Olympic sized pool of genetically engineered algae installed every second (= 15.250 square miles of algae bed per year for 25 years = 381,250 square miles of algae bed).

• 2 Terawatts of Wind = Installing 300 feet diameter wind turbine every 5 minutes (=105,000 turbines every year in good wind locations for 25 years = 2,625,000 turbines on uncertain land area)

• 2 Terawatts of Geothermal = Building 3 100 Megawatt steam turbines everyday for 25 years (=1,095 turbines a year on uncertain land area)

• 3 Terawatts of New Nuclear = Building 3-reactor, 3-Gigawatt nuclear plant every week, 52 numbers a year for 25 years.

Saul Griffith estimates the total land area requirement for above installations to be the size of Australia, which he calls ‘Renewistan’. If one wants to keep the particulate carbon in the atmosphere at 350 ppm,  ‘Renewistan’ will be 26 % larger.

Saul is not joking. That’s the target. Or it was on 2009 when Saul first spoke about it. With all my respect for our technological prowess, I do not think that to be a practically achievable target. You can have your own feeling about it.

And this is a target we ourselves are creating by refusing to cut down on our demands from nature. When we understand this simple truth, I hope, we will not wait for IPCC, Governments, Seminars – we will modulate our power hungry life-styles on our own accord. That is my final answer to my learned scientist friend. It’s not a debatable answer for me, it’s the ONLY and ULTIMATE choice for us.

Here is Saul Griffith's Talk 'Climate Change Recalculated'. 

If you like you can have a pdf transcript of Saul's talk from this link.

Category: Climate Science, | Tags:



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