Energy & Lifestyles
Issue Nos 28‑30, December 1998
Energy & Lifestyles
Winin Pereira and Subhash Sule
The use of energy
The environmental consequences of fossil energy use
The exhaustion of energy
US oil imports
The Indian situation
Renewable energy alternatives
Solar thermal conversion systems
Direct production of chemicals
Reducing energy consumption
Energy exhaustion scenarios
The unjust and unsustainable system
A just and sustainable system
The cultural path
This paper was originally prepared for the Traditional Science Congress, held at Varanasi in October 1998 (updated November 1998). It demonstrates how the existing industrial paradigm cannot possibly deliver what it promises, either in India or elsewhere, since it depends upon the depletion of energy sources. The system can continue only by accelerating the exhaustion of existing energy‑sources, and by increasing injustice, as these sources are monopolised by the most powerful countries on earth, particularly the USA. The paper then looks at renewable energy alternatives, and states that while these may be of marginal assistance in prolonging the system, they are incapable of bringing about the radical transformation that is required. The paper concludes that only a complete change to a just and sustainable system can avert disaster, and asserts that such a system is still recuperable from within the Indian tradition.
The West has constructed an enormous industrial and economic empire, wholly dependent on an abundant use of cheap, non‑renewable energy from fossil fuels. Energy in large quantities is the nourishment which sustains the West, without it Western society would collapse. There can be no substitute for energy, yet all the West’s products require energy for their mining, transport, manufacture and often for use.
Less than 10 per cent of the energy used in the West today is obtained from renewable sources (hydro, biomass, solar, wind); the rest is procured from non‑renewable sources (coal, mineral oil, natural gas, nuclear). It is consequently difficult to find a single item in the West that does not ‘contain’ non‑renewable energy. It has at last been realized that the Western industrial system is consuming the earth’s non‑renewable energy resources at a rate which will exhaust them soon.
In addition, the burning of fossil fuels results in the production of enormous local as well as global pollution, causing smog, acid rain, climatic warming, and other adverse environmental effects. These could ‑ and maybe already are ‑ damaging the ecosystem very severely and could make the planet Earth uninhabitable.
If the West is to retain its hyper consumptive lifestyle, means have to be found to produce renewable energy at over ten times its present rate. If this is seen to be impossible, then it will be necessary to strictly limit the products and services used. This will also reduce the use of fossil fuels and the pollution they produce, replacing them with renewable, non‑polluting sources of energy. Further, since the present system is wholly dependent on economic growth for its survival, it needs to prove that constantly increasing growth is compatible with diminishing energy use and ‘safe’ pollution levels.
We show here that a Westernized lifestyle implies a high use of industrial products, from pins to personal computers. Every one of these products in turn requires energy to manufacture and/or use. It is then shown that burning fossil fuels is inevitably accompanied by intensive pollution which has global environmental consequences.
Fossil energy resources are fast running out, not on a long or even a medium time scale, but within a few years, a life time. It is then shown that none of the renewable energy sources can replace fossil fuels and they also do considerable environmental damage of their own.
A lifestyle based on such a system of production and consumption is unsustainable and unjust. However, the West cannot change to a just and sustainable system without a high possibility of an economic collapse. Various exhaustion scenarios are then discussed, which all result in increasing unsustainability and injustice.
We next discuss the structure of a just and sustainable system. In India, we can change because we have traditional technologies which use resources sustainably, for products made by manual or animal power and, where we cannot replace Western products ‑ in quantity or quality ‑ we have a tradition of doing without and living simple lifestyles.
Are we in India prepared to start changing now or will we wait till the Westernized system collapses, with all the violence and disorder that this will inevitably bring?
The use of energy
It is seen in this section that the Western system uses a huge amount of energy and that it is unsustainable and unjust.
The lifestyle of a person depends on the system of ‘development’ to which that person is exposed and accustomed. The production of large quantities of commodities and services is a fundamental given of the Western system, the celebration of consumption for its own sake. Affluence results from the consumption of material things commodities far above the level of basic requirements.
To most people in the West and to those schooled in Western ways here, ‘development’ means following or emulating the Western system of consumption, accompanied by industrialism, which is based on continuous economic growth.
These commodities require resources, the most important of which is energy. Energy is needed for manufacture and use of nearly all Western commodities. In addition, energy is necessary for mining the raw materials, for refining them if necessary, for processing them to produce finished items and for packaging them. Energy is needed to transport them to warehouses and super stores, to sell them, to transport them again from the stores to the purchasers’ homes, to use them if they run on energy, and finally, to recycle, re‑use or otherwise dispose of the ‘waste’ they leave at the end of their life. At every point in the processing of consumer items, prodigious quantities of energy are required.
In fact, industry, cities, agriculture, transport and every other sector of Western society are totally dependent on energy. Even the service industries, with their millions of computers and other electronic equipment depend on energy.
Transportation is essential to Western society and consumes an enormous amount of energy. The use of modern transport from trucks to jet planes is seen as freeing industries from the constraints of urban or even national locations, and to provide them with the mobility they need to maximize efficiency. But it more effectively ties industrial production to non‑renewable fuel availability.
Transportation is the largest consumer of energy in the USA, relying totally on oil. Motor vehicles alone consume about 53 per cent of US oil, with jet aircraft absorbing another 8 per cent.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 17]
Private as well as public transport, of passengers as well as cargo, on land, sea and air, all use energy. Energy is consumed in transporting people to and from the home to the workplace and for holidays, too. Additional energy is often used for air‑conditioning the transport vehicle.
Moreover, transportation systems require large areas of land for the construction and maintenance of roads and railways, parking facilities, bridges, fly‑overs and other infrastructure.
Easy and cheap transport favours sourcing of raw materials and finished products from distant places, encouraging the growth of cities totally dependent on such sources.
Transport by personal cars is at least in India mainly limited to the affluent, the rest being reluctantly compelled to use public services. Cars use lots of energy to manufacture steel, aluminium, plastics, rubber, glass and all the other materials that make up a car. Cars use fuel most inefficiently, as well as producing the greatest vehicular pollution during operation.
Industry is the second largest consumer of oil ‑ 26 per cent of the total. About one fourth of industrial oil is consumed as chemical feedstocks.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 17] They are the raw materials used for the production of plastics, and other special, as well as common chemicals, and for energising machinery.
Consider the energy that is required by industry to make an object of everyday use, like a simple pencil. A tree in a forest has to be cut down using a chain saw and pulled down in the right direction using heavy‑duty tractors. It is cut into logs which are loaded by cranes on to trucks to be taken to the factory. At the factory the logs are sawn by machines in several stages, finally into half‑pencil‑sized pieces, which are grooved to hold the lead (graphite). The two halves are then glued together. The pencil is polished on grinders and buffers, painted, embossed, and packed in fancy boxes. The boxes are transported to warehouses for storage, till they can be carried to retail stores for sale. The graphite is mined, transported, powdered, mixed with fillers and binders, and moulded into cylindrical pieces which fit into the grooves. Raw materials for paints are also given similar treatment. Each and every machine and transport vehicle in this set requires energy for its operation. Each and every part in each and every machine and transport vehicle requires energy for mining its raw materials, its manufacture, its machining, its finishing and for each of the many special operations like tempering or electroplating that it may require. If the required energy is not available for even one minor operation, the whole chain may collapses.
Cities consume much more energy per capita than rural areas. Cities require commuting, transporting raw materials, constructing infrastructure, powering commercial buildings ‑ all of which consume large amounts of oil and electricity. An analysis by one of the US Department of Energy’s national laboratories found that a doubling of the proportion of India’s and China’s populations that live in cities could increase per capita energy consumption by 45 per cent ‑ even if industrialization and income per capita remained unchanged.[Romm and Curtis, 1996]
Energy is also used for almost all transport of inputs from rural regions to urban centres for industrial and agricultural processing, and in conveying processed products to urban and rural consumers. In addition, urban congestion requires large quantities of energy for personal transport from home to office or factory, for vacations to distant hill resorts, National Parks, to visit friends or relatives, and for making the biggest industry on earth ‑ tourism ‑ feasible. Energy is also required for homes ‑ for microwave cooking, for automatic washing, for powering TV sets and other entertainment equipment, for home heating and cooling.
Westernized agriculture uses energy for all its operations from sowing seeds, to weeding, to harvesting crops. Energy is used for manufacturing synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other agricultural chemicals and even for genetically modifying seeds. If the crops are processed for consumption, further energy is required.
The ‘high standard of living’, whether in the West or of the elite here, is correlated with the use of materials and services, which require large amounts of energy for their manufacture, processing, transport and use. Taking all the energy used into account, the per capita energy consumption of a US citizen was about 30 times that of the average Indian in 1993.[WRI, 1996, Table 12.2]
The West asserts that such enormous rates of consumption can be maintained indefinitely through management of the use of the resources, resulting in a sustainable rate of increase of commodity output. However, this assertion rests on an act of faith: there is no sign that such a process is possible.[Adriaanse, et al., 1997]
Further, the acquisition of large quantities of goods in a world of limited resources results in most people being deprived of an equal share, and, therefore, in injustice.
The environmental consequences of fossil energy use
In addition to the excessive use of resources, the burning of fossil fuels produces plenty of pollution. This is so serious a problem that it may itself necessitate a drastic reduction in fossil fuel use.
Among the main pollutants are carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Until the industrial revolution, these gases could be absorbed by the environment without apparent damage to it. After that, the energy required to industrialize increased so much that they could no longer be fully absorbed and began accumulating in the environment. Certain of these ‑ particularly CO2 ‑ are capable of producing global damage of catastrophic extent by adversely altering the climate.
Carbon Dioxide Pollution
Carbon dioxide is the most widespread and harmful pollutant, being produced when any fossil fuel is burned ‑ in cars, thermal power stations, factories and so on. It is the major contributor to global warming. CO2 emissions can be diminished by reductions in energy use and indeed these have been made by increasing the efficiency of vehicles, power stations and of equipment in use in factories, and homes. But these are negligible compared to the aggregate use of energy and, more importantly, continuous economic growth ensures that emissions keep on increasing.
The oceans and the terrestrial biomass can annually absorb around 13 to 14 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide globally. This is the quantity which could be discharged into the atmosphere from all artificial sources if its concentration in the atmosphere were to remain within the natural limits. If justice is to prevail, this quantity would be equally distributed among the nearly 6 billion global inhabitants today, giving each the right to emit around 2.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. In fact, the distribution is notably unjust. Energy‑linked CO2 emissions in India are 0.9 tonnes per head, compared with 19 tonnes per head in the US.[WRI, 1996, Table 14.1]
At present the G7 countries and the former Soviet Union, with a total of just about one billion inhabitants, are responsible for around 55 per cent of CO2 emissions caused by energy production.[Sachs, 1996, p 70] In addition, about 90 per cent of the human‑made greenhouse gas emissions in the past 150 years and over 80 per cent of the global increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere between 1800 and 1988 were produced by industrialized states.[Sachs, 1996, p 72] These states are responsible for most of the CO2 in the atmosphere today.
Only in the case of methane ‑ another greenhouse gas ‑ mainly resulting from rice field and cattle‑rearing emissions, are developing countries significantly involved, particularly India and China (each contributing about 10 per cent of total emissions).[WRI, 1996, Table 14.2] However, the methane emissions produced by an Indian subsistence farmer growing rice cannot be taken on an equal basis with CO2 discharges by the owner of a luxury limousine.
Scientists agree that an average global warming of around 0.1 per cent per decade is just about tolerable. This figure is based on the capability of most but by no means all eco‑systems to adapt to ambient temperature change. Establishing that criterion entails acceptance of the extinction of further species.[Sachs, 1996, p 30]
Climate change is one of the most serious global environmental threats because of its potential impact on food production and processes vital to a productive environment.[Pimentel et al., 1994] There is no longer any doubt that the atmosphere is warming. July 1998 has been the hottest month ever recorded around the world.[ToI, 1998]
It is often glibly claimed that planting more trees could help in compensating for CO2 emissions. Offsetting the emissions of a single, 500 MW coal‑fired power plant would require growing a forest of about 1,000 square miles. Sequestering all the carbon emitted as CO2 by fossil fuels in the US in 1988 ‑ 1.4 billion tons ‑ would require a million square miles of new forests, roughly 25 per cent of the land area of the US. Moreover, the new forests would need to be preserved indefinitely to sequester carbon dioxide.
If complete disruption of the world’s climate is to be avoided, industrial countries would have to reduce their use of fossil energy dramatically by changing their lifestyles. Emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be reduced globally by between 50 and 80 per cent.[Fulkerson, 1990] This is an impossible target to reach without a massive shift to renewable sources of energy. Or a much‑simplified lifestyle.
Other types of pollution
In processing and using the vast array of commodities, pollution of the air, water and/or soil occurs, through the emission of noxious effluents as well as end‑product wastes. Such pollution is damaging our health, producing the ozone hole and acid rain, as well as generating many other environmental problems.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions, in particular, are linked to fossil energy use. They are mainly produced by vehicles, thermal power stations and other large industrial processes. Several technologies have been suggested for reducing their emissions.
Combustion of fossil fuels, especially coal, accounts for more than 80 per cent of the SO2 and most of the NOx injected into the atmosphere by human activity.[Fulkerson, 1990] Most of this in India comes from the combustion of coal, a quantity which is going to increase with the huge thermal power plants being promoted by the World Bank. The sales of these plants have fallen in the West, because they are so dirty, so the WB is pushing them here.
The use of scrubbers to reduce the SO2 emissions merely transfers pollution of one type from one polluter to another set of polluters who produce the same or other types of pollution, perhaps in even greater quantities and with more harmful environmental effects than that of the original polluter. All these attempts to remove non‑carbon dioxide pollutants increase carbon dioxide emissions for a given quantity of energy generated, thus transferring part of the problem to an even more intractable one.
Natural gas is said be a cleaner fuel than oil or coal, but while producing less carbon dioxide than other fuels for a given energy output, gas burns slowly, thus releasing unburned hydrocarbons and other by‑products into the atmosphere.[Erickson, 1991] Such hydrocarbons are toxic in themselves and also contribute to the production of smog.
Acid rain is produced when SO2 and NOx mix with atmospheric moisture. It causes soil acidification which is rising almost everywhere in Europe. Critical levels are exceeded in over 85 per cent of German forests, and the state of forest soils is similarly serious in other countries in Europe.[Sachs, 1996, p 32]
Further, thousands of chemicals are in daily use of which just a couple of hundred have been officially tested for their impacts on the environment. What harm the rest are doing is not known and probably never will be, neither are interactions in mixtures and feedback mechanisms known.
A study in Sweden of the pollution burden of a simple sofa is revealing. The contributions of the different materials used in it ‑ wood, PVC, foam plastics, glue, metals, nylon, and cotton, including production, transport and degradation, to energy use and pollution, were estimated. It was found that the average sofa requires the emission of 70 kilograms of carbon dioxide, 0.7 kilograms of nitrogen oxides and 0.5 kilograms of sulphur dioxide, plus volatile organic compounds, dioxins and CFCs.[New Scientist, 1991, p 28]
An oil price rise will also have harmful effects on the environment. Fuel for cooking is as essential for life as food to be cooked. The use of kerosene is being promoted as a village fuel for cooking and lighting. If the supply of kerosene is reduced or stops entirely, people will have no alternative but to cut down trees for firewood. Since the social forestry schemes cannot satisfy all the fuelwood requirements, the remaining forests will be quickly destroyed.
Yet more pollution is created by wastes produced by the thousands of commodities used and quickly discarded. Many of these are toxic and the toxins are leaching into and seriously polluting ground water sources. Or, the toxins are released when the ‘waste’ is burned. No solution for the safe disposal of most of these has as yet been found.
Renewable resources can also be overused and cause environmental damage. The use of too much wood fuel, together with the lack of compensatory forestation, leads to excessive CO2 in the atmosphere.
Biomass combustion releases more than 100 different chemical pollutants into the atmosphere. Wood smoke is reported to contain pollutants known to cause bronchitis, emphysema, and other illnesses. These pollutants include up to 14 carcinogens, 4 cocarcinogens, 6 toxins that damage cilia, and additional mucus‑coagulating agents.[Pimentel et al., 1994] These pollutants occur in home cooking fires too, when the wrong type of firewood is used. The women who cook lament the fact that the species of trees in natural mixed forests which supplied nearly smokeless fuel have been destroyed by commercial demands. One such species is the common adulsa (Adhatoda zeylanica).[NAS, 1980] They have been replaced by monocultures of species ‑ chosen by energy and forestry ‘experts’, aided by agencies like the World Bank ‑ that are seen as producing fuelwood plantations with an economically viable rate of return. Their only other criterion is to maximize the kilocalories produced per hectare per year; their concern for women’s health approaches zero. Smoking stoves affect the users only and are easily replaced by cheap and efficient smokeless ones, but industrialized society dumps hundreds of far more toxic chemicals in much greater quantities into the environment to indiscriminately and globally damage ‘public health’.
The situation is so grave that there is a distinct possibility that increasing pollution, or even maintaining the emissions at present levels, it is quite likely that before fossil fuels get exhausted, pollution factors would cause the collapse of the system.
The exhaustion of energy
The use of so much energy must make one question its continuing availability ‑ its sustainability. Where does that energy come from?
Most of the energy (90 per cent) used is derived from burning fossil fuels such as mineral oil, natural gas and coal, with some from hydropower, solar, wind, wave and other ‘renewable’ sources.[Brodribb, 1998]
No one can dispute the fact that we live on a closed planet, closed in the sense that all our resources ‑ non‑renewable and renewable ‑ come from within the planet’s ecosystem; the only exception is energy from the sun, from which all the energy on Earth is ultimately obtained. The resources which the sun’s energy produces today are renewable.
How are fossil fuels produced? How much is there?
The fuel most in use is mineral oil. The oil that is available is a fossil fuel, built up in underground geological formations from organic material over millions of years. Little or nothing can be done to increase its total amount. It is this quantity that humanity is using up with careless abandon. Within the existing system, the only discussion is about the ‘market price’ of oil, as though the market mechanism takes precedence over the actually existing of oil supplies in the world. This is why, in November 1998, the Gulf States were prepared to back US bombing of Iraq, whereas in February 1998 they had refused: the price of oil had declined, and a war crisis was calculated to enhance their oil revenues significantly.
Fossil fuels are being consumed at rates millions of times faster than their rates of production. The use of fossil fuels requires that the stocks available ‑ the reserves ‑ be mined. What is available depends on how much is left and on how rapidly it is used. Oil production is expected to start decreasing in a few years.
Moreover, unlike matter, energy cannot be recycled but only converted into other forms, usable at a technically lower level (for instance, fossil energy into heat).
It is important that the figure of recoverable global reserves of oil be accurate since the action taken often depends on its value. Yet, the figures given in reputable journals vary from a low of 900 billion barrels to a high of ten times that. Here, a figure ‑ 1000 billion barrels ‑ which several authors quote is used.[Brown, et al., 1998; Campbell and Laherrhre, 1998; Hatfield, 1997; Ivanhoe, 1997; Kerr, 1989; Kerr, 1995; Masood, 1997]
Even the figure of 1000 billion barrels is probably an overestimate, since it is based on each oil‑producing country’s assessment of its own reserves. Most of the OPEC countries have probably reported higher figures for their reserves in order to demand higher production quotas. These non‑existent ‘political reserves’ are estimated to amount to about 300 billion barrels, or about a third of proven world reserves.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 11]
People often react to these figures by claims that other sources state more reassuring figures. Chevron Corporation estimates that oil reserves are over 10,000 billion barrels. Chevron is a company that makes its profits from selling oil. Naturally, it does not mention the fact that the figure it quotes includes oil from oil shale, tar sands, and other unconventional forms of oil. The extent of the resource is not disputed by the experts, but the capital investment required and environmental costs to develop such resources are enormous and no successful solution has as yet been implemented.[Hubbert, 1998]
How long will this oil last?
Current world consumption is around 26 billion barrels per year. At this rate, 1000 billion barrels will last less than 40 years.[Easterbrook, 1998] But long before that, oil production is expected to start falling.
A number of the largest country producers, including Norway and the UK, will reach their peak production around the year 2000. By 2002 or so the world will rely mainly on Middle East nations, particularly Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to fill in the gap between dwindling supply and growing demand. Given the present global recession, world production of conventional oil will peak during the first decade of the 21st century.[Campbell and Laherrhre, 1998] Even if new fields are found and developed, and even if the political reserves do actually exist, the fall in oil production could be delayed by only a decade or so.
Other predictions are for an even higher growth in demand, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 1996, forecast world oil demand of 99 million barrels per day, or about 40 per cent more per year, by the year 2015.[EIA, 1996]
Indeed, there was an increase in consumption of more than 18 per cent from 1992 to early 1997, in spite of the global recession and drastic falls in consumption in the former Soviet Union as it disintegrated.
The figures for individual countries are even more startling. The oil reserves of the US and Canada will last for 8 years each. The total reserves of oil in the European Union nations will last for less than 6 years. The world’s largest reserves, in Saudi Arabia, will last for 82 years. All these figures are calculated at current rates of consumption, which are unlikely to remain constant at these levels.[EIA, 1998]
Other factors diminish the available quantity of oil. Even though the oil may be in the ground, production cannot be held constant till the oil in each field is exhausted. Oil occurs in the pore spaces of the reservoir rock where it is subject to capillary pressures. Production falls when the wells have to draw on oil farther and farther from the well bore. Eventually a point is reached when no more can be produced. Each field has an optimal rate of production which, if continuously exceeded, reduces the long‑term productivity of the field.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 11] This is what has occurred in the case of some Bombay High fields.
The percentage of recoverable oil ranges from about 20 to 60 per cent of the reserves, depending primarily on the specific gravity of the oil. It is often claimed that technology can improve recovery. In fact, the apparent improvements may merely indicate initial underestimation of the amount of oil‑in‑place rather than any technological breakthrough.[Campbell, 1996]
The output of all oil fields, therefore, declines after peaking, and current production can be sustained only if new discoveries match production.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 12] World crude oil demand is about 26 billion barrels per year and rising.[Easterbrook, 1998] The amount found in new fields per year is only about 10 billion barrels and falling. In fact, global discovery of new oil fields peaked in 1962 and has been declining ever since.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 10]
Yet, British Petroleum claims that the oil supply crunch is a ‘receding nightmare since world’s oil seekers replace reserves at a faster rate than consumers use them’.[Reuter, 1996]
More reserves will surely be discovered, but the present discoveries are mainly relatively small fields, which will extend availability for a few days at most. In fact, the whole of the remaining recoverable oil ‑ about 4 billion barrels ‑ from the famed Alaskan oil reserves would last for just about 2 months of global consumption.[Hubbert, 1998]
The producers have also to take the oil out of the ground, refine it and transport it to the site of consumption. Yet the planned expansion in oil production amounts to less than half that needed to meet the 2010 world oil demand. Even this will require a heavy investment. As the remaining oil becomes more difficult to recover and enhanced oil recovery projects are required, the capital costs per barrel would rise further.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 3]
As oil supplies are exhausted, the price will rise. Using much of the existing reserves will, in fact, be economical only when the price rises. After the year 2000, supply will no longer be able to keep up with demand and the price will start to rise more rapidly.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 18]
Further, since most of the new finds are in more difficult and hazardous locations, not only will the cost of extraction be greater in monetary terms, but also in terms of the energy required for extraction, refining and transporting it. Once this energy cost approaches the fuel value of the oil or gas extracted, the size of the reserve becomes irrelevant.[Pereira, 1995] For instance, after 2005 exploring for oil and gas in the US will use more energy than the oil and gas would contain. The US will have to abandon all its oil and gas fields by 2020 ‑ not because they will be empty but because the energy required to extract the residue will be more than the energy gained.[Douthwaite, 1992, p 207]
There are other factors which could cause temporary or permanent price rises, such as cold winters, political instability in major oil producing countries, embargoes, and so on. Indeed, even the prognosis we make here could readily be drastically changed by developments which it is impossible to foresee in an unstable and volatile global system.
There are suggestions for the complete replacement of oil and coal by natural gas because the reserves of gas are much larger than those of oil and because gas produces less pollution for a given energy output than oil or coal. The global supplies would last only a few years if natural gas replaced coal in all uses. However, it is not a question of choosing gas instead of oil or coal, merely of opting for gas before oil and coal. When gas is exhausted, oil and coal will have to be used again.
The promotion of LPG and kerosene as village fuels, without immediate attention to renewable fuels, will result in disastrous fuel shortages when they do run out or are priced too high for the impoverished.
Global reserves of natural gas will last about 65 years at the present rates of consumption.[Rowell, 1997] As oil is exhausted, more natural gas will be used instead. Natural gas is also the preferred fuel to replace oil in those nations that have agreed to limit their production of carbon dioxide in the interests of reducing global warming.
Again, the major deposits of natural gas are in the Gulf region, which remains under US control. The large reserves in the CIS are also being targeted by the US. The special favours extended to Russia and other CIS states by the US and the WB and IMF, in spite of the pitiful state of their economies, are designed to lure these resource‑rich states into a debt trap. They will then be gallantly rescued by a charitable US, which will take their fossil fuels in payment. This was the strategy successfully executed by NAFTA to get control of the Mexican reserves.
In 1994, coal provided 26 per cent of world energy needs, used as such or converted to gas or oil.[MacKenzie, 1996, p 2] There appears to be plenty of coal according to figures given for reserves, with deposits calculated to last for more than a hundred years. But many of these are deep in the earth, making extraction difficult and dangerous for miners. The efficiency of conversion to gas or liquid fuels is low. If coal is used to replace oil and natural gas, it will be consumed much more rapidly. Coal will not, therefore, be capable of being used for much longer than oil and natural gas.
In addition, burning coal has enormous environmental costs. The problems include the substantial damage to land by mining, air pollution, acid rain, global warming, as well as the safe disposal of large quantities of fly ash.
More exotic sources are being suggested as people get more desperate. Methane hydrate reserves are claimed to be equivalent in energy to all existing reserves of oil, natural gas and coal. But there are plenty of problems in using it and, till now, it has not been commercialized. There are difficulties in detecting its locations, in drilling for it, in bringing it to the surface, in processing it and in using it. The efficiency of these processes is optimistically set at about 30 per cent and other complications could well reduce it to a trickle.[Pendick, 1998]
These figures are all based on global averages, but the US nevertheless promises a whole world that it too can have extravagant consumption patterns, if only it will follow the path of development indicated to them by the US. The global suspension of disbelief in pursuit of this goal may come to be seen as one of the more spectacular pathologies of Western developmental disorder.
US oil imports
With US reserves slated to last just about 8 years more, the US is dependent on imports to maintain its high consumption patterns. Prior to the 1979 oil price rise, the US imported about 45 per cent of its oil. After the oil shock, efforts at conservation succeeded in reducing oil imports to 32 per cent by 1985.[Friedman, 1996] The US now imports about one half of its oil (25 per cent of total fossil fuel) at an annual cost of approximately $65 billion, with serious consequences for its balance of payments.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Much of the oil used by the US is imported from Arabia. Excluding Iran and Iraq, the Middle East countries hold about 46 per cent of the world’s proven reserves. Saudi Arabia alone has 25.3 per cent, with Kuwait 9.5, and the UAE 8.8 per cent. The US has, physically or economically, captured all these oil reserves. Iraq has 9.5 per cent of reserves, which is why the US has made such strenuous efforts to replace Saddam Hussein by a more malleable ruler. Iran has 9 per cent of reserves, which is why the US is trying so hard to get on friendly terms with the country after years of hate campaigns. Mexico’s 4.9 per cent is now firmly in the grip of the US, thanks to the (planned?) failure of NAFTA, while Venezuela’s 7 per cent was economically captured years ago.[WRI, 1996, Table 12.3]
In all, therefore, the US controls almost 60 per cent of the world’s reserves, plus the 2.8 per cent of its own. Together with the reserves of Iraq and Iran, this will rise to control of over 78 per cent.[WRI, 1996, Table 12.3]
The oil of Libya and Algeria, about 5 per cent, has been left for Southern Europe, that of the CIS’ 5.5 per cent, and the rest of Africa’s for the remaining European countries, while that of Malaysia and Indonesia has been reserved, as it were, for Japan. The rest of the world can fight for the residual balance.
The major reserves of natural gas are also in the Gulf region or in the CIS, under US control.[WRI, 1996, Table 12.3]
While the West, and the US in particular, will make every effort to ensure they get the last dribbles of Arabian oil and gas, to the exclusion of other countries, they may not succeed. There is increasing political instability in the Gulf region, where tyrannical and authoritarian regimes are increasingly alienated from their own peoples. Once more, the potential for disruption to the existing Western scenario is vast, and from a variety of sources.
The Indian Situation
In India, local production fills just 39 per cent of current oil needs, the rest being imported. India’s reserves will last for 22 years at present rates of consumption, but as imported oil becomes scarce and more expensive, these reserves will be consumed rapidly if they can be made available.[Bhuyan, 1996; WRI, 1996, Table 12.3; EIA, 1998]
The existence of reserves outside India is no guarantee that India will even get its present share of imports for the next 40 years. Well before these reserves are physically exhausted, the West will ensure that they have access to even more than their present unjust share, by taking military and economic control of the major oil producing nations. This was what the Gulf War was all about: it was calculated to establish the permanent presence of US military forces, which will guarantee access to Middle East oil.
As fossil fuels are used up, the cost of producing most of the goods and services within the Western industrial system will rise.
In spite of such obvious evidence of the limits to oil, the West behaves as if inexhaustible quantities will always be available in order to keep its unsustainable system running and to sell it to us ‑ an obvious impossibility. If, for instance, the per capita energy consumption of India and China rises to that of South Korea (before the crash), and the Chinese and Indian populations increase at currently projected rates, ‘these two countries alone will need a total of 43 billion barrels per year. That’s almost double the world’s entire demand today.'[Romm and Curtis, 1996] This exposes the hypocrisy of the Western industrial paradigm which lures (through its culture) and forces (through the WTO) the country to follow illusions of development. That is to say, a globally projected iconography of luxury and affluence leads people to believe that this lifestyle is replicable everywhere, and in support of this promise, the Western trade and financial institutions coerce the elites of India and elsewhere into following their prescriptions. This also reveals the naivete or ignorance of Indians who willingly do so.
Renewable energy alternatives
When people become aware that fossil fuels are running out, they often assume that renewable energy sources will take their place and sustain their present high consumption rates indefinitely. Can they do so?
The expectation that solar and other types of renewable power can replace non‑renewable resources currently being consumed is overly optimistic. Fossil fuels still account for nearly 90 per cent of global energy consumption.[Brodribb, 1997]
If global warming is to be kept within reasonable limits the use of fossil fuels will need to be drastically reduced to around 10 per cent of present Western levels. In order to maintain the current level of primary energy utilization, renewable supplies would have to be increased accordingly.
The World Energy Council estimates that the maximum achievable amount of energy to be derived from renewable sources in the future will be about 10 per cent.[Brodribb, 1997]
Even if the power from the wide range of renewable resources could be increased rapidly, there are physical limits to the sources of power that can be made available. Serious social and environmental problems could also arise in using many of these sources.
Renewable energy technologies may introduce new global conflicts. For example, land availability will probably be the limiting factor in renewable energy generation. At present more than 99 per cent of the world food supply comes from the land.[FAO, 1991] Even in the US, with approximately 75 per cent of the total US land area exploited for agriculture and forestry, there is relatively little land available for other uses, such as biomass production and solar technologies. Population growth is expected to further increase the demands for land. The US population is expected to double in the next 60 years. Therefore, future land conflicts could be intense.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
The achievements of India in the field of renewable energy seem remarkable. Over 400,000 solar photovoltaic systems (producing about 28 MW) have so far been installed for commercial applications, home and street lighting, water pumping and rural telecommunication systems in remote areas. About 400,000 square metres of solar collector area have been installed, for domestic, commercial and industrial water heating. Nearly half a million box‑type solar cookers are also in use.[Nishad, 1997] About 925 MW capacity of wind power is installed.[TERI Newswire, 1997]
In spite of all this, by the year 2012, only some 10 per cent of the total installed power generating capacity in the country is likely to be based on renewables.[Nishad, 1997]
A few of the more important problems arising with the use of some renewable sources are discussed here. These indicate that the expectation that renewable energy can replace fossil energy cannot be realized.
Biomass in the form of firewood has been used as a fuel since time immemorial. However, as huge areas of forests were enclosed by governments and cleared sections were reforested with commercially usable monocultures ‑ often at the insistence of the World Bank, the Overseas Development Agency (ODA, UK) and other ‘Aid’ agencies, the availability of firewood dropped. Whereas biomass fuel was formerly obtained free from the forests, now it is cultivated and sold for profit. This forced users to switch to fossil fuels such as kerosene and electricity, which were often promoted on the grounds of being ‘modern’.
In India today, in a typical village, the use of fossil fuels is minimal, but these would still need to be eliminated and replaced by fuelwood. Kerosene and electricity in a village provide less than 10 per cent of the energy used, while agricultural residues provide less than 1 per cent; more than 90 per cent of the energy is provided through fuelwood.[Das and Banerjee, 1996] The 1996 level of consumption of fuelwood was somewhere between 100 and 300 million tonnes per year.[Ramana, 1996]
More efficient use of the wood available is claimed for special wood stoves, based on controlling the draft and using small chips of wood rather than whole logs. The use of a chimney reduces irritating smoke in the room but these stoves also have disadvantages. It requires more work to chip the wood and to feed it slowly into the stove and if care is not taken in controlling the draft, more wood than normal may be consumed. The chimney may carry glowing embers on to thatched roofs setting them on fire. A more suitable means of burning wood efficiently is that used by women who choose the species of plants for the required heating rate without emitting smoke. Unfortunately, such species and the knowledge to use them are being lost as natural mixed forests are being replaced by monocultures, and people’s knowledge by ‘higher’ technology.
Biomass is a renewable fuel as long as its rate of consumption does not increase beyond its rate of production by photosynthesis. However, there are limits to the amount of biomass that can be grown solely for energy production, since it competes with food and industrial crops for land, water and other inputs. This is why it cannot be used for large‑scale power generation.
It is claimed that farm ‘wastes’ are an untapped source of large quantities of energy. But the ‘wastes’ are already being used in areas untouched by the Green Revolution by farmers themselves, for livestock fodder, fuel or manure. There are further problems with using farm ‘wastes’ for large scale power generation. Collecting, compacting and transporting bulky ‘wastes’ to power stations would require new machinery to be developed and used. Moreover, sustainable farming requires that all crop ‘wastes’ be returned to the soil. If this is not done, soil erosion will increase, the soil’s nutrients will be mined and the land will require additional synthetic fertilizer. However, the soil organic matter, soil biota, and water‑holding capacity cannot be replaced by applying fertilizers.[Pimentel et al., 1994] This may result in serious degradation of fertile farm land which will ultimately make the land barren.[Pereira, 1992, p 10]
Further problems arise in converting biomass energy to electricity on a large scale. Steam turbines are required to work at less than 100 MW output, at which level they are relatively expensive and inefficient, fuel transportation costs become prohibitive because biomass has to be collected from large areas.[Weinberg and Williams, 1990]
A massive loss of biodiversity can be expected as natural forests on huge tracts of land are clear‑felled and replaced with monocultures for fuel. Also, such conversion increases soil erosion and water runoff, which would ultimately reduce the overall productivity of the land.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Europe and Japan simply do not have enough land on which to grow large amounts of biomass, even for fuel required by vehicles alone. In the US the biomass available today ‑ crop stubble, forage crops, wood chips, garbage and peat ‑ could provide no more than 30 per cent of the energy currently required for transportation. Plantations whose whole yield was dedicated to biomass could provide the balance but at the expense of farms and forests (which absorb carbon dioxide).[Bleviss and Walzer, 1990]
Total biomass production will ultimately be limited by land and water availability because of the low efficiency of photosynthesis and the large water requirements of growing plants.
Will the countries with insufficient land employ economic, political and military force to get their requirements from the Two‑Thirds World? All of these have, in some measure, been applied already; we can perhaps expect a more generalised use of military power before the obvious becomes apparent to the ultras of developmentalism: that is no alternative to reducing energy consumption.
But biomass is essentially the fuel for the future. It is easy to grow requiring little care and few inputs. However, it should only be used for essential needs: cooking, heating water, and for the production of crafts. Even then, it becomes feasible only if a massive tree plantation programme is started immediately.
Biogas uses animal dung or other organic matter in anaerobic digesters to produce methane. This is a well‑established technology, with the gas being used mainly for cooking, rarely for lighting and for pumping water. Two and a half million family‑sized biogas plants and 27 million improved wood stoves have been set up in India. It is claimed that these save over 15 million tonnes of fuelwood every year. In addition, 3.2 million tonnes of organic manure are produced from the biogas plants, replacing expensive and environmentally degrading chemical fertilizers.[Nishad, 1997]
Some of the problems with using biogas are: the unit size which is limited by the number of cattle owned by the average small farmer, the slow digestion processes involved resulting in long retention times for the slurry and, therefore, larger, expensive digesters are required; the low efficiency of conversion at low ambient temperatures; and the promotion of tractors instead of bullocks for farm draft purposes. Another point is that methane is a potent greenhouse gas and leaks could add to the global warming effect.
For centuries, water has been used to provide power for various systems. ‘In 1987 hydropower accounted for 17 per cent of electricity (not total energy) production in industrialized countries and 31 per cent in developing countries’. It is estimated that about five times more hydropower than was already being generated is ‘commercially exploitable’ worldwide, with the figure reaching ten times more in the Two‑Thirds World.[Weinberg and Williams, 1990]
In 1995‑96, the installed hydroelectric power in India was about 21,000 MW or about 22 per cent of total installed capacity.[SOI, 1997] Increasing this five times could cause immense environmental damage and social upheaval, as is already occurring in the case of the Narmada, the Tehri and most other projects. Because of widespread public concerns, there appears to be little potential for greatly expanding either large or small hydroelectric power plants in the future.
This is because hydroelectric plants require huge areas of land for their water‑storage reservoirs. This land is usually cultivated or thickly forested prior to being submerged by the stored water. There has been displacement of millions of inhabitants, particularly Adivasis, from their ancestral homelands, causing substantial stress and ill‑being. The submergence of forests has reduced the capacity to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide, with the rotting biomass adding much methane. It has led to the irreplaceable loss of thousands of species of plants and animals, to the degradation of land as a result of the associated irrigation projects which lead to salinity and water logging. Fluctuations of reservoir water levels alter shorelines as well as changes in aquatic communities. Beyond the reservoirs, discharge patterns may adversely reduce downstream erosion, water quality and biota, displace people, and increase water evaporation losses.
Large areas of reservoir surfaces have been covered by fast‑multiplying weeds like water hyacinth.[Pearce, 1998] These plants and the stagnant water provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes, snails and other noxious creatures. The weeds obstruct fishing and transport boats causing a further loss of livelihood and nutrition.
Further, dams break down, often resulting in the catastrophic loss of life and destruction of property. Hydroelectric stations, moreover, are not long‑term renewable energy sources. The dam reservoirs receive silt from upstream which reduces the quantity of water stored until ‑ within as few as fifty years ‑ the system becomes too inefficient to use.
The depth of this stored water and the resulting high pressure, compacts the soil and so makes it useless for agriculture if the dam is abandoned.
Micro hydel works could avoid many of the problems that the mega projects produce, but these would be able to serve minimum needs only.[Pereira, 1992, p 11] The installed capacity was just 121 MW in June 1995.[Ramana, 1996]
For many centuries, wind power, like water power, has provided energy to pump water and run grinding mills and other machines.
In September 1997, the cumulative figure of installed wind capacity was 924 MW. Wind generators have been set up in the states of Tamil Nadu, AP, Karnataka, Gujarat, and MP.[TERI Newswire, 1997]
A limitation on extracting power from wind lies in the availability of sites with a wind speed of at least 20 km/hour. Insects striking turbine blades may accumulate on the blades, reducing their efficiency.
Windmills also cause environmental problems. They can kill migrating birds that fly into the supporting structures and rotating blades. Wind turbines with metallic blades create interference with radio, TV and other electromagnetic transmissions, and blade noise may be heard up to 1 km away.[Kellet, 1990] Under certain circumstances shadow flicker has caused irritation, disorientation, and seizures in humans.[Steele, 1991]
Perhaps the most serious problem is aesthetic: large machines, up to 125 metres high, can be visible for miles around. While some of these effects can be mitigated by careful selection of the site, this reduces the number of sites available. If wind is to replace a significant amount of fossil energy sources, then these problems will be multiplied several thousand‑fold. It is curious that people do not accept windmills because they can see them, while they are so little concerned about harmful pollutants which are invisible.
The sun delivers enough energy to the Earth in one year to meet mankind’s current consumption some 10,000 times over. The problem has always been how to trap and make use of this solar power. The sun’s rays are extremely diffuse, making it hard to collect enough energy for practical usage. There are two widespread methods of using solar energy, direct conversion and thermal.
Photovoltaic (PV) cells convert sunlight directly to electricity and are seen as important renewable energy converters. Test cells have reached efficiencies of 21 per cent, but mass produced ones achieve just about 7 per cent, and last about 20 years.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Most PV cells are presently used for decentralized niche markets, not for replacements for energy already being produced by fossil fuels. They are a useful energy source for remote and isolated areas. PV cells are being used for solar lanterns for rural domestic and street lighting and for low‑lift water pumping in India. The critical component is the storage battery required for night use of lights which has a relatively high cost and lasts from one to five years only,[TIDE, 1995] under the severe charge‑discharge cycles to which they are subjected. Not only does this add to the cost, but lead is a potent toxic chemical.
At the moment, solar power is not commercially viable, it cannot replace coal or nuclear plants. The use of solar energy, therefore, requires massive subsidies if people are to use them in quantities large enough to reduce costs to reasonable levels. But this also means more pollution.
In the fabrication of PV cells large amounts of energy are required for producing the basic very high purity silicon and for every further stage of PV cell manufacture. Because of the need for other non‑renewable resources for the manufacture of voltage converters, their voltage inverters (DC to AC), and other infrastructure, they would add to an already resource‑depleted and over‑polluted world.[Pereira, 1992, p 22] It is quite possible that the total fossil energy consumed in the fabrication, installation and maintenance of the PV cells, as well as that of the required storage systems, will be high compared to their output during their limited lifetime.
While PV systems do not emit CO2 and other gaseous pollutants, the efficient types use cadmium sulphide and other chemicals as dopants of silicon, in their manufacture. Because these chemicals are highly toxic and persist in the environment for centuries, disposal of used cells could become a major environmental problem. However, the most promising cells in terms of low cost, mass production, and relatively high efficiency are those being manufactured using silicon, either crystalline or amorphous. These materials make the cells less expensive and environmentally safer than the heavy metal cells.[Pimentel et al., 1994] The PV industry uses the ‘below‑specification’ silicon of the waste of the semiconductor industry to lower costs but this source is getting exhausted. If a dedicated manufacturing concern is now set up, a huge quantity of fossil fuels will need to be used and costs will rise.
Some of the latest materials being worked on in thin film cells ‑ selenium, cadmium and titanium dioxide are highly toxic. At present the industry uses some very strong acids to chemically etch the surface of the solar cell to improve light entrapment. These materials, and their recycling, have to be handled carefully.
Solar energy collection and conversion requires much land, which usually means loss of agricultural or forest lands. Even desert lands are extensively used for pasture and fuelwood collection.
There is a proposal to build a huge PV installation in the Rajasthan desert. This could have unpredictable effects on the local microclimate. It would deprive large areas of sunlight, which could have disastrous effects on plant photosynthesis, causing a large loss of biomass, reducing the fodder and fuel production of the region.[De, 1997]
The Rajasthan plant, being constructed by Amoco/Enron, is touted as being ‑ at 50 MW ‑ the largest photovoltaic power plant in the world. Enron is boasting about having been selected to erect a 10 MW plant in Nevada, USA.[Asset, 1996] PV modules sold worldwide in 1996 just exceed 80 MW a year.[Romm and Curtis, 1996]
As usual, with all big Western projects, the local people will suffer from these disturbances and possible failures while a few distant ones will ‘benefit’.
Solar thermal conversion systems
Solar thermal energy systems collect the sun’s radiant energy and convert it into heat. This heat can be used to cook food and heat water for home use or ‑ on a larger scale ‑ to provide industrial process heat and to generate electricity.
Solar cookers come in several types and small family‑sized ones are fairly widely used despite their disadvantages. Among the latter are the non‑availability on cloudy days, in the early mornings and late evenings; the need in some types for continuous focussing; the limitations on baking chapatis in non‑focussing types, and so on.
Solar ponds are used to capture solar radiation and store it at temperatures of nearly 100 C. Solar ponds are made up of layers of increasing concentrations of salt, producing a stable salt‑concentration gradient. These layers prevent natural convection from occurring in the pond and enable heat collected from solar radiation to be trapped in the bottom brine. The hot brine from the bottom is pumped out for generating electricity, usually through the operation of a Rankine engine.[TERI, 1996]
For successful operation, the salt concentration gradient and the water levels must be maintained. It is essential to use plastic liners to make the ponds leakproof and thereby prevent contamination of the adjacent soil and groundwater with salt. Burrowing animals must be kept away from the ponds by buried screening.[Dickson and Yates, 1983] In addition, the ponds should be fenced to prevent people and other animals from coming in contact with them, because toxic chemicals are used to prevent algae growth on water surface and Freon, a potent CFC, is used in the Rankine engine. Methods will have to be devised for safely handling these chemicals.[Dickson and Yates, 1983]
Another type of high energy converter uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a boiler and steam from the latter to generate electricity. The land requirements for the central receiver technology are approximately 1100 ha to produce 1 billion KWh/yr, assuming peak efficiency, and favourable sunlight conditions. Proposed systems offer four to six hours of heat storage.[Vant‑Hull, 1992] A back‑up alternate energy source is usually required.
The potential damaging environmental impacts of solar thermal receivers include: the accidental or emergency release of toxic chemicals used in the heat transfer system;[Baechler and Lee 1991] bird collisions with a heliostat (the instrument that keeps the mirrors focused on the boiler) and incineration of both birds and insects if they fly into the high temperature portion of the beams; and ‑ if one of the heliostats did not track properly but focused its high temperature beam on humans, other animals, or flammable materials ‑ burns, retinal damage, and fires. Flashes of light coming from the heliostats may pose hazards to air and ground traffic.[Mihlmester et al., 1980]
Other potential harmful environmental impacts are similar to those of large PV installations. These include microclimate alteration, and reduced temperature and changes in wind speed and evapotranspiration beneath the heliostats or collecting troughs. This alteration may cause shifts in various plant and animal populations. The albedo in solar collecting fields may be increased from 30 per cent to 56 per cent in desert regions[Mihlmester et al., 1980].
There is a proposal to construct a large thermal plant, consisting of a solar chimney one kilometre high, in Rajasthan, in which air will be heated and, in rising, create a draft which will drive a turbine. The technology has not yet been proved in practise. The company, Energen will also build a solar pond spread over an area of nine sq km. (The Rajasthan government has acquired 30,000 hectares for the project.) The pond’s water will heat up the chimney which will create hot air to be used for running the 200 MW wind turbines. The pond will carry 20 cusecs of water which will store solar energy to be used for regeneration when there is no sunshine.[Bhandari, 1995]
This could have unpredictable effects on the local microclimate.
Obtaining so much water for the solar pond will be a problem in a desert area, the pond requiring continuous topping up in the high ambient temperatures. With an Air Force base near Jaisalmer, the tall chimney could create problems for aircraft in their sorties. The draft of cool input air to the solar pond heating system could also cause environmental problems.[Bhandari, 1995]
Liquid fuels are essential if petrol is to be replaced by renewable fuels. The main fuels used are ethanol and methanol.
Ethanol obtained from maize or sugarcane is claimed to be one of the most promising renewable fuels. However, they require lots of land and the first priority for the use of land and other agricultural resources should be for food.
If these crops are grown by Western agricultural methods, a considerable amount of energy would be required for all the processes from cultivation to harvesting, for manufacturing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and for irrigation and for conversion into alcohol. One‑third of the energy used for maize farming in the US is consumed for producing the required nitrogen fertilizer alone. Much energy is used in the distilling process, since the ethanol has to be in a 99.5 per cent pure state. Additional energy is consumed in transporting and distributing the fuel. Again, it is the net energy produced that has to be calculated, and this turns out to be negative.
One litre of ethanol can produce about 5100 Kcal in burning while it requires 10,200 Kcal of fossil fuel to get it from maize. In other words, the production and use of ethanol fuel contribute to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and to global warming. Intensive maize production in the US causes serious soil erosion.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Ethanol, when burnt, does release less carbon monoxide and sulphur oxides than petrol and diesel fuels. However, other serious air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, formaldehydes, other aldehydes and alcohol are produced. During the fermentation process approximately 13 litres of sewage effluent are produced for each litre of ethanol.[Pimentel et al., 1994] Ethanol has other harmful effects: inhalation of too much vapour causes intoxication; at high concentrations it causes irritation of the eye and nose; it defats the skin, producing dermatitis. Prolonged inhalation produces headaches, drowsiness, tremors and fatigue. Ethanol increases the toxicity of other inhaled, absorbed or ingested chemicals, an important point considering the hundreds of the latter that we are already forced to consume.[Sittig, 1985]
The use of genetically engineered bacteria makes the process of ethanol production quicker and cheaper.[GEBM, 1995] This has lowered the cost considerably, but the other costs and toxicity problems remain, while the escape of these micro‑organisms into the environment is an ever‑present danger.
In Brazil a programme to produce ethanol from sugar cane helped create about 700,000 jobs in rural areas. But it collapsed in 1996 because of the toxic nature of ethanol.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Methanol would probably be produced from natural gas at first, but as gas supplies are used up, suppliers might have to switch to coal. Coal‑based methanol would exacerbate global warming because it releases twice as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as does petrol.[Weinberg and Williams, 1990] Methanol can be made from a number of other raw materials, including wood and municipal solid wastes.
Chemical plants to produce methanol from biomass have to be huge. For instance, if methanol was used as a substitute for oil in the US, from 250 to 430 million hectares of land would be needed to supply the raw material. This land area is greater than the 162 million hectares of US cropland now in production.[Pimentel et al., 1994]
Methanol is highly corrosive and would also require changes in distribution systems, particularly in the case of methanol‑petrol mixtures, because it tends to absorb moisture and separate out from the petrol. Since methanol has only half the energy content of petrol, the volume produced, shipped, and stored would have to be about double that of petrol.
Hydrogen is claimed to be environmentally friendly because its combustion produces mainly water vapour. It is stated that hydrogen equivalent to the total world fossil‑fuel consumption could be produced by the PV generation of electricity and its use to electrolyse water, on 500,000 square kilometres, less than 2 per cent of the world’s desert area. Deserts are supposed to be suitable since water requirements for electrolysis are equivalent to only two to three centimetres of rainfall per year.[Pereira, 1992, p 11]
The removal of even a few centimetres from the little rain that falls in deserts could cause drastic changes in a delicately balanced ecological region. Using desert rainfall for hydrogen production would deprive local flora and fauna of their needs, though most life would be overshadowed by the PV cells anyway, adding to environmental degradation. Moreover, water would also be required in large quantities for cleaning of the PV cells (after dust storms) and for the requirements of the power station staff ‑ drinking, domestic, transport, etc.[Pereira, 1992, p 12]
Since the consumers would be located far away from the deserts, the storage and transport of hydrogen over long distances would be hazardous and consume large quantities of energy.[Pereira, 1992, p 12]
Hydrogen produces large quantities of nitrogen oxides because of the high temperature of the flame at which it burns. But the main problem with its use is the very high possibility of far‑from‑friendly explosions. Leaks from production facilities, in transportation and in hydrogen‑powered vehicles could be disastrous. Also, increasing oxygen levels in the atmosphere produced near the generators could possibly have harmful environmental effects.
In 1996, commercial hydrogen cost three times as much as petrol, and a hydrogen‑fueled car cost up to twice as much as a conventional car.[Edwards, 1996] In addition, hydrogen fuel is not yet economically available from renewable sources. It is currently produced by reforming hydrocarbon‑based fuels such as natural gas and methanol.[Ralph and Hards, 1998]
Direct production of chemicals
It is predicted that early in the 21st century genetically altered oilseed rape plants may yield biodegradable polymers at about one‑tenth the price of petroleum‑based polymers. Zeneca (London) produced 600 tonnes/year in 1995 of its biodegradable polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) resin, Biopol, by fermenting sugar with naturally occurring bacteria at a cost of 15‑20 times the price of conventional polymers.[GEBM, 1995a]
These quantities are, however, miniscule compared to the amounts being used today. Moreover, its use is limited to specific purposes only, which are not of much importance. For instance, it is used for packaging expensive shampoos and particular items in medicine and agriculture, especially those requiring slow release.
There are two important ways of degrading a plastic. One is to make it out of a material which microbes digest in a process called biodegradation. The other option is to make the plastic sensitive to sunlight which fractures its chemical bonds and breaks it down by a process known as photodegradation.[Emsley, 1991]
The other kind of biodegradable plastic is starch, again a natural polymer food store, which is composed of carbohydrate units linked together. Shopping bags said to be biodegradable contain up to 15 per cent starch, the rest being a matrix of polythene. Microbes digest the starch and leave a flimsy plastic lace that disintegrates mechanically. At present, high‑starch plastics cost up to four times as much as polythene.[Emsley, 1991]
A problem with such products is that as the plastics biodegrade, they break down into smaller fragments that animals and birds may eat.[Emsley, 1991]
Nuclear energy is not a renewable energy source, since the fuel used is mined and needs replacement, but it is often suggested as a replacement for carbon dioxide‑producing fuels. The recent nuclear tests have encouraged the nuclear energy lobby, not for the energy reactors produce but since they are required to supply the plutonium for making bombs.
The production of nuclear energy, it is claimed, does not produce carbon dioxide pollution. A nuclear station produces about four times as much power as the fossil energy used to build it and to provide its uranium. However, if the energy costs of decommissioning are deducted, the net yield might be zero. It now appears that the US will be lucky if the nuclear industry eventually produces as much energy as it has consumed.[Douthwaite, 1992, p 205]
A large amount of carbon dioxide is produced by the machinery used in mining uranium to be used as fuel, uranium transport and processing. If the percentage of usable uranium in the ores falls below a certain level, the carbon dioxide produced could well be equal to or more than that of an equivalent thermal power station.
Further, nuclear power is limited by uranium availability. It has been estimated, that with current reactor designs, known global uranium resources could supply no more than the equivalent of 3.5 years of present day total world energy consumption. The expected but not proven resources could extend this supply by yet another 2.5 years.[WISE, 1989]
Those who promote nuclear energy claim that the use of fast breeder reactors (FBRs) which are theoretically expected to produce more fuel than they use from the primary uranium 238 or thorium, both of which are more abundant than the uranium 235 required by Light Water Reactors. But none of the breeder reactor projects has so far been run successfully. In the US, breeder technology had been abandoned in 1972. The French Superphenix as well as their Phenix reactors have been shut down, the UK PRF programme has been closed down, and the German Kalkar reactor never went into operation.[Pam, et al., 1997]
Global warming may itself make nuclear power generation impossible, since extreme variations of ambient temperature are predicted. In Europe in 1989, the hot summer left the waters of the Loire several degrees warmer than normal temperatures required to cool reactors at Chinon and St Laurent‑des‑Eaux. The reactors had to be shut down for several weeks.[New Scientist, 1989] The French were also forced to run their reactors at reduced capacity when drought had reduced availability of cooling water, and when inlet water sources froze.[New Scientist, 1989a]
Lastly, the problems of the safe disposal of radioactive wastes that could retain harmful activity for thousands of years, accidents, and the decommissioning of old nuclear plants, are still far from any solution. Replacement of other sources of power by nuclear energy will require a large increase in the number of reactors with a corresponding increase in the problems produced.
The claim that reactors are perfectly safe is denied by the exclusion of nuclear installations from being subject to normal insurance rules of compensation. In Germany and England nuclear reactors are not insured because premiums were found to be impossibly high.[Green Magazine, 1990]
Claims in the case of a Chernobyl‑type accident could be so large that either the establishments would be unable to pay the premiums or the insurance companies would go bankrupt. If premiums were set realistically and included in cost calculations, nuclear energy would be unaffordable.
Since the state policy views possible risks as less important than industrial development, so all governments have implicitly accepted liability, thereby shifting the risks involved in nuclear energy on to society and future generations.[Sachs, 1996, p 98] Such a policy, rather than making the polluter pay, pays the polluter, and so encourages carelessness of the part of designers and construction engineers. The provision of secrecy laws completes the safety net.
Cost calculations usually minimize waste disposal and decommissioning expenditure since none of them look thousands of years ahead. Some of the fuel reprocessing costs are being passed on to the cost of recovered plutonium whose main use is for nuclear weapons.[Muralidharan, 1986] Just the cost of maintaining a perpetual guard on waste disposal and decommissioned reactor sites would tend to raise the expenses to infinity. These costs are now transferred to future generations and, since nuclear power is heavily subsidized by all governments, it appears to be feasible and cheap.
With Chernobyl, nuclear energy will never be a paying proposition in the USSR. The economic cost of the Chernobyl accident has been pounds sterling 10,000 million in the former USSR alone.[Douthwaite, 1992, p 302] And the accident will go on extracting tribute, paid in money and in human lives, for several centuries to come.[Medvedev, 1996]
This figure does not take into account the ‘cost’ of extra deaths and the mental anguish of hundreds of thousands of people exposed to fallout radiation, nor the expenses incurred by other nations. Part of Europe’s costs was recovered by selling radioactively contaminated meat and dairy products to the Two‑Thirds World (the so‑called ‘Third’ World). The possibility of incurring such costs should be included in every nation’s nuclear energy programme, making all of them economically absurd.
It is often claimed that the number of people killed or injured in nuclear accidents is very small as compared to those killed or injured in, say, coal mines and thermal power plants, or road accidents. Such comparisons are false because the nature of the damage done by radiation is in a different category altogether. Exposure to even low levels of radiation could lead to genetic damage which could be inherited by all generations of the descendants of exposed persons. Recessive mutations may appear in later generations only and the absence of their effects in the first generations is not proof that they are not irreversibly present in the genome.[Sharma, 1986] Studies around the nuclear reprocessing complex in Sellafield show that children were 6 to 8 times more likely than normal to develop leukaemia if their fathers received cumulative radiation doses in excess of 100 millisieverts.[New Scientist, 1990] Permanent genetic pollution may presently be occurring in all life forms, with unpredictable effects.
Genetic pollution can lead to the production of mutations in micro‑organisms. The dismantled core of the Three Mile Island’s PWR was found to be infested with micro‑organisms with unnaturally high mutation rates.[WISE, 1988] In Chernobyl, the sludge from treated radioactive sewage had peculiar filamentous organisms, large amoebae and other deformed micro‑organisms.[New Scientist, 1989b] Such mutations could lead to an exceptionally virulent pathogen.
Similar mutations could occur in every place where radioactivity levels have increased. They may already be active, as the number of strange diseases which people suffer from ‑ usually passed off as vague viral infections by physicians ‑ are on the rise. As there is no way to trace the origin of a particular pathogen, the nuclear establishment can disclaim all responsibility for its existence.
The plutonium, obtained from processing spent fuel, is highly radioactive. It is being transported by road, rail, air and sea, where accidents or thefts are likely to occur.
The ‘pollution’ that can be produced by legal(?) nuclear weapons is in a class by itself. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in effect says that those who already possess nuclear weapons are morally superior to those who do not. Only the former can be trusted to possess them, make more of them and (not) use them. This theory emanates from the United States, the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, a fact which surely undermines the claim that only existing nuclear powers can be trusted to act responsibly. This is easily one of the most arrogant and hypocritical pieces of legislation on record. All nuclear weapons should be eliminated in all countries.
But plutonium, once produced and with a half‑life of 24,000 years, will remain capable of being made into weapons for tens of thousands of years. It can be destroyed only if used as fuel in reactors or in exploding nuclear weapons. Who can guarantee today that there will not arise some petty ‑ or powerful ‑ tyrant who will use the nuclear threat to institute a ‘new world order’? Plutonium can be produced in nuclear reactors only. There can be nonproliferation of nuclear weapons only if there is nonproliferation of nuclear reactors.
The need for safe design and operation everywhere is the concern of everyone, but the sole responsibility of those who advocate nuclear power. A few benefit from the energy produced, but many more suffer from radioactive releases.
Scientists claim that they can design new reactors that will be safe, but similar claims were made for the current ones. Only now are they aware ‑ though they rarely admit it ‑ that their knowledge is limited and that accidents can result from a number of small ‘safe’ failures. Even if new designs could be made fail‑safe there would still be possibilities of operator and management error.
Fusion energy is another promised source of abundant energy. While a fusion reactor does not depend on continuous mining for raw materials, the high costs and serious environmental problems which include the production of enormous amounts of radioactivity have so far prevented an achievable source.
From the time when scientists promised that nuclear power would be ‘too cheap to meter’, almost all their predictions have proved to be wrong. No fusion reactor has yet succeeded in producing more energy than it uses for maintaining the physical conditions under which fusion can take place. The production of a usable net energy surplus is still speculative. Formidable theoretical and engineering problems remain to be resolved.[Sweet, 1991]
The possibility of the use of nuclear power replacing fossil fuels is extremely doubtful.
Reducing energy consumption
A number of the methods suggested for reducing energy use and pollution require the replacement of inefficient generators, equipment and appliances by new ones which use less energy or produce less pollution, while providing the same services.
However, if savings in fuel are to have a significant impact, they have to be substantial. If a particular resource were to be exhausted in say 10 years then a 20 per cent reduction in consumption, would merely extend the time by which it would be exhausted to 12 years.
The new efficient items may consume less energy at the point of use but these items will have consumed energy and produced pollution all along the way from mining to manufacture to installation. In addition, the old inefficient equipment and appliances are to be ‘wasted’ immediately. Consequently, an enormous quantity of waste will accumulate, much of it toxic.[Pereira, 1992, p 20]
But, of course, retrofits that ‘save’ electricity represent a global business opportunity worth perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars a year. The additional resource consumption and pollution burden could turn the gold into dross ‑ the inverse alchemy of modern technology.
Microchips are supposed to use decreasing quantities of raw materials and energy because of their diminishing dimensions. But they need to be manufactured, incorporated into equipment or appliances and sold by the million if they are to be cheap. The total quantity of raw material and energy used in their manufacture will be enormous. And, together, all these computers will consume power in large quantities during use.
All the above suggestions imply that consumers would be eager to use more efficient devices. However, if the energy savings are small, consumers will have little incentive to raise their energy efficiency. For example, in the US there is a range of car fuel efficiencies ‑ ‘the plateau of indifference’ ‑ within which the total operating costs for the vehicles are nearly the same.[Reddy, 1990] The practical value of all the gains calculated from increasing efficiency then becomes highly suspect.
Another suggestion for reducing energy use is that of recycling used products. This is supposed to reduce the energy used to produce the finished article by about half. This, most probably, refers to the energy consumed in the Western recycling plants only. Recycling also requires energy for collection, transportation, sorting and other operations. Unless products are designed and made so that they can be recycled easily, the energy required for recycling would be high. Further, not all materials ‑ thermosetting plastics and composites, for instance ‑ can be recycled, and complex products and those which become obsolete fast, like electronic ones, will never be fully recyclable.
Even if a little raw material is used from discarded products, there will be progressive degradation of the materials, and the recycled material may not be usable for the function it originally performed. Unless the recycled material is used for the same purpose for which it was used originally, recycling does not reduce energy consumed. The manufacturer of the original product will continue to use virgin raw materials, whereas new products will be made and sold out of the recycled material.
A major problem with recycling arises from the fact that the ‘prosperity’ of the Western system is dependent on planned obsolescence ‑ a built‑in system of waste production ‑ and waste is required for recycling in the first place. The imperatives of economic growth easily outweigh pietistic gestures to a conserving prudence.
Dependence on renewable energy to replace fossil energy is not only not feasible, but it is not desirable either. Nearly all mechanical renewable energy sources, such as wind, hydro and solar, require the use of fossil energy for their manufacture and erection, thereby merely transferring energy use to other places (during the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, or in the provision and conversion of fuels.) Non‑renewable energy is being lavishly used for the development and production of renewable energy sources.[Pereira, 1992, p 22]
The mere fact of using renewable energy to run machines does not make the machines sustainable. Such use could itself encourage the use of services which damage the environment.
Transport vehicles, for instance, using renewable energy are made from non‑renewable raw materials. Moreover, roads, bridges and other transport infrastructure, use large quantities of non‑renewable resources ‑ such as cement and steel ‑ which themselves require fossil energy for their production and use. Roads also take up agricultural land and reduce the infiltration of rain water into the subsoil, thus killing nearby trees, causing floods, displacing people and reducing agricultural production and biodiversity. Such use of renewable energy generators implies that a sizable piece of the earth is excluded from using renewable energy sources.
Further, most renewable energy generators need to be highly subsidized in order to be economically competitive with fossil fuels, which also have large hidden subsidies.
Those who promote Westernized production and consumption patterns, and the methods used in their manufacture, are taking the country on a course, the outcome of which is all too predictable.
Since renewable energy has all these problems, it becomes clear that it is the extravagant use of energy which is itself the problem. It is evident, therefore, that renewable energy sources will only be capable of providing a small fraction of the energy required for maintaining a ‘high’ consumption level.
Energy exhaustion scenarios
Oil has totally altered the Western industrial system within the last century or so. So closely connected is oil to the Western economy that any disruption of the oil supply ‑ and there are numerous potential causes ‑ could lead to its collapse. With no possible alternative to fossil energy sources, we have to get accustomed to the fact that one day we will be forced to do without them.
Oil and other fossil fuels may not get exhausted suddenly. Production could continue for many decades after peaking, although at swiftly declining rates. Most independent oil experts assert that oil may remain abundant and cheap for a few years more, maybe as few as five years.
Its availability may diminish slowly, but that will not prevent the countries totally dependent on it from fighting each other for what remains. The question is, who will own and control these reserves? On the other hand, there could be a drastic reduction within a period of a few years. Or, there could be an immediate stoppage.
The first and second cases are based on the assumption that the situation in the Gulf region will be stable, since a few Middle East countries will have a critical control of the world supply within a few years. There is much potential unrest there, with the possibility of popular uprisings in several of the States at any moment. Further, with the major oil exporters being mainly Islamic nations, their attitude towards India and the West in general will always be uncertain. Much of India’s oil could be cut off at any minute. The present sporadic bombings and attacks on US diplomatic, military and industrial installations could easily become more systematic; the more so, since the West in general, and the US in particular, is demonising Islam as the principal adversary which has replaced the former Communist menace.
An unpredicted cause of shortages is that produced by the recent nuclear test explosions. The economic sanctions imposed by the US and Japan have resulted in a drop in foreign aid, in a fall in exports and a shortage of foreign exchange with which to import fossil fuels.
With a decline in availability, the powerful will ensure that they get their requirements even if the rest do not get any at all. It will be the poor who will suffer first. This was glaringly evident during the Gulf War, when kerosene for cooking and lighting was unavailable in the rural areas and there were long queues at urban ration shops for fuel. But there were never any queues for petrol.
The use of fossil fuels so penetrates the Western industrial system that a rise in fossil fuel prices will affect every product and service offered by it.
The rise in the prices of essentials in India could lead to less money being available for non‑essentials; recession could follow and since the system is built on perpetual growth and expansion, total collapse is quite possible.
The point is that fossil fuels are finite dwindling resources, and one day they will be reduced to a small trickle, which will certainly be monopolized by the powerful nations, who will not hesitate to preserve by force such decaying privilege as they may continue to enjoy.
With far greater price rises anticipated in the future, the Western industrial system itself will be threatened with severe recession, with all the social disturbance and unrest that will surely follow. Ultimately oil will be exhausted entirely, resulting in the collapse of the Western industrialized system.
Assuming that common sense prevails among the leaders, political and industrial (itself an optimistic assumption), we should start acting now, as if the first ‑ and least malign ‑ scenario would prevail. On the other hand, since we do not know the probabilities of the other two scenarios, we should ideally work as though the third scenario ‑ the cold turkey treatment ‑ could take place at very short notice. People do not have to wait for the so‑called leaders to take action; they can and should start taking action NOW.
Serious problems can be avoided only if concerned people work on replacing the Western system with a more sustainable one. The transition can be benign, given sufficient time, or catastrophic, if it is forced upon us abruptly. In the latter case, millions could die.
This is where the traditional system has an extremely important role to play. This role is not limited to technologies but requires sustainable services as well as just social conditions. All these need to be researched, studied and discussed until suitable alternatives can be suggested.
The unjust and unsustainable system
The criterion here used to judge any action is one of social justice. The West defines justice as equality of opportunity; but the flaw in such an argument is obvious. When people are not equally endowed, either by nature or by society, equality of opportunity is a screen behind which cunning, rapacity and greed will always be hiding. The concept of equality of opportunity serves only to transform those who do not benefit from that system into its docile and malleable slaves. Today, in the West, justice has been replaced by economic profits with no moral associations at all.
Social justice promotes intragenerational and intergenerational equity. Social justice implies that whatever is used and whatever action is taken, should not decrease the ability to fulfil the basic needs of others ‑ whether now living or of future generations. Sustainability requires firstly, that no non‑renewable resources be used, or if used, they should be fully recycled; and secondly, that renewable resources be used within their regenerative limits. Pollutants also have to be limited to what the environmental system can sustainably absorb.
The hyperconsumption (defined as consumption as a way of life, as a reason for living, as a life purpose) built into the Western system has been achieved by increasing injustice, in both the past and present, and now equally in the future. It is simply not possible for all the people on the earth to attain the level of consumption that the US ‑ the ideal of Western development ‑ has today. Prolonging the system’s existence can be accomplished only by increasing future injustice, which means that the present generation is using up the substance of its own descendants; a form of cannibalism.
A system is sustainable if it can continue indefinitely for thousands of years without exhausting its resources or damaging the environment. However, to Westernized people, sustainability means sustaining the rate of growth of their economic and industrial system, and the attendant levels of enjoyment and comfort that are assumed to accompany them. But common sense should make it obvious that this will become a physical impossibility.
The position is exacerbated by the competitive nature of the so‑called free‑market economic system, which requires continuous and accelerating planned obsolescence: appliances, for instance, must be constantly replaced by new, ‘better’ models, while the old ones are swiftly discarded. Sustainability, on the other hand, requires that appliances are made to last as long as possible and then recycled.
The West, however, asserts that the worry about sustainability is irrelevant. The West claims that they will recycle all materials they use, but as we have seen, recycling offers no comprehensive answer to the intractable problems of industrialism.
Again, the West maintains that people have been predicting doomsday for generations but it has not yet come, and it will certainly be averted. True, doomsday has not come for the rich and powerful, but it has come often, and will come more frequently for the individually and collectively exploited, since privilege can transfer its doom to the powerless.
It is claimed that Western science and technology have the power to solve all environmental problems. But the environmental and social problems of today were engendered by precisely that same science and technology. It exceeds the bounds of rationality and optimism to believe that the very system which produced the problems can cure them.
Blame for the high energy consumption predicted in the future is often placed on the population of the Two‑Thirds World, in spite of it being obvious that the quantity of energy consumed per capita could be more important:
With only 4.7 per cent of the world’s population, the US consumes approximately 25 per cent of the total fossil fuel globally used each year.[Pimentel et al., 1994] The growth rate of the US population is now 1.1 per cent per year [USBC, 1992]; at this rate, the present population of 260 million will increase to more than a half billion in just 60 years.[Pimentel et al., 1994] The doubling of the US population means that the US will consume about 50 per cent of the total fossil fuel globally used each year. The US’s present contribution is 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year, whereas the ‘safe’ global level is 1.6 billion tonnes per year of carbon. It should be quite obvious as to who has to reduce consumption.
On the other hand, a dramatic reduction in oil use would require Westernized people to make drastic changes in lifestyles. Oil products support the current pattern of high‑consumption living, and the expected alternatives are either too expensive or environmentally destructive.
If production is reduced in order to try to save energy and other resources, sales will drop, profits will fall, making production uneconomic. So, the West continues to increase growth, even though it may be aware that it is destroying itself by this very process. The West, therefore, cannot change to a just and sustainable system without economic collapse.
It is fossil energy use which temporarily sustains the ultimately unsustainable Western industrial system today. The near exhaustion of fossil fuels signals the approaching end of that system. The West, addictively dependent on fossil fuels to maintain its affluent lifestyle, lives in abject fear of the prospect of withdrawal symptoms: empty roads and silent airports, farmers nervously switching over from large energy‑intensive to small labour‑intensive organic farms, no aluminium beer cans, offices and homes without air‑conditioning, no exotic food from distant places, and even food insufficiently cooked, no ‘life‑saving’ drugs and consequent earlier deaths.[Pereira, 1992, p 37]
The real danger is that these consequences may appear after decades, as in cancer, or in irreversible damage to the immune‑system, or chemicals may have become so widely diffused environmentally that they cannot be recalled.
In all the clamour and public relations exercises on behalf of the Western system, silence covers the obvious, and no voice is raised to suggest to the people that there is no way out of the present impasse. This is a timely reminder that we have to, sooner not later, switch to an economy which is not substantially or wholly dependent on fossil fuels.
Since this paper is concerned with the various options for energy‑use, a word might, perhaps be appropriate on one of the most neglected of all energy sources, namely the energy of animal/human beings. The industrial model represents a double abuse of human energies: the energies of the rich and powerful remain unused, locked up by their capacity to buy in everything they choose, without creative effort. The impoverished, on the other hand, must expend uncalculated energy on their efforts to survive, and frequently are not able to afford sufficient nourishment to replace the energy they have used up in the process. Clearly, this wasteful abuse of human energies simply mirrors and mimics the indifference of the existing system to the heedless squandering of material, non‑renewable energies. The kind of transformation which is required in the social arena reflects that which is required in the industrial system. By the awakening and application of the energies of the rich, which have been put to sleep by their luxury and indolence, and by relief of the poorest from the necessity to exploit the last vestiges of their overworked energy, new sources of creative energy will be released for the enhancement and enjoyment of life in the world that must come into being, if we are to survive.
A just and sustainable system
The impending crises, whether they occur in the short or long term, are certain to take place. Awareness of a critical situation allows time to prepare for it. India may have only a few years grace, in which to turn to a more sustainable system.
The problem is how to encourage people to change. There are two possible arguments which could impel them to abandon the unsustainable system. The first is the obvious unsustainability of present resource use patterns and pollution emission regimes. The second is culturally rooted, and recommends that people live a simple lifestyle, thus avoiding even unknown harmful effects from reaching dangerous levels, as well as throwing off those material trappings which burden the spirit of the contemporary world. Both will take people along similar paths of reduced consumption. The latter has a more general appeal and does not depend upon the availability or the absence of a particular resource or pollutant.
Since all objects and services in the Western system are dependent on energy use, in what is discussed below, the harmful effects will not be restricted to those resulting from the direct use of energy but will be expanded to include all objects that use non‑renewable resources.
Inherently sustainable activities would be based on working outside the industrial system, that is, using as few of industrial products as possible. Hence, it will also effectively be working against the industrialism, whether intentionally or not, since the system can only exist if people buy its products or use its services.
Some of the essential needs may be provided by renewable energy (such as animal power, wood fuel, vegetable oil for lighting, and so on) used sustainably and justly.[Pereira, 1995] If fossil fuels are employed at all, they will need to be used with the greatest frugality and to be equitably distributed.
People will have to accept much lower levels of consumption, but then there will be compensations for the fleeting satisfaction obtained from material consumption: reduced air pollution, uncontaminated and fresh food, better health without recourse to a plethora of drugs, a greener environment, a less frenzied pace of life, richer human relationships, more community pleasures, more folk songs and travelling story‑tellers, a more vibrant cultural life.
Instead of energy‑intensive, polluting and unsustainable manufacture, there would be need to shift to labour‑intensive, sustainable agriculture and industry. Traditional handmade articles would need to be promoted and used, a process which would also reduce unemployment. We would need to support traditional health systems, in which herbs and other low cost remedies are prescribed; to encourage an educational and cultural system which advocates social justice and equality; to develop and propagate a science and technology which the people can practise themselves, and which would, accordingly, be beneficial to all.
In this path people will have to be made aware of say, the dangers in using or emitting DDT, CFCs, CO2, VOCs, oestrogen mimics and all the other known noxious chemicals. Alternatives will need to be suggested where they can be sustainably provided.
For instance, the use of DDT and other synthetic pesticides can be replaced by botanical pesticides, the production of which does not require fossil energy and which degrade into harmless chemicals. The use of CFCs, as refrigerants, could be avoided by consuming fresh food only, by the use of porous vessels for cooling, by night‑sky irradiative cooling and by using several other technologies. The replacement of heat‑sensitive foods like butter by traditional ghee which can stand heat, is another possibility.
It should be easier for people in India to move towards a non‑fossil fueled, environmentally safe society, since traditional technologies which use resources sustainably, made with mainly human or animal power, were widely used till a few decades ago, and many still are in use today. It is here that people’s knowledge can provide substitutes for the essentials required to sustain life in reasonable comfort. Traditional scientists and technologists can collect data on safe alternatives or search for solutions, if these are not already known. Traditional technologies could, if necessary, be improved where possible and new technologies developed to fill in the gaps produced by a lack of resources or technologies.
Carrying out all this would require researchers and developers from among the people, in each region, perhaps for each essential need. People would be required who would record, preserve and even put into practice, existing people’s knowledge, to revive it where it has been lost; to provide clearing houses for data preservation and dissemination. Western‑trained scientists and technologists would need to define their own roles, if any, taking care to see that they do not interfere with the normal processes of people’s research.
The effects of moving in this direction would be widespread and varied. Since consumption of energy would be drastically reduced, there would be no need for large dams and power stations. Adivasis and others would not be driven out of their ancestral homelands. Since consumption of paper, furniture and other uses of lumber, would drop, trees would not need to be cut except for fuel. This should help save forests, improve wildlife and biodiversity, raise rainfall and the water table, reduce land erosion, improve irrigation and food output and favourably effect a host of other items. The environment would be unpolluted and global warming would cease, improving the health of all living creatures.
The cultural path
In order to disengage from a path, the ill‑effects of which will not appear for many years, the best safeguard is to reduce consumption drastically.
If we accept the conditions for justice mentioned earlier, then it is immediately seen that everyone is strictly constrained to use non‑renewable resources for basic necessities only, and renewable resources in limited, sustainable quantities. For instance, how much oil will a person be entitled to, if all the oil reserves were to be equitably distributed among the present global population and those for a reasonable number of future generations? A few drops, perhaps? The process of disengagement from an abusive industrialism is often portrayed as though it meant terrible privation and impoverishment for those who attempt it. In fact, it should more properly be seen as a liberation from many of the disabling and depowering consequences of a system which takes away from people control over their lives, which afflicts them with so many insecurities, all the violence, crime, addictions and value‑added unhappiness that go with ‘the better life’, in its industrial form.
Justice would need to be extended to all other non‑human life, animal and plant. This would imply that all other living beings have a right to exist and to multiply, and that our interference in nature would need to be minimized.
Where products cannot be replaced ‑ in quantity or quality ‑ by traditional sustainable products, we have a tradition of living simple lifestyles. This is the ultimate solution to the problem of the equitable distribution of wealth, where everyone survives on a joyful frugality. Action along this cultural route does not require people to be aware of the ecological situation before attempts are made to remedy it. The cultural path encourages simplification of lifestyles without waiting for environmental damage to make its presence felt. In this way one avoids even those environmental effects which may take years or decades to become obvious. A simplified lifestyle can also be seen in a positive manner as freedom from the cares and stresses of a materialistic life.
The reason why the environment is apparently taken for granted is not because it is seen as of little or no value in Indian cultures. Rather, the foundation for environmentally friendly values has been established in India over many centuries by a number of religious traditions, as well as the spiritual heritage of animists such as Adivasis.
In this we are strongly supported by the Jain, Vedic and Buddhist traditions, which established the principles of ecological harmony millennia ago, although there were no major environmental dangers at that time which threatened the resource‑base on which they depended. Such harmony was seen as essential to human happiness, on purely ethical and moral grounds.
Non‑violence and the reverence for life are the base on which these traditions are firmly constructed. Ahimsa, as a principle of compassion and responsibility, is practised, not only towards human beings, but towards all living things in nature, because all life has equal value. This assumption gathers more proof, as ecological studies increasingly reveal.
The anthropomorphic principle which places human beings at the centre of the universe, and from which the ‘right’ to use other creatures for selfish pleasure is derived, is replaced by life‑centred principles. Human beings possess rationality and intuition and, therefore, have a moral responsibility towards maintaining the rest of the universe. Procreation must not be indiscriminate lest the earth and its resources are overburdened. Wants should be reduced, desires curbed and consumption levels kept within reasonable limits. Wasting resources and creating pollution are acts of violence. Accumulation of possessions and enjoyment for personal ends need to be minimized.
It was on these systems of thought that Gandhi built a cultural foundation for an environment‑friendly value system and a balanced lifestyle.
Such systems have been widely practised in India, and its principles are so innate in those who have been immersed in traditional lore that it often operates at an unconscious level, and guides people instinctively to paths of non‑violence and reverence for all living things.
A particular culture can be considered as a whole system of knowledge, of a way of understanding the complexity of the natural world, so that rules can be laid down which lead to the attainment of the aims that society has set itself. Culture determines what sort of knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation, which innovations are to be encouraged, to whom and how the accumulated and new knowledge has to be spread and what restraints have to be put on its use.[Pereira, 1993]
The knowledge, understanding and rules of a sustainable culture have the aim of preserving that society. Such a culture effectively maintains a production system that serves its members, while not endangering the environment. A just culture aims at serving all its members equally, not only materially but also humanely and spiritually, not only locally but globally, not only today but for an indefinite future.
At the very least, all people now living need to have at least their minimum needs for survival satisfied ‑ nutritious food, clean water, adequate housing and clothes ‑ and that they may enjoy the spiritual needs of a dignified, creative life. Further, this applies not only to all people living now but to all people who will live in the future ‑ for an indefinite number of generations. And to other creatures as well, wherever it applies.
The impressive affluence of the West, on the other hand, is unsustainable, since it is based on high consumption rates of limited resources, with a total neglect of considerations of environmental preservation.
In spite of overwhelming evidence that the Western system is inherently unsustainable, people still have a naive faith that Westernized science and technology will somehow continue indefinitely to generate all the energy that the Western system demands. Such a belief is not founded on fact; it is one of the many aspects of industrial superstition.
The present generation has a choice: either the affluent continue their high consuming and polluting lifestyle for a short time longer and then perish because they did not heed warnings, or they begin reducing their consumption of non‑renewables in a planned, phased manner NOW.
A sign of hope is that today increasing numbers of people are weary of a life of intensive consumption, and find unacceptable the high levels of mental and physical stress that achieving and maintaining it requires.
The question that must be posed is not “Can an alternative system provide all that the Western system provides today?”, but “What can an efficient and just system sustainably provide?”
The Earth and its myriad life‑forms are currently being condemned to extinction. If this form of institutionalised exterminism is to be reversed, it is vital for the present generation to act: waiting for the present industrial system to collapse will be too late. Change has to be initiated by each of us at the individual level. Leaders, rulers, the authorities cannot be expected to give a lead ‑ they are too deeply implicated in the structures of ecological ruin and social injustice. We, the people must take matters into our own hands.
* * *
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