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The American Way of Life

In 1992, at the first world environment conference in Rio de Janeiro, attended by 192 heads of state or of government, George HW Bush (a.k.a. Bush ’41) refused to accept certain terms and conditions of the draft agreements that had been worked out by international negotiation teams. The teams involved experts from all UN member countries on agriculture, forestry, and environment and they had thrashed out details of the various agreements over months of preliminary meetings, painstakingly modifying or eliminating wording that was unacceptable to this country or that, Of course the richest countries carried the most clout when all these decisions were made. At that time, in 1992, the US consumed a quarter of the world’s oil, a third of its paper, and 40% of its beef and veal. Some of the terms of the agreements would have impinged on the US’ ability to continue consuming so much of the world’s natural resources, so at the final meetings President George HW Bush insisted on last minute changes to some of the previously agreed text. The reason he gave: the American way of life is not negotiable.

This statement naturally did not go down well with the other countries, but as the 800 pound gorilla at the UN, the nations of the world grinned and bore it. A host of watered down agreements were signed, and the world went back to business-as-usual. Environmental activists sighed and thought: at least we’ve managed to bring all these issues to the world agenda; kings, dictators, prime ministers and presidents of 192 countries came to Rio, the first such meeting in the history of the world, so surely we’re beginning to make progress.

Today, 28 years later, the American way of life is indeed being re-negotiated, but it is Nature that is doing the re-negotiating, not the UN or other countries. As Covid, climate change, and repeated financial meltdowns are showing us, the American way of life is indeed negotiable.

Opium: The unlikely poster child for renewable energy

On 27 July 2020, Justin Rowlatt, Chief Environmental Correspondent of BBC News, published an article with the headline: What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power.

I missed that, but a month later found it reported in an issue of Zac and Jesse’s amusing and informative blog called “Now You Know.” about issues related to electromobility and renewable energy. This particular episode of the blog was called: Solar Panels: Proof is in the Poppies where they highlighted the findings reported by Justin Rowlatt.

Solar Panels for sale in Afghanistan: stacked three stories high. Image courtesy BBC News

So what’s the story here?

In 2013, the first Afghan farmer used solar panels to power a pump that brought water up to the surface from 100 meters below ground. Prior to that, his only alternative had been diesel pumps. Pumps ran on dirty diesel that fouled his motors and caused frequent breakdowns, in addition to intermittent supply. Running on solar power was clean and free, the pumps worked reliably, and the farmer was able to grow 2 or even 3 crops a year, in addition to increased yields per crop. The following year, a few panels were available for sale in local markets. Since then, the sale of solar panels has taken off in the province, with 67,000 arrays counted in Helmand Valley alone in 2019. The negative effect of this bounty is that opium output has more than doubled in the intervening years.

If only we could see that kind of exponential growth of renewables in rich countries, the world’s environmental outlook would not be the bleak picture it is today. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation in the educated, industrialised world. This is partly due to the existence of powerfully entrenched corporations that jealously guard their own turf and discourage innovation. The second negative factor is the advertising industry that has spent decades fine-tuning their ability to spread the message of their paymasters, however detrimental to the planet. Time to take a leaf from an Afghan farmer’s book on energy, if not for choice of crops.

Reposting from Electrifying: All-Time Highs for Renewables in 2020

As the blog ELECTRIFYING noted this week: Renewable electricity generation has hit all-time highs in the first half of 2020. And this despite the slowdown in utility scale renewables installations as a result of Covid-19. Read more at the link to the original posting below.

Renewables have seen all-time highs in the first half of 2020

Xi’s Napoleon Moment – Reposting Sandomina’s blog

For anyone interested in Asian Geopolitics, I can highly recommend “Insightful Geopolitics” by a writer whose pen-name is Sandomina. The posts are well-researched and, well, insightful. I sometimes don’t know the sources of the statistics quoted in the blog, but my gut feeling is that they are all from reliable sources.

Many people in the West are concerned about China’s growing economic might and how dependent their own industries are on Chinese supply chains. In Asia, Sandomina remarks, China has 14 neighbours with a common land border and 7 maritime neighbours. China has territorial disputes with all of them.

People everywhere would be well advised to take note of China’s rise. Depending on the way it’s internal politics develops, it can become a powerful engine for development and international growth. At present, all signs point to a belligerent China that reflects Xi Jingping’s personal thin-skinned sensibilities rather than statesmanship with a global perspective.

Having said this much, go to the link below and read about more about Xi’s Napoleon Moment here

Post-Covid: We must save the Future, not the Past

When Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of creative destruction, he was referring to cycles of innovation in industry as new technologies displaced older, less efficient ones. As a new technology gained the upper hand, older industries died out, giving rise to a period of disruption and major unemployment.

In a chapter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter writes: “The same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. Schumpeter was more right than he knew, not only about industrial mutation, but in regard to natural mutation. As a passionate environmentalist, I would assert that Schumpeter’s insight is primarily applicable to natural systems. More than 60% of the world’s wealth is embedded in nature and natural systems. Heedless of that, we, in developed industrial societies and all aspiring, developing industrial societies, are recklessly plundering our planet’s natural resources in order to fuel economic growth; in pursuit of the cachet of success, of material wealth far beyond basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter.

Nature’s beauty is free. Raintree blossoms in Schönbrunn Park.

Studies show that most forest trees need to be exposed to fire every 50 to 100 years to invigorate new growth. Epidemiologists have long predicted pandemics like the current one, but societies at large have been too busy chasing prosperity to pay much attention. Now that Nature has targeted humanity with some creative destruction of its own, it’s up to us to learn the lessons of the forest; clearing away the dead wood of outdated industrial practices, investing in lifestyles and technologies that eliminate waste and support planetary health.

What need for annual trillion dollar subsidies for fossil fuels when 99% of scientific studies say we should stop carbon emissions? What need for continued economic growth when wealth accrues to the 1% of the population and leaves the other 99% behind? What need for new technologies when the best ones currently available are not being used widely enough?

Political leaders won’t ask us these questions. We must ask it of them. Our survival as a species depends on it.

Nikola vs. Tesla

Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.

Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.

In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.

Image courtesy Transport & Environment via Clean Technica

Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?

On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.

All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.

A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.

*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine

Miyawaki Forests

Anyone who reads the news today, whether on social media, newspapers, television, blogs, or whatever, is confronted with a litany of disastrous news about global warming, climate change, natural disasters, political crises, corruption, conflict and so on. True to the adage that good news is no news, there are few in-depth news stories about far-reaching events, running mostly in the background, that have potential to change the world. To give them credit, most news outlets nowadays are aware of this deficit and pepper their front pages with good news, most of which are one-offs; heart warming stories that are categorized as “human interest” stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love human interest stories, and devour them with my morning coffee. But they are not weighty enough to counter the leadbelly that results from reading the rest of the news. So how to counter that?

A perceptive listener once corrected me when I quoted: knowledge is power. No, they chided. Knowledge is only potential power. You have to do something with your knowledge to make it powerful. If you think about it, the converse holds true for bad news. Too much knowledge can be disempowering and reduce us to abject helplessness unless we do something about it. But what?

In an earlier blog entitled “Three score years and ten” I outlined a series of actions one can take to counter planetary leadbelly, beginning with baby steps. Meanwhile, here’s another link to a website that tells in-depth stories of people taking action around the planet to restore its health. Today, this particular story about Miyawaki Forests caught my eye. Tell your planetary gloom to take the day off. Follow the two links above, read, and enjoy.

Ecosia

The Covid-19 lockdown has put a damper on my scheme to sponsor the planting of at least 1000 trees in 2020. I hoped to plant a few of the thousand with my own hands. I think taking personal action leads to a deeper commitment.

There have been many articles recently about a Swiss company called CLIMEWORKS that has a strategy to remove CO2 from the air through conversion to carbonates. These carbonates can then store carbon underground as solids or else, in gaseous form, be treated to produce synthetic liquid fuels at an ultimate cost of around $ 1 per liter, as mentioned in a recent Nature Briefing newsletter.

Sequestering carbon with trees is much slower, less industrial, and would be Nature’s way to restore the planet. Following Nature’s way might be less glamorous to the uninitiated, but to be done well, it requires a wealth of local knowledge. This local knowledge is often the kind that is not found in text books or taught in schools. The kind of people who possess this knowledge usually do not know they possess something valuable, since much of the world discounts their knowledge for lack of paper qualifications, not even a high school diploma. But some of the most successful development programs have been based on inputs from aboriginals and “primitive” forest tribes. After all, artemisinin, cinchona and willow bark had been in use for centuries before modern medicine discovered them; artemisinin in China 2000 years ago, cinchona in early South American cultures. Willow bark and leaves were used by Assyrians, Sumerians, early Egyptians and ancient Greeks. So let’s plant trees then, as widely as we can, in order to suck up carbon. But if we make use of available local knowledge, we will find dozens, if not hundreds, of ancillary benefits.

One such afforestation program, conducted by a non-profit foundation called The Forest Way, strictly plants only indigenous species of trees on an area that covers a few square miles of once-barren land. In the twelve years since the planting began, a few dried out streams carry water again, leaf litter decomposing on the forest floor is slowly building up a layer of healthy soil and, most spectacular, the number of bird species sightings have increased from around 60 to 230+ at last count.

The subject of tree-planting brings me finally to the title of this post. ECOSIA calls itself an “ecological search engine” and it aims to help reforest the earth. According to Wikipedia, Ecosia plants an average of 1 tree for every 45 searches made on it. The Ecosia search engine works with all browsers and once you begin to use it, the page shows a small window with a tree symbol and a number to denote the searches made on this search engine since the download. Most recently Ecosia’s website reports 97 million trees planted (and counting), and more than 15 million users. Make that 15 million and one. I became an Ecosia user yesterday!

What we need to do now (Book Review)

Chris Goodall (environmentalist, economist and businessman) has published a book in 2020 on recommended steps for a zero carbon future. In 12 concise and easily digestible chapters he outlines steps to be taken to achieve (or even exceed) the UN goal of stopping greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although specific to the UK, the straightforward proposals in the book could easily serve as a blueprint for any country around the world, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of greenhouse gas emissions intensity.

The opening chapters deal with green energy generation to power local and regional grids, then move on to housing and transport. The chapters on transport deal with ground, air and shipping transport, three sectors that might need different fuels, depending on technological developments currently in their early stages; battery electric vehicles (BEVs) for ground transportation, hydrogen used with fuel cells for shipping, and liquid synthetic fuels for aviation. There are potential breakthroughs in the offing for each of these solutions and, of course, unforeseen developments in battery technology could mean that energy density is high enough for BEVs to power ships and airplanes as well as cars, buses and trucks. With so much potential waiting in the wings, this is an exciting time for new technologies, despite the looming threat of runaway climate change that can annihilate patterns of living we’ve developed over the past century.

There is a chapter devoted to fashion and its climate impact, as well as one on the carbon footprint of buildings, specifically in concrete production, and fossil fuels in heavy industry. There are known low-carbon solutions here, and the main problem is changing established production norms, the long lifetimes of existing physical infrastructure, and changing the mindset of the large corporations that own these industries.

Food production and forests have great potential to (one) reduce emissions and (two) absorb more CO2 respectively. Finally, it’s the economist’s turn to ask: how will all these changes be paid for? The straightforward answer is through a carbon tax that captures the environmental cost of the fuels used. However, experience has shown that the implementation of this straightforward answer is anything but. There are powerful vested interests to be overcome, not to mention the expense of retraining workers made redundant by obsolete industries.

Two chapters at the end of the book deal with direct air capture of CO2 and geo-engineering solutions. Each of these have their champions, but in my opinion, direct air capture (by industrial means) would never be cost-effective for a simple reason. The technologies that are sophisticated enough to make direct air capture cost-effective would also be good enough to lower emissions to the point where the technology is no longer needed. A sort of negative Catch-22. As for geo-engineering, the scales and money required for this effort would be best spent on researching and implementing technologies that lower emissions in the first place, rather than trying to decrease their effects. Secondly, there are too many unknowns associated with such large scale engineering projects. History is replete with examples of engineering hubris. The second half of the twentieth century saw countless predictions that “science would solve all problems” and “plentiful nuclear energy will provide power that is too cheap to meter.

The final chapter, entitled “What can we do ourselves,” is more important than most people realize. On the one hand, individual actions do count and “little drops make an ocean.” But a second, little regarded effect of “little drops” will be the most important. Whether we live in democracies or dictatorships, ultimately, governments are guided by the cumulative wisdom of the governed. And in any nation where the overwhelming majority of its citizens practice sound environmental stewardship, this mindset will be inexorably transferred to the leadership as well.

We all know that leadership counts. We all realize intuitively that we get the leadership we deserve. So ultimately, logic stands on its head and we are forced to admit that we, the people, are the leaders who have to show our leaders the way.

FOSSIL FUELS ARE FOR DINOSAURS – Aviott John

The Lost Soul of a Nation

The impassioned plea (text in italics) was originally published in the wire.in (link below). The author is Avay Shukla, a retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. The IAS and IPS (Indian Police Service) cadres, numbering close to 10,000 nation-wide, represent the backbone of the country’s administration. Although beholden to their political overlords, there are a few dedicated public servants whose primary loyalty is to India’s secular constitution. This is one of the miracles of India, a nation of 1.3 billion that struggles to hold on to Gandhian ideals while ruled by a national government that tacitly condones communal disharmony.

Although the letter below specifically refers to India, this searing indictment applies equally to the political ruling class in most countries, with very few exceptions. One exception in this bleak Indian picture is the state of Kerala whose Communist-ruled government has made extensive provisions for the welfare of migrant workers. As the Economic Times notes: “Amid lockdown: Migrant workers a content lot in Kerala.”

View from [Greater] Kailash
Thursday, 21 May 2020
 This is not about the sorry exodus of millions of our more unfortunate brothers and sisters playing out on prime TV these days. It is not a piece about the government, or about politics or economics. It is neither critical nor sacerdotal. It is not about Mr. Modi or the Biblical scale suffering he has inflicted, yet again, on those who had put their trust in him. That is a matter between him and his Maker, and I hope the potter who moulded him can forgive him, for history will not. This is not about a callous Finance Minister with the rictus of arrogance stretched across her face. It is not about a judiciary which has thrown away its moral compass in the arid deserts of ambition and preference. It is not about a media which has struck a Faustian bargain with the devil and is content to feed on the offal flung its way. It is not about Rahul Gandhi or Mayawati or Nitish Kumar for they have already become irrelevant to the pathetic course of events unfolding.
  This piece is about me and the burden I carry, a burden of shame, that has been sitting on my back for the last few weeks and cannot be dislodged, no matter how hard I try. It’ s a burden which just got heavier this morning when I read a post by an army officer describing his moving encounter in Gurgaon with families of “migrants” walking their way to Bihar, no footwear on the weary soles treading on melting roads, hungry and uncomprehending four year olds, of how they wept and tried to touch his feet when he gave them a few five hundred rupee notes.
  I hang my head in shame in the India of 2020. At belonging to a country and a society which exiles tens of millions from their cities, fearful of catching an infection from them, from a virus brought here, not by them, but by my brethren flying in from abroad. Of treating the hapless victim as the perpetrator. Ashamed of being a gullible cretin who swallows all the lies and half-truths churned out by a dissembling official apparatus. Of beating pots and pans as a servile hosanna to an uncaring presiding deity to drown out the sounds of tired feet marching to their distant villages.
  I can no longer recognise the religion I was born into, it no longer has the wisdom of its ancient sages and rishis, or the compassion of an Ashoka, or the humility of a Gandhi. It is too full of anger, of hatred, of violence. It has replaced its once lofty ideals with even loftier statues, caring deeds with dead rituals. It once fed the mendicant and the poor but now drives them away as carriers of some dreadful disease, without any proof. It even finds an opportunity in this pandemic to stigmatize other religions.
  I am ashamed of my middle class status, of many of my friends, colleagues and the larger family even. Cocooned safely in our gated societies and sectors, we have locked out our maids, drivers, newspaper man, delivery boy and a dozen others who have built for us the comfortable lives we now desperately try to cordon off from the less fortunate. We have deprived them of their livelihoods. We encourage another extension of the lockdown because our salaries and pensions are not affected. Our primary concerns revolve around resumption of deliveries from Amazon and Swiggy: the lot of the migrating millions is dismissed as just their fate- the final subterfuge of a society that no longer cares.
  I am ashamed of the thought processes of my class, of Whatsapp forwards that oppose any more “doles” to the hungry millions, that denounce MNREGA- the only lifeline the returning labour have left- as a waste of public money and food camps as a misuse of their taxes. I am ashamed that people like me can encourage the police to beat up the returning hordes for violating the lockdown, which, in the ultimate analysis was meant to protect “us” from “them”. For the life of me I am unable to comprehend how we, sitting in our four BHK flats, have the heartlessness to blame sixteen tired labourers for their own deaths: why were they sleeping on railway tracks? How can one not be ashamed when I hear my peers decrying the expense of trains/ buses for the returning migrants, the costs of putting them up in quarantine, when they approve of their likes being flown back by Air India ? This is not double standards, this is bankrupt standards.
  I am ashamed of my social milieu which lauds the leader for dismissing the cataclysmic sufferings of almost five percent of our population as “tapasya”, as if they had a choice. I am mortified to see the layers of education and affluence, the facade of civilisation being peeled back by a virus to disclose a heart of darkness in our collective inner core, the sub cutaneous mucous of hatred and intolerance for a minority community, contempt for the destitute. All age old prejudices, bigotry, racism and narrow mindedness have reemerged, fanned by a party which has fertilised their dormant spores.
  I am ashamed of the dozens of four star Generals and beribboned Admirals and Air Chiefs who  were quick to shower flowers and light up ships at a dog whistle from a politician but did not move a finger to provide any help to the marching millions. Did it even occur to them that they owe a duty to this country beyond strutting around at India Gate? That they could have used their vast resources and vaunted training to set up field kitchens for the hungry marchers, putting up tents where the old and infirm could catch a few breaths, arrange transport for ferrying at least the women and children?Their valour has been tested at the borders, but their conscience has certainly been found wanting.
  I am ashamed of our judges who have now become prisoners in their carefully crafted ivory towers, who had repeated opportunities to order the executive to provide meaningful relief and succour to the exiled wretches, to enforce what little rights they still have left, but spurned them at the altar of a dishonourable appeasement.
  I am ashamed of our governments who have forsaken the very people who elected them, and are using their vast powers, not to provide the much needed humanitarian aid these disorganised workers desperately need, but to take away even the few rights they had won over the last fifty years. I am ashamed of a bureaucracy that uses a catastrophe to further enslave those who have already lost everything, which insists that illiterate labourers fill in online forms to register for evacuation, pay hundreds of rupees ( which they do not have) for rail tickets, produce ration cards and Aadhar before they can get five kgs of rice, all the while beating them to pulp. Of a Joint Secretary to government who can apportion blame for the infections by religion. This is not Orwellian or Kafkaesque, this is a government gone berserk. How can one not be ashamed of such a soul-less administration, and of the people who commend its mistakes?
  They will reach their homes ultimately, those marching millions, minus a few thousand who will die on the way. They will not even be mentioned in the statistics: there will be no Schindler’s list for them. And we will pat ourselves on our collective, genuflecting backs that one problem has been taken care of, the danger to our neo-liberal civilisation has been beaten back, the carriers have been sent away, the curve will now flatten. But the mirror has cracked and can never be made whole again. As the Bard said, the fault is not in our stars but within us. Or, as  delectably put by another great bard, one of our own who now belongs to the “others”:
             ” Umar bhar Ghalib yahi bhool karta raha,
             Dhool chehre par thi, aur aina saaf karta raha.”
“All his life, man made this mistake
The dust was on his face and he was cleaning the mirror”
  Actually, this piece is not just about me- it’s also about you, dear reader. Look into that cracked mirror. Do you feel any shame, just a little , for what we have become, for the lost soul of a once great nation?
Note: Poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) was born in the last days of the Mughal Empire and died in British India. Obscure during his lifetime, he is today considered one of the foremost Urdu poets of India and Pakistan.