Consuming the future

Tom James @ 07-08-2009

nature_chainsVia New Scientist, scientists at the Ecological Society of America confirm my Agent Smithesque suspicions on the cause of our ongoing environmental crisis:

More specifically, all we’re doing is what all other creatures have ever done to survive, expanding into whatever territory is available and using up whatever resources are available, just like a bacterial culture growing in a Petri dish till all the nutrients are used up. What happens then, of course, is that the bugs then die in a sea of their own waste.

Making all this worse is the development of consumerism, which encourages even greater consumption of resources than would be the case if every new human being consumed as much as they have done historically, the NS article comments on the development of this trait:

According to Rees, the change took place after the second world war in the US, when factories previously producing weapons lay idle, and soldiers were returning with no jobs to go to.

American economists and the government of the day decided to revive economic activity by creating a culture in which people were encouraged to accumulate and show off material wealth, to the point where it defined their status in society and their self-image.

In today’s world, such rhetoric seems beyond belief. Yet the consumer spree carries on regardless, and few of us are aware that we’re still willing slaves to a completely artificial injunction to consume, and to define ourselves by what we consume.

British philosopher John Gray (not the American self-help guru of the same name) has argued something similar in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and other Animals, in which he lays out a thoroughly pessimistic critique of the notion of human exceptionalism, and his prediction of the imminent failure of environmentalist policies.

I don’t agree entirely with Gray on the inevitability of collapse and decay, but I certainly concur with James Martin‘s view that the 21st century will have to mark a change from focussing on limitless growth to sustainable growth (if such a thing is truly possible), as a precursor to a steady state economy.

The article raises another interesting point:

In an ideal world, it would be a counter-advertising campaign to make conspicuous consumption shameful.

“Advertising is an instrument for construction of people’s everyday reality, so we could use the same media to construct a cultural paradigm in which conspicuous consumption is despised,” he says. “We’ve got to make people ashamed to be seen as a ‘future eater’.”

I’m against moralistic ‘holier-than-thou’ criticisms of consumerism, but as “consumerism” as a concept has come about by the deliberate decisions of business people and marketers (and policymakers) seeking to promote ever greater economics growth and consumption, might it not be time to have a similar drive towards sustainability?

[image from Peter from Wellington on flickr]


Coal: fuel of the future

Tom James @ 24-04-2009

geological-carbonThe British government has given the go-ahead to a new generation of coal-fired power plants incorporating carbon-capture and storage technologies in a bid to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Clean coal has been met with criticism and the policy seems just a little bit flaky:

Up to four new plants will be built if they are fitted with technology to trap and store CO2 emissions underground.

The technology is not yet proven and would only initially apply to 25% of power stations’ output.

Green groups welcomed the move but said any new stations would still release more carbon than they stored.

Uh huh. According to UK energy secretary Ed Miliband:

Once it is “independently judged as economically and technically proven” – which the government expects by 2020 – those stations would have five years to “retrofit” CCS to cover 100% of their output.

Kind of a glass quarter-full situation then. And it might not even work. But do check out the details.

[image and articles from the BBC and the Guardian]


Lovelock: give up on trying to save the planet

Tom James @ 25-02-2009

lifeboatJames “Gaia Theory” Lovelock suggests that there may be as few as one billion human beings left in 100 years time:

Lovelock’s point seemed to be that we should give up on trying to save the planet and the entirety of the human species by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focus instead on equipping “lifeboat nations” with the necessary infrastructure (schools, roads, houses) to support swarms of climate refugees.

The UK and Canada are lifeboat nations, in case you’re wondering. Probably Siberia too. Basically, anywhere that will be relatively cool and have water in a world that is on average 5°C warmer than it was 100 years ago.

Which sounds interesting and… controversial. The suggestion that places like the UK and Canada should massively overinvest in infrastructure over the next few decades may be be Quite A Good Idea in any case (fiscal stimulus, anyone?).

But is this giving up too soon?

[image from Troon Lifeboat on flickr]


Seed vault for plant preservation

Tom James @ 15-12-2008

An interesting article on the Millennium Seed Bank project here at Physorg. It seems thematically linked to the Long Now Foundation’s Rosetta Disk (intended as a very long term record of current written languages). The Millennium Seed Bank “seeks to develop a global seed conservation network, capable of safeguarding wild plant species:”

The futuristic facility, with its low-slung steel and glass structure over the vaults, is seen by scientists as an insurance policy against nature and human folly. It is a quiet place, where young scientists in white smocks spend hours cleaning seeds by hand, using microscopes, scalpels, forceps, and tiny brushes.

[image from Arria Belli on flickr]


Arboreal structures: tree benches, streetlamps

Tom James @ 22-08-2008

A splendid concept is being pursued to manipulate the roots of trees to create useful structures:

Pilot projects now underway in the United States, Australia and Israel include park benches for hospitals, playground structures, streetlamps and gates. “The approach is a new application of the well-known botanical phenomenon of aerial root development,” says Prof. Eshel. “Instead of using plant branches, this patented approach takes malleable roots and shapes them into useful objects for indoors and out.”

A company called Plantware is developing these, and similar methods, to create a wide variety of tree-based items. In addition researchers from Tel Aviv University are developing other environmentally friendly ideas:

Prof. Eshel’s team is also working on a number of other projects to save the planet’s resources. They are currently investigating a latex-producing shrub, Euphoria tirucalii, which can be grown easily in the desert, as a source for biofuel; they are also genetically engineering plant roots to ensure “more crop per drop,” an innovative approach to irrigation.

[story via Physorg]


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