Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Creative, But Incomplete, Solutions

If you read The Mound of Sound regularly, you will understand that there is no quick fix for the myriad problems the world faces. As he has pointed out on more than one occasion, threats like climate change cannot be viewed in isolation. It is only part of a wide panoply of interrelated ills that the world faces, ills that include overpopulation, over consumption, and dwindling resources. Our lifestyles are growing well beyond the earth's capacity to sustain us.

With that proviso in mind, there are a number of developments that, while not a solution to our bloated lifestyles, nonetheless show us what is possible when we think "outside the box."

Last week, The Star's Edward Keenan wrote a thought-provoking piece asking whether or not there are straightforward solutions to intractable problems:
What happens when a serious problem we thought was incredibly complicated and nearly impossible to solve suddenly becomes easier to deal with?

That’s a question raised by a recent blog post by economics professor John Quiggin, who sits on the board of the Australian Climate Change Authority. With the announcement this week by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors electric car fame that his company would be mass-producing a home and utility battery to store solar energy at a fraction of the price of existing similar batteries, combined with developments in electric cars, “we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income …”
But one of the big obstacles to such developments is the way we think:
Quiggin notes, correctly I think, that the long-standing seeming intractability of climate change has led people to draw some distinct conclusions, and based on them gather in warring political camps: those who think dealing with it requires ending capitalism and reshaping virtually all of society; those who think the first group is perpetrating an elaborate hoax; and those in competing camps who think the solutions require very big carbon taxes, or massive investments in nuclear energy or “clean coal.”
Therefore, there is real resistance to the notion that a quick fix is possible. This, Keenan says, is the same mentality that led doctors in the mid-1800s to resist the simple measure of washing their hands and their equipment to reduce maternal and child mortality:
Doctors had their own accepted theories about the cause of such deaths and refused to think they could be causing the problem.
And so it is with other developments which, more than anything else, seem to require an open mind and a willingness to move beyond a rigidly fixed world view. Take, for example, solar roadways:

This technology was put to the test near Amsterdam, where a bike path was lined with SolaRoad:
SolaRoad has generated more than 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity since the 70-metre-long strip officially opened in November 2014, in Krommenie, a village northwest of Amsterdam, the project reported late last week. It said that was enough to power a single-person household for a year.

"We did not expect a yield as high as this so quickly," said Sten de Wit, spokesman for the public-private partnership project, in a statement that deemed the first half-year of a three-year pilot a success.

Based on what it has produced so far, the bike path is expected to generate more than 70 kilowatt hours per square metre per year, close to the upper limit predicted based on lab tests.
Creative thinking has also led to a development dealing with the millions of cigarette butts littering our streets and parks:
TerraCycle is one of a handful of companies that is working to collect and recycle spent butts, by turning them into plastic lumber that can be used for benches, pallets, and other uses.

Another company, EcoTech Displays, is working on a system to recycle butts into insulation, clothing, and even jewelry.
You can watch a video of the process by clicking on the above link.

Will any of these developments save our world? Not in themselves. But they do show us what is possible when we resolve to break out of old modes of thinking, sadly a task perhaps as difficult as the process involved in developing new technologies.


  1. Lorne, to break out of old modes of thinking we have to repudiate them. If we accept that we must abandon 80% of known reserves of fossil fuels, leave them safely in the ground, untouched, then the rest falls into place if only out of necessity.

    Once you accept that key number, Lorne, the following questions - and their answers - become obvious. If we have to leave 80% untouched, then it's apparent we'll need to confine our consumption to the cleanest, lowest-carbon fossil fuel options. Among other things, you impose a moratorium on coal and bitumen production. Then you calculate how much time that remaining 20% will buy from which you can calculate the capacity of replacement alternative, clean energy that will be required and the time frame you have for bringing it online. Along the way you go from an international consensus to abandon fossil fuels to a national consensus on energy needs and time frames to regional decision making on energy infrastructure development.

    It all tumbles into place once you accept the magical 80%.

    This same sort of thinking applies to overconsumption. That begins by globally accepting that each nation's economy has to be brought into harmony with that country's environment. NGOs like the Global Footprint Network have done terrific work in assessing, on a nation state scale, each country's ecosystem capacity - the amount of water and biomass and the relative recharge or replenishment rate. All but a handful of countries (ours being one of the lucky few) are running environmental deficits that manifest in such things as the collapse of groundwater resources, deforestation, desertification and the steadily growing accumulation of pollution and contamination of all descriptions that exceeds nature's capacity to cleanse the ecosystem.

    Once we have a consensus on harmonizing human activity safely within the environment it follows that our modern addiction to perpetual, exponential growth must be abandoned in favour of one or more new models, steady state economics.

    Our problem isn't that we can't find solutions. It's the vested interests that stand in the way blocking them. One example - I watched this past year as shareholder groups tried to get energy giants to respond to the 80% warning. They flatly refused. These groups then went back to argue that the executives were exposing shareholders to grave risk of losing value to reserves that would become 'stranded assets.' These execs rejected that too, arguing that every shovel of coal, every gallon of oil, would be sold in due course. There would be no discounting of the trillions of dollars of fossil reserves they carry on their books.

    Now, you would have thought that our political caste would intervene to protect the public, demand that Big Fossil accept the 80% warning. Let me know if you hear of that happening. The fact is that our own Big Three - Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair, all of them, support bitumen extraction and export. The only dispute among them is how it should get to market.

    Our problem isn't lack of solutions or our ability to imagine them. It's the collaboration between Big Fossil and our political classes to work directly against the public interest, the welfare of the Canadian people. Yet plenty of self-identified "progressives" will still vote for Mulcair and Trudeau, squandering the most valuable and limited asset we have remaining - time.

    1. Thanks for your detailed response, Mound. You have given all of us much to think about. Given the largely illusory nature of our democracy today, the task ahead is daunting indeed.