Sunday, June 04, 2006


I am looking forward to watching Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' which releases in a theater close to my place next week. I am a big supporter of the global warming "theory" which is turning out to be an 'inconvenient fact' for politicians and corporations. First it was cigarettes, now it is global warming. In a land which essentially is run by corporations, any policy making that goes against corporate interests is always going to be inconvenient. But, unlike cigarettes (or cars for that matter) the impact of this policy is really going to have a make or break effect on the future of our planet. From what I have read, and I am trying to shore up my knowledge, there is no doubt now that, hair-splitting notwithstanding, man is contributing to a general warming and disruption of the weather, and that there will be a tipping point beyond which we will not be much able to stop at least some mini-catastrophes.

What really worries me is not the US, but China and India. Americans have enjoyed the rewards of massive fossil fuel burning, and achieved a standard of living that, according to statistics, would take the resources of a few planet earths for every citizen of the world to achieve. They have erected a Mount Improbable for everyone else in the world. How do we convince the more than two billion citizens of China and India, who aspire to the same prohibitively high American standard of living, to stifle their expectations and not burn fossil fuels? The more important question concerns whether, in the near future, they really can achieve that standard without the use of fossil fuels. If they can, it will be a technological challenge without precedent. If they cannot, can we convince them that for the sake of global warming and future generations, they should be content with anything less than an SUV? Can we convince them that, just as their burgeoning economies were poised to take a leap into an explosive era of productivity and raised standards, those standards may be snatched away from them for the sake of the future of our planet? Can we convince the common man on the street of this?

I find this a mammoth and awe-inspiring challenge, much more difficult than convincing Americans to cut down on fossil fuels, at a time when they have already developed resources for alternative technologies, using power and energy provided by those very same fossil fuels. After all, how do you research nuclear power, solar energy, or wind energy? What resources do you use for building the materials and systems necessary for that research? Where does the electricity and power for doing this R & D come from? Why, from conventional energy sources of course. If the developing countries decide to develop the same kind of alternative energy research infrastructure, they are going to have to use energy mainly derived from fossil fuels for that purpose. Even if we assume that they will be able to conduct such research and develop such sources, it's surely not going to be in the near future. After all, solar, geothermal, and wind energy are not yet close to achieving the efficiency of other conventional sources. Also, the waste materials generated in the production of these sources themselves pose an environmental disposal problem. Charity may be an alternative to innovation, and the developed countries should provide this knowledge about alternative sources free of charge to all the other nations of the world. But of course charity has always come dropping slow.

So the problem is that which has faced humanity in many ages, that of achieving long term goals without destroying itself in the short term. As late Nobel laureate Hans Bethe put it in an interview, right now we are making do with fossil fuels. At some point we have to become dependent on alternative sources. The real dilemma, as he correctly identified, is "how to get from here to there without killing ourselves in the process". This statement neatly summarizes many a state of affairs, including global warming, alternative sources, nuclear power, and more generally, man's killing of man which may be exemplified in future oil wars. My personal opinion always has been that nuclear power is the best option under the present circumstances, striking a balance between short term benefits, environmental awareness, and efficiency. But will we be able to convince the lay public of its safe profile, a goal that may be as much long term as the above long term objectives? Will we be able to bring peace to the politicking that plagues nuclear waste disposal; a problem which has consistently been shown to be not a technical, but a political one? Again, we face the challenge of satiating the demands of the common man in the short term, while convincing him of the need to preserve his long term future. As the eloquent Edward Wilson says, the great task ahead is "to raise the poor to a decent standard of living worldwide while preserving as much of the rest of life as possible"

In battling global warming, humanity is likely going to face its greatest challenge as a race, which will put its unique qualities of foresight, compassion, and intelligence to the ultimate test. I don't know how many Gores will be enough to help it pass this test.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

thats a really interesting point... that India and China may need to give up their dreams of building a great country/economy because of environmental constraints...
and also the one about using conventional fuels for carrying out research on alternative ones...
never thought about these aspects that weirdly make a lot of sense..

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think energy from solid waste is a more viable option.After all the politics involving nuclear power,the Third World countries become the dumping ground for the world's waste.But we do certainly need to look at alternative sources and educating the public will be a herculean task which no goverment wants to take up.

8:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home