Saturday, May 14, 2011

A continent of mistakes

There is a new continent forming in the pacific ocean! A vast new continent twice the size of Texas and it's growing each year!!

Unfortunately, this is not good news, as the new continent is formed by waste we throw away, things which are not bio degradable. When we made them, we knew these stuff (polythene, plastics) would last long and causing problems but we have simply thrown them away from our immediate neighborhoods and looked the other way pretending the problem is non existent.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a testament for human selfishness, ignorance and mad consumerism. Something we all should be ashamed of. A child born out of : ignoring a problem, laughing out early indications of a problem, pretending the world has unlimited natural resources and pretending the world has unlimited capacity to take on the waste we produce.

A continent of a monument to show, remind and alert us the on our greedy lifestyles and the direct results of consumerism! For more about this continent and to know why we are already powerless to reverse the damage, visit here and here

An interesting thing to note is the list of surrounding countries of the proud new continent. America, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan...  So called developed world and few countries who have achieved fast economic growths recently.

However, the biggest tragedy of all is may be the fact that even a continent of mistakes is not enough to waken us up! Instead of consuming less, producing less, re-use and recycle, we are still thinking of how to continue and even accelerate our proven faulty life style....

If this issue is so real, why don't we discuss about it more often ? Why is media silent about this ? There lies the other tragedy of current generations. Mass media is not acting as a solution, it's a part of the problem. Media needs consumerism to survive! If the real answer is to Restrict our usage and consumption, how many people will really like to hear that ? If the consumption and production to go down,  what will happen to our lifestyle and 'economic growth' we are so taught to believe in ?

OK, let's look at this from a different angle, What we just discussed was one result which we are powerless to reverse anymore. Let's start from the point of generation and see what produced this, how and why ...  

Let's Imagine a house with just the basic little amount of furniture, less electrical equipments and gadgets.. think about a place with only most needed equipments and nothing else. Such a place would have empty spaces to move about, less clutter, less amount of cleaning and maintenance. It will have simplicity and would serve to add a sense of serenity and peace of mind.

Now compare it with a house full of gadgets, equipments, furniture and what not. When we imagine, we have to be realistic (the things TV adds won't tell us), some of things in such a house may not be working. Some of things may be missing among number of other things. Some things may not be as clean as we would like them to be, for keeping all those things in an orderly manner, in working condition and keeping them clean at  all times need time and attention. Not just once or twice, but daily! Things demand time and attention from us don't they?

Things we have, sometimes tend to define who we are, if we have way too many things, we are bounded, restricted and limited in freedom because we have to maintain those things while a person without them is free of that burden! If we  have a car, we have to wash it regularly, make it clean, keep it serviced, get it repaired when it breaks etc. Now, what happens if we have 2 vehicles? it's even more of work. Those tasks of maintaining our cars eat up our time, energy and focus. In a sense, car will start to own us that way since it get us to do things for it. More things we have, more slaves we become of those things we own.

It's very important to decide exactly what things we really need and not committing to too many physical things in our lives. Even when we see a moderate convenience of having something, we should question ourselves, is it really worth the trouble of having it? How will it be few months after purchasing, will it still going to be that useful and look that pretty ? will we really use it that many times as we expect to ? or will it be like that exercising machine under a bed which we haven't taken out in a month?

Just buying something is not the end, paying the monetary value is not the end, things have hidden price tags attached to them. Every thing needs some time and attention from us. This untold price is mostly go unnoticed when we buy something. We are trained to see a purchase as a win if it's 'cheaper' than the market value. Well, come to think of it any price would be too expensive for something we really don;t have a need for. We are not entirely at fault for getting blinded for that simple fact, for we are being continuously attacked day after day by media and social peer pressure to buy this and buy that. Advertisements! If we have some extra money at hand, resisting the urge to buy something is simply not as easy as it sounds. Not only us who get those urges, our kids, spouse, brothers/sisters they also get the urge to 'take something home'!

So eventually any quite peaceful house becomes a junk yard over the years. Full of things which are either not used regularly or can not be used effectively for some reason or simply we don't anymore have time  to sacrifice for them.

What if we clean our houses of stuff which are not absolutely needed ? that is good but it's not the proper answer. When we buy a thing which is not absolutely needed, we have already done the damage! Getting rid of them from our houses means we are simply putting the burden on somewhere else and going to selfishly look at the other way. This was exactly what produced the continent of waste we just saw!

Proper answer is to limit the consumption and produce less, then reuse and recycle the rest! So called 3 R's of Green Peace. Restrict, Re-Use and Recycle.

After all, 80% of stuff we think are useful and must haves are really not! we could easily and more conveniently and more freely live without them! Still doubtful about the real 'value' of stuff we have and what it is doing to us? read here on the subject of stuff. To identify the shallowness of buying and owning stuff and to move away from it, one does not need to be an environmentalist or a socialist! Just stopping being a mindless slave (following the fashion) to consumerism is enough so it seems.

In a future post, we will look closely for the ways out of consumerism and how to live happy and healthy lives without destroying the world. Is it possible at all? Are humans just hard wired to senseless consumption or is moving out of consumerist lifestyle the coming next big thing  in human society ?

Meanwhile, here are few past related posts.

Middleground on Capitalism and Socialism, Where have you gone ?

End the burning, Cool down and Clean up!

Lighting Up The Dark!


PS : Added two sequels to this :

How to reduce consumption and still enjoying the life and

Current trends which are already taking us in that direction.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Lighting Up The Dark!


In the last post we came up with a short term solution to how we can immediately stop (well within 3-4 years that is) the additional carbon emissions by cutting down fossil fuel usage by 50% and save the world while keeping economies going as well. Of course we assumed that rich countries would agree to such a solution and invest money in building few efficient nuclear reactors pretty soon. While even the moderate kyoto protocol which is no where near cutting carbon emissions by half in near future, is not agreed up by the world biggest carbon emitter USA, we may be just dreaming in here.

Still, what we have is a practical solution. A short term one, something like this can happen one day when the world leaders finally realize it's about time to take some real action on carbon emissions. Meanwhile, let's see what could be a good long term solution.

As discussed in the earlier post, dramatically and aggressively increase the production of nuclear energy to about 50% of worlds total energy consumption (currently nuclear energy is at 8.5%) is our short term solution to meet increasing energy requirements while cutting down on fossil fuel. Still, that too will last only for 15-20 years, however, in this time we should learn to power up the ultimate energy source the world has got. Clean, abundant, plentiful, natural, and harm free, all powerful Solar Energy! 15 years of concentrated effort is all what this industry need to deliver goods...

The total solar energy absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, oceans and land masses in one hour is more than the annual global energy consumption!

In the main post image, if only the solar power is harnessed in areas covered by black dots, total world energy requirement can be met! Those black dots are all situated in the deserts, the land currently can not be used for any other purpose. This is assuming the efficiency of solar panels will stay at the current levels of 8%-9% but this is something which is expected to rise up to 15% based on recent research.

Using the clean, free and abundant solar energy to fulfill all our energy requirement is a dream which can be realized and achieved in our life times!

Consider following statistics :
  • In 1950s at it's start, solar cell based power production cost was $286 per watt and efficiency of the technology was just 4%-5% 
  • In 2010 the cost for a watt was $1.80 while efficiency was 8%-9%
  • At the end of 2011 the cost is is expected to be $1.50 per watt. Efficiency too is expected to reach 15% in very near future. (wikipedia) 

There are 2 main methods of harnessing solar energy.
1) Photovoltaic (PV) using solar panels, direct conversion of solar energy to electricity (8-9% of efficiency) This field is recording a 20% of annual growth.

2) Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) Using solar power to heat water/oil and then use that to operate a traditional electricity generator. Cost of generating electricity using this type of solar power is now approaching that of fossil fuel based generation. In addition, this method requires less area (space) about 10 times less area than PV methods above. However, CSP is large scale production while PV can be done even in households. Annual growth is 40%.

In addition to these there are other methods like thermoelectric where the thermal different of two sheets will be used to generate electricity or generation of hydrogen out of water molecules using solar energy. 

One thing very noticeable with solar energy research and advancements are that they have grown very rapidly during oil crisis such as 1970-1985 and again from 1997 - 2009 During these periods, governments have put lot of money into research and provided grants and subsidies as well to encourage the use and generation of solar power that has noticeably improve the innovation. During the times when oil was cheap, such as 1985-1997 growth in solar power sector got slowed down.

Recent innovations driven by the necessity in the last oil shortage was staggering and very promising as well as exciting. For instance, new technology of using viruses to convert sun light into electricity cheaply, 3D solar cells which can dramatically increase the efficiencies, thin wearable sheets of solar panels and photovoltaic  inks from nanotechnology etc are only few of several advances.

It is said that once nanotechnology advances and production cost of solar panels become cheap, our roads and highways will be built from solar panels which would power up whole world freely and forever without taking any additional lands! Now, that's just an indication of the potential and how exciting the prospects can be in the advancement of solar technologies...

This is the time world should  invest more on solar energy, it will definitely be able to pay back when we start to run out of fossil fuels and Uranium.

May be equatorial countries can export solar energy to industrial countries in northern hemisphere in the winter! equatorial countries can make some additional revenue from carbon credits as well in future when the world is concentrating on bring the carbon levels down! All this would be good news for the world as a whole and developing countries in particular.

After all, Sun is distributing it's blessings in much more democratic and fair manner than fossil fuels ever have!

End the burning, Cool down and Clean up!


In our last post which was triggered by some discussions at few other blogs, we discussed the problems of consumerism. There, we found the need for some vital statistics on the effects of consumerism. Anyway, some of most interesting and widely discussed subjects these days are on global warming, oil prices, when the oil going to run out what next etc...

Come to think of it, exactly :

How much Fossil Fuel do we actually have in world reserves currently ?
What are the rate we are burning them and how long will they last ?

On the other hand, can we really afford to burn the remaining carbon fuels in the light of increasing CO2 levels and the threat of global warming?

What are the  alternatives we have?

Well, answers to those are easy to find these days! At least the part of finding the statistics, analyzing them with common sense and existing knowledge and coming up with a set of logical conclusions is not too difficult. Difficulty will be in getting people (or societies, economies) to change their current beliefs and behaviors! not to mention the policy makers.

Anyway let's have a look at the statistics first (from wikipedia) :

Currently we have around 1200 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. Of which we use about 84 million barrels daily at current production rate. Therefore oil is believed to last 43 more years.

Similarly, about 905 billion metric tonnes of Coal is available with the production rate of about 18 million metric tonnes daily. Therefore Coal will last for 148 years.

Availability of natural Gas is about 180 trillion cubic meters, at current production rates will last till about 60 more years.

These figures haven't taken into account the fact that the demand for these resources increase steadily each year by about 2.3%. However, world production for oil have already peaked, meaning we can not produce any more daily than we are producing right now! Coal and gas too is nearing peak production.

Now to the fun job of analysis :

The reason not to take the increased demand into account (in above calculations) is that it doesn't matter! What ever the demand is, world production is now peaked. Imagine a well with water to last 43 days. Your pump or the tap has a fixed limited rate of which you are taking water out. Now you get visitors and need more water and your well have got it as well. Still, you can not get more out since your output (tap size) is limited, so the well will still last for 43 days, you will just have to manage with whatever amount of water it gives daily until 43 days, after which you will not get even that limited amount. zero! nothing!

hmm that doesn't sound good does it ?  wait.. it's about to get worse! :

Demand increases but the supply stays stable, what does that tell us ? It means more and more fuel shortages and increased price in future. It will get worse in each year until about 30 years after which oil might get too expensive for many practical usages. This will have an impact on coal and gas too as non availability of oil will increase the demand for gas and coal, their prices too will go dramatically up. So we can have following conclusions form our analysis so far :
1) In short term, higher fuel prices and shortages will slow down world economies and growth.
2) In about 30 years, oil, gas and coal all will be too expensive to make their usage impractical for most of tasks.

Only two things can stop this scenario. Let's list them down..
A) Technical advances which enable us to get the same work done by consuming less fuel. (like hybrid cars)
B) Economical slow downs and low growth rates, driving the consumption down. This second outcome is the same as conclusion 1 we stated above, one thing leads to another. Same sad story!

So our only hope seems to lie in technological advances to get more out of same amount of fuel. Remember, this is not about burning less, this is about getting more out of the amount we are already burning per year to meet the growing demand for energy. How practical is that to expect in three decades? Well, history have taught us never to underestimate the advance of science and technology. Hybrid cars and Bloom Boxes are two examples.

Problem is not much about the technical innovations, it's more about peoples capacity and readiness to change and adapt to new technologies. This means relaying of new infra structure (this is one reason why Hydrogen fuel cells vehicles didn't take off), changing attitudes and mindset of people (even after more than a decade of history, hybrid vehicles are still a small fraction of all vehicles running on roads for example), mass production of new technology and survive early periods of trial and error. It generally take time to master a new technology and evangelize it, mass produce with new manufacturing plants etc So even if a technological revolution of increasing the fuel efficiency is possible, we may be running up on time for that. Remember we have only 3 decades left, we may need to start right now!

Now what about other available main energy sources, namely hydroelectricity and nuclear energy? Obviously, Hydro electricity has a limitation imposed by available good enough natural locations. Most available such locations are already being used. Other problems are the impact man made reservoirs have on wild life, environment, soil and eventual filling up of reservoirs by mud deposits resulting from erosion of soil over time. Still, production can be increased but no where near to a level of filling the huge gap fossil fuels going to leave  us with. Currently, hydroelectricity gives us only about 6% of total energy production. That leaves us with the possibility of Nuclear energy.


Even if we discard the potential dangers of nuclear plants like the recent tragedy in Japan after the tsunami, nuclear energy too has one big shortcoming. It is non-renewable! Like fossil fuels the fuel needed for nuclear reactors, Uranium is in short supply. According to statistics current known Uranium reserves (type which good enough in quality to be used in Nuclear reactors) which are economically and technically viable to use are enough to generate power for about 100 more years AT THE CURRENT PRODUCTION LEVEL.  Currently we use nuclear energy to cover about 8.5% of global energy need. Clearly, with fossil fuels diminishing and unable to supply the increased demand, Nuclear energy has to contribute lot more if we are to meet the energy demand and to keep economical growth.

This brings us to the next dimension of the problem. Even if we have fossil fuels, we can not afford to burn them anywhere near current rates due to environmental impacts! Now, Here are the statistics for that.

Currently, fossil fuels(oil, coal, gas) amount to 85% of total energy production.
Burning of fossil fuel is producing 21.3 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.
The world eco system can absorb only half of that amount for a year. 
(from wikipedia)

We are producing 10.5 billion tonnes of more CO2 yearly and it is increasing as well! effects of these emissions (global warming, climate change, rising sea levels, floods, cyclones) are well known and we are already experiencing them.

If we are to give priority to save the world and environment (which is nearing a tipping point in terms of global warming) and avert a disaster, reducing the use of fossil fuels by around 50% is a must. With only 50% of consumption from current we can double their life to about 85-90 years! that is enough time for new technologies to come in and make use of fossil fuels much more efficiently, enabling us to keep them for even longer periods! this sounds like win-win!  However, That means only 43% of current energy requirement can be allowed to fulfill by burning of fossil fuels. Remaining 57% has to come by other sources.

Currently, other renewable energy sources (hydro, solar, wind, geo thermal) are all producing only about 7% of energy need in total. Technological advances have to be made in these sectors to grow this amount significantly over the coming decades. Specially Solar energy (more on that later) obviously, this will take time.....

Until those technical advances are made, how are we to immediately fill the gap of remaing 50% of our annual energy need (further 2.3% get added to it annually!) ? The only short term hope is to go nuclear! It's current usage of 8.5% will have to be increased  by about 6 folds! If we remember the Uranium resources statistics, at current rates it was enough for 100 years but once we increase the production by 6 folds, Uranium too will be gone in 16 years!

Hmm looks like all we have a got here is a short term solution after all. What could be a long term strategy for this problem ?

Stay tuned.. in the the next post we will pick up a possible long term solution. We have 16 years for that! (kidding, I'm just splitting my post in two at this point as this is already getting too long)

PS : Just published. To the long term solution ->