Single poppy in wheat field

The lure of sustainability

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

Ever since the expression became currency some three decades ago, ‘sustainable use and re-use of resources’ has been a catch-cry of ecologists.

Unfortunately, as with so many other high-minded mission statements, it has been hijacked by politicians and corporations and its original meaning has been mired with empty rhetoric, laying it open to a multiplicity of interpretations, not a few of which are in fact the antithesis of what sustainability truly is. For instance, in certain circles it is thought that (i) we can manage the world’s reserves of fossil fuels because we are still finding new deposits, or (ii) we can clear-fell old-growth forests because we can plant a new tree for each one felled.

The first example is spurious thinking, because it presupposes infinity, when we all know that the earth’s supply of fossil fuels is finite. There will come a day – even if modern exploration techniques manage to prolong that day – when we will have used up all the oil, natural gas and coal that nature gave us. Therefore, while alternative energy sources have been developed, and in many cases practically implemented, the time to focus on these as our primary power generations is now, not tomorrow. I shall turn to these alternatives later.

The second example is much more complex, for it involves answering the question: why? Why are we still clear-felling old growth forests at a rate of a football stadium’s girth per day? There are two principal answers. The first is the clearance of forest in order to create agricultural land. I have seen this at first-hand in the Amazon, and the image of hundreds of noble trees, lying inert on the forest floor, is still imprinted on my mind a dozen years later, a burning, scarifying brand, the welt of which refuses to heal. And, ironically, such clear-felling is not only a waste of trees, but also a waste of time and effort. Most of the world’s old-growth stands are in tropical rainforests, the topsoil of which is so poor in nutrients that it cannot support more than a few harvests of staple food species, such as corn, millet, sorghum or rice. Once the soil is exhausted, there is no alternative but to fell anther stand of forest and start afresh.

The second motivator behind clear-felling is the purely profit-led wood chipping industry, in which Japan is the chief culprit. Thanks to rapacious Japanese logging companies, vast tracts of the pristine Borneo wilderness no longer exist, and, before it became oil-rich, Malaysia similarly signed over most of Sarawak. These logging concessions are still in place today.

I may be old-fashioned, but I think it is the height of environmental disrespect to take a tree, convert it to wood chips, then, under heat and pressure, reconstitute it into particle board, fashion it into a desk, or a TV cabinet (or what have you) and call it ‘wooden furniture’. True wooden furniture can last centuries; this stuff is designed to be disposable, as it disintegrates after only a few years.

However, to return to the sustainability question, with regard to clear-felling, the answer that we can plant replacement trees is tantalising (and true), but vexatious. What type of trees do we plant? If we remove, for argument’s sake, a billion trees in a year (the true figure is massively in excess of that) then we should plant a billion trees. However, most old-growth forests are made up of slow-growing hardwoods, which may take decades – even centuries – to reach maturity. Therefore, we must take into account these growth rates, and re-plant vastly more trees than we fell, and of identical species, in order to achieve any form of ‘sustainability’.

In a commercially driven world the temptation naturally exists to replace old-growth forests with faster-growing trees, such as Mountain Ash or Chinese Paulania. This is not an option, for it totally imbalances the macro- and micro-ecology of the immediate area, affecting – to list just a few – birds that nest in native trees; plants, animals and parasites which depends on them for food and/or camouflage, and even smaller micro-organisms whose life-cycles are intrinsically wedded to the leaf-litter and other detritus specific to these trees only.

Furthermore, at least some of the world’s old hardwoods are not as slow-growing as is commonly thought, and Australia is home to many of these. I quote the eminent British botanist and TV personality, David Bellamy, with whom I have worked on a number of projects. Speaking of Western Australia, in his autobiography, he has this to say:

“…local forests that sported some of the world’s most sought after timbers, Karri, Jarrah and Mari were being clear-felled, some to make way for plantations of, in comparison, very low value Monterey Pine, originally imported from California. The official reason was again, of course, provision of local jobs and the fact that pine trees grow faster than gums, arguments put forward again and again across the world. I could in some way stomach the former but not the latter, for the gums are among the fastest growing trees on earth.”

It is now time to turn to the question of sustainability in agriculture and energy production.

I have already written about the need to diversify our agriculture, and exploit a wider range of plants and animals than is presently the case. This will reduce our dependence on the widely-accepted staples of only a handful of meats/fish and vegetables/pulses. By carefully husbanding more naturally-occurring species, in their localities, we not only practise permaculture, but also the environmental impact of certain species, notably cattle and sheep, both of which significantly increase the outrophication [loss of energy from the ecosystem] of both soils and river systems. And, while the jury is still out on the subject of genetically modified foods, there is a case to be made for the science of genetics producing higher-yield food crops, able to be contained within physically smaller farm plots.

When it comes to energy production, it is sic passim that we live in a world governed by electricity supply. Every year (sometimes, it seems to me, every day) some new gadget is invented, a toy, a frippery – but to the under 25s an essential (!) which has to be bought, and powered by electricity.

Let us look at what we have, and the alternatives.

1. Fossil fuels:

principally coal to supply homes and industries, and oil to fuel cars
As I have already stated, there are short-term solutions, and highly polluting. The new generation of gas/hybrid cars is in its fledgling state, but the few presently in production, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Hybrid are to be welcomed. If these are fully functional vehicles, with all the mod-cons associated with their gas-guzzling competitors, then the transition of this type of private transport should be encouraged. The alternative of, say, opening up the Alaskan wilderness to oil exploration is yet another example of self-interested short-termism, and, as such, it is environmentally abominable.

Of all the world’s energy sources, coal-fired power stations are the dirtiest, and the most inefficient. In fact, a powerful political argument for their retention is precisely linked to that inefficiency, for the coal-mining industry is one of the few genuinely labour-intensive pursuits on earth. This is why Prime Minister Howard’s recent, and very open, support of the industry (in what he claimed to be an environmentally responsible policy initiative – ?) was predicated on the reassurance of mining jobs in the Hunter Valley, Central Queensland, and other (perhaps politically sensitive) regions.

However, as one industry wanes, another waxes, or so is the lesson of history. When motor cars replaced the horse, huge numbers were – quite literally – put out to grass; blacksmiths, farriers, saddle makers, even the lowest paid who were employed to clear up manure from stinking city streets. But these people became assembly line workers, motor mechanics; the hansom cab driver became today’s taxi driver, and so on. Similarly, while computers have made millions of people redundant, the industry has created millions of new jobs, both at the upper end of the scale (such as programmers and IT consultants) and at the lower (such as production line workers in silicone chip factories). I therefore do not believe that the closure of the world’s coal mines would lead to mass unemployment. A large part of the slack would be taken up by workers, adequately re-trained, being gainfully employed in alternative energy industries, and in what will become the new science of pollution-free technology, currently in its birth pangs, but, like all the others, a discipline which not only requires highly qualified professionals, but also ordinary mortals to do work such as physically operating the equipment.

2. Hydro-electricity

In the modern era this has been the first energy source to be deemed a ‘clean and green’ alternative to fossil fuels. For the most part, at the delivery point, it is. But the building of hydro-electric plants impacts very severely on the environment. Damming huge river systems and turning them into vast lakes to power water turbines is ecologically unacceptable, for entire ecosystems are compromised at best, and, at worst, lost forever. Witness the damming of Lake Pedder in Tasmania three decades ago. One of the most unique environments on earth – a lake with magnificent old-growth trees and (spectacularly) an inland freshwater beach – disappeared. Also the Snowy River has been reduced to a trickle, and I am among those who believe that – if the deed has been done, and cannot be undone – then at least the sluice gates should be opened further, so as to prevent the river from suffocating to death, due to minimal water-flow.

Unlike the Snowy, large lengths of the Nile are sluggish, slow-flowing currents, but the damming of that river in the building of the Aswan Dam, obliterated many of Egypt’s irreplaceable archeological treasures, only a few of which were moved upstream of Philae in time. The Chinese are presently constructing a huge dam across the Yang-Tze, in an effort to fuel that country’s ever-growing industrial needs. In addition to the displacement of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of people who carried their living from that river, such as subsistence and commercial fishermen – I foresee a massive silt problem emerging within the next 20 years, if not sooner. Hydro-electricity is wonderful in theory, but damaging in practice.

3. Windpower

Now here we have a technology with only minimal greenhouse gas emissions, and one which scientists believe could yield up to 10% of our energy needs by mid-century. Denmark already receives 2% of its power needs from wind turbines, and it is sobering to think that a large concentration of these machines, as for example the one just east of San Francisco, can in fact generate marginally more electricity than a typical nuclear power plant (approximately 1120MW, as against, 1100 MW).

4. Nuclear

There are two ways of producing nuclear energy. Fission, the splitting of the atom, and fusion, the joining of two atoms. The latter is clean, green and safe. But unfortunately it requires too much heat to be commercially viable at any time in the foreseeable future. Cold temperature fusion is a holy grail for nuclear physicists, but it is ages off. Fission is the method we presently use, and while it may be ‘clean’, it is downright dangerous if something goes wrong, as we have seen with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. A foolproof way of storing nuclear waste has not been perfected, and if this waste has the potential to contaminate air and ground water, I see absolutely no purpose in pursuing this form of power generation. Instead we should be channeling all our energies into the safest power source available, the light from the sun.

5. Solar

Flat plate solar panels are already popular, and widely used in many homes. However, far more exciting are ‘concentrating collectors’ and ‘central receivers’. The former utilise heliostats to track the sun and focus its rays onto a small receiving area, thus massively concentrating the energy. The largest complex of these is at Odeillo in the French Pyrenees, where almost 10,000 reflectors are crammed into an area of just less than 2000 square metres, producing temperatures as high as 4000 degrees Celsius.

Taken a step further, and presently under development, is the concept of ‘central receivers’. Here, series of reflectors mounted on computerised heliostats focus the sun’s rays onto a tower-mounted water boiler (in essence this is just a high-tech variation on the old ceiling water heater). The boiler generates steam which can be used in a conventional power plant to produce electricity.

If this technology exists, is totally clean, and renewable in the perpetuity of life on earth, then surely it must be adopted, and quickly. Is it not tantalising to think that if a two square metre home solar panel can provide the domestic heating to a family of four, then a 40 square kilometre grid of central receivers, using concentrating collectors, could perhaps provide total energy solutions to millions? All that is lacking is the political will.

David Bellamy, A Natural Life, Arrow Books, 2003, p. 249.


David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues.

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