Earth Hour 2012: the scam continues…

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How many times in history have we embraced new technologies and the sales pitches that came along with them only to discover completely unexpected consequences that came (to be fair, along with the leaps in efficiency and seismic shifts in socio-economic paradigms) with them?

Computers have not created the “paperless” office, nor eliminated time-wasting meetings but instead made the creation of voluminous documentation (as well as printing them out and generating hard copies) a lot easier not to mention requiring countless hours of meetings for their authors to “walk-through” these documents with their intended readers (who, guess what, don’t read them in their own time). To this day, the debate rages on as to what value email really adds to business and whether this value is not merely cancelled out by the time needed to manage our inboxes, undo the misunderstandings caused by poorly-written messages, and the erosion of the quality and value of the content of the messages in many of these emails.

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While the average middle-class household today has at least 100 times the computing power of what was available to the entire Apollo program back in the 60’s, there is something to be said about what this power is used for. Compare a 200-GB, 3-GHz marvel of consumer marketing being used for downloading mind-numbing music and updating FaceBook profiles to a 64-KB 500-KHz vacuum tube monster being used to land a man on the moon. It all depends on what one’s definition of progress is.

And that is just what we observe in the world of computing.

With this year’s Earth Hour just around the corner (on Saturday, the 31st March), we again highlight a very critical flaw in the current trendy mad rush into so-called “green” technologies — that the underlying issue of runaway consumption has been glossed over and/or swept under the rug. The only REAL solution to averting catastrophic environmental degradation (that is if the theory behind its prediction is sound) is to consume less and reduce activity in absolute terms.

Ratios such as efficiency tell us the sugarcoated story.

Take hybrid cars. They are more energy efficient. But will an increase in efficiency actually result in a reduction in consumption? If people spend less on running a car, guess what? They end up driving more. Then there’s manufacturing. Humanity has become more efficient at manufacturing. But that simply meant that more people can afford to buy manufactured goods as this efficiency resulted in lower costs. Therefore, more is produced. On top of that, people now value durability and serviceability less in these goods because their low prices mean that replacement is often a more economical option than repair. Think of the containerloads of garments and useless trinkets being imported all the way from China (on petroleum-guzzling freighters) most of which will be used only for a couple of months — or even days — before they end up in a landfill.

Absolutes such as consumption tell us the real story.

For all the progress we’ve seen in the development of technologies that directly harvest solar energy (i.e. solar panels and cells), the fact is that no amount of technology changes the absolute quantity of solar energy captured for every square metre of collection material. This becomes relevant when we consider that the amount of energy it takes to accelerate a 70-kg human being to a useful speed of, say, 50 kilometres per hour is an absolute quantity and will not change no matter how much technology you apply to it.

The only reason we are able to build machines today that possess the power to propel us to really cool speeds or do things hundreds of times faster than our unaided bodies can is because of the energy-dense fuels required to power these machines. Fossil fuels are unmatched in energy density and squarely beat “green” energy by a hundred or even a thousand fold. Within centuries we are releasing an amount of energy and toxic gases that took nature millions of years to store and trap respectively in fossil fuels.

Note that this is speaking in absolutes.

So if we think we can continue to consume the way we do and multiply the way we do thinking that technologies that will wean us off petroleum are just around the corner, think again. Next time you get a free plastic toy with your McDonalds Happy Meal, stop to think of how much energy was consumed in its production before the 15 minutes of attention it gets from your 5-year-old expires. Next time you order a mug of capuccino from your neighbourhood Starbucks, think of the 10,000-odd years’ worth of stored solar energy that went up in the puff of steam used to froth its milk.

12 Replies to “Earth Hour 2012: the scam continues…”

  1. I see your point. If a person uses a very efficient product, still he/she will abuse it by consuming too much. Airbus and Boeing already introduced an upgraded version of A320 and 737 called NEO and MAX respectively in which they will use new type of engines that will consume less fuel to lessen more carbon emissions. But damn a lot of airline companies ordered lots of those said aircraft (A320NEO’s order backlog is currently over 1,000 including Cebu Pacific’s 30 A321 NEO orders) and the majority of them are to add more flight schedules and new destinations. Based from your last line, it reminds me of this lowlife who is so ignorant of how much energy consumed on making that thing he’s breaking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjEBE0nvVF8

  2. I live like a hermit and the only power-consuming device I have is a laptop. And now the greenwashed corporations are telling me I’m not an Earth-Lover because I despise Earth Hour. Skroo dem.

  3. I think “earth hour” is ridiculous. It’s a silly movement meant to assuage people’s guilt for not doing anything about overconsumption. They talk about awareness- I don’t think we need any more awareness. We need action at this point and when Maria Ressa talks to the guy who started the whole thing as if this was such a great and successful movement- it takes all the energy to keep the irises from rolling up into the whites of my eyes.

    Having said that, I disagree that green technologies will not help us in the future. You’re wrong when you say all we need to do is consume less. Why? Because there’s going to be 10 billion people on this planet in less than 40 years barring any major catastrophe. By then, consuming less isn’t going to be enough either. We need more efficiency and more technology that’s not going to suck the life-blood out of the planet as we demand more from it.

    1. call me naive and yes, guilty of not doing enough for our environment, or doing something but not to the maximum of my capabilities.. at least people like me are trying. yes, “We need more efficiency and more technology that’s not going to suck the life-blood out of the planet as we demand more from it” .. but while we don’t have it yet, or its not yet available to the ordinary middle class, whatcha gonna do? nothing? yep. i bet.

  4. earth hour should just be taken for what it is. an ad to create awareness. nothing more.

    now if the individual is moved enough toward an absolute and sustained plan of action, that’s our call.

  5. Well done benign0, your article can be source material for 50 Dilbert cartoon strips!

    Here’s the real story about hybrid cars. Ever heard of a concept called a “carbon footprint”? Read it here:
    http://www.wired.com/autopia/2008/05/the-ultimate-pr/

    According to the wired.com article, it takes “113 million BTUs of energy to make a Toyota Prius.
    Because there are about 113,000 BTUs of energy in a gallon of gasoline, the Prius has consumed the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of gasoline before it reaches the showroom.
    Think of it as a carbon debt — one you won’t pay off until the Prius has turned over 46,000 miles or so.”

    Better to just buy a good used car eh? At least its’ carbon debt has been paid long ago. ^_^

      1. But those overpaid employees and CEOs and OFWs who are “sabay sa uso” would rather buy the latest model make of cars/SUVs and not think for a second about mother earth. Just observe, how many late model SUVs and cars can you see when on a red light? I’m one of the few driving a 2 decades old vehicle. Makes me wonder though, kung talagang naghihirap ba ang Pilipinas?

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