I come from a family with a generation of engineers. My father and his brother went to one of the best engineering colleges in India that is reputed worldwide (The Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay). Engineering was a discipline of choice for an India that was rapidly seeking industrialisation after a long and oppressive colonial rule—we considered it sensible to make up for lost time and lost opportunity by emulating our oppressors. The world was moving rapidly in a certain direction and free India, powered by its engineers, was ready to move along.
The engineers in my family, however, made a transition into business or the academics, and eventually into the arts. Their training in linear thinking offered them a certain rigour that enabled deep mining of information to be expressed through their chosen field of art. Their choices and the application of their training has given me a glimpse into both worlds—the world of the logical and the world of the intuitive.
I am starting to learn that both mental applications (linear and non-linear or logical and intuitive) need to coalesce to create beautiful solutions that fit naturally into the intricate web of creativity so as not to break or destroy the delicate strings that run through and from species to fossils, fossils to minerals, minerals to rocks, with water beneath, around, and within.
When a child with impaired vision is given a ball with bearings that create sound to indicate movement and direction, allowing the child use of auditory senses to enjoy a game, design and engineering does not alter reality, it accepts the problem and makes it a little easier to live with.
When a small-farmer, also a mechanical engineer, innovates to intercrop two native species of plants that sequester carbon from the air, fix nitrogen in the soil to improve soil fertility, and make for inexpensive and nutritious fodder that reduces overgrazing of already degraded land, logic and imagination co-create an improved reality to reduce the severity of a problem.
On the other hand, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in trying to solve a pressing problem may actually leave us with a bigger problem to solve: By injecting captured atmospheric carbon deep into Earth’s core, below the volcanic/basalt rock, we will lock “forever” the excessive carbon dioxide emitted by us humans, and quite likely continue to fiddle with and alter natural systems.
We extracted carbon as oil, natural gas, and petroleum, and mined it as coal, now we plan on injecting it as liquified gas. The balance that we tipped by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we aspire to fix by taking it from the atmosphere and putting it back underground—A seemingly simple solution to an obvious problem; only if it were as easy…
In October 2020, while working on an initiative to introduce a respectful consumption model in clothing and textile, I spoke with an associate professor of mechanical engineering to help create a solution to plastic packaging in the clothing retail business. ‘Clothes are not perishable products; there must be a packaging solution that is natural, biodegradable, and that serves the purpose of protecting fabric during shipment. Can you help identify or develop something that meets this criteria?’ I requested. He spoke with his colleagues and got back to me, ‘We only work with composites (80% synthetic polymers, eg. plastic, and 20% natural substances). ‘Seriously! But composites are hard to recycle, aren’t they?’ I asked confused. ‘We are engineers,’ said he in reply, ‘We look at a problem and devise a solution, that’s all.’
This explains how we came up with recycling as a solution to our growing collection of plastic waste, except that composites are hard to strip apart and recycle. My head was filled with images of biscuit wrappers, coffee cups, milk cartons, and bags of potato chips; all packed in a range of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinylidene chloride or dichloride films, mixed with metal foil or wood fibre. Composites reduce the cost of packaging, they increase the shelf life of our products, but only a small part of a composite can be recycled while most of it ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.
And a bigger problem with recycling to manage waste from composites is scale; We need to scale recycling to match the current consumption and disposal of packaging, and we need fossil fuel to run recycling machinery—Fossil fuel combined with scale is where trouble began in the first place.
A linear mind says, ‘no problem!’ and simply breaks apart the fossil fuel and scale combo.
If we decarbonise, anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions become insignificant, and scale with scarcely any emissions of the harmful sort ceases to be an issue. Perfect, industry can go on as is, consumption can continue unhindered, and economies can flourish and compete. The solution—transition to renewable and clean sources of energy—is as linear as this oversimplified view of the problem.
Sure, decarbonising will help restore balance in the atmosphere and will help save the biosphere, but what about the changes triggered by our continuous and scaled use of clean and renewable energy? Earth’s systems apart from the atmosphere and biosphere include the geosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere (the frozen parts of the Earth’s surface), and all five are involved in a symphony, where changes to one (piece) create changes in the entire composition.
In this reduced view of the problem, we overlook another important fact: organic matter needs time to renew, failing which it depletes and dies before its time, dispossessing all that it interconnects with. For example, clean geothermal energy concentrations from the Earth’s core depend on radioactive decay that may take thousands of years to become significant (and part of Earth’s heat may be primordial, therefore not regenerative by nature; once depleted, it cannot be restored), Larderello, Italy, site of the world’s first electrical plant supplied by geothermal energy, has seen its steam pressure fall by more than 25% since the 1950s.
Well, this is merely an obstacle in linear thinking, isn’t it?
We can always substitute geothermal energy with hydrogen from biomass, the new star in the “Environmental Walk of Fame”, however residue, resource, and cycle of exchange need to be considered to calculate impact, resource can range from plants and algae to wood, and residue maybe methane, sulphur and other elements (I admit I need to read more on clean hydrogen, however it make take a while for us to prove that it is a panacea to our copious need for energy).
So, we leave aside clean energy and focus on renewables such as solar and hydro energy from the sun and free-flowing rivers, both of which are abundant and will not be exhausted, only harnessed, except that one of the world’s largest gravity dams for hydroelectricity, the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, has started to warp: the structure is bending out of shape with the push and pressure of “harnessed” water. And the increased risk of earthquakes and floods caused by damming and restricting huge quantities of water that is part of a free-flowing river system is becoming obvious.
Capturing and concentrating solar energy too comes with its own imprint on soil and weather cycles, especially when done at the scale we humans require. Our current economic engine is designed and engineered to ignore the truth in Small is Beautiful, the case for which is evident in imbalanced Earth systems that sustain all life. The 30×30 initiative by the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) is a fabulous recognition of this truth – ‘We cannot restore nature if we do not respect its cycles.’ Thank you Outrage and Optimism for your podcast on HAC.
“The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.” – From Small is Beautiful, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher.
If the problem of climate change, exacerbated by greenhouse gases, is to be solved, we need to look not towards industrialised innovation but towards human-scale technologies; we need to use our brains and our ingenuity to work in congruence with nature and not against or despite it.
The hazards that we will face over the coming years are inevitable; we cannot forcefully bring to a halt a phenomenon that has been put into motion without feeling the tension. Like a car out of control that skids even after you apply the emergency brake, the Earth’s systems will continue to go awry even if we finally get around to reducing our unconsidered use of resources. We will need to be prepared and adequately responsive. Our energy, attention, and income or investments when focused on the right measures, such as regenerative processes and restorative tech, will help us come out of a crisis that we have created. Innovation that does not respect the capital that nature has given us may not solve the problem: tinkering with natural cycles is pointless, it’s we who need to change our habits.