Thursday, December 11, 2008

The change of Environmentalism for me

“Why are you an environmentalist? “  I have been asked that question a couple of times, even gave a little presentation on it.  Often people are curious why is there such a person in Singapore. If only they know there are many greater individuals out there in Singapore like Wilson, Siva, Ria and many other quietly contributing volunteers.
It is my love of science and Chinese culture that make me an  environmentalist.  Love for science allowed me to read more and learn about all the damage we are doing to the environment.  Chinese culture – especially Confucianism, teaches us to put the society before self.  Therefore, Science knowledge + Confucianism = Love for environment.  Thank God, I knew I wanted to to do that since Sec 3, when I had to think about a  longer term vision of NCC, I thought that I should have one for my own life too. That is perhaps the greatest benefit that NCC brought to me.
My friend Meijun did dig out another reason:  The Chinese has a strong philosophy about leaving something behind for the world, for better for worse.  I chose the field of environment cause there is no icon for it yet. Then, I didn’t know about Jane Goodall, though she may be the most well known environmentalist?   However, any common man can name you Bill Gates or Alan Greenspan (Giants in their specific field)  but no many common man on the street can give you the equivalent of an environmentalist.  I wanted to be that person.
All in all, I can say making this choice has provided me  a lighthouse in my life.
Although my main environmental volunteer activities were in the Toddycats, which is  more of biodiversity group, my key interests is really in the brown issues.  What do I mean by that?  Perhaps the following summaries it best:
The Year Without Toilet Paper - New York Times
“That’s the thing about this current wave of environmentalism,” he continued. “It’s not about, how do we protect some abstract pristine space? It’s what can real people do in their home or office or whatever. It’s also very urban. It’s a critical twist in the old wilderness adage: Leave only footprints, take only photographs. But how do you translate that into Manhattan?”
Even if we legislate a certain nature area to be a reserve, if we have to develop it, it will still have to go.  Hence I am keen interested in what can I do in my daily life in my consumption of resources to save the planet.
“ My personal stand is this: As environmentalists, we are not trying to salvage the earth per se. We are merely buying time so that scientists and researchers can find alternative forms of resources. … All they need is time. That’s where the environmentalists come in.” 
Darren Shiau
I know the environment has to be protected because we humans, don’t own the Earth and at the way we are going, we may kill both ourselves and the planet.  The above statement by Darren Shiau provides an excellent answer to anyone who in the past asked,”What are you trying to do as an environmentalist?  Save the Earth?”
The issue with such a view is that there is a lack of urgency to the whole environmental problem. It seems like we can still pollute different parts of the planet and consume the resource as long as our rate of consumption don’t outrun the pace of innovation of our scientists.  It just seems like something for the long haul for hundreds of years.
When the Inconvenient Truth came out, I didn’t feel a need to watch it as I felt that I am already a convert and I have a reason/argument to do my part of the environment.    Hence previously, there was a lack of urgency in me with regards to my concern for the environment.   The whole climate change issue brings in a much more urgent timescale to the whole environmental issue (decades for action to be taken, instead of hundreds of years ) and makes it one that affects the entire planet and not just regions of it. Most importantly, the problem of climate change as an environmental problem is one that will happen in our lifetime as compared to the depletion of resources .
Somehow after watching the Inconvenient Truth, I didn’t feel the urgency to do something about the environment as much as after I read “A new green history of the world”.  Maybe it was reading this book straight after Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” that made me realised in more depth that we have actually screwed up civilizations many times.  It was the amount of details of actual societies in “Collapse” and the account of generic areas such as the once Fertile Crescent described in a “A New Green History of the World” that struck something deeper in me.  Perhaps it was reading exact historical accounts of how we exploit the environment for our current form of  economies (for example the Ocean Island) that really resonated deeply in me.
Also, “A New Green History of the World” covers in details as compared to the film ( An Inconvenient Truth) about the  problem of climate change – the mention of positive feedback and the whole uncertainty of the climate model gives more urgency to the whole climate change problem. This is because, what the scientists have predicted earlier are happening at a faster rate because they have not taken into accounts of positive feedback issues such as the Arctic ice in Greenland not melting in a single piece, but rather it will crack into pieces and hence large chunks of it will enter the ocean earlier
This was the next book that brought me to a different level of environmental consciousness. Perhaps, the events above described a change in my understanding of the scale and urgency of the environmental problem, this book resulted in a change of my view of the scale of solutions.
For example in page 210, Chevron’s CEO, David O’Reilly states taht even if we shut down all industrial activities, all commercial activity, all residential activities – it will reduce carbon emissions by 68 percent.  I don’t know what are the rest – maybe the destruction of forests. Hence there are calls to pay governments not to cut their forests.
The most important message from the book is perhaps saving the environment is not a party but a revolution. We can’t continue to tell ourselves that we are doing our part for the environment as long as we practice a green lifestyle such as not using plastics bags, avoiding standby powers. Even if you reach a higher state of environmental consciousness and become a vegetarian, it is still not enough.
Another example is power production method which is very inefficient when considered for the entire process from electricity production in the power plants and through the the grid lines to the individual homes and offices.  At night, when the power demand is lower, the power generators are still kept spinning at a lower efficiency because it will take much more to start them up all over again.
In addition, our gasoline engines in cars is only 21% efficient.  What Thomas L. Friedman lays out in the boo k is something that people are calling it the V2G – vehicle to grid.  Basically, convert all cars to electric cars with batteries.  Charge them when demand for electricity is low ( at night) . Sell the electric power back to the grid when demand is high ( in the day). 
The ideal future is one whereby there will be microgeneration of energy using wind and solar in every buildings( more efficient than big electricity generators with their long transfer lines) , having smart grids  when batteries in households and electric cars can buy and sell energy to the grid ( eliminating the need for excess power plants) . 
One question I have though is what about the problem of standby power then if every single appliance is connected to the smart grid and programmed to function at where the electricity price is low.  The idea is for example, setting your washing machine to wash only when the price of electricity falls  below a certain amount, hence saving your money and making the power load of the power generation “flatter” and hence less need for excess power stations. To me, the washing machine must stay in a state of standby then and does this consume energy?
The biggest message that one should bring away from the book though is that it is not enough to be eco friendly in all your little ways.  There has to be some big changes to the world infrastructure and system that probably only governments and some businesses can bring about.
It is not that it is not important to embrace green living.  It is a move in the move in the right direction, and don’t declare victory prematurely as the simple ways are just not enough.   Also, we need educated, concerned individuals to bring about the change of mindset of the governments.  This is where eco friendly lifestyles of individuals matter – because only these people will be concerned.

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