The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Are current green initaitives only half measures towards sustainability?

Are current green initiatives only half measures towards sustainability.... merely postponing the inevitable?
Essentially all human activity revolves around the extraction of virgin material, energy production/usage and the generation of waste.
Much of today's 'green' activity focusses on the following:
  • Material- Here the focus is keeping things as local as possible and to consume only low energy products. 
  • Energy- Here the focus is on producing cleaner power and increasing the usage of renewable energy for our power needs. When it comes to engine fuels, the focus is on moving away from fossil fuels and opting for more non-polluting alternatives like bio-fuels. On the demand end these initiatives have resulted in technology that consume less power or fuel to give us the maximum output.
  • Waste- Here the focus is on cleaner non-polluting technologies.
These are well meaning methods towards a greener future, but is it enough to become truly sustainable. That begs the question- what is being truly sustainable? I would imagine that it would mean that we consume material in a manner that there is enough left for posterity... for future generations and other species to live quality lives on this earth. It would also mean that we consume energy/fuel in a manner that there is enough to go by for posterity, or, that any residue of our activities does not result in a toxifying of our air, ground or water.

Now, what would be the steps that we would have to take to ensure that we satisfy the above conditions of sustainability? Let us consider the current 'green' measures:
Materials- By consuming local or consuming low energy products would we meet those conditions? I believe that it all depends on the rate of consumption. The stresses are already showing, with a running out of various stones and timber alternatives, or, the astronomical price increases that we have been seeing. It looks to me that to change to a non-consumerist community would be far more challenging (it's kind of an addiction). The answer would be to reach a near net zero virgin resource consumption situation. The focus would therefore have to be on the development of technologies in nearly all fields that see the use of reused or renewable raw materials. Since at IGH we focus on the built environment, the examples would be along the lines of technology to reuse steel without hampering its brittleness (a result of its carbon content), the making of reconstituted concrete/blocks/tiles that bring the use of cement down to zero, low-energy woody materials/ composites, non-toxic resins and polishes, and so on. Does this mean the end of conventional construction? These are the debating points.... whatever it leads to, one thing is for sure... we would need a radical re-think on the business as usual processes.
Energy- The answer is not whether we should use renewable energy or non-fossil fuel energy. What we ought to be focussing on is whether the overall resources that is used in the production of energy can be sustained for ever? Yes, the sun's energy will last us many millennia, but what about the life of technology like PV... they currently have a shelf life of about 15 to 20 years.... what then? Have we figured out methods to manufacture PV technology in a manner that we dont spend more than what we expect the PV products to produce? Can we design systems that are perennial? What about bio-fuels? Can we be sure that we would have enough land for growing the bio-fuel without eating into our forests or adding pressure on our regular food crops?
Waste- Here is quite a crucial component that defines how badly we have tilted the sustainability balance. Be it materials we use for all production/building activity, or, everything we consume as food and other daily consumables, or the fuel we burn to power our transportation, cities and industry..... we leave something behind. Can we endeavour to work on technology that produces no residue, or, renders all such gaseous, liquid or.solid residue into re-usable materials or inert enough not to cause any problem whatsoever to our air, water or land?

The earth's population is slated to settle around the 10 billion mark. While it means that there would only be that many mouths to feed, another phenomenon, which is the increasing global urban population, would have a pronounced impact on what resources we have left. Along with this comes a greater hunger and greater 'want' from a basic 'need' based society. The pressure will be on us to consume less, and pollute less.... which is as much a measure of attitude/s as it is a challenge for technology. Like I mentioned earlier, the former has led us to where we are... and while we do our utmost to bring change in lifestyles, the focus would equally be on gearing the latter to meet the stringent sustainability demands as mentioned above.
I do agree that current 'green'measures are probably the first steps towards such a change, but it only seems prudent that we know where we are headed and what, at best, will suffice.

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