Chatham University

Sustainability & the Environment

Lighten Our Load on the Earth

An essay by Patricia M. DeMarco, Ph.D., director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University

On Earth Day 2011 we 21st-century inhabitants of Earth face graphically dramatic displays of the failures of our contrived human world. We suffer under the delusion that technology can fix any problem. We fight nature, suppress natural systems, and believe we have dominated our environment. For example, the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan revealed one of our "we've thought of everything" tendencies and vulnerabilities. The technically sophisticated Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant complex with its six separate reactors had redundant systems and emergency power supplies. It was built to tight specifications, and had operated for years.

Yet the magnitude 9.0 earthquake coupled with the scale and force of the tsunami were not envisioned as design criteria in the construction of nuclear plants at Fukushima Dai-Ichi. Similarly, few of the 442 operating nuclear power plants around the world could withstand similar multiple disasters. Spent fuel assemblies - which are more dangerous than the reactor itself - await a final disposal policy, and sit in cooling ponds next to reactors all over the world.

Now, as we witness the ocean currents distribute the radioactive contamination from the Japan earthquake and tsunami throughout the food chain, it's worth recalling another voice that cautioned against lack of foresight:

"...the sea has become a dumping ground, not only for assorted rubbish, but for the poisonous garbage of the atomic age. … Introducing harmful substances into the environment is not a one-step process. It is changing the nature of the complex ecological system in ways we usually do not foresee until it is too late." (Rachel Carson in a 1963 in a speech "On the Pollution of Our Environment")

It is time to turn our technical acumen toward working in harmony with the forces of nature. The goal of shifting our economy to sustainable resources requires that we redirect the frantic search for "new" sources of oil or coal substitutes or so-called cheaper forms of gas. We need to replace the inefficient energy infrastructure of the early twentieth century. For example, generating electricity based on the Rankine engine rejects two thirds of fuel value as heat and only converts about a third to electricity to do work. Similarly with transportation, the internal combustion engine converts only twelve percent of its gasoline energy value to forward motion; the rest is lost as friction and heat. Overall we waste or reject more energy than we use to do work!

We need to consider a fundamental shift in the way we organize our society to meet the need for energy, water and nutrients. We already have a blueprint - the natural systems of the world offer excellent models. Surely it is time to invest in resources that are already distributed, that have a defined up front capital cost, use local labor for installation and operation, and have mostly FREE FUEL! We need to organize our economy to become better integrated with an energy system that can be sustained over hundreds of years without degrading the life support system of our Earth. Solar, wind, water power, and bio-fuels can be integrated both actively and passively into the point-of-use to produce a net zero energy and net zero water profile for buildings. Technologies to accomplish this kind of system are in place already – if the subsidies provided for fossil fuels were provided for solar power, for example, we would be well on our way toward reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

We must think about how to transition to a sustainable future with consideration for the generations that come after us. Our grandchildren deserve to expect a world where their own grandchildren will live without constraints inherited from our profligate waste of the bounty of the Earth. Technology and expertise applied with understanding of the natural laws of the universe can yield lasting improvements in our way of life. Sustainability represents a condition of abundance within the carrying capacity of the biosphere of which we are a part. We can embrace the sophisticated and elegant simplicity of living in harmony with the natural world.

Earth Day is a good time to begin to lighten our load on the Earth.


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