In this short article, inspired by the current Climate conference in Poland, the author looks at the need for all of us to start to carefully consider the choices we make about our own consumption of energy and materials.
Our part in our Planet’s future
by Tom Leger
The current talks on climate change in Poland have attracted more interest in the UK due to the presence of Sir David Attenborough who delivered the opening address. The aim of the organisers was to try to engage world audiences at a more popular level in order to get people to generally take greater interest in the problem. However, as the BBC commented in their Radio 4 PM programme this evening, the somewhat muted applause at the end of Sir David’s presentation was a painful reminder of how difficult it will be to find a workable solution to this extraordinarily serious issue.
At the same time as the conference was being organised, they were faced with the prospect of the US withdrawing from international accords on climate change, effectively amounting to a total denial that “global warming” even exists. Similarly, Brazil has also threatened to pull out of any action to address climate change, a particularly worrying prospect given that they are the custodians of the Amazon Basin, regarded by many as the “Lungs of the World”. As many have pointed out, it is hard to get poorer countries to sign up to action that will adversely affect their future development and which might leave them in relative poverty for many decades to come, if they see nations such as the US dismissing the issue as irrelevant.
However, if we as a society agree with David Attenborough that we are facing a genuine crisis that might determine whether or not this world survives in a form that we recognise today, then we have to start to do whatever we can to contribute to our survival as a species. That means we have to start to consider our actions as individuals and try to avoid doing things that might add to the burden we place on the earth and its eco-systems. We have to put into practice that old adage: “Think global, act local.”
It is not going to be easy and the implications might be far-reaching. For us as individuals it will come down to simple decisions about what we give up. For example, should we expect to go on several holidays each year, given that aircraft create some of the worst transport pollution? Do we need new clothes just because some fashion guru says so? Can we survive without the latest gadgets that the market thinks we should buy? Can we simply eat less – and try to limit our diet to food that is locally grown to save on preservatives as well as to stop areas of Africa and elsewhere being given over to intensive farming? In general, do we need so much “stuff”?
The other thing that we have to face up to is the amount of energy we are now consuming – and for what? When a bus-load of tourists stop to take dozens of snaps with their phones, the majority of pics will be uploaded to the Cloud where they will add to the huge load of data being stored for no apparent reason. Or perhaps you are someone who leaves the Smart TV to stream videos all day long because you get unlimited data with your internet package. All of the above causes the data managers to build more data-centres to store those images and to be able to provide fast downloads of huge amounts of data on demand – and that is where the problem starts.
A modern data-centre requires power to run its memories and to be responsive to our demand for uploads and downloads. Then it has to cool those data banks – a massive energy guzzler. And finally, it has to have emergency power generation capabilities to keep things online if the main power goes down. It is estimated that one data-centre located in a temperate climate (such as ours) consumes the same amount of power as a town of about 70,000 people. And there are many, many, data-centres in countries such as the UK.
We have to start to reduce our energy demands because, no matter what the alternative energy people might say, there is almost no such thing a totally clean energy. Take those wind turbines springing up around the country; how do they make the electricity we all seem to need? By using powerful magnets which are made of rare-earth minerals, most of which are mined in China. However, “mining” is a misnomer, for the cheapest method is to spray concentrated acids onto large patches of countryside. The results are catastrophic. As one expert commented:
“Conventional separation methods also have severe environmental repercussions. Current separation technologies produce large amounts of chemical waste, which cannot be economically recycled. One of the 10 most polluted sites in the world is a manmade lake in China, where the waste effluents from REE extractions are stored.”
In fact, the lake in question is a vast acid bath, with fumes that sweep over the surrounding countryside, destroying farm crops for miles around. And it is not just turbines that require rare-earth magnets; electric cars, colour TVs, and cell-phones are just a few other examples. In fact, every time you upgrade your phone “because its free”, you add to the demand for rare-earth, but you also add to the need for energy. Screens are getting larger and you are encouraged to use your phone more often (are you are compulsive texter?), so we typically have to charge a modern smart phone almost every day. (Do you remember the old Nokias that went for days or a week on a single charge?)
Can we save the world by taking action in the UK alone? It is not likely. Someone once assessed the take-up of a typical environmental initiative that involved increased expense. They reckoned that in a more advanced country such as the UK, between three and five per-cent might adopt the changes for the greater good. So the worldwide impact of such moves will be almost negligible.
However, and this is a really important point, it will allow countries such as the UK to look developing countries in the eye and say “Yes, we are doing our bit.” If we do not, then how can we expect the huge numbers of poorer people in less-developed countries to forego all the wonders of modern technology that we in the West have enjoyed for decades.
Consumerism is rampant in this country – just as it is in almost every modern economy. It is going to destroy our world unless we can get everyone to start to think differently and to consciously reduce their demand for energy and goods that they do not really need. We have to learn to say: I do not want another phone – this one is perfectly good enough. I do not need a 4k TV (or 8K), this one is good enough. I do not need a new car every few years – I will keep this one until it starts to give up. My kitchen does not need a “make-over” – I don’t care what my neighbours say about it. I am not worried that I wore this dress to a party last month – it is coming out again!
As Sir David Attenborough said today, we are now looking at the harsh reality of a world that is losing animal and plant species at an astonishing rate. We are also looking at the potential for our own extinction, for the earth can only take so much before the whole of our ecosystem slips into terminal decline and takes us with it. Next time you slip into that coffee shop, stop and think what that one cup has already done to the planet and ask yourself if you really needed it.
As one who gave up coffee overnight 20 years ago, I can vouch for the fact that there is indeed “Life after Latte”