Sustainability – Through the Horizon

In the future we are all dead…the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thoughts and behavior that we, most of us, offer a great resistance to acting on it in practice.

– John Maynard Keynes 

In the previous blog (January 28) I used my definition of sustainability in terms of three “simple” criteria:

1.       For the time span applicability I am using President Obama’s definition of a future – not the Keynesian definition:

“We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall”.

The future is being treated as a horizon – the line that appears to separate the Earth from the sky; the line that we will never reach; the line that will always move with us and give us the option to adjust and re-evaluate. Yes – in the future we are all dead but our children and grand children and their families will always be with us (my definition of now in my book “Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now”). It will be their decision to continue to keep their vision at the horizon and to act so their children will inherit a sustainable future. Our contribution to our children’s decision making will come through the education opportunities that we give our children and through the examples that we provide.

2.       Sustainable action requires equilibrium with the Earth’s physical environment (at least until such time as we can develop the technology to settle extra-terrestrially). This condition excludes unrestrained economic growth and requires that we strive to base our economy on complete recycling of the resources that we use. Since Physics tells us that energy cannot be fully recyclable, we will need instead to fully convert our energy sources to sustainable ones. The only practical way that we know of in which to do this is to base our energy needs on the solar energy that we currently sequester and use it in a way that doesn’t result in polluting our physical environment with non-recyclable residues. The possibility of mastering controlled fusion technology provides an interesting exception to this statement and will need to be reexamined once the technology that would make it feasible develops. (This possibility “short-circuits” the Sun by getting its own energy from fusion of hydrogen).

We have existing technology capable of converting solar energy into usable forms (in terms of electricity, heat and chemicals), but in its present state it requires a premium cost. The necessary equilibrium with the Earth’s physical environment also requires constant Life Cycle Assessments (LCA)  of our activities to discover and address all adverse impacts. We have already made great progress in this effort and in the corresponding effort to construct a database of Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) that will eliminate duplicate efforts and guide us in optimizing our activities.

3.       We must focus our economic growth (which is subject to the restrictions in criterion 2.) on maximizing individual opportunities for everybody on this planet. This requirement is less obvious than the previous two requirements and will require intense discussion. It requires a different form of growth – an internal growth to fill up the voids in the global opportunity distribution. Here again, I am following President Obama’s line of thought as was expressed in an address on Dec. 6, 2011 at Osawatomie High School in Kansas and quoted by Thomas B. Edsall on his blog:

This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people — we tell our kids — that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class. We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do. That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores.

President Obama’s emphasis is on the US, mine is global.

The argument for the growth of equal opportunities is not based solely on ethical considerations or our struggle for social justice, although these are indeed very important. This requirement is not based on assuming collective responsibility. It does not involve dividing the World into givers and takers in the controversial way brought up in the last US presidential campaign. The argument is instead based on the life experience that expanded individual opportunities are necessary for the expansion of collective opportunities and hence, collective growth. Equal opportunities for all will probably also give us the best opportunity to avoid destroying ourselves by killing each other.

We do have the means to accomplish all three requirements. In my opinion these are important long-term goals that are achievable within a timescale that will prevent the type of irreversible damage to which it would be impossible to adapt. These goals are achievable and transferable with perpetual improvements from generation to generation through example and education on all levels. There is no question that as always, attempts to accomplish long-term goals will conflict with immediate needs. Keeping our eyes focused on the horizon should not blind us to the immediate needs. The challenge will always be to keep the balance between the two and try to do everything that we can to ensure that our children will continue to do the same.
Going back to the Fermi Paradox (January 28), as of now we have no evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life. In this vast Universe, as far as we know, we are unique. It would be a great shame, then, if we were to let ourselves be demolished as a result of either careless destruction of our habitat or intentionally killing each other, marking us as a curiosity in the history of the Universe that nobody would be able to study.
I have an undergraduate student, Ms. Aisha Dorta, who works with me in an attempt to quantify some of these concepts. She read the last blog (January 28) and in response she wrote to me the following comment:

It seems that at a time where this planet is at civil war (i.e. USA – Afghanistan), and there are so many chronic problems that have yet to show any chance of subsiding, the chances of Earth becoming a sustainable planet are dimmer. Of course this is all speculation and there is no tangible evidence of this being the case.

I find it to be an interesting response because it illustrates our individual and collective attitudes to the future of the planet and divides us into optimists and pessimists. This is another strong distinguishing factor that emerges from being part of the physical environment. When we investigate any system -be it a far away galaxy, a drug (provided that we are not the patient for whom the drug is directed) or any other “scientific” topic, we do not usually exhibit emotional attachments. We investigate the response of the system to perturbations that we provide and in the process, learn about the system. The science of Geology is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a: a science that deals with the history of the earth and its life especially as recorded in rocks, b: a study of the solid matter of a celestial body (as the moon)”. It excludes humans and it excludes the future.
We can study such systems in a rational way with no emotional attachments. With a population of 7 billion people, which is bound to increase to 16 or 9 (depending on the scenario) toward the end of the century, the equation changes. We are investigating ourselves and we are emotional. However, since we lack a truly objective party to do this study, we must make do with ourselves, focusing on the horizon in sight with the hope that by bettering our world today we can brighten that which future generations look upon.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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4 Responses to Sustainability – Through the Horizon

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  2. Craig Biegel says:

    I find your thoughts on sustainability of utmost importance in order to ensure environmental stability for our future generations. As we proceed in our transition from carbon-based fuels to alternative energy sources, it is necessary to focus on aspects of social sustainability as well. Due to the range of personal financial status and the global socioeconomic spectrum, it appears as though many individuals have mixed thoughts regarding alternative sources of energy, such as its cost-effective characteristics. Although the cost of the energy transition may seem unattractive to some at the moment, there are many other ways individuals can participate in sustainable practices. I would like to discuss these options in the context of The Silhouette, a green building that utilizes alternative energy, located in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and a novel by David Owen entitled, Green Metropolis, wherein he claims that living in urban, rather than rural, settings will increase energy efficiency and decrease carbon footprint.
    The implementation of green buildings into urban settings is an important aspect of sustainable development. This statement strongly confirms Owen’s thesis as he suggests that living in small, compact spaces (the city) is a necessity if we would like to improve the quality of life for future generations: “Stacking and concentration dwellings…is the easiest way to make communities truly efficient, and it is the only way to achieve deep reductions in per-capita energy use and carbon output…” (Owen 208). The Silhouette is a four-story condominium, which features many cost-effective design elements that reduce energy consumption. It is a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified green building; this is the highest rating a green building may possess, and it is recognized as one of approximately 1,080 green buildings in the world to have achieved this accreditation. The Silhouette is located within an urban environment that is growing rapidly as a result of its economic stability and the nature of its socially diverse class system. This urban center (Park Slope) can be viewed itself as a green neighborhood because food resources and businesses are centered in one place, allowing residents to rely less on their automobiles and more on their feet. Its use of alternative green technology, coupled with its location, provides a dual benefit in satisfying Owen’s definition for successful environmental sustainability.
    Green building materials will provide an optimal level of quality if the building adheres to specific dimensions. For instance, approximately six solar panels are needed to provide heat and hot water for the four condominiums of The Silhouette. A larger apartment building may use another form of renewable energy other than solar paneling, such as double-paned glass windows containing a noble gas like krypton or the green roof system. The Silhouette contains a rooftop garden, the purpose of which is to reduce the amount of solar radiation that reaches the building itself, resulting in a passive cooling phenomenon. Green roofs are often constructed using layers of waterproofing (a non-permeable roof membrane), and vegetation media (levels of substrate leading to soil). They have many benefits, which include storm water management and an improvement in water-run off quality. Furthermore, they provide a natural way to heat and cool a building according to each season, thus reducing energy consumption by minimizing the use of heating and air conditioning systems (HVAC). This is accomplished through lessening the heat-island effect–the building retains less heat over the summer and more heat during the winter because the grass has a regulatory effect on temperature; in this sense, the grass becomes another level of insulation. The architects and LEED consultants must negotiate and work together to ensure that the materials used for construction work well with the specifications of the building while constantly striving to meet LEED standards.
    Yet, we must note that green buildings are expensive to construct. This is partly due to the cost of the materials required to achieve LEED accreditation. Some individuals might deem green real estate expensive when considering the amount of space obtained for the price of each apartment. For instance, condominiums within The Silhouette contain only one full bathroom and one bedroom. This might be the ideal way to live if we agree with Owen’s theory on living smaller; however, some individuals are accustomed to living in larger areas, and the reality of living smaller, if they would decide on living green, might be unaccommodating, especially if they have large families. With this thought in mind, is green living only tailored to families that are small and young families that are just starting out? We can infer that higher-priced units most often accompany larger buildings, and some of which may even be more expensive depending on their degree of “greenness” on the LEED scale. If we examine the economic issues with respect to green buildings, the topic of foreclosure arises. Considering the present status of our economy, buyers might require enormous mortgages in order to purchase green real estate. Depending on the financial situation of these buyers, some may not be able to repay these stark loans, and the fate of green real estate that was once occupied will become foreclosed property. This can have a negative effect on the housing market, as the property may become a constituent among other compiled properties owned by the bank; as a result, it will be difficult for the bank to regain the money that was lost in providing the mortgage. In this regard, humans may not consider green buildings to be an affordable housing option at the present moment. Nevertheless, LEED-certified green buildings are certified because they consume a minimal amount of energy in the form of heating, cooling, and lighting; if we assume cost-effective economics, purchasing green real estate (as expensive as it might seem to some in the beginning) might save money each month in the long-term (e.g. lower heating, cooling, and electric bills).
    Ultimately, as Owen argues for “deep reductions in per-capita energy use,” a green building may not “deeply” reduce energy consumption (Owen 208). Rather than attempting to compensate for human error with temporary solutions such as solar panels and hybrid-electric cars, he suggests that the manner in which humans conduct their lives with respect to the environment is a major part of becoming permanently sustainable; in other words, friendly behavior towards the environment may enhance the energy transition and reduce climatic consequences. These compensatory fixes, while beneficial, could encourage humans to continue conducting their lives as they do now (business-as-usual); however, alternative energy sources and green buildings are an important step in the right direction to prove that living green is possible, thus attempting to change the way humans behave by mitigating the lack of consumer compliance with an eco-friendly lifestyle. LEED standards could be reevaluated over time in order to incorporate human behavior and ensure that humans are truly contributing to a cleaner environment even after they purchase LEED-certified green property. During our energy transition, if it is difficult for a consumer to purchase materials/items that use alternative sources of energy or green property, he/she can still participate in sustainable practices by reducing carbon emission with a change in environmental behavior; style of living; and, if possible, location of residence, according to Owen.

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