Thursday, October 15, 2009

How many planets do we need?

“On an average, a normal Google Search emits about 7 grams of Carbon dioxide into the atmosphere” – claimed my friend, 'S', in her presentation on ‘Green IT’. A prominent hand shot up in our class with a question. It was my friend 'G'.

“I have performed so many searches through Google and I’ve never seen any fumes coming out of my system. Can you explain the logic behind your statement?” - He queried with his ever-present ‘innocent’ expression, triggering a ripple of laughter across the class.

'S' and her team went on explain how the servers and components working on our search query use up huge amounts of electricity. This in turn necessitates greater power production resulting in larger quantities of carbon dioxide emissions.

“In that case, how can you cite increased Google searches and such operations as the cause of emissions? Shouldn’t you be looking at the manner in which the electricity is produced? If electricity is generated from renewable sources, then increased Google searches will not lead to global warming.” – shot back, 'G'

'S' and her team again tried explaining their point and few others from the class also joined in. In all these discussions, I noticed a couple of things:

  • Global warming and Carbon dioxide emissions have been in the limelight for so long that, almost all environmental problems are now being equated to global warming.

  • Right from the early science classes of our school days, concepts of ‘Renewable energy’ have been touted as the ultimate panacea of all our troubles.

Over the past century, Humans have emerged as the most wasteful species on this planet. We have become so frivolous in our consumption. To just quote one small example, during the first few days in Singapore, my room-mates 'G' and 'M' wanted to leave the Air Conditioner running in our room when we went out. This way, they claimed, the room would be ‘cool’ and comfortable when we returned. I was literally horrified at the idea and protested vehemently. They have now grudgingly accepted my demands of switching off the appliances when we leave the room. Even now, 'G' occasionally keeps pointing out that I’m not allowing him to leave the AC on. :) He once ‘complained’ about me to our friend 'P' and I was quite surprised (and horrified) to see her react as though it is quite natural for anyone to leave the AC on.

Leaving aside the fact that we have to pay for the electricity and water that we consume, can we really afford to waste resources? The global population is now more than 6 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Can this planet support so many people with each one consuming much more than their normal requirement?

Apparently, total consumption levels had already exceeded the planet’s ecological capacity by the late 1970s. This means that we are currently living far beyond our means. The picture to the right is the popular statistic that indicates how many earth-sized planets are required based on each country’s consumption levels. At the current levels, the US alone consumes an equivalent of 6 planet resources. The growing economies are fast catching up. What is going to happen when the 2 Billion+ people in India and China start living like the Americans? Unfortunately, this is the lifestyle that most people in developing countries are aspiring for.
The current level of technology available for harnessing renewable energy resources is quite limited, though it is rapidly advancing every day. Hydro power, once considered to be a clean, efficient and ‘green’ option has now fallen out of favour among environmentalists on account of the massive ecological damage caused by dams. Even if we go after sources like solar power and Wind in a big way, how much can we produce to satisfy these ever increasing ‘Google Searches’??? Renewable energies have limitations. They are not limitless sources of ‘clean energy’ with no consequence on the environment. Imagine the amount of land required for establishing huge solar farms and wind farms that satisfy the energy needs of this world. Then are we going to coat our buildings with solar panels and mount windmill on all skyscrapers? Or as some have suggested, establish giant mirrors in the sky to reflect sunlight away from the earth, thus reducing global warming? Suppose in future, by some great leap of technology, we succeed in harnessing the unlimited source of power from hydrogen, can we start consuming more? Does this planet have enough resources to sustain our wasteful consumption habits? At this rate, we are not leaving behind a lot for our future generation.

We need not live like a hermit, sustaining on meager resources. We work hard, earn and have the right to enjoy our lives. But we can at least do so without unnecessarily wasting resources – Power, water, food and all other things that we use.

I’m not the first person to talk about others. Billion others have talked about this to the point of boredom, quoted the same examples that I have quoted. But as the popular Tamil saying goes,
"Thirudarai Paarthu Thirundhaavittal, Thiruttukal kuraivathillai”
Translation: As long as thieves do not mend their ways themselves, thefts will never reduce

Realization and self-responsibility should come from within each one of us. I hope we will be able ingrain this thought at least among our next generation, right from their early ages.


gops' blog said...

there are a few other ways..
1. capture lightning
2. Use Helium from Moon
3. Use Anti- matter

the world MUST make a breakthrough invention to safely produce energy from the souces above..

very nice writing...
and Mr G seems to be an interesting character!

Rainbow said...

or you can wait till one of the militant nuclear nations sets off ww3 and plunges the entire world (rather the handful of survivors/mutants) back into middle age type technology and since we won't have any electricity (and I use the term 'we' loosely here) we don't have to worry about 'greening' it.

Yup, I am in the apocalyptic mode.

Kartik said...

Nice article da. By the way heard of something called 'Blackle' ? Though this isnt a panacea for the global energy crisis, it atleast does its bit to save a few watt hours. Check out ->

Venky said...

very thoughtful writing thambi. I would've felt like reading just another question on my statistics paper had you touched upon just the alternatives to non-renewable energy alone.. capturing lightning or 'blackloogling' might not just be the answer.. you've asked the right questions.. where is our lifestyle taking us to? where will we be in 2025? what can "I" do?

I too hope.......