Abuse of our environment arises from actions that cannot be sustained by
nature. For instance, if 3 trees are felled in order to make way for a new
house, then nature has lost three trees and any offspring forever. This is not
If, after felling the three trees, four new trees are planted in an
alternative location where growth and reproductive prospects are the same as in
the previous location, then this is sustainable. Why four trees, you may ask?
Two reasons: 1, because not all saplings survive into maturity, 2. to compensate
for the time lag before the new trees reach the age of those that were
replaced. This is a simple example to illustrate the point. In
reality, the calculation for restocking tree plantings involves many factors and
is quite a bit more complicated!
Power Stations – a Special Case
Another example: if a power station is to be environmentally friendly then it
should either ensure that no pollutants or excess carbon dioxide is pumped into
the environment or take alternative actions that will restore the quality of the
environment. Historically we know this has not been achieved. If the cost of
making power stations environmentally sustainable was reasonable then we would
have done it long ago. The fact that this is a widely known problem has led to a
major misconception across society that being environmentally friendly costs money.
This is simply not the case. Modern power stations are generally far kinder to
the environment than older ones. They still pollute the environment, but not
nearly as much as the older ones did. To translate the power station experience
to other aspects of life, and industry in particular, is a mistake.
Pollutants are unwanted bi-products. They have been produced and this
production has cost money. Trash that goes into land-fill is a bi-product of
goods that we want. This trash is made up primarily of packaging. Somebody went
to the trouble of making the packaging, using valuable energy and probably
emitting some pollution in the process. Somebody else went to the trouble of
purchasing this packaging – then, at the end of its life it is dumped. The same principle can be
applied to all pollution. It has been produced and paid for. To say, therefore, that
pollution reduction costs money is illogical.
Improving Power Stations
Let’s apply this logic to power
stations: virtually all power stations around the world are pumping out
particles into the air as a bi-product. Older stations (especially coal-fired
ones) are pumping out relatively large particles compared to modern stations.
These large particles are responsible for seeding rain clouds and changing
weather patterns. If all these particles, large and small, were added up and
weighed, you can imagine that they would add up to thousands of tons a day that
are being pumped upwards – and eventually falling back down again. This is like
chartering 100’s of airliners every day to take off loaded with tons of carbon
particles and then letting them free into the atmosphere. Old power stations
were built this way, when pollution and waste was not the main consideration.
Most countries around the world have brought in legislation to curb these
emissions, along with sulphur, mercury and other harmful substances and things
are improving all the time. I would contend though, that in time, this would
have happened through market forces. For example, another bi-product of coal
fired power stations – fly ash – is now routinely made into bricks for building
construction and is also used in road construction. Modern power stations also
recycle much of the heat produced in emissions as a way to improve
efficiency. Many also heat local homes and businesses, including the power
station itself, using this heat output. As I stated, though, power stations are
a special case, and their struggle to be environmentally friendly has led to the
mistaken belief that environmentally friendly measures are costly.
To recycle, and even better, to re-use is surely preferable to a constant
cycle of dumping old and buying new. An even better way is summed up in an old-fashioned term:
conservation. This is not only the most environmentally sound way to proceed, it
is also the most cost effective. By turning down your thermostat a notch or two,
or by walking instead of driving occasionally; by turning off lights when you
leave an empty room: these may seems small measures to take, but if multiplied
around the world, would make a real difference to the environment. Take travel:
why do we travel so much? Can’t some people work from home and therefore avoid
the rush hour and have a better quality of life? Can schools and homes be nearer
to each other? Perhaps there should be more/smaller schools and instead of less/larger? In fact, more and smaller of everything may not be a bad idea when
considering travel reduction. Perhaps the time has come to consider a steep rise in fuel
Most production activities, and increasingly most of our everyday activities
have a so-called environmental “footprint”. This footprint is a
measure of the effect of an action on the environment. When we take out then we
should give back. Just as new trees are planted to replace those that have been
felled, so we should make amends when we pollute our environment. Better still,
though, is the idea that we make no footprint in the first place. The question
is: why were the trees felled in the first place?