Sun, Soil and Standards: Simple Solutions Towards Sustainable Systems
Global warming, along with the cutting and burning of forests and other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a level comparable to the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That event was believed to have been caused by a giant asteroid.
This time it is not an asteroid colliding with the Earth and wreaking havoc; it is us. (Gore, 2006) The above excerpt from An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s 2006 documentary on global warming, likens the climate crisis that the world is currently experiencing to the instances that were believed to have caused the end of a thriving civilization millions of years ago.These days, climate has become so erratic and unpredictable in many parts of the globe, that we find ourselves befuddled over summer rain showers and winter heat waves. This bizarre climatic behavior attributes itself much to global warming and the massive amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere created by none other than the Earth’s most abusive and aggressive foe—us.
Global warming is a product of the discharge of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009).Its effects are felt with the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature, rise in sea levels, inconsistent changes in the amount and pattern of rainfall, the retreat of glaciers and ice caps, and so on. Projected effects as the extreme rise in temperature include the thinning of the Amazon and boreal forests, intensity of extreme weather events, changes in crop and agricultural yields, and the extinction of species. The Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2009 reports that 11 of the last 12 years are among the 12 warmest years in record history (Pachauri, 2009).Man-made greenhouse gas concentrations are considered the biggest culprit in this dramatic increase in temperature. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2005 that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has significantly exceeded the natural range of the last 650,000 years.
Media coverage in the past couple of years have featured massive typhoons and hurricanes all over the globe. Polar ice caps are melting, creating larger bodies of water while depleting the natural habitat of many Arctic creatures.These are but a few of the tangible evidences of the damaging effects of global warming. It is a distressing thought to realize that this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of climate-related disasters that are yet to come from the continuous destruction of the environment.
It is also a sad thought that despite the advancements and innovations that humanity has made in the fields of science and technology, it has failed to give the same importance to the conservation of the environment.If anything, we have become the major contributor to the current state of global demise, with our technologies that grossly depend on fossil fuels and responsible for the massive amount of carbon emissions and greenhouse gasses. Another disconcerting thought is the effect that this environmental crisis bears on the global economy. The United States has become increasingly dependent on oil produced by foreign countries.The relationship between our foreign imports and exports, a contributor to our foreign oil dependency, has created a wide deficit that leaves us no choice but to spend our taxpayer money to pay off our foreign debts, rather than to provide our own people with the benefits and securities that they require and deserve. There are countless motivational incentives to come up with solutions to the growing problem of global warming and economic instability—for instance, a better world and a better life for us and for our future generations.
Yet we have taken small, timid baby steps to address these issues.What we need are to put serious consideration and effort into acting on certain viable transitions in the way we conduct our dealings that greatly affect the environment and economy. We are lucky to still be in a time when it is not too late to act on these potentially life-changing solutions. Three Significant Transitions Today’s global economic and environmental crises are largely impacted by the triumvirate of factors—the immense amount of carbon emissions generated by our communities and industries, our huge dependence on foreign-generated oil, and the huge and steadily increasing foreign deficit.
These three have their individual contributions to the problems affecting the environment and the economy, at the same time relating directly or indirectly to one another in a seemingly collective effort to further our economic and environmental downfall. It would be unfair to insinuate that no efforts have been made to come up with solutions to these great challenges. Numerous individuals, organizations and campaign agencies have taken active roles to promote education and awareness towards these environmental and economic issues.The government has composed and passed several legislations that address these concerns. Hundreds of campaigns are instituted by the private sector, covering every possible topic under the environment and economy banner.
The public has been made well aware of their responsibility towards a moral approach to assist in the alleviation of these environmental and economic matters. To look at these issues on the fundamental level would be easy—be energy efficient, save the environment, reduce, reuse, recycle, and so on.However, the level of ecological and financial degradation that we are currently in requires intensive detail that allows us to address the heart of the matter. Action does speak louder than words, but what exactly do we need to act on? With these numerous mentions of matters regarding greenhouse gasses, carbon emissions, fuel consumption and financial shortfalls, the wise thing would be to come up with solutions that not only approach each concern individually, but could also be applied generally.
Hit two—maybe three—birds with one stone.Gore once said that the planet is a ticking time bomb about to go off. It took us a long time to reach this critical degree, and it would entail the same to do something about it. Three significant transitions that would sufficiently address all these issues are surprisingly, very fundamental and basic approaches: the use of clean, renewable (solar thermal) energy, better fuel standards, and sustainable (local) food systems.
The implementation of these smart transitions would hugely benefit the environment and the economy.It would offer effective and lasting solutions to the aforementioned problems and at the same time create various additional opportunities and prospects for the future. At the base level, these solutions would address the main issues of global warming and economic deficiency by not allowing them to create further damage. At the intermediate level, these transitions would be able to address specific areas of the bigger problem—oil dependency, energy security, air pollution, public health.As a bonus, these modifications would be able to encourage and generate new jobs, stronger and more stable markets, and economic savings, just to name a few. In order to further understand these transitions and their impacts, we should examine several aspects of each one: What are these transitions? How will their required technologies be implemented? How will these transitions benefit the economy and environment? How can we ensure that these solutions will be effective and lasting? The following paragraphs should be able to provide information to answer these important questions.
Solar Energy and Solar Thermal Electric Power In June of 2008, gasoline prices soared to an all time high of almost $4. 10 per gallon of regular self-serve retail in some areas. This record-breaking amount had both negative and positive results—while this unbelievable amount cut a hole in people’s pockets, it also instigated an awareness and persuasion to look for alternative (and more inexpensive) means of fuel and energy. Various systems of alternative and renewable energy surfaced—wind energy, geothermal energy, biomass, photovoltaic, etc.Of all these, one technology stood out, and looked particularly the most promising—solar energy.
The sun provides the Earth with an incredible supply of solar energy. A massive amount in fact, that it provides enough energy in one minute to supply the entire globe’s energy requirements for one year. Over a three day period, the amount of solar radiation that reacehes the earth would equal the total energy stored by all fossil energy sources (Altenergy, n. d. ).
Solar energy is free, abundant and limitless, and yet the idea of using it as a primary energy source is reasonably new.Either that, or the idea never came to light with the popularity of using fossil fuels for energy. After all, fossil fuels were abundant, more affordable and readily available for consumption. It is only now that we are exploring other options as an effect of the problems the world faces in terms of increasing energy demands, escalating environmental problems and diminished fossil fuel resources (Altenergy, n. d.
). The use of solar power today remains true to its same two simplest forms—thermal and photovoltaic.Thermal energy is generated when concentrated sunlight is converted into heat, which is then applied to a steam generator that converts it to electricity that may then be distributed to grids that feed buildings, homes, farms, factories, etc. Photovoltaics require silicon semiconductors that produce electric currents at the impact of sunlight.
Solar energy has many advantages that emphasizes its potential as one of the world’s most promising sources of renewable energy. It is requires little maintenance and supervision. It has a longer lifespan of about 20-30 years.It requires no large-scale construction and moving parts that are prone to breakdown.
It is readily available. Most of all, it is clean and non-polluting. Without question, solar energy tops all other energy sources by promoting a clean, renewable and domestic energy resource (Altenergy, n. d.
). Solar energy, however promising it sounds, also features a few disadvantages that probably caused its popularity to take a backseat to other energy sources. Critics berate the high cost of producing photovoltaic cells, the difficulty in maintaining a steady stream of energy that varies with sunlight, and the non-capacity to store energy collected.However, with the development of solar thermal energy technologies like the Compact Linear Fresnel Reflector (Silicon Valley’s Ausra) , these concerns are addressed little by little. Solar thermal energy is basically solar technology that is stripped to the core. It reflects sunshine off a mirror to boil a pressurized liquid to convert it into steam that powers a turbine (Markman, 2008).
In the United States, the states of California, Nevada and Texas have already begun implementation of this technology to provide alternative means of energy for their industries.These areas are at an advantage, with the vast amount of desert land to contain miles of technology that collect, concentrate and distribute sunshine as energy. Various industries and utilities have taken after this monumental lead to combat our environmental and economic problems. Solar thermal energy is now seen as an alternative approach to generating energy that would produce no air pollution, therefore not contributing further to carbon emissions and global warming.
Its self-sufficiency would curb our dependence on foreign oil used to power and transport allied utilities.Its ready availability would reduce our need to import parts and technology from other countries, thus lowering our huge foreign trade deficit—in fact, huge developments in terms of storing this energy gives us the potential for long-range distribution. The high cost of fuel and the depleting fuel sources have definitely made its impact in people realizing the importance of being creative in terms of our energy sources. Even the Obama administration has jumped into the renewable energy bandwagon, realizing how our economy and national security’s futures are interdependent on the current energy challenge.Better Fuel Standards Automobile emissions are among the biggest contributors to the problem of global warming. The quest for more efficient fuel for our automobiles and industries has also made its impact in our great dependence on imported oil, therefore setting a chain reaction that results in the further broadening of the United States’ foreign trade deficit.
The potential introduction of better fuel standards would facilitate the transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to more renewable, clean energy sources.If we are to move forward with the adoption of renewable energy sources, it would necessitate particular remewable energy technologies and standards that would offer affordable solutions towards the reduction of carbon emissions, and relieve our natural resources of the damaging impact caused by transportation and mining for fossil fuels (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009). Better standards for renewable fuel is the first step towards the reduction of our US industries’ carbon footprint. It creates the potential of lowering global warming pollution produced by automobiles, and would greatly reduce our gasoline consumption.
The creation of a low-carbon fuel standard produces a wide-ranging approach that would cover the effects of all forms of transportation fuels. A key factor in the creation of better fuel standards has to do with carbon—“counting carbon and making carbon count” (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2009). Low-carbon fuel standards would require that fuel must reduce emissions and global warming pollution by at least 20 percent, in order to be considered “renewable”. This measure would include the derivation, production, distribution and use of these more efficient fuels.
Better fuel standards would facilitate the transition towards “second-generation” fuels that make more efficient use of land and energy, and would thus reduce its impact on global warming. Many scientific and industrial bodies have suggested the use of cellulosic (corn) ethanol or biodiesels as a replacement for regular gasoline. The argument is that these alternative fuels would reduce emissions and pollution by 50 to 60 percent. Critics of this suggestion, however, refer to the impact of land use to global warming in the production of these alternative fuels to refute this motion.They argue that the pollution generated by clearing land to produce biofuel and corn ethanol will negate the pollution that will supposedly be avoided with their use. Supporters of this transition answer these criticisms by saying that better fuel standards would require that fuels be assessed based on their impact on global warming in the entirety of their lifespan.
They stress the importance of making sure that these new standards are backed up by strict regulations focused on environmental protection.To proceed with this transition of creating better fuel standards and low-carbon renewable fuels would do the country and the globe a great service by curbing vehicle emissions and cutting dependence on foreign oil, thereby cutting our foreign trade deficit significantly. A strong motion must be made immediately, before industries start looking to even “dirtier” sources of fuel (i. e. , liquid coal, tar sands) that would result in more than twice the amount of pollution that regular gasoline creates.
Another benefit to look forward to is the creation of jobs in a new industry of clean vehicles and fuels.As President Obama puts it, we need to “ensure that the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow are built right here in America. ” (Broder, 2009) Sustainable Food Systems Another feasible solution that would help alleviate our current economic and environmental issues is the transition towards sustainable food systems. With the abundance of cheap, convenient food, it is important to look at the nature of our food systems and the methods industries have taken to make foods quick, handy and inexpensive for consumers (Ikerd, 2001).
American agriculture has endured the transformation from small, diversified, independent family farms to large, industrialized, commercial businesses. Food has become fast to manufacture, and easy to transport and distribute. While much emphasis has been given to making our food systems more time-efficient, the ecological factors that surround the production and circulation of our food have been greatly ignored and unaccounted for. The advancement in food technologies have left great negative impacts on our lands.
The severity of degradation through erosion, pollution and contamination has affected the productivity and efficiency of our farm lands—all because of the never ending pursuit for cheaper food. Topsoil loss due to incessant tillage far exceed the rate that the soil can regenerate. The use of herbicides and pesticides have left our natural water sources contaminated and unable to sustain biological life. The more efficient our food systems become, the farther we come to realize that to destroy the ability of land to be naturally productive is to destroy the ability of our planet to support life.We are risking the future of humanity just to have more efficient food systems.
Eventually, our relationship with food will be on the same plane as our relationship with oil—the less food and oil resources we have, the higher our demand will be. Buying local is an age-old strategy that we need to relive in order to jumpstart our quest for more renewable, more sustainable food systems. Many of us fail to realize that almost 80 percent of the money we spend on food goes to pay for its marketing services (i. e. , manufacture, packaging, shipping, storage, promotion, etc.
).Another thing that we should look at is the distance our food travels, even for locally available produce. We fail to realize how we are actually paying for the convenience of our food rather than paying for the actual food product itself. (Ikerd, 2001). Why buy local then? Local food systems have great advantages over typical global food markets. Local and regional economies are strengthened with the support for independent family farms.
Food is fresh and healthy. The local landscape remains untouched. A sense of community is cultivated. Local food systems will help bridge the foreign trade deficit by curbing our need to import produce.
It keeps the money within the community, keeping the wealth in the locality. Buying local will also help reduce our foreign oil dependency, as it eliminates the need to transport food long distance. This in effect reduces carbon emissions that contribute to greenhouse gas collection and global warming. Sustainable food systems eliminate unmanageable amounts of waste and industrial pollution.
Buying local protects local farmlands from damage caused by urban sprawl and overdevelopment. It removes the need for environmental eyesores like shopping malls and box stores that mask social and environmental implications.The land remains intact and healthy to go through the cycle of sustainable and renewable agriculture systems. A thriving local food economy creates more opportunities for local jobs. It paves the way for the enactment of better environmental and labor standards.
It gives local independent businesses the chance to be on the same playing field as corporate industries by removing subsidies. The benefits listed above fortifies the advantages of transitioning towards more sustainable food systems. When we buy local, we make a conscious and responsible effort to support our local economy and join the fight against environmental degradation.