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Our planet: The current burning platform!

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 28 June 2012 01:20


Rio+20 has come and gone. For some, with June gone, the task may be looking at the flavour of the month for July to prop up different hoardings. The conference was concluded successfully and most of the final photos and comments indicated it was well attended and well run and perhaps well concluded.

For sure, there are dissenting sentiments as one expects concrete developments from such an influential gathering and not just a well executed meeting. We wish that global environmental issues too can be identified, pursued, addressed and solved that easily. We know that we can plan events very well as expert outsourcing options are aplenty. The issue is in management of the substance under discussion and allowing leadership to resolve problems. This aspect sadly cannot be outsourced!

An off-shore industrial disaster – the Piper Alpha Oil rig fire in 1988 – in the United Kingdom subsequently added a new dimension to the management lore with the lessons learnt. When the oil rig was burning and when everything was going up in flames, the standard advice is to not jump from the burning platform but to move into the fireproof accommodation which are usually positioned below the heli pad area and await support.

However, those who survived however had followed what they had actually been advised against – jumping off the burning deck! The lesson there is that sometimes, not following what is well laid out in times when urgent action is called for works in one’s favour.

Quick thinking and response is vital in saving a situation from a disaster when an emergency is at your doorstep. What you do in times of crisis is very important and if you are the leader, how you take decisions and follow them up matters to others as well. At Piper Alpha, it was a life saving skill.


Multitude of critical issues

You could jump off Piper Alpha and live to tell the tale and maybe even contribute to a new management paradigm. Our planet as a burning platform reflects on the multitude of critical issues facing today’s planet. The ‘burning planet’ is a whole different proposition and the planet saving skills set is much more challenging.

Al Gore, in his famous award winning documentary ‘Inconvenient truth,’ showed the difference between realising an issue suddenly and the typical response versus the inability to comprehend impending doom when change is slow and when you may be more complacent and at times, even may be enjoying the change!

This was demonstrated by depicting the simulated action of a frog jumping out when it is placed in a pitcher of hot water. The same frog will die if the contents are heated slowly with the frog in the water from the beginning. The poor frog is unable to comprehend the change that is slowly taking place around it and will not attempt to jump off and when the realisation perhaps sets in that all is not well, the frog will be too weak to do anything.

What Al Gore was desperately trying to demonstrate through this was climate change. Consider this scenario again. We will react swiftly when we see and feel a fire but the change of our climate due to our actions appears to be making no impact on us. When will we wake up to the fact that we must act before it is too late?

The journal Nature Climate Change reports that those who are climate sceptics are well seasoned scientists who are well versed in scientific matters related to the climate. This is also proving to be quite challenging in drumming up action to put a halt to some of our bad habits. We know that USA as one of the top most significant contributors to carbon dioxide emissions is yet to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and appears to be in no hurry to do so either.

The loneliness of USA was reduced by Canada, who pulled out of the agreement with its failure to meet targets and due to the looming issue of penalties. An examination of performances indicates that many countries are not at all ready to honour their climate commitments, with Germany perhaps being an exception.

This race will have no winners

The developing countries pursuing consumerism and living with a consumer based economic system are refusing to do many positive acts, complaining widely that they should be given a chance to develop and enjoy a way of living that television programmes display very well. This race will have no winners though this reality is not clear to many in society. It is a sad situation made more difficult by the fact that it is not quite possible to convince society of the urgent need to act today.

Just think about our own activities. We are approaching the end of June – the month as we said, brings many to join – at least symbolically – the environmental movement. You read in publications about discussions on climate change and the environmental issues present everywhere but do you really see that in Sri Lanka? Another write up stated that dinner tables are full of discussions on impending global environmental issues and solutions. I leave you to silently contemplate the applicability of this global phenomenon in a local context.

Once, Anote Tong, the President of Kiribati – a small Pacific island nation which is under threat from the rise of sea levels due to climate change – expressed in a UN conference that he cannot and will not believe that any individual with a conscience would deliberately continue on a business-as-usual path knowing that their actions would result in the demise of others.

This show of concern for others rather than a share of the wallet is seriously needed today. I am sure he uttered these words with deep disappointment rather than with deep conviction in the behaviour of his fellow earthlings.

We must understand that the issues are a reflection of our consumption, with the USA being the ‘ultimate consumer and the trend setter’ but the global linkages mean it is China that has become the workshop for the US consumer and for many others as well. This workshop for the world is powered by coal and at one stage, a coal power station was coming up every week!

The wealth of the economy however still lies with intellectual property ownership and not with the producer and the globalised world – the concept of virtual state is taking place. You are simply palming off all the non-essential work to others and we will even burn our midnight oil in fulfilling these ‘non-essential’ duties for a few extra rupees and be even happier when the exchange rates change.

The equity issues remain as problems and perhaps now more so as it is not quite easy to extricate oneself once you are connected in many ways. That is why perhaps an elected member of a democracy in a developed economy may cycle into his office while the equivalent in a developing world may need a convoy of vehicles.

How strange it is that some of the technological developments which have evolved through innovation, adding to inequity may have much less chance of real delivery in a world when differences surface due to non understanding of the simple question – why we live. It was Einstein who stated that a life isn’t worth living, unless it is lived for someone else.

There are many similar sentiments expressed by several personalities over the years though the essence of such statements appear to be missing in understanding though the sentences are at times are visible as decorative art work on boardroom walls.

We again know that we have cards for any occasion with the right sentence well embellished, saving us from any thinking and writing and our sense of accomplishment in this day and age comes through selecting the right type, but not in meaningfully translating the contents across by living up to them.

Sri Lanka

Within Sri Lanka, there are many acts that an individual needs to take up today to help this country move on more spiritedly towards the future. We have had many issues surfacing which can really debilitate our progress –in energy, in water, in health, in education, in agriculture and in population itself.

The environmental connectivity of most of these issues are not exactly understood nor communicated when addressing issues. Even an enlightened state cannot do everything and minus the sensible participation of its citizens, the task is near impossible. We are so used to expect light when we flip a switch, water when we open a tap and fuel from the service station pump with the right quality and quantity.

We have become quite insensitive to the whole process behind all these which enable these resources to be where they are and when we want them. However, these resource backed services are not unlimited and we cannot just extrapolate numbers at will. That is why individual understanding with thought provoking discussions should be there at different levels at all times to bring some sanity into this consuming process.

It can be stated that an individual cannot do much and we are small in number, hence be resigned to this mentality. Anita Roddick, who showed that one can develop an industry giant without advertising, stated that if you think you are too small to have an impact, ask one to try going to bed with a mosquito! The situation is indeed interesting for us with multiple campaigns failing to take control of dengue. We simply cannot allow a mosquito to have the last laugh!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)

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