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Tryst with Nature

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 1 November 2012 00:07


As I write coastal lines in several countries in many parts of the world are bracing themselves to hurricanes and typhoons and cyclones and Sri Lanka too is not an exception. We know that they mean the same thing but are named by us differently to understand the segments of the oceans these events are related to.

It is Typhoon Son-Tinh for the stretches in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Sandy for the east coasters of United States. The cyclone that is heading towards Sri Lankan North-East coast is Nilam.

When we name these nature’s events we do tend to pick appealing names preferably feminine which brings about another lines of thought as the effects of interaction are far from pleasant! The events are very well covered and blow by blow descriptions are possible thanks to technology and one can witness different ways of crisis management in each of these areas as the abilities and methods are usually related to economic strengths and preparedness.

The question in front of us is the challenges faced with these increasing trysts with nature – neither intended nor welcome! We just would like to know whether the frequency and the ferocity of the events have any correlation to our own actions. If we did see a year of extremes in 2011, the 2012 is proving to be even different.

Pursuit of wealth and capabilities

We continue to expand our technological capabilities and consume resources at an increasing level in pursuit of wealth and capabilities. We try to keep pushing up our ‘net worth’ in asset based format. The main line of thinking in our economies is human centric and the current performance indicators are based on GDP growth, full employment and inflation. Nature hardly factors in this and we forget the planet that we tread on during these calculations.

Year 2000 witnessed the sixth billionth addition to the global population and 11 years later saw us welcoming the seventh billion in global population strength. Simply each 11-year period may mean an addition of a billion of humans to the planet. All of them are born with human expectations and the society will act on them from day zero either directly or indirectly to be part of the consuming population.

One cannot simply deny anybody any of life’s pleasures as we ourselves take for granted and seek to consume and pursue. Some predictions coming from responsible organisations are quite sobering. By year 2030 – and this is not far away – to serve global needs the IEA (International Energy Agency) predicts 50% more energy need.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) predicts a 50% more food supply requirement and with respect to water the expected increase has been predicted to be 50% by the IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute). These demands are interrelated and thus compound the issue.

These are really sobering figures and in many ways do not enter into serious political discussions – as we see very well – simply due to the fact we are talking about a situation almost 20 years away. Twenty years may be light years away from a political mapping process.

Even if we see possibilities of our own ingenuity and solace ourselves based on past performance that we will overcome these challenges, what should not miss is that we have to act while the climate change predicted due to our past and continued action too has to be abated and addressed while seeking solutions to these emerging situations.

There we are quite concerned about an average global temperature rise of by a degree of Celsius or even less. Being instrumental in the causation of this climate change issue the onus on the human race is to ensure that these increases in food, water and energy to be provided in a different way than by the pathway that is followed today and therein lies the real challenge. The challenge will involve fresh thinking and innovative performance really outside the box.


Political aspects

The political aspects of this tryst with nature cannot be more striking than in United States where the country perhaps is heading for quite a crucial presidential election. Nature’s damper could not have come at a worst time and from prepared speech craft and ad campaigns to humane campaign statements of a different nature had to come in. Nature’s way of testing the political establishment in this situation is a lesson in the making.

It should be also noted that none of the debates between the two aspirants ever discussed climate change or the environmental economy nexus. Rio+20 themes were absent. The talk and the emphasis has been on coal mine closures and the need to bring back coal instead of clean energy in swing states like Ohio. Of course auto bailouts in supporting putting more vehicles on streets – the global vehicle population crossed the one billion mark in 2011 – are hot campaign points. Of course the bailouts focused on securing jobs and that means we want to continue as we have continued before rather than a new proposed green economy setting in.

We are quite upset when vehicles do not sell and do not mind even if we can benefit through transhipments. That is the way the current economy is built on – produce, consume and discard. This means linear in nature and destructive on resources in performance. The campaigns will not try to philosophise nor argue on what is best for the planet and work on emotions to place the country as the most indispensable nation on earth.

Robert Swan – the polar pioneer – may point out and say that another fourth debate should be help on atop a dwindling ice pack to really get the point home. Though the nature may be indicating silently through breaking and disappearing ice packs in both south and north poles the best way to get attention still appear to be the direct interactions through some angry movements of masses of air and humidity. The amount of moisture that is picked up over the oceans can indeed increase with rising sea surface temperatures and the subsequent depositions on land means more than drenching.

However much the neoclassical economic thinking may state about the economic growth without worrying over physical assets the behaviours appear strangely contradictory. Consider the ongoing battle for a tiny island system Diaoyu islands, between China and Japan, and ask the question why? A plot of land still appears to excite anyone and old habits perhaps die very hard. How much money may have gone down to show your strengths and display your wares? For all our greater global understanding we appear to do things differently when it actually comes to doing!

Unacceptable way of thinking

Time may tell and reveal us the inconvenient truth. However, this is an expensive and an unacceptable way of thinking. As we see and hear every day, the human race is divided on the way forward with many a silent spectator in the middle who have little nor any choice. There are many sceptical environmentalists and within scientific ranks too. This has given the question of reasonable doubt necessary to push some other agendas by the business and the political community and this is happening vigorously.

Today we have more abilities than yesterday and we certainly know much more in many areas. We can see through and manipulate tiny cells and matter therein and peep into galaxies way away from us. What is the use of these capabilities if we witness abject poverty in front of our eyes and pursue policies that selectively address issues?

Nature can humble us and in no uncertain terms and superpowers when humbled in that way should rise from the deluge with fresh and innovative thoughts in their minds. Perhaps for US, nature was bringing an unintended tryst ahead of polls to make a point. We may ignore at our peril these messages from nature. We, and more importantly the political masters, cannot continue to ignore the picture of a polar bear desperately clinging on to a tiny ice cap in a desolate land far away from our normal visual scope.

(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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