Our sons must know: Knowing precedes care!

Thursday, 28 February 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In 1971, the American Society for Advancement of Science asked this question: How can we live a quality life in a finite world? John Ruskin, who was admired by Mahatma Gandhi for his economic thoughts, stated there is no wealth but life. Our own philosophy states unequivocally that health is wealth.

The Dalai Lama has famously expressed that in modern times man spends his health trying to gain wealth and after awhile had to spend all his wealth trying to regain health. A sad situation indeed as at the end of it, you may witness only the early demise of both wealth and health. That is why some speak of wealthy men in cemeteries.

When the single pursuant of wealth dominates, we are putting in jeopardy all systems of the place we have to share and live in. As issues will not surface today, complacency can set in from an individual perspective. It is the younger minds which are most important to be moulded as theirs are very impressionable.

An interesting comment came from the podium by a true professional and an academic when he admitted having difficulties in answering his son over an issue in a way to convince him. The event was the recently-concluded 2nd Sri Lankan Roundtable on Sustainable Consumption and Production held in somewhat opulent surroundings, well lit with the use of multitude of incandescent bulbs.


Quality of life

The irony of it was not lost on some of the participants but the fact that in life you do have to wade through disagreeable situations while trying to reach your own destination is a fact of life. Sustainable consumption and production is all about striking balance in consumption while enjoying a decent quality of life as determined today.

Much can change in this as technology too is changing at a rapid phase, making some of the age-old concepts and practices redundant or irrelevant. The concept of quality of life too is subjected to wide discussion as indices of poverty are defined differently for rich nations and poor nations.

Quality of life as it appears can have an even wider interpretation. This is true when the discussion is carried out without the decoupling of resource consumption. Obviously as such living in a palace is the way to go as some squeeze in few days of quality life by staying as guests in certain hotels.

The participants at the time were discussing decoupling resource consumption from quality of life. No Bhutanese visitors were present, as otherwise out would have come their Gross National Happiness concept.

The perplexing question the son had asked from his father was why he did not like the flashy expensive sports car even if it was offered to him free. His simple answer that he did not like it and had no need for it had not convinced the young mind as to him it was obvious that people do crave flashy sports cars. That is what society today had educated him through experience.


Lessons from society

With the big match season on in Colombo, proud school boys can be seen parading on streets waving school colours, the usual school walk, etc. With affluence thrown in as these are musts for the old and current members of schools, one may find limousines in front of the parades.

The impact of the parade may mean the sum total of declared wealth or net worth displayed in various ways. It is easy to see the amount of individual photographs taken with the slow-moving vehicle, especially by the young. The intentions are clear – the photos are destined to be uploaded to Facebook at some time if not immediately. The costly vehicle being the centre of attention is of course the obvious location for the ‘shot’ of the day.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook offers many opportunities to share their magical moments and this is indeed one. Happily some pose as they go along while a majority may watch from sidelines imagining such moments for them too. Thus the young grow with these images and practices and the message is that this is the way to be – cool!

Little would they have time to contemplate the results of their actions – and how could anyone blame them as they are taking their lessons from society? With such interest shown and adoration not to be questioned, the son can only wonder about the state of the mind of his father perhaps as his actions are contrary to all his peers and quite likely to that of parents of his peers too.

It is not an easy situation to be in trying to grasp the message of his father and conflicting signals of wider society. We are living in times where what the majority says goes. That is democracy. Enlightened or not, one vote is one vote. We will pursue by all means to preserve this condition as democracy is considered sacred.


Understanding is the key to change

Understanding is the key to change and the earlier you start the better for the planet and the individual. Think of the super limousine that may be on the road. It would have cost someone a sizeable amount to purchase and all that money would be moving outwards minus the tax fraction. It may barely cover a couple of km with a litre of fuel. An ordinary small car will only consume 10 to 12 km per litre. This difference itself is important but you need to place that in some context to drive the point really home.

Whether the car is big or small, your basic purpose of use is to cover some distance carrying some additional passengers and goods. The principle utility value provided being mobility with convenience. Hence we can have one car using a few litres for a few kilometres which should be thumbed down from a resource consumption aspect from a one that can give significant mileage for a litre of fuel. The former in addition to your weight perhaps is also giving a lift to your ego and how expensive is that!

The enormity of the difference is even more striking when you understand the true nature of what you are consuming. The fuel usually can be either petrol or diesel – refined products of crude oil. Crude oil is a fossil fuel, meaning that they are taken out from the ground. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form. Much less time is taken to extract and refine and for the fuel to leave for service stations to be consumed.

The world surpassed one billion vehicles on the roads in 2011. At the service station the topping up of vehicles will take place. It is said that if the earth’s entire existence if equalled to one day, man would only get the last two seconds. Such a latecomer to the system is showing a voracious appetite for resources. The fact to be realised and understood well is that what you are consuming is something that took millions of years to form and your pattern of consumption shaped by external appearances is consuming of such in a matter of minutes.


Sustainable consumption and production

A definition of sustainable consumption and production is well worthy to be presented here. Sustainable production and consumption is the use of goods and services that respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimising the use of natural resources, toxic materials and emissions of waste and pollutants over the lifecycle, so as not to jeopardise the needs of future generations. Many definitions along similar lines exist.

Thus when you have the option of consuming less fuel to travel the distance, the choice of another mechanism which eats up fuel is definitely unsustainable consumption. We must emphasise on living well within our means and one must grow up with such awareness in mind.

We may have understood the dire need for such ways of thinking and living at this late hour. Once understood, however, there is no grace period for anyone before putting such thoughts into practice. That is the burden of living on this planet at this time.

Someone’s consuming patterns can affect so many in many ways. The world trying to curb the global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius by 2050 is purely attempting to reduce the current fossil diet and the progress has been weak, hence the looming danger of calamities associated with climate change.

We do observe angry nature and try to have defences to suit each new version. The young need to be aware of the knowledge needed to live a full life into the future. Some may see each young person as a potential bundle with a high potential for unbridled consumption. With such tuning up of the minds, certain growth rates as dictated by share holders are easy to be realised. That is aligning the young to the linear economic model.

What we believe as champions for sustainable consumption and production is that the economic model for the future is circular, mimicking nature. The young of today can grow up closer to nature to realise the future that they deserve. The absence of such can only spell disaster. Moments of glory may be there, but true happiness is not a transient affair.

(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 [email protected])

Recent columns