Energy and the environment: A philosophical perspective

July 2013 » Columns » BEYOND WORDS
Indranil Seth, P.E., LEED Green Associate

As worldwide demand for energy has grown exponentially during the last few decades, the challenges facing us are becoming of a different nature than those faced in previous decades. Some of these challenges are not new or something unheard of in the recent past, but they are coming back with greater vengeance. Lately, our existence on this precious planet is being challenged by numerous environmental upheavals.

Some say that the various climatic changes and abnormal weather patterns are all signaling an inevitable catastrophe. We can agree or disagree with this statement; nonetheless, one conclusion is certainly acceptable: Man has come to know from the recent past and the present that the irresponsible pursuit of energy leads to unavoidable repercussions.

Therefore, philosophically speaking man has evolved into a more sensitive individual than ever before. Thus, the onus is on us to roll up our sleeves and take judicious steps to tackle the energy-environmental challenges. One of the greatest challenges is to meet the world’s energy needs while mitigating any environmental consequences of such pursuits. There may be other consequences but they don’t fall under the scope of this article.
 

Energy is created from certain resources (that store energy), the recovery of which leads to permanent alterations (usually detrimental) in the environment. How can we alter this status quo? Are we going to turn a deaf ear to this calling and run blind chasing our energy dream? Where will the energy road lead us to? Will it become a smoother ride or get bumpier, or is there going to be a major turnaround?

Whatever is in store for us, there is no doubt that it makes us reflect upon the energy-environment debate that is burning ever more intensely. Energy and the environment are like conjoined twins sharing the same fate: They were created in the womb of the same mother (i.e., planet earth) but eventually must be separated and cared for separately in order for them to co-exist successfully and have a healthy relationship in the future. Environment and energy are equal partners in the race for a sustainable development of this planet.

The traditional view was that energy needs were more important than environmental considerations and therefore the environmental consequences were linked with the energy quest in such a fashion that the consequences often were ignored. No doubt there is an intimate connection between energy and the environment and a healthy relationship between the two is the basis for a brighter future for this planet. This see-saw balance will have to be fully understood.

Today when we think of the environment, we immediately confront images of greenhouse gases, ozone layer depletion, climate change, deforestation, increasing sea level change, etc. The list is endless. What is the reason that in spite of having the best minds looking into the energy needs of the world a few decades ago, we as a privileged species failed to foresee such grave consequences? Was it because of shear negligence or just an irresponsible approach that led to ignoring the consequences?

The contemporary view is that the environment is as equally important as energy needs. Therefore, if the environment suffers because of current and increasing energy needs, there will be misbalance in the system. All of a sudden the earth’s future has come to symbolize the future of mankind. Two of the biggest challenges faced by mankind today are to achieve energy efficiency in supply as well as in demand. The day is not far away when every bit of engineering or every school of thought will be guided by the environmental consequences it produces. This is already taking shape.

The developed and the developing nations have to join hands in moving forward toward a single productive goal, but unfortunately, the wealth imbalance in the world makes it difficult for such an endeavor to take place without any glitches. Things are changing fast and we have to be optimistic and energize ourselves to act accordingly.

Keep in mind that the two scenarios to avoid during the energy-environment debate are a checkmate and a stalemate. The checkmate scenario signifies losing the fight against the misbalance, and the stalemate scenario signifies a situation where there is no solution as well as no more options to save the energy-environment delicate balance.

In spite of the awareness and actions being taken in developed nations on regulating energy production to protect the environment, developing nations have done little in comparison. For them, environmental protection is still a luxury that cannot be afforded. There isn’t a well-coordinated effort between nations to solve this problem of energy-environment misbalance.

Though energy today is produced by both traditional and renewal and other methods, it is renewal energy that is the talk of the day. Renewable energy would most significantly have less direct impact on the environment as compared with the traditional forms of energy; however, renewable energy has its own pros and cons that may have an indirect impact on the environment (and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is greater than the direct impact).

So, what do we do? Do we harness energy the traditional way but more efficiently or do we shift gears and go gung ho after renewable energy?

When we join others in claiming that the environmental effects of industrialization and energy needs have gone from bad to worse, some thoughts should always remain in our minds. Are we being victimized by any propaganda? Is our opinion based on any personal experiences? How reliable is the information on which we are basing our assumptions? Now, don’t get me wrong. The world today is witnessing unprecedented information sharing and cross-cultural communication, but how much of it is true and relevant?

A good and simple approach to level the energy-environment seesaw would be to “equal the weights” with the use of energy on one side and protection of the environment on the other. We don’t want to burden the seesaw balance with unequal emphasis and hence break the energy-environmental relationship. In other words, the greater use of energy that leads to less protection of the environment should be avoided at all costs and greater protection of the environment that leads to less use of energy (leading to an unhealthy balance) also should be avoided. The weights might become unequal due to man’s increasing necessities or his greed. This again will make the misbalance inevitable.

Whatever we do, we have to ensure that the energy-environment delicate balance stays healthy. Let future generations inherit a balance and also inherit the capacity to maintain it. It has to be a collective effort where our promise and ability to keep the energy-environment equilibrium is unquestionable.
 

 

Indranil Seth, P.E., LEED Green Associate, is an environmental engineer with a mining engineering background. He can be contacted at indranil_seth@yahoo.com.

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