CAPE TOWN – The relationship between primary energy sources and the environment is a curious one. It is a curiosity deriving from the fact that so many of such sources of energy, notwithstanding their economic benefits, have got some elements in them which are ethically objectionable.
Their degree of objectionability varies greatly, depending on the audience and the circumstance. However, not all sources fit this stereotype. And those that do not, give credence to the idiom that exceptions prove the rule. There is a minority of them that could pass through the eye of the environment needle and therefore qualify for the category of exception.
The majority of them in the meantime, those who carry the burden of providing us with light and mobility, do not. Whether it is the collection of wood and the burning of coal or the use of hydrocarbons, the net cost to the environment is measurable and so far, found to be deleteriously high.
Across the full energy value chain, whether searching for them, converting them to products, or using them, something intrinsic to their constitutive form is bound to irritate the environment. The world’s most vigilant experts monitoring their effects, have their voices of protest registered the strongest where the effects are the severest.
In that spectrum too, there would be other sources providing a sImilar purchase as their fossil brethren, like nuclear which requires mining of uranium and its alternative, thorium. Fortunately, the effect on the environment caused by digging and probing in the belly of the earth is fairly published. There was even a time when many other countries considered the gigantic robotic frames of wind turbines unsightly. The aesthetics of the tranquility of the rural topography would cease to be enjoyable, they claimed.
Gas exploited as hydrocarbons has received its share of blameworthiness too. Fracturing it out of the shale rock in the form of gas or oil quickly polarizes society into mortal enemies. Not even the seemingly innocuous solar energy is spared from the toxicity of this divide. The claim is that it is sophistry of a complex degree to lead the argument that batteries used to store solar energy do not speak to the complex narrative of mining.
For some, dams present themselves as clean sources of energy. However, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam resulted in the loudest objections of our time, suggesting in their intensity that the environment will be seriously damaged. Supposing that there would be some rare energy source that would have no direct or indirect cost relationship to the environment, it would be an exception. But let’s find it first.
The compelling urge to reflect on the adverse correlation between the sources of energy and the broad definition of the environment, is motivated by the questions that arise from the morality of the objections. If they should be maintained, as most of rational humanity agree they should, they must be consistent, measurable and devoid of the proclivity to pander to sectional interests of the powerful.
Destruction of the environment for one reason or any other is simply wrong. It should be wrong to destroy the environment to power cars and homes and street lights in the same way it must be unjustifiable to damage the environment just so we can manufacture mobile phones.
Such thesis represents two extreme ends of a very sensible argument and in their extremity, do not permit for the possibility of a comfortable middle. Yet there is a middle. In many ways, it proceeds from the assumption that there must be a relationship between humans and the environment. In its essence, the relationship must benefit both the temporary nature of the human condition and the finite resources meant to underwrite the economic balance sheet of the global commons. Therefore such middle must be reasonable. And in order to achieve the level of balance required, it should be regulated.
As the middle thesis develops, it confirms the necessity of the survival of the human race relying on the earth’s bounty from both renewable and non-renewable sources, yet sternly advised that nature is economic in the distribution of its largesse. And when that economy is unsettled, nature can become ill-tempered and extremely violent.
It is a proposition that is consistent with the idea that humans and their baggage are a passing appendage to nature’s mission on earth, serving as it always has, many other bodies in our immediate universe. So much so that the environment and the elements that sustain it, will do just fine even without humans, whilst humans with all their transient intelligence are incapable of surviving the destruction of the environment.
There is a temptation to ignore the trap posed by terminology that does not distinguish between nature and the environment. The other trap is even more dangerous, to define them. For in reality, whilst environment is capable of being defined within some broadly accepted parameters, nature is too inflexible and too wide to reduce to one use and for one use only.
And then there is climate change
Whilst the environment is fixed and accessible to humans, it is dependent on the natural elements to produce certain results. It is endowed with the capacity to react in particular ways as it communes with the elements, a romantic consortium that has forged over four billion years ago.
That harmonious balance between the natural elements, or nature as we may call it, and the environment, is the preeminent requirement to sustain the human project, whatever that project is. It is called climate. So, whenever our industrial instinct and its economic pursuits tend to perturb the environment’s capability to react to the elements, they may help facilitate the demise of the condition necessary to sustain human existence. That changes the climate, or as popular parlance prefers, climate change.
With much public usage, the term climate change has assumed a particular emphasis. It refers more often than not, to the rising of the atmospheric temperature facilitated by a substantial increase of methane and carbon dioxide, thus warming the globe. If that is one strand of perspective, along with ancient religious convictions and other esoteric philosophies, they together contribute toward a multi-dimensional understanding of the environment, and where it shares that connotation, climate change.
However, it is the version the defines climate as the harmonious efficacy born out of the relationship between the physical environment and the natural elements that commands this thesis. Climate change, therefore, would be the result of the violation of that harmony. Many factors contribute towards the stability of that relationship to the extent that resolving the rise of methane and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, would not entirely account for the complete restoration of that imbalance.
From the ancient communities in Africa to the indigenous societies in the Americas, the intellectual endeavor to define the environment relative to their spiritual and religious orientation, or to mirror the soul of the universe and the manifestation of the Almighty Creator through the pristine contours of the physical environment, has always been robust. So profound has been the endeavor, its enduring longevity has provided distinct tenets to their sacrosanct cultural practices. Without doubt, there are some important lessons to learn from these practices.
Occupying approximately 10 percent of the earth’s surface, there is no guarantee that we will always be here. And that if we continue to be, it is uncertain whether or not we shall retain the same cognitive form, supported as we are today, by the same or similar intelligence quotient. There are signs that the human capacity of absorption and rational conversion of images and concepts continues to grow, notwithstanding the primordial instincts that influence the irrationality of our common civilization project. Such cognitive evolution must stand us in good stead when crafting a social contract with the environment.
The tendency to craft agreements among humans only without involving the environment, is an intellectual fuss. And when unaware on how to make the environment a social and spiritual partner in the journey of modernization, those seeking to, must be excused if they don’t know, and so deserve time and space to consult practitioners that worship the earth and constantly revere to its wisdom.
Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister at Law.
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