From melting polar ice sheets, to unseasonably warm European winters, to the endangerment of the Polar bear, environmental headlines have been hard to escape in the past years. Earth’s climate is changing. Phrases such as ‘Global Warming’, ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Greenhouse effect’ have become common phrases. Earth is currently undergoing a period of warming. Scientists agree that earth’s climate, throughout its history, has always fluctuated. However, scientists also agree that earth’s most recent period of warming is due to the changes humankind has made to its atmosphere.
Earth’s atmosphere is a layer of gases held by earth’s gravitational field. Relative to the size of earth, the atmosphere is incredibly thin. It has a certain composition of gasses. The composition of these gasses – their relative abundance, and ratios to one another — has varied through time. But now in earth’s history, more than ever, a greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide is being released at unprecedented levels.
Carbon dioxide is released from the combustion of fossil fuels. As a greenhouse gas, it traps heat inside of the Earth, contributing to the global problems society is experiencing today. Greenhouse gasses can be defined as, “any gas whose absorption of solar radiation is responsible for the greenhouse effect” 1. The greenhouse effect is the warming of Earth due to trapped solar radiation (heat from light waves). The greenhouse effect gets its name from the comparison to a greenhouse. Greenhouses let heat in as light, and prevent a large amount of the energy from leaving. This trapped energy heats the greenhouse, benefiting the plants inside. Greenhouses gasses, in a simplified sense, have a greenhouse effect on the entire Earth. As these gasses prevent heat from leaving, the Earth has no choice but to be heated. This newly retained heat can have tremendous consequences for Earth’s interior climate. The greenhouse effect – or the global warming – we are experiencing today is a direct effect of the tremendous amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humankind.
There is a degree of irony to the current situation. American society and the industrialized world owe most of its success and current riches to the burning of fossil fuels. From the beginning of the industrial revolution over three hundred years ago, humankind has been steadily increasing the amount of fossil fuels it burns. Since the invention of the internal combustion engine, automobiles have now become commonplace in our society. The majority of Americans drive to work, to school, to the grocery store, to the shopping mall. The majority of our food relies upon fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel burning machines plant the seeds, harvest the crops and transport the crops. Transportation by plane, train or bus is all due to the burning of fossil fuels. The electricity that powers households, that provides energy for indoor lighting, heat for warmth and cooking, power for our appliances such as TVs, stereos, computers, coffee makers – almost all owe their source to the burning of coal, a fossil fuel.
All of these inventions have greatly improved the quality of life in this world. Human beings stay warm in the winter, have light at night, and can travel across the country in a day thanks to fossil fuels. However these same fuels, which have profited society so greatly and which have brought such comforts, might very well be humankind’s own downfall.
Scientists have shown that if humankind continues to burn fossil fuels at its present rate, the climate of the future may be very different than the one to which we are accustomed. Climate change is a term used to describe the changing weather patterns, wind patterns and hydrologic (water) patterns that occur due to this warming. Already within the three hundred years that humankind has burnt fossil fuels, a global temperature increase has occurred. Oceans are warming. As the ocean warms, its patterns will change. Changing patterns in the ocean may have real consequences for the inland areas of continents. The outer areas of continents will have to adjust as sea level continues to rise. Some areas where human beings presently live will be underwater within one hundred years. Many islands in the Pacific Ocean – currently inhabited – will be entirely engulfed.
The effects of burning fossil fuels are far reaching and will impact countless generations to come. To address this issue, the world and local communities have been attempting to find alternative fuel sources. To change our lifestyles back to that of hunter and gatherers is impossible. Instead, human society must make a transition. A transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean, sustainable energy sources must be made. This transition is before humankind.
Many scientists throughout the nation and the world are actively working to solve this problem. The University of Iowa held its own Energy Conference, entitled “Envisioning Sustainability” this past fall. The conference was organized by the Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) (http://www.esustainableworld.org).
ESW is a non-profit organization affiliated with The University of Iowa, and includes over 3,000 professionals and students. These groups work together to try and reduce poverty and improve global sustainability. The conference included many educated speakers and involved small group discussions. Speakers and groups discussed sustainable solutions in the developed world and in developing nations, as well as how global collaboration and action can help take our world to a more sustainable state.
Key speakers on September 30th were Stuart Hart and Lester Brown. Several smaller group discussions were held, with topics ranging from volunteering abroad to starting a career in sustainable engineering and development.
The first speaker, Stuart Hart, is currently a professor of Management at Cornell University and is also the founder of Cornell’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. (http://www.johnson.cornell.edu/sge/index.html) He has written many books and papers on business opportunities for sustainable development. In his discussion, Hart explained that many perceive the switch to sustainable fuels or sources of production as being bad for the economy. Many have proclaimed – including President Bush – that industry and the economy will suffer if fossil fuel use is curbed. Stuart Hart clearly disagrees with this perspective. Hart believes that businesses actually have a grand opportunity to make money and grow as they popularize and switch to a sustainable form of energy and production. Hart believes many of the best opportunities lay in the developing world.
In the United States, many of these fossil fuel burning energy companies have long existed and have roots which dig deep. These deep roots can make our society resistant to change, as energy companies are looking out for their own welfare. However, in the developing world, these companies do not yet have strong grips on infrastructure. Large utility companies do not yet exist in many third world countries. Hart believes there is a great opportunity for businesses to create a sustainable infrastructure right from the beginning. Hart believes that as American companies invest in sustainable development efforts in underdeveloped countries, they will be meeting a need and enabling the country further, while also bringing money to American companies. Hart believes that this is a momentous point in time for change in our energy and development methods.
Human society is experiencing a transition in our energy sources, and in our understanding of resource use. Large corporations have huge impacts on this world, and therefore have the greatest ability to impact the development of underdeveloped nations. Corporations must evaluate themselves to decrease their own environmental impacts, while incorporating sustainable development in future ventures. Companies must balance their drive for profit with sound thinking for future sustainability. Hart argues that the economy can grow, businesses can profit, and new jobs can be created as society transitions to sustainable production, consumption and energy use.
Following Stuart Hart’s presentation, several group discussions were held. One discussion was about a program called SEED in which volunteers travel abroad and help with sustainable development projects in developing countries (http://www.seed.slb.com/). Students volunteer to go to one of many countries in need, and use their educational experience and resources to help the community in some way. One student was involved in a project building cheap water purifiers out of water bottles. Once built, these water bottle purifiers can be set in the sun for four hours to create clean drinking water. These purifiers provide a cheap and effective way of obtaining clean water with only the sun as energy. Another project involved building large containers to collect rainwater.
In Nicaragua students helped local people build solar ovens. Nearly all of the cooking in the village was done by burning wood, which was expensive, physically unhealthy and inefficient. Solar ovens provide a great alternative, as no thick smokes are emitted, and the only fuel needed is sunshine. However, when the sun is not shining, solar ovens provide little help. In addition to ovens, solar cookers were also developed. These are constructed with reflectors in a box, and allow beans, rice, cakes, bread, chicken, eggs and corn to be prepared. All of these methods use sustainable fuel from the sun. In western Honduras, students helped local people build portable water distribution systems. This benefited a community which, until that time, had no real system of distributing water.
These students all had a concern for the nature of their work. There are many young people who seem to feel strongly about current environmental trends. However, several questions also come to mind. Were some projects more successful than others? Were some inefficient or a misuse of time? Following up on these projects and understanding their effectiveness would greatly help someone trying to really solve a problem effectively.
Following this discussion, I then attended a group discussion which covered starting a career in sustainable development. New businesses are opening up each year which identify themselves as being eco-friendly. A representative from GreenMaker, a Chicago company which provides eco-friendly home products, gave a presentation (http://www.greenmakersupply.com). GreenMaker produces home products that are manufactured in a sustainable fashion. They sells a line of counter tops and flooring that, instead of being made of wood – the demand for which causes deforestation — are made of pressed plant fibers such as bamboo. They also sell a biodegradable form of linoleum flooring. When it is time to be disposed of, they can be shredded and composted. If companies such as GreenMaker increase in number and prove popular with the public, businesses might be able to help society shift towards more sustainable consumption patterns. In addition, such businesses increase consumer awareness as to how products are made and what they are made from.
The final speaker was Lester Brown. Lester Brown is one of the strongest voices in the global sustainability movement. He is the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, dedicated to providing a vision of an environmentally sustainable economy—an eco-economy—as well as a roadmap of how to get from here to there. http://www.earth-policy.org. In addition, Lester Brown has written many books, including Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. His latest book tries to develop a plan for an environmentally sustainable economy.
At the conference, Lester continued this discussion by talking about the urgency of switching from a fossil-fuel based economy to a renewable energy economy. Lester pointed out that the United States sets an example for the rest of the world. As other nations such as China and India continue to develop – burning copious amounts of fossil fuels – the environmental problems of the whole planet will worsen. Just as Americans do, these countries want cars for all of their citizens, heat in their homes, and televisions, computers and other electronics available for their use. As these third world countries increase the production of these goods, their use of natural resources and their burning of fossil fuels increase as well.
However, if a country such as China, with a population of 1.3 billion, had 1.5 cars per person – as we do in the US – there will be massive consequences for Earth. The current world fleet of automobiles is under 1 billion cars. If China was to have 1.5 cars per person, the world fleet would double, dramatically increasing worldwide fossil fuel emissions. In 2003 alone, China added 11,000 cars onto their roadways each day, totaling 4 million that year. As more cars are added, more areas must be paved, more fossil fuels must be allocated, and more emissions will be thrown into the atmosphere.
Brown urged that the US must begin a transition to sustainable energy, to serve as an example for others and to step towards slowing environmental problems. Solutions posed by Brown include increasing the use of both public transportation and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The faster this transition is made, the more stable the economy will be as petroleum sources dwindle, and the healthier the environment will be. As Earth’s population continues to rise, it is of utter importance that we human beings manage our energy and use of this planet wisely. Our current method of burning fossil fuels for virtually all aspects of energy may create a very unpleasant place for people to live in the next few hundred years.
Brown also gave several examples of past civilizations – filled with art, language, and culture — who ultimately caused their own downfall. These societies were affluent, just as ours, but through unintentional misuse of resources, caused massive problems that could not be overcome. For example, the Sumerians irrigated their fields of wheat by routing parts of the Euphrates to flood their fields. However, due to high evaporation in the area, salinization – the build up of salt – occurred in their fields. This resulted in less and less yields. The Sumerians tried switching to the more salt-tolerant crop of barley. However salt build up continued. Yields fell and an estimated 3/5ths of the population perished due to lack of food. This ultimately weakened the Sumerian civilization and led to their downfall. The Polynesian culture of Easter Island also suffered massive starvation and resource unavailability as they steadily deforested their entire island, undermining the very resource – wood – which gave them their affluence in the first place. Brown uses the Sumerians and others, whose own misuse of the Earth around them led to their own destruction. Lester urges that this society learn a lesson from civilizations past, and not allow naivety regarding fossil fuel use to be this culture’s downfall
The sustainability of humankind is dependent upon the sustainability of the resources we use to power our civilization. The industrialized world must make this transition first since the majority of current problems is caused by them, and since industrialized countries are often seen as examples to others. Our earth is a very delicate system. From temperatures to rainfall – all such environmental factors fluctuate based on changes to the Earth as a whole. As temperatures and rainfall patterns change, the length and severity of the seasons too will change. Growing seasons and growing locations will change. Food security is at risk. Transportation is at risk. Climate conditions are at risk. Human society is at risk. The climate in which our great-grandparents grew up in might be very different the climate in which our great-grandchildren will grow up.
Sustainable solutions exist, as this conference has shown. Many groups of smart scientists working as best they can, with the monetary resources they have, to try and develop further solutions. However these scientists will continue to need funding, as their experiments are developed and trialed. There must often be many attempts before a strong solution is found. There must be room for these companies to experiment with different things, so that the best solution is created. The airplane was successful only after hundreds of failed attempts. Urge local government representatives to take this issue full force, and support expanded and continued funding to sustainable solution projects.
When possible, purchase goods that are produced in a sustainable fashion. Whenever you purchase an item from a store, an electric company, or service provider, you are giving money to the company that produced the item and, in a sense, ‘voting’ that the methods of production the company uses. There is power behind consumer choice. Educate friends and family. Try and increase your personal awareness as to how you use energy.
The conference showed how great the desire is in the hearts of many people to find solutions. Human beings have such ingenuity, such an ability to change the natural world around them, that society must continue to work and push for more solutions. The needed transition will most likely take place through a series of solutions. This Earth is the only home in space that we have. We must care for and respect of home. All we depend upon, all that we cherish, lies here. Let us use our minds and creativity to make our world one into which we want our great-grandchildren to live.
Tim Knab is a student at the University of Iowa, and a volunteer for Local Foods Connection.