Monday, August 25, 2014

How sustainable is our sustainability?

Sustainability can be defined as the ability to meet present needs without disturbing Nature’s equilibrium by a holistic approach while not compromising the ability of the future generation to continue to meet their needs. Holistic is “Characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole” (Wikipedia). Mathematically and scientifically any exponential growth or consumption will not be sustainable and such growth will eventually be curtailed by forces of Nature. Unfortunately current models of sustainability do not take a holistic approach but focus only on a continuous growth or expansion to meet the demands of the growing human population thus disturbing the Nature’s equilibrium. The holistic approach is essential because our world is interconnected and any isolated growth or development in one part of the world will affect the other part of the world. Such a growth is counter-productive to human civilization as a whole. At the same time Nature’s equilibrium is critical for the survival of humanity and science should take into account this critical issue while developing solutions to problems. Otherwise such a solution will not be sustainable in the long run. Nature maintains a perfect equilibrium (dynamic equilibrium) while maintaining reversibility. Both are intricately linked. If the equilibrium is not maintained then it becomes an irreversible process and the entropy of such a system will only increase according to the second law of thermodynamics. The order will become disorder or lead to chaos. Moreover any human interference to nature’s irreversibility and equilibrium by human beings will require energy. Any energy generation process within the system will not be holistic and therefore will not be sustainable. For example, reverse osmosis (RO) is a major industrial process currently used to desalinate sea water/brackish water to potable water. This process is reversing the Nature’s osmotic process by applying a counter pressure over and above the osmotic pressure of the saline water using high pressure pump. This requires energy in the form of electrical energy or thermal energy in the case of distillation. When such energy is generated by burning fossil fuel then the entropy increases because combustion of fossil fuel is an irreversible process. It is clearly not sustainable. Energy is directly connected with economic growth of the world, but Governments and industries failed to adopt a holistic approach while generating energy by simply focusing only on economic growth. The fossil fuel power generation has resulted in the accumulation of GHG in the atmosphere and in the ocean changing the climate. Power generation by nuclear plant (Fukushima) has spilled radiation into the ocean and has crossed the Pacific Ocean to shores of North America. These are irreversible changes. The human and economic costs from such pollution will easily dwarf the ‘the economic growth’ of the world. It is not holistic because the emissions caused by one country affects the whole world; then it becomes the right of an individual to object to such pollution and it is the obligation of the Governments, United Nations and the industries to protect individuals from such pollution. Right now all these agencies are helplessly watching the deteriorating situation because they do not have the solution or means to reverse the situation whether it is an advanced country or a poor country; we always measure growth only by income and not by the quality of air we breathe in or water we drink or the environment we live in. The demand for energy and water are constantly increasing all over the world; and we are trying to meet these demands by expanding existing power plants or by setting up new plants. When we generate power using fossil fuel the heat energy is converted into electrical energy and the products of combustion are let out into the atmosphere in the form of CO2 and Oxides of Nitrogen. It is an irreversible process and we cannot recover back the fossil fuel already burnt. Similarly the electricity generated once used to do some useful work such as lighting or running a motor etc cannot be recovered back. The process of electricity generation as well as usage of electricity is irreversible. Similarly when it rains the water percolates into the ground dissolving all the minerals, sometimes excessively in some places making it unsuitable to drink or irrigate. This process can be reversed but it again requires energy. Both the above processes are irreversible and thermodynamically they will increase the entropy of the system. Any energy generation process will have cost implications and therefore irreversibility and entropy are directly linked with economics. Fortunately renewable energy sources offer hope to humanity. Even though the entropy is increased due to its irreversible nature there is no depletion of energy (sun shines everyday). Only Nature can come to human rescue to our sustainability. Science and powerful economies cannot guarantee sustainability irrespective of the size of the budget. There is a myth that billions of dollars can reverse the irreversibility with no consequences. It raises question on the very basis of science because science depends on “observation and reproduciability” as we know. The biggest question is: “Who is the Observer and what is observed”? When sages of the East such as Ramana Maharishi raises this question, the Science has clearly no answer and the world is blindly and inevitably following the West to the point of no return. .