Digital this, digital everything: where’s the power coming from?

The world seems to have been so caught up in moving everything to the digital way of life that only a few people have paused to ask where the energy is going to come from. Take smartphones for instance; it used to be that phone batteries lasted for days and now they’re a day or two tops. It’s not that the battery capacities have stayed the same, it’s that the phones consume so much power because they’re basically miniaturized laptops that the technology can’t really keep up. So, we’ve gone to a situation where we now need more power to feed the smartphone and tablet usage.

In India, the government has committed itself to building a Digital India. To go digital, you need compute (servers), networking (to move data), data centers (storage); all this takes power, more power than we’re currently using. And, you need power to cool the “machines” that are providing the infrastructure for going digital.

Then, consider the Internet of Things (IoT); you are basically looking at connecting millions of devices to the Internet to enable them to talk to each other, for applications to use, etc. More power needed.

The whole thing is one giant power sucking machine that gets hungrier and hungrier. Just take a look at this Wikimedia graph: World Energy Consumption Chart and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s been increasing and will continue to increase. Right now, less than 7% of the world’s power is met by renewables (see this tool). A BP projection says “The share of renewables in the US fuel mix grows to 13% in 2035.

While you keep hearing about renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) and biofuels (still polluting, by the way), the growth isn’t fast enough to meet the energy demands. So, where is the power going to come from? A significant portion of our energy wants (not needs) will still come from coal, oil, natural gas, etc., often lumped together as fossil fuels. (I think they should be called buried-CO2-releasing fuels but that’s just me.)

So, you still need fossil fuels and all this talk of renewables and smarter technologies are not going to help unless the power consumption levels out. I’ve seen no sign that this is going to happen anytime soon.

This talk of digital this and that makes me weary and circumspect because it is so easy to get swept away by the hype and the utopian promises. If you think about more digital in terms of more energy consumption, it’s not such an attractive proposition anymore.

As is the case with such posts, I have to say that I’m not a Luddite and that I realize that this is being written inside a browser, stored in a data center, and published on a server. Not to mention the broadband, the laptop, and all the accoutrements.

I get the allure of technology and i get that it has improved things. But, ultimately I think that the path that we are going down is not worth it because what it is leading to is the destruction of the natural world. My fear is in knowing that I am in the minuscule minority of people who think like this.

I want to end with a paragraph of Paul Kingsnorth’s essay Dark Ecology (which, if you haven’t read, you must):

There is always change, as a neo-environmentalist would happily tell you; but there are different qualities of change. There is human-scale change, and there is industrial-scale change; there is change led by the needs of complex systems, and change led by the needs of individual humans. There is a manageable rate of evolution, and there is a chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine, flashing and scrolling like sirens in the gathering dusk.

Maybe we could all pause and consider this “chaotic, excitable rush toward shiny things perched on the edge of a great ravine“.

Polar bears, lions, endings

A little while earlier, I was reading the newspaper and saw a photo of a polar bear that had been tranquilized. My first instinct when I saw the polar bear lying on the ice was that the bear was dead but I was relieved to know that it was not.

However, I read a little bit of the accompanying article and in that it said that in Norway, because more people are visiting and because of the thinning ice, more people are coming into “contact” with polar bears and polar bears are being killed. I couldn’t read more. Our actions are causing the polar bears’ habitat to shrink and we’re killing them because they “threaten” us. I couldn’t read further.

Then, I read another piece about how lions bred in captivity are sometimes being used for trophy hunting.

A new report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says, in the decade between 2004 and 2014, 1.7 million animals were killed for their ‘trophy’. At least 2,00,000 of them were threatened species such as elephants, rhinos or lions. IFAW found that the US was the biggest importer of stuffed animal heads, while South Africa was the biggest exporter — and lions were by far the most traded.

I get the whole hunting for meat thing, but what is trophy hunting if not entertainment or thrill-seeking? How do we reconcile killing defenseless animals just for a photograph or for their heads? And, it’s not just land-based animals; trophy fishing is a “sport”.

Are we so bored out of our wits that killing is now something to be done for entertainment? How much more extreme does it have to get before we say enough? I think it won’t ever be enough because we’re a species that wants to dominate at all costs. All species do but we have the ability to reason but we use that reasoning to rationalize the choices we make. Also, if we can, throughout our history, commit genocide at fairly regular intervals, why would we discriminate against animals?

Maybe I’m wrong and it’s not entertainment; maybe it is power and the pursuit and application of it that we are after. Perverse power but power nonetheless. I’m simplifying a complex argument; there are other reasons I’m sure, but maybe the impotent anger and sadness that I feel blind me to other reasons.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote these great lines in one of his essays.

The nature of this Earth is change. The nature of this Earth is endings. The nature of this earth is extinction.

The one that sticks in my mind every time I think about what we’ve done to the natural world is, “The nature of this Earth is endings.”

And, we are in one–except this one is one that we created.

Who is Paul Kingsnorth and why you really should hear what he has to say

If you’ve been following me on Twitter (see feed on the sidebar), you may have already seen these articles that I am linking to in this post. I came across Paul Kingsnorth via an article in Grist. The article (or blog post) was intriguingly titled ‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth. The post is basically a discussion between him and another writer Wes Stephenson.

The ideas that Kingsnorth mentioned in the article were interesting enough that I wanted to read more. So, I read Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, an essay that Kingsnorth wrote and that was published in Orion magazine, and the stuff he wrote in the essay resonated with me.  Here’s an excerpt:

A two-month break from my country, my upbringing, my cultural assumptions, a two-month immersion in something far more raw and unmediated, has left me open to seeing this place as it really is. I see the atomization and the inward focus and the faces of the people in a hurry inside their cars. I see the streetlights and the asphalt as I had not quite seen them before. What I see most of all are the adverts.

For the first time, I realize the extent and the scope and the impacts of the billboards, the posters, the TV and radio ads. Everywhere an image, a phrase, a demand, or a recommendation is screaming for my attention, trying to sell me something, tell me who to be, what to desire and to need. And this is before the internet; before Apples and BlackBerries became indispensable to people who wouldn’t know where to pick the real thing; before the deep, accelerating immersion of people in their technologies, even outdoors, even in the sunshine. Compared to where I have been, this world is so tamed, so mediated and commoditized, that something within it seems to have broken off and been lost beneath the slabs. No one has noticed this, or says so if they have. Something is missing: I can almost see the gap where it used to be. But it is not remarked upon. Nobody says a thing.

After reading the essay, I felt despair. Despair, because what Kingsnorth wrote about was something that I had felt sometimes, fleetingly, but that I’d not paid attention to; reading about it suddenly made things explicit. The best way to explain it is that it’s like the lens with which I was viewing the world had changed and I could not see things the old way anymore. A burst of clarity. (I will write more about this later; for now, let’s keep the focus on Kingsnorth.)

I decided to read more about Paul and found out that he co-founded something called The Dark Mountain Project, which you can read about via that link. Here’s another excerpt:

The Dark Mountain Project is a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.

I also started following him on Twitter (@paulkingsnorth) and then read another one of his essays (published again in Orion). Dark Ecology is a powerful and brave essay about “searching for truth in a post-green world”. Here’s an excerpt:

I’VE RECENTLY BEEN reading the collected writings of Theodore Kaczynski. I’m worried that it may change my life. Some books do that, from time to time, and this is beginning to shape up as one of them.

It’s not that Kaczynski, who is a fierce, uncompromising critic of the techno-industrial system, is saying anything I haven’t heard before. I’ve heard it all before, many times. By his own admission, his arguments are not new. But the clarity with which he makes them, and his refusal to obfuscate, are refreshing. I seem to be at a point in my life where I am open to hearing this again. I don’t know quite why.

You may read Kingsnorth’s essays and feel that he’s being defeatist or that he’s a pessimist. For me though, what he’s doing nothing short of heroic. It takes an incredible amount of courage to write what he’s written, and to, in his words, “withdraw”. I’m not sure that I have that kind of courage; if I do, I am still finding it.

So, do me a favour and please do read these two essays that I’ve linked to. They’re long but they are worth the effort. So, go on now; I’ll be here when you get back.

Bangalore’s summers get a new dimension

I’ve been in Bangalore for more than a decade and yet I can’t remember a Bangalore summer like this. The ceiling fan chops hot air on to you, the mattress seems to radiate heat and yet the temperature is not in the mid-40s. I read an article in Deccan Herald a few weeks ago where one of the weather folks was explaining that the pollution in the city is not allowing the heat to escape thus making Bangalore much hotter than the temperature would suggest.

So far, it has been a miserable summer, and the only respite has been some spells of rain here and there. Even when that happens, the cooling doesn’t seem to last very long–it’s back to hot weather the next day.

Rapid urbanization, the explosion in cars and vehicles, the unnecessary usage of A/C units–I think all of these have been a major factor in changing Bangalore’s climate. And, I fear that this is going to get worse not better because I don’t see people changing lifestyles to reduce the amount of power they consume, to reduce vehicle usage, and so on. Heck, it’s the opposite; I personally know 2 people who have bought A/C units in the last two weeks. Think of it as more CO2 being pumped into that “great big sewer in the sky” (as Franke James would probably say) from the coal we’re burning to get our electricity.

We need to solve this problem but I am afraid we’re not going to start making changes until it’s too late. Now, if you’ll excuse me I will go and dunk my head in a bucket of water.

Don’t let the Canadian government silence Franke James

It seems the the Canadian Government does not like what Franke James has to say and that they’re prepared to block an art show to ensure that she is silenced. Yes, an art show.

Franke, who is an artist and author of Bothered by My Green Conscience (and creator of other superb visual essays), and who I’ve linked to here numerous times, wrote a blog post today where she mentioned how the Canadian government is trying to stop her right to creative expression and free speech. Here is an excerpt from her blog post:

The Canadian Government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, is actively working to shut down my solo European art exhibition, which is set to tour 20 cities in Europe. The government’s interference includes phoning the corporate sponsor, and persuading them to cancel their $75,000 sponsorship.

Canadian officials have also bullied the NGO, Nektarina Non Profit, and warned them repeatedly to cancel the exhibition because they are opposed to “Franke James.”

Franke’s visual essays are powerful stories about the environment and about what we need to do to save the environment and ultimately, ourselves. To attempt to stop an artist from expressing herself is not something that you’d expect a democratic country to do, but that’s exactly what’s being done. Here’s an actual quote:

“Who was the idiot who approved an art show by that woman, Franke James?”

– Memorable words from one of Canada’s top officials on hearing that the Canadian Embassy in Croatia had offered support for Franke’s art show.

So, she needs our support. You can support Franke by tweeting or blogging about this, sharing it on Facebook (or Google+), leaving a comment on her blog post, or even emailing your friends.

Bothered by my Green Conscience

It’s no secret to anyone who reads this blog that I’m a fan of Franke James’ visual essays. I’ve linked to her work, I’ve blogged about it, and tweeted about it as well. (Franke James, for those of you not in the know, is a multiple award winning author and artist, who lives in Toronto.) After trying to find a way to buy her book (here in India) and then a few weeks of procrastinating, I finally got my hands on her book. (Thank you Flipkart.com.)

Bothered by my Green Conscience (hereafter Bothered…) is a series of visual essays — five to be exact — about the Franke James’ journey to the green side. In the beginning of the book, Franke comes up with the big idea – Do the hardest thing first, before you change your mind.

The hardest thing that the author did was to give up her SUV. Then, since she didn’t need her driveway because she had no car, she took on the city of Toronto and got the first permit to build an eco-friendly driveway in Toronto. Her driveway is now a converted garden with plants and trees and more importantly less storm water runoff. Reading the essays makes you wonder about the things that you can do to make your life more sustainable and green.

Even though I had read all of the visual essays online, reading the essays in Bothered… was a totally different experience and the essays were easier to read. I also didn’t appreciate how much work goes into creating each visual essay until I saw the illustrations on the pages of the book. The visuals that Franke James uses with her words are way more powerful in conveying her experiences and thoughts than any book with only words could be.

As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to give it to my family members so that after reading it, they’d understand why I use baking soda for cleaning, why I segregate garbage, etc. In fact, Bothered… is one of those books that you feel like giving to everyone you know so that they can also get the “green thing”.

Bothered by my Green Conscience is a terrific read and unlike any book that I’ve ever read. I wish and hope that more people will read it.

Solar at Kolar – a great first step

Today’s Deccan Herald had a piece of news that I was happy to read: State’s first solar power plant in Kolar

The State is all set to establish itself as a pioneer in solar power generation with the commissioning of a solar power plant near Kolar on June 17.

Apart from the three megawatts (MW) grid-operated solar power plant to be set up by Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL), two more projects are nearing completion in Belgaum and Raichur.

Almost a hundred years ago, Karnataka created history by becoming the first State in the country to generate electricity. Now, it has achieved another milestone by becoming the first State to produce solar energy, much before the implementation of National Solar Mission by the Union Ministry for Renewable Energy.

KPCL’s solar power plant at Kolar alone can save 4,500 metric tonnes of carbon emission as well as can earn upto Rs 35 lakh through carbon credits.

We need more initiatives like this and for more states to do what Karnataka is doing. Bravo KPCL.

A Bangalore without water?

Today’s Deccan Herald had this on the front page: City may become unliveable in 5 years.

In yet another alarming projection of the city’s water situation, scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore have predicted that the already depleted water resources of the city could dry up within the next five years.

Increasing built-up area, rising temperature, rapidly depleting greenery and over-exploitation of ground water are threatening to render the city dry and dead, according to a recent study by IISc’s Energy and Wetland Group at the Centre for Ecological Sciences.

It’s not surprising news to anyone who’s seen Bangalore change in just the last six or seven years but the situation is grim. Just take a look at the numbers.

Between 1973 and 2006, the city’s ecological degradation was 66 percent. That is huge. But gathering pace, in the last two years (between 2007 and 2009), the city’s vegetation cover fell alarmingly from 28 per cent to 16 per cent — from 19, 696 hectares it has dwindled to just 11,153 hectares area within a short span of time,” the scientist explained.

The fact that this study has come from the IISc should at least get it noticed. Whether it will get people to change their habits is a different question altogether.

Do a simple thing tomorrow – notice how many times you leave the tap running when you’re washing your hands, taking a bath, or washing dishes. Just observe what you’re doing and maybe what others around you are doing. The water that’s wasted is literally water down the drain.

According to the 2001 census, we had 5.8 million people in Bangalore. You do the math on how much water you think is just wasted. I’m not saying that this is the only reason for the problems that we face regarding the water situation, but this is something you can directly control.

Drops of water, ocean or something like that.

A secret that only you know?

No one will know, except you is the latest, delightful visual essay by Franke James. This essay is about her book and that’s all I am going to say. Trust me though — click the link, let the images load, and read the essay.

Like a previous essay, which I blogged about, this one too is terrific.

Franke really has a unique way of expressing herself. I know the word unique is overused but the way she “communicates” is unique.

Spotlight on the Reva

Daniel Pepper’s article The Reva: Why Americans May Never See the Best New Car on the Road is an interesting article about the Reva, its background and how it is doing in other parts of the world.

After almost a year of delays, the Indian automobile manufacturer Tata is finally set to answer that call by releasing the world’s cheapest car next month. Priced at about $2,000, the Tata Nano is a five-seat, air-conditioned, gasoline-powered car. It is also a nightmare for environmentalists, who predict sky-high sales will further pollute India’s already smog-filled air.

So why isn’t India’s other indigenous automotive invention taking the world by storm? The Reva is the world’s most successful electric vehicle. Manufactured on the outskirts of the south Indian city of Bangalore, it is as popular there as it is on the streets of London. Cumulatively it has been driven a combined 55 million kilometers in 20 major cities around the world.

But despite patented technologies, government subsidies, a groundswell of interest in electric vehicles and innovative marketing practices, the Reva is unlikely to dent the global automobile market with as much force as the Nano.

I’m glad that the Reva is getting this sort of coverage. I think it’s an important car and I hope it’ll be made more affordable in the future. You can see the car in Bangalore quite often and it’s nice to see that people are choosing a green car, even though it’s not inexpensive. We need more people to drive non-polluting cars.

Here’s the article link again.