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Vol. 7 No. 3 - July 2001

Deconstructing Science

By: Anil Agarwal

Nature uses lean sources to get work done. The environmental crises we face today are a result of ignoring this simple paradigm for two centuries. For the sake of our survival in the 21 st century, science will have to move on from just unraveling nature to imitating its ways. More so in developing countries that face a whole gamut of environmental and developmental problems. This is the challenge of Science for Ecological Security.

Few people realize that the 21st century is going to be the century of the environment. Technological change in this century is going to be heavily driven by the environmental imperative. Any nation that forgets to invest in environmental science and technology will only do so at its own peril - its economy and the lives and health of its people. Human technologies will be forced to mimic nature's cycles and gentleness. Else they will threaten the very survival of the human race.

How can we say that such development is destined to take place? Firstly, let us look at the evolution of science itself in the 20th century. Scientists during the last century essentially asked four important questions. At the start of the century, the biggest question that was in the minds of scientists like Albert Einstein or Neils Bohr was 'What is Matter'. By the middle of the 20th century, scientists had begun to ask two other important questions, namely, 'What is Life' and 'What is the Universe'. It was around the 1950s that Francis Crick and James Watson unraveled the structure of the DNA. This discovery led to enormous developments in life sciences and, more recently, we have begun to see the emergence of biotechnologies based on the knowledge gathered by life scientists in a very big way. But by the last quarter of the 20th century, scientists had begun to ask yet another critical question and that is 'What is the Web of Life'.

This last question was not asked out of scientific curiosity but because of human necessity. The vast range of technologies that had emerged because of increased human understanding of nature was beginning to have major impacts on nature itself. Soon after the World War II ended in 1945, within just 15 years, the world witnessed what economists call the Post-War Economic Boom. During this period, the Western world not only saw enormous economic growth but also enormous environmental problems. By 1960, it was impossible to breathe in most Western cities, all the way from Tokyo to Los Angeles, and rivers Iike the Rhine and the Thames had become stinking sewers. Therefore, an enormous amount of scientific and technological investment had to be made from the 1970s onwards to deal with the environmental crisis.

The Western environmental crisis of the 1950s and 1960s was not a historical accident. It is inherent to the Western technological paradigm which is dependent on a very heavy use of materials and energy and which, therefore, leads to rapid degradation of the environment. By the last two decades of the 20th century, this technological paradigm had begun to spread in a big way into the developing world and, not surprisingly, Southeast and East Asia which began to show high rates of economic growth, quickly became the most polluted part of the world.

As this technological paradigm spreads across the developing world in the 21st century, we can expect an enormous amount of environmental mayhem to take place, which is going to go well above the carrying capacity of the earth's environment and could easily destroy numerous critical geo-chemical cycles like the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle.


The second reason why humanity will continue to struggle with the environmental imperative for a long time to come is because the last three to four decades have clearly shown that massive technological interventions into natural ecosystems lead to major environmental surprises. In fact, the only way the Western world has been able to maintain some amount of environmental sanity in its economic growth has been by constantly monitoring the environment and quickly taking corrective measures each time a new surprise gets thrown up. As a result, the last two decades have seen innumerable environmental treaties being negotiated to bring about global cooperative action amongst the nations of the world to deal with the new and emerging environmental threats.

Nature and its various sub­components are all very complex systems. When major interventions are made into these very complex systems, no one ever knows what will be the result. Because of the complexity of nature's ecosystems, it is almost impossible to predict the outcome. It is like millions of rats being let out across the Himalayan range. But even if we know that these rats have a tendency to congregate, the Himalayan range is so large that nobody can predict where and on which mountain these rats will begin to emerge and start eating it away. This is exactly what happens with technological interventions. A few examples are as follows.

DDT (dichloro diphenyl trichloethane): First of the chlorinated organic insecticides, DDT was originally prepared in 1873. In 1939, Paul Muffler of Geigy Pharmaceutical in Switzerland discovered its effectiveness as an insecticide - he was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology in 1948 for this discovery. DDT's use increased enormously worldwide after World War II. In the late 1940s, Charles Broley, a Canadian banker retired to Florida, said the pesticide, sprayed along the gulf coast to control salt marsh mosquitoes, was the cause of the drop in the numbers of the bald eagle -unique to North America and the US national emblem. Subsequent research showed that the chemical interfered with its ability to develop strong shells for its eggs. The shells were so thin that the eggs often broke during incubation or failed to hatch. Their reproduction disrupted, bald eagle populations plummeted. As the dangers of DDT became known, in large part due to Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring, it was banned for most uses in the US in 1972. Several countries have banned it since, while some like India continue to use it to counter the menace of malaria. They desperately need a new way to control mosquitoes as vectors develop resistance to DDT.

CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons): When chlorofluorocarbons were first discovered in the 1930s, they were seen as wonder substances because of their extreme stability. In fact, after the Second World War ended, they not only came to be used in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems but also in medical uses like inhalers used by asthmatics. These gases could go deep into the lungs of asthmatics and yet have no effect on them. But nobody could have dreamt that in 'the 1970s scientists would find that these chlorofluorocarbons were destroying a global ecological system like the stratospheric ozone layer and literally threaten the very survival of life on earth. The stratospheric ozone layer acts as a very important protective shield against the lethal ultraviolet radiation coming in from space. By the mid-1980s, scientists had discovered a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica and by the end of 1980s, the nations of the world had to get together to phase out the use of chlorofluorocarbons. Today, the world is busy redesigning all its air-conditioning and refrigeration technology.

POPs (persistent organic pollutants): In the mid-1980s, a Canadian scientist, Eric Dewailly of Laval University in Quebec, was trying to look for pure, unpolluted human milk to compare with the concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the milk of Southern Quebec women. He collected the blood of Canadian Eskimos, also known as the Inuit people, who were living way up in the Arctic region, far away from the industrialized world. The scientist was stunned to find five times more PCBs in the milk of Inuit mothers. He could not believe what he had found, and thought he had made a mistake. Repeated tests showed that this was indeed a common problem among the Inuit people. Now scientists know that the use of POPs in countries situated far away in the lower latitudes leads to these pollutants, which do not degrade easily, riding the waves and the winds and finally reaching the Arctic circle. Frank Wania of the University of Toronto explains that planetary circulation systems produce a "systematic transfer of these chemicals from warmer to colder areas." The Arctic region acts as a 'cold trap' where the chemicals fall from the sky and dissolve in water, disappear into sediments or accumulate in the fat of animals or fish, which the Inuit eat. Today, there is an international treaty to phase out these POPs.

Diesel: Up to the early 1990s, diesel was regarded as a green fuel because of its higher fuel efficiency as compared to petrol. It was, therefore, seen as a solution for even arresting global warming. But in just the last five years, environmental health scientists have discovered extremely negative health effects of diesel-related pollutants. As a result, diesel today is literally being phased out across the world and every week new evidence emerges about the health effects of diesel.

Carbon dioxide: When the newly industrializing Western world embarked upon the use of fossil fuels to energise its economic engines, it had no idea that one day the use of these fossil fuels will threaten to destabilise the world's climate systems in such a way that it would threaten the very survival of a large number of coastal cities, agriculture across a wide swath of tropical lands, and numerous .species of living organisms which today live in niche environments and which will not be able to colonize other environments in time. As a result, the world is now faced with a major challenge of reinventing its energy system, moving away from fossil fuel energy to zero-carbon energy, which will lead to a major technological change.

Vehicular pollution control: within India itself those of us who have been involved with vehicular air pollution control have been consistently surprised. In Delhi, for instance, when the Supreme Court gave an order that Delhi should phase out leaded petrol because lead causes mental retardation, especially in children, everybody thought that this was a very good thing to do.

But few people realized that in order to deal with the knocking problem for which lead is normally added to petrol, refineries would increase the quantity of benzene and other aromatics in petrol. This has led to high levels of benzene in Delhi's environment and as benzene is a well known carcinogen which causes blood cancers, and as blood cancers are already very high in Delhi as compared to other Indian cities, the Supreme court has now ordered petroleum companies to limit the benzene content in petrol.

Having done this we are now finding that the companies are trying to improve the combustion of petrol by adding oxygenates like MTBE (for methyl tertiary butyl ether) which help the combustion of the fuel. Just about 10 years ago, the US had promoted the use of MTBE in petrol in a very big way. And then it suddenly found that the substance has an extraordinary ability to travel through groundwater. It smells like turpentine and even a teaspoon of the substance can make an entire Olympic-size swimming pool stink to heaven. It is also a carcinogen. First California and now the US are taking steps to ban the use of this substance. But Indian petroleum companies like Bharat Petroleum and Indian Oil Corporation have set up plants and are now adding MTBE to their petrol. So another Supreme Court order is now in order to ban the use of MTBE.

But the story doesn't end here. University of Venice scientists have reported that the growing use of catalytic converters, which use heavy metals to reduce pollution from cars, is leading to accumulation of heavy metals in Greenland. So, what next? A ban on catalytic converters?


All these surprises show that the only way is to constantly monitor our environment, to keep making efforts to understand how human interventions in the form of new technological changes are leading to new environmental impacts, and then take quick remedial, regulatory and technological measures to stop the problem. But every new technological change, we have found, is quite likely to pose a new environmental problem. Therefore, investments in 'Science and Technology for our Ecological Security' are vital, and a constant reality - almost like a treadmill.

It is not surprising that already a number of new technologies are beginning to emerge which are being driven by environmental imperatives. For example, in the last 20 years, technological changes in the internal combustion engine (and the automobile industry) have been heavily driven by the environmental imperative and yet this challenge continues to dog the automobile industry. Despite all the environmental efficiency introduced into automobiles, as the number of automobiles continues to grow and new understanding of the health effects of automobile-related pollutants continues to emerge, the automobile industry is being pushed into newer and newer directions. In fact, many people now even are thinking in terms of concepts like car-free cities, which would mean an altogether new approach to transportation systems within cities.

At the same time, over the last five years, there has been considerable hype about fuel cells or the use of hydrogen as a major source of energy for driving vehicles as well as small-scale power generation systems. Once the use of fuel cells becomes common, there will be no need left for large power stations that require an enormous infrastructure for delivery of power. Every single household can have access to pollution-free small-scale power generating systems of its own. In other words, we will move from centralized power generation systems to extremely disaggregated systems in the years ahead. Similarly, solar cells, wind energy and a number of other renewable energy options are going to be driven by the threat of climate change.

Few people realize that the emergence of fuel cells is not because of technological curiosity. The entire interest in fuel cells has been driven by the environmental regulation set by the world's largest car market, namely, that of California, which has mandated companies to introduce zero emission vehicles in the Californian market. Auto companies first tried to think in terms of electric vehicles but found that they were not able to crack several problems related to batteries and have now taken up fuel cells in a big way. A small Canadian company, Ballard, has suddenly become a centre of interest for energy and automobile multinational giants. As Al Gore former vice-president of USA, pointed out, we are looking at the end of the internal combustion engine, which has so dominated modern lives over the last century.

In the decades to come, one can see numerous other technologies coming up which will replace the dinosaur technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Apart from the efforts to clean up local air, climate change will force a total revamping of the energy technologies in the decades ahead. Similarly, the use of sewer systems will disappear. These waste disposal systems totally destroy nature's nitrogen cycle in which nitrogen collected from the land ought to be returned back to the land but, on the other hand, with the use of sewers, gets dumped into rivers. The only way to deal with the environmental impact of sewer systems is to make enormous investment in sewage treatment plants. Even in the Western world there are a large number of cities, which still do not have adequate sewage treatment facilities. With urbanization growing rapidly in the developing world, the amount of investment that will be needed in sewage treatment plants apart from the investments in the sewer systems themselves, is going to be extremely high and unaffordable and long before these investments can be made, the use of sewer systems will have totally destroyed the aquatic ecosystems in the developing world, posing enormous threats both to public health and aquatic biodiversity.

In India, we don't have to look a few years ahead. We already see the signs of this hydrocide. Literally, no small or medium river today is clean. Every big river like the Ganga, whenever they pass through big cities, become a filthy drain. Already there are technological developments taking place which give rise to the concept of sewer-less cities using new technological systems which use either extremely low amounts of water or no water at all, and in which all the wastewaters and the solid wastes are recycled.

In very simple terms, 21st century technology will move closer to the ways that nature itself works. This can be explained in two ways. Nature uses weak forces rather than concentrated forces to do its work. For example, nature uses very tiny temperature differences to carry as much as 4,000 million hector-meters or 40,000 billion tonnes of water from the oceans and across thousands of kilometers to dump it as rainfall over India. Yet when humans want to do anything they use concentrated energy sources like coal or oil that have created enormous problems like local air pollution and global climate change. Nature does it so well and so gently without any environmental damage. In the years ahead, people will move towards much more weaker sources of energy along the lines of nature like solar energy, for example. In the area of water, too, humans have come to rely much more on concentrated water sources like rivers and aquifers in the last 100 years. But the heavy use of these sources is leading to their overexploitation. In the 21st century, human beings will once again move to weaker water resource like rainfall.

There are various natural geophysical cycles in nature like the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle. As in the case of technologies that use the internal combustion engine, all systems that depend on the use of oil and coal or sewer systems, and which destroy the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle, will have to be phased out. In other words, technologies will move much closer to nature's own geophysical cycles and to more gentle use of nature's sources like energy and water, and will replace the dinosaur technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this alone lies the possibility of human survival and growth.

It is very clear that the 21st century is going to be a century of the environment in which literally every new technology will have to be subjected to environmental scrutiny and consistently modified to meet environmental needs. We have already seen that one of the first major developments in biotechnology, namely, genetically modified organisms, has run into strong environmental opposition and even the most powerful companies are being forced to take the environmental concern into account. There is no reason to believe that this is an isolated problem. The writing is on the wall. These problems will keep coming back to us again and again and we will have to deal with them on an ongoing basis. Any effort to deny this reality will only be at our own peril and lead to heavy costs for humans and for the health of our ecosystems.

In other words, investments in Science for Ecological Security will have to become a very critical element of our investments in Science for food security, our health security, our industrial development, our livelihood security and, indeed, even our national security in the larger sense. No longer can we say that science for food security can forget the Science of Ecological Security because if there is ecological devastation, it will be impossible to produce any food.

In this context, it is really sad to note that both the quantity of our investments in Science for Ecological Security and the quality of the research that is being carried out in this area is abysmal compared to the challenges that India faces today. Neither are we able to address the problems of our biomass-based rural economies in terms of their scientific requirements for boosting ecological security nor are we able to deal with the enormous environmental problems that have been created by urbanization industrialization and motorization in urban areas. This shortcoming has to be addressed. And fast.

The author Mr. Anil Agarwal is a noted environmentalist and Director of Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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