Development is not progress

I believe we cannot save the world by simply buying things all the time.
Illustration by Leslie Dean Brown. © 2015. All rights reserved.
Illustration by Leslie Dean Brown. © 2015. All rights reserved.

Even if we all bought 100% eco things 100% of the time instead of the plastic crap that everyone buys today, they are still ultimately things and it will mean that the demand for timber and other eco fibres will go up further, leading to further deforestation elsewhere (more plantations of whatever crop, be it corn for renewable plastic, bamboo or hemp for fibres, etc).

Personally I think the only real ‘solution’ for the entire human civilisation is … to do nothing. And by that I don’t mean “don’t change”. I literally mean: do nothing. For people to simply work less. Work a four day week. Work a four hour week.

We should be more like the Aborigines! We should look up to the Aborigines! The original (and best) custodians of this land.

More sleep and more meditation. That’s the only hope for humanity, for people to be more mindful. And that is the best that I can think of (after several years of thinking I might add).

And I can tell you first hand that it’s very hard to live with less, because we have all been brainwashed with “more more more”.

Of course it’s a huge problem because half the global economy is based on blatant overconsumption. I think one of the best things I ever did was to live in Spain — it taught me to be happier with much less.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t all try to be more eco, but what I am promoting these days is simply minimalism. So I would rather buy a wooden broom than have a vacuum cleaner (for example). Because I see the broom as being much less wasteful over the long term.

Unfortunately, when you begin to look at where all of our starting chemicals come from, the industrial processes used to get them, and where everything else is mined from, you realise how big the problem is.

People don’t want mines in their own backyard. And so the ONLY other place to get them is the natural spaces that are left. That is a very big problem. If only because “accidents happen”.

From my point of view as a former materials scientist, I find that life is so special, we should be fighting for every shred of biodiversity on this planet. We couldn’t even hope to artificially make anything like near as complicated as a fly or a worm from first principles using artificial methods (without cheating using genetic engineering etc).

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The problem with using biofuels in aviation.

Recently on LinkedIn:

First, it’s a premise of sustainable, alternative fuels that their production actually draws down atmospheric carbon–the carbon comes out of the atmosphere to make the fuel. The carbon is released again when the fuel is burned. By (albeit partial and imperfect so far) application of that principle, vastly lower net emissions (on the basis of life cycle analysis) are now possible.

I understand all abot life-cycle assessment. Yes, true, biofuel crops do take CO2 out of the air. 

But not if brazilian rainforest has to be cut down to make way for new plantation crops — because the native forest already does a way better job of taking CO2 out of the air than a crop with less biodiversity ever will. 

So my question is: where are we going to grow all of the new crops that will be needed for this additional biofuel?

It’s no good saying that new sustainable crops will reduce the CO2 from the air if you harvest the whole thing every year and burn it again. That only releases the same carbon that was absorbed by the crop in the first place… so no net CO2 increase. (well that is probably an over-simplification, because some carbon dioxide no doubt goes in to the soil) [Read more…]

In the future we will engineer termites to build skyskrapers.

Yes. In the future, I can confidently predict that we will engineer termites to build skyskrapers.

Because in the future, we will start to realise the power of “bottom up” systems of engineering. Currently, we do everything from a “top down” perspective. What does that mean? We start with a mine, dig that up, we then crush and grind the ore down, melt it, form it into large slabs of metal which then get progressively smaller as they are processed. Yes, we even obtain the metallic powders that are used in 3D printing this exact same way. This is a most inefficient process.

Nature does it the other way around. It uses local materials obtained from trace chemical elements and is then able to organise, redirect and assemble those individual atoms and molecules to build its own structures, in situ. It does this without any “larger scale” instructions or guidance. And it is able to replicate itself on top of that. So the more I think about it, the more evolution amazes me.

I read this fascinating book in 2014 called “Emergence”. And one of the traits of nature is that it has “emergent” properties. What does that mean? It means that complex systems or behaviours can arise from relatively few simple rules. In other words, it is “self assembling”. Organisms can do their own thing seemingly without any intererence from the outside world. Wouldn’t we like to be able to do that? Here is where we are currently at:

The other marvel of nature is that everything is an “ambient temperature process”. Think about that for a moment. Practically every synthetic material we produce today requires some form of heat to manufacture. Metals must be smelted. Ceramics must be fired. And plastics must be obtained by “thermal cracking” of crude oil. Sure there are a few exceptions, such as sol-gel technology.

Imagine for a moment a “homogenous” material with different chemical, thermal, electrical and physical properties along its length. In other words, a single material that was flexible at one end and rigid at the other, without being formed from two separate raw materials. If we could get that to happen, spontaneously, then I think we would be quite a clever species. Because an invention like that would literally change the world.

Imagine tyres that increased their coefficient of friction and gripped more in the wet. Or indeed, slicks that morph into treaded tyres in the presence of water. You see, from what I have read, I think all of that is ‘theoretically possible’, but the more biodiversity we lose, the less chance there is that it will happen. That is why protecting biodiversity is so important, so we can understand how genes work to create any morphology and material properties we desire.

Is a ‘circular’ electronics industry possible?

I think one of the biggest problems that humanity will face in the not–too–distant future is a lack of synthetic biodegradeable semiconductors.

Okay, so I’ve put that thought out there into cyberspace and now I suppose I should explain it. Why do I think this is going to be such a problem?

As we are all too much aware, human civilisation is fast becoming dependent on technology. You might say that the 1st world is already highly dependent on technology. And a big part of current technology includes electronics devices. Electronics drive everything from robots to computers. Without electronics, we go back to the analogue era. I’m sure that I don’t even need to explain that any further, do I? Without electronics, we’re screwed.

So earlier this year, I asked two questions on Quora:

  1. What are the main semiconductor compounds used today?
  2. What elements are used in the manufacturing of circuit boards and electronic components for consumer electronic devices?

It doesn’t make any sense to totally rely on something that we can only make in limited quantities, yet we are doing just that. Because the trouble is this: the way in which we produce electronic devices today is completely unsustainable. We mine the Earth for new minerals and the only element we recover from all of our electronic waste is gold (well, okay, we do sometimes also recycle lead and copper). But what about recycling all of the other elements that are used in electronic components?

Are we recycling tantalum? No. Are we recycling indium? No. Are we recycling gallium? No. Are we recycling arsenic? No. Are we recycling cadmium? No. Are we recycling selenium? No. Are we recycling tellurium? No. Are we recycling germanium? No. Are we recycling samarium? No. Are we recycling neodymium? No. Are we recycling niobium? No. Are we recycling antimony? No.

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