When I was a young child, my parents took me to see a movie on the big screen. I remember only one scene from the movie: two blue-eyed French legionnaires being tortured by their Afro-Arab captors and ultimately being killed by several tarantulas released by said captors. My child brain immediately formed assumptions that tormented me for many years — that spiders are lethal and Afro-Arab men are villains. For years, I avoided both.
Assumptions are ideas we accept as true without question or proof. They often form the basis of our belief system, helping create general frameworks for decision-making and action referred to as paradigms. Once we form a paradigm, it can direct our choices and even predetermine our actions until it is challenged and replaced by another paradigm.
History is full of examples of the creation and shifting of paradigms: from the “flat earth” paradigm, to the rise and fall of religious and scientific paradigms, to social paradigms such as racism and sexism. We can become entrenched in dominant paradigms and be handcuffed by the assumptions they harbor, creating a vicious cycle and bewilderment as to why we can’t change things.
Common assumptions about sustainability abound. For example, we often assume that the faster we do something the more efficient we are — and efficiency is frequently equated with sustainability. This is not always the case. In fact, according to the second law of thermodynamics, slower processes are more efficient.
This is because it is easier to reverse the impact of an action if it is undertaken gradually. Reversibility is a measure of efficiency; the most efficient process is one that is completely reversible — one in which you can return to where you started without leaving a trace. Megaprojects are seldom efficient or sustainable partly because as they progress, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse their impact. Of course, in the real world nothing is completely reversible, but reversibility is an ideal we can strive for.
The assumption of reversibility has had a profound impact on our understanding of sustainability. A quote attributed to Heraclitus (a Greek philosopher who lived around 500 BC) says that you cannot walk in a same river twice, because both you and the river are constantly changing. The second law of thermodynamics tells us that the very act of walking in a river changes both you and the river irreversibly. However, we generally feel as if we can discharge large amounts of waste into a river and not change it, or that we can use technology to completely reverse the impact of our activities. The assumption of a reversible world is part of our current paradigm and impacts our decisions.
The global push toward carbon credits is a grave example of this assumption. We believe we can offset or reverse our negative impacts on our environment in one country by buying carbon credits from another. I know of a number of monoculture tree plantations in Costa Rica selling carbon credits to industries in Europe and North America. Both the monoculture plantations and the license to pollute have irreversible impacts on countries involved. Governments believe wars can be justified on the assumption that one can rebuild war-torn nations to their original state (or a better one) without decades of repercussion for the warring nations and the rest of the world.
Let’s return to the notion of efficiency. Many believe they understand this concept. However, a cursory reexamination of efficiency may show otherwise. Efficiency simply can be defined as the ratio of the output (what we want to achieve) over the needed input (how much effort is required). For example, if we produce 2,000 kW of power while using 4,000 kJ of energy per second, our efficiency is 50 percent. Over the past 30 years, the fuel efficiency of 3.0-liter automobile engines has increased from an average of 20 miles per gallon to nearly 50 in some cases — an incredible feat.
However, the achievement begins to fade when we delve into efficiency more deeply. The purpose of transportation (the output) is to move people and goods. Assuming that a car travels full of passengers (which is often not the case), the total weight of passengers and goods transported is still a small fraction of the weight of the vehicle. This means the vast majority of the fuel is used to move the car and not the passengers and hence, the overall efficiency improvements (from transportation point of view) are still minimal.
Looking at efficiency this way implies that the design of sustainable transportation should focus on developing much lighter vehicles and maximizing the total load transported per trip. This makes trains far more efficient for transporting goods and people than trucks and buses.
The concept of efficiency becomes even more interesting when you incorporate the notion of quality into efficiency calculations. These calculations can become slightly more complicated, but suffice to say that two different engines having the same output and total energy input can have very different efficiencies depending on the quality of the energy source they use.
Accepting that we live in an irreversible world has significant implications. It, for example, implies that we can’t be reckless with our planning and implementing of projects. It also implies that taking no action must be considered a viable option. More importantly, living in an irreversible world necessitates a holistic or systems-based approach to planning.
In the next article, we will tackle the concept of systems and discuss how you can begin planning for sustainability using a systems approach.
Read more of Dr. Farahbakhsh’s “In search of sustainability in Limón” series here:
Dr. Khosrow Farahbakhsh is a former professor of sustainable engineering from Canada currently residing near Cahuita, Limón with his wife. Feel free to contact him with your comments and suggestions at [email protected].