Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paper - Obstacles of Sustainability

Obstacles of Sustainability

The greatest obstacle to obtaining a sustainable energy future lies in the the organizational structure of our society in both a social and economic sense. It is currently difficult to promote new thought into our societal systems because large companies have become so established on a global scale. The central issues in design and development involve design constraints and time to market. Companies rarely take into account the long term environmental effects of their actions, which needs to become part of the normal operations of more companies. In addition, sustainability is an investment into the future, which contrasts with the in the present mindset of a market economy.

The first obstacle we need to address is the inflexibility of a market economy. In theory the free market allows for everyone to compete without governmental restrictions. This allows for products and services to freely compete letting the best service win out.  Although this seems like a system that gives everyone a fair chance at success, this isn’t always the case. The market economy is fair when a technology is in development, however it becomes inflexible once technologies have been established. Once a company becomes established, it becomes very difficult for newcomers to break into that market. 

The issues stems from capital. Older companies have more money and resources to do further research and development for their product. This means that their product will likely be better suited for its end result than a new company which limits change. Another benefit of having extra capital is that it gives the company the option to buy up smaller companies in order to reduce competition. Examples of companies that were able to achieve this kind of domination in a market are the companies Microsoft and Bell, both of which used to hold an almost complete monopoly in their respective markets. Although now this dominance has been somewhat broken, it took the intervention of the government to reduce the power of Bell Labs, and drastically different design goals to allow companies like Apple, or heavy utilization of open source products like Linux to compete with Microsoft.

This concept comes from the Theory of Innovation which states that a social system is made up of five different kinds of people: the innovators, the early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. In the field of sustainable energy sources for energy generation already exist with  the coal and petroleum industries, which puts us in a social system where people are mostly made of the late majority. The late majority are people who are comfortable and accustomed with existing products. Because they are already comfortable with the situation, they are resistant to change, and this includes not only the fossil fuel companies, but also their customers which includes the vast majority of the entire population. Most people already use electricity and gas in order to live in their homes and drive around for work or leisure. This means that sustainable energy, is in that difficult stage where the market is normally unfriendly towards it as well as having to deal with competition from large already established industries.

In order to make sustainable energy viable in the market, there has to be some kind of incentive socially and economically. The social motivation is thankfully already there, and simply needs time and effort to grow. Forms of media ranging from presentations by presidents, to books such as the post carbon reader series serve to inform the public that we are in an energy crisis and that there is a need for alternative sustainable energy sources. Heinberg’s article What is Sustainability in the post carbon reader gives us a set of axioms explaining why sustainability is necessary. His first axiom is that “Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.” This points out the fact that unsustainable practices, even if you are for some reason skeptical of the effects of global warming, will still result in the loss of resources, and the potential for societal collapse because of our limited resources.

More scientific articles such as Smil’s Science, Energy, Ethics and Civilization show us the immediacy of these issues. We are already hitting the point where our consumption of resources is hitting Eath’s natural limit and can only last for about 1 or 2 more generations without change. So we know that social motivation for sustainability exists. However, why hasn’t this been effective in motivating action? The answer is twofold.

First we also need to worry about the economic aspect because in order for technologies to be implemented, someone must be able to make a profit from that technology. The issue is that since alternative energy restructures existing technology, and is still in development, the initial cost of most sustainable energy generation is much higher than conventional fossil fuel generation. A good example is electrical wind generation. Wind power has historically been so cost inefficient that generators have only been built during the years where the government gives out huge tax/rebate incentives. Whenever those incentives run out, construction immediately halts as it is no longer profitable. Although this is a more extreme case, sustainable energy has trouble becoming profitable.

Secondly, sustainability is a long term concern. In general people are concerned with their day to day activities, not what will occur 20+ years in the future, and even when we are, the scope of our concerns are usually limited to our immediate family, such as our children. Sustainability concerns the survival of humans as a race, rather than concerning the individual or their families. This means that the sheer scope of sustainability hinders most people from taking action because they are all too willing to place responsibility for that on someone else, and keep their concerns focused on their day to day lives. This is why even though there are some efforts already in place to address the social and economic problems inherent to sustainability  they still remain as the biggest challenge for the sustainability movement to overcome.

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