Green initiatives or rising-cost blues?

Posted on January 22, 2011. Filed under: Environment and Livelihoods |

-Free Malaysia Today-

Corporations and governments the world over have begun implementing environmental and ecology-friendly measures to reduce their carbon footprints and their impact on global warming. In short, they have gone green.

However, one wonders whether these so-called initiatives to save the planet are driven by altruism or by the need to reduce costs in the face of rising energy prices.

Green politics traces its roots to 19th century Germany as a reaction against industrialisation. Germany was the birthplace of the science of “ecology”, a term coined in 1867 by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel. It grew into a scientific discipline dedicated to the study of the interactions between organisms and their environments.

Germany also saw, alongside ecology, the rise of a peculiar synthesis of naturalism and nationalism forged under the influence of the Romantic tradition’s anti-Enlightenment position. Two men, Ernst Moritz Arndt and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, are especially noted for holding to this synthesis.

Arndt was dedicated to the cause of the peasantry and consequently was concerned for the welfare of the land itself. In 1815, he wrote “A Word about the Care and Preservation of the Forests and the Peasants in the Consciousness of a Higher, i.e. More Humane, Law”, an article that condemned the shortsighted exploitation of woodlands and soil.

Arndt regarded man as a part of unitary nature: “When one sees nature in a necessary connectedness and interrelationship, then all things are equally important – shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, nothing first or last, but all one single unity.”

His environmentalism was bound up with a virulent xenophobic nationalism. He called for Teutonic racial purity and spoke disparagingly of the French, Slavs and Jews.

Riehl was Arndt’s student and his environmentalism exceeded even that of his mentor. His 1853 essay “Field and Forest” called for a fight for the rights of wilderness. And he was just as nationalistic: “We must save the forest, not only so that our ovens do not become cold in winter, but also so that the pulse of life of the people continues to beat warm and joyfully, so that Germany remains German.”

A Romantic, Riehl was strongly against the rise of industrialism and urbanisation.

This combination of agrarian romanticism and anti-urbanism led to the rise of the Völkisch movement in the latter half of the 19th century.

Nature’s purity

Völkisch thinkers preached a return to the land, to the simplicity and wholeness of a life attuned to nature’s purity. The movement refused to see the cause of alienation, rootlessness and environmental destruction in social structures, instead blaming rationalism, cosmopolitanism, urban civilisation and, once again, the Jews.

Meanwhile, Haeckel developed “monism”, a kind of social Darwinist philosophy. He founded the German Monist League, which combined scientifically based ecological holisticism with Völkisch social views. He believed in Nordic racial superiority, strongly opposed race mixing and supported racial eugenics. He thus contributed to an ideology that served as the basis for National Socialism (Nazism).

Haeckle later joined the Thule Society, a secret, radically right-wing organisation that played a key role in the establishment of the Nazi movement.

The first three decades of the 20th century saw the rise of the Wandervögel  (wandering free spirits), a youth movement that shaped the youth culture of the period.

The Wandervögel was an eclectic mix of counter-cultural elements, blending neo-Romanticism, Eastern philosophies, nature mysticism, hostility to reason, and a strong communal impulse. They emphasised a back-to-the-land philosophy, resulting in the rise of a passionate sensitivity to the natural world and the damage it suffered.

That sounds like the hippie counter-culture and anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s. Indeed, some right-wing hippies were likened to the Wandervögel, most of whom eventually joined the Nazis.

The ideas mentioned above obviously influenced the Nazi party, but it had its own emphasis on nature, which was a mixture of primeval Teutonic nature mysticism, ecology, anti-humanism, and racial salvation through a return to the land.

Environmentalism in the US also has its roots in the early 19th century, when Henry David Thoreau published his Maine Woods, a book that called for the preservation of nature. George Perkins Marsh, another American who called for the preservation of the natural environment, was also from the same period.

Rachel Carson’s writings greatly helped rekindle the environmental movement in the 20th century, especially her 1962 book Silent Spring, which highlighted the environmental problem caused by synthetic pesticides, leading to the ban on DDT and other chemicals, as well as the rise of the environmental movement, which resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The 1960s and 1970s also saw many steps taken in the US to clean up the environment, including the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Pollution Control Act and the Endangered Species Act and the founding of Earth Day.  The public generally regarded industry as the culprit in environmental degradation.

While the US, Canadian and current European environmental movements are officially devoid of the xenophobia of the early German ones, some individual environmentalists hold that the influx of immigrants into their countries places an additional environmental burden.

Environmental activism

The green movements and initiatives in Malaysia today were largely influenced by the resurgence of environmental activism in the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But many saw the early activists as eccentric oddities at best.

Now, 20 to 30 years later, corporations, such as the information and communications technology companies, have come on board and are touting the green cause.

It would be naive to say that this green call just happens to coincide with rising energy and operational costs. The first step in energy cost reduction was to make processors and other peripherals consume less power and generate less heat with chips that performed more instructions per cycle.

The next step was to optimise the air conditioning in data centres by concentrating on cooling those areas where most heat was generated and reducing air conditioning where it is less needed.

“The European Union’s code of practice is for telecommunications operators to deploy telecommunications equipment which reduces energy consumption for the same or increased performance,” EU Ambassador Vincent Piket told the European Union-Malaysia Chamber of Commerce (EUMCCI) Green ICT Roundtable last November.

The policy also calls for reduction of power consumption in data centres and more use of videoconferencing to reduce jet setting.

“While ICT improves life for people, it contributes to greenhouse gases,” said panellist Nur Faezal Elias, Green ICT Working Group chairman, Malaysian Technical Standards Forum Bhd (MTSFB).
The ICT industry analyst firm IDC estimated that ICT contributed from 2% to 3% of greenhouse gas emissions, which was about the same amount emitted by air and shipping lines.

The MTFSB focuses on four areas – more energy-efficient telecommunications network infrastructure, developments in smart telecommunications, reduction of emissions from office computer use and helping data centres reduce their power consumption.

“Green ICT initiatives should look into the product lifecycle from design, manufacture, use and disposal,” said panellist Emily Kok, managing director, Rentwise Sdn Bhd. “Manufacturers also need to build upgradeability into their products to prolong their lifetimes.”

Rentwise advises companies on software and hardware use, helps them prolong the use of their computers and encourages the use of refurbished equipment.

“Sustainability is very important,” said Rainer Althoff, chairman of Nokia Siemens Networks Sdn Bhd. “We provide base station systems which use 80% less grid power.”

“The next billion ICT users will not be connected to the electricity grid; so they will require alternative power supplies such as wind turbines, solar panels and fuel cells,” said Timothy Senthirajah, technology strategy director, Ericsson Malaysia.

However, since Malaysia only has an average of four hours of full sunshine a day due to clouds and  does not have enough wind, except at the coasts, these alternative energy systems have to rely on backup diesel generators or fuel cells to keep the batteries charged. So there is a need to bring fuel cell prices down.

“The deployment of high-speed broadband must be prioritised to let more people work from home, while avoiding too much travel,” Timothy added.

Okay. So it is really all about cost cutting. Corporations should just cut to the chase and drop all the hype about greenhouse gases, saving the planet and so on.

A member of the audience at the November roundtable pointed out that while these companies were trying to cut costs, others were promoting regular purchasing of consumer ICT devices such as mobile phones, which typically become obsolete almost as soon as they are bought, adding to the environmental burden.

“There’s a need to change public behaviour so they force these companies to change their practices,” said one of the panellists. “Why do we need 10 or 20 versions of an operating system when we could have fewer? We need to stop keeping PCs on for 24 hours.”

We do need more moral and ethical approaches to strike a balance between human and environmental needs.

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