Environmentally Friendly? Or Is It Ecologically Friendly?

By George H Croy author of The Energy Trail – Where Is It Leading? 

Are you environmentally friendly? Do you protect the ecology? No matter what you say, my guess is that you do neither.

First, let’s define ‘Environment’ and ‘Ecology’. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica ‘Environment’ is a complex of physical, chemical and biological factors that affect an organism or an ecological community thereby determining its form, and survival. These factors include the atmosphere, climate, continental landform, the hydrosphere (the water ecosystem of planet Earth) and the oceans.

If you can imagine yourself enclosed within a big box - bottom, top and four sides – the inside of that box is your environment. The box might be sitting on the beach, in the middle of a field, on top of a mountain, or any one of a million or more places, but your environment is constrained by the bottom, four walls and the top of that box. In other words, what surrounds you is your environment. It is active, forever changing, depending on a whole range of variables.

Ecology, on the other hand, is the conditions caused by organisms on their environment. Things like increasing populations, food scarcity, pollution of the environment, global warming - extinctions, both of plant and animal species - are all ecological, i.e., affecting the ecology.

The recent eruption of an Icelandic volcano with the almost unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajökull made a considerable impact on our environment, both locally and globally. The question is, was it environmentally good, or bad? Well, that all depends on the viewpoint from where you are observing its effects.

As an inhabitant of Earth, from your viewpoint it is probably considered to be environmentally bad – the eruption injected millions of tons of fine ash into the atmosphere, cutting out the Sun’s rays and making breathing difficult for many. It definitely altered your environment considerably. If it had been really bad, it could have blocked out the Sun for an extended period of time bringing on an Ice Age.

However, the alterations it made are short-lived. The long-term effects are negligible. The volcano also spewed out millions of cubic metres of new rock, rock rich in minerals that will assist in the growing of vegetation and such like. Look at Hawaii - it consists of a chain of lush, tropical islands, made entirely by volcanic eruption. In fact, without volcanic eruptions and weathering, the Earth as we know it today wouldn’t exist. So is the eruption good or bad? The Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old. It has changed its environment many, many times, so when we talk about changing the environment, what we’re talking about is changing our environment.

Even flashy looking hybrids consume loads of energy to make.Like all live systems, the Earth will do its best to achieve equilibrium, i.e., the least energy demanding state. Water will always flow downhill, never up, trying to reach equilibrium.  All Earth’s systems will try their best to reach that condition. The question is, will we be able to live under that set of conditions?

We have been pumping massive quantities of combustion exhaust gases and other volatile substances into the atmosphere for at least the last 300 years, since the Industrial Revolution. We have been dumping our sewage into the oceans with nary a thought for the inhabitants of the sea. But the Earth survives. It just moves the equilibrium line left or right accordingly. The big question is – Can we survive within those limits? Our tolerance is much finer than that of the Earth, we are but a minute or so in its twenty-four hour lifespan. The question is, why should it care?

So much for the environment. We are also changing the ecology by our behaviour. Unlike the environment, to which, by our behaviour we can make substantial changes, ecology is not a reversible system. Once we change things by what we do, it is very hard, and very expensive to reverse trends.

Long ago, the Earth was hotter, wetter and covered by dense vegetation but man began to show his domination and, to provide room for growing his food, chopped down the trees. It is still being done in parts of the world even as you read this – slash and burn cultivation. And it will continue for as long as the global population continues to rise. What these people fail to understand is that all the nutrients from the soil are in the crowns of the trees! They took hundreds of years in many cases to reach the sizes they are today. When a tree died, it fell to the ground, decayed and provided nourishment for the next cycle, but now we chop down the trees, drag them away to use them for firewood, fence posts and furniture without returning the nutrients to the soil. The result is that they only get one, or two growing seasons out of the land before they have to chop down more trees.

The effect on the land is even more devastating. The soil becomes dried and powdery with no roots to hold it together then, when it rains, gets washed down into the rivers, blocking dams, overflowing river banks – causing landslides and killing people. 

Today, there is a lot of hype about being eco-friendly or environment friendly. It is all relative, and not very meaningful in most cases. Are you eco-friendly? Not unless you change your lifestyle completely - which you won’t do - can you even remotely be classified as eco-friendly? Do you throw away garbage? Empty drinks bottles? Cans? Plastic containers? Old clothes, newspapers, everyday cast-offs? If you answer yes to even one of these, then you’re not being eco-friendly.

In present-day lifestyle it is very difficult. But you can try. Do you separate your trash? Glass, plastic, aluminium, paper, cardboard – can all be separated out for recycling. It all depends on whether you feel it is worth it or not. Why go to all that trouble when there’s another 6.999999999 billion people who don’t? And there is the problem – I’ll do it if you do it. The question is who starts? Containers set out by well-meaning Town Councils in Singapore for separation of materials are abused and filled with all sorts of rubbish by thoughtless, ignorant people. And yet, they are the first to squeal when the Council doesn’t collect garbage from their front door every morning!   

So, many changes will have to be made before you can even consider calling yourself eco-friendly. What about the environment? We see advertisements daily about such and such a car – hybrids - environment friendly, because they run on electricity and/or hydrogen. But you cannot compare an electric car to a petrol engine or diesel engine car simply by its emission levels into the environment. You have to begin at the mining for the iron ore or aluminium ore, the drilling for the oil and gas which goes to the making of the plastics that will be made into the vehicle – up until it sits in the showroom a hybrid or petrol driven vehicle has exactly the same environmental impact!

But it doesn’t stop there. The production of petrol is a fairly refined process, but its combustion products pollute the atmosphere, so does that make it environmentally unfriendly? What about the hybrid car? The hydrogen comes from basically the same refining process as the petrol, the electricity to charge the battery most likely is made by power stations that burn oil, natural gas or coal and what is environmentally friendly about any of them?

So in reality you can’t claim that something is environmentally friendly unless you sum all of the polluting activities it goes through to get to the final product. You can only compare one similar product to another and classify one of them through your findings as being environmentally friendlier than the other.  It’s a comparative study.

Even you are not particularly environmentally friendly when you consider you are breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. Doesn’t seem much when you’re talking about yourself, but figuring in the other 6.5/7.0 billion people with an average lung capacity of 5 litres or thereabouts, that’s an awful lot of CO2 being emitted.  

Having said all that, there is so much more that can be done, and should be done to becoming environmentally friendlier than we are at present. As I said before, the Earth will survive. The question is, will we?