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Planning for the New World – VI

Restoring the Health of the environment is a multi-pronged endeavour, touching on many areas, constituencies and interest. Image credit: WEF

Restoring the Health of the Environment

That this insignificant species called Home Sapiens Sapiens is having an impact on the planet is no longer debatable:

  • every hour humankind is destroying 18 million square meters of forest with agriculture being the leading cause;
  • 750 billion tons of CO2 are exchanged by natural processes every year (as an example plants adsorb 450 GTons and release 439 GTons). In addition to this, human activity, including breeding, produces some 29 GTons per year. It does not seem like  a big deal when compared to the 750 GTons of natural processes. In addition some 12GTons of our CO2 is adsorbed by the oceans so we are only left with 17 GTons. Yet, this quantity adds up year after year resulting in an increase CO2 in the atmosphere that leads to several “bad” effects and worst of all, is creating an unbalance in the natural CO2 cycle (ie. it gets worse over time);
  • Animal farming has led to some 24 billion chickens in the world (over 100 billion chickens in a year), producing over 1 trillion eggs, one billion cattle, 677.6 million pigs, … Now compare these figures with the number of wild animals (2 million monkeys, 1.5 million wildebeest, 20,000 lions, …) and you understand how humans have changed the ecosystem balance of animals….
  • There are an estimated 500,000 species of land plants in the world and this diversity (as that in the animal kingdom) is what fuel evolution. Yet as agriculture became an industrial endeavour the planet surface is more and more covered by plants chosen by us. 4 types of plants, rice, corn, wheat and soybeans make up for 66% of the crops. As a whole less than 200 species of plants are used for food.  Humans are killing biodiversity and this is opening the gates to a backlash. Monocultures are much more fragile, a pandemic affecting them will cause starvation of immense proportion.
  • The use of water, particularly for agriculture -followed by industry and electricity-, can be used as an indicator of wealth. The US use 2,842 cubic meter of water per person, the world average is 1,385, India is using 1089. Part of the water is taken from underground reserve at a pace that is depleting them. In some areas, like the city of Jakarta, the ground is sinking because of water removal from the aquifer.

The points above are not exhausting the changes humankind brings to the planet, there are many more (pollution, depletion of a variety of resources, climate, urbanisation, ozone, ….) but I used them as examples based on facts anybody can double-check.
Not that humans are the only species that affected the environment. 3 billion years ago cyanobacteria led to the Great Oxidation Event, enriching the Earth atmosphere of oxygen. That destroyed many species but at the same time initiated a process that, among many other things, led to … us. Bees, just to take another example, have been instrumental in a symbiotic evolution of plants to the point that the disappearance of bees (one of the potential side effect of the rising pollution) would lead to disastrous famine.

Now, I just need to point out how much subjective the words I used are: “disastrous”, “starvation”, “biodiversity”… Even the concept Health of the environment is subjective in that we are the measure of it. The disappearance of humankind from the planet would be a catastrophe … but just from our point of view. Most living things would likely benefitting from our disappearance! OK, having set this straight, I -being human- am strongly against anything that can lead to our disappearance.

We are probably the first species that has become (almost) aware of the impact it is having on the planet and that has the possibility to do something about it. And all of this happened in these last decades, nothing in term of time if we are looking at the period we have been walking around (and this is not because we have been changing the environment only in the last decades… Our ancestors exterminated many species, including our close siblings, Neanderthal and Denisovans … and most likely never had a second thought about it).

The crucial point here is that we “have” the possibility to gauge the effect of our decisions and take actions if those effects are not desirable (where “desirable” means… to us).

Hence, restoring the Health of the Environment is clearly an important consideration in the planning for the New World. According to the WEF report, “The Great Reset” this involves:

  1. Covid-19
    Possibly the most known virus in history (in the sense of a name been known by most people) is not a lone exception. Viruses mutate and may jump from a species to another. When that “another”is humans we get concerned. Invading wild environments increases the chance of opportunistic contagion. Likewise, creating dense chicken farming -as an example- increases the chance of mutation and of contagion across species (in the wild viruses have a very low chance of infecting many hosts since they are so far apart…). The Covid-19 has not been the first, and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Jumping species occurred well before humans discovered viruses, but it is getting more frequent as we have invaded the wild and created perfect incubation hotbeds (industrial farming). Hence in planning for the New World this should be taken into account. The idea of turning the world to vegetarians is not going to work, getting rid of industrial farming neither. What can be done is establishing strict protocols in monitoring chickens, cattle, pigs (livestock in general – watch the clip) and so on and leveraging on technology (IoT and AI) that could help detecting issues at a vey early stage.
  2. Future of Health and Healthcare
    Designing a more distributed healthcare that can scale better is also of crucial importance.  This leverages on the same technologies just mentioned, IoT and AI, shifting the focus to data. This is what the Digital Transformation in Healthcare is all about. Shifting the focus to data means get rid of Country barriers, making sure that any issues, early signs, detected in one place immediately becomes known everywhere else and contribute to understanding local patterns. Furthermore, this shift is bound to decrease some healthcare cost and elevate healthcare services all over the world. We are still facing big issues and hurdles in providing uniform good services within a single Country so it might seem preposterous to consider the whole world. Yet, by shifting to the cyberspace we can transform an activity that scale with difficulty into one that both scales and leverages from scale.
  3. Biodiversity
    Ensuring a biodiversity is sort of strange! Nature is all about biodiversity, that is the fuel -and result- of evolution. It is because of our interest in some species and in the destruction of natural habitat that biodiversity has decreased. Preservation on one hand and restitution of land to the wild is easier said than done in a context where human population is still growing and demanding for better food. This is an area where, probably, regulation, international agreement and cultural sensitivity (through education) have to work hand in hand. The good news is that if we ever manage to kill (drastically reduce) biodiversity we will also kill humankind and that will rapidly restore biodiversity!
  4. Forests
    Forests are enclaves of biodiversity. Their protection protects biodiversity. As pointed out we are destroying a UK size equivalent of forest every year. Alternative economic perspectives have to be provided to those people, usually very poor people, that put forests on fire to create arable land. And strict law enforcement shall be imposed on multinational companies that destroy forests to get raw materials for their business.
  5. The Ocean
    Although the oceans are big and huge human activity has led to the depletion of several species. Overfishing is now affecting over one third of oceans (and seas) fisheries, meaning the the speed at which we remove fish is higher than the speed at which that species can replenish the stock. Another issue is the  bycatch, i.e. capturing and destroying unwanted sea life in trying to capture another. Improved technology and AI, can help in making industrial fishing better from sustainability point of view.
  6. Plastic and the Environment
    Speaking of oceans the images of islands of floating plastic come to mind. The GPGP -Great Pacific Garbage Patch- has a surface that has reached 3 times the size of France. It is located between California and Hawaii. It is not the only one. There is another closer to the Asia shores, one in the Southern Pacific. The Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean also have their patches. These are formed from the 2 million plastic tons that every years rivers throw into the oceans. Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. In addition to the one ending up in the oceans we have plastic in landfills and it is not just about plastic. eWaste is a growing concern, mining processes pollute the environment…
    There is an absolute need to face these issues and agree on solutions. Since these solutions cost money and tend to decrease industrial processes effectiveness they are difficult one to take and unlikely one if one is expecting private companies to lead.
  7. Sustainable Development
    Sustainable Development has to shift from awareness calls (hugely important) to transnational agreement and measurable execution. Unfortunately, as noted, market by itself is not steering in this direction. The campaigns focussing on increasing demand for sustainable processes and products (creating an overwhelming market for them) have had little impact (which is not to say they are not needed). They can be useful in sustaining a political action that is leading to increased price in the short term.
  8. Circular Economy
    The above points to the paradigm of circular economy where the whole machinery reaches a sort of perpetuum motion: materials used to manufacture a product are recycled at the end of the product life cycle and re-enter the manufacturing process thus reducing raw material consumption. The whole value chain is powered through renewable energy with no depletion of planet’s resources. More than that. A circular economy calls for minimum value loss of components (since they can be reused) thus decreasing, ideally, the manufacturing cost. Although we are far from a perfect circular economy, the plan for the New World should use it as a reference point striving to increase recycle, use of renewable energy sources. This requires plenty of technology and a change of paradigm from “consume” to “use”, from “own” to “rent”, from “product” to “service”. Hence, it is more than an industrial/business issue, it is entrenched with “culture”. Like for the Digital Transformation an ideal Circular Economy decreases the market value. Unfortunately, and differently from the Digital Transformation that decreases cost -and hence is pursued by private companies-, the circular economy, at least in the short terms, increases cost and therefore requires external pressure to be enacted.
  9. Public Finance
    Public Finance shall step in to fill the economic gap between a circular and today’s economies, as mentioned in previous posts. The Governments shall endorse and lead a long term strategy of sustainability. Private companies will -mostly- pau lip service to these goals.
  10. Environment and Natural Resources Security
    I already touched upon this in the previous bullets.
  11. Climate Change
    Our perception of climate is basically tied at the weather we are experiencing waking up and looking out of the window. Is it hotter than usual? Wow, global warming is here! Is it cold and rainy? Who said there is a warming up climate, I wish we have it. Climate changes happens on a long time scale, we (our ancestors)  have gone through warmer and colder climate (our period is actually at the end of a freezing age) so in a way it is expected to see some temperature increase. The problem is the pae of this increase and the effects generated. The melting of Greenland glaciers and the ones of Antartica lead to increasing sea levels with flooding that may displace one billion people by the second part of this century. Yes, it did happen in the past but people were few and far apart, used to nomadic life. Imagine Shanghai and New York under water and think about the issue of managing the situation. Today we are struggling with a few million people moving away from their territory, multiply this issue a hundred times …
    Our challenge is that we are getting aware of these changes and we have the power to take actions that can alter the trend. This is something completely new. no other generation ever had this awareness and power. And this is basically why there is so much talking and arguing. It should be clear that there is also responsibility. The plan for a New World should start from this: responsibility towards future generations.
  12. Future of Energy
    Technology here can really provide a silver bullet. We already have plenty of ways to harvest the Sun energy (photovoltaic, wind, tides… these are all harvesting directly or indirectly Sun’s energy) although each of them has some drawback (like density, accumulation, reliability….). We can expect tech to keep evolving and addressing, at least diminishing some of those drawbacks. Then we have the goal of recreating, on Earth, the energy produced by the Sun through fusion. ITER, the cooperative initiative run in South of France with the participation of over 30 Countries aims at delivering this clean unlimited source of energy within the next 20 years, actually way sooner if everything goes as planned. That will be a game changer with great positive effect on our economy (as well as some negative ones, i.e. companies operating in fossil energy – we just saw the disruption caused by Covid-19 with the decreased demand for fossil fuel) and on the planet.
  13. Future of Mobility
    The use of fossil fuel to sustain our (and our goods) mobility is questioned more and more for the depletion of fossil fuel on the one hand and for the pollution its combustion generates. The shift towards electrical power is ongoing and the pandemic may accelerate the shift. It is a complex shift since in the last 100 years our culture and our business have been attuned, and optimised, to the use of fossil fuels. Our energy infrastructures have been designed for that. The shift requires a change at infrastructure level that is complex and expensive. Here again, culture, societal awareness, regulation, public finance should all go hand in hand.


About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.