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What COVID-19 can teach us about the environment What COVID-19 can teach us about the environment
by Joseph Gatt
2021-03-24 07:13:25
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I've worked with environmentalists and “green fanatics” as I like to affectionately call them. I love their simplistic logic according to which pollution and carbon emissions and desertification are all caused by greed. And that if you take down the corporations, we'll all live in the Garden of Eden. That's what a lot of them say.  

I disagree with a lot of their views. For example, environmentalists like to plant trees to fight desertification. What they don't realize is that by planting trees and green belts, what really happens is that trees “drink” a lot of water, and each tree “drinks” about 66 liters of water a day (depending on the tree). So that's really all the water sources that you are depleting, and soon enough rivers will run dry because the river flows will have fed so much water to so many trees that there is no water left in the nearby rivers and well springs. And then the trees are not fed water and they die, and that's a double whammy because you lose the river, and you don't solve the desertification problem.

conenv00001_400Not to mention that planting trees leads to a lot of insect nesting, and you get neighboring towns and cities flooded with insects, and some of the insects are the size of birds. So you plant trees and you get more flies, more moths, more mosquitoes, more cockroaches, and other insects whose company we humans tend to like to do away with.

So we fight the insects with insect repellant and that's more pollution in the air.

Biofuels and organic fertilizer. Biofuels don't grow out of thin air, nor do organic fertilizers. Biofuels, either in the form of ethanol made from corn or from soy beans, demand fertilizer in the form of petroleum or guano or other fertilizers, so again, you're fighting fire with fire. As for organic fertilizer, they are products that demand a heavy investment in water, in some cases in petrochemicals, so again, you're fighting fire with fire.

Wind and solar energy. The problem is, for a light bulb to switch on, you need the power grid to function continually. That way, even when you switch off your lights, you can switch them back on whenever you want.

So the way petrol and gas and coal-powered power grids work is that the petrol or the coal is constantly burning. At night when most people are asleep, you burn small quantities. In the evening when everyone's having dinner, you burn larger quantities.

Problem is, you can't “trap” wind and solar energy. So, if I were an engineer, I would build a “dual” power plant. That is, when the sun is shining (or the wind is blowing) I would stop burning coal or petrol and use the wind or solar source. When the clouds are in or the wind stops blowing, I'd burn the petrol or coal again. Not super-environmentally friendly, but it does limit carbon emissions.

Now to carbon emissions. What COVID taught us is something about the “supply meets demand” scale. That is, the supply is often met by middle men and intermediaries before it reaches the demand. And when the middle men are in bed because they caught COVID, or are forced to shut down because of COVID, you get a rare phenomenon, an economic “solar eclipse” of sorts. That is, you have a hungry demand (consumers) and desperate suppliers, but without the middle men (the middle men could be supermarkets, restaurants, stores etc.) they can no longer find each other.

So sometimes the government substitutes in and improvises itself as the middle man, in replacement for the traditional middle men. Other times middle men emerge out of nowhere and start a black market of sorts. Other times, the suppliers don't know where to find middle men, and have to throw away their supply, when the consumers would have wilfully taken the supply.

So what COVID-19 teaches us is that middle men (be they supermarkets, restaurants, wholesales stores, garages, online stores, dealerships and so on) really need to focus on efficiency rather than on availability.

That is, before COVID, most middle men were so scared of disappointing their clients that they were trying to make sure any product the client asked for would be available. Problem is, there aren't that many clients, and a lot of the production went to waste.

I would not say we need to limit the supply. I would say that we need to rationalize the supply, to make sure that the client's demands are met, but keeping in mind that we don't have to meet all the client's whims and frivolous demands.

How do you rationalize the supply? A good place to start is by studying the data and seeing what sells and what doesn't. The other thing would be to track the data to see what the trends are.

And of course you have good old recycling. That is, instead of throwing away fruits and vegetables that don't sell when ripe, pickle them or sell them to industrial clients before they go bad.

How do you rationalize supply? A little bit of artificial intelligence, and a little bit of rational intelligence.

I know I'm weird. I'm not like many CEOs who care about the big numbers and don't care about the small stuff. I care about the small stuff, including rationalizing supply and using every ripe orange, every ripe apple, every ripe tomato and every ripe onion to good use. I hate throwing stuff away.

So that's the mentality you need. It's not about green labels and calling everything “environmentally friendly” and “recycled” and “adheres to fair trade practices.”

Being environmentally friendly means making sure nothing gets thrown away. I mean, why would you call yourself an “environmental champion” and open a “green supermarket” when half your “bio” fruits and veg end up in the trash can. Huh? One eye brow rose...

How do you rationalize? You send a sales rep or two to move around town in places that might need your leftovers and tell them the following: “every day we have leftovers and we think you could use them. How about we give you a good deal on our leftovers?” That's a good start.

Finally, transportation. Again, transportation needs to be rationalized. Most transportation (these carbon emissions) are people who drive around aimlessly, or who take jobs with very, very long commutes. Or people whose clients are scattered all over the place.

How do you solve this? Could be teleworking. If your employees don't really have to show up, they might as well work from home. A lot of administrative jobs could use teleworking.

Then you could build dormitories at the workplace. I'm all for that! Why? Two reasons. First, given the nature of the job market, jobs come and go. So if I live in the company dorm and that I lose my job, I get to keep my place, and get to rent or buy a house wherever I want, without taking workplace into account. This means no pressure to rent or buy an apartment near the workplace, and no boss blackmailing me and threatening to fire me because he knows I rented a place just around the corner.

Second reason I'm all for dorms within companies? I know they should be optional, and that working mothers couldn't use them for example, but if young men and women and older men and women with older children use dorms, you basically cut traffic jams by half. But for that to work you need most companies to have dorms, which is not a given.  

I know company dorms can give birth to all kinds of abuses, including longer working hours and being called up abruptly in the middle of the evening to come down and get some work done. But, provided a healthy work environment, company dorms can actually be a good place to relax, to get to know co-workers more intimately, and perhaps share information more readily. But conflicts could also erupt in company dorms. But, provided enough privacy and a clear employment contract, company dorms could be healthy to reduce carbon emissions.  

Then there's online learning for students. But I'm not 100% for distance learning and online learning. What a lot of students do is, they look at the videos, they see the videos total 12 hours, and they usually go like “ey I'll study for the test 48 hours before the test and I'll cram in those 12 hours of classes at the last minute.”

So online learning should involve emailing assignments in real time, attending online courses at fixed times, and perhaps online discussion of course materials. But then again, like with everything, there's a trap. A lot of teenagers can be a little rude, or perverted, when they start typing. That can lead to awkwardness, so that has to be taken into account, and online debate moderators should do their job.

So for eco-friendly solutions, the point is we can't just have token eco-friendly solutions. We need solutions that work, not campaign and green corporate slogans.

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