Najib Saab 30/4/2023

The solution to addressing the problem of depletion and exhausting natural resources has traditionally been to search for new resources, by adopting innovative technological methods. But it turns out that limiting the solution to increasing production in order to meet increased consumption puts the world in a vicious circle. Continuing to move around the problem, rather than facing it head on, not only prolongs it, but also increases its complexity.

The root of the problem is that humanity’s ecological footprint exceeds the ability of natural systems to supply more resources and absorb waste, without destroying the environment. While the ecological footprint of the world today exceeds the sustainable limit by 80 percent, it is 100% in the Arab region. That is, our consumption exceeds twice the limits that allow nature to regenerate in order to continue to meet human needs. Since the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) published these figures in 2012 in its first study on the ecological footprint in Arab countries, entitled “Survival Options”, some still question the results. They argue that people have continued to live years after exceeding the maximum limits, which proves that natural systems are flexible and able to adapt. However, this understanding is distorted and has no solid base, because everything we spend today that exceeds nature’s ability to regenerate, or the pollutants we discard on land, in the air and at sea that exceed its ability to absorb, is being taken away from the reserve deposit that it stores for future generations. If governments can deal with the accumulation of financial debts by printing more banknotes, until such a time that revenues rise, it is impossible to “print” new banknotes to pay the bill of a bankrupt nature, when it loses resources that cannot be regenerated.

Technology is necessary to solve many environmental problems, but not in isolation from modifying consumption patterns. For example, increasing food production in most Arab countries is not possible without the dissemination of modern technologies, from improving the quality of seeds to the use of appropriate types of fertilizers and pesticides, to modernizing equipment and machinery in the processes of cultivation, harvesting, transportation, food industries and storage. However, focusing on increasing production quantities only, puts some of the issues that precede it in the back seat, foremost of which is enhancing production efficiency and limiting crop damage during transportation and storage, alongside promoting alternative types of food with ingredients that can be produced in dry and hot regions and require less water for irrigation. A report on food security issued by AFED found that crop damage in the post-harvest stages reaches 25 percent in the Arab region, and that the amount of imported grains that perish during storage is equivalent to 40 percent of local production of similar crops. Moreover, the selection of crops suitable for specific regions, along with the use of efficient irrigation methods, can lead to doubling the production with a large saving in water for irrigation, as per the golden rule: “More Crop per Drop.”

What is true for food applies to energy, water and many other issues in our lives. Flawed use of electric cars, as well as photovoltaic cells for the production of electricity, are two examples of consumerism patterns, even when adopting renewable systems, in isolation from changing habits. Satisfying the desire of a segment of consumers to ride in fast, luxurious cars prompted manufacturers to produce large, four-wheel-drive vehicles that run on electricity. These meet the market’s greed on the one hand, and, in theory, abide by new requirements to shift away from the use of fossil fuel in internal combustion engines to reduce carbon emissions. However, building large electric cars consumes a large amount of natural resources, and emits carbon in the manufacturing phase that may exceed emissions of traditional internal combustion engines. They also require, due to their size and weight, larger batteries, rather than using the capacity of the battery to increase the distance that the car can travel after each electric charge. Moreover, many tend to increase consumption when switching to home-produced solar electricity, as it is cheap and ‘clean’, which in turn increases the use of raw materials to manufacture larger quantities of collectors and batteries. If appropriate measures are not adopted to rationalize the use of energy, whatever its source, extend the life span of solar panels and batteries, and limit the size and power of electric cars according to people’s needs, instead of building large cars with fast engines, we will have canceled the benefits of the transition to clean electricity. Electricity from the sun, wind, or any other source requires the use of precious raw materials to manufacture panels, turbines, distribution networks, and storage batteries, and it is not a free gift. When the “cleaning up” of production processes is not accompanied by a radical change in consumption patterns, the world is threatened with losing all the supposed savings.

For years, many hotels have placed notices in the rooms, asking guests to “help conserve natural resources and protect the environment, by saving water and not putting towels and bed linen to wash daily if they are not dirty.” The idea is sound and logical, because washing towels and linens at home, for example, is usually done once a week, so why wash them daily for a guest who is using a hotel room for one week or less? However, what is certain is that hotels include in their costs the daily washing of everything that is placed in the room. And because guests know this, and as is human nature, they often choose not to save water, considering that they are already paying for it anyway.

I was impressed by an initiative launched by a modest French hotel that I visited recently, which turns ideals and slogans into practical application. The hotel management committed to provide a cup of tea, coffee, or any other drink in the hotel restaurant for every day that the guest does not send the towels to the laundry; adding to that a sandwich or dessert if the bed linens were not washed either. The beneficial lesson here is that protecting the environment is done in deeds not words, and through measures that combine deterrents with incentives, not just advice and good intentions, no matter how noble they may be.