The same stale nostrums

EVER SINCE the Earth Summit last year in Rio de Janeiro, there has been a spate of literature on sustainable development. Suddenly there is money aplenty for seminars, conferences and publications on every aspect of the subject. Suddenly corporations, multilateral agencies and even governments are anxious to fund research or NGO activity in this field.

The reasons are apparent and not always disinterested. Riding piggyback on the genuine concern of millions of young people for the future of the planet are large, multibillion dollar corporations that wish to sell environmental cleanup equipment, and try to use concern for the environment as a lever with which to freeze an inequitable world economic order.

Given these pressures, sustainable development has become politicised to the point where the phrase itself is in danger of sinking into disrepute. Why this should be so becomes abundantly clear when one peruses the pages of a recent publication, entitled Energy Options for Africa: Environmentally Sustainable Alternatives.
Politicised development The book is a product of another conference (what else) of African energy experts, held in Nairobi in 1992. It is therefore a book by a committee, without a single mind or a single leitmotif to drive it. After reading it, one is forced to conclude that if these are the only energy alternatives that sub-Saharan Africa has, then sustainable development will remain a distant dream. On the other hand, economic breakdown and the demolition of an organised society is inevitable.

The thrust of the book as in the first 'envelope chapter' is that Africa's present pattern of energy consumption, which relies heavily on fuelwood, is unsustainable. With the most rapidly growing towns in the world, the urban demand for charcoal is rapidly deforesting and desertifying the land around the towns. Unsustainable land use and ill-thought-out hydro-projects have compounded the damage.

So far so good, but here is where the hard edge of Western self-interest begins to show: With relatively little capital in Africa and the world, and global capital flows drying up, Africa cannot take the conventional route of increasing its energy consumption, while simultaneously shifting from fuelwood to commercial fossil fuels. Instead of trying to increase the supply of energy, Africa should try to manage the demand for it so that it grows more slowly. And better demand management can be had by importing energy efficient technology and deploying it to raise energy efficiency: better costing and pricing of various energy sources and uses; and better management.

The book seems only a rehash of what has been advocated, not only for Africa, but for every other oil-importing, coal-deficient developing country. Nonetheless, to get the full flavour of the book, it is necessary to describe a few more of the suggestions it gives.

To improve energy efficiency in the transport sector, various authors recommend switching from road haulage to rail; from private urban to mass urban transport; and, better urban planning so that people have to travel shorter distances. To economise in the industrial sector, another author proposes speeding up the phasing-out of old plants and machinery, and upgrading the quality of cars being assembled in the vehicle assembly plants. To bring down consumption in the household sector, solar cookers and improved stoves! And as a token obeisance to the future, photovoltaics.

It doesn't take long to explain why this strategy has not made even a marginal dent in developing countries, while it has been quite effective in the industrialised ones. The main reason is that to change from less to more energy efficient technologies, whether it is to build a railroad or to replace old plants with new, requires capital, which is precisely what developing countries do not have.

So far as energy efficiency in industry is concerned, in both developing and industrialised nations, entrepreneurs change their machinery only when the cost of installing new machinery is more than offset by the saving in future production costs. This technological obsolescence is rapid in industrialised countries, but slow in the developing ones. Thus, energy efficient technologies come in much faster in the former. This is just as true of trucks, cars and taxis, as of machinery.

As for solar cookers, stoves and biogas, if these were complete answers to charcoal or wood, they would have been adopted long ago. Solar cookers are admittedly attractive, but the problem with them is that the poor are used to treating wood (or cowdung cakes) as a free gift of nature. They will continue to use these in place of any energy device that they have to pay for, till the last tree or cow is gone.
Wrong premises The authors of the book have failed to provide an environmentally sustainable alternative because they have gone wrong in their very first premise, namely that the present rate of charcoal use is unsustainable. This is so only if trees are treated as finite resources, i.e. as a fossil, not a renewable fuel. Africa's problems start dissipating like mist once this assumption is dropped. To give just one example: On the vast plains of East Africa grow a vast variety of acacias -- thorn trees, umbrella trees and a variety of other species. They grow naturally and need no irrigation or protection. Giraffes nibble away the tender shoots at the top of the trees. Is it so difficult to plant thousands of acres of plains with acacias, spaced sufficiently apart to not impede the natural movement of animals or growth of vegetation and to harvest it as one harvests crops, after 10 or 15 years? Would it be a calamity if this led to an increase in the population of giraffes or would that be a blessing in disguise?

But how will trees give Africa commercial energy? The thrust of Western thinking and Western preoccupations, not to mention Western commercial interests, is most noticeable here. When charcoal is made in the traditional way, about 60 per cent of the energy in the wood is lost in the form of volatile gases, mainly carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane. But there have existed for more than a century, gasifiers that convert wood into charcoal, but trap the gases and make it possible to use them for power generation to produce fertilisers, transport fuels or other petrochemicals.
Tree power Trees, and more generally, biomass, can therefore prove a complete energy alternative to fossil fuels, regenerate the environment, protect wildlife and provide large amounts of employment. Since fuelwood cannot be transported economically for long distances, it can, moreover, become the base of a decentralised pattern of industrialisation that stems the present annual 6-8 per cent rush into cities. But in the entire book, there is not one mention of biomass or the gasification route to energy generation.

Such books are not only useless, but positively dangerous for, while they pretend to tackle the problem of sustainable development, they help to sow the seeds of hopelessness and dependence in the minds of planners in the developing countries. 'These are the only things you can do,' they tell them. 'If you have tried them already, then you either didn't try hard enough or the problem has no solution. So why not get your people used to the idea that they will always be worse off and always dependent on us from the advanced West for the crumbs from our table.' And so insidious is this propaganda, so seductive the repeated trips to seminars and conferences in plush Western locations, that for 20 years after the era of cheap oil came to an end, we in the developing countries have been buying it.