Thick smoke spews from a crude-palm-oil factory in Kendawangan, Indonesia West Kalimantan. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

South Asia, lying in the tropical belt, is often seen as a global citadel for solar energy. But alternative energy suffers the most human of fallacies – being excited and blindsided by superficialities and trying to eliminate symptoms rather than eliminating the underlying causes.

Unlike the conspicuous and obvious ecological footprint of fossil fuels, the tracks of alternative renewable energy generation are often concealed, given that we only behold the consequence, not the ultimate cause. If we were to delve into the hows rather than just the whats, we would at once realize how pernicious some renewable energy sources can be.

A classic fable cautioning against attempting to correct incorrigible nature goes as follows. “A forest spirit or fairy saw a woodcutter struggle very hard daily to earn a living and decided to save him from his misery. One night, when he was asleep, she touched his ax, turning it into gold, expecting the man to sell it to set up a farm or a shop.

“The very next morning, she saw the man at the same spot, chopping down trees with the golden ax, struggling even harder, given that being made of solid gold, it weighed even more.”

What most alternative energy implementations do is similar, shifting the damage a step back, behind the curtains where it can’t be seen. It’s along the same lines of the parable where a saint instructs a thief to open a shop to earn a living and he opens up a shop only to pick the customers’ pockets.

Taking things on face value is quite tempting and convenient, and hence is so frequent. With renewable energy, corporations often focus more on implementing renewable energy than implementing clean energy to reduce their effective carbon footprint in the first place.

Unless it is explicitly made clear to them not to cut forests and not to pollute, they are likely to miss the point, being instead distracted by a particular mode of implementation, and striving toward the means as an end, while aiming not to compromise their profits and material gains.

Solar infrastructure

From Georgetown University’s solar farm to Apple’s, solar infrastructure often takes a toll on ecosystems. This is mainly because capitalism almost always views non-timber-producing forested areas as unoccupied land ready to be put to use. Thus whenever solar infrastructure demands land, forests are soft targets.

In South Asia, each hectare of forestland supports a greater diversity of species than anywhere else in the world, and because little to no land is barren, authorities have no choice but to devote forestland to solarization. It’s a Hobson’s choice – the population is high and agriculture often of an intensive subsistence nature, hence none of the urban buildup or the agricultural land can be spared for the purpose.

An article by noted environmentalist Michael Shellenberger published in the Eurasian Review says, “Solar panels require 16 times more materials in the form of cement, glass, concrete, and steel than do nuclear plants, and create 300 times more waste. You would have been better off just burning fossil fuels in the first place, said one expert, instead of just playing pretend. We’re basically just being fed a lie.”

Solar energy and wind energy thus merely shift the blame to the less noticeable or more indirect. Damaging forests and material pollution are preferable to carbon emissions.

Moreover, even more latent environmental expenses are incurred: Frequent maintenance operations also consume energy, from material production to logistics. Solar panels also release heavy metals that find their way into the soil and subsequently water, and installations excitedly erected and later abandoned cause material damage in the short term while the long-term emission mitigation does not have time to come to fruition.

In South Asia, freshwater contamination by heavy-metal seepage is a major issue given that rivers are lifelines of dense settlements in most areas.

The palm oil question

Palm oil is the poster-villain of Malaysia and Indonesia. We are all too familiar with the heartbreaking images of vast tracts of lush, multilayered, thick tropical vegetation being cleared to make way for oil-palm plantations. Of course such plantations are destructive and there’s no denying they are directly responsible for the irrecoverable loss of vast swaths of ancient tropical forests. But is palm oil the real culprit or a mere scapegoat?

First off, palm oil is relatively healthy, compared with other types of conventional frying oils. Second, it possesses a distinct edge over its alternative in being space-effective as well as cost-effective. It’s not as if growing oilseed plants will occupy much less area than palm trees to yield the same quantity of oil. Research is ongoing to develop more efficient varieties on either side. Palm oil is versatile, used in most processed foods from chips to noodles and cosmetics to toiletries.

While palm oil in itself might be our current best option for meeting our bourgeoning multifarious energy and material needs, the reckless and inconsiderate implementation of oil-palm cultivation, from the usage of forest fires to raze vegetated tracts, in turn releasing the carbon stored in peat-bogs that underlie most of these forests besides the emission from the incineration of the vegetation, to the irresponsible disposal of wastes generated during palm-oil extraction and processing, severely undermine its candidature for being the best compromise.

The key is to manage tropical forests prudently and optimally, reconciling demand and recovery by minimizing fragmentation that, in addition to exerting debilitating effects on floral and faunal biodiversity, adversely affects the forest’s regeneration ability.

Seeing forests as super-organisms

We need to start seeing a forest as more than the sum of its trees. A forest is a super-organism, an interconnected entity. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the nuances of a forest rather than consider it a uniform fabric of vegetation or resource – view it as a unit with various, diverse parts working in tandem.

We need to stop allocating natural, ancient forest areas of particularly high density and diversity for oil-palm cultivation, instead sacrificing sparser, more mono-vegetated, and already used or human-intervened areas of forest.

In fact one needs to reconcile two approaches, on the micro-scale allocating areas that do not contain many species localized to the area, that is, striving to not have skewed distribution or asymmetry so as to maximize recovery, while on the broader scale sacrificing specific forest areas that are already damaged and minimizing fragmentation.

In this interplay of short-scale uniformity and large-scale discrimination, we can strike a working compromise that could last for decades.

In the socioeconomically liberal world, restriction has always proved futile, even aggravating the crisis or rendering it pernicious. Regulation, on the other hand, has always proved to be better at controlling menaces, malpractices, and prevalent vices, given a constant or growing demand.

From prostitution in developed nations to hunting in game reserves, while restriction leads to widespread discontent, absence of peace of mind, diversion of human resources, internal clashes, and social disruption, regulation saves time and resources, allowing people to devote their time to better pursuits than indulging in a ceaseless cat-and-mouse game or a veritable arms race of loophole-plugging and evasion.

Transgressors and prosecutors alike can better devote their manpower than engaging in the game of chess against each other, if a mutually amenable forest-economy policy can be come up with – one that not only acknowledges but accounts for the various interlinked processes, and any ramifications thereof, that drive the forest as a living, breathing entity.

As long as demand keeps growing, and we embark on the uncertain road to quasi-eternal growth, the edifice of environmentalism can never be erected and myopic anthropocentrism will continue to dictate the paradigms of human civilization. However, well-thought-out sustainability can become the vehicle that can carry us for the time being. There’s only one problem: The road to economic growth is forked.

South Asia needs a comprehensive, scientific, and considerate forest-economy policy. Segregating sustainability and development will sooner or later have detrimental effects on both. As of now, for South Asia, with its ever exploding population and industrial demand, the choice is really between frying pans and fires.

This is the second article of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.