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Energy, EVs, environment and economy

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by M. Rizwan Muzzammil

According to an article in ‘The Diplomat’ (2nd Oct., 23), the Sri Lankan government has committed to supplying 70% of its domestic electricity, with renewable energy sources, by 2030, with the longer-term goal of achieving a fully renewable electricity supply by 2050. The government is incentivised by “debt-for-renewables swap”, which enables heavily indebted countries to restructure a portion of their external debt on to more favourable terms in exchange for environmental commitments.

In addition, a strong push is observed for fully electric vehicles (EVs) with incentives on offer.

In general, the public opinion on these environmental developments is likely to be positive. On a global level, the environment is a hot topic, with climate change, carbon dioxide emissions, EVs, and sustainable growth occupying the minds of many policy-makers.

It is now widely accepted that fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) negatively impact the environment by causing climate change through carbon dioxide emissions.

For these reasons, renewable energies and achieving ‘net zero emissions,’ through EVs, is considered to be a top priority. This is required to happen even at the expense of economic growth, which is deemed to be detrimental for the Earth’s resources.

However, some research on this topic shows that the situation is more nuanced than what may first seem apparent. The author presents some arguments for the reader’s consideration and references material from the books ‘Fossil Future’ (2022) by Alex Epstein and ‘In Defense of Capitalism’ (2023) by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to these books for more details.

Fossil fuels

In ‘Fossil Future’ Epstein, notes that cheap and reliable energy is needed to keep people warm when it is too cold, and cool when it is too warm. It is used to build shelter, to transport food and resources, for manufacturing and many other applications essential for human flourishing.

Fossil fuels are a cheap and reliable energy source and have been a major reason for the rapid development of economies around the world. As a direct result of fossil fuels large human populations have been saved from tremendous hardship, starvation and poverty.

Epstein points out that much of the present-day narrative on fossil fuels overly focuses on the negatives while ignoring the tremendous positives. Despite the efforts at improving renewable energy technologies, mainly solar and wind, they are still at present no substitute for fossil fuels as a cheap and reliable energy source.

Although climate change is a problem, fossil fuels can be used to protect, mitigate and adapt to its adverse effects, which are predicted to occur gradually over a manageable period of time.

EVs

The push for EVs is a substantial step from the now common semi-electric hybrids. Hybrid vehicles are a well-tested means of transport, and there is much experience in the market with regards to the repair and safety of such vehicles (the Prius is now in its 25th year). However, the problems related to the mass adoption of EVs are still not widely understood. Some examples are:

Due to the presence of the battery, EVs are about 30% heavier, compared to ordinary vehicles. In the event of a collision between an EV and ordinary vehicle, the latter is likely to suffer disproportionately more damage, and passengers more likely to be injured. In addition, multi-story carparks, bridges and highways may need to be reinforced to take on the increased vehicle weights.

Furthermore, EVs that have been involved in accidents can sustain damage to the battery. A chemical leak could result, leading to toxic contaminations and fires, requiring specialized equipment to manage. Emergency response units may need to be properly equipped to deal with such problems.

The charging of EVs may also require an upgrade to the electric grid and household wiring, so that higher electric loads can be handled. In the US State of California, gasoline cars are to be banned for sale by 2035. In order to manage the electric loads on the grid, consumers will be required to charge their vehicles only at certain times of the day. For a developing country like Sri Lanka managed charge times may prove to be a hindrance to economic growth.

Earth’s resources are finite

Many who are concerned about the environment believe that economic growth is problematic. This is because Earth’s raw materials are finite and therefore infinite growth is impossible.

In ‘In Defense of Capitalism’, Zitelmann points out that despite finite raw materials, the correlation between economic growth and resource consumption is becoming ever weaker in the modern era.

Companies are constantly looking for new ways to produce more efficiently with less raw materials. They do this not mainly to protect the environment but rather to cut costs and increase profit. The resulting innovation has promoted a trend called miniaturization.

Zitelmann gives the example of the smartphone, which has now replaced many devices. A basic smartphone now contains a calculator, telephone, video camera, alarm clock, voice recorder, navigation system, maps, camera, mp3 player (replacing cassette or CD player), compass, answering machine, scanner, measuring tape, radio, torch, calendar, encyclopedia, dictionary, foreign language dictionaries, address book, etc. Therefore, the answer to the limited resources problem is more complex than what seems obvious.

What does it really cost?

The push for renewables and EVs is a government initiative, i.e. a form of central planning, and not driven by free-markets. This push is incentivized or subsidized by taxpayer money. This implies that consumers in a free market would reject such solutions absent these incentives, as the true price would be unpalatable.

The masking of the true price is a concern for the general health of the economy. If we consider the general Sri Lankan economic crisis, it can be summed up by saying that the people did not know the true costs of what they consumed, either because it was taxpayer subsidized by debt and money printing (inflation), or the dollar value was manipulated by the Central Bank. Had they known the true cost it is entirely likely that Sri Lankans would have consumed within their means and the crisis never happened.

All government plans must happen by legislative incentives or subsidies. Despite the evils this is considered acceptable because it is widely believed the health of the environment cannot be left to free-markets.

But history informs us otherwise. Zitelmann points out that environmental degradation has been a far more serious problem in centrally planned countries. This despite these same countries often claiming (sometimes boastfully) the environment to be of primary importance.

The example of the Soviet Union

Consider the former USSR. In 1990, Zhores Medvedev noted: “The Soviet Union has lost more pasture and agricultural land to radioactive contamination than the total acreage of cultivated land in Switzerland. More land has been flooded by hydroelectric dams than the total area of Netherlands. More land was lost between 1960 and 1989 through salinization, changes in the water table, and dust and salt storms than the total areas of cultivated land in Ireland and Belgium put together. Amidst acute food shortages, the total acreage of cultivated land has declined by one million hectares a year since 1975. The Soviet Union is losing its forests at the same rate as rainforests are disappearing in Brazil.

In Uzbekistan and Moldavia, chemical poisoning with pesticides has led to such high rates of mental retardation that the educational curricula in secondary schools and universities have had to be modified and simplified.” In the book, Ecocide in the USSR (1992), Feshbach and Friendly Jr. say “no other industrial civilization so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, and people.”

Private property as a solution

In general, countries which have socialist governments have often ended up with grossly mismanaged environments. Nearer to home India is a good example. The Sri Lankan environment also leaves much to be desired.

But why does this happen? Zitelmann, refers to the German economist Polleit, who states “By monopolizing legislation and jurisdiction, states have been the originators of many environmental problems:”For example, by allowing companies and consumers to dump pollutants on roads and into rivers, oceans, and the air at no cost. Often, this practice is justified on the basis of the ‘common good,’ which places the rights of polluters above the rights of the aggrieved (property owners). For example, owners of property located near an airport must endure increasing aircraft noise without being compensated by the airport operator.”

Thus, the problem occurs fundamentally due to property ownership, namely, the government being the owner and manager of natural resources, and doing a poor job of it due to the lack of market incentives.

A solution to this could be to privatise natural resources as far as possible. This could include land, roads, rivers and even ocean segments. Since the resources will have market value, the owners would be scrupulous in ensuring that they are in no way damaged by others. Anyone responsible for damaging property would be held accountable. Problems such as air and noise pollution could also be dealt with in this way.

A perfect solution is unlikely, but the protection of private property is a well understood concept and likely to yield better results compared to a government solution.

In fact, the most environmentally clean nations are those that are most economically free with more private property. Zitelmann reviews three research indexes: Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index (EPI), The Heritage Foundations ‘Index of Economic Freedom’ and the ‘Open Market Index’ (OMI) and finds close positive correlations between economic growth, free-markets and the environment.

Another study, ‘Is Free Trade Good for the Environment?’’ by Antweiler et al, found that if openness to international markets raises output and income by 1%, pollution concentrations fall by about 1%. The study goes on to say, “At an early stage of a country’s economic growth, a high level of environmental degradation is observed, while, after a critical point of economic growth, a gradual decline in environmental degradation is reported.”

Conclusions

The historical evidence and research show that a centrally planned approach to protecting the environment tends to backfire and not achieve intended goals. The Sri Lankan government could effect better outcomes by relaxing import controls to improve innovation (anyway upcoming), removing subsidies and incentives, and privatizing energy producers and other natural resources as much as possible. Sri Lankans could be better served by deciding for themselves what vehicle or energy or environment is best suited for their needs without incentives or subsidies.

The writer, a civil engineer, resides in Singapore. He can be reached on write2rizwan.m@gmail.com. His previous published articles can be viewed on rizwanmuzzammil.substack.com



Features

Breathtaking new paintings found at ancient city of Pompeii

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The frescoes depict Greek mythology: Paris kidnaps Helen which triggers the Trojan War (BBC)

Stunning artworks have been uncovered in a new excavation at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried in an eruption from Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

Archaeologists say the frescoes are among the finest to be found in the ruins of the ancient site.

Mythical Greek figures such as Helen of Troy are depicted on the high black walls of a large banqueting hall.

The room’s near-complete mosaic floor incorporates more than a million individual white tiles.

BBC/Tony Jolliffe The Black Room

The black room has only emerged in the last few weeks. Its white mosaic floor is almost complete (BBC)

A third of the lost city has still to be cleared of volcanic debris. The current dig, the biggest in a generation, is underlining Pompeii’s position as the world’s premier window on the people and culture of the Roman empire.

Park director Dr Gabriel Zuchtriegel presented the “black room” exclusively to the BBC on Thursday.

It was likely the walls’ stark colour was chosen to hide the smoke deposits from lamps used during entertaining after sunset. “In the shimmering light, the paintings would have almost come to life,” he said.

Two set-piece frescoes dominate. In one, the god Apollo is seen trying to seduce the priestess Cassandra. Her rejection of him, according to legend, resulted in her prophecies being ignored.The tragic consequence is told in the second painting, in which Prince Paris meets the beautiful Helen – a union Cassandra knows will doom them all in the resulting Trojan War.

BBC/Tony Jolliffe One of the "black room" frescos discovered in Pompeii, showing Apollo trying to seduce the priestess Cassandra

The god Apollo is depicted on one of the frescos trying to seduce the Trojan priestess Cassandra (BBC)

The black room is the latest treasure to emerge from the excavation, which started 12 months ago – an investigation that will feature in a documentary series from the BBC and Lion TV to be broadcast later in April.

A wide residential and commercial block, known as “Region 9”, is being cleared of several metres of overlying pumice and ash thrown out by Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago.

Staff are having to move quickly to protect new finds, removing what they can to a storeroom.

For the frescoes that must stay in position, a plaster glue is injected to their rear to prevent them coming away from the walls. Masonry is being shored up with scaffolding and temporary roofing is going over the top.

BBC/Tony Jolliffe Fresco protection

A plaster glue must be injected behind a fresco or it is likely to come away from the wall (BBC)

Chief restorer Dr Roberta Prisco spent Tuesday this week trying to stop an arch from collapsing. “The responsibility is enormous; look at me,” she said, as if to suggest the stress was taking a visible toll on her. “We have a passion and a deep love for what we’re doing, because what we’re uncovering and protecting is for the joy also of the generations that come after us.”

BBC Map showing excavations in Pompeii

Region 9 has thrown up a detective story for archaeologists.

Excavations in the late 19th Century uncovered a laundry in one corner. The latest work has now revealed a wholesale bakery next door, as well as the grand residence with its black room.

BBC/Tony Jolliffe Reception Hall

In the reception hall, rubble in the far right corner is from renovation at the time of the eruption (BBC)

The team is confident the three areas can be connected, physically via the plumbing and by particular passageways, but also in terms of their ownership.

The identity of this individual is hinted at in numerous inscriptions with the initials “ARV”. The letters appear on walls and even on the bakery’s millstones.

Dr Sophie Hay explained how a rich politician left his mark on the buildings

“We know who ARV is: he’s Aulus Rustius Verus,” explained park archaeologist Dr Sophie Hay. “We know him from other political propaganda in Pompeii. He’s a politician. He’s super-rich. We think he may be the one who owns the posh house behind the bakery and the laundry.” What’s clear, however, is that all the properties were undergoing renovation at the time of the eruption. Escaping workers left roof tiles neatly stacked; their pots of lime mortar are still filled, waiting to be used; their trowels and pickaxes remain, although the wooden handles have long since rotted away.

Dr Lia Trapani catalogues everything from the dig. She reaches for one of the thousand or more boxes of artefacts in her storeroom and pulls out a squat, turquoise cone. “It’s the lead weight from a plumb line.” Just like today’s builders, the Roman workers would have used it to align vertical surfaces.

She holds the cone between her fingers: “If you look closely you can see a little piece of Roman string is still attached.”

BBC/Tony Jolliffe Plumb line

It’s possible to see a remnant piece of string around the neck of the plumb line (BBC)

Dr Alessandro Russo has been the other co-lead archaeologist on the dig. He wants to show us a ceiling fresco recovered from one room. Smashed during the eruption, its recovered pieces have been laid out, jigsaw-style, on a large table.

He’s sprayed the chunks of plaster with a mist of water, which makes the detail and vivid colours jump out.

You can see landscapes with Egyptian characters; foods and flowers; and some imposing theatrical masks.

“This is my favourite discovery in this excavation because it is complex and rare. It is high-quality for a high-status individual,” he explained.

BBC/Jonathan Amos Ceiling fresco

The archaeologists have had to piece together a ceiling fresco that was shattered during the volcanic eruption (BBC)

But if the grand property’s ceiling fresco can be described as exquisite, some of what’s being learned about the bakery speaks to an altogether more brutal aspect of Roman life – slavery.

It’s obvious the people who worked in the business were kept locked away in appalling conditions, living side by side with the donkeys that turned the millstones. It seems there was one window and it had iron bars to prevent escape.

It’s in the bakery also that the only skeletons from the dig have been discovered. Two adults and a child were crushed by falling stones. The suggestion is they may have been slaves who were trapped and could not flee the eruption. But it’s guesswork.

“When we excavate, we wonder what we’re looking at,” explained co-lead archaeologist Dr Gennaro Iovino.

“Much like a theatre stage, you have the scenery, the backdrop, and the culprit, which is Mount Vesuvius. The archaeologist has to be good at filling in the gaps – telling the story of the missing cast, the families and children, the people who are not there anymore.”

BBC/Tony Jolliffe Mosaic floor
There are certainly more than a million tiles in the mosaic floor, possibly up to three million (BBC)
BBC/Tony Jolliffe Roman lamp
Boxes full of artefacts: One of the many oil lamps recovered during the excavation (BBC)
BBC/Tony Jolliffe Fresco showing Leda and the Swan
Another fresco depicts Leda and Zeus in the form of a swan, whose union would lead to Helen’s birth (BBC)
BBC/Tony Jolliffe A piece of moulded cornicing painted in bright colours
Brilliant colours: Ornate cornicing was also preserved under the volcanic debris (BBC)
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Democracy continuing to be derailed in South Asia

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A scene from Sri Lanka’s ‘Aragalaya’ of 2022.

Sections of progressive opinion in Sri Lanka are currently commemorating the second anniversary of the country’s epochal ‘Aragalaya’, which brought down the dictatorial and racist Gotabhaya Rajapaksa regime. April 9th 2022 needs to be remembered especially as the date on which Sri Lankans in their tens of thousands, irrespective of ethnic, religious and language differences rose as one to impress on the country’s political class and rulers that their fundamental rights cannot be compromised or tampered with for whatever reason and that these rights should be realized henceforth.

During the ‘Aragalaya’, Sri Lanka attained nationhood, since the totality of the country’s social groups, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, spoke out for equity and equality among them, from the same platform. Thus was Sri Lankan nationhood born, which is quite different from statehood. It is left to progressives to ensure that Sri Lankan nationhood, thus born out of the ‘Aragalaya’, does not prove to be stillborn.

To express it briefly, political ‘Independence’ or statehood is believed by most Sri Lankans to have been attained in 1948 but this is not tantamount to achieving nationhood. The latter is realized when equity and equality are established among a country’s communities.

Of course, we are a long way from achieving these aims but the historic significance of the ‘Aragalaya’ consists in the fact that the ideals central to nationhood were articulated assertively and collectively in Sri Lanka as never before. The opinion climate conducive to nation-building, it could be said, was created by the ‘Aragalaya’.

It is left to the progressives of Sri Lanka to forge ahead with the process of realizing the ideals and central aims of the ‘Aragalaya’, without resorting to violence and allied undemocratic approaches, which are really not necessary to bring about genuine democratic development.

The ‘Aragalaya’ was a historic ‘wake-up’ call to the country’s political elite in particular, which, over the years could be said to have been engaged more in power aggrandizement, rather than nation-building, which is integral to democratic development. Given this bleak backdrop, it amounts to a huge joke for any prominent member of the country’s ruling class to make out that he has been ‘presiding over the only country in Asia where democracy is completely safeguarded.’

To begin with, a huge question mark looms over Sri Lanka’s true constitutional identity. It is not a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy in view of the substantive and sweeping powers wielded by the Executive Presidency and this issue has been discussed exhaustively in this country.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka is not free of strong theocratic tendencies either because there is no clear ‘separation wall’, so to speak, between religion and politics. The fact is that Sri Lanka’s rulers are constitutionally obliged to defer to the opinion of religious leaders. Therefore, Sri Lanka lacks a secular foundation to its political system. This columnist is inclined to the view that in terms of constitutional identity, Sri Lanka is ‘neither fish, flesh nor fowl.’

Moreover, the postponement of local and Provincial Council polls in Sri Lanka by governments alone proves that what one has in Sri Lanka is at best a ‘façade democracy’.

derailing democracy in Sri Lanka goes Religious and ethnic identities in particular continue to be exploited and manipulated by power aspirants and political entrepreneurs to the huge detriment of the countries concerned.

Needless to say, such factors are coming into play in the lead-up to India’s Lok Sabha polls. They are prominent in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well. Statesmanship is a crying need in these societies but nurturing such leaders into existence will prove a prolonged, long term project, which also requires the interplay of a number of vital factors, many of which are not present to the desired degree in the countries concerned.

However, of the ‘South Asian Eight’, India is by far the most advanced democracy. It has a Constitution that explicitly enshrines the cardinal rights of the people, for example, including the very vital Right to Life. Such a right is non-existent in the Sri Lankan Constitution, for instance, and this is a huge drawback from the viewpoint of democratic development. Among other things, what this means is that the Sri Lankan state exercises substantive coercive power over its citizens.

On the other hand, the Indian Supreme Court has time and again creatively interpreted the Right to Life, so much so life-threatening conditions faced by Indian citizens, for instance, have been eliminated through the caring and timely intervention of the country’s judiciary. Sri Lanka needs to think on these things if it intends to entrench democratic development in the country. Thus far, the country’s track record on this score leaves much to be desired.

A predominant challenge facing progressives of South Asia, such as the ‘Aragalaists’ of Sri Lanka, is how to forge ahead with the task of keeping democratization of the state on track. A negative lesson in this connection could be taken from Bangladesh where the ideals of the 1971 liberation war under Shiekh Mujibhur Rahman were eroded by subsequent regimes which exploited divisive religious sentiments to come to power. In the process, religious minorities came to be harassed, persecuted and savaged by extremists in the centre.

Whereas, the founding fathers of Bangladesh had aimed to create a secular socialist state, this was not allowed to come to pass by some governments which came to power after the Sheikh, which sought to convert Bangladesh into a theocracy. A harrowing account of how the ideals of 1971 came to be betrayed is graphically provided in the international best seller, ‘Lajja’ by Taslima Nasrin, the exiled human and women’s right activist of Bangladesh.

At page 60 of the 20th anniversary edition of ‘Lajja’, published by Penguin Books, Nasrin quotes some persons in authority in Bangladesh as telling the country’s Hindus during the religious riots of 1979; ‘The government has declared that Islam is the state religion. If you want to stay in an Islamic country all of you must become Muslims. If you don’t become Muslims you will have to run away from this country.’

Not all the post-liberation governments of Bangladesh have turned against the ideals of 1971 and the present government is certainly not to be counted as one such administration. But the lesson to be derived from Bangladesh is that unless progressive opinion in a secular democracy is eternally vigilant and proactively involved in advancing democratic development, a country aiming to tread the path of secularism and democracy could easily be preyed upon by the forces of religious extremism.

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Fashion

Homemade…to beat the heat

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With lots of holidays cropping up, we are going to be on the move. Ok, that’s fine, but what about the scorching heat! With temperatures soaring sky high, skin issues are bound to surface.

Well, here are some beauty tips that will give your skin some relief:

Aloe Vera: Apply fresh aloe vera gel to the skin. It helps to soothe and heal sunburn. Aloe vera contains zinc, which is actually anti-inflammatory.

Papaya: Papaya pulp can be applied on the skin like a mask, washing it off after 20 minutes. Papaya contains enzymes and helps to remove dead skin cells. Add curd or lemon juice to the pulp to remove tan. Fruits like banana, apple, papaya and orange can be mixed together and applied on the face. Keep it on for 20 to 30 minutes. Papaya helps to cleanse dead skin cells. Banana tightens the skin. Apple contains pectin and also tones the skin. Orange is rich in Vitamin C. It restores the normal acid-alkaline balance.

 Lemon Juice: Lemon is a wonderful home remedy for sun tan because of its bleaching properties. You can apply lemon juice by mixing it with honey on the tanned skin and leave it for 10 to 15 minutes before washing it off .

Coconut Water and Sandalwood Pack: Sandalwood has great cleansing properties, whereas, coconut water is widely known for a glowing skin. Mix coconut water with one tablespoon of sandalwood powder to make a thick mixture and apply it all over the face. Wash it off after 20 minutes. This is a perfect cure for tanned skin.

Cucumber, Rose Water and Lemon Juice:The cucumber juice and rose water work as a cooling means for soothing the brown and red-spotted skin. To use these effectively, take one tablespoon of cucumber juice, lemon juice, and rose water and stir it well in a bowl. Use this solution on all over the face and wash it off with cold water after 10 minutes. This helps to turn your skin hale and healthy.

Milk Masks: Yes, milk masks do give glowing effect to tired skin. Just apply milk mixed with glycerin all over the face. Relax for 15 minutes and rinse with water. The treatment softens, rejuvenates and restores a natural PH balance, thus protecting the skin from the negative effects of the sun. You can also take half cup of milk and add a pinch of turmeric in it. Apply the mixture on your face and wait till it gets dry. Use this solution on a daily basis for exceptional results.

(Yes, time to take care of your skin and beat the heat!)

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