Category Archives: fundamentals

Living in an artificial environment

Air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

People with low economic status tend to think that the wealthy are healthier; and they see that the rich people stay in air conditioned spaces in homes, offices, cars and shops, while they are toiling in uncomfortable ambiences.

As such, the myth spreads hat living in artificial environments is better than living with natural conditions.

Modern construction technology can provide air conditioning to any kind of space.

With the AC costs coming down every season and claims about green buildings adopting more efficient systems like radiant cooling, evaporative cooling and such others besides the conventional HVAC systems, building owners do not feel guilty for installing air conditioning.

However, are all the people living inside such artificial environments happy and healthy? Contrary to what the economically poor may dream, reports suggest otherwise. Living without fresh air, day light and nature is today proven to be very unhealthy.

Many indoor spaces do not have adequate fresh air inlet and air change as required, leading to what is called Sick Building Syndrome. Lack of ventilation can also lead to a feel of suffocation, partly due to increased ambient indoor heat, creating a sense of dryness.

The AC can take away internal humidity at such fast rate, too many people feel dehydrated inside, with dried lips and skin.

In places with short summer spells of a few weeks, like in Bengaluru, it is not worth fixing air conditioners for the short duration, letting it lie idle rest of the year.

When we get out of an AC space, the temperature difference between inside and outside causes what is called thermal shock. It can affect the body immune system.

Despite all these, we continue to live with conditioned air, rather than the natural. However, the indoor cool comes at a cost, further increasing the heat island effect and directly promoting greenhouse gas emissions.

Thus, air conditioning may keep us cool, but it further increases global warming.

Conditioned by Air Conditioners

It is time we realised that this equipment can harm our health and endanger the Earth.

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How many of us realise that air conditioners are bad for human health? How many of us know that air conditioners harm the environment? A better question to ask – how many of us who know these truths have stopped or at least reduced using air conditioners?

A paradox of our times is the ever increasing popularity of ACs. As the temperatures soar high, one summer thought that comes to everyone’s mind is to get the house or office air conditioned. It is impossible today not to see an advertisement by the manufacturer, a discount offer by the distributor or a sales pitch by the shop outlet during a casual day out in the city. No cars are being made now without AC, and non-air conditioned hotel rooms are already hard to come by. Even small shops in small towns are boasting of AC.

Just in a decade or two, how come this technology has swept across all climatic zones – hill stations like Matheran, dry regions like Ladakh, rain forests of Wayanad, monsoon city of Mangaluru – as if this is a singular solution to human suffering. Ironically, the comfort that’s promoted here is not the real scientific biological comfort defined by dry bulb temperature, wet bulb temperature, humidity, air change, body level breeze and such indoor conditions.

Equally surprising, from an environmental perspective, not many people have spoken against this singular invention of humankind that demands lot of electricity thus causing depletion of fossil fuel; made from manufactured materials with high embodied energy; and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and has been witnessing advancing technology, creating obsoleteness.

Just a habit

One major factor behind this spread is the human impulse for habit forming. For every car driver who claims it is too hot outside, there would be thousands of people walking or working outside in the same high heat. The car owner has simply lost the body capacity to bear heat. Air conditioner conditions us, and it is as habit forming as alcohol is. If we ask anyone habituated to an air conditioner, if they were miserable failures at home or work before they lived with air conditioners, no one would say ‘yes’. It would have been business as usual or possibly the financial success of those days has led them to new affordability now. By air conditioning, we do not sweat in summer, but make the Earth sweat. We do not shiver in winter, but make the Earth shiver. For millions of years, humans sweated and shivered, so the Earth survived.

Now that the Earth has started sweating and shivering in the form of climate change, it threatens the survival of humans. It is time we realise how our present actions can erase our future. It is time we realise how air conditioners can harm our health and endanger the Earth. Let us explore them in the coming essays

Living at Whose Cost?

When we create a high carbon footprint and cause enormous greenhouse gas emissions, we are doing a disfavour to the environment.

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It may sound absurd to ask anyone, at whose cost are you living. Of course they will say it’s at their own cost or the children may say they are living on their parent’s earnings. The very thought that one has to live at other’s costs is not taken as an honourable position.

It is not the cost of living we need to observe, which is commonly discussed everywhere from the family dining table to annual city surveys by agencies. What we need to look into deeply is at whose cost are we living, which many of us may assume to be a simple question. The car buyer is doing so at the cost of her bank balance, the alcoholic is drinking at the cost of his health and short-tempered people continue to get angry at the cost of their public relations. Many more examples can follow, all suggesting the personal costs.

Beyond living at the cost of ourselves, we also live at the cost of the society. The sleeper class train ticket recovers only half the expenditure from the traveller. The actual investment on power and water is not charged to users. Subsidies have dominated farming sector, to help the poor farmers who cannot pay actual costs.

Ecological damage

The savings achieved by the salaried and many self-employed people happens at the cost of the informal sector, who are made to take home meagre money for the same number of working hours as everyone else, a social disease we are perpetuating.

Beyond these two, living at the cost of ourselves and cost of society, there is one more happening increasingly nowadays. We are living at the cost of ecology, hence at the cost of human civilisation itself.

A high carbon footprint flight across the continent, stay in an energy guzzling luxury hotel and day-long conference in lavishly furnished air-conditioned banquets directly boosts greenhouse gas emissions, even if the theme could be on sustainability.

One family weekend spent in a hill resort eating in the fine-dine restaurant with cuisine from across the continents happens at the cost of earth resources, even if we have the money to pay the bills. Such cases are aplenty.

Are we not aware of all this, our direct contribution to climate change? Of course we are, yet we find it difficult not to do what we should not be doing. The challenge ahead of us is not living the way we do because we can pay the costs, but living without costing the Earth.

The Flowering Roof

Grow a garden or a lawn on your terrace to beat the heat, but do not neglect maintenance issues.

22bgpgreensenseGJE1KCLVU3jpgjpgWith the summer temperatures soaring high, everyone dreams of cooler homes. Air conditioners could be a solution, but we now know that they are not a solution, but a villain.

For innumerable reasons like the way they transfer indoor heat to outside increasing city temperatures, dilute our biological capacity to live with seasons, health problems due to moving across high and low temperatures, artificiality of air, poor indoor air quality, power consumption, electricity bills and such others, AC has proven to be anti-environment and anti-health.

Given this, there has been increased search for simple and natural solutions. One among them is a green roof, not growing vegetables in trays, but having greenery all over. Imagine a roof where we see no concrete, but only grass! It increases thermal mass, delays surface run-off and works with minimal maintenance.

An intensive green roof needs to be structurally designed for load, or if we plan to grow on the existing roof, a qualified engineer can assess its feasibility. In case roots attempt to penetrate the concrete, a root barrier layer of High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) or any other suited sheet can be laid, though the best is to ensure that shallow rooted plant material are chosen. Additionally, HDPE also ensures water proofing.

Above the root barrier, a drainage layer is needed with half-inch of gravel and a layer of sand above it. To ensure the mud does not slip into this layer but only excess rain water does, we can use the costlier but more long lasting geothermal fabrics or simply save money by using shade nets. They let water down but not the soil. Finally, we need red soil, manure media or mud mixed with perlite, vermiculite or coco peat. While all these are suited for plant growth, the decision may depend upon possible roof load, maintenance issues or available water.

Typically, the soil layer can be 4 to 8 inches thick based on plants’ type. Parapet wall height may have to be adjusted to take the terrace garden and multiple drain holes will be needed compared to what we normally provide. Drip irrigation can be implemented in case of large roof areas.

While lawn would be the choice of most people, it demands much water and maintenance, besides many turf varieties not being suited on the terrace. In case of good sunlight, Bermuda, Doob or Korean grass may work, if not St. Augustine may have to be preferred. If the terrace has occasional use, hardy creepers like Rangoon creeper can enliven the surface with its seasonal flowers. With good drainage, ground hugging shrubbery and small water succulent plants can also be considered, which may be easier for de-weeding.

Tray-based roof garden is more popular considering the variety of vegetables one can grow and manage rain water harvesting as well. However, everyone cannot spare time to that end, but everyone can enjoy a lawn or a creeper bed on the terrace.

Crisis, and awareness

Nations worldwide have been trying to understand and contain environmental problems.

crisis_aheadMany of us have been hearing about environmental issues for over a decade now, yet are much behind the west in realising how bleak our future can be.

It is important to be aware of the deliberations that took place before this millennium, and about the crisis looming large on us, which may impart greater seriousness among us.

There is a curious decadal connection between the book Silent Spring published in 1962, the Stockholm Conference of 1972, forming the Brundtland Committee in 1983 and the pivotal event of the Earth Summit of 1992 at Rio de Janeiro, by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).

Pivotal

Though the preceding years had witnessed many initiatives, the Earth Summit with Climate Convention discussing reduction in carbon emissions; Rio Declaration with 27 principles to be implemented worldwide; Agenda 21 as a lengthy report containing framework of actions for 21st century; technology transfer from the affluent northern to poorer southern nations and such others proved to be a pivotal event.

Turning point

UNCED became a turning point with more than hundred heads of government converging at one place, though it was also felt to be ambitious, bureaucratic and had many jargons. Though it was very participatory with large NGO representations, the attitudinal division between North and South got amplified here.

Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, changing political scenarios and lack of commitments to assurances made, not much was achieved on field due to UNCED.

Incidentally, members of the 1972 book ‘Limits to growth’ had published a sequel ‘Beyond the Limits’ just before UNCED, where they realised consumption patterns were happening much earlier than they had predicted.

In the meanwhile the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade) became more powerful to the disillusionment of environmental activists, for both of them encouraged free trade capital, competitive industries, production and consumption based not on locality but on pricing comparison across the world.

Virtually, all this were to increase consumerist attitudes and business would override ecological concerns.

The birth of eco-awareness

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis, and mitigative measures are being taken since then.

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It is heartening to know that India is among the leading nations today where much discussion happens around the environmental crisis we are facing. However, we were not among the early thought leaders, at least not until the 90s. The two decades, viz., 60s and 70s, produced many books and scientific reports in the west, so much so that the phrase ‘sustainable development’ first appeared in a public document in 1980 by the World Conservation Strategy.

It was then defined as ‘the integration of conservation and development to ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of all people.’

Though highlighting environmental issues was not welcomed by all, it paved the way for setting up of World Commission on the Environment and Development (WCED), chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1983. Its epoch making report of 1987, popularly called as Brundtland Report, defined sustainability as ‘development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’, a line most often quoted since then. Incidentally, one of the authors of the report, Nitin Desai, is an Indian.

Valid observations

Many observations of the report are true even today, like endemic poverty is prone to ecological catastrophes; equity is important, hence the poor should get their fair share of resources; the affluent need to adopt lifestyles within the planet’s ecological means; painful choices have to be made; sustainable development must rest on political will and such others.

During the 80s, environmental issues had a low profile, despite books like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful or the 1972 Stockholm U.N. conference which preceded the decade.

Also, the cold war between U.S. and USSR nearly ended, proliferating a certain kind of western lifestyle worldwide, creating environmental concerns.

Rapid improvements in technology and connectivity across nations meant increased consumption and waste generation.

 Paradoxically, interest rates on international borrowings rose sharply, plummeting many nations into deeper debt, letting the west-controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) step in with structural adjustments.

This encouraged privatisation, reduced budget for social causes, opening the markets to imports and many such others further leading to resource consumption.

Fortunately, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 made it mandatory on nations to reduce major ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons; the 1990 report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned against the rise of global average temperature 1.5 to 4.5 degree C above pre-industrial levels and the need for 60% reduction in carbon emissions from the then levels to stabilise the climate.

Obligation

However, many developing nations including India, felt environmental protection is an obligation for the rich, who have been undervaluing and overexploiting resources.

It was in the 90s that the world at large realised the climate crisis and the awareness is continuing since then. Today of course, nearly everyone accepts that human action is causing climate action, which should make us think.

In harmony with nature

In a corrective action against mindless material consumption, a group of individuals have formed a community where urban presures are resisted and eco-friendly materials are used. 

01bgp-greensensGRO1H2PVN3jpgjpgImagine we are caught up in a traffic jam, with time running out for a scheduled meeting. The first thing most of us would do is to criticise everything and everyone around us, with the choicest of words.

A little thinking would tell us that we too are the reason for the jam, for our vehicle is adding one more number to the vehicle count around. After all, lesser the vehicles lesser the jam and finally as stranded vehicles are reduced, the traffic hold up would also get dissolved. So, we are part of the problem, hence theoretically, we can also be part of the solution. But in reality, can we solve the traffic jam if we are caught up in it?

There are many such contexts where everyone of us makes up the problem, but no one of us alone can solve it. The climate crisis we are going through belongs to such a category of problem where no individual can resolve it however aware or powerful the person may be. This is not to negate the possibility of an eco-friendly lifestyle at individual level and the impact it may have on global level if everyone were to live so. The question is, will the peer pressures, societal compulsions and the imperatives of living today permit all of us the courage towards living such an eco-friendly lifestyle?

The corrective action towards our consumptive patterns will have to begin with the individual, but we equally well need to graduate from the individual to the collective and from the personal to public. To that end, we need to shed our subjective opinions, differences in ideas and selfish objectives to come together.

A success story

The Marudam community evolving in Kananthampoondi village on the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai can be cited as a successful case in point. Comparatively it is a young group, started as recently as 8 years ago, with Govinda doing afforestation; Arun, Poornima, Lila and others with farm school; architect Ajay Nityananda designing the much acclaimed school building and few of the houses; Maitreyi starting Wild Ideas for chemical-free products and few others with more initiatives.

Such group efforts do not start claiming to reverse climate change, but simply aim at living harmoniously with nature, practise organic farming, minimise needs, resist the urban pressures and create a culture of being sensitive to our contexts.

Active engagement

The active engagement of about two dozens of people informs and impacts hundreds of people living in the vicinity, making a difference to them all. The Marudam Farm School, where education goes beyond the curriculum, would result in ripple effects for the visible outreach activities.

In any case, to be effective, such groups cannot be large where the group dynamics would create fissures between the participants. Many small communities can together achieve more than what a single large one can, but our modern age appears to worship the large, a paradox that we need to think about.

RECHARGING THE BOREWELL

When we recklessly draw water from below the ground, which has limited catchment sources, how can it be compensated? A look into the crucial issue.

 28bgp-greensensg8m169ng9-3-jpgThis essay is a tribute to one man who early in 1980s foresaw the water crisis and took it upon himself to research the traditional water knowledge systems embedded in the dry State of Rajasthan. It had open wells, irrigation ponds and underground ‘tankas’ which survived on the scanty rains, and he felt if that traditional wisdom were to survive, the settlements too would survive.

 

Anupam Mishra is no more with us; a fact majority of Indians may not care about. When Ramachandra Guha wrote in his tribute to Anupam Mishra that he was among the top five environmental activists of India but was among the least known even among environmentalists, he was very right. The least we can do to remember him is to apply traditional wisdom, wisdoms of the kind Anupam Mishra documented. If we draw water from a source, we should help returning water to it. We cannot reverse all the harm we have done, but we can at least reduce the impact of our harmful acts.

A case in point could be about borewells. All water bodies depend upon catchments and being in the open, get water from direct rain, surface run-off and top soil water retention.

Even if we do not help the water body, the water we have drawn from it returns to it. However, when we recklessly draw water from the underground, which has limited catchment sources, how can it regain the water?

Borewells are drying up the aquifers deep down, resulting in hundreds of dried-up borewells around us. We can let water into them during the rainy season, by directing the surface flow and roof water collected, after appropriate filtering process.

In the direct recharge method, an open well of manageable size, say up to 10 feet deep and diameter, is dug around the casing pipe.

The pipe itself is perforated with a drill machine and the holes are covered by a net, to let water in but not the dirt. The well is now filled with filtering media like sand, gravel, crushed stone, jelly and such others.

When the water is diverted into this well, it gets filtered and seeps into the casing pipe, refilling the bore well.

Indirect method

In the indirect method of recharging, the well is not dug around the casing pipe, but away within 20 feet radius. This well too is filled with filters and has water flow directed in to it, while the casing pipe will have holes covered by netlon. In this case, water flows through the ground, reaches the pipe and seeps in.

It is not preferred to let unfiltered water into the ground, for the contamination found in the surface water will spread into the ground water.

While recharging is most advisable to dry and drying up well with reducing yield, even a running borewell can have recharging in case of surplus surface water which otherwise goes to drains.

With ground water level going down rapidly, there is an urgent need to revive them.

Some respite for environment?

Demonetisation has some positives too. 

Everyone is talking money – demonetisation, political agenda, cash crunch, hoarding new currency, impacts on daily life, IT raids, eradicating black money and hoping for a white future. Rich and poor people alike are finding the daily needs hard to come by with little money in hand, irrespective of how much they have in bank balance or in old currency.

We all know there is less money in market; hence business is not as usual.

While so much has been spoken and written about the impact of demonetisation on varied facets of life, hardly anyone has touched upon its impact on ecology and resources. It is strange but true that cash crunch is beneficial to nature.

On a few fronts, the present cash crunch is comparable to the economic recession of the recent past, faced mainly in the west, with some implications for India too.

 People faced reducing income, challenge of loan repayments, increased unsold inventories, money getting blocked and financial uncertainties looming large. Between all the social tension it created, one of the benefits was reduced consumption, hence earth resources saved, energy used efficiently and wastage reduced. On a similar note, the recent demonetisation in the country has impacted larger issues of ecology positively. With no ready cash to spend, people have been buying and spending less, of course impacting on everything from tourism to rituals. Incidentally, lesser business does not necessarily mean shops and restaurants are facing losses. They earn less, in turn spend less hoping to extend the new currency they got for as long as they can. Of course, many people living on daily wages are suffering, for they are already living on minimum daily income and cannot manage with further reduced cash inflow. Money and materialistic lifestyle are directly proportional, where our lifestyle demands that we earn more money. In turn, income meets the expenditure, increasing production. People earning well may appear to have larger sums with them compared to the rest with lower incomes, but their monthly savings in percentage figure could be often comparable. This suggests that higher income group spends more, while those with lower income spend less, each spending proportional to their income categories.

 

A paradox

As such, it is a paradox where money and market fuel each other, which together increase the consumption patterns. We know that increased consumption is good for economy, but ecologically it is disastrous, irrespective of whether the consumption is for our present needs, future savings or mere personal greed. The rich may have the financial affordability to spend, but our fragile Earth cannot afford to take anymore of our wasteful life. So, if the present crisis due to demonetisation has reduced our shopping, travelling, holidaying, partying, conferencing, manufacturing, in general spending, it has reduced the consumption of resources. It could be temporary, until the money flow restores again; yet it is beneficial to nature. Can we ensure this benefit lasts long enough to save the climate?

The comfort zone

The verandah is the only place in a building where all design factors blend.

verandah-pp_gsfgsa14b100-3-jpgLet us try imagining a magnificent monument. Among the obvious choices are buildings with lofty columns supporting a majestic high roof with a deep set-in space, may be with some dignitaries waving at us. If we are walking in a poor village, surprisingly, there too we find hutments with pillars supporting a thatch roof, with a shaded space beneath, may be with a child playing there.

From palaces to huts, verandahs have been omnipresent around the world.

The spaces between two major activity spaces are important in good architecture, verandah being one of them connecting the inside and the outside. They complement the two, automatically becoming multifunctional spaces serving varied purposes. However, their significance goes beyond architecture, in them being possibly the only place in a building where all design factors blend – social, cultural, spatial, functional, cost effective and of course, climatic considerations.

In our region, a south facing room with verandah is best suited to get wind and light, even while avoiding glare and direct rain. East facing verandah creates one of the best sense of entry with morning sunrays peeing through the columns. One can enjoy the setting sun in the west, doing any odd job there, with sun going low without unpleasant heat. Finally, with neither direct rain nor hot sun from the north, verandahs there are open for any idea from active to passive use.

If the interiors need to be inevitably air conditioned, verandahs can act like a buffer between inside and outside. While the human body is made to live both in open and enclosed spaces, ideally it cannot take sudden variations in temperatures, light intensities and humidity. A smoother transition from open to enclosed via a semi-open space is a comforting factor for us, which only a verandah can provide.

Disappearing

 Despite these accolades, why are verandahs vanishing? Architects feel they predetermine the elevation; owners say they may not use this space, mostly living indoors; developers find it difficult to fit them in multi-storey buildings; they are kept empty with no objects due to security worries; and those with low budget, of course, simply avoid it. Incidentally, most of these apprehensions can be resolved.

As we learnt how to control climate, using electrical and mechanical means, the passive ideas like verandahs got ignored. We could control climate, which is now revengefully hitting us back with climate change.

Unfortunately, instead of retreating from our high energy consuming lifestyle and regretfully accepting our mistakes in controlling climate, we continue to be defensive, trying to find ways of mitigating climate change.

We need not prove that humans are mightier than nature, even if such impossibility were to be true.

Alternatively, we can try proving how humans can live with nature. Returning to verandahs could be a minuscule example of such ideology, where the rays of hope for a safer future may begin.