Sunday, April 24, 2011

To save nature – with no nature

My latest posting was about that local food production is not always the best, and now this one is about that sometimes use of non-renewable resources can "save" on renewable resources. And before that I spoke for more nuances in how we look upon meat production. Am I leaving the environmentalist camp? Well, I am not so keen on being in any "camp" at all, but I certainly prefer the environmentalist camp over the other.  Having said that, I think it is best for us that we have a nuanced view of reality. The dogmas make it harder to find solutions.

The use of non-renewable resources has followed man since she became man, first in the form of stone for tools. There has been a dramatic shift of our production and consumption away from renewable sources to non-renewable sources, fossil fuel and minerals lately. By and large, this is a negative development as these resources, by definition, are not renewable, and will sooner or later run out. Sometimes the use of a mineral can lead to a substantially eased pressure on a renewable resource, however. One such example is the production of potash. Potash is a raw material used from the dawn of history in bleaching textiles, making glass, and in making soap. It is today also the basis for potash fertilizers and various food additives. In the 19th century, it became an important export product for countries like Canada and Sweden. Forest was cut down and put into big heaps and burnt, just to be able to extract the ash, which was the raw material for potash. Large tracts of forest were cut down in order to produce potash. The relationship was 1:1000, i.e. thousand ton of wood was needed to produce one ton of potash. As early as 1767, potash from wood ashes was exported from Canada, and exports of potash and pearl ash (potash and lime) reached 43,958 barrels in 1865. The industry declined in the late 19th century when large-scale production of potash from mineral salts was established in Germany (Ostlund 2009, Wikipedia 2011a). The example of potash shows how a wasteful use of natural, renewable resources could be replaced by a rather harmless use of mineral, non-renewable resources. There is also a movement between different materials. Asphalt is used instead of cobble stone, concrete instead of wood or stone, iron replace bronze and so forth. Substitution of raw materials is an ongoing process and human ingenuity is great if the price is high enough. This is however mainly true for minerals and other raw materials, but not to a very large extent for ecosystem services. Our ability to substitute for ecosystem services is very small, both because they are so complex and hardly visible and even more because they are for free – there are simply no incentives to “save” on them. 

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