An old namesake of mine, environmental area manager expert, was working with me in an innovation project related to environmental life cycle of products. I must recognize that I always thought that was an excellent professional and person. I was funding that project, looking for partners and signing agreements with other organizations. His department provided the required expertise on environmental engineering and both represented our company at the project meetings of the managing committees with other partners.
The concept of Life Cycle Assessment is a technique that establishes the environmental impacts of a product during all time. This is a very important matter, and I think that I can show a simple example: Imagine that the Spanish government wants to analyze the effect on the environment of its navy. Of course, there is a need of extracting iron from mines, having facilities with high energy consumption and/or CO2 emissions in order to get steel, additional manufacturing facilities and shipyards to provide the ships. At a second phase the ships will be consuming a lot of fuel and finally (after his period of use) they will be turned into junk.
We can think that those activities have a more extreme effect on the environment than in previous ages. But, what does environmental impact mean? Environment can be defined as the natural world, where people, animals and plants live. When we are analyzing the environmental impact of any engineering project we must to analyze the extension in the space and time of that action. If we go back several centuries towards the epoch of Philip the Second, perhaps we can understand how technology can be an allied of the environment, and not necessarily its enemy.
The Roman name of Spain, Hispania, means “land of rabbits”, the ancient Greeks said that a squirrel could cross the Iberian peninsula jumping from a tree to another one, however, today Castile has not a lot of forests, mainly due to the construction of the navy by the government of Philip the Second in order to conquest America and the Invincible Navy to conquest the British Islands. The effect of the construction of an army during the kingdom of Philip the Second was more hazardous for the environment than any actual construction, because, today, five hundreds years later we can see the effects.
I am as sure that the government of Philip the Second did not have to face a lot of ecologists, as they did know nothing about environmental engineering. Many environmentalists can think, as Jorge Manrique, the Spanish poet, that “any past time was better”, but it is not necessarily true.
Modern technology can have a more drastic effect on the environment, but modern engineering can have a more local effect and this effect can be controlled through the environmental engineering techniques as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Of course, we must understand how this local effect repeated all over the world can have a global effect as the global warming effect, but this is not perfectly understood enough as there are different opinions about it at the scientific community.
When we are talking about energy, for instance, some politicians use the term of “clean energy” for solar or wind energy, but this concept is not based on a LCA analysis. Solar and Wind generators, as the ships of the navy, must be manufactured and finally turned into junk. There is not any clean energy, because any technology requires an action of the man on the environment and this action has an effect. An LCA analysis can help us to compare different options.
To think that the Spanish government during the Golden Age was friendlier for the Spanish environment than nowadays, when the governments must follow a lot of European directives to preserve the environment can be only a bad reading of history by a Saloon Ecologist. The only thing that we can affirm is that environmental preservation, today, is subject to a very complex regulation that can have unexpected effects not only on the environment, but on the economy.