I usually wake up in the morning and I switch on the kettle to make myself a cup of tea. That’s when I start pondering the world around me. Before I get out of being sleepy, sometimes still feeling in an interrupted dream. As I watch the kettle fill up and admire the turbulence in the flow through the glass, I think about the water’s journey.
It has come to us from the tap, the underground pipes, the water treatment plants, the dams. The dams are built structures around which the local ecosystem has had to adapt. The underground pipes are infrastructure that we know are ineffective. Water loss is considered inevitable and can reach up to 50% of water “produced” for consumption(*). In fact, there is a concept – non-revenue water, which is a measure of water lost to water “produced”. It strikes me as an odd approach to take for something as fundamental to life was water, but this approach comes from engineering and from the need to create revenue around water to sustain its infrastructure. But really, I think: Water resources are replenished thanks to rain. Rain falls everywhere, not just above the dam. Building dams in catchment areas and piping systems to constructed structures is centralising water and re-distributing it while losing half of it. How is that efficient, since rain falls everywhere? Why do we need to first centralise, then re-distribute? Knowing that 2.5% of all water on the planet is fresh water, and only about 0.3% of all water on earth is available for use for humans, shouldn’t we re-think this system?
Time to close the tap and to switch on the kettle for the cup of tea that will get me going for the day.
While the water is getting hot, I notice a beautiful archipelago of light on the counter and I smile. This mini galaxy comes from the reflection of a mirror-mosaic that I’ve strategically placed near the window and that projects lights onto the ceiling, which then are reflected on the counter. As I admire it, I imagine the light rays coming from the sun, hitting the atmosphere of our small planet after speeding through space for 8 minutes. As it touches the atmosphere, the red light goes straighter through than the blue, which scatters and gives the sky its blue colour, and finally those rays of light come through the window of my humble kitchen where its path is slightly broken by the glass, before hitting the aluminium-coated bits of glass in the mirror mosaic, and hit the roof above my head and bringing a smile to my face. Yes, the atmosphere acts as a prism with a progressive edge, gently scattering the colours at different angles, making the sky look blue to us because blue is scattered in all directions. In fact, the blue is scattered so much, that some of it goes straight back into space, giving the planet its blue hue. The blue planet. Or, from further away, the pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan famously described.
“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”Carl Sagan
So while the blue light leads us to consider our place in the vast universe, the red comes through the atmosphere on a less scattered path and gets absorbed by plants for photosynthesis – the first great renewable energy engine nature came up with – the green we see green being what’s scattered back to our eyes after red is absorbed, locking in carbon from CO2, releasing Oxygen in the process.
What a journey! There really are little bits of magic everywhere.
The water in the kettle is getting hot. I can’t see well through the water now, because the heat creates convection in the water. Heat is energy given to the trillions of water molecules bouncing around and bumping against each other, exchanging minute bits of energy in a seemingly random motion, called the Brownian motion. The power that my kettle consumes comes mainly from coal. But how? Well; coal is burnt, the heat generated is typically used to boil water, the pressure of the steam is converted into a mechanical movement, which, using magnets, is turned into electric current, which is then sent out to the grid, flows into a resistor in the kettle, which gets hot from the resistance to electric current being passed through it, which boils the water. Back to square one.
Except that the burning of coal releases greenhouse gases. The whole system is not very effective, less than 40% typically. It means that to raise the temperature of my 1/2 litre of water (because we all pour in more than just a cup water in the kettle) by one degree (1/2 kcal), it costs 1 1/4 kcal. So, if my water comes out of the tap at, say, 15 degrees and it boils at 100 degrees, that means that I am using up 85 * 1.25 kcal = 106.25 kcal. We can round this up to 120 kcal to account for some inevitable losses. This is equivalent to burning about 17g of coal, which emits a greenhouse gases, creates ash, contaminates water, all of it far from my kitchen and in someone else’s neighbourhood, in an ecosystem somewhere far from my kitchen. Is that really fair?
The tea bags come wrapped in plastic-lined aluminium bags (“to preserve the aroma”) that will only be used once, for 20 cups of tea. This can’t be right and can’t possibly okay for the environment. Not far from where I live is a municipal dump. This stuff gets buried, for later generations to have to deal with. Yet, I make myself a cup of tea, feeling individually helpless, knowing that I am choosing comfort over the environment, but also because I may not be aware of alternatives or alternatives may not be feasible at an individual level. How many other everyday gestures could be made less harmful with the right systems in place? We need systems because when an individual makes a small difference, it adds up if every individual makes the same small difference and systems allow communities to adopt behaviours. Just like when one individual causes minor harm, if everyone does the same, it adds up to dramatic consequences – like climate change.
But, “Choose your battles”, they say. Others say “Technology will save us”. But how sustainable is it to rely on something that doesn’t yet exist, not even in people’s imagination, to solve a problem that is so real?
I pour the water. From transparent it turns gold, then brown, as molecules giving taste and smell to the water are released from the dried tea leaves in the tea bag by the heat of the water. We all learn that water is blue – but it isn’t, right? It’s transparent. It lets light go through, but some of it gets reflected. And the blue sky, that’s really what gives the water its blue colour. The surface of the water is like a continuous multi-faceted mirror, whose tiny waves give us tiny little bits of reflection of the blue sky and makes the whole ocean look blue, so many different shades of blue, in an infinitely morphing mosaic.
On that blue note, I sigh in happiness to live close to the ocean. I appreciate the priviledge. Watching it is so good for the soul. I could look at the sea changing mood for hours on end. It is never the same, entire landscapes change within minutes. Have you ever looked at the water with polarised sunglasses? Suddenly it doesn’t look blue anymore, you can see what lurks underneath. There’s a cool scientific explanation for that too, but I’ll leave that for another day. My brown tea water is now ready and I feel grateful and content.
I hopefully put the plastics into the recycling bin, and my tea bag in the compost bin. I take a spoon of sugar that comes from vast fields of sugarcane monoculture in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The soil in KZN is incredibly rich and sugarcane is technically a grass so it grows fast and any time of the year, and it drains the soil like any monoculture. But the picture is always bigger than one thinks. Governments balance positives and negatives all the time, based on priority setting, based on ideologies and other beliefs, which in an ideal world they advertise and for which people vote for. When it comes to influencing complex systems, everything is always more complicated than it seems, but I often wish people in general had a better understanding of science and how it helps us understand nature and inform our decisions. Science is not a matter of opinions. It is a method of advancing knowledge and with better knowledge come better decision, I reflect, perhaps optimistically.
Then, I pour a bit of long-life milk into my cup of tea. The milk comes in a carton of cardboard, aluminium and plastic, with an awful single-use plastic pouring device, itself originally sealed with aluminium and plastic. I don’t know why we need these pouring devices. There is a very simple way of cutting a milk carton open so that it pours well. Milk cartons are only recyclable in South Africa since 2018. Better late than never, I sigh, remember the plastic milk bottles that are still used for fresh milk here in South Africa – but maybe they’re easier to recycle than cartons? I don’t know. I make a mental note to try to find out later.
But enough of the packaging. As I pour the incredibly nourishing white liquid into my tea, I think of where it comes from. The cows that produce the milk are made to breed to set their milk-producing organs off. Over a century of selective breeding and industrialisation has been applied to cows. Their udders are massive, their offspring are taken away from them at birth, they are not fed grass because it doesn’t guarantee as much milk. That can’t be a nice life. I used to be a vegetarian because of the industry’s environmental impact. But I am in no position to evaluate the impact – environmental and other – of the jobs losses of those employed in the cattle and crowder animal-based nutrition industries and their dependents if we all suddenly became vegetarian. If I thought that my entire capacity to make a living depended on people’s appetite for meat, I too would rather not be told about climate change. But the reality is that we all contribute to it, however green we try to be. It’s just not an easy question to figure out.
By the time I’m having my cup of tea, I have already set in motion cascades of effects that feel too remote to be in my sphere of influence.
As I eat my breakfast slowly, I look at my phone. I check my social media. Immediately, a query is fired off from an app on my phone to power-hungry data centres, housing millions of computers (housing many copies of the same data) that need to be cooled, and powered, and the cooling of which also needs to be powered, only so that my personalised feed of arbitrary thoughts being broadcast by billions of people gets to me the fastest. Because we know that latency is unacceptable on social media. And there we go again. More power being used – but far away from me – for a convenience that I haven’t even asked for. And it has now become essential to our way of life. I couldn’t work without my email, zoom meetings, etc. But how many emails are unsollicited commercial attempts at selling me something? Estimates vary. But companies are quick to jump to the rescue, using machine learning to train their computers to hide the spam emails from your eyes. The thing is, though, with machine learning, is that it needs training to work well. And lots of training means lots of data and lots of computing power, all of which needs both hardware and electricity, and cooling, and electricity for the cooling. So again, we throw more energy at a problem we created. That doesn’t sound sustainable at all.
From the corner of my eye, I notice one of life’s greatest drama unfold in miniature: A house spider has caught a fly and is wrapping it in its silk for a yummy treat later. It’s a tale of David and Goliath. The fly is much bulkier than the spider, but the spider’s silk has trapped it in its web. Spiders’ silk is said to be stronger than steel (if a steel rod had the same width) and it’s because it’s essentially a spun nanotechnology rope! Nature is so way ahead of us. So this delicate silk, nearly invisible, but so strong, has caught in a deadly grip a much larger animal than the spider. The fly is itself a marvel of nature that actually does a lot of work on what I put in my compost, including the tea leaves I’ve just discarded.
By the time I sit down at my desk, I’ve already gone around the world with a scientific eye several times. From factories to house flies, from agriculture to space. I am aware of the energy I’ve consumed even before I switch my computer on for the day. but not quite of how much, neither of where it comes from, exactly. I have witnessed natural miracles, from small living beings to outer space.
A common saying is that throwing money at a problem isn’t always the solution. I say that throwing energy at a problem isn’t always the solution. Work smarter, they say. I agree.
To conclude this morning routine, I’d like to point out that all the above isn’t just depressing. My scientist eyes see the issues, but also catch the beauty in everything around. I wonder in awe in front of a humble housefly, and I trust nature is smarter than us. And we are not dumb either. In fact, we can and we do think about the big issues and the big problems we’re facing. Whether an energy crisis or a pandemic. And we appreciate both the intricate and the simple beauty of natural things. That’s why I am so grateful for being a curious scientist. I can apply my mind to such things. At home and at work and at everything in between. Bit by bit, small step after small step. It all adds up.
Finally, we probably need to ask what really matters.
We are told to live in the present. If only the present matters should we care?
We are told that we need to think in the long term, but our democracies incentivise at most electoral-cycle thinking.
“Save the planet” sounds like we’re aliens who are here on a mission. We are not – we are the planet.
If we struggle to empathise with fellow humans, how are we to empathise with all forms of life, even those we can’t anthropomorphise, like spiders or flies, or plants, or oceans?
So many questions. So much science to be done. So much to apply humanity to; its cooperative sides I mean. This is how my day starts, and I am already amazed at the beauty of it all.
(*) The linked report talks about Central Europe, where infrastructure is usually considered to be n a good state. Yet worrying levels of water loss occur.
A draft if this post is also published on Medium.com