By Roy L Hales
Much of the planet does not possess the extensive financial, power, communications and automotive infrastructures that are commonplace in the West. This was a serious handicap throughout the 20th century. But as the planet transitions into new technologies, there are reports of the developing world leapfrogging western technology to lead the way into a more sustainable future.
Developing World Leapfrogging Western Technology
“A hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago we adopted a very centralized model. We adopted this notion that we (should) build great big power plants, massive highway systems and very complex telecommunication networks. We had cables going across oceans, big switching stations and all those kinds of things. To develop those technologies in that way takes a lot of capital. It is very expensive to build a massive hydroelectric dam, or thermo power plant and then all the distribution lines. We did it because we had captured the wealth and decided to do it that way,” says World travelling architectural consultant David Rousseau.
“When I first started going to China, in the mid 90’s, you could not get reliable electricity or a telephone in most parts of the country – not even in highly developed cities like Shanghai and Beijing. They were almost unavailable. The infrastructure, the way we know it, had never been built there. The same thing was true in South Asia, India and Africa.”
Along came the cell phone.
“The Chinese saw fairly quickly that it would be a backward step to start building telephone cable networks and switching stations. There was no need to replicate the kinds of central systems technology that we developed. They went straight to a more distributed solution: cell towers; cellular telephones; phones that were battery operated and could charge anywhere. So in a very short time, the Chinese were able to provide telephone service to anyone who wanted it at a very low cost. They did not have the overhead of this massive infrastructure.”
Cell phones were found throughout China during the 1990s, long before the West.
Transferring Cash by Cell Phone
Instead of banks, most Africans use cell phones to transfer money. You can watch their transactions in village markets throughout the continent.
“When they make a purchase, customers hold up their cell phones …and the purchaser sends the money directly to the venders cell phone. It is direct. It doesn’t necessarily have to go through a (transmission) tower,” says Rousseau.
He added, “People ask, isn’t it risky. Isn’t it possible for people to hack your phone and get into your account and all that sort of thing. So I asked that question when I was in Africa and the fellow I asked replied, ‘it is more reliable than the banking system.'”
Throughout much of Africa and Asia, they are avoiding the expensive electrical infrastructure used in the West.
“Rather than put a generator in to run the village, we’re now saying just put a big photovoltaic array on the roof. If people don’t have the appropriate roofs, maybe you put it on the clinic or the school or some other large building. That is where a lot or rural areas in Africa are right now and it certainly happens in rural China and substantially in India.”
“Supply electricity on a very local level. There is no need for the distribution lines that run long distances or all the transformer stations and all that massive expensive infrastructure. The electrical grid becomes local. It is supplied locally, consumed locally and it doesn’t connect.”
“That is where a lot of rural areas in Africa are right now and it certainly happens in rural China and substantially in India.”
Raised Our Expectations
Electricity is much more abundant in the West.
“We have raised our expectations, especially in the postwar period, to where every house is loaded with electrical appliances, electrical gadgets and the electricity is very reliable and has been very cheap. It has been government policy, especially in places like British Columbia, to have very cheap electricity up until quite recently. That was put in place to stimulate economic development. Cheap electricity was one of the (political) platforms, from the 40’s and 50’s, of economic development in this part of the world.
“The outcome of that is we now have the expectation that energy will be very cheap. When the rates go up, probably to I would argue a more realistic level, people squawk.”
“The fact is that raising the rates is only one part of the answer. It certainly wakes people up to the quantities of energy we are using. But, clearly, massive steps in conservation have to be brought into play as well.
“The way we have been using electricity on the West Coast here for heating, for three generations, is really thermodynamic lunacy. We take electricity, this very profoundly valuable resource that can do all kinds of amazing things and stick it in a wire to heat our house. That’s only something with people with too much to burn would do.”
“If you take that electricity and run a heat pump, for example, you have two and a half to three times the heat output from the same watt as if it was just going into an electric baseboard heater. And heat pumps can be used to heat hot water as well. They extract heat from the exhaust heat to your house and they feed it back in to keep your hot water tank hot.”
The West Still Thinks In Terms Of Massive Energy Projects
However much of the West still thinks in terms of massive energy projects.
British Columbia, for example, is embarking on what Rousseau terms one of the most massive mistakes that has been dreamed up in a very long time: the Site C Dam.
“It has been shown to be unnecessary, ridiculously overpriced, a massive violation of native land rights, and a massive loss of farmland. It is hard to imagine what isn’t wrong with it. So that is where we are stuck (in the West), on this notion of big centralized utility supply,” he said.
“What we can learn, from the leapfrogging that has happened in the developing world, is that we can now turn around and say every house, neighbourhood and school can become a generating plant. We can put up wind farms in key locations where the wind power is reliable. We’ve made some small forays into tidal power. Let’s make use of that grid that we have by putting in widely distributed small power sources and feeding that into the grid.”
Danger in the Developing World
The developing world faces an entirely different challenge. In the race to modernize, Asian nations sometimes risk losing the progress they have already made.
“I was very fascinated by traditions in China, but modern development was going in a completely different direction. Could I go to China and reflect back some traditions that are very old and try to bring them into current times,” says Rouseau.
The dike/pond farming system, developed in China 1,500 to 2,000 is the world’s most advanced and perfected system of nutrient recapture.
“It requires water. There are ponds built, dugout ponds and of course the soil that is dug out of the ponds is used on the fields. Then there are fish and ducks raised in the ponds, the key animal species. Often there will be chickens, pigs or whatever else is on land. What happens is that certain parts of the agricultural waste from the farm, like the straw from threshing and unusable food materials, are thrown into the pond. The fish and the ducks eat them and keep the water clean. If there is runoff from the pig run, it goes into the pond. (This) grows vegetation, because it is full of nitrogen and other nutrients, and the ducks and fish eat the vegetation.”
One area where China and India were leading the world, until they chose to follow what is becoming a largely abortive Western model, is transportation.
Many progressive European and North American cities are discarding the automobile culture in favour of a system that also encourages walking, bicycles and mass transit.
This was an area where Asia was ahead of us. Bicycles, rickshaws and wheeled carts were electrified a long time ago.
Only these nations still think of this as a lesser form of transportation.
“In the developing world the notion that a family can afford an automobile is a brand new idea. In China it is happening in a big way and done horrible things to the urban situation. India, unfortunately, is making a swing in that direction as well, ” says Rousseau.
“Beijing used to be a very wonderful, liveable city. A city where you could walk; the public transportation was very good. Beijing is unliveable right now. It is completely clogged by traffic. The air pollution is some the worst in the world. And it is simply because of policy decisions that were made to start building for the private automobile.”