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Using Sustainable Altruism and Renewable Biomass Can Foster Increased Living Standards and Poverty Reduction

Introduction

Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. are both iconic Americans. Theodore Roosevelt, or TR, as he was often called, was a committed progressive and felt that the rise of industrial capitalism had rendered limited government obsolete (TR, Progressive Crusader). TR was also the first US president to be an avid environmentalist and is widely credited with initiating and implementing conservation efforts creating a movement which grew over time into what is known today as the practice of sustainability. Dr. King, who is widely known as MLK, was quoted as saying, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness (MLK Quotes).” Some have interpreted this term in a moral framework (Creative Altruism), but it could be argued that it is pragmatic to perform “altruistic investing” of resources, etc. to those that need them most as well as to society as a whole as the ultimate aim is the betterment of all. 

Combining TR’s ethos of conservation that morphed into sustainability with MLK’s philosophy of creative altruism evolves into the concept of Sustainable Altruism.    

There is a catch with creative altruism in that the resources that are part and parcel with the altruistic actions cannot be infinite which hinders and ultimately stops altruistic initiatives.

Sustainable Altruism

There is a need to ensure that altruism is sustainable. The goal or endgame for altruistic efforts is a scenario which should alleviate the need for further philanthropic actions in a specific situation. If there is no endgame, the benevolent efforts may exhaust resources, both in material and in human capital. An analogous example is found in the medical profession in that the best doctors are the ones that keep their patients out of the hospital or, if a patient is hospitalized, they are discharged and functionally on their own in the shortest, medically-feasible time and with the lowest level of medication.

There are different perspectives on the term, “sustainable altruism”. For example, some have noted that altruism must have an element of “selfishness” (Sustainable Altruism, Louis Vutton) to be sustainable. Others have also commented on the need for altruism

to be sustainable (A. Chattopadhyay, Capitalism: Making Altruism Sustainable). This conjecture can be reframed in pragmatic terms from a lesson bequeathed in the timeless Aesop Fable of the Golden Goose (Golden Goose). In the fable, a farmer’s greed compels him to kill a goose that lays golden eggs so that he can get his gold faster by taking the eggs out of the goose. When he inspects the deceased fowl, there are no golden eggs and no more to be had.

A 21st Century interpretation of the Golden Goose morality tale is captured in a cartoon. It is noteworthy that the farmer from the fable and the corporate raiders in the cartoon are motivated by greed while authentic sponsors of beneficent projects are presumably inspired by altruism.

Resources, whether material or human capital, are our “golden eggs”. With technology, we can make renewable resources which become “renewable golden eggs” instead of pillaging “old economy resources” and ultimately eviscerating a Golden Goose.

Altruistic initiatives must, in and of themselves, be sustainable. In a nutshell, if altruism is not sustainable, the Golden Goose will expire.

Initiatives which are altruistic and non-sustainable put the success of an enterprise at risk as well as the long-term optimism, commitment, effort, and esprit de corps of both the giver and the receiver.

How Renewable Initiatives Engender Sustainable Altruism

In an ideal situation, a renewables initiative is beneficent to both the environment and society. Societal functionality is further enhanced if wealth can be re-distributed by conveying resources or resource cost savings to members of society that are most in need and to society in general. Is this wishful dreaming? It is quite the opposite. It is the fusion of the thinking of TR and MLK using renewable resources and creative altruism to empower and boost all elements of society, particularly those who are most acutely impacted by the cost of resources.

A real-world example will help illustrate the preceding points. The information is extracted from a project in the US where the author is providing input on development, design, and implementation strategy. The project is ensconced near a city with a population of about 250,000. The goal of the project is to modify existing wastewater treatment systems to lower operating costs and create commercially-valuable products such as energy, fertilizer, and recycled water. The long-term plan is to implement the technology in two or three phases to reduce operating costs and maximize renewable product production. There are projected cost savings and revenue generating opportunities in several categories:

  • Wastewater Sludge Disposal – A projected annual costs savings of around $2.5 million
  • Energy Production by Converting Biogas into CNG (compressed natural gas) - A projected 1,250 MM BTUs of biogas which is green energy can be converted into the equivalent of about 11,500 gallons of gasoline per day. The annual value at a price of $2.50 per gallon is $10.5 million.  
  • Fertilizer Production - Projected production of about 11,000 gallons per day of green, organic fertilizer (10-5-1), pathogen free valued at $2/gallon with an annual value on the order of $8 million. 
  • Capital Expenditures Avoidance - A planned capital expansion to increase treatment capacity by 6 MGD (million gallons per day) which can now be avoided. This number is determined using an “all in” construction estimate metric of $6/gall for wastewater treatment (Wastewater Treatment Construction Estimates). This results in a projected cost avoidance on the order of $36 million.

Summing up these savings and revenue projection figures over a 5-year period results in a total value of $141 million for a city with a population of 250,000.

In this example, the value is almost equal to 1 year of total fiscal appropriations for the municipality. There are several ways that these “found” fiscal resources can be re-distributed for poverty reduction, increased living standards, and addressing agenda items that are crucial for the societal functionality of the citizenry. Implementation of programs with sustainable altruism features that are facilitated using technology are likely be best effectuated using PPP contracting vehicles (Public-Private Partnerships, Public-Private Partnerships). One needs to be mindful that private entity that is sharing much of the risk is entitled to a fair profit. This is not greed capitalism, but rather smart capitalism fused with smart altruism, or as MLK noted, “creative altruism”. Others have opined the importance of ensuring that such efforts need to be sustainable (A. Chattopadhyay, Capitalism: Making Altruism Sustainable), particularly those projects which are green for the participants and green for the environment.

Many a renewable project either failed to gestate or started only to stop because the project economics were heavily based on elusive subsidies. Subsidies need to be viewed as “gravy” and distributed to project participants when and IF they are realized.

Getting compensated for improving systems for the betterment of the environment can be challenging while sharing in something that is more tangible such as cost-savings is preferable, particularly as these considerations apply to obtaining project financing.

The Significance of Biomass as a Feedstock

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. produces almost 1 trillion tons of renewable biomass every year (Union of Concerned Scientists, September, 2012) . This amount of biomass can produce enough energy to meet the current U.S. demand. Biomass can also be used to make fertilizers and water. Human communities generate copious amounts of biomass used to make fertilizers and water. Much biomass

is collected and conveyed as wastewater or solid waste streams. Insofar as wastewater is concerned, the US has trillions of dollars of existing facilities that can be modified to enhance biomass conversion rates and, with appropriate engineering, produce renewable energy, water, and fertilizer.

Because of dwindling resources, increased competition, and glaring challenges with environmental stewardship, it is crucial to deploy technologies that generate renewable resources without resource interlinkages.

Using biomass for renewable projects enables one to make energy, water, and fertilizers from one feedstock without any linkage to resources that are external to that feedstock. It is vital that the generation of these renewables be generated, with the goal to eliminate, the interdependence or interlinkage of one resource for making another.

This goal is particularly crucial given that conventional resources are finite and society has a prodigiously larger appetite for a rapidly dwindling “old economy” cadre of energy, water, and fertilizer resources (McKinsey, The Resource RevolutionOther Inconvenient Truths). Biomass not only provides us with energy, water, and fertilizer but does so without having to utilize extraneous resources that create an interlinkage. For example, many energy generation systems require large amounts of water and the generation of energy in these situations requires the commitment of water resources that could be re-purposed for other uses. Biomass in general does not have this challenge.

Summary

Renewable projects using biomass are attractive vehicles for creating deployable value throughout the matrix of societal functionality while enhancing environmental and economic sustainability. Technologies associated with these projects can leverage vast resources of installed capital that permeate municipal and industrial landscapes in the US and the world in general. These efforts enable society to re-invest the value associated with increased efficiencies by using resources that are now unencumbered or that are now less costly. Benefits can be conveyed to members of society that are most in need and to society in general. These initiatives also can catalyze poverty reduction as well as increase living standards across the board. By embracing an avant-gardevision that our environmental control facilities can be re-invented to become resource manufacturing installations and not just pollution abatement systems, we actuate the potential for quantum improvements in living conditions that resonate throughout all strata of our civilization.     

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