The ugly beauty of simplicity
Consider Bangladesh. By 2017 something short of 36% of the population was urbanized[i], meaning that for the remaining rural 60%, life is hard, brutal and biomass dependent.
As a result, the length and breadth of Bangladesh is pockmarked with uncountable millions of primitive stoves, like the one in the photo. The enemy.
But for all the drudgery involved in collecting firewood, the enemy is easily made anywhere; for all the bad health effects, the enemy is cost-free, and for all its’ inefficiency, the enemy produces food of an addictive flavor within time constraints and of a consistency that is hard to reproduce…
There is an added irony – in Bangladesh, at a time when a growing population consumes more and more firewood (50% of the forests of Bangladesh have been destroyed in the last 20 year[ii]) and when the government has rolled out a massive solar home system programme in which 4.12 million SHS systems were installed by May 2017[iii], the country also produces enormous amounts of energy-rich organic waste through agriculture and urban and rural food production systems that is wasted.
Bangladesh therefore is not energy poor – it is energy malnourished, energy dysfunctional and energy abused. Recognizing this and the urgent need to change the balance of energy use, the Bangladesh government Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority (SREDA) developed a set of national guidelines on biogas, intended to produce 47 MW of biogas by 2021. But, as with so many other countries, the role of energy in the development of Bangladesh has not been one of support constrained by resources or money, but of the betrayal of potential, particularly the potential of old and new forms of renewable technology and how to structure, deploy and socialize them.
MECS and the Benefits of Biogas
As new ways of thinking about renewable energies and their hybridization and interconnections evolve, cooking, the production of food, the recycling of food and agricultural waste form a critical nexus around which biogas and modern energy cooking services[iv] revolve in countries like Bangladesh. So, it makes perfect sense for researchers and practitioners in the UK to look at what at first glance appear to be separate areas, as co-nourishing and mutually supporting.
As a further layer of complexity, energy saving, energy efficiency and low carbon transitions are not just an end in themselves, they need to be synchronized with enhanced livelihoods and as sources of economic improvement. Bangladesh, for all its social and political issues, experienced 6.3% growth annually over the last decade[v]; agriculture is therefore not just about crop production and impoverished rural livelihoods: “agriculture accounted for 90 percent of the reduction in poverty between 2005 and 2010”. 70% of the population in this densely-populated country and 77% of the workforce live and work in rural areas[vi], making the efficient use of all resources critical to the country’s development. Globally, it is long past time to stop thinking of energy as mere electricity and time to see it for what it can be, a major decentralized source of business and employment through production, maintenance and supply.
In a country where agriculture has become a powerhouse for development, but in which the accompanying problems of waste and environmental degradation have been virtually abandoned, holistic approaches to multiple renewable energy initiatives can make a substantial, multiple impact.
As Mohammed Gofran, a ‘godfather’ of biogas pointed out at a recent national biogas workshop hosted by the government, because of the size of the agricultural and urban waste sectors there is huge and reliable potential for biogas in Bangladesh. Not only that, but biogas production is decentralized and is therefore appropriate in both dense urban and remote rural areas, many of the most problematic waste materials produced can serve as raw materials for biogas, which can therefore act to ‘cleanup’ the environment and reduce illness and disease, the climate is very suitable for biogas production and the labour-saving aspects of the technology can be particularly effective in reducing the drudgery of women.
The Future is Enlightened Green
All energy use is social – into the social we were born and, as researchers, practitioners, activists, businesses and political movements in low carbon transitions, into the social we must return. The time for individual and hybrid technologies envisaged as ends in themselves is gone, and if the necessary global changes are to be made to move humanity into a permanent low carbon transition, we cannot hope to do so without a far more complex understanding of the social intimacy of energy than currently exists.
Agriculture, agricultural production, agricultural waste, food production, food waste, cooking and food, are all joined in a matrix of interconnection that underpins the other sociotechnical matrices we refer to as society. In Bangladesh, the context-dependent, socio-historical development of the country causing it to hurry along a path towards a chimaeric modernity has taken little or no account of the disastrous effects historical development has had on the natural resources on which it depends.
As late as it is, Bangladesh (as every other country on earth must do) is taking stock of the costs of development to date and understanding that those costs have been heavy and unsustainable. In order to move future development onto a more sustainable path, this energy-poor country is unable to simply dismiss energy as a mere input with only a financial price to be paid, and is looking more intensively at how energy supply can be re-thought as an integral component of how a society understands itself – a component we dismiss or treat lightly at our own peril.
[i] Bangladesh: Urbanization from 2007 to 2017, accessed 2/4/19 at https://www.statista.com/statistics/455782/urbanization-in-bangladesh/
[ii] Disappearing Greenery, Dhaka Tribune, 22nd March 2018, accessed 2/4/19 at https://www.dhakatribune.com/magazine/2018/03/22/disappearing-greenery
[iii] The Solar Home System Initiative in Bangladesh, accessed 2/4/19 at https://www.centreforpublicimpact.org/case-study/solar-home-systems-bangladesh/
[v] ‘Bangladesh poll seen as choice between freedom and prosperity’, Financial Times 24/12/18, accessed 2/4/19 at https://www.ft.com/content/f5518b2a-ff7d-11e8-ac00-57a2a826423e
[vi] World Bank (2016) ‘Bangladesh: Growing the Economy through Advances in Agriculture’, accessed 5/12/18 at http://www.worldbank.org/en/results/2016/10/07/bangladesh-growing-economy-through-advances-in-agriculture