Sustainability in the Third World

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I took part in a recent conversation about how to make more people aware of sustainability and renewable energy in Zambia. This is one of the more challenging and though provoking discussions I’ve had for a while as the culture is so different from the Northern European culture I’m used to.

The main thing that came across was that the systems, materials and processes that we use in the first world will not necessarily work in developing countries for several reasons. One of the most important is that 90-95% of the population live a very rural existence and could not hope to afford to use lots of energy anyway. This also means that they will never afford solar panels and quite frankly could teach us a thing or two about how to use energy and resources wisely. Those that can afford to will tend to use the more reliable sources such as generators as they are easy to fix and parts are available.

We also discussed how best to use earth in construction globally, to improve sustainability. Earth is a fantastic building materials for lots of reasons. It keeps buildings very cool in the summer, it has enormous thermal mass, it is very cheap and abundant and earth construction has very low embodied energy.

Some thought that hi-tech inclusion and mixing of soils was the best way to get more earth used in construction. Others thought that going back to using traditional methods would be best. However, I don’t think that there is one method that will suit all cultures and all markets.

In the developed world we have infrastructure, industry and industrialised processes, methods of assessment and also a housing market where people will pay lots of money for housing. This set of conditions could cope with producing a standardised product of blended soils from various locations. It can also cope with high tech methods of construction or prefabrication.

In less developed countries where the situation is different, educating people to use what materials are abundant may work much better as high tech methods are out of the reach of most people. The growing middle classes could use local materials and processes rather than trying to emulate what we in the developed world have created. This would suit local vernacular architecture much better and prevent these countries from becoming the all consuming behemoths that we have become.

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