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Conference Keynote Address

Malaysia Institute of Chemistry

Natural resources and Environmental Management Conference

Kuching, E Malaysia, 18-20 October 2001


Professor of Agro - Environmental Engineering

www.biogasfarms.com    -  Columbus Ohio, USA




A few years ago I had the honor to listen to a talk by Nobel Laureate, fellow professor at The Ohio State University, Dr. Kenneth Wilson[1], and I was fascinated by his argument that one of the greatest challenges and the reason for the need to develop even more powerful supercomputers [something like 108 increase in computing power; keep in mind, he is talking not about your and my PC, but increase over the computing power of the 5 Supercomputers, one of which is housed in a building of its own on the campus of the Ohio State University] is that millions if not billion more chemical compounds could be formulated than the 10 million chemicals that have been studied so far. 

            As impressed as I was with the clarity and originality of the thinking of this Nobel award recipient physicist, my thoughts jumped instantly to the question: “Who is going to tell Nature how to assimilate these new products into the fragile environment of our planet?”

            I recalled the same dilemma that I had faced two decades earlier when I had the honor of being one of the technical advisers to the commission chaired by the then Col John Glenn, who later was elected senator from the State of Ohio and served in the Senate for several terms.  [John Glenn was the first Man to circle the earth in 1960; and the oldest - 75 years old in 1998 - to go back into space, this time for several days, and thus had the chance to see both the beauty of the biodiversity of the Earth but also report on the environmental wounds of the planet].

The commission appointed, soon after the landing of Neil Armstrong on the Moon July 20, 1969, was to formulate an environmental protection agency for the state of Ohio.  Along with the panel members of the commission, I listened for days stereotype testimonies from industrial representatives arguing that their industry could not possibly afford environmental restrictions [industry survived environmental standards and even thrived, as we all know], lamenting the fact the industries did not have the proper expertise to treat the wastes in an environmentally acceptable manner [yet, some of these industries had the expertise to manufacture products that even nature could not break down].

            When my turn came to comment at the end of the hearings, I had the temerity to make my point with several jokes with my main point being that the factory that produces a product should be the one assigned the responsibility of devising ways to assimilate their wastes into the environment, and, just as important, to recycle that product after it completes its useful life [just like Nature arranged for us to be assimilated by Earth at the end of our useful life].


Keep in mind, these were the times, in the 1960s, when the chemist in the paper industry claimed that paper can only be made from virgin pulp [paper from recycled waste paper is now in vogue] and that plastics could not possibly be recycled [we know differently now]. 

            I do not know whether it was the humor of the jokes I told or the policy point I was making that caught the attention of the local TV station; when I was interviewed I gave the example of the huge plastic industry that had blossomed in the Cleveland industrial hub of northeast Ohio. Thanks to preposterously low prices for oil in the 1960’s, industrial chemists were let loose to develop plastics from crude oil extracted from the beds of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris [I will came back to these rivers, in a short while]. 

            So I told the TV audience that the genius chemist who developed a particular plastic should be assigned by the company that financed that invention to also devise a way to recycle and or re-use it before that product is distributed all over the globe. The chemists who originated that product had proprietary knowledge that was not made available to the general public, plus these chemists had more expertise than any environmental engineers [they were called sanitary engineers then], whose chemical training at that time was minimal, if any.

            Of course, we all know, now, that plastics can indeed be collected as is done in many of the environmentally advanced countries and be re-cycled, but we had to have the skyrocketing gasoline prices of the 1970’s to force drastic changes in our attitudes and in our approaches.



            The decade of the 1960’s was a historic period, [not because it was the time I became aware of the significance of world events through my travels and professional work, and thus I can report on some of the crucial events I experienced], because of the successful wars started by some visionary revolutionaries.


 In my opinion, the 1960’s were the years that started the WAR against the 4 P’s, the four universal PROBLEMS:



The political upheavals of the 1960’s transformed our attitudes and the scientific and engineering advances improved our confidence to the point that we could make progress in the basic problems that afflicted us from the beginning of time. 

The war against poverty declared by president Lyndon Johnson of the USA speeded up the Green Revolution that saved countries like India from starvation [I had the privilege of serving on an educational project funded by the USA government but managed by my university in India in 1966 during the war against Poverty;  I was one of many so called experts sent by FAO of the United Nations to Mexico to assist in the campaign of president Portillo to eradicate Poverty in Mexico using the extra money gained from the high prices for oil; my mission was on waste recycling in rural areas; of course, the collapse of the oil prices in the 1980’s, and the explosion of population dashed all such aspirations]

            The “Zero Population” movement was championed by the youth of the 1960’s and became the rallying cry of the revolutionaries. In North America and Europe and in most economically advanced countries, the trend towards zero growth of population began in earnest [and we are now feeling the consequences of that; transmigration of labor to Europe from Africa, Asia etc]; Teng Xiaoping forced birth control on the population of China; Indira Gandhi promoted sterilization in India; but the population growth has not abated in those countries nor anywhere else in Asia, nor Africa, nor Latin America, and these regions are now feeling the pressures of overpopulation.


The population explosion happened, however, [see graph] through advances in food production, in delivery of medical care, in transporting and distribution of foods and goods, not by acts of dictators or superpowers; it was the work of scientists, of engineers, of businessmen that brought about the most profound effects on the population!

Historical events and world wars, intercontinental invasions, regional conflicts with ethnic cleansings and destructions have had no effect whatsoever on population; yet these wars and these historical events are the history being taught in the schools, while the wars on poverty, population, pollution and politics are not getting the proper attention.


For example, history heroes must be men like Dr Fleming who invented penicillin that saved so many soldiers during World War II, or the heroes that developed DDT and brought the scourge of malaria under control, the heroes who foresaw the negative impact of DDT and brought into the market biodegradable pesticides, scientists and engineers who developed plastics, who developed computers, and so on and on.

Furthermore, of the 7 billion people in the world, more than 2 billion are children under 18 years of age. The education and the care that we give to this segment of the population will determine the fate of mankind in the 21st century[2].

            Being an engineer, I like to put things into equations, which is too simplistic of a presentation for complex problems like these, but all I want to do here it o make the point that these wars are interrelated and cannot be fought in isolation: P1 is Poverty; P2 is Population; P3 is Polluiton; P4 is Politics.





The war on poverty has been affected negatively by the population explosion, both of which affected negatively the war on pollution. The war on politics began to show signs of progress at the end of the 20th century when many of the governments of key states became democratic.  So improvements in the war against politics means that natural and human resources and technologies are used to solve universal problems not to conquer and control others.



            From the beginning of time Man has been struggling to secure food [Poverty], develop social harmony [Population], maintain health [Pollution] and achieve balanced behavior [Politics] in the preservations of the natural resources with which the Earth has been endowed.



            I like to illustrate the ecological harmony of Shangri-La, before Man appeared, with the numbers of sheep and wolves. As the sheep would grow in numbers, the wolves would increase their population in the plethora of sheep to eat; as the number of sheep decreased through the action of the wolves, then the grasses would become plentiful allowing more sheep to grow in numbers, while in the meantime the number of wolves would decrease with less sheep around. There was harmony in Shangri-La.

            At first Man was a hunter like the wolf; there was no ecological imbalance due to Man eating sheep in competition with the wolf. When Man herded the sheep into enclosures, which gave Man the ability to access food with less energy, this clever development gave Man more leisure time, which Man spend increasing his population.

            The transformation from hunter to herder caused the first ecological disruption, which forced Man to become a nomad in order to access additional resources for his sheep.

            Then came the revolutionary idea of cultivating grains and crops; Man became a farmer, which allowed him to stay in the same place to get his food, and to feed the excess to his sheep, thus having more time, which Man used to increase his population to levels that could no longer be supported by the natural resources under his control. That is when Man organized into a warrior so that Man could get what he could not produce himself from others who were not as strong.

            The warrior phase of Man required that in order to subjugate people and take over their resources, Man had to develop technology. 

            The transformations of Man from a hunter in Africa, to an agronomist in Mesopotamia [at the confluence of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris], to a nomad in Asia [crossing into the Americas], to a warrior in Europe [WW I and WW II], took centuries but the transformation to a powerful technologist took only decades. Even though this tracing of human development is crude and elementary, nevertheless, we are today at a dangerous stage because we can no longer avoid the consequences of the misuse of technology.

The examples of Hiroshima in 1945 and of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001  are examples of the destruction that Man can cause with the misuse of his technology.




One of the biggest benefits that technology brought was the Green Revolution. Grain production with fertilizers and pesticides, machinery and irrigation, reached unprecedented levels, creating huge surpluses in the USA and in other countries. These enormous grain surpluses were used to stimulate an exponential growth in the raising of pigs, poultry, cattle and other animals feeding them the excess grain surpluses. The consequence was water and air pollution problems on top of soil erosion, soil degradation form excessive irrigation, contamination of our soils from excess use of fertilizers and chemicals, and the list goes on and on.

During the last 40 years, Man is spending more than one hundred times more energy than the farmer of 4000 years ago; furthermore, Man today spends only a fraction of that huge amount of energy on food production. Most of the energy Man spends is in acquiring faster transportation that is capable of extraterrestrial travel.

Man the Technologist is developing into a position of exerting an environmental impact beyond the boundaries of the Earth. One of the most dramatic effects of the space explorations since the 1960’s has been the realization that the Earth’s biosphere is a very thin and limited layer with finite capacity to absorb and assimilate natural waste, and no capacity to assimilate many of the products that Man is synthesizing.

Emissions from of heat-trapping greenhouse gases from the smokestacks of the industrialized countries and from countries that are now gearing up to become industrialized are causing serious ecological disruptions that affect both our health and our climate. I read in the September 7, 2001, issue of the International Herald Tribune[3] that a group of environmental lawyers are planning to sue countries that are not signing the Kyoto Protocol and taking the necessary steps to reduce the level of dangerous emissions.

At this stage, I would suggest that instead of me listing all the global consequences of our actions over the last decades I would refer you to the webpage of the United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP][4] for details, statistics and general concepts.




However, I must warn you that economics are also important, and so I will refer you to the webpage of the World Bank[5]; there you will find that how the bank assesses the environmental and social impact of an economic project before approving the loan for the project.



It is no longer ECONOMY at the expense of ECOLOGY, but for a long time it was so, and I am afraid as we drift into a world recession, politicians might revert back to their old habits, unless the scientific community challenges such diversion of priorities!



            I am sure some of you have your own definitions of economy, ecology, waste, pollution, etc; anyway I will give you my definitions, because through these definitions I can tell you some humorous stories and also make some key points that I hope you will find useful.

            The worldwide depression of the 1930’s engendered a competition of political ideologies that placed high priority on economic policies, capitalism vs. communism. In the USA, the council of Economic advisers was instituted within the White House to ensure that governmental actions served the needs of the Economy.



It was not until the end of the 1960’s that a council of Environmental advisers was instituted in the White House to ensure that governmental actions and policies served the needs of the environment.

Those of you who are old enough to have watched astronaut Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon in 1969, you will recall that one of the most striking features of the Moon landscape was the dust. The Moon was dead! 

Then came those incredible photos of the rivers in Cleveland full of silt and sewage penetrating the sanctity of Lake Erie. It was those pictures that made us change our course, and Earth Days were instituted worldwide and environmental protection ministries were added in the government hierarchies.




For the last 30 years, not even a millisecond in the long history of Man, Ecology and Economy have finally become synergistic concepts rather than opponents.

Ecology derives from the Greek words oikos [Oikologia is the word in Greek] and logos; oikos or ecos means house, home, habitat, territory; logos means wisdom, knowledge, science.

Economy comes from the same Greek word oikos [Oikonomia is the word in Greek] or ecos that mean house, habitat territory, and nomos that means law, rule, dominion.

            So you see, both words refer to Man’s home, Man’s well being through wisdom, science, rule of law, dominion.




Let me explain with a story:

Back in the 1930’s, people in a remote jungle received chickens as part of the international aid from the USA to keep them from leaning towards communism. The villagers noted, after a while, that one thing went into the front of the chicken, but 2 things came out from the back end. They wondered which of these 2 things was the product and which was the by-product, They asked for clarification and the USA dispatched a panel of experts to look into the matter. The mission consisted of an engineer, a nutritionist, and, of course, a woman.

            The mission members decided to be methodical about it and set criteria to be considered.


The engineer said that the criterion must be QUANTITY. They then weighed the eggs and the amount of manure excreted.  The engineer announced triumphantly that on the basis of quantity the manure was the product and the egg the by-product.

            The nutritionist chided the engineer for jumping to conclusions; the nutritionist said that the criterion must be QUALITY not quantity, and that protein content was a quality criterion since the product was to be used for food. So he measured the crude protein content of the manure and that of the egg, and the results indicated that since the crude protein content of the manure was higher than that of the egg, the manure was the product and egg the by-product.

            The woman chided both men saying that esthetics and ODOR was the proper criterion not all that scientific jargon.  She said because the manure smelled, the egg was the product and manure was a waste!

Thus on the basis of smell, it was decided that the eggs are resources and manures are wastes.

Eggs, being a resource, received great attention by the scientific community, with departments of egg production instituted at major universities and millions of dollars spent to train egg specialists. The result was that egg production improved so much that today eggs are cheaper than they were 70 years ago and available everywhere.

On the other hand, since manure was declared a waste because it smelled, manure was neglected and no funds were allocated for research.

It is true that manure smells, but so do eggs if they are neglected and left out in the sun; the eggs would smell worse than manure [we all know the pungent smell of a rotten egg]. So the egg, a resource, becomes a waste when neglected because it starts to smell.

Manure, a waste because it smell, when placed on soil becomes a resource for the plants; the plants do not care whether the fertilizer is smelly or not; what they care about is the source of nitrogen. So the manure becomes a resource when it is properly managed.

It is a fallacy to differentiate between resources and wastes; all materials are resources, just like we no longer must differentiate between economy and ecology!

Manure inside a house smells but when placed in the field is a resource; So the definition of what is called a waste is really a RESOURCE OUT OF PLACE.




Most people think that wastes are the ones that cause pollution. It is true that if we were to dump manure in a river the river would get polluted; However, that river would also get polluted if we dumped equivalent amounts of eggs into the river, even though eggs area resource. 

So it is not waste that cause pollution; it is what we throw into the river that causes the pollution. A good example that you may use for children, so they can be aware of their environmental responsibility, is that they cause pollution when they throw away the wrapping from a gum or potato chips bag because neither the river nor the land can use those materials.



            King Augeios was a rich man that had accumulated thousands of cattle. One day as he opened the window, the king caught a whiff of the smell [recall, odor is the criterion of pollution] from the barns that had not been cleaned for forty years. He asked that the barns be cleaned and pollution be solved.

            Hercules bid for the job and he got it. Hercules being a strong man, he used his power to divert the flow of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris upstream fro the barns, and the combined flow of the two rivers cleaned the barns in one day, and thus the pollution


problem was solved [and all the organic matter compressed and depressed became oil!!], and this gave rise to the Hercules that was behind the “water closet” invention.

            This solution of diluting the pollutants to levels that could be assimilated by the water of the rivers or the air of the atmosphere worked well as long as the materials thrown away were organic in nature, thus Nature could use them again.

            Once Man started synthesizing materials that could not be degraded biologically and the quantity of wastes discharged became several times greater than the assimilation capacity of the water and air bodies of the earth, then what we now call global pollution became a serious problem that could not be solved by dilution.

            So, I say, the solution to pollution is  recycle, reuse, reduce.

 K G Wilson. Professor of Physics, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH. Wilson.9@osu.edu ; here is a quote from one of his papers that appeared in Nuclear Physics B [17 ( 1990): 82-92];  entitled; Ab initio quantum CHEMISTRY: A source of ideas for lattice gauge theorists;  I quote:  “There are roughly ten million chemical compounds at the present time. Each individual molecule has many properties to compute and /or measure: binding energy, electron density, atomic measure, spectra (vibrational, rotational and electronic), reaction rates, electron and molecular scattering cross sections. However, the spectacular opportunity for the future lies in the compounds not yet synthesized or classified.  The numbers of unexplored forms of matter, which can fit into a small box one centimeter on a side, is 92 raised to the power of (1023). These unexplored forms of matter contain innumerable surprises, as we know from the many extraordinary compounds that are among the ten million already studied”. 


Thakur, Ramesh, et al. an article in the Dec 30, 2000 issue of the International Herald Tribune; www.iht.com ;  Dr Thakur is Vice Rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo [he and I were working for the United Nations in Singapore in the 1970’s;  he for the UN Refugees program; I for FAO].

International Herald Tribune; newspaper;   www.iht.com 

 www.unep.org   United Nations Environment Program, Nairobi, Kenya

www.worldbank.org   Environment Matters, a magazine published by World Bank, Washington, DC



Our MISSION is to help livestock producers assess the costs of practical potential systems of handling the wastes from their animal units  with maximum recycle and minimum public nuisance.