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May 2004

An environmental gadfly

- by Alan

A profile of JosJos against a backdrop of solar panels

In recent weeks, regular visitors to AVNet cannot fail to have noticed a deluge of postings – on topics ranging from global warming and GM foods to obesity and the city – from Jos at AuroRe. Auroville Today went along to find out more about this rare bird in Auroville: a compulsive communicator.

“I wanted to be a pilot, but my eyes were hopeless. So I took up aeronautical engineering.” Not the obvious background for an environmentalist, perhaps, but after Jos completed his engineering degree in The Netherlands, he left for Australia where he soon found it impossible to get a job in aviation. “I was getting pretty desperate. Then one day I saw a tiny advertisement in a newspaper: Greenpeace wanted canvassers. I had no idea what a canvasser was, but I signed up and spent the next year knocking on doors, giving people information about environmental issues and Greenpeace. When I started I knew nothing about such things –my whole life until then had been aviation – but Greenpeace opened my eyes to a completely different side of the world.”

Three years later Jos returned to The Netherlands. However, his home country no longer attracted him, so he took a job with Médecins Sans Frontières providing logistical support for their medical staff in remote parts of Africa . Later he was to do the same work for Oxfam. After five years in Africa , he moved to Oxford where he did a one year postgraduate degree in Renewable Energy. During the course he visited Kenya . “There I became interested in small-scale solar applications in remote areas, for I saw how one small solar panel providing power for an electric light could transform the lives of poor people. That really inspired me.”

When he graduated, he took a job in India with IT Power, a consultancy company in renewable energy. After completing projects in Bihar and Arunachal Pradesh he was posted to their head office in India , which happened to be in Pondicherry . During his time there he met Hemant who had set up AuroRe, one of Auroville's renewable energy units. When Jos resigned from IT Power, Hemant offered him a job. “AuroRe were feeling a bit overwhelmed. They had just won a contract to install a large number of solar pumps in the Punjab and they had a staff of precisely two!” Jos and another new AuroRe recruit, Rishi, had to establish an office in South Punjab from scratch, survey the potential solar pump sites, train technicians and then install the pumps. “I remember asking one of the first Punjab farmers we met to show us his borewell. He took us to a corner of a field and pointed to a rusty pipe sticking out of the ground. We, the so-called solar experts, stared at it for a long time, trying to work out what it was and how it worked. Clearly, we were on a very steep learning curve.” Working seven days a week, 12-14 hours a day, they and a team of technicians managed to install 175 solar pumps in a record three months. “We cut it fine. We installed the last on the day on which the project had to be completed.”

These days Jos spends most of his time in Auroville. Does he miss working in remote regions of the world? “Sometimes. At the same time, there's so much work to be done in Auroville.” AuroRe's work in the community includes obtaining subsidies for and installing solar pump sets, servicing existing solar pumping systems, designing and installing solar home systems, as well as solar water heaters. They have also begun advising commercial units and services on how they can save money by switching to high-efficiency lighting systems.

Saving money? One of the most frequent points made by skeptics is that renewable energy is for the rich, not affordable by the masses. True? “Partly true. The main obstacle to more widespread use of solar is short-term thinking. The up-front investment for solar is high, but the overall life-cycle cost over 20 years is much less than conventional electricity. To make solar accessible to the masses, the Indian government has very generous subsidies for various solar applications, in particular for solar pumping systems. AuroRe has installed over 200 such solar pumping in Auroville alone.” And Jos adds, “Electricity prices will continue to go up in future due to the depleting fossil fuel reserves and concerns over global warming. It's only a matter of time before people will be scrambling for solar panels”.

So how is Auroville doing from a sustainability perspective? Do his frequent postings and his growing status as a kind of environmental gadfly suggest that he is pessimistic about the level of Auroville's ecological awareness? Jos chooses his words carefully. “There may be many good projects which I don't know about but, yes, I think we still have a long way to go. Take water. A recent posting on AVNet claimed that in Auromodèle the average use is 1,000 litres per person per day – more than they consume in Florida . If that is true, that is pretty outrageous! We should be reducing our water-consumption drastically and be an example to the outside world. How can we otherwise claim with a straight face to be “the city the earth needs”? As a friend of mine put it, if you want a green garden in Auroville, use Astroturf (artificial grass eds.).

“While I'm getting known as Mr. Gloom and Doom for my postings, that doesn't mean I'm pessimistic or that I'm about to run away from the problems. I see them as a challenge. For example, I believe that global warming is the most serious threat to the planet today. Emissions from internal combustion engines are a major cause of this, so I always cycle rather than use a motorbike. It's like cleaning up my backyard and showing by example, which is the only way I think we can start making a difference.”

Jos's work at AuroRe is very much focused upon technical solutions to environmental problems. What about the need for a change in consciousness? How does he relate to Auroville's spiritual dimension? “I came to Auroville through, let's say, the ecological door. However, I think the spiritual and ecological dimensions of Auroville are intrinsically linked, as we can see from the first settlers here who spent most of their time transforming the land from a severely eroded wasteland into the lush green environment we live in now. Earth, so far as we know, is life's only residence. We are Earth's stewards and should take care of it, not just for ourselves but for all future inhabitants. It is dangerous to concentrate solely on spiritual matters and ignore what is happening to our environment”.

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