Acknowledging the Essentials

David S.K. Ting and Jacqueline A. Stagner


Air, water, food, and energy are essentials for the survival of the inhabitants on the planet we call Earth. The list of elements of this book—air, water, food, and energy—is evidently not exhaustive. Spirituality is presumably also indispensable to the well-being of the human species. For example, in a critical review, Clark and Hunter (2019) concluded that there is clear evidence in the literature that shows correlations between spirituality and mental health and quality-of-life factors. Therefore, they encourage practicing nurses to attend to meaning, purpose, and connectedness for the spiritual well-being of the patients because this can have a profound impact on patients’ overall wellness. To highlight but a specific case, Canada et al. (2019) affirm that spiritual well-being is not only important for people with cancer but also remains essential for most survivors of cancer. To contrast spiritual well-being against today’s evil, electronic screen, Lee and Jirasek (2019) found that spiritual well-being positively enhances the lives of adolescents. On the other hand, electronic screen time has a negative impact on the spiritual well-being of adolescents. Although this essential is outside the scope of the current book, it is imperative if human life on Earth is to continue.

Returning to the somewhat more tangible essentials covered in this book (i.e., air, water, food, and energy): These four life-supporting elements are intrinsically connected with the environment. As an illustration, fruits and vegetables require water to flourish. This is also the case for plants that are used to feed livestock. Naturally, plants interact directly with the environment and air. Thus far, air has been considered largely separated from water, food, and to a somewhat lesser extent, energy. This may be partly because air has a long history of being treated as an important stand-alone subject.


A famous saying concerning the laws of thermodynamics goes like this:

  • 1. You cannot win, you can only break even.
  • 2. You can only break even at absolute zero.
  • 3. You cannot reach absolute zero.

The first statement says that no matter what we do, the best solution is “treatment” (i.e., not a “cure”). In thermodynamic language, according to the second law of thermodynamics, the best that we can do is not to generate entropy. This “generate no entropy,” according to the second statement, can only occur at zero degrees Kelvin. It is a good thing that we cannot reach absolute zero, the third statement, because there would be no life on Earth, and we would not have been here to generate entropy in the first place.

Realistically, not many, if any, would want to go back to the simple living standards that we had a couple of centuries ago. Conservation is necessary, but expecting everyone to practice it is an elusive dream. Then, what is the solution, especially knowing that we are but entropy generators, continuously generating entropy that damages the planet Earth and beyond? It is true that every process produces entropy. Equally true is that some processes create substantially less entropy than others for providing the same desired output. This later truth grants hope. Every human being is granted to savor life, and possibly everyone should. To ensure future generations continue to have this privilege, we need to reduce, reuse, and recycle, whenever possible. The larger responsibility lays on the shoulders of the leaders, including engineers, architects, and policy makers. The different experts contributing to this book have conveyed many alternatives that are considerably more sustainable in water usage, food production, and energy conversion. We need to have a paradigm shift to these better courses and continue our efforts in deriving superior means.


Without water there is neither food nor life. Most interestingly, Shackleton et al. (2018) found that green infrastructure (an approach to manage water to mimic the natural water cycle) promotes both the spiritual and mental well-being of the residents. In Chapter 2, Berbel et al. focuses on fresh water from both surface and groundwater resources. They estimate a 60% increase in water withdrawal by 2050. As such, sustainable development goals must include adequate water for future generations. To do so, water-related innovations, such as water usage efficiency, desalination, energy efficiency, crop productivity, along with water economics (increase pricing), management, and governance at local, national, and international levels, should be enhanced. They acknowledge that long-term water sustainability is a serious global challenge that is extremely difficult to deal with.

Any “water solution” that excludes the ever-prevailing, petrochemical-related water usage is, at best, a temporary fix.


Our sustenance depends on food, and food generation leans on nutrients, in addition to water and air. Sutton et al. (2013) warned that the escalating and affluent population, mingled with the increase in consumption of energy and animal products, will heighten nutrient losses, pollution levels, and land degradation. Consequently, the quality of water, air, and soils will deteriorate, adversely affecting climate and biodiversity. This large, encompassing “nutrient nexus” must be properly addressed, in which a critical objective is to protect the marine environment from land-based activities. The increase in nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, which comes from mining of finite phosphate rock deposits, is expected to be most drastic in traditional and developing countries. Sutton et al. (2013) attribute this to population growth and an increase in income and subsequent rise in meat and dairy consumption. It is imperative that preventive actions be taken to mitigate the depletion of high-grade phosphate rock reserves, which carries with it soil losses and dispersion of soil-bound substances into the air and water (D'Odorico et al., 2018).

Positive measures to ensure healthy food for future generations include proper application of underwater vegetation along with aquatic cultivation, as discussed in Chapter 3 by Naghibi et al. Underwater farming is a propitious alternative to conventional land-based farming, and its advantages are multiplied when properly coupled with fish farming. This environmentally friendly vegetation-fish cycle can contribute to the growing need of food while preserving the ecosystems. It is worth noting that the produce from underwater is relatively more nutritious. This solution can also be extended to flood mitigation by making use of flood-prone areas for water-surface-based vegetation. With the omnipresence of water for the plant, the energy demand is low. Renewable energy also appears more accessible and possibly easier to harness.

Vertical farming, discussed in Chapter 4 by Al-Kodmany, is promising because it makes more efficient use of farmland. This is particularly the case in suburban, or even urban, settings (see Food-Energy-Water Nexus section). Some obvious fringe benefits of incorporating vertical farming into high-rises in cities include reduced traffic congestion, and thus, harmful pollution. Without the packaging and transportation costs, food prices are expected to be highly competitive. This is especially the case when the latest greenhouse technologies, such as hydroponics (with nutrient- film technique, wick system, water culture, ebb and flow, or drip feed), aeroponics, and aquaponics, are exploited. The discussion also underscores the use of natural rainwater and readily available solar energy. Al-Kodmany ends the chapter with prospects for further advancements, listing many of the existing frontiers, including Green Sense Farms, AeroFarms, Metropolis Farms, Plenty, VerticalHarvest, Lufa Farms, and VertiCropTM.


Moving forward, the number of Joules of energy required to produce a unit of food must be taken more seriously; similarly, the amount of water required in producing energy for human use needs to be reduced. As importantly, a progressively larger proportion of the required energy for sustaining comfortable living standards ought to come from renewable sources. Renewable and sustainable energy has been making significant inroads. Although the dominating focus is on large, commercial-scale energy harvesting, this grid-distributed energy may not be the best when it comes to powering the widespread and drastic upsurge in small-scale, high-tech electronic gadgets. For the small-scale needs, it makes sense to capitalize on naturally available energy within the environment that the devices are being used. Such is the case conveyed in Chapter 5 by Khanafer et al., which discusses geometry optimization of a piezoelectric microcantilever energy harvester. For larger, commercial-scale renewable energy harnessing, some effective means of energy storage are a must. This is because the available energy is intermittent, and so is the energy demand, and the two are often not in sync. Long and Vasel-Be-Hagh convey that the energy storage can be furthered by integrating the storage with the energy harvester. They highlight the added value of combining a vortex hydrokinetic energy converter with an unwater compressed air energy storage system (i.e., the integrated vortex hydrokinetic energy converter [SAVER]) in Chapter 6.


The nexus among food, energy, and water (FEW) has recently been widely and well recognized and studied. In Chapter 7, Mabhaudhi et al. give a detailed overview of FEW progress within the southern Africa context.

1.6.1 Urbanization

Assuming that agriculture is well taken care of by farmers, city slickers, nevertheless, are still faced with the FEW challenge within the urban context. From processing to distribution centers to consumption points, much energy and water are necessary. Zimmerman et al. (2018) presented some dynamic urban FEW models capable of accounting for the shift to healthier, but more water-intensive, foods and the changes in (severe) weather events. According to the United Nation (2018), 55% of the world’s population currently resides in urban areas, and this is projected to increase to 68% by 2050. To highlight, there will be 416 million more urban dwellers in India in 2050 and 255 and 189 million in China and Nigeria, respectively (2018). Thus, it is imperative that all stakeholders and decision makers acknowledge these essentials and collaborate on devising proper measures to accommodate the impending transformations. In China, the drastic advancement of the food systems has resulted in an increase in food-related energy consumption by 53% per capita between 2002 and 2012 (Song et al., 2019). Within this studied time period, the energy share of farming actually decreased. Unfortunately, this savings is more than outweighed by that associated with food processing and, more so, transportation.

1.6.2 Globalization

Rightly asserted by de Amorim et al. (2018), the FEW nexus demands sustainable, integrated, and intelligent management on a global scale. These essential resources— water, energy, and food—are susceptible to risks imposed by economic bubbles, deflation, and failure; severe weather events; large human migrations along with improper planning; infectious disease outbreaks; and information-infrastructure breakdown. They call for international collaboration to implement measures to ensure these borderless, essential, life-supporting elements for the next generations.

1.6.3 Competitions among the Essentials

D’Odorico et al. (2018) stress that the availability of water is a key constraint in meeting food and energy needs of the increasing population and standard of living. Within the FEW nexus, food and energy (e.g., biofuel) contest each other for water. These competitions tend to further the problem. Is there a solution to the looming threat? Thankfully, there are a few promising measures. One of these is to shift food consumption patterns (e.g., eating less red meats and more sustainable, plant-based foods). Putting more emphasis on nutrition is the right way forward. This path can lead to better health and a more sustainable FEW future. Reducing food waste is a simple yet powerful step. Because of the synergy among the three systems, improving one of them can result in multiplied improvements across the board. Therefore, waste capture and recycling in the circular economy, among other actions, can substantially improve the resilience of FEW security at the global scale. These points are echoed throughout the chapter written by Mabhaudhi et al. They assert that the FEW nexus furnishes opportunities to concurrently realize FEW securities, among other benefits.


A unique technical idea is proposed by Hossain, in Chapter 8: The idea is to capture water transpired from plants, using plastic tanks and the help of the force of static electricity, noting that the plants only use about 0.5% of the absorbed water while transpiring the rest. The water is then treated via ultraviolet technology. Part of the water can be harnessed as hydrogen molecules, via electrolysis, to be burned as green energy.

What about being self-sufficient, to relieve some of the emerging pressure from the different fronts, such as climate change, that confront us? This is the topic of Chapter 9, which conveys self-sustaining urbanization and self-sufficient cities in the era of climate change. In this chapter, Minaei reviews land-use configuration, transit-oriented development, and walkable neighborhoods, in addition to sustainable energy and construction. Also discussed are ways to regenerate old infrastructures to greener ones. Proper planning and implementation are needed to effectively realize the objective.

The book would have been incomplete without the enlightenment by Estevez on the fifth element—biodigital innovations and genetics, which are covered in Chapter 10. Undeniably, there is a certain amount of truth in the new great evil of our time, planetary unsustainability. And who would argue against Estevez that humans have the responsibility to mitigate this human problem? Among others, architects and designers are called to develop, with urgency, sustainable and safe societies. To not “spoil the movie,” the “story” is left to the environmentally inclined readers to savor.


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Song, F., Reardon, T, Tian, X., Lin, C., “The energy implication of China’s food system transformation,” Applied Energy, 240: 617-629, 2019.

Sutton, M.A., Bleeker, A., Howard, C.M., et al., “Our Nutrient World: The challenge to produce more food and energy with less pollution,” Global Overview of Nutrient Management. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh on behalf of the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management and the International Nitrogen Initiative, 2013. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, News, May 16,2018, New York, urbanization-prospects.html, accessed on April 18, 2019.

Zimmerman, R., Zhu, Q., Dimitri, C., “A network framework for dynamic models of urban food, energy and water systems (FEWS),” Environmental Progress & Sustainable Energy, 37(1): 122-131.2018.

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