Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Paper - Sustainability Beta Test 2012

Sustainability Beta Test

Chris Luk

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Y2K, missing days in Mayan calendars, the Large Hadron Collider causing black holes, these are just a few of the recent end of the world crises the media has publicized. Its been a recent trend in our culture, to be concerned with the end of the world and so far, we have passed over such events with little trouble. However, our world is still threatened, though in a less dramatic fashion.

Issues and Concerns

The crisis we face is one of energy, of production, of sustainability. Sustainability is defined as resistance to degradation, and the ability to endure and in this case, we are concerned with the continuation of our civilization. If the world follows the model of development that the United States has done, the world will simply collapse. We have already passed the point where our consumption exceeds our production of resources so the resources we have now will only diminish. In the article The Bottleneck Wilson states, “For every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology would require four more Earths”(Wilson 84).  Although the amount of resources and rate of consumption is in question, all studies agree that we will use up the Earth’s resources sometime in the near future, and that change is necessary. Vaclav Smil, a professor at Penn State, helps to drive home the point of the urgency of the situation by noting  that the United States currently uses up about 27% of the world’s current energy production. How much more of a problem would this be if China, a country with more than 4 times the population of the US consumes the same amount?

These are the issues our generation faces, changes have to happen and soon, with engineers leading the charge. Engineers as a profession, are responsible for increasing the quality of life enjoyed by the rest of the population, however this also makes them responsible for the drastic increases in energy consumption. Even though they strive for efficiency, many times this does not line up with the keeping consumption lower than our production of resources. William Stanley Jevons famously stated, “It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth”(Jevons)(Smil). As efficiency increases, we often find ways to consume even more resources.

Smil p.711

Viewpoint of the Engineer

So now that we are aware of the causes and problems, we must address the matter of responsibilities and roles. The profession to address is that of the engineer. Engineering as a discipline, is responsible for shaping the material construction and production of our entire society, and because of that it is the field of study that consumes more raw materials and resources than any other discipline. However, we can't simply ask that engineers to stop or lower consumption. As Alastair S. Gunn noted, the duties of an engineer are many and complicated. The public expect both reliability and progress out of engineers. Every engineering project is supposed to be 100% functional, failure is not considered acceptable. In addition, we assume that some radical new product will come to increase our quality of life with more and more rapid turnover. The new generation is far less patient than previous ones when it comes to satisfying wants. Communication, shopping, and luxuries are available on the spot. Take for example the cellphone. We can make long distance calls now, anytime anywhere, but it wasn't so long ago that the majority of citizens needed to go home to their main phone line, and even have delayed calls where it took a significant amount of time to transfer the signal from one end of the globe to another. This has forced engineers to focus their work and concerns towards functionality, profitability, and time to market rather than the potential ethical and global impacts their work could have.

Neglecting to realize the difficulties and addressing the problems in the workplace for engineers can end in disaster. Tragedies such as the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger where lives were lost by simple calculation errors, remind us of the impact and responsibilities of an engineer. The public expects engineers to speak up whenever they are capable of spotting an error, but at the same time doesn’t realize the cost of such decisions. Although it may seem like a simple thing to speak up about an error or a problem, in the workplace where speaking against a superior can cost you your job, from a personal perspective the question may not be so clear. Recognizing that such an event can occur requires that engineers act with a sense of integrity, wholeness in personality and talent that must be part of the curricula for engineers, as well as built into the structure of the workplace to allow for flexibility of thought. By integrity we mean that the education and personality of the engineer must be high enough to both recognize when mistakes occur, and be willing to put their livelihood on the line to do what is correct from a moral or ethical perspective.

Restructuring our Perspective

So we want to figure out how to allow engineers to bring up the question of sustainability. In a capitalist economy, where the market decides what succeeds and what fails, the initial investment towards a sustainable future is a daunting one. Almost all current technologies in renewable energy sources, or low consumption construction techniques require a large initial investment that returns in value far in the future. For example, building an array of solar panels, or a wind farm has a far later return on investment than a coal power plant. This means that in an immediate sense, there isn’t a short term economic drive to move towards sustainability. So even if an engineer can recognize the errors of ignoring sustainability and production of products, he can’t act on that knowledge. However, like the engineers who worked on the Challenger we can’t simply ignore the necessity of reducing our consumption. The world is at stake here, and the only ones who can start the process to fix this problem is the profession that creates the material products and services provided to the world.

Thus we need to provide both economical and ethical motivation for sustainability. First we must concern ourselves with survival as a species. This is actually a harder task than it sounds. Notice that sustainability is an issue that displaced both spatially and temporally from our daily lives. For example, if you're old enough that you will die before the resources run out, why does it concern you? Why are we concerned about the species as a whole over our own current well being? To make this challenge even more difficult, we have to realize that sustainability is not an item of value we can pass down. If you gain wealth, you can pass down your material possessions to your progeny. If you are knowledgeable, you can prepare your children for the world to come. Sustainability is not something you can directly hand over to your own children, rather its something a generation hands off to the next generation and we must prioritize that by realizing the global interconnection between people in the world.

Globalization and Restructuring

Thanks to the internet and communication technology, we’re already well on our way to realizing that thinking globally as a species is only a matter of time. In the meantime, we must  take a page out of the development process for computer applications and run a beta test for sustainability. Engineers must look to restructure existing architectures, to make things not only more efficient, but consume less resources as a whole, instead of focusing on creating brand new products. In particular, electricity generation must move off the dependency on non-sustainable fossil fuels, and all stages of production from the construction of workspaces, through production, to the usage of product must consume less energy, not just be more efficient than it is now. We have to reverse the impact and allow for our production and consumption of resources to stabilize.

To enact this change engineers must be ethically driven simply through a solidity of character, in integrity, to care about their fellow humans and prioritize communal thinking. In the future this must be incorporated into the education of engineers, but for now it is the responsibility of this generation to realize the urgency, and aim to restructure current methodologies with sustainable energy techniques and standards in mind. In order for this to happen people in industry must more solidly attach themselves to their companies and think more about making the company succeed and grow in the long term as opposed to personal benefit as restructuring rarely results in immediate monetary benefits. Management must follow suit from the engineer’s lead and reward long term thinking and goals over short term ones by promoting loyalty towards the company. 

General Education and Rational Thought

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To do so we must expand upon the role of education. First information must be spread about the urgency of the situation. Secondly, we have to bring greater standardization to the field of sustainable energy. Standardization is what drives both efficient and quick changes in a field. For example, lets take one of the fastest changing fields in industry, computer science. In computer science, even though there are many different higher level programming languages, the way in which they operate is relatively similar. You tell the computer a set of instructions, and it translates it to machine code and executes. The way that you structure your instructions, though syntactically different, often uses the same formats, such as the heavy emphasis on recursion methods. This applies on to sustainable energy because right now, the way in which it is taught at a university varies, and the way in which calculations are done in the filed varies greatly because its a new field. This makes it difficult for professions to talk about sustainability in the same way, since they all learned different things and work with different tools.

Thirdly, educators must work more closely with private industry so that a future in a company can be secured. If students are excited for and have a job security in a particular company, the motivation to benefit the company in a long term way is already there. Increased job security means more discussion can occur about policy and company goals without fear of reprisal. Having a more comfortable working environment, with a unified goals allows policy changes and organizational restructuring to happen which allows for a sustainable energy initiatives to succeed in the company. If these goals can be achieved we would have an appropriate economic and social structure to allow for change, and the ethical incentive through globalization and upbringing to care for the propagation of our species to give us a sustainable future.


Smil, V. 2010. Science, Energy, Ethics, and Civilization.
Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness, R.Y. Chiao et al. eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 709-729.
Gunn, Alastair S. "Integrity and the Ethical Responsibilities of Engineers."
Philosophy and Engineering: An Emerging Agenda. Dordrecht: Springer, 2010. 125-33. Print.
Jevons, William Stanley. The Coal Question. [S.l.]: Macmillan, 1906. Print.
Wilson, Edward O. The Future of Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002. Print.

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