What is the Engineer’s role in Sustainability

Sustainability to me is just an offshoot of good engineering practice – efficiency. Perfect efficiency means that the output equals the input. If you run into a situation where you have to do or make a lot of things that aren’t part of the actual end product, that’s inefficiency – waste. That doesn’t just go for raw materials like sheet metal stock, but also the use of resources like energy is part of that. Waste production is pure inefficiency. Especially when you have to come up with a way of disposing waste. For many businesses, releasing waste into the air, water or ground has been or would be  a sufficient response, if it weren’t for government regulation. I mean, honestly, there is no profit-based motivation to deal with waste, aside from avoiding creating it in the first place. Protecting society from the wealthy is a valid role of government.

This all means that engineers should be able to get behind sustainability from an efficiency point of view. Businessmen can get behind it from a keeping government off your back type of approach.

I spent the 1970s growing up in the Adirondack Mountains, and trying to understand how the world worked. The Adirondacks are a protected wilderness area in northern New York, the Park is the largest publicly protected area in the Lower 48, greater in size than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Park combined. Seeing first hand the value of wilderness spaces led me to pay more attention to some of the environmental arguments than maybe most kids did. Acid rain was a big topic in the Adirondacks at that time because the industrial exhaust from Detroit came down as rain on top of us. It resulted in lakes that looked pure and clean, but that was because they were too low pH to support life. Lifeless lakes in a wilderness didn’t make sense, and the science seemed to explain it. Detroit for better or worse, is cleaner than it used to be, and a lot of life has returned to the Adirondacks that just wasn’t there 30 years ago.

Anyway, these are two things I have always loved – making things I have designed and the natural world – seemed to be in opposition to one another. There has to be a way to have both.

As a kid, a lot of what went on in the world was (ok…IS) confusing to me, but I knew a couple of things: I used my bike to get around to my friends houses, and go to school, ride to fishing spots, and grownups used cars to do the same stuff. My parents watched the news, so I would do that too, when I wasn’t having a Lego war with my brother. One of the things I saw on the news was the energy crisis. This allowed me, even at a young age to link my experience with the world with the news, which is generally pretty hard for kids to relate to.

The bicycle represented a lot of things to me. It represented some little bit of freedom, for me to go places. It also represented some personal pride, because I liked to work on it, and fix it here and there. It was the exploration of knowledge. It represented a design that could be improved on, and that in itself was exciting. It represented energy management – I could get some value out of the energy I put into it. The bicycle was kind of central to my world as a kid. And the bicycle also represented what I knew of energy, engineering, design, science, physics, and the rest of the wide world outside.


By the time I was in engineering school (after music school and the Navy), the energy crisis was long gone, and we were all driving big gas guzzlers again, and there wasn’t really much call for alternate energies. Still, I was fascinated with solar power, power stored as compressed gas, in elastic structures, chemical energy, phase-change energy storage, and other things like that. I liked to think about human powered vehicles, as my bike remained an important part of my life. The closest I ever actually got to being an alternate energy engineer was working for bicycle shops and then working for a bicycle component manufacturer.

Engineering above all is a practical pursuit. It’s about making things better. Sometimes engineers, or the people directing the engineers, get side tracked and forget about the “better” part, and get too tied up in making things because you can. The industrial revolution X.0 has taught us a lot of things, one of the things I take from it is that there’s more to making stuff than just the stuff you make. There’s also the stuff you leave behind. Just because you can make a lot of money in manufacturing doesn’t make it a reason to abdicate your other responsibilities to society. Some guy makes a lot of stuff and a lot of money in Detroit, and then goes to live in a place where they don’t make stuff. It’s nicer in places where they don’t make stuff. At some point there’s got to be a conscience that measures results in some unit other than dollars.

This starts to bring up one of the other times I veered off into semi-political space, talking about Mike Rowe, China, and Walmart. We didn’t like what irresponsible manufacturing was doing to our country, so someone made a bunch of laws meant to clean things up, and what it did was make manufacturing more expensive, and chase a lot of manufacturing jobs out of the country. So we still make stuff, we just do it in someone else’s back yard where they don’t complain as much. The shipping to and from China is an incredible waste, huge inefficiency. Ship raw materials to China where goods are made with less regulation, and then ship it back as saleable goods. Just doesn’t make any sense except that someone makes more profit using the inefficient method, and government lets them get away with it. The social programs to support all of the unemployed is also something that wouldn’t be needed if the jobs were still here.

Am I advocating a return to the push mower or perhaps the scythe? Not necessarily, but not everyone needs a gas powered mower. Society is obsessed with power, excess, overkill. Efficiency is a lost concept. Even people who can’t afford excess won’t accept anything less. Get a riding lawnmower for a small city yard, take half the yard for a shed to store it, and then a gym membership. A big SUV to drive yourself 3 miles to work, and then pay to park it on both ends.

Does it matter if the energy to fuel our excess is human power, fossil fuel, wood burning, hydrogen, solar, wind…? Yes it matters. It matters because of two things: 1) We need to design stuff that will last. Not just stuff, but processes. If we can’t keep doing it because we will run out of resources, then its not a solution. 2) What is the output? What is the waste? Is it efficient? If what you design produces something that’s noxious, shouldn’t that be a sign? Shouldn’t that be an OBVIOUS sign?

Excess is just part of our culture now. Its one of the worst ideas America has exported to the rest of the planet. It affects how we design things. It’s effecting more than just that. I don’t know how we get back to making sense again, or if we maybe just skipped right over that part. The concept of optimization is growing, and that’s some hope. Success is not just a single factor measure. Optimization always involves two factors in balance, such as strength per weight. Sometimes its more complex than that.

As engineers we need to kick back against the “more excess is better” idea that has overtaken us. It’s an often-quoted aphorism that I’ve railed against many times, but sometimes it’s true: Consumers don’t know what they want until you tell them. Marketers push excess. Maybe its time for a new set of marketers.

The quirky movie Wall-E drove this idea home like a pile driver. There was no real subtle metaphor, this was a literal depiction of the extremes of excess consumerism. If you didn’t see it, you can’t really be blamed, it was a strange movie. No dialog for the first 10 minutes, and then when the dialog started it was (literally) robotic, and not very interesting. The gist of the story was that people had bought and discarded so much stuff that the cities were piled with trash, and the big corporation that was profiting from all the trash (Buy-N-Large – still no subtlety there) took everyone on Earth on a space cruise until the robots could clean it up. On the cruise humans lost bone mass because they were carried around on anti-gravity couches, were all blob-shaped, were at the whim of corporate suggestion (Orange!! its the new Blue!!!) and constantly drank 64 oz cups of whatever Buy-N-Large was serving. So they all come home when a robot discovers a plant on Earth. Netflix it. It’s worth the two hours of your time if it makes you think a little.

The movie is a bit of a spectacle, an extreme vision of dystopian future, and did I mention it was quirky? But you get the point. Excess is not sustainable. Engineers, as part of the process of producing excess, need to be part of the solution. Yes, it’s also a social issue, and engineers only produce what society wants them to produce, but again, consumers are very suggestible, and if we start suggesting good things for a change, maybe society can start making some better choices.


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