Societal Behavior and/or Technological Innovations

One of the greatest (and worst) things about university life is the fact that there is always something going on. Every other room is occupied by a group of people at almost any point in the day, the problem is finding out about the events that you are interested. I make it a little habit of mine to check the event schedule of the college of engineering and keep an eye out in the Cornell Daily Sun or on walls for advertisements of interesting events that I would like to go to. I had marked two seminars that I wanted to check out this past week, one entitled “Ethical Issues Arising from Global Change” and the other was “Engineering for the 21st Century: The Challenge of Sustainability.” Both seminars sounded pretty interesting, and since I didn’t have any prelims this week, I thought it’d be a nice change of pace to go listen to some guest speakers.

So the first seminar I went to was “Ethical Issues” on Monday, it was the last in a speaker series designed for an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences undergraduate class, although anyone was welcome to attend. The speaker was Professor Sara Pritchard who teaches Environmental Ethics at Cornell. She briefly talked about three different philosophical viewpoints on how to deal with the current climate crisis.  The first was Equal Emissions per Capita which basically means the entire world sets some acceptable amount of emissions and then divides up the emissions allowance to each country based on population.  The second was Right to Subsistence which I believe meant that each country was allowed to emit only enough pollutants and chemicals necessary to guarantee basic human rights. Finally, Priority to the Poorest was a school of thought that would make the industrialized countries most responsible for the climate clean-up (as they were the ones who contributed to the problem the most) while they would assist developing countries in sustainable growth. Professor Pritchard gave a few points on the possible flaws of each reasoning and then explored further the topic of who should take responsibility for global climate change and what should be done about it. All in all, I found the seminar great in giving an overview of certain philosophical schools of thought on Global Warming. Drafting policies regarding global climate change is certainly no easy task, but after the seminar, I had a new appreciation for the complexity of such issues. Assigning responsibility to certain people is always a hard task, especially if singling out a group of countries means that they have to spend quite a bit of money in making amends for the environmental damage done. Ethics is certainly an interesting issue, especially in relation to technical fields such as engineering, where the main goal may not be the advancement of humanity, but technology (and in some cases, is it really that different?).

After Professor Pritchard’s piece, I was prepared to leave, but discovered that there was actually a second speaker that was to present at the seminar, so I stuck around. The speaker was Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a writer on three books on climate change. I admit when I found out that she was here to talk about the issue of Hydrofraking, I was hesitant to stay. I had heard and seen snippits of the issue of Hydrofraking around campus, mostly in relation to environmental groups protesting the practice of hydrofraking, so I knew that it was a hot environmental topic. I knew the basics of what hydrofraking was, and frankly that was really all I wanted to know in order to distance myself away from possible political messes. But when I heard that Dr. Steingraber was devoting $100,000 that she had recieved as an award towards the advancement of anti-fraking, I became curious and wanted to know why she was so passionate about this topic. Plus, it didn’t hurt to stay a little longer, the worst that would come out of it is that I learned some new things.

Dr. Steingraber described the issue of hydrofraking and its harmful chemical effects to not only the environment, but also to human health. Her area of focus in biology is toxicology and public health, and as such, she writes about the effects of the environment on human health. I found the topic quite intriguing as often times environmentalists are accused of placing the needs of the natural world above those of humanity and the economy. But in this case, protecting and preserving the environment actually has a positive effect on human health.  What really struck me was Dr. Steingraber’s passion towards the movement towards renewable energy and end to the use of fossil fuels. She even went as far as to liken the clean-energy movement to that of the civil right movement in that this was an issue that needs unified support in the face of a skeptical society. It’s very hard to get an entire society to change, and it’s even harder when the immediate effects of the change are no visible. No one wants to pay for even more expensive energy during the time period of transition between fossil fuels and renewables, but in the end, would you rather pay for it now, or later when it the prices may be even higher? I do not consider myself a passionate advocate for environmental protection – I certainly don’t go on marches or attend rallies and protests – but I definitely feel strongly about the issue and prefer to show my support through my work, not necessarily my words (which is slightly ironic seeing as I am writing this all out). But Dr. Steingraber also mentioned that during the abolitionist movement, there were some people that tried to  compromise between the two sides and suggested that half of the state could have slavery and the other half could be free. These people were seen as heroes sometimes during their time, but now they are seen as people that only got in the way of progress and slowed the transition. And while compromise is often defined as a solution where no one is happy, in pressing issues such as environmental sustainability, compromise does more than just make people unhappy, it can inadvertently make the problem worse. I don’t really have a very concrete set of unshakable values, especially politically, I see that as stubbornness and then nothing gets done either. I strongly advocate listening before arguing to understand both sides of the issue. But there are some issues, especially related to development and sustainability that I feel very strongly about and from what I gathered from Dr. Steingraber, compromise is not something the earth can afford. It was certainly an interesting thought to me.

On Friday, I attended another seminar, offered by the Systems Engineering Department entitled  “Engineering for the 21st Century: The Challenge of Sustainability.” The presentation was given by Syracuse University Dr. Cliff I. Davidson who is also the head of the Center for Sustainable Engineering. His talk covered what makes a sustainable city and building using the systems engineering approach. He then talked about resource uses and how the current engineering curriculum reflects sustainable principles. He showed some studies and it seemed that Mechanical Engineering had the largest number of classes dealing with sustainable issues while Electrical Engineering had the least overall (which agrees with my assumption, although I would have thought Civil, Chem or Bio would have been higher than Mech). Even if they focus on technological advances, a good innovation is a sustainable one (not just in environment, but societal and economic sustainability). I’m pretty sure that I was the only undergraduate that attended the seminar, and if I wasn’t, I was definitely the only freshman. I wonder if anyone notices, or if I can actually pass as someone who actually knows what he is talking about. What really struck me about the talk was that the discussion slowly progressed to the talk of trying to change society’s values to a more sustainable lifestyle. There was talk of somewhat ethics-related ideas about whether society should change, or should technology change in order to create a sustainable world. It is pretty widely agreed that changing a society’s behavior and lifestyle is extremely difficult, and some studies have concluded that more effort should be placed in making technology more efficient so that human behavior doesn’t have to, but I disagree. While I agree that behavior is extremely hard to change, I think it still needs to, or maybe altered so that there are more incentives for greener lifestyles, even if it utilizes a person’s selfish desires. If you can get someone to be green so that they get something in return (usually immediately) it doesn’t really matter what the reasoning was behind the action, the point is that they changed. At least, that’s what I think. The other issue with making technology more efficient without behavioral change is the production of the rebound effect. For example: we don’t have to stop driving Hummers, we just have to make them more efficient. Or, still on the topic of cars, the fact that the most driven car is the Prius. People think that if they spent a little extra money on purchasing efficient and environmentally friendly technologies they are allowed to indulge a little more. It doesn’t work that way, and in some cases, it can make the situation worse. Changing a society’s behavior is extremely difficult but it’s one agenda I think needs to be researched further – how can we make the self-interested human interested in sustainability? By somehow making it in his/her self-interest.

The world is rapidly expanding, we just recently past the 7 billion mark on human population, and while some groups believe the human population will top out at 10 billion, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem. The largest growing cities are the ones in majority world countries, and because of this, there exists an important window to jump on. As these cities grow and develop there is a need for better planning and efficient technologies. We don’t want these new mega cities to repeat the same mistakes that western cities have made, the Earth simply can’t afford it. Even though developing cities are utilizing more biomass energy (renewables) than their developed counterparts, they are still using more energy then they are producing. An interesting fact I learned from the seminar, if the world wanted to use fossil fuels sustainably (meaning consumption equaled production of fuels) then the entire world could only run 100 cars. Our current lifestyle is addicted to energy, and in some ways we can try to remedy the situation by looking at it as an addiction.

Also, Dr. Davidson noted that engineers aren’t really leading the way in sustainability, it seems that Architects have taken up that role. While I think Architecture is awesome, I also think that engineers should be pushing the sustainable agenda a little harder. My main avenue to the issue of sustainability wasn’t engineering, it was architecture. I think it may be partly due to the aesthetic nature of the architecture profession that attracts the general public. Engineers traditionally don’t focus on social awareness of their issues, but it’s beginning to be a rising topic. I think it is also partly due to the somewhat restricted area of study engineers have, especially in regards to Civil Engineering. Way back when, civil engineers used to be the architects, the planners and the structural engineers, they pretty much did everything. But then we had the creation of the architectural discipline, which took away the civil engineer’s need to be aesthetically and somewhat socially educated. And with the rise of the Urban and Regional Planning profession, the civil engineer was completely disconnected from the human aspect of their projects, at least, in my opinion. I also think these branches of the built environment have somewhat restricted the civil engineer’s ability to innovate, but I’ll talk about that some other time. But I think as time progresses, the emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration is growing in order to address the issue of sustainability. In a way, the professions are once again merging.

The seminars I attended this past week are somewhat connected in the issues of activism. Do we change society’s behavior or improve technology for a sustainable world? Or do we utilize a combination of the two (probably, it’s rarely an either/or answer these days)? All fields have a responsibility to sustainability, not just the technological or environmental. How exactly does one person address the issue vs an entire civilization? I read an article about how green movements encourage people to use less energy, recycle and all that, but in the end, it really is a societal change that is required, not just an individual one. I think the issue needs to spread into the general public, not just environmental movements, but sustainable ones, addressing all facets of the topic. But I think its important to note that the changes proposed are human-centered. By this I mean that the solutions talk about changing human interactions and lifestyles, not natural ones. Changing nature to fit our lifestyle is what got us in this mess, now we have to start changing behavior and technology to fit nature’s lifestyle. I guess that’s what I got out of these seminars. I figure I should have some sort of point I’m trying to make if I spend all this time writing about the seminars I attended.

Anyway, just some thought and reactions towards the two (or three) seminars I went to this past week. I enjoy going to these events because they really put into perspective the current technical education I am undertaking. It’s a way for me to be involved and learn about engineering (and other disciplines) without picking up a calculator or textbook.

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