Abhinav Kumar Shukla
Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology
Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India
Society today must face the question of whether it can sustain opportunity and freedom and quality of life generally. Engineers, who design the means by which society provides for its needs, must have an especially clear grasp of the question, set forth if possible in terms readily assimilated by engineering considerations.
Resource issues have perhaps the broadest practical implications of any we face, as citizens or as engineers. Traditional industrial technology has always depended on sheer volume of resources to overwhelm problems, and engineers have always been trained to think along those lines. In the face of limits becoming obvious today, the old industrial paradigm of unlimited growth is unsustainable, since it requires unlimited drawdowns of limited planetary resource storages, and unlimited environmental capacity to absorb externalities. Engineering conceived in terms of that paradigm is likewise unsustainable. What we need is an entirely new paradigm for the way we design industrial technology, and that paradigm is sustainability. To achieve sustainability, we need sustainable engineering.
Many serious difficulties confront our world, and we hear predictions of disaster. “But the future is not inevitability; it is a choice”. We do not face disaster unless we make disastrous choices. Engineers bear a special responsibility to inform society regarding the practical implications of its choices. The sustainability of ecosystems (including the human component) is perhaps the most pressing question in environmental management today. From the effects of environmental change to the viability of human development, we are facing radically new questions about the relationship between environment and society. Even though we have progressed by leaps and bounds what remains is a humble look into the needs of our coming generations, “the importance of earth observation lies in the very fact that it gives a lucid idea about the changing face of Earth”. Satellites support businesses for sustainable development and help to measure the changes on a wider scale. Once the levels of consumption and degradation are measured, a set optimal level of each must be agreed upon or else the findings are rendered useless, thus leading to a sustainable society around. The Earth’s life support systems are in peril. As a species, humans are not living sustainably and are accelerating towards collapse of the natural capital on which human society and its economy depends. Though it is not always heard, sustainable development is an urgent issue, and has been for many years, though political will has been slow-paced at best.
Society has valued industrial technology because society has perceived industry as offering choices. At the same time, industry has created problems we can no longer avoid. The list is familiar: acid rain, toxic waste, greenhouse effect, resource exhaustion, etc. Some people insist that to maintain the benefits of industry, we must continue designing and using technology in the same outmoded and increasingly dangerous way. Those who believe instead that the future is a choice know we can fully understand our alternatives only through more realistic engineering analysis, creating the basis for a new engineering that offers genuine technical and social alternatives responsive to actual needs. It makes quite a difference whether you look at sustainable development as just an environmental issue, or alternatively as a multidimensional challenge in the three dimensions: economic, environmental, and social.
How should we conceive of sustainable engineering? What does it mean, and what kinds of technologies does it imply? To answer these questions, we need a resource oriented variation of a concept that ecologists refer to as “carrying capacity.” When properly modified, the idea of carrying capacity enables us to formulate a very clear generalized definition of sustainability. The term “carrying capacity” originated in entirely new field of population biology, and ordinarily it is defined in terms of the population being carried by the resources of an environment. We must instead conceive of it in terms of the resources that carry the population and the consumption of (impact on) those resources by the population.
It is crucial to understand that the history of the last ten thousand years or so has been the history of more or less deliberate human attempts to evade the establishment of a stabilized phase for the human species, which apparently had reached a critical population density in most areas of the world about 10,000 years ago. At that time, human population density was reaching a point that forced human groups to choose whether to limit population and continue their primal (hunting-gathering) lifestyle in a stable, biologically diverse environment, or develop agriculture and support an endlessly increasing population in an ever more intensely stressed environment. Ecologically, this was a choice between the dependable high biomass/production ratio characterizing natural ecosystems and the precarious high production/biomass ratio that old paradigm agriculture desperately strives to maintain as it inevitably approaches the Liebig limit of the soil. As we know, the predominating human choice was agriculture and unlimited population growth, generally following the exponential trend typical of agricultural population growth, and inevitably resulting in our familiar human history of periodic famine and war along with constant political tyranny in most times and places.
There has been an adverse effect on the biodiversity and climate around the world, here again earth observation has helped us to keep a vigil on changing statistics, and helped us frame future policies. Research experiments had shown that concentrations of carbon dioxide began rising about 8,000 years ago. Around 3,000 years later, methane levels also began climbing. Both carbon dioxide and methane are heat trapping gases that contribute to the global warming problem. It is thought that human activity related to farming, primarily agricultural deforestation and crop irrigation, could have helped spike the methane and carbon dioxide levels in the earth.
The environmental problems stem from the activities concerned with agriculture, manufacturing, extraction, transportation, housing, energy, and services — all driven by the demand of consumers, commercial entities, and government. But in addition, there are effects of these activities on the amount, security, and skill of employment, the nature and conditions of work, and purchasing power associated with wages. An increasing concern is economic inequity stemming from inadequate and unequal purchasing power within and between nations – and for the workers/citizens of the future.
At a global level, inequity and inequality of opportunity lie at the heart of global instability, terror and wars. If the world is to survive and prosper, there will need to be a drastic change in conventional values, economic structures and social arrangements. Developed nations must also help underdeveloped nations to plan development in the context of the globalised interdependence of all human populations on each other and on the natural world. There must now be a transition towards sustainability.
“Together we can and we will make a difference”.
Abhinav Kumar Shukla