This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic]. This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change. I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.
Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change. For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:
The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region. For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year. These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.
Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet. We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.
I remember when our children were younger, and we went on our summer holidays by car, that the car windscreen would be splattered with the remains of dead insects. This summer my wife and I drove to Cornwall and back for our holidays almost without a single insect hitting our windscreen. Where have all of the insects gone? It would appear that we, the human species, have wiped them out as a consequence of the way we exploit the planet for our own comfort and convenience. Insecticides and monocultures aided by genetically-modified crops make a direct contribution but our consumption of fossil fuels and intensive production of everything from beef [see ‘A startling result‘ on May 18th, 2016] to plastics is changing the environment [see ‘Productive cheating?‘ on November 27th, 2013]. The biologist, Edward O. Wilson observed that ‘If all humankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.’ It looks like we are on the cusp of that collapse.
Cristiana Pașca Palmer, the executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has highlighted the impact of our actions as a species on the other species with which we share this planet. We are making the planet uninhabitable for an increasing number of species to the extent that the rate of extinct is perhaps the fastest ever seen and we might be the first species to catalogue its own demise. Our politicians have demonstrated their inability to act together over climate change even when it leads to national disasters in many countries; so, it seems unlikely that they will agree on significant actions to arrest the loss of bio-diversity. We need to act as individuals, in whatever way we can, to reduce our ecological footprints – that impact that we have on the environment [see ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014] . As the Roman poet Horace wrote: ‘You are also affected when your neighbour’s house is on fire’; so, we should not think that none of this affect us.
The advertising industry is becoming a pervasive influence on us – telling us how we should eat, dress, travel, vacation, borrow, bank, insure, think and vote. We are constantly bombarded with messages designed to induce us to buy goods or services that we don’t really need and that undermine progress towards a sustainable society [see my post ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2015].
Many services are offered to us for free in order to expose us to advertisements and to collect data about our habits and interests that are put to uses about which we know little. These issues became prominent last week with the allegations about the inappropriate use of data from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica [see for example the The Guardian on March 25th, 2016]. A number of organisations have reacted by closing down their Facebook pages [see for example Reuters on March 23rd, 2018] and a #deletefacebook movement has started [see for example The Guardian on March 25th, 2016, again]. I have joined them and deleted my Facebook page as well as disconnecting this blog from Facebook. Also, in a couple of weeks I plan to stop using Twitter to disseminate this blog; so, if you receive this blog via Twitter then please start to follow it directly.
Finally, the advertisements at the bottom of my blog posts will disappear because I am paying to use WordPress instead of allowing advertising to cover the costs. A side-effect of this change is a new url: realizeengineering.blog/ So please update your bookmarks,if it doesn’t happen automatically!
I have had intermittent interactions with motorsport during my engineering career, principally with Formula 1, Formula SAE and Formula Student teams. The design, construction and competition involved in Formula Student generates tremendous enthusiasm amongst a section of the student community and enormously increases their employability. As a Department Chair at Michigan State University, I was a proud and enthusiastic sponsor of the MSU Formula SAE team. However, I find it increasingly difficult to support an activity that is associated with profligate expenditure of energy and resources – this is not the impression of engineering that should be portrayed to our current and future students. Engineering is about so much more than making a vehicle go around a track as fast as possible. See my posts on ‘Re-engineering Engineering‘ on August 30th, 2017, ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 or ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd, 2015.
There are many other challenges that could taken up by student teams, in competition if that encourages participation, which would benefit human-kind and the planet. A current hot topic in the UK media is the pollution of oceans by waste plastic [see for example BBC report]; so, engineering undergraduates could be challenged to design, construct and operate an autonomous marine vehicle that collects and processes plastic waste. It could be powered from the embedded energy in the waste plastic collected in the ocean. It would need to navigate to avoid collisions with other vessels, coastal features and wildlife, and to locate and identify the waste. These represent technological changes in chemical, control, electronic, materials and mechanical engineering – and probably some other fields as well. I have shared this concept with colleagues in Liverpool and there is some enthusiasm for it; maybe some competition from other universities is all that’s needed to get Formula Ocean started. The machine with the largest positive net impact on the environment wins!