Tag Archives: sustainability

Happy New Year!

Decorative photograph of sculpture of a skeletal person leading a skeletal dinosaurThis year I have written about 20,000 words in 52 posts (including this one); and, since this is the last post of the year, I thought I would take a brief look back at what has preoccupied me in 2021.  Perhaps, not surprisingly the impact of the coronavirus on our lifestyle has featured regularly – almost every week for a month between mid-March and mid-April when we were in lockdown in the UK.  However, the other topics that I have written about frequently are my research on the dynamics of nanoparticles and, in the last six months, on dealing with uncertainty in digital engineering and decision making.  I have also returned several times to innovation processes and transitioning lab-based research into industry.  While following the COP26 in early November, I wrote a series of three posts focussed on energy consumption and the paradigm shifts required to slow down climate change.  There are some connections between these topics: viruses are nanoparticles whose transport and dynamics we do not fully understand; and, digital engineering tools are being used to explore zero-carbon approaches to, for example, energy generation and air transport.  The level of complexity, innovation and urgency associated with developing solutions to these challenges mean that there are always some unknowns and uncertainty when making associated decisions.

The links below are grouped by the topics mentioned above.  I expect there will be more on all of these topics in 2022; however, the topic of next week’s post is unknown because I have not written any posts in advance.  I hope that the uncertainty about the topic of the next post will keep you reading in 2022! 

Coronavirus pandemic: ‘Distancing ourselves from each other‘ on January 13th, 2021; ‘On the impact of writing on well-being‘ on March 3rd, 2021; ‘Collegiality as a defence against pandemic burnout‘ on March 24th, 2021; ‘It’s tiring looking at yourself‘ on March 31st, 2021; ‘Switching off and walking in circles‘ on April 7th, 2021; ‘An upside to lockdown‘ on April 14th, 2021; ‘A brief respite in a long campaign to overcome coronavirus‘ on June 23rd, 2021; and ‘It is hard to remain positive‘ November 3rd 2021.

Energy and climate change: ‘When you invent the ship, you invent the shipwreck‘ on August 25th, 2021; ‘It is hard to remain positive‘ November 3rd 2021; ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021; ‘Disruptive change required to avoid existential threats‘ on December 1st, 2021; and ‘Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee‘ on December 8th, 2021.

Innovation processes: ‘Slowly crossing the valley of death‘ on January 27th, 2021; ‘Out of the valley of death into a hype cycle?‘ on February 24th, 2021; ‘Innovative design too far ahead of the market?‘ on May 5th, 2021 and ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021.

Nanoparticles: ‘Going against the flow‘ on February 3rd, 2021; ‘Seeing things with nanoparticles‘ on March 10th, 2021; and ‘Nano biomechanical engineering of agent delivery to cells‘ on December 15th, 2021.

Uncertainty: ‘Certainty is unattainable and near-certainty is unaffordable‘ on May 12th, 2021; ‘Neat earth objects make tomorrow a little less than certain‘ on May 26th, 2021; ‘Negative capability and optimal ambiguity‘ on July 7th, 2021; ‘Deep uncertainty and meta ignorance‘ on July 21st, 2021; ‘Somethings will always be unknown‘ on August 18th, 2021; ‘Jigsaw puzzling without a picture‘ on October 27th, 2021; and, ‘Do you know RIO?‘ on November 17th, 2021.

Where we are and what we have

Pie chart showing green house gas emissions by sectorIn his closing statement at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month, António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN stated that ‘Science tells us that the absolute priority must be rapid, deep and sustained emissions reductions in this decade. Specifically – a 45% cut by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.’   About three-quarters of global green house gas emissions are carbon dioxide (30.4 billions tons in 2010 according to the IEA). A reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 would reduce this to 16.7 billion tons or an average of about 2 tons per person per year (tCO2/person/yr) allowing for the predicted 9% growth in the global population to 8.5 billion people by 2030. This requires the average resident of Asia, Europe and North America to reduce their carbon emissions to about a half, a quarter and a tenth respectively of their current levels (3.8, 7.6 & 17.6 tCO2/person/yr respectively, see the graphic below and ‘Two Earths‘ on August 13th, 2012).  These are massive reductions to achieve in a very short timescale, less than a decade.  Lots of people are talking about global and national targets; however, very few people have any idea at all about how to achieve the massive reductions in emissions being talked about at COP26 and elsewhere.  The graphic above shows global greenhouse gas emissions by sector with almost three-quarters arising from our use of energy to make stuff (energy use in industry: 24%), to move stuff and us (transport: 16%), and to use stuff and keep us comfortable (energy use in building: 17.5%).  Hence, to achieve the target reductions in emissions and prevent the temperature of the planet rising more than 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, we need to stop making, buying, moving and consuming stuff.  We need to learn to live with our local climate because cooling and heating buildings consumes energy and heats the planet.  And, we need to use public transport, a bicycle or walk.  By the way, for stuff read all matter, materials, articles, i.e., everything!  We will need to be satisfied with where we are and what we have, to learn to love old but serviceable belongings [see ‘Loving the daily current of existence‘ on August 11th, 2021 and ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2013].

Infographic showing CO2 emission by region and wealth

When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck

I recently came across this quote from Paul Virilio, a French philosopher who lived from 1932 to 2018.  Actually, it is only the first part of a statement he made during an interview with Philippe Petit in 1996.  ‘When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.’  These events have a catastrophic level of negativity; however, there is a more insidious form of negativity induced by every new technology. It arises as a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics which demands that the entropy of the universe increases in all real processes.  In other words, that the degree of disorder in the universe is increased every time we use technology to do something useful, in fact whenever anything happens the second law ensures some negativity.  This implies that the capacity to do something useful, often measured in terms of energy, is decreased not just by doing the useful thing but also by creating disorder.  Technology helps us to do more useful things more quickly; but the downside is that faster processes tend to create more entropy and disorder.  Most of this negativity is not as obvious as a shipwreck or plane crash but instead often takes the form of pollution that eventually and inexorably disrupts the world making it a less hospitable home for us and the rest of nature.  The forthcoming COP26 conference is generating much talk about the need for climate action but very little about the reality that we cannot avoid the demands of the second law and hence need to rethink how, when and what technology we use.


Elaine Moore, When Big Dating leaves you standing, FT Weekend, July 8th, 2021.

Paul Virilio, and Petit Philippe. Politics of the Very Worst, New York: Semiotext(e), 1999, p. 89 (available from https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-very-worst).

Are these the laws of engineering?

While shopping on-line for books during a pandemic lockdown allows you to buy new books, I found it difficult browse online and find new authors. Perhaps because the algorithms employed by the booksellers are too busy guessing my interests or promoting the latest book that they want me to buy. So it was a pleasure to be able to walk into a bookshop again in a couple of months ago. One of the new authors that I discovered was Niall Williams. I have just finished reading his 2019 novel ‘This is happiness‘ which weaves together the life of an Irish village in which nothing ever changes until the coming of electricity, a tale of coming of age and another of burying the past. In the middle of this beautifully-told story, a salesman is extolling the virtues of the electrical gadgets that they can install in their new electrified homes and says that ‘the first law of engineering was to make the world a better place’. The narrator quietly tells us the second law, which the salesman doesn’t state, ‘that without exception everything that was engineered would one day break down … usually one day after each machine had become indispensable to living’. This is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics, which is that entropy, or disorder, increases in all real processes. Hence, the localised order, which we create when something is engineered, is constantly being eroded until eventually the disorder leads to a break down. Or, as Murphy’s law states ‘Anything that can go wrong will go wrong’. However, the definition of the first law of engineering was the one that caught my eye and resonated with a corny introduction that I used in a talk on why we need to change the way we teach engineering. I played a recording of Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world‘ and then talked about the wonderful world that engineers have created before highlighting the unsustainable environmental costs of our ‘wonderful’ engineered world and that it is inaccessible to a large portion of the world’s population. I gave that talk many times to groups of engineering professors in the USA between about 2006 and 2012; maybe I had some impact but there is still a lot of changes needed to achieve a sustainable society. So, the first law of engineering should be to make the world a better place for everyone.


Niall Williams, This is happiness, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019