Canadian Consulting Engineer


June 1, 2000
By Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng.

If the scenario sketched by Nicholas Sonntag at a recent seminar comes to pass, all our tomorrows could end up in a pile of social rubble. The litany of environmental ills, climate change, disappearin...

If the scenario sketched by Nicholas Sonntag at a recent seminar comes to pass, all our tomorrows could end up in a pile of social rubble. The litany of environmental ills, climate change, disappearing fish stocks, polluted and shrinking water supplies — the list is much longer — will crush us if we don’t do something drastic in a hurry.

Sonntag is president of CH2M Gore & Storrie of Toronto, and has held a number of positions in environmental policy, including chief of staff to the Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. His presentation was part of a seminar on sustainable development organized by the environment committee of Professional Engineers of Ontario in April.

Sonntag outlined a frightening scenario. He spoke of how continued consumption and population growth increases the strain on the environment. The greater competition for dwindling resources creates more conflict. Changing weather patterns cause dislocation adding to the chaos. The result of these pressures is environmental breakdown followed by social breakdown.

The disintegration could result in two outcomes. One, a breakdown which leads to the destruction of social institutions, a return to a “primitive” way of life. The other, a world in which large numbers of impoverished people surround the privileged, who live protected from the grim realities inside gated communities. More probably, the latter scenario will simply be the stage before the former. In either case, major and continual conflicts over water and other resources rule the day. If this future sounds farfetched, it is also the one described by Robert Kaplan in his well known article “The Coming Anarchy,” published in Atlantic Monthly in 1994. Kaplan makes an extremely credible argument to support his view. Sonntag is not alone.

Another speaker was Mori Mortazavi, P.Eng., chief engineer, geo-environmental and hydrogeological services at Peto MacCallum in Toronto. Mortazavi outlined the philosophical framework for sustainable development: “development that fulfils the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfil theirs.” Mortazavi emphasized that sustainable development is based on the harmony of three principles: environmental integrity, economic efficiency and social equity. Engineers are usually very well acquainted with one of these principles, that of economic efficiency.

Environmental integrity is often a problematic issue when it comes to engineering projects, and social equity is seldom considered the domain of the engineer. Despite this, Mortazavi argues that the paramount duty of engineers is public safety, health and welfare, and the protection of the environment. Ethical practice, he says, demands that these considerations override all other requirements.

While most engineers feel constrained by the economic context in which they function, Mortazavi pointed to the consequences of such limited thinking. From our hunter-gatherer ancestors to today’s wizards of information technology, we have one thing in common: dependence on earth’s natural systems and resources for our sustenance.

Sonntag challenged engineers to make sustainable development a reality by finding new ways to do business. The production-consumption model, one he characterizes as “take-make-waste,” assumes that resources are limitless, an assumption which is clearly false. “And, as engineers, we perpetuate this model,” says Sonntag. Urging pollution prevention instead of end-of-pipe solutions, he suggested that the “role of the engineer is changing from the technical innovator of the industrial revolution to agent of change in the quest for sustainable development.”

If this change in role is more wishful thinking than fact, the two case studies presented showed that at least some engineering companies have taken up the gauntlet and are starting to do something serious for the environment.

Putting intention into action

If sustainable development means that we consider the lifecycle consequences of production, one company which is seriously doing so is BMW — a fitting approach for a manufacturer of one of the most potent symbols of the industrial age with its voracious appetite for resources. Dr. Tobias Nickels is manager of corporate communications for BMW Canada. He presented the company’s comprehensive plan for environmentally sound car production and the corporate philosophy which underpins the research and development effort.

Nickel described an impressive list of technical innovations BMW is developing. The company offers natural gas cars as standard vehicles. Hydrogen, with innocuous water as the only combustion product, is their fuel of choice for the future. The manufacturer also produces cars designed for disassembly, and assembly in materials that allow for recycling and reuse. It uses a solventless paint process, saving a kilogram of solvent per car.

Just as impressive as the company’s engineering achievements are the philosophical principles that underpin their design. “As impressive” because clever engineering is expected of clever engineers. Less common are designs that articulate a social goal in the engineering endeavour. Nickels explained that BMW’s philosophy focuses on appropriate transportation, that is, transportation suited to the circumstances. For example, public transportation is more appropriate in most cities than the use of the car. BMW parts are shipped by rail rather than road. All this doesn’t mean that BMW will stop building cars, but that they will do so at least cost to the environment.

The other case study presented has a local application. Linda Churchill, P.Eng. is operations engineer for the waste management division of the regional municipality of Waterloo. In 1991, the municipality received approval for expanding its landfill site, on condition that it controlled the odours. A gas collection system was installed to capture the offending gases. These gases could also supply energy, a function that was not included in the mandate of the municipality. An agreement with a private company, Toromont Energy, allowed the municipality to overcome this obstacle. This company now generates electricity from waste gas for sale to Gerdau Courtice Steel for their furnace that recycles steel. Gases which otherwise contribute to global warming are being used to do useful work. This example shows the importance of local leadership rather than technical innovation, and the range of new thinking needed to have a successful sustainability project.

With this seminar the Environment Committee of PEO has reiterated some vital questions about the role of the engineer in our industrial society, and again issued the challenge to innovation. The case studies give a glimpse of what ingenuity can accomplish, but a great deal more is needed. Soon. CCE

Rosalind Cairncross, P.Eng. is a contributing editor of this magazine


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