Canadian Consulting Engineer

Designing a Sustainable Future

Clean air, clean water, waste reduction and recycling, reduced emissions, hazardous waste clean up.... These are part of a long string of environmental accomplishments made possible in large part by t...

June 1, 2001  By William A. Wallace, P.Eng., Chair, CH2M Hill

Clean air, clean water, waste reduction and recycling, reduced emissions, hazardous waste clean up…. These are part of a long string of environmental accomplishments made possible in large part by the work of engineers. It’s been almost 40 years since Rachael Carson’s book Silent Spring warned us about the dangers of chemicals in the environment. Responding to public concern and working with a myriad of environmental laws and regulations, the engineering community developed new technologies to cut air emissions, treat industrial and municipal wastewater, and clean up contaminated soils. Today we in Canada and the U.S. enjoy a noticeably cleaner environment and a better quality of life thanks to advances in environmental technology and a substantial investment by business and government, and the efforts and creativity of engineers.

At the same time, technological advances in environmental monitoring and assessment have revealed a whole new set of environmental problems — serious problems that bring into question whether our quality of life is sustainable. Today, there is hard evidence that we are extracting and stressing our ecological resources to such a degree that we are jeopardizing the survival of future generations. The Ogallala aquifer, used by cities and farmers in the mid-western U.S., is drying up. Seventy per cent of coastal fishing areas of the world are fully or over-exploited. Global warming caused by energy production, transportation, and other industrial activities, is expected to raise sea levels, devastating many coastal areas. Recent massive flooding in the U.S. and other parts of the world has been linked to deforestation and climate change, and the loss of ecological systems to new construction.

These problems are by-products of the production-consumption model of our industrial age, a “take-make-waste” model that draws freely on energy, materials and ecological resources under the assumption that they are limitless. And, as engineers, we help perpetuate this model. For the most part, our efforts are directed towards finding cheaper ways to extract more resources, not on ways to recycle or use less. Inner cities with their existing infrastructures are left to decay, while we claim more open lands, and add to our sprawl. We solve transportation gridlock by adding more highways instead of rethinking our transportation systems. We figure out ways to access more of our limited water resources rather than finding ways to demand less or recycle what we have.

Today, the engineering community is uniquely positioned to provide leadership for the good of economies at home and around the world. Not only do we possess the predictive tools to see these impending problems, we also possess the technological tools and creativity to help solve them. It seems we have two choices. The first choice is to do what we have always done: tinker with the current production-consumption model hoping to make incremental changes while navigating from crisis to crisis. The second and far better choice is to use our vision and tools to lead our economies out of this impending crisis and into a new industrial age of sustainable development.

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To lead, the engineering community must take on five tasks:

1. Develop a strong business case for sustainable development. For the most part, sustainable development is currently portrayed as a noble cause without much practical application. Corporate CEOs, faced with increasing competition, cost pressures and a rapidly changing business environment, need solid proof that becoming sustainable will help their companies survive and be profitable. The business case does exist. It needs to be communicated.

2. Develop technologies that foster sustainable growth while maintaining and enhancing quality of life. Sustainable development is a string of design problems: how do you produce products and services that use fewer critical resources, release fewer contaminants, contain less toxins, and can be recycled, but offer the same quality at an equal or lower cost? Clearly these are complex and difficult problems. At the same time, they are invigorating problems that stretch our thinking and create whole new markets and technical disciplines. They are also the kind of problems that excite and attract our young engineers.

3. Become leaders as well as doers. Our vision and tools put us in a unique position to lead the way into a new industrial age. To do so we must become part of the policy-making process. Unfortunately, most engineers are not comfortable working in this arena.

4. Teach others about the problems with our current production-consumption model and the concepts of sustainable development. To reset our course toward sustainability, we need to develop simple messages that explain the rationale behind sustainable development and the need for action. On a global scale this problem is daunting. How do you teach a world composed of a myriad of political boundaries, religions, value systems and levels of economic development how to work together to manage the global commons?

5. Learn more about the impending problems of non-sustainable behaviour and the requisite technologies needed to solve them. Although the negative effects of the current model are becoming more evident, we still have a lot to learn about the current state of our resources and ecological systems. At the same time, we need to learn how to gauge our progress towards sustainability, and begin to develop the technologies needed to move forward.

“These problems are by-products of the production-consumption model of our industrial age, a “take-make- waste” model.”

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