Canadian Consulting Engineer

Facing up to a wall of troubles

Engineering is a vocation for optimists. It is all about fixing and creating things, and improving the world for people's benefit. You have to have a positive vision in order to build things and move ahead.

January 1, 2011   By Bronwen Parsons

Engineering is a vocation for optimists. It is all about fixing and creating things, and improving the world for people’s benefit. You have to have a positive vision in order to build things and move ahead.

Which is a good thing, considering the gloomy forecasts I’ve been hearing lately. Take climate change. All kinds of government departments and other organizations are doing studies about the impact of climate change on our roads, water systems and other infrastructure.

But you only had to see the vast scale of the flooding in Queensland in January to know that the plans we make could be in vain. It is probably unrealistic to think that we will ever have the financial resources to build infrastructure that is robust enough to withstand the natural forces unleashed in every possible future catastrophe.

Besides all that, a report just came out from some Canadian climate change researchers that paints an even grimmer picture than most. The report, published in Nature Geoscience Advance Online on January 9, says that even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases altogether now, the continuing melting of glaciers and ice sheets will raise sea levels by at least four metres over the next millennium. Oceans would flood vast lowland and coastal areas, and cause lots of other havoc.

Co-author of the report, Professor Shawn Marshall of the University of Calgary, told Associated Press: “We were kind of surprised by the result, actually. Even if we change behaviour and totally change society, we’re still in store for a lot of bad scenarios. I feel a bit defeatist from it.”

On a different tack – helping out in developing countries – I didn’t feel much better after attending a debate at the Engineers Without Borders conference in Toronto on January 14. We’re all used to hearing about the shortcomings of the old “colonial” approach to international aid, where western engineers ride in and build mega-infrastructure projects that don’t serve the local populations.

Now I was hearing from young people who have seen some equally ambivalent results from more recent aid policies, policies that profess to be “hands off” and focused on small-scale technologies. The young engineers at the debate talked of staying in the villages of Africa in the poorest homes where the solar oven, or the pedal power machine, sits in a box in the corner of the kitchen, left unused because for various reasons the equipment wasn’t practical and didn’t meet the real needs. They talked about foreign officials coming in with arrogant attitudes and preset ideas.

Still, the enthusiasm, the energy and the resourcefulness of these young people at Engineers Without Borders is hopeful and encouraging. They seem confident that they can find the right answers for helping the developing world. Even in this post-modern world, the enduring force that drives engineers and others to persevere against a wall of difficulties is the will and the desire to do good for others, whether those are people in other countries or future generations in Canada. Bronwen Parsons


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