The Elephant in the (Class)Room
Sustainability requires not just technical solutions but a change in our way of life.
Opinion by Andrew Lau
As an assignment in my First Year Seminar on Sustainability, I had students read articles about agriculture practices and food consumption, avoid eating any red meat for three days, and then write a short paper on what the experience had taught them. One student reported that his mother asked him, “What does going without eating meat have to do with engineering?”
My answer? Everything. Sustainability is the elephant in the room in engineering education, calling into question our belief in technical solutions to most problems. The way we live in the United States is not sustainable, not by a long shot. As engineering educators, we should be helping students see that sustainability presents a grand challenge not only to our technology but to our way of life. Sustainability certainly means better technologies, but it also means eating less meat. The diet of the average American takes 14 units of fossil fuel energy for every unit of food energy we eat, plus lots of water and other resources. Producing meat takes about 10 times the energy and resources as producing plants.
Mathis Wackernagel, co-creator in the 1990s of the Ecological Footprint concept, sums up sustainability by asking, “How can we all live well within the means of one planet?” One way I address this in my first-year design class is to have the students conceive a zero-energy home for a lower-income family. The budget constrains the home to be much smaller than the norm, about 1,200 square feet compared with the national new-home average size of 2,700 square feet. This requires innovative thinking about multifunction furniture, thermal integrity, natural energy from the sun, and resource-efficient appliances. Students find that the greatest impact on the performance of the home is the occupants’ behavior: thermostat settings, hanging out wash to dry, and using less water. The end result is a beautiful and functional home that has no net utility bill.
This exercise appeals to aspiring engineers and problem solvers, but it touches only part of the bigger picture. Let’s consider all people living well. Do they? As one indicator of well-being, in 2014, 15 percent of people in the United States—1 in 7—lived below the poverty level of about $20,000 for a three-person household. I doubt many would argue that they are living well. Worldwide, though poverty has declined overall, the median household income is about $10,000 a year. That means well over half of the world’s 7.6 billion people are economically poor by our standards.
Most, if not all, countries seek to raise living standards by expanding their economies. The approach sounds good until you address the other part of sustainability, living within the means of one planet. As Wackernagel and population ecologist William Rees explained the ecological footprint, the concept represents the amount of Earth’s bioproductive land and sea area it takes to supply our resources and assimilate our wastes. If everyone on Earth lived like a U.S. resident, we would need five Earths. The global footprint for all of humanity is currently 1.5 Earths, 50 percent beyond the means of one planet.
Research into planetary boundaries—biophysical boundaries that are intrinsic to the operation of Earth—has identified three crucial areas where we currently fall outside sustainable parameters: species extinction, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Estimates are that the rate of species extinction is 100 to 1,000 times more than what is natural. A proposed “safe” boundary is 10 times the natural rate. We humans are now converting more nitrogen from the air than all of the rest of Earth’s processes combined, exceeding the proposed planetary boundary by a factor of four. A proposed safe boundary for carbon dioxide is 350 parts per million. We’re now around 403 ppm, and growing at about 2 ppm per year.
Now we see that elephant more clearly. Engineering students do not handle this knowledge well. It disturbs them to see that a sustainable future isn’t mainly about efficiency or making life easier. It will mean changing what we eat, how we travel, our homes, our towns, and our expectations about the future.
As engineering educators, we must first acknowledge and understand the enormity of the challenge and then provide students with opportunities to integrate innovative technologies with innovative ways of living. To do less is to neglect our ethical charge to hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
Andrew Lau is an associate professor and coordinator of first-year seminars at the Penn State University College of Engineering.