an age obsessed with quantifying everything, how do we turn numbers into action when we have
become a nation immune to scale? And there's no better example of this than
what we've seen occur with the severe recession and its various remedies over
the past few years where thousands turned into millions, then billions, and now
trillions with such ease that anyone hardly takes note any longer.
When numbers cease to have
meaning, what then? This is particularly true as we work to bring about a green
shift in engineering.
More than a few technology
companies have profited from the innate consumerism we all harbor within. The
must-have device purchased today becomes passÚ so quickly that we find ourselves in a never-ending cycle of
seeking the next device that will establish our "tech cred" with our friends
and colleagues. This of course fuels innovation, but it comes with a long-term cost we are just now
beginning to appreciate.
Take for example the emergence of
cells phones over the last two decades. This marvel has changed our lives for
the better in countless ways, but we are only now starting to see the troubling
environmental underside of this communications revolution. When our collective
need to upgrade this technology is accumulated across our population, the
environmental impact becomes significant. Estimates vary, but as a global
population we discard more than 700 million cell phones each year. Of course,
other technologies and industries have similar impacts on our environment, but
the phone - seemingly an extension of ourselves - crystallizes a key issue for
us engineers: We all want to work on the next awesome piece of technology, but
don't want to have to be burdened with the reality that our success will lead
to an accumulated environmental impact.
This has posed a real challenge
for educating future engineers: How do we broaden our young students'
perspectives from one of "design for performance" to include "design for
obsolescence" particularly when waste at the individual levels seems so
To bring this issue to life, we
are trying something new at my own engineering school. As a supplement to often
dry federal reports, we have recently brought the powerful show Running
Chris Jordan to the very heart of our main engineering building.
iconic collection of images of consumerism and technology provides the
opportunity for our future engineers to physically confront an engineering
issue that is awaiting their best ideas (http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/
). Reactions are often strong - there is a tendency by some in the
engineering community to dismiss these works. But their real power is that they
are images of facts - indisputable facts about rampant consumerism and
technology's codependence upon this most human of traits.