What can I do about our global resource problems?

On Saturday I posted Hacking the Free Market. You may have noticed the “deep-thoughts” tag I attached… that’s just a catch-all tag I use to warn readers that I’m headed off-topic in some kind of meandering way. In this post, I want to follow along with that post, but bring the discussion back to the topic of automation and engineering.

To summarize my previous post:

  • We haven’t solved the problem of how to manage global resources like the atmosphere and the oceans
  • The market isn’t factoring in the risk of future problems into the cost of the products we derive from these resources
  • I can’t think of a solution

Just to put some background around it, I wrote that post after reading an article titled “Engineers: It’s Time to Work Together and Save the World” by Joshua M. Pearce, PhD, in the March/April 2011 issue of Engineering Dimensions. In the article, Dr. Pearce is asking all of Ontario’s engineers to give up one to four hours of their spare time every week to tackle the problem of climate change in small ways. His example is to retrofit the pop machines in your office with microcontrollers hooked to motion sensors that will turn off the lights and turn off the compressor at times when nobody is around. He offers spreadsheets on his website which let you calculate if there’s a payback.

Now I’m not an economist, but I’m pretty sure that not only would this not help the problem of dwindling resources, but unless we also start factoring the future cost of fossil fuel usage into the cost of the energy, these actions that Dr. Pearce is suggesting will make the situation worse. When we use technology to utilize a resource more efficiently, we increase the demand for that resource. This is a fundamental principle.

I’m not saying it isn’t a good thing to do. It’s a great thing to do for the economy. Finding more efficient ways to utilize resources is what drives the expansion of the economy, but it’s also driving more demand for our resources. The fact that we’re mass marketing energy conservation as the solution to our resource problems is a blatant lie, and yet it’s a lie I hear more and more.

That’s where I was at when I wrote the previous article. “How can I, a Professional Engineer and Automation Enthusiast, do something that can make a real difference for our global resource problems?”

I’m afraid the answer I’ve come up with is, “nothing”. My entire job, my entire career, and all of my training… indeed my entire psychology… is driven towards optimizing systems. I make machines that transform raw materials into finished products, and I make them faster, more efficient, and more powerful. I don’t know who is going to solve our global resource problems, but I don’t think it’s going to be someone in my line of work. It’s like asking a fish to climb Mt. Everest.

I think the solution lies somewhere in the hands of politicians, lawyers, and voters. We do a so-so job of managing resources on a national scale, but we’d better extend that knowledge to a global scale, and do it quick. There might even be technical solutions that will help, but I think these will come from the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and material science, not automation.

In the mean time, I’m going to continue blogging, contributing to online Q&A sites, writing tutorials, and writing open source software and releasing it for free, because I believe these activities contribute a net positive value to the world. If you’re an automation enthusiast or engineer reading this, I urge you to consider doing something similar. It is rewarding.

3 thoughts on “What can I do about our global resource problems?

  1. John

    This is an interesting post and I commend your open source software work, tutorials, and providing free access to useful information for others.

    I do question a few of your ideas here.

    First it is no longer clear that the Jevons paradox (where increases in efficiency are eaten up by catalyzing increased consumption) still applies in advanced economies like our own (see discussion here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox#Energy_conservation_policy. I think it is becoming ever clearer that it no longer applies.

    Yes maybe I drive more in my hybrid honda civic than I would in normal civic but I still end up using less overall gasoline. As individuals, companies, or society as a whole we don’t want to use energy for the sake of it – we want the services it provides (e.g. getting somewhere in a car). If you make lighting more efficient – e.g. by moving to LEDs from incandescents – you quantitatively use less energy from lighting because you only need so much light.

    A second problem I have with this post is the comment in relation to energy conservation as “It’s a great thing to do for the economy.” Increasing energy efficiency makes good economic sense for the individual, but will DECREASE the overall economic activity. Every $ earned as a “return” in the thinking of the article (http://www.peo.on.ca/DIMENSIONS/marapr2011/Policy%20Engagement.pdf ) is actually eliminating profit from an energy company and reducing overall economic activity. Everyone might be doing it to put more $ in their own pocket – but the result is reducing our load on the environment.

    Thus I would say people like you could potentially have an enormous impact on reducing global energy use. Leaving it up to politicians that have already been bought by those that profit from energy waste is never going to work.

  2. Scott Whitlock Post author

    @John – thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    I agree that *you* might not use more gas if you switch to a Civic, but if someone like me was doing a cost-benefit analysis at work about using energy source 1 vs. energy source 2, and some technology allowed me to get twice as much useful work out of energy source 2, my cost-benefit analysis skews me towards that source.

    At home we tend to just consume to the full extent of our income (minus savings, for some people). At work, however, if we have an equation where (inputs) = (outputs + profit), we’re motivated to maximize the size of that equation. We always expand our business when we find a profitable enterprise. If we have an industry that depends upon fossil fuels as an input, and you make fossil fuels cheaper, that means more profit, and we’ll increase production (as long as there’s demand).

    While I agree that *I* feel like I have enough stuff now, I don’t think most people are ready to stop buying stuff, so demand is still increasing.

  3. Pingback: The Role of the Engineer · Contact and Coil

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