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.