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Unformatted text preview: ENVS 2150
Environment, Technology and Sustainable Society
Welcome! • What Do You Think are the Most Pressing Environmental Issues Today? • What Has Been the Impact of Humanity on the Natural Environment? • How do you, as Engineers, • understand the concept of ‘Sustainable Development’?
Does it have any relevance to your work or the work you plan to do? I.P. Gerasimov (1971: 49)
I.P. Gerasimov (1971: 49)
• “By taking energy and matter from the environment and returning them in converted—industrial, domestic and other—forms, society interferes with the dynamically balanced cycles of natural processes…The natural environment taken as a whole was able, up to a point, to withstand anthropogenic disturbances…Since the industrial revolution, the general intensity of human impact on the environment has exceeded its potential for restoration in many large areas of earth’s surface, leading to irreversible changes not only on a local but also on a regional [and now global] scale.” • If Gerasimov’s statement was true in 1971, it is • even more true today as human ingenuity (combined with a surprising level of cognitive dissonance surrounding the environmental impact of our actions) has, in the past 40 years, developed new and sophisticated means by which to concomitantly produce both socio
economic progress and environmental risks. Examples? • These are but a scant few examples of the • • impact that we have on our environment.
As such, we must envision a process, or fundamentally alter our ontological understandings regarding our action on this planet.
Consequently, a movement towards Sustainable Development with regard to our actions and our application of technology is warranted. Moving Towards a Sustainable Moving Towards a Sustainable Society?
• The reasons why sustainable development (or • sustainability) is necessary should be obvious to you by now, and will become more apparent after watching the film The 11th Hour.
The more pressing question is, what exactly is sustainable development and, processually (i.e. via ontological, epistemological and praxis
based considerations) what does it entail with regard to technological development and the work in which you will be engaged? • The second part of that question will be the focus of the latter part of this semester, but from a definitional perspective we will attempt to unpack the idea of sustainability upfront. • Sustainable Development as a concept, goal, •
• and movement has spread rapidly and is now a central component of countless national and international organizations, institutions and enterprises (e.g. triple bottom line).
However, ‘Sustainable Development’ as a concept has been, and remains, rather ambiguous.
Inherent in its name is the attempt to link that which is to be sustained with that which is to be developed. • The first prominent definition of sustainable development emerged in 1987 from the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development. The Commission found that: • “The environment does not exist as a sphere separate from human actions, ambitions, and needs, and attempts to defend it in isolation from human concerns have given the very word “environment” a connotation of naivety in some political circles. The word “development” has also been narrowed by some into a very limited focus, along the lines of “what poor nations should do to become richer,” and thus again is automatically dismissed by many in the international arena as being a concern of specialists, of those involved in questions of “development assistance.” But the “environment” is where we live; and “development” is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.” • Based on this assertion, the Commission came to define Sustainable Development as: • “the ability to make development sustainable—to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” • The two questions necessarily arising from this definition are: What is to be sustained? And, what is to be developed? • Ultimately, sustainable development, as a concept, is a •
• quite ambiguous and malleable idea.
Thus, most importantly, sustainable development must be defined in practice. This practice includes specific efforts at defining the concept, establishing goals, creating indicators, and asserting values. Typically, any movement towards sustainability would include developing social movements, organizing institutions, crafting sustainability science and technology, and negotiating compromises amongst stakeholders who are principally concerned with nature and environment, those who value economic development and those who are dedicated to improving the human condition. That is, achieving a sustainable plan will need a concerted process. Critical Assessment of Sustainable Critical Assessment of Sustainable Development
• Sustainable development is possible, however it will take •
• an earnest shift in worldview and practice—a shift in how we understand our lives, lifestyles and work—if we are to achieve this type of social/technological change.
Why would it require such an ontological and epistemological shift?
Two fold answer: 1) Many environmental risks remain at a level that evade our senses; and 2) We, as Canadians, perceive ourselves to be environmental stewards, with a strong environmental ethic. The reality is we are fooling ourselves; we are, in fact, environmental laggards. • Further, the technological and social requirements to • move from ‘business as usual’ to something fundamentally different—without drastically impacting Western lifestyles, values, or economic systems—is daunting. We are after all, hyperconsumers, firmly planted on the ‘treadmill of production’. This is an ideology, not just a ‘social fact’, and ideology is difficult to change (because ideology relates to ontology structurationally).
Most daunting of all is attaining the governmental and corporate commitment required to achieve sustainability. Example: Is Alberta’s Integrated Example: Is Alberta’s Integrated Resource Management Policy a Form of Sustainable Development?
• Implemented (in 1999) a policy based on ‘Ecological Modernization’ or a more concrete form of sustainable development in an attempt to reconcile economic growth with environmental degradation. • What emerged from this plan in Alberta, was a • • ruse. Sustainability in the form of ‘ecological modernization’ of provincial resource policy turned out to be simply ‘symbolic politics’ on the part of a province suffering from Oil and Gas agency capture.
As such, without any real political will, sustainable development in Alberta simply became a discursive shift that allowed unsustainable ‘business as usual’ continue (i.e. oil sands and CBM development. • Thus, unlike the ecomodernist form of sustainability • proffered by the Government of Alberta, effective sustainability will be achieve in the presence of clear problem statements, definitions of goals and concrete strategies for implementation.
Without a clear and focused agenda for social/economic/
technological change, all we are left with is a model of sustainability that pays lip service to preserving that which needs to be sustained, while development steams along like a runaway train. From an Engineering Perspective: From an Engineering Perspective: Why Sustainable Development?
• Since the industrial revolution, but especially over the •
• last century humanity, guided by the technological innovations of engineers, has achieved tremendous success in social and economic development.
However, rooted in these patterns of technological and economic growth, are the seeds of our current environmental crises.
Vanderburg (2000) claims that these seeds are sewn because the work of engineers has become overly specific such that context issues, arising from a particular area of specialization, receive only peripheral attention or none at all. • The work of engineers, Vanderburg (2000) suggests, is to maximize performance values, making sure their assigned job is done in a technologically sound and cost effective manner. The rest, like dealing with environmental externalities (read pollution or technological failure, etc.) are the problem of someone else (like the Ministry of the Environment). • The overall impact of this traditional approach to engineering, management and regulation of modern technology is to create a system whose benefits are becoming undercut by emerging global problems. • Social theorists like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, ecologists like Garrett Hardin, as well as engineering scholars like Willem Vanderburg suggest that the environmental crises we face today and the concomitant social and health risks associated with them, are directly rooted in patterns of technological and economic growth, in so far as this type of progress is typically guided by performance values in pursuit of ‘progress.’ • The origins of this organizational problem arises, in the twentieth century, with the inversion of society’s focus regarding the ‘economy of technology’ and the ‘ecology of technology’. • Economy of Technology: focuses on inputs and outputs and thus the performance of our technologies.
• Ecology of Technology: focuses on connections and relationships and thus on context compatibility (i.e. does technology provide us with the ‘good life’). • For most of human history, many cultures believed that living ‘good lives’ had more to do with relationships, leisure, appreciation of the environment and community, rather than performance. Thus throughout human history, the economy of technology was always subject to the ecology of technology. • However, since the industrial revolution, this • relationship has been inverted.
The twentieth century in particular saw technological and economic development increasingly guided by performance values, thus emphasizing the accounting of inputs and outputs, and the economy of technology over the ecology of technology. • During this era, thanks to industrialization and •
• technological advances, the quality of goods and services increases yearly.
We believed that if we focus on performance metrics we can engineer our way out of major social problems like scarcity, thereby meeting everyone’s needs regarding survival.
Concomitant with these ever increasing performance values would be the improvement of our social relationships. We will all be living the ‘good life’. • Of course, no one anticipated the emergence of • consumer society, corporate greed, and the deleterious environmental consequences that these biproducts of the ‘good life’ would reap. An analogy from Vanderburg (2000) is quite apt here regarding the unsustainable nature of de
contextualized engineering practice focused primarily on performance and the economy of technology by siloed specified technicians: • He suggests that the reversal of the economy of • technology and the ecology of technology amounts to covering over the windshield of a car and concentrating exclusively on the performance as indicated by the instruments on the dashboard.
All can read well on the dashboard, but outside the car might be headed straight for a canyon, crashing into all forms of life as it does. • Consequently, Vanderburg suggests that • engineers move towards incorporating principles of sustainable development in their work.
Herein the process of sustainable development is operationalized as one that continuously reduces the burden individual technologies impose on human life, society, and the environment. • Ultimately, many of the practices and lifestyles of • modern society—and the technologies that provide these lifestyles—cannot be sustained indefinitely. We are exceeding the capacity of the planet to provide many of the resources we use, and to accommodate our emissions, while many of the planet’s inhabitants cannot meet even their most basic needs. • This problem, of recognizing the need to live within •
• constraints and to ensure more fairness in access to limited resources, lies at the heart of the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development. It is something new in human history. The planet is full and we have no new geographical horizons to move to. Thus as Engineers—as those whose knowledge capital is both inculcated in the problem, but will also be imperative in the process of ameliorating the problem—it is crucial to gain an introduction to sustainable development principles, and to think about our world reflexively in order to change the way we understand our relationship with our ecosystem. • Sustainable development, then, is the process of •
• moving human activities to a pattern that can be sustained in perpetuity. It is an approach to environmental and development issues that seeks to reconcile human needs with the capacity of the planet to cope with the consequences of human activities.
It is useful to represent the constraints that make sustainable development an imperative in the form of a simple Venn diagram: • ‘Technocentric concerns’, which encompass techno
• economic systems, represent human skills and ingenuity
—the skills that engineers must continue to deploy—and the economic system within which we deploy them.
‘Ecocentric concerns’ represent the ability of the planet to sustain us—both by providing material and energy resources and by accommodating us and our emissions and wastes.
‘Sociocentric concerns’ represent human expectations and aspirations—the needs of human beings to attain and maintain a better quality of life for everyone, now and in the future. •
• • Sustainability can be thought of as the region in the centre of theVenn diagram where all three sets of constraints are satisfied.
Sustainable development, then, is the process of moving to that region.
Alternatively, sustainable development can be thought of as the process of moving the circles together so that they almost completely overlap but with the societal and technoeconomic circles sitting within the environmental circle, at which point all human activity is sustainable.
It is about achieving balance between these variables—between (as noted above) what we wish to develop and what is imperative to sustain. • Although these diagrams are simplistic, they reminds us that •
• sustainability means living within all three types of longterm constraint: technology cannot be deployed as though it has no environmental or societal implications. Engineers must therefore become key reflexive players in sustainable development, thereby having an obligation as citizens not just to act as isolated technical experts. Achieving sustainability through sustainable development will require significant shifts in behaviour and consumption patterns. Increasingly it will be yourselves—engineers—who lead decision
making processes regarding the use of material, energy and water resources, the development of infrastructure, the design of new products and so on. You represent the knowledge capital required of such an undertaking. • One implication is that as engineers you must reflexively recognize and exercise your responsibility to society as a whole, which, as we will discuss at great length this semester, may sometimes conflict with your responsibility to the immediate client or customer. • As Engineers you will be called upon to design and •
• manage complex systems, or simple systems to meet complex sets of demands. However, sustainable development—and the environmental necessity for it—redefines the contexts within which your skills must be deployed. Sustainability must come to represent a new ontological principle, not just a new set of tools.
The concept cannot simply be regarded as an ‘addon’ to existing engineering skills, but instead it must become a fundamental aspect of your worldview. • Today our environment is being fundamentally altered by human ingenuity and technoscientific progress (as we will see in the film The 11th Hour) and it therefore behooves us to seriously reflect upon our actions and technological practices, and act accordingly, or employ what Vanderburg (2000) in engineering parlance calls a ‘preventative approach’, (or the infusion of contextual thinking into practice) as a means of promoting the sustainability of our society moving forward. We will discuss this approach, and other aspects of sustainability in practice later in the term. ...
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This note was uploaded on 10/02/2011 for the course ENVS 2150 taught by Professor Myles during the Spring '11 term at York University.
- Spring '11