062510_Insufficient_Plenty_ASME

062510_Insufficient_Plenty_ASME - The Era of Insufficient...

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The Era of Insufficient Plenty From ASME „Mechanical Engineering‟ June, 2010 FOCUS ON: MANUFACTURING As global competition makes some commodities scarcer, engineers will be challenged to find new solutions. By John G. Voeller For more than 100 years, the United States has been the world‟s largest industrial power. Over that period, we consumed a plurality and sometimes even a majority of the world‟s resources. Thanks to outstanding science and engineering, we could extract and process natural resources to make almost any type of product at a reasonable cost. If we needed a commodity, a device, or specialized knowledge, we felt confident that we could find, buy, or negotiate for it. Sometimes, the price was high, but if we were willing to pay, we could get it. We have never really had to confront a situation where another country on this planet could consume as much as the United States. Today, we face that situation in spades. The economies of many developing countries have begun to take off, but China and also India are special cases. Both have enormous populations, very large workforces of educated professionals, fast-growing economies, and voracious appetites for resources. In fact, we must now start asking ourselves what will happen when the things we need become unavailable at any price. How will we run our factories, maintain economic growth, and support our lifestyles? The answers to these questions will challenge every major engineering discipline to find alternative materials, methods, and processes in the future. We also need to rethink our very definition of sustainability. A classic definition, from the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development, stated that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Yet this definition is incomplete, because it presumes availability. We do not have that luxury anymore. There are plenty of resources out there, but no guarantee that we in the United States will have access to them. We are entering a world of insufficient plenty. A LOOK AT THE BASICS To understand how the world is changing, let‟s start with the working population. These people, who range from 15 to 64 years old, are not only a soc iety‟s most productive members, but also the ones who drive consumption. By 2015, the working population in East and Southwest Asia and Oceania will exceed 1.5 billion people, primarily in China, and in South Asia 1 billion people, primarily in India. That compares with about 300 million potential workers in Western Europe and fewer than 300 million in the U.S. and Canada. As these large populations grow wealthier, their use of energy rises. Energy growth in the world‟s most industrialized nations has leve led off over the past decade. Most of the world‟s increase in energy consumption has been driven by developing nations, like China and India, as well as Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
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