Jevons Paradox is the thorn in the side of energy efficiency nerds everywhere.
Jevons Paradox is the observed phenomenon that gains in energy efficiency lead to increased consumption of energy, ultimately negating the energy “saved” by the efficiency measure.
This rebound effect is explained by the fact that using less fuel to do x decreases the cost to do x. With all things being equal, the demand for x thus increases (we go so far to call this relationship a law).
Jevons Paradox is often presented as evidence that energy efficiency work is futile or even counterproductive. The Amazon.com blurb for David Owen’s new book The Conundrum says that
Efficiency, once considered the holy grail of our environmental problems, turns out to be part of the problem.
I suspect that Owen’s perspective is more nuanced than that, but the quote summarizes a popular misunderstanding of the issue, or at least a popular misframing of the issue.
The reality is that energy efficiency isn’t part of the problem. But thinking that energy efficiency is the solution to energy consumption, carbon emissions, dead polar bears, and drowned cities, is definitely part of the problem, if not the entirety of the problem. Technological innovation alone will not be able to save us; we cannot design our way out of this mess.
So what actually is the problem, and what are we going to do about the negative impacts of energy efficiency?
It’s the Economy, Stupid
This civilization is based on economic growth. The economy runs on energy (fuel). The use (extraction, processing, and consumption) of energy is ripping the planet to bits. It’s not logically possible to reach steady-state energy use in an economy based on continuous growth; our economy requires increasing energy consumption.
There is no way to reconcile our current economic paradigm with a sustainable civilization; no amount of technological wizardry or design cleverness will allow us to have our cake and eat it too for all time.
Jevons himself understood this:
If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity.
He was talking about the British nation, I think; now, of course, we’re talking about humanity. We clearly made the choice to pursue brief but “true” greatness. We the descendents of the hedonists who made that myopic decision are now facing the consequences of the physical impossibility of maintaining such a position.
So what does Jevons Paradox tell us? Well, it tells us what we already know, really. The basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and needs to be totally remade if we want to have any hope of escaping either a boom & bust cycle (which will wreak havoc on the planet and probably lead to the end of our species) or just skip right to the extinction even that will signal the end of the Anthropocene.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The good news for us energy efficiency nerds is that efficiency can play a role in our future civilization, the one we dream about with a steady-state economy. In a world where people don’t consume resources just because they can, energy efficiency will allow us to serve our basic needs using clean and renewable energy sources (at a far lower energy density than we currently use energy) without gutting the health of the planet. So while the work we’re doing now is at best mitigating the damage done by a destructive industrial system, and at worst increasing the damage, the systems and techniques we’re learning now will serve us in the future. We’re the pioneers of the low-energy, ecotechnic future, if such a thing is possible.
The bad news is that to get there from here requires a radical, deep, and planet-wide change from how we currently operate as a society.
The ugly news is that no one actually thinks we have a sliver of a shot at making this shift gracefully.
That awful twisting feeling in your gut. The involuntary contraction of abdominal muscles. The clenching fists. The uncontrollable shivering even though the room is warm.
It’s not just the combination of too much shitty coffee and too little sleep.
It just hit you. There’s too much left to do. There are too many details to coordinate before it’s time to go pencils down.
You’re going to miss stuff. Significant details and coordination items are going to get dropped. The holes in your work stare at you like accusing eyes, boring into your soul and trashing your sense of worth.
You goofed. You made a mistake. You are not kicking ass. Right now, you suck.
This is altogether different than failing at something.
Failing means you thought you were right, thought you were kicking ass, but were simply wrong. You “tried your best” – honestly – you just made an error and slipped up. Failure is actually a good thing – it means you’re putting your neck out there, being courageous, and learning.
This isn’t like that. This is just you not having your shit together. You had enough time and resources to take care of business, but you didn’t.
Maybe you should have worked over the weekend, or just worked faster, prioritized better, said “no” to that other lower-priority task.
Definitely you should have communicated better, and taken a step back sooner to evaluate where you were at.
But now it is too late.
There’s only one thing you can now do:
Tell everyone you fucked up.
And that it won’t happen again.
And make goddamn sure it never does.
I imagine two worlds. By world I mean something like worldview, cognitive lens, basic understanding, headspace.
The first world is the subject of Tainter’s analysis of the collapse of complex civilization: it is the systems of complex problem-solving solutions that are rumbling towards negative ROI of complexity — in a word, collapse. This is not strictly speaking status quo; this world is inclusive of new and innovative solutions to the problems that we are faced with. Critically and perhaps definitively, it is a world that is invested in its own perpetuation – survival as a cohesive socioeconomic entity is its explicit goal (telos, if you will). It denies End and views itself as the culmination of history.
The second world is different – it is reality minus the first world. It is everything that is outside of the first world, and the interstitial spaces that exist between chunks of the first world. It’s questionable whether or not this second world strictly speaking exists – I think it might be a phantom world like China Mieville’s Orciny from The City & The City, a place that exists in space but is constructed inside our minds.
The critical distinction is that this second world is more fundamental than the first: it is the human species, and the biological and mineral world that we live in, and the physical relationships between every element. It is the dynamic non-deterministic reality of our existence. As such is has no particular allegiance to the current socioeconomic system and holds the first world’s denial of its own historicity as a trivially obvious error.
This second world assigns no moral values to cycles; or, more appropriately, it assigns no moral values to the material consequences of cycles. It is cognizant of (and in fact, celebratory of) the fundamental cycles. The hydrological cycle, the carbon cycle, the cycle of individual death and life, and the cycle of complex human organization – what we call civilization. The ebb and flow of energy and matter and experience.
This second world also thinks in terms of deep time. Decades, centuries, millenia.
The second world is not aloof. It is disturbed by the threats to the cohesion of the cycles. It is a world that celebrates the beauty of the experience of reality. It has little particular interest nor investment in ideologies — phenomena described by such words as democracy, capitalism/socialism, corporatism, plutocracy, bureaucracy, industrialism. These are curiosities that more often than not obfuscate understanding or direct experience of physical reality.
This second world is concerned with a different category of phenomena. Love, health, joy, meaningful experience, beauty (especially beauty), quality, authenticity, creation, fulfillment, justice, dikaiosune, balance, the proper functioning of things.
My idea is not that the second world has no relationship to the more ephemeral phenomenon (such as, say, the Supreme Court, or the politics that governs the fresh water delivery infrastructure to Los Angeles), but that it is capable of seeing above, beyond, and around these phenomena. It is capable of asking not just “How do we fix this,” but also “Should this be fixed?” It’s capable of asking not just “How do we solve this problem,”, but also “Should this problem be solved? Should the circumstances that created this problem even exist?”
Furthermore, the second world is capable in ways that the first world is not of questioning whether or not any given action is valuable. Value in this sense is defined in terms of support of phenomena (beauty, love, justice, etc) over time (deep time).
The second world is an evaluative framework for extrinsically meaningful work. By meaningful I mean; work that is not ensconced within myopic systems of doomed and destructive infrastructures. A world system currently exists that is collapsing under the weight of its own complexity and the limits of the physical world it has arrogantly denied the existence of. Propping up systems within that system will have short-term results and ultimately change nothing for the better.
It is the work taking place independent of the first world – work that is not dependent on interrelated vastly complex systems of material and social flow relationships – that has any hope of persistence and relevance through deep time.
It is the work that aims and succeeds at nourishing and protecting the material cycles, the social cycles, biological cycles, that will succeed in protecting and impacting the fundamental phenomena of beauty, and authenticity, and quality, and proper functioning of things.
The wisdom and foresight to accurately know which actions and intentions belong to the first world and which belong to the second world, of course, is quite non-trivial.
[tl;dr - Modern industrial civilization is rooted in the mechanistic worldview of dominance of Nature. This worldview is in error, and dangerous. We need to reboot our cultural understanding of man's relationship with Nature if engineering is to fulfill its role of benefiting mankind.]
Remember this quote from the Oath of the Order of the Engineer?
Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.
Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.
This text implies that transforming natural resources into increased standard of living for humans is a moral imperative. The extraction of energy from the ground or via the construction of a dam, or the transformation of a forest to a neighborhood of homes, is seen as a virtuous act.
It’s clear that the above text doesn’t seem to take into account the consequences that unchecked resource extraction poses for humanity. This might seem like a minor oversight. It is not.
It is absolutely critical that we understand the intellectual source of our ideas about progress and purpose as they relate to engineering. For that, we need to go back a few hundred years.
It turns out that the above quotes are rooted in perspectives that came out of the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, by some really radical thinkers.
The Myth of Progress
It is worth quoting at a bit of length from the book The End of the Long Summer by Dianne Dumanoski. Emphases are mine.
The revolutionary change that launched the modern era’s radical cultural experiment involved two distinct steps: first, the demotion of Nature into mindless mechanism; second the bold elevation of humanity vis-a-vis the larger world. [Francis] Bacon reflects this immodest view of humans when he begins his Refutation of Philosophies with the declaration: “We are agreed, my sons, that you are men. That means, as I think, that you are not animals on hind legs, but mortal gods.” The upshot was the creation of a yawning chasm between humans and the rest of life. In this dualistic vision, humans, who appeared to verge on divinity, stand starkly opposed to a Nature reduced to malleable matter.
Even though his scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personifies Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am … leading you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”
Regarding the widespread changes taking place in the world around those times, Peter Bowler says
The new commercial empires began to demand an ideology that presented Nature only as a material system to be exploited… If people were to feel comfortable when they used the earth for their own selfish ends…, Nature had to be despiritualized.
The men who drove this sweeping cultural shift presumed that nature was endlessly bountiful, and saw its exploitation as means to escape the human condition and create heaven on earth. They sought to become gods. This aim was the implicit (and often explicit) purpose of industrial and scientific progress, that vast sweeping arc of human narrative.
Obviously, a critical role of that narrative is played by the engineer–one could say that the engineering profession is the main protagonist, if we’re sticking to the narrative metaphor. By applying the principles of science to real-world problems to produce artifactual systems that propel humanity along the proscribed arc of progress, we are fulfilling the aspiration of dominating Nature and fulfilling the Destiny of Man to ascend to a higher existence.
Unfortunately for everyone, the assumptions built into the myth of human progress are fundamentally flawed. As a scientific community we are now realizing two things:
- Nature’s material and energetic resources are considerably less vast than we thought, and
- Nature is not as docile as we thought.
In fact, Nature might turn out to be more of a raging bitch when it comes to being endlessly fucked with.
A Dead End
Even if one is not immediately and viscerally repelled by the incredible hubris of men like Francis Bacon, even if one finds the vision of transcended humanity compelling, the reality has become clear: the manner in which Bacon and others sought to liberate humanity is not viable. The dualistic and mechanistic view of humanity’s relationship with nature is fatally and deeply wrong.
Not only is this myth of human progress wrong, it is leading us to an outcome opposite of that intended. It is leading all of humanity towards an impoverished world, one devoid of bountiful resources, full of hazards and dangers the likes of which our species has never experienced. The mechanistic view of Nature is a cultural and intellectual dead end.
That this vision is a dead end is not to say that engineering or science themselves are intrinsically wrong. Applying knowledge of science for the betterment of mankind can be virtuous. But doing so in a manner that denies the integral relationship between humanity and the rest of nature must absolutely be abandoned before it is too late.
We need a cultural and intellectual reawakening and realignment, one firmly rooted in a sober critique of the myth of progress and educated in the nature of Nature.
Put in the language of virtue ethics: If the role of engineering is understood as increasing the public welfare, is continuing on in the spirit of Francis Bacon in a mechanistic perspective of man’s relationship to Nature the most excellent means of doing so?
Is attempting to reach divinity via science and tech while pillaging Nature and provoking cataclysm the most kickass way to obtain the flourishing of civilization?
The question answers itself, doesn’t it?
[tl;dr: Virtue Ethics is a moral philosophy focused on character and habits, rather than rules and actions. Instead of asking "Did Tyler do the right thing?", virtue ethics asks "Does Tyler kick ass?"]
An Introduction to Virtue Ethics
(Quick clarification: I here use the phrase “kick ass” not in the physical “I’m gonna beat your ass” sense but in the be fucking awesome sense.)
Virtue Ethics as a theory is not new. It was the dominant way that the ancient Greeks thought about morality. The thought leaders of Western civilization (Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, Socrates, etc) argued about the specifics, but their discourse was couched in the language of virtue ethics.
Speaking of language, it’s difficult to talk about virtue ethics without using some words that aren’t in everyday language. Let’s define a few terms quickly.
A virtue is a character trait or disposition that helps one to flourish. More on this in a moment.
Telos can be thought of as an aim, goal, purpose, or end. One’s telos might be said to be their purpose in life. Note that telos can apply to more than just people. The telos of a knife is to cut things. The telos of a pen is to transfer ink to paper. The telos of a chef is to prepare food.
Arete means excellence, perhaps fulfillment.
Eudaimonia is a state of being that can best be described as human flourishing, althought lifelong happiness is another way to say it.
These words allow one to begin to grok virtue ethics. The Greeks understood eudaimonia (human flourishing) to be the ultimate purpose of life (i.e. the telos). Every person inhabits certain roles in life. Father, daughter, politician, electrician, soldier, doctor.
The means to eudaimonia is to fulfill one’s roles excellently, to execute them with arete. To kick ass. Those habits and character traits that lead people to consistently and daily fulfill their roles with arete can be thought of as virtues. Any habits or personality traits that block or hamper one from fulfilling one’s role excellently are vices.
In pure English: Discover your roles in life. Develop habits and character traits that enable you to kick ass in the fulfillment of your roles. These habits and practices of kicking ass result in a lifelong flourishing. This is what it means to live the good life, the moral life.
Okay, But How Do I Know What My Roles Are?
The challenge is to figure out what your roles actually are. This was a more obvious task to the Greeks, because their society was very explicit about this sort of thing. We moderns are a bit more angsty about roles and purpose. One way to start thinking about your roles is to apply the four-fold test:
- Are you well qualified/skilled/competent for the role? Don’t volunteer for roles you suck at.
- Is the role socially valuable? In other words, does it also contribute to the flourishing of society?
- Is the role socially valued? Will society permit or reward you for performing the role?
- Do you enjoy being in this role?
Notice the emphasis on society. To the Greeks, morality outside of the context of society – the polis was impossible. Morality, telos, eudaimonia, were meaningful only in their relationship to society. They would have thought of Robinson Crusoe as a dead man walking. Citizenship was everything.
Fine, But How to Determine Moral Acts?
No group of people have ever agreed on a definitive list of virtues. That’s actually good; societies and cultures change, and the way in which people inhabit their roles change along with the cultures.
The following four methods allow one to begin to grapple with the virtues:
- Use the 4-fold test to determine one’s proper roles, and then figure out how to fulfill them excellently.
- Ask yourself “What sort of person would I become by doing this if I made it a habit?”
- Ask what your role model would do? Virtue ethics gives a new meaning to “role model”, doesn’t it?
- Ask where the act lies on the Golden Mean. This was Aristotle’s theory that virtues could always be found to be the mean between two vices of excess and deficiency. Courage is the Golden Mean between rashness and cowardice; generousness is the Golden Mean between spendthriftness and miserliness.
What About All The Other Theories?
Most recent Western ethical theories out there revolve around rules. They’re focused on actions (this kind of action is good, this kind of action is bad). There are complicated systems of evaluating the actions based on different rules. But it becomes impossible to find a finite set of rules that cover every circumstance. Those systems that attempt to wind up begging the question.
Maybe searching for the right set of rules is the wrong way to think about ethics.
Maybe ethics should be agent-centered rather than act-centered.
Maybe instead of asking the question, “What rules should I follow?”, I should ask “What sort of person should I be?”
Whatever roles are yours to fulfill, remember:
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr
[tl;dr: While engineering does have a background of moral criticism of the profession, it is stuck in the early 20th century. It needs to quickly expand the context of engineering moral discourse to match the crises facing the planet.]
I’ve had this idea for a while. I’m going to try to flesh it out in a few posts. Bear with me here, and please weigh in your thoughts in the comments section!
Why Moral Philosophy is Important
I’m of the school of thought that the philosophical underpinnings of any person or community is fantastically important to the well-being and functioning of that community. Few people besides perhaps philosophy professors are critically aware of their philosophical perspectives on a daily basis (“What shall I do this afternoon? Hmmm… let me consult my ethical theory…”), but people’s daily actions are guided by moral principles whether they realize it or not.
These moral principles don’t come out of a vacuum: they come from philosophers, moral leaders, cultural icons. They flow from the intellectual work of thousands of humans throughout history, perpetuating themselves in written work, mythologies, memes, cliche phrases, etc.
Being unaware of one’s specific moral perspective doesn’t mean your actions aren’t guided by a moral perspective. It means your actions are guided by a moral perspective that you are unaware of. It could be a contradictory mash-up of any number of mutually inconsistent ethical philosophies, although if you grew up in the Western world in the past hundred years or so, Kant probably has a lot to do with it. Think a clashy youtube remix video except with moral ideas.
With this in mind, the choice that individuals and communities face is this:
- Be aware of, reflect upon, discuss, and critically engage moral philosophy in order to act in congruence with one’s moral perspective.
- Or, be unaware of any particular moral philosophy, or at least refrain from critical engagement; soak up “moral feeling” via osmosis from the cultural environment; and act in accordance with this vague, unreflective moral feeling.
Of those two choices, the engineering community has clearly and unsurprisingly chosen the former. An amazon.com search for “engineering ethics” results in 2,697 hits. Most of the things engineers design and build can kill people. We build cars, bridges, buildings, dams, sanitation infrastructure, fresh water infrastructure, the basic technological systems that allow civilization to flourish, and the software systems to control all of the above. Failure, or even misapplication, of any of these systems can have an enormous impact on the welfare of the public these systems are intended to serve.
The canon on engineering ethics is large and established. The incredible drive and commitment to the safety of the public on the part of the engineering community has been vastly successful in the West. We now build buildings that ride out earthquakes that used to flatten entire regions. Our vehicles are incredibly safe, considering that they are steel-and-glass cages being hurtled along roads at breakneck speeds and are operated by an uncomfortably large number of pituitary stressed-out basket cases with a minimum of training. We almost never get sick due to contaminated water supplies any more (by “we”, I of course am referring to that privileged class of people who live in the first world).
Engineering professionals have by no means been negligent or lackadaisical in their approach to upholding the safety, health, and welfare of the public. In fact, they’ve overall been stunning.
I think that there are moral considerations of the engineer’s work that as of yet have not received proper critical engagement. I’m talking about the moral context of global climate destabilization; freshwater availability; rainforest destruction; peak oil/soil/phosphorous/everything; ecologically catastrophic resource extraction; biotic collapse; socially unjust development projects; and the infrastructures that are intimately entwined with and enable global economic and social inequity. The projects engineers work on directly impact all of the above.
If we can foster a clear discussion about the moral obligation of engineers to these issues and understand that they are no less relevant than e.g. seismic safety, we can unleash our profession’s abilities to tackle these issues head on. It’s time for us to step up and courageously engage every dimension of these problems in the fulfillment of our professional obligation to the public.
The State of Engineering Ethics
Some work is being done on these broader issues – the elephant in the room is being exploratively poked at – but not enough work, not fast enough, not critically enough. Most of the ethical discourse doesn’t appear to have changed significantly since the middle of the 20th century. Some texts attempt to lump a few of these issues into a chapter titled “Environmental Issues”, which is a fundamental failure right off the bat.
One of the signs of ethical discourse in the rank-and-file of engineering is in the ethical verbiage that is codified in various professional engineering oaths, statements, and declarations.
As an example, this is an Oath that engineers inducted into the Order of the Engineer must swear to:
I am an engineer, in my profession I take deep pride.
To it I owe solemn obligations.
Since the stone age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius.
Engineers have made usable nature’s vast resources of material and energy for humanity’s benefit.
Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology.
Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance, and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.
As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises.
When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good.
In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.
~The Obligation of the Engineer
How strictly relevant an Oath drafted in the ’70′s is to the modern state of engineering ethics is is questionable, but I think it’s an at least interesting reflection of what the moral/philosophical position on engineering was and, to a certain extent, is.
Public Welfare: Engineering’s Prime Directive
The following statement in one form or another is found in the ethical canon of professional engineering societies the world over:
Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
~National Society of Professional Engineers
The paramount obligation of the engineer is to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Nothing trumps this. Not profit, competitive edge, technological exuberance, patriotic ideals, ideology — if an action is contrary to the welfare of the public, it is against the engineer’s moral obligation. No engineer will contest this.
(Quick note: in this context, “welfare” has nothing to do with charity or handouts. It has to do with well-being, proper functioning, wellness, etc.)
Don’t Hurt People, Make Stuff Better
There are two morally relevant ways to interact with the safety, health, and welfare of the public. The first and most obvious mode of interaction is to directly cause harm the public, either through negligence, error, or malevolence. An unsafe bridge that falls down, or a sewer system that fails and spews cholera into the water supply are ways that engineering projects might actively harm the safety and health of the public. It is said that the engineer has a moral obligation to not harm the public.
The second mode of interaction is to create systems that actively increase the welfare of the public over the status quo. Designs that make people’s lives better than they were before. Like how washer machines made domestic labor less taxing, prosthetics make amputee’s lives better, wheelchairs and ADA-compliant buildings make handicapped folk’s lives better, borax processing makes glass safer in buildings and vehicles, etc.
Designs that increase the welfare of the public aren’t an obligation. It’s great if you make something that makes the status quo better, but no one is going to call you immoral for making some trivial doo-dad. Besides, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between trivial doo-dads and artifacts that actually positively impact society (ahem, Twitter).
However, this aspirational and idealistic approach to engineering, this desire to make the world a better place, often gets shorted when it comes to ethical discussions (or, even, discussions in general). A lot of time is focused on disaster cases and failures. The popular narrative of the engineer using her skills to make the world better is weaker than it should be.
So the first mode is a required negative act (don’t harm people) while the second is an optional positive act (increase the quality of life of people). Don’t hurt people, make stuff better.
It’s Not That Simple
My contention is that the concept of public welfare clearly isn’t being understood broadly or critically enough, in terms of the obligation to not hurt people. The majority of ethical discourse in engineering revolves around the standard topics: bridges, buildings, and other structures failing and killing people; machines blowing up and killing people; engineered systems failures that kill people or make them sick. The rest of the issues discussed are things like corruption, whisteblowing vs. responsibility to the employer, intellectual property, etc.
But the threats to public welfare are becoming increasingly complex and wide-ranging. We know more things about the relationship between human constructed systems and the public welfare than we used to. There is now, in 2012, a large and increasing body of critical work discovering the relationships between our artifactual civilization and the well-being of communities. Hazard is abundant in our world, and the relationships between cause and hazardous effect, while oftentimes not as obviously clear as a faulty truss design leading to a fatal bridge collapse, are no less real or morally relevant.
It’s not enough anymore to merely consider whether the bridge will fall down and kill people. There are more questions that must be asked:
Where does the steel for the bridge come from? How much carbon is being dumped into the atmosphere by the processing and transportation of the steel to the construction site? How many mountaintops were blown into oblivion to mine the coal required to manufacture the materials?
Even more telling, what is the purpose of the bridge? Is its primary function to provide a way for commuters to more easily move between a new sprawling suburban tract development and their distant places of work? Is it just another piece of infrastructure of an insane development system that is poisoning the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the stability of the planet on which we live while isolating us as individuals, weakening community, and further commodifying humanity?
If the bridge is part of a fundamentally doomed and destructive form of “progress” that is doing real, measurable damage to the well-being and flourishing of human communities, what can we say about it in relation to the engineer’s obligation to the public’s welfare?
Seventh Generation Engineering
It is also no longer enough to consider the immediate, obvious, and intended effects of engineering projects. The welfare of the public has a new temporal dimension that has never in the history of Western industrial civilization been considered: the generational dimension. Sure, a bridge might improve the lifestyles of an exclave of upper-middle class debt-ridden white-collar workers right now. But what about the lifestyles of all of the laborers scattered over the globe required to bring those materials into that bridge? What about the quality of life of future generations who will pay the consequences of a world with a catastrophically unstable climate system that the bridge helped cause?
We know that mountaintop removal devastates swaths of ecosystems and turns gorgeous country into a hellscape. We know that outdoor air pollution causes ~3,500 deaths a day. We know that carbon emissions are pushing our climate off a cliff from which there is no return. We know that offshore oil rigs will fail and effect massive destruction. We know nuclear plants kill people when they fail. We know agribusiness is destroying our topsoil and making us unhealthy and poor. We know our buildings are full of carcinogens and toxins. We know our development strategies destroy vibrant communities and oppress those least able to defend themselves.
All of these things directly and adversely impact the safety, health, and welfare of the public. And we know it. And yet it’s almost all we’re doing.
I’m not trying to be preachy, or wag my finger and moralize at people. I’m not saying we need to do xyz because it’s the “right” thing to do. (Besides being an incredibly presumptuous stance to take, it never works anyways. Ever.) I’m saying that the language of moral reflection may offer a useful conceptual lens with which to engage in and discuss these issues, with the hopeful outcome of effecting change in engineering culture.
We need to talk about this, openly, everywhere. We need calls to actions. We need new ethical codes, new Oaths (well, maybe), new standards by which to judge our actions, new memes and cultural modes.
We need to stop making things that hurt people.
And we need a more robust vision of how to Make Stuff Better, and then we need to do it.
More to come on this topic soon….
Big ups to my brother, Tim Disney, for kickass feedback on a first draft.
Dissident: adj: disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief; A person who actively challenges an established doctrine, policy, or institution.
[tl;dr: A skill fundamental to the art of engineering is questioning assumptions. All human systems (mechanical, economic, political, social) are built on assumptions: ferreting out and critiquing assumptions is a skill native to the engineer, a skill that is now more than ever relevant to the task of remaking civilization.]
First Things First: Engineers = Assholes
Have you ever been telling a story or sharing your opinion on a topic in a social setting, when out of the blue you are interrupted by some asshole who attacks the validity and/or logic of the basis of your arguments? Chances are that asshole is an engineer doing one of the things engineers do best: questioning assumptions.
One of the reasons why engineers can be one of the most annoying types of people to have conversations with is the same reason why I think they have the potential to make terrific dissidents and critical thought leaders. Good engineers are good at questioning assumptions. It is one of the core skills that separate the elite problem solvers and innovators from interchangeable spreadsheet jockeys.
Questioning assumptions is fundamental to the art of engineering. This isn’t to say that assumptions are bad. Quite the opposite, in fact: assumptions are a necessary cognitive mechanism that allow problems to be solved. It is the quality of assumption that engineers are concerned with. Is the assumption a good one or a bad one? Are the set of assumptions complete and relevant to the context of the problem?
Good vs. Bad Assumptions
Good assumptions set up the approach to a problem and allow the engineer to focus thought in an effective manner. They cut away distracting and irrelevant information and allow core issues to be dealt with efficiently.
Bad assumptions do one of two things: they either lead to wasted effort on inconsequential analysis, or they cause an engineer to skip over critical issues that result in design errors and omissions. Depending on the project, the consequences of poor assumptions range from getting stuck in analysis paralysis, to catastrophic — potentially fatal — design flaws.
Forget that saying about assumptions making an ass out of you and me: assumptions are critical components of design and analysis. Thinking about, analyzing, and being hyper-aware of assumptions is hard-coded into the engineer’s brain through both training and hard-won experience. This is why engineers will interrupt people at dinner parties and attack the presuppositions implicit in their statements; they really can’t help themselves, and in fact letting a poor assumption slide is anathema to an engineer’s core ethos. It would be like a doctor sauntering past a wounded man on the side of the road.
The difference is that people will (rightly) hail the doctor a hero for saving the man’s life; the engineer calling people out on their bogus intellectual shortcuts is often described as “an asshole”. (Rightly.)
What does this have to do with dissidence? Is that even a word?
The social mannerisms of engineers is a subject that will have to wait for a later post. Being labeled a bunch of arrogant assholes is a burden we engineers will likely have to bear for some time to come.
Regardless, we engineers need to step up. There are enormous problems facing our world and a huge amount of work that needs to be done in a short amount of time. Most people are aware of these problems, but there are a lot of really crappy assumptions embedded in the public discourse. The following are generalizations, but they are telling:
- The renewable energy camp appears to assume that wind+solar+tide+etc will be able to replace the density and quality of energy provided by fossil fuels.
- The hybrid/electric car camp appears to assume that ubiquitous automobile ownership can and will play a predominate role in a sustainable future.
- Capitalists appear to assume that an economic system based on limitless growth on a finite planet can somehow reach a sustainable resource consumption level.
- A majority of first-worlders appear to assume that mild lifestyle changes and green consumerism can lead to a sustainable world.
- Many U.S. politicians appear to assume that a patriarchal approach to foreign policy is a responsible means of leading a country and caring for a citizenship.
- Many developers appear to assume that tall, all-glass buildings with no consideration of location or orientation is a reasonable method of constructing buildings.
- Tons of people within the architecture and engineering profession appear to assume that less bad is the same as sustainable.
These are all assumptions that need some hard-core questioning. These aren’t going unchallenged currently — there are a lot of really smart people out there doing great critical work on these issues, in particular Tom Murphy over at Do the Math — but engineers as a group aren’t pulling their weight. Scoffing privately at the assumptions we read about in the papers and hear on the news isn’t good enough.
Our civilization is hurtling towards the brink and anyone who can level sound critical thought at the insane, deeply flawed strategies being proposed as solutions needs to do so. We engineers need to channel our inner asshole, for the sake of humanity.
So Why Aren’t Engineers More Active?
Engineers appear to have the ability to be good dissidents, activists, and critical thought leaders, and there is clearly a vast body of work that we could jump in on. So why aren’t we? The majority of us engineers are just doing our thing, advancing our careers, living our lives. Apolitical, more or less.
The reason we’re not agitating for change is pretty obvious: we’re historically well-off. We’re employed. The system takes good care of us. We can get jobs. If we don’t like the job we have, we can go get another one somewhere else. We have no skin in the game. Why would we agitate for change? Things are going pretty well for us.
Engineering unemployment is on the rise, however it’s a recent trend. Most engineers are employed and doing all right. Those engineers unable to stay in industry are retiring or drifting off into other means of income generation. The situation is thought to be temporary, a simple economic downturn that will reverse eventually. There has been no sense that the system is dysfunctional for engineers, no mass dawning awareness or real anger that we engineers are getting screwed over by the system. Because, by and large, we aren’t.
We’ve become assimilated. We’re part of the system. We’re cogs in the machine of industrial resource extraction and consumerism. We need to break out. I expect that engineers will start to radicalize as their comfortable position in industrial society begins to erode, but I don’t think we have time to wait for that to happen. Besides, now is the time for action, not reaction.
Towards a New Engineering Ethos
I want us as a group to evolve a new engineering ethos, one based within an understanding of the social, economic, political, and most importantly ecological context we find ourselves in. We can no longer concern ourselves only with the narrow technical fields in which we find ourselves; our understanding of reality needs to broaden, and our actions need to reflect our understanding.
You can’t keep a rapacious industrial civilization running without engineers. I suspect that you can’t build or maintain an ecotechnic, resilient, and sustainable civilization without engineers, either. I am certain that engineers will play no role whatsoever on a world where the air can no longer be breathed by humans.
We need to understand that we’re faced with a choice, that the time is short, and that there is no such thing as not making a decision.
What happens when the engineers take to the streets? What happens when the engineers mobilize and ruthlessly question assumptions and apply systems thinking to a nightmarishly dysfunctional system? When we join in solidarity with the rest of the populations of the earth already agitating for a better world?
I’m doing some maintenance on this site, so it’ll probably be down for a short amount of time.
I’ve no idea what I’m doing, so no promises or estimates: it’ll go down when it goes down and come back up when it comes back up.
Catch you on the flip side.
[Update: flowXRG has officially moved successfully. From here on out changes should be nothing more than appearance and layout, which I'll be doing more or less live.]
[tl;dr: When modeling a complex project, let the sketchup model stand alone and speak for itself during the design process. Wait until the design is very well gelled before getting into drawing and construction process drawings.]
The open source lathe project I’ve been doing modeling for recently launched the first version of the build manual. I’m writing this post to collect my thoughts on the process and communicate some extremely valuable lessons I learned.
When I signed on for this project, I honestly thought it’d be a commitment of 2-4 weeks. Six weeks, maybe, if I got ornate.
(Heh. It’s now month 8?)
How I Thought the Project Would Go:
Model the lathe in two weeks > set up cool drawings > write the manual and format > publish in a couple weeks > woohoo done!
How the Project Actually Went:
Model the lathe > set up a couple cool drawings > design change > tweak the model > cool drawings now outdated, so redo > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > get halfway done doing cool drawings > major design change, scrap the entire model and start a new one > start new dra– > design change > design change > remodel > hey, guys, c’mon, just let me– > design change > seriously guys not funny > design change > drawings > etc etc…
This isn’t a dig on Pat or anyone else, it’s my mistake for not acknowledging the true nature of projects like these and adapting quicker to the stage of design I found myself in. My error was in thinking that the design was more or less done. The reality was that the project was still going through conceptual design.
Sketchup is a super simple, quick tool for modeling design ideas and it actually handles complexity well. It’s suited for projects like this where a lot of changes need to be made and explored and the design is dynamic.
The drawing creation program paired with Sketchup, Layout, is supposedly a two-way street. That is, you can set up a drawing in Layout (say, a longitudinal section through the model, or an exploded view of a component), go back and change the model in Sketchup, and the drawing in Layout will update.
[It took me about 3 minutes to cut and dimension this section within Sketchup.]
Will this is technically true, it didn’t work out that seamlessly. Part of this has to do with my skill level: if I was better at organizing complex models using the Outliner, Layers, and Scenes, it would definitely have gone smoother.
But I maintain that even if I was a master of the outliner, drawings set up to communicate the progression of construction of a complex machine would not have survived the couple major and numerous minor design changes. At the very least, it would have required a lot of maintenance work for not a lot of payoff.
The real issue is that I was doing things out of sequence. I spent a lot of time setting up both technical drawings and construction process drawings, and then redoing them, over and over. In retrospect, my time would have been better spent just doing modeling work.
The beauty of Sketchup is that you can transfer the Sketchup file itself and the program is intuitive enough to operate that anyone can quickly open it up and see what’s going on: for design review and collaboration, no 2D drawings needed. Just upload the model! I was wasting time trying to produce communicative 2D drawings when the 3D model spoke for itself far better.
How I Should Have Approached the Project:
Model the lathe > review > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > design change > remodel > [etc etc] > remodel > wait for it…. wait for it…. > make drawings and insert into manual
The way the manual is coming together now, where Pat is cutting in screenshots from the living model file itself, and I’m adding other shots here and there, while not the most polished, might be the most appropriate way to put together the start of this manual – especially since there’s so much back and forth going on. It’s relatively simple for me to play with the model, try something new, snap a few screenshots off or even transfer the sketchup model.
[About a minute to dimension and export this image, no Layout required.]
In retrospect, the next time I jump into a big modeling/design project, I’ll be sure to spend most if not all of my time just with the model, and not play around with setting up polished images at inappropriate stages of the project.
Anyone else have experiences with projects like this they can share?