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The Difficult Task of Balancing the Environment and the Economy

Last month my wife and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. While there we saw an inspiring IMAX movie on the American National Parks. I have visited many of these parks and, living in the beautiful American state of Colorado, I have a great appreciation for the importance of preserving natural beauty and the environment. This month the American National Park Service celebrates it's 100th anniversary.

Modern society has many benefits which we all recognize and embrace. The global economy and all of our national economies together create jobs of course. But modern society has a definite impact on the environment. 

Yesterday the presidential candidate Donald Trump made a speech about his economic agenda that, according to this article "Trump pledges ‘energy revolution’", strongly favors jobs and the economy over the environment. Some of his positions as portrayed in this article (which includes many direct quotes) make me uncomfortable. While I am not in support of overly burdensome regulations, I am in support of the increased attention being given to building a more sustainable society and global economy.

Climate change is obviously in the news on a regular basis. I think we as a society should be giving attention to the underlying carbon issues associated with climate change (see "The Great Climate Change Engineering Challenge"). However, I am uncomfortable with all the costs thrown around in this discussion. I recently read a very thought provoking and well researched article from Cambridge professor M.J. Kelly "Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability". The main point that I took from his article was that moving away from fossil fuels (and nuclear power, in many cases) is likely to be far more expensive than anybody realizes. And that no one has paid serious attention to these costs. He makes a number of credible estimates on the costs that, at a minimum, provide a basis for further discussion.

Fortunately economic progress is not always in conflict with the environment. M.J. Kelly discusses examples of this. But often there is a conflict and the relative importance of each must be weighed. As engineers we have an important role to play in educating decision makers so they can hopefully make the best decisions possible in this difficult balance.

I will conclude with a quote from naturalist John Muir:

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

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Monday, 06 April 2020