Sometimes being honest with your kids forces you to face the truth
In 2006, my teenage son came home from school and wanted to talk about global warming.
“Mum,” he said, “we watched this movie, An Inconvenient Truth, at school today. Is climate change really as bad as they say?” I answered that yes, scientists I know are observing alarming changes in snow days, sea level, tree die-off, insect ranges....
“Mum,” he said, “you are working on solutions, right?” I answered that yes, of course. I have spent my whole career working on sustainable energy. I am researching efficiency and renewable energy and especially the new area of oil supply and transport…
“Well, Mum,” he said, “are those things going to work? Are enough people working on those things? Is it going to be OK?”
Every once in a while, something happens and you get a sudden, terrible insight. I had to be honest with my child, and that forced me to be honest with myself. I had to answer that, no, even if all the people working on renewable energy were successful, it would not essentially change the use of fossil fuels enough to make the future safe.
“Well, Mum,” he said, “you have to figure out what will work, you have to do something!”
I had worked on so-called green energy solutions; solar, wind, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, biofuels, wave power, etc. I knew that the hype about green technology solutions is comforting, and attracts research funding, but it is not going to change fossil fuel use.
I had been an engineer in sustainability for more than 20 years. But like those optical illusions that have two images in the same picture, the new thing I could work on would not really change the old thing that is the problem.
Eureka! We don’t need more sustainable things, we need to change the things that are unsustainable. It is not hard at all to tell what is unsustainable - we just don’t want to come out and say it. Think about how Safety Engineering started in 1911. They found the key for NOT having people die in a factory - prevent what is preventable. That kind of engineering requires a different perspective. We use the word safety, but we really mean changing what is NOT safe.
If you can change your perspective you can see things that have always been there, but were hidden from view by hope, good intentions and research funding for distractions. I told my son that I had an idea, that I only had to reach 1% of the population and there would be a chance. If my students and I could develop the methods and tools that any engineer could use to work on the transition of existing fossil fuel energy systems, then engineers could change the future by preventing what is preventable.
The 7-step Transition Engineering approach, and a number of new tools are now available for fellow engineers to learn and use, and the Global Association for Transition Engineering - the GATE - is now open to new members.
Any professional engineer can join as an associate member of GATE and affiliate membership is open to all peer-professionals. You can learn the methods we have developed so far, and get involved in projects around the world. Transition Engineering is emerging through university programs, and there are several texts and journal publications available. The most important thing now is for all of us who share this new perspective to join together, learn from each other - and do something to prevent what is preventable!