Sunday, April 26, 2009

Earth Day: The Day After

"We're not dropping out... we're infiltraing and taking over."

So the weekend has passed and news of Earth Day has quickly died off. No new press releases, fewer bicyclists on the road, and the general rabble from pseudo-environmentalists claiming everyone can save the earth by driving a hybrid resumes in the blogosphere.


Let me just come out and say it: All the hoopla answering "What can I do?" with "ride a bike" and "plant a tree" is absolute useless drivel. The correct answer is: "Go out and get a degree in engineering, math, or science."

Bear with me for a moment... The last time I went to India was 17 years ago in 1992. In two weeks we hit four cities: Mumbai (Bombay), Ahmedabad, Rajkot, and Bhavnagar. In all four cities, pollution was becoming a real problem. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, scooters, and rickshaws filled the road burning everything from diesel to kerosene. Amongst the very poor, the question wasn't whether it was the right fuel as much as it was whether the fuel was cheap enough. The resulting layer of hydrocarbons was imposing. I used to joke as a kid living in Southern California "you can't trust air you can't see." Forget being able to see the air... I felt like I had to carve my way through the pollution.

Everyone wanted cleaner air in India, but the reality was that legislation wasn't going to fix the problem. What were they going to do? Fine someone that can barely earn enough to eat? The reality was that there was a significant population that were constrained not by their desire to act and improve their living situation, but by the economics of it. Until doing the right thing either cost the same or less than their current options, getting a sufficiently significant change that would make a marked impact on the environment simply wasn't going to happen.

The answer was in Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). (Nice summary on CNG here.) In 1998, the Indian national government forced the city of Dehli to move their entire rickshaw fleet to CNG based on the availability and cost of the fuel. With an entire fleet moved over, the cost would come to a point that would make burning anything else pointless. The initial pilot, after some hiccups along the way, was eventually successful and the entire country and been making the plunge one city at a time.

The impact was significant. It was the difference between people needing to wear masks to walk outside and feeling like they could step outside and want to take a deep breath.

Now here is the key: The impact was not achieved by (forgive me my peace loving Bay Area friends) crystal gripping hippie freaks advocating unattainable livestyle changes. The answer was achieved by environmental sciencists disecting the problem (some of whom I had the privledge of working with), chemists and materials scientists figuring out the fuel and its container, automotive engineers figuring out how to burn it in cheap/hacked/modified engines, and so on. You get my drift.

There are an endless series of similar projects that need to be done. After all, there is a worldwide economy that needs to be rebuilt around sutainable engineering. And to make that happen we need more graduates in math, science, and engineering.

So the next time someone asks "What can I do to help?" Don't advocate dropping out of consumerism -- a change that simply won't take hold across a sufficiently significant enough number of people to matter. Instead, advocate infiltrating and taking over the way we build and consume. It's only when we make changes at the root causes do we succeed at making an impact.


Blogger Evil Greg said...

Right on, brother. Speak it.

12:19 PM  

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