The bigger picture: future options

11.1 Introduction and synopsis

In drafting the first 11 chapters of this book I have felt, more than once, that I was describing ways to fix a leak in the ceiling while ignoring the flood waters rising through the floor. It’s time to look at the bigger picture, and it is not an entirely happy one. Until now we have focused on facts and ways to use them, avoiding speculation, judgment, or opinion. Avoiding these when discussing future challenges, particularly those relating to the environment, is more difficult; personal views and informed guesses have a place there. So in this chapter I’m going to say "I" as well as the "we" or "you" I have used so far. The aim of this chapter is to stimulate discussion, not prescribe solutions. You will have your own views. Develop them, but do so in ways that are based on facts.

Is this the future? Floods, drought, expanding desserts, and hurricanes. (Images courtesy of Home. vicnet. net. au; Prisonplanet. com; Weathersavvy. com.)

First, a justification for Chapters 1 through 10: there are good rea­sons for starting in the way we did. It builds on established, accepted methods; it avoids the controversy that plagues much discussion of environmental issues; and it advances understanding. The conclusions reached so far have a solid basis, giving perspective and replacing specu­lation and misinformation with fact. We have focused on methods to select materials to meet eco-objectives, taking energy and atmospheric carbon as the central actors. Though the gains might be small, it is important to make them; we would fail in our obligations as engineers and scientists not to try to do so. Much is learned in this process about where energy goes and where atmospheric carbon comes from. And it helps distinguish material choices that contribute little to atmospheric carbon from those that contribute a great deal; it distinguishes the little fish from the big fish. If we are going to make a real difference, it is the big fish we need to catch.

But is this—will this be—enough? Can it provide a sustainable future? To answer this we must digress a little. If, through change of circum­stance, your life is not going well, there are various steps you can take to fix it. The first and normal reaction is to examine the symptoms and try to remedy them with as little disruption to the rest of your life as possi­ble. But if the problem persists, it becomes necessary to look more deeply into the forces for change that cause it. If these are real and unstoppable, a greater, more disruptive adjustment will be needed. There is a natu­ral reluctance to do this until you are absolutely sure that the forces are real and the changes unavoidable. It is easier to do nothing, betting that things are not as bad as they seem and that the problem will go away. But if you lose your bet, you are caught unprepared. The adjustments you are then forced to make are not of your choosing. If you like to be in con­trol, anticipation is better than reaction. This is called the precautionary principle.

Using our little story as an analogy for global problems is an over­simplification, but I’m going to make it anyway. The book, thus far, has dealt with minor inconveniences—a little local pollution, a spot of ozone depletion, a little global warming, occasional bits of restric­tive legislation—and with corrective measures that disturb the rest of life very little. They can ameliorate the problems, but they will not fix them. Some, at least, of the forces for change are too powerful to be dealt with in that way.

So let us look at the threats, the opportunities, and the options for the future. But first, a question: why do we value materials so little?

Updated: October 4, 2015 — 3:53 pm