A sustainable world

 The world has really made very little progress since Kyoto as shown by Copenhagen, often due to well intentioned viewpoints which are understandable in principle but result in damaging consequences.  For example the use of eco systems and soil carbon capture as an offset was strongly opposed by certain green groups as it would allow the rich polluting countries to continue with their extravagant life styles without making any serious reduction in green house gases.  Good intention – bad outcome.

 It is worth taking a moment to create a holistic perspective.  Currently we have a global population of over 6 billion expected to rise to some 9 billion by 2040. But these figure do not show the real problem.  The current rise in green house gases has been generated by the 2 billion of so affluent consumers in the developed countries.  The developing countries are becoming more affluent by the day, just look at the progress in China, so we can expect that by 2040 we will have some 8 billion affluent consumers, not just emitting green house gases but consuming our finite resources.

 Mankind has showed remarkable resourcefulness in tackling major problems, and there is wide spread optimism that science will some how resolve our problems.  This view is most strongly held by population at large who may not be too familiar with the way science and technology work in practice. Our political leaders have also learned never to move to far ahead of public opinion, becoming trend followers rather than true leaders.

 Science is concerned with truth and scientists go to great lengths to guard their statements, often to the extent that the real meaning is not clear to the public.  I have had a passionate interest in the process of science but was trained as an engineer.  One of the first lessons a rooky engineer learns at college is that engineering is not about unassailable truth but managing ignorance.  Engineers are rapidly taught about ‘safety factors’ the margin between designed (or predicted) performance and expected requirements.  Engineers are not good at public relations but they did have the sense to use ‘safety factor’ rather then the correct term ‘ignorance factor’.

 If engineers are designing a component, say an aircraft wing, they do not know really know how strong the final geometry will be, how uniform the material is, what load may be experienced in some storm in flight.  So they use this ignorance factor to design a wing which does not fall to bits in flight.  The fact that air travel is incredibly safe; - planes simply do not fall to bits in the sky. This is all because of the skill of engineers in managing ignorance.

 Science is about managing truth, engineering is about managing ignorance.  My television has been bombarded with large scale tragedies, floods in Pakistan, China and Europe, fires in Russia, heat waves in the US, and our horrendous bush fires in Australia.  No respectable scientist, with his concern for truth, is going to say that these tragedies, in which thousands of people have died, are the result of climate change.  They best they can say is that it is consistent with what is predicted with climate change.  These words are reassuring to the general public who interpret what the scientists, the experts they trust, are saying is that these tragedies are not proven to be the results of climate change.  This leads to a policy of inaction.

 An engineer, used to managing ignorance, would say that these tragedies are extraordinarily likely to be caused by climate change, things look as thought they are going to get much worse so we better start taking real action now to minimize and mitigate these disasters in the future.

 Same probabilities, different interpretation, very different outcomes.

 You may not like the engineers caution but before you dismiss it think that this is the reason why you can step on a plane knowing that it is not going to fall to bits in the sky.

 Look at the situation when it is the other way round. You have probably experienced some product you have paid good money for that simply does not do the job you bought it for.  The reason is almost certainly that the company is run by a finance person, who asks the engineer why the product costs so much and receives the answer that it is because he his managing his ignorance.  The finance man then says he is not paying the engineer to be ignorant, go away and design the product to this price, so it can be sold at a profit.

 This is not a joke, this is the way the real world works.  But so we really want a world in which people are being drowned, burned or starved to death simply because of economics.

 Climate change is just one component of having a sustainable world.  Here I want to look at a technology, the wicking bed, which will help us to be sustainable.

 It has the potential to remove significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate climate change, it improves our food production capacity, it recycles our waste back into food and reduces water pollution.

 It may offend the delicacies of the purist by possibly giving an excuse for polluters to continue pollute but it is pragmatic.  It is like having a picnic on a railway line debating the probabilities of a train coming and becoming worried and miserable.  The pragmatist simply makes the effort now, gets up, moves to a safer place and enjoys life.


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