A sustainable world
The world has really made very little progress
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
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
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
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
Science is about managing truth, engineering is
about managing ignorance.
My television has been bombarded with large scale tragedies, floods in
Europe, fires in Russia,
heat waves in the US,
and our horrendous bush fires in
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
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
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.