This article focuses on the last century that brought unleaded gasoline, the catalytic converter, and new technologies for cleaning the smokestack emissions and effluents of industrial plants. Engineers designed and refined those technologies, which helped industry adhere to government regulations, and which went a long way toward improving the quality of air and streams. Since 1993, money has been found to equip a few hundreds of the isolated homes with solar power systems or, more recently, with installations of solar panels supplemented by wind turbines or gas generators. Investing in the technology of environmental protection and sustainability has made slow progress in general. Today, most actions to protect and preserve the environment have been forced on industry by government. The question of industry’s compliance, or non-compliance, with regulations is a political and legal issue, not a matter of engineering. Engineers have created solutions. Controls cost money, of course. So far, no one has found a way to make the investment in environmental protection technology profitable for industry.
The first human being to plant seeds was wrestling with the natural environment. It was progress. More people, with more to eat, would live longer and better.
The population would increase, eventually to stress available resources by lighting more fires, crowding the living space, and fouling the water supply. That was the cost of progress.
With only a few setbacks—as in the plague years or the Dark Ages—technology steadily advanced fro111. its rock-and-stick phase until, by the late 20th century, industrialized societies burning fossil fuels had achieved unprecedented prosperity and comfort.
At the same time, the entire world had achieved unprecedented numbers. Some six billion human beings were looking at global patterns of air and water pollution, ever costlier fuel supplies, and, in many cases, crushing poverty.
By the middle of the century, headlines told of lethal smog, exacerbated by vehicle exhaust, in London, Los Angeles, and other cities. As years passed, chemical pollution and oil spills made the front pages, too. Names like Exxon Valdez and Love Canal can still stir bitter memories.
Eventually, a significant minority of the people of the Western World began to wonder if perhaps the good life had become too rich for the planet's health. Maybe for the first time in history, large numbers of men and women started to fear the extinction of their own species.
Technology in general and engineers in particular were seen as a large part of the problem.
Samuel Florman of the construction firm of Kreisler, Borg, Florman in Scarsdale, N.Y., talks about that in his book, The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. But he has more recently noted—for instance, in an article that appeared this past summer in The Bent, the magazine of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society—that any anti-technology reaction based on environmental concerns "seemed to dissipate as it became apparent that protection of the environment was itself a form of engineering."
The last century brought us unleaded gasoline, the catalytic converter, and new technologies for cleaning the smokestack emissions and effluents of industrial plants. Engineers designed and refined those technologies, which helped industry adhere to government regulations, and which went a long way toward improving the quality of air and streams.
In other words, engineers and the technology they devise are a big part of the solution.
As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering has been running articles each month highlighting key influences in the Society's development. This, the 11th in our series, explores the response to rising environmental concerns in the late 20th century.
Timeout for the Environs
Thirty-five years ago, the United States got its so-called "year of the environment." April 1970 marked the first observance of Earth Day, a global publicity effort for the ecology movement. But the year got its nickname because of a proposal to Congress a few months later. In July, President Richard Nixon proposed a federal reorganization that included the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
The new agency would take over a number of programs, from safeguarding the water supply to regulating pesticides, that were already in place, spread out among various federal agencies, primarily in the Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and Health, Education, and Welfare. It would not be the first federal effort to protect the environment. It would, however, be the first coordinated federal effort to do so.
Congress moved fast. The EPA was in place and operating that December.
Compared to farming, or even to steam power, spending money to protect things like air, water, and forests doesn't have deep roots in our culture. In the United States, the idea didn't enjoy much backing until the second half of the 19th century. Yellowstone, the first U.S. National Park, was created by an Act of Congress in 1872.
One of the first attempts to treat water, the Milwaukee River Flushing Station, was built fewer than 125 years ago. It is among ASME's Mechanical Engineering Landmarks. Built in 1888, the plant was "one of the earliest water-pollution control systems, reducing the concentration of pollutants in an urban stream," the citation says.
ASME's Environmental Engineering Division got its start as the Environmental Controls Division in 1949, addressing technology to curb the emissions of power plants.
The Technology and Society Division was established in 1972 in response to rising concerns about the limits of technological progress and its effect on society. As published on the division's Web site, "The common issue that concerns members of the Technology and Society Division is how our actions-as engineers, technologists, teacher , and leaders-impact greater society today and in the future."
Areas of interest include professional ethics, public policy, energy, and economics. One of its newest units, formed two year ago, is the Sustainable Engineering Committee.
According to the current chair of that committee, Ramesh Talreja, sustainable engineering "requires going one level higher to make sure all is done without, in the long term, depleting Earth's resources and hurting the livability on Earth. This paradigm shift will come when we educate engineers to practice engineering differently."
Teaching budding engineers and the general public to appreciate the existential pleasures of sustainability constitutes a day job for Timo Marquez Arreaza. Based in Venezuela, he works for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Center for Sustainability. He was the first to chair ASME's Sustainable Engineering Committee.
He has conducted environmental-awareness activities, including recycling drives in Venezuelan grammar schools, and is a project leader for an international program called World YES Forum, for the institute. "YES" stands for "Youth Encounter on Sustainability." The project offers training to students and young academics about ways they can help shape the environment.
Marquez Arreaza is also the manager of the sustainable development technical track that will make its debut this month at ASME's Congress. There will be 10 sessions on issues ranging from energy alternatives to the business case for sustainability.
Two technical sessions will be devoted to the product life cycle—"cradle to grave" issues. Designing a product with its entire life in mind, from the production of its materials to its ultimate disposal, is a fundamental principle of sustainability.
The committee's first co-chair, Richard C. Ciocci, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at The Pe11l1-sylvania State University, wrote a paper, "Identifying Sustainable Opportunities in Mechanical Engineering." In it, he said, "Opportunities exist in design to develop products that utilize sustainable materials and are themselves sustainable at the ends of their useful lives. Products must also operate at peak efficiencies to ensure sustainable use of energy."
The idea that the marketer shares responsibility for disposing of a product is getting a test in Europe, where the European Council has framed rules calling for various end-of-life provisions for automobiles. The legislation hasn't had an effect yet, and so it remains to be seen if it will be enforceable, practical, or even desirable.
One panel session will address sustainable communities, a topic that has been given added timeliness by an experiment that is to take place in China.
Arup, the international engineering firm, said in September that it had been hired by Shanghai Industrial Investment Corp. to design a sustainable city on an island in the Yangtze River. According to Arup, the city will incorporate large-scale renewable energy resources. It will be designed to live off its own water resources and will be fed from agricultural land nearby.
The panel session will include a presentation by Sandra Begay-Campbell, a senior member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. She is the technical adviser to a program bringing electric service to rural homes on the Navajo Reservation. There are about 18,000 homes without electric power. Many are far from standing power lines, so the cost of connecting them to the grid is prohibitive.
Since 1993, money has been found to equip a few hundred of the isolated homes with solar power systems or, more recently, with installations of solar panels supplemented by wind turbines or gas generators.
Investing in the technology of environmental protection and sustainability has made slow progress in general.
More than 10 years ago, in 1994, ASME issued a "General Position Paper on Designing for the Environment." It called on industry, the government, and academia to encourage an approach that tries to develop products whose manufacture, use, and disposal have the least practical effect on the environment. The idea has caught on in some spheres more so than in others.
Today, most actions to protect and preserve the environment have been forced on industry by government. The question of industry's compliance, or non-compliance, with regulations is a political and legal issue, not a matter of engineering. Engineers have created solutions.
Controls cost money, of course. So far, no one has found a way to make the investment in envir011lTlental protection technology profitable for industry.
If anyone ever does find a way, it will be an engineer