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Sustainable Development
May 28, 1996


Necessary, Difficult But Possible

[Editor's Note: Richard Devon is Associate Professor of General Engineering at Penn State University. This essay is presented as part of the Harbinger's symposium on Sustainable Development.]

by Richard Devon


In the United States, after decades of using conflictual approaches to environmental protection, we are now moving towards a collaborative approach as taken by some other countries. The product of current population growth and current industrial growth is unsustainable. The global economy grew from $4 trillion to $20 trillion from 1950 to 1995. Yet, most of the population of the world still does not live in a modern industrial society and they intend to.For example, the 1.2 billion of people in China saw their economy grow by an extraordinary 57 percent from 1991 to 1995. Already, the limits of the ecosystem appear to have been reached at many points.

In taking collective approaches, fairness is a key issue. The ratio of the income of the richest fifth of countries to the poor fifth increased from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 61 to 1 in 1991. This issue is critical when considering such things as carbon emissions. Currently, the US emits 5 tons per capita year while China emits 0.5 tons per capita year.

On the other hand, a typical Chinese steel mill requires 2 to 6 times the energy of a US steel mill. So, the issue arises of which standards to use, resource depletion or pollution control.

Human induced habitat loss and bioinvasions (introduction of non-native species) are causing the greatest loss in biodiversity since the last asteroid impact that spelled the end of the Cretaceous periods and the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the 30 countries or so with stable population growth and who are also showing the beginnings of ecological responsibility are typically now big gardens low in biodiversity. More species of ants have been found in the canopy of a single tree in the rainforest, for example, than in the entire British Isles. It is these same countries that represent the core of the global capitalist economy and are the home of the many of the calls to protect biodiversity where it is richest, in the equatorial areas that are falling prey to the global economy, e.g., the United States corporations in Latin America and the French in Africa.

We learn of limits the hard way like engineers testing materials to failure. The ozone layer was seriously damaged before we discovered what we had done and that it is potentially devastating to almost all forms of life. The global fish harvest appears to have peaked in 1989. The global grain harvest has not increased since 1990. Top soil losses, fertilizer impact limits, and limits of water resources suggest that grain limits may have been reached. World carryover stocks are at their lowest on record (since 1962). For future increase we are increasingly dependent on genetic engineering, the full possibilities and consequences of which are quite unknown. Aquifers that supply major populations in the United States and elsewhere in the world are being steadily exhausted. There are major rivers, like the Colorado River in the US and the Yellow River in China, that often don't make it to the sea.


To date, our attempts to manage technology have been complex, involving statutes, tort law, technology standards, consumer behavior, and insurance. Most efforts from a scientific approach have been to set limits on pollutants or ban them outright. In the United States, the number of federal statutes dealing with the environment grew exponentially from the 1960s to the 1980s. This had led to a proliferation of regulations, not always appropriate, and not always enforced. And these focus on pollution and health hazards. Few efforts address resource depletion. This has been left to the market for the most part and unfortunately the costs of resources do not reflect depletion to scarcity until far too late, Few efforts really address the issues in a global context. The damage caused largely by CFCs to the ozone layer did precipitate a worldwide agreement, the Montreal Protocol of 1987, that has led to a dramatic decline in the production of CFCs. But more typical is the ban at the national level of DDT and Thalidomide and their continued use in some other countries. And some bans, like the Swiss attempt to stop the growth of truck traffic through their country, gets attacked by other countries who get the benefits but not the costs of the truck traffic. Yet so important are environmental issues that in April 1996 Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State of the United States, proclaimed a new definition of national security that sets the environment as a top priority, "Environmental forces transcend borders and oceans to threaten directly the health, prosperity and jobs of American citizens...we must also contend with the vast new danger posed to our national interests by damage to the environment and resulting global and regional instability."


In green design, we take a life cycle approach to the materials and energy we use. We consider ways to reduce materials and energy required during extracting, refinement, manufacturing, assembly, use and disposal/reuse. Most of green design can be described by efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle. In some ways, reduction of energy and materials usage is the easiest to achieve since this usually represents cost savings in engineering. So, if office buildings today require 65 percent less steel than 30 years ago, and aluminum cans weigh 30 percent less than 20 years ago, it is as much because of improved profits as it is because of environmental concerns. In fact, these improvements mask a bigger problem. About 40 percent of materials entering the global economy each year go into buildings whose life expectancy has plummeted -- it is 17 years in Tokyo, for example. In WWII, 65 percent of the buildings in Germany survived. Only 15 percent survived the next 30 years. Reduction of materials, then, not only means lower materials and energy requirements for a product but also extending the useful life of the product. The latter is much harder to achieve than the former.

Some new materials raise very difficult issue. Steel is fairly easy to recycle and in the United States it is very widely and profitably recycled. Plastic and composites on the other hand, may be very good environmentally in terms of strength, durability, and low energy requirements in manufacturing, but they are almost impossible to recycle. The use of composite materials in cars, for example, which was increasing because of such benefits of corrosion resistance and hence longer useful life, is now likely to be reduced unless ways to reuse or recycleable composites can be found. Recycling and reuse are made easier if the products can be dissembled at the end of their useful life. BMW has not only raised the recycled content of cars to 80 percent, they have a model under development that can be fully disassembled either on return to BMW or at a specialty plant. The material use for each part will be identified. In the case of a Cannon copier, design for disassembly meant using snap fits instead of welds, and this was also found to improve maintenance during its useful life.

Ideally, the goal is "zero waste." People who advocate "industrial ecology" like to talk about the value of waste from one industry as input for another. However, there is already a market for waste and most waste is still a liability. And the cost of that liability is more likely to grow than not. All new manufacturing initiatives have to consider their waste long before they start building their factories.

So green design principles are emerging as engineers respond once again to societal needs. The key issue that emerges is how to manage technology. How do we create the appropriate mechanisms for decision-making in technology? How do we make green engineering not only the right thing to do but the profitable thing to do?

In wrestling with the issue of how to build acceptable decision-making mechanisms into technology in order to achieve environmental objectives, there has been a growing recognition that since most decisions about non-defense technology are made in the market, this may be the best arena for environmental management. The President's Council on Sustainable Development, after 2 years of work has endorsed this approach in its report released this year. Notably, the Council includes only environmentalists and industrialists. They did not expect to agree on anything. But when these major stakeholders got together and listened to each other, they found broad agreement on maintaining environmental standards and using market mechanisms to enforce them rather than approaches requiring government command and control.

Ironically, one of the most effective actions by the Government in the United States was when President Clinton exploited the government's role in the market. In 1993, he issued an executive order requiring that all government purchases of paper should contain 20 percent recycled content by the end of 1994 and 30 percent by 1998. Some state governments have similar regulations. Needless to say, given the government's appetite for paper, the market for recycled paper went from a negative value to a positive value very quickly. It is now a good soruce of income for New York City, which used to pay $6 million a year to get rid of newsprint. Also, the technology has improved under the market conditions and recycled paper is almost identical in quality to paper using new fibers. There is also a recognition that government regulation cannot adequately encapsulate complex knowledge about a product's environmental impact. After years of development, the new standards for regulating chemicals, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in April 1996, stress narrative approaches to standards rather than crude quantitative measures.

So the issue is not just green engineering techniques, but the establishment of decision-making mechanisms and incentive systems that promote their use.

This essay is reprinted with permission from the ASEE (Ameridan Society for Engineering Education) Engineering and Public Policy Newsletter, June 1996.

-- May 28, 1996

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