I have had that distinct thought in the back of my mind throughout my time at university studying mechanical engineering. The program I was in was at least 40 years old. In 40 years, it is quite certain that many changes to the curriculum had occurred. But I was surprised to observe that none of my lectures, in a 5-year program supposedly designed to prepare its students to tackle 21st-century challenges, dived into the massive disruption hanging over every living creature on this Earth: I am talking about climate change, of course.
I noticed a trend amongst my peers: they focused their efforts on improving the skills that would ultimately lead to them getting a job after graduation. So far so good. But more often than not, these jobs included working for oil and gas companies, which are large employers of mechanical engineers in Canada offering high pays, job security and overall good working conditions. My peers would be working towards improving oil sands extraction processes, managing pipelines to avoid any leaks, developing pumping systems etc.
And my thought kept crawling back.
These people are smart and educated. They could help solve the problem. Instead, they are choosing the easy path, contributing to the problem rather than being a part of the solution.
One of the strongest counterarguments to this thought is that improving systems goes in the right direction. If one can improve the efficiency of oil sand extraction using fewer resources, it will be less polluting. Although I understand this statement, I still can’t buy it. The fraction of improvement you can theoretically reach in any system is limited by the laws of physics. There is a point where you reach a plateau. Minimal changes in systems efficiency will require considerable efforts that it’s not worth the companies while. If you are interested in this topic, I suggest diving into this research paper from 1989 (!) that describe this phenomenon, the energy efficiency plateau.
So instead of working really hard to improve a small portion of a system that extracts oil and gas at a high cost in Canada (which is expensive financially and for our planet) wouldn’t you want to think about shaping this world of ours for the better and trying your best to help it thrive?
This is where the sense of purpose comes into play.
Climate change will disrupt and likely make things worst for every living being in this world. The more I learn and read about it, the more I realize that there isn’t one single line of work that isn’t going to be impacted by oceans dying and acidifying, by the permafrost melting, by drought or flood or fires or tornados, by the massive immigration waves, by resources becoming increasingly scare. We have seen how COVID19 impacted the global supply chain and the impact it had on our economy. What will happen to our global economy when people need to vacate their homes, factories, and legacies to flee for their lives because their environment is no longer safe for them?
In my view, every single profession can support the global effort to fight climate change and limit our resources utilization. If you are a nurse, there might be processes you can put in place to minimize medical wastes. If you are a food provider, you can do everything in your power to limit food waste on your premise, by collaborating with local businesses and demanding that your suppliers reduce the amount of plastic wraps around their products. If you are a construction worker, think about where your materials come from and demand transparency from the suppliers. If you work at a retail store and notice practices that are far from eco-friendly, call them out to the store management team.
You will face backlashes and people who don’t care. But the more we do collectively, the more we ask from leaders, the more likely we are to see a transformational shift in our consumption habits. The paper I cited above was written in 1989 and already talking about the potential impact of greenhouse gases. Over 20 years later, we are increasingly more aware of the situation, but we are still idle or making things worst. We need to shake things up.
When someone asks me what I do for a living and that my response is that the core of my work is to help transit agencies electrify their bus fleet, I often get the big eyes. Buses don’t seem like a very “sexy” business to work on, especially in North America as only 21% of urban residents use public transport on a regular basis, compared to 6% of suburban and 3% of rural residents. Before cars became the norm, transit was the only way to get around the City. Today it accounts for such a small portion of emissions in North America because it is underutilized and underdeveloped, but there are many benefits to electrifying and investing heavily in transit systems. Getting people out of the single occupancy cars and into shared transit should be preferred to the “usual business model” of electrifying all cars in North America. Not to mention that many lessons learned for transit fleet electrification can be applied to other modes of transportation such as freight and good movements which are a lot more emissions intensive. My work may, one day, contribute to reducing a very small fraction of emissions in Canada, and for that I am grateful and keep this purpose in mind.
To sum up, I invite you to ask yourself what is in your power to help solve the problem at our own scale, protect your environment, limit the uses of resources and think long-term about the impact you want to leave on Earth.