I have had that distinct thought in the back of my mind throughout my time in 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 were made to the curriculum. 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 disruptions hanging over every living creature on this Earth: I am talking about the impacts of 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 “good” job after graduation. So far so good. But more often than not, these jobs included working for oil and gas companies, which are some of the largest mechanical engineers employers 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.
We are smart and educated. We could help solve the problem. Instead, we 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 for instance, 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 put your brain to reshape- rethink — reorganize this world…