Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Learning from big events

Or avoiding an "environmental tsunami"

As I am writing this posting the world is watching the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Most concerning is the situation developing around some of the nuclear power centers in Japan where the potential of a disaster of  Chernobylian proportions is a real possibility.

Without trying to assess "who did or did not do what and what they should or should not have anticipated," situations like this humble us (specially engineers and scientists) as to our abilities to "do the right thing" when designing and implementing technological solutions to aid society (and run our businesses).

My wife, with a solid letters and arts education from a top school (and hence a member of that great mass of folks who can pose questions that make  make engineers look down at their shoes and mutter "ohh…uumm…well") often observes these events and makes a very perceptive comment. When an "even" occurs that is based on a situation that was never expected to occur, engineering experts are interviewed about this and the first response is "wow, we never expected that to happen."  She points to the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco bay area in 1989 and the collapse of a portion of the bay bridge. This was exactly what the experts said. This is a true statement but, to many folks, an unsettling response. We should be able to do better. And next time the designs are improved of course.

But, there always seem to be more things that are not anticipated.

The world is full of "things we don't expect to happen." The Japanese earthquake was apparently a once in a millennium event with little or no evidence in history of a prior occurrence. One geologist interviewed on NPR said that we might have to look further back to anticipate potential large earthquakes in the future - for example, in California.

So, this makes us think (more) about a range of future concerns.

A faculty member in the Goldman School of Public Policy here at UC-Berkeley, David Kirp, has just published a book titled "Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future"  (see Amazon). Although this book deals with education and not nuclear energy or sustainability, one of the author's comments on page xiii of the preface of the book (which was also quoted on NPR the other morning) rang true to me for a much broader discussion on sustainability and green manufacturing.

Professor Kirp wrote, relative to educational systems,  "the aim is to make widely available what all parents want for their children, to treat every youngster as well as we'd want our own children to be treated. That's the golden rule, and it's sound ethics, whatever your ideology. What's more, it's good for kids and a solid investment for the rest of us." Last time I checked, the golden rule concept is part of most major religious beliefs.

Doesn't this sum up our discussions on sustainability perfectly? Let's do for everyone else what we'd like to see those we love the most experience. Start with children and work our way up the humanity ladder - next to parents, then extended families, then neighbors, and villages, and countries, regions, etc.

I started this blog some time ago asking the question "why green manufacturing?" And I was very careful to indicate all the reasons this is a good idea for both "believers" and "non-believers" alike - meaning those convinced global warming is a fact or a real threat and those not sure about it or certain it is all hype. And one of the reasons for greening was to reduce risk. That includes natural risks. Does your supply chain pass near to Sendai?

But now we look at Japan.

No one saw this coming. And no one can tell for sure (meaning 100% certainty) if there is global warming or if it is caused by man made activity or just a periodic fluctuation in the earth's climate.

Do we really want to take that chance with our children, or, more likely grand and great-grand children? How do you do the cost-benefit analysis on that?

In the November 17th 2010 posting I referred to a discussion on a smart phone app that would send out hypothetical "text messages from the future." The example message then referred to a need to wear respirators due to past build up of CO2 emissions.

A more current message from the future might read "Please make sure not to build backup power generators for nuclear power stations in low areas.  Mind the tsunami!"

We owe ourselves a more proactive view of the future, and how to insure it is unspoiled for our descendants. It starts with individual commitments, like green manufacturing and sustainable production, whatever your beliefs. And these commitments and the actions arising from them influence our associates, then our companies, then our country and our world.

Let's not get hit by an unexpected "environmental tsunami" which we could have had an effect on - by designing, producing and reusing products more sustainably

In the next posting we'll continue on this path of looking for more technology wedges, and ways to assess their impact, for enabling green manufacturing.


  1. Great food for thought! I live in San Francisco, and always find myself driving on questionable bridges, tunnels, and roads. I often wonder - "What if we had 'the big one' that all the experts predict right now?" The answer is frightening (I don't think our infrastructure could handle it) so I just try to not think about it. This works to get me where I want to go, but is perhaps not the best approach to creating true sustainability.

  2. Japan pass through terrible time still the position is not very well but Japan has a great potential to recover all the loss.

  3. This is a very well written article. Things really need to start changing now or we will never be able to come back from the damage that we are creating now. Whether it was due to global warming or not, it is still an eye opener for the world.