What can academics do to save the planet?

What role can academic staff play in averting a climate catastrophe? Johnny Rich explains how the Engineering Professors’ Council is supporting work on a sustainable future

Johnny Rich is Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push, and of the Engineering Professors’ Council, and a consultant.

Faced by the enormity of impending climate collapse, it’s easy to feel as if no human effort can forestall the inevitable.

There are those who say we must have hope, but even that can seem like straw-clutching.

And yet, the facts can tell a different story. It is barely two centuries since the expansion of the industrial age and the mass mechanisation of the extraction, exploitation and excretion of the earth’s resources into our atmosphere.

If that’s the harm we can do in just two hundred years of unplanned and undeliberate harm, how much good might we be able to do in two hundred years of deliberate improvement?

What could we achieve in fifty years if we set our greatest minds to it? Or even in ten?

It is people who changed our climate. So, if ever you find yourself paralysed by the hopelessness of the task of achieving environmental impacts on a global scale, remember we’ve done it before without even trying.

All the while that untold damage was being done to our planet, it was seen as innovation in the name of progress. Today’s community of engineers feel the weight of the responsibility they bear. It was their forbears who led the charge, wanting to solve societal and economic problems.

Solving problems for people

And it worked. As a result, we have a life expectancy that has more than doubled from under 30 in 1770 to over 70 today. We spend less than a third of those lives working, as opposed to the 16-hour days and six-day weeks of agrarian workers, and even the most arduous of manual labour is now usually aided by machinery. As for today’s technology, yesterday’s wizardry has become banal.

Without wanting to understate the poverty, cold, hunger and illness that many in the world still suffer today, it is for the most part, in our country at least, of a different order to that of our pre-industrial ancestors.

If we want to acknowledge the accomplishment of engineers in giving us all this, we must also recognise their culpability in the devastation of our climate. But also, if engineers were able to do such damage, just think what they can do to solve these problems, given the right sense of purpose, the right skills, the right education.

Last month, the Engineering Professors’ Council launched our latest set of resources to create the change we want – we need – to see. Together with the Royal Academy of Engineering and Siemens, we have created a Sustainability Toolkit to help engineering academics instil a different mindset and a different skillset in the students they teach.

This is not about an additional teaching burden, but rather it is about seeing engineering through a different lens. Through case studies, teaching materials and guidance, users of the toolkit can aim to produce a new generation of engineers: problem-solvers who recognise it is not only their duty, but within their power to solve the biggest problems facing the planet.

It is not all about big solutions though. Everything we see around us, if it is not nature or art, is basically the work of engineers. The Sustainability Toolkit is intended to ensure that the intricate fabric of our lives – whether it’s new compounds, wind turbines, motorways, electronics, textiles – is designed with the deliberate intention to build a better environment.

Virtuous circles

The toolkit follows our work in creating the Ethics Toolkit – another open-access resource aimed at supporting our members (ie. almost every engineering academic in the UK) to re-engineer the engineers of the future. Ever since its launch, it has been the most used part of the EPC website. Both toolkits are – and will be – evolving resources, gathering materials and evidence of impact, becoming ever more useful and so gathering ever more contributions in a virtuous circle.

The drive to do this work came from our members, who were partly motivated by changes in the demands of accreditation, but also because they recognise that the twenty-first century will require expertise in areas that they themselves were never systematically taught. We cannot wait around for generations of academics to gradually pick this up. The task is too big and too urgent.

The vast majority of this country’s engineering graduate workforce – and, given the number of international students who enrol in UK engineering courses, the global workforce too – are educated by academics who are members of the EPC. As the gatekeepers of that potential army of change-makers, this is why we felt it was our duty to do what we could to reshape their education.

However, this article isn’t intended as self-congratulation (although I would like to thank all my colleagues who have got us this far). Rather it is intended as a call to arms.

For the reasons I’ve explained, engineering academics felt a compulsion to get on the front foot, but facing up to the environmental emergency is something for every discipline to ask itself, “What is my responsibility? What can I do?”

Today’s graduates – not just the engineers – will build all our tomorrows: the economists, the business graduates, the medics, the teachers, the data analysts, the communications specialists, the philosophers, writers and artists. All the brightest and the best, the leaders and the doers. Every one of us created our problems and everyone can create the solutions.

As a higher education sector, we need to educate people who are equipped and determined to rise to the challenge. We need to embed sustainability and ethics into every course.

Please take a look at our efforts and consider what you could do in your courses, however far removed they may seem. How could you adapt your teaching to ensure it is in service of a sustainable future for us all?

This is existential. At some level, everything must be about this.

2 responses to “What can academics do to save the planet?

  1. I didn’t read anything about engineering academics reducing their carbon footprint by reducing their flying, for example, nor anything about engineering schools’ contribution to global warming by recruiting international students to study abroad on campus.

    1. Or working in Australian, then Canadian universities and being an Associate Professor at Oxford, eh, Gavin?

      Of course you’ve got point, but it’s a pretty measly one. Seriously. Look at the work an engineer can do over a lifetime to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint. If you want to build a net zero plane, you’re going to need an engineer who wants to do that.

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