Hållbar Utveckling

Here is an article I wrote about the sustainable development class I was in. Read it if you dare.

What would environmental technology policy look like if it was left up to 42 aspiring nanoengineers? An interesting question, and one that is rarely considered at that. But even more simply put: What if those who are supposedly going to be developing the next generation of technology were also put in charge of creating the policy that governs this development?

To find out the answer to this question was precisely the goal of a new course created at Lund University in Lund, Sweden.  “Sustainable Development in Nano-perspectives,” as the course is titled in English, was given for the first time in the Spring semester, 2010 by the small but well-renowned Nanotechnology department at Lunds Tekniska Högskola, the engineering section of the University.

The course, which was made mandatory for nanoengineering students, was essentially a role play: the students were divided up into different interest groups that would ideally present their opinions and suggestions towards the sustainable development of European Spallation Source (ESS), a major research facility slated to be built in Lund within the coming years.  The interest groups where: The European Union, The ESS as a Workplace, Global Rights, The Environment, Lund University, Lund as a Big cCty, and Research and Development Corporations. I enrolled as an exchange student in the course, and was able to participate in this the first iteration of this experiment of a course.

Over the duration of the class, we students attended lectures on topics such as rhetoric, ethics, environmental economics, and environmental law. When not in lectures, the students met at there own discretion in their respective interest groups, drafting three versions of a document listing each group’s demands along the way. The pinnacle of the course came at a 24-conference, held away from Lund’s campus in order to simulate the feeling of a real political summit.

The work of the conference day began and we broke up into predetermined specialist groups based on the points that were dealt with in the final documents: Sustainable development, Internal Structure, Direction, Community Integration, and “Health-Safety-Environmental” questions. I myself participated in the dicussion on the theme of Community Integration.

One of the greatest challenges we as students have faced throughout the length of the course has been holding to the course’s overarching goal, that is to say, sustainable development. As scientists, it is only natural for us to search for concrete answers to every question that is presented to us. However, throughout the length of this course, nothing has been made more clear as the fact that there exists no concrete answer to the answer to the question of  “what is sustainable development?”

Even in my specialist meeting, it was clearly still difficult hold our eyes on what we where supposedly trying to receive. In my group, “Community Integration,” even as we waded through all of the suggestions and demands that the each group had put forward in their final documents, every once in a while the question would pop up: “How is this related to Sustainable Development?” The group would utter a collective sigh, and we would be force to go “back to the drawing board” so to speak.

After several hours we ended the Specialist session and gathered in the main conference hall. As the “Big Meeting,” which was essentially common forum to discuss and approve the decisions that each group had made, got underway, we realized an essential flaw in the structure of the conference. Every part of the document should have ideally been permeated by a common definition of Sustainable development—a common definition, that is, that was written by a group of five people at the same time as the rest of the document was being written in four other separate groups. At that point we broke down again into small groups, and re-worked out text, although hastitly.

The definition that was eventually agreed upon was quantity-based and characteristically reasonable. Because scientists are problem solvers, we started by defining the problem: in our world today there is an improper use and unfair allotment of resources, resources meaning financial, natural, human, and etc. In essence, are misusing what we have, and sustainable development is the movement towards fixing that. Even early on in the course, we realized that that this task goes much deeper than just how much of the building will be made from recycled materials or what kind of green energy it will be powered with. The more we considered, the more complicated it got; even to the point where we where discussing how research time could be divided in the most sustainable way even what the building itself should look like. Should it be pretty? Should it be ugly? How much would it cost to make it pretty? The purpose of the “Big Meeting” was to pare it all down to the essentials.

Nevertheless it soon got to be past two in the morning and it was clear that everyone still sitting awake in the conference hall was beginning to make decisions simply for brevity’s sake. And despite an entire lifetime spent complaining about the ineffectiveness of politics I began to realize that how easy it is to fall into exactly that. So much of original vision gets lost in compromise, passion for ideas gets lost in boredom, repetition, and fatigue— all pitch and moment cast asunder in the throes of ‘making it work’.

Despite the fatigue, we managed to get it done. After document was passed by conference the next morning, everyone filed back onto the bus in order to make it to Lund in time for the scheduled three o’clock press conference that had been scheduled. The idea of the press conference was that student journalists and interested people outside of the Nanoengineering department could come and hear what we had come up with, as well as present their own questions and concerns about the ‘sustainable roadmap’. But what was really made clear by the conference was, as some of the engineering students put it after the ordeal, was the existence of a sort of “knowledge gap.”

The audience asked a lot of questions that probably could have been expected. What will be the effects of radiation from the facility? What kinds of chemicals or hazardous materials would be involved? These questions where addressed calmly and collectedly And then came probably the most surprising question of all, at least from a scientist’s standpoint: what do normal people have to gain from the construction of ESS?

To be an engineer is to have a faith in technology, and to an engineer, the social benefits of a facility such as ESS may seem clear: new findings in research lead to the development of techonology that can improve people’s quality of life, cure illnesses, and minimize humankind’s impact on the environment. It seems reasonable that an engineering student who is on the verge of making it life’s work to develop technology would be annoyed that the public would be uneducated about science, and the possibility that the average citizen of the world may not really believe (or have the knowledge in order to believe) that technology is the answer to the world’s environmental problem. It is even more interesting, then, that this question turned out to be somewhat of a doosie. There was a pause in the room, a brief but tangible surge of frustration from our side, and then, a breath of air.

We answered in somewhat didactic tones, that ESS research would lead to the development of new types of medical technology and new sources of energy that can save the environment—good answers certainly, but nevertheless vague. The ambiguity of investing in research—where big risks are taken for only potential results. To us on the engineering side, the potential benefits of ESS and research in general seem so clear, that we have never even tried to rationalize them ourselves.

On the other hand, this “knowledge gap” goes both ways—as well as the frustration with uncertainty and not knowing how to move forward n a sustainable way. In no way do I mean to propose some sort of divide between the “enlightened engineer” and the “uneducated masses”. Just as much as engineers are almost over-hopeful that Nanotechnology will have the ability to save the world, so are non-engineers almost over-skeptical. Each side lacks information—and at the risk of sounding cliché, working together is necessary in order to create a complete picture. The debate needs not to take place in the context of  “us” and “them,” but rather a discussion in the context of “we.” Technology alone cannot save the world. If only it where that easy.

Now let me return to the original question: What if those who are supposedly going to be developing the next generation of technology were also put in charge of creating the policy that governs this development? Well, I would go so far to say that judging by the final product of our conference the future would be in fairly good hands. Truly good policy is harder to create than good science. Maybe that’s why it is so much harder to find. Good policy takes above all, cooperation and dialogue. And maybe that is what we really, really need. The point of “Sustainable Development in Nanoperspectives” as a class seemed to be to force us as future scientists to realize the true difficulty of initiating that dialogue and reaching that cooperation more than anything else, and that in order to do achieve this we have to be involved as well as involve non-scientists, like it or not.

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One Response to “Hållbar Utveckling”

  1. nobelpriset – not for me « the daily saga Says:

    […] even more in the direction of Nanotechnology … precisely on the eve of the impending construction of ESS (research facility creating neutrons for Nanotechnology research) in Lund, in Skåne, in […]

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