Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Engineering Within Limits

Engineering will run into the Ages of Austerity and Scarcity this decade.  We face a collective climate of austerity and scarcity in the developed world.  Austerity is an interesting word that does a good job describing the dilemma - - stern, strict, grim, self-denying, self-disciplined, frugal, and spartan.  It is an old word with Latin and Greek roots (i.e., Spartan).  Austerity is close to the word scarcity - - scant, sparse, deficient, inadequate, and lacking.  But the words are not synonyms.  Austerity is about choice and scarcity rarely involves choice.  Engineering faces a future with both words and varying degrees of choice.

Austerity, particularly fiscal austerity on the part of government, is a choice.  Investment in our public infrastructure faces an ugly period of zero-sum conflicts bounded by choice.  Our ability to fix potholes and upgrade wastewater treatment plants is a battle of the percentages - - and not the 1 versus 99 percenters.  The ability to invest in bridges and dams is a battle of the "haves" and have nots."  In this case, the "haves" are older, mainly white conservatives who have income from savings, which they do not want more heavily taxed, and their Medicare coverage and Social Security benefits diverted to other causes.  In a climate of austerity and limits, the fault lines will increasingly be drawn between the past and the future.

The Age of Austerity also interfaces with the Age of Scarcity.  In our case, two real scarcities are in our future.  The first is the limited supply of energy we can use without imperiling the planet.  The second is the availability and quality of water.  Both energy and water are essential to life, as well as economic productivity.  How we manage both energy and water in the Age of Scarcity impacts the quantity and quality of the world population in many ways.

One final point.  Too much austerity, such as reduced funding for green energy research (keep in mind that what currently is in short supply are high quality middle class jobs), will impact the level and length of scarcity.  For example, the inability to properly fund water resource development because of austerity measures can produce an environment of scarce water resources.  If austerity does lead to scarcity, the Greeks have a word for it - - Hubris.

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