This week brought the annual transformation of campus from a sparsely populated park—with occasional gaggles of visitors—to a small city. Students filled the open spaces with their first-day enthusiasm, spilling out of classrooms onto sidewalks and lawns, laying claim to their territory for the next nine months. About 6,000 of them are engineering students, which is in the neighborhood of an all-time high, and I had to wonder how many were motivated by what the recruiting materials showcased: namely, that engineers can help bring about a better world. The kind powered by sustainable sources of energy, knitted together by safe roads and bridges, and fed by an untainted chain of food production.
Wonder and hope, that is. As a writer and reader of environmental literature, I am motivated by the idea that somehow people will connect the words and ideas with their lives in a way that brings positive change, or at least causes them to reflect on the idea of change.
Research indicates that the “I want to make a difference” message resonates with today’s youth. This may come as a surprise to the credit-fed generation that spawned them, and fawned over them, and continues to hover over them with best-in-class intent—instincts honed even sharper by economic malaise. Today’s tuition-paying parents want a return on investment. But the truth is that their progeny, imbued with varying degrees of youthful idealism and blind confidence, have not fallen so far from the money tree. The same research also shows that most students are not shy about their monetary aspirations.
An engineering grad will make good money—probably right away—but is that incompatible with generally improving our prospects for a sustainable world? Or with wanting to? There are two sides to sustainability. If we are unable to combine technology with sound practice to ensure abundant sources of clean water, then a pillar of our quality of life, let alone our prosperity, collapses. As long as people are being paid well for developing answers, we may all avoid paying the consequences.
We should not mind if the upcoming generation wants to do good and do well. Political persuasions and economic philosophies aside, we cannot build any acceptable framework for the future without water, food, and energy. Avoidance of the unfolding crisis is not an option. Our world faces some difficult choices about sustainability. We need writers to explore those dilemmas for the sake of all of us, and we need engineers to offer us solutions we can live with.