Sustainability – Possible ways to develop solutions that actually work

Quick solutions! Sounds great!

But wait. . . the solutions need to be. . .

Great Thunberg said, “Our house is on fire.” While this might be a good description of climate change, the quick getting out of the house and putting the fire out should not be applied when we are developing solutions. Instead, we need to carefully analyse the impact our proposal has on short-term as well as long-term on our climate.

Bill Gates, a billionaire, has invested time as well as his own money in finding solutions. In his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, Bill explores advice from a variety of fields in order to take us closer to putting an end to challenges that face us all due to changes in climate. The book has inspired the documentary “Solving for Zero” and Bill also participates in the ten-part series.

Some ideas and projects included are brilliant, yet, some of the projects promoted by Bill would in our opinion benefit from a Life Cycle Analysis.

In the excellent book Engineering Education for the Next Generation by Samuel Cord Stier, who is the executive director of The Center for Learning with Nature, you can read more about the behind Life Cycle Analysis, LCA. This analytical tool can help us understand and dive deeper into the environmental impact that things have. It can help us “make real progress through the fog of sustainability” (p.139, Samuel Cord Stier). The framework for LCA was developed inspired by a tool used by biologists to describe the lives of organisms.

A characteristic of human-made objects is that we tend to make things in a linear manner, beginning with extracting raw materials and ending the process with the disposal. Almost everything we make ends up in a landfill or the ocean or the atmosphere. This approach is in contrast to how nature does things and this is at least part of the reason why our climate is changing.

Part of Bill’s investments has been spent on developing the next generation of Nuclear Power. His company TerraPower was founded in 2008 and since then several new ideas have admittedly emerged that make the use of nuclear power safer. Yet, the main problem still exists with the end product. Sure part of the energy may be carbon-free but our solutions need to look at the whole life cycle of the materials used in the nuclear power station.

Why not apply the Five to Thrive to the suggestions and solutions that have been put forward? Five to Thrive is a framework based on Nature’s approach to making things. The framework for sustainability is based on the Life Cycle Analysis (this summary is found in the book Engineering Education for the Next Generation.

  • Materials without mining
  • Power without pollution
  • Benign by design
  • Ingeniously effective
  • Infinitely useful

Projects and examples that are included in the Solving for Zero series.

Look at a project to see if any raw materials that are used are used without mining. Project Vesta is one project that aims to:

“. . . sequester carbon by accelerating the weathering of a specific type of rock called olivine. When olivine interacts with water and CO2, it creates a bicarbonate and alkaline solution that eventually sequesters the carbon as rock in the sea floor and deacidifies the ocean.

While this rock is abundant and cheap, all of the unweathered sources of it are underground. The plan is to mine it, grind it, and spread it on beaches to harness the free energy of wave motion to further tumble the rocks and accelerate the weathering process. We will be creating a global network of green sand beaches to end global warming.” Climitigation

As you probably will discover it quickly becomes rather difficult to use the Life Cycle Analysis and the framework Five to Thrive. Still, it is a great thinking exercise to help sharpen your focus when exploring solutions to climate challenges.

Related post

Another framework to force engineers out of their common linear design thinking can be found in our earlier post Design as Nature Would Design.

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