Sustain ability!!!

We should look with awe at the immense ability of Earth’s biosphere to sustain itself. In the millions of years of life on Earth, this ability always persisted. This is why life (and therefore humanity) is still around today. The biosphere has been resilient enough to weather several mass extinctions of global scale in its geological past, e.g., caused by asteroid impacts [1].

Can humans have an impact on Earth’s biosphere to the extent of an asteroid? I think so. If we’d really wage a war with nuclear weapons, the effect might be comparable. But even without such a disaster, we are now testing the limits of the current state of the biosphere.

Ecological science has documented numerous cases, where ecosystems irreversibly passed tipping points due to human activities [2]. A small example is Lake Sempach in Switzerland, which happens to be in my neighbourhood. Ever since a massive fish kill in 1984, caused by eutrophication, is has been artificially aerated. Even today (2018) there are still no prospects for completely switching off aeration.

When a certain threshold is passed, it is difficult or even impossible to revert an ecosystem to its previous state. Does the biosphere as a whole also have such tipping points? Ecology suggests that it does.

Sustainable development is an expression whose meaning is somewhat difficult to grasp. It is often defined as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [3]. But what does “ability of future generations” mean? Let’s illustrate this with an image.

If humanity were a weightlifter, sustainable weightlifting would mean that we’d not ever be allowed to put down the dumbbells*. A threshold effect, such as a climate tipping point, would continuously put more weight on the dumbbells. Unexpected disturbances would weaken the weightlifter. Even a trained weightlifter would eventually break down.

Ability of future generations implies the “capacity, fitness, or tendency to act in a (specified) way” ([4]) to meet their needs. We should lighten the burden of our kids and our grandchildren instead of adding the weight of an irreversible ecological change to it. I also think we need to teach and train them how to engineer their direct environment holistically and based on findings from ecology. Sustain ability with Ecological Engineering!

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* this type of weightlifting is fortunately not an olympic discipline…

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicxulub_crater
[2] Resilience Alliance and Santa Fe Institute. 2004. Thresholds and alternate states in ecological and social-ecological systems. Resilience Alliance. (Online.) URL: http://www.resalliance.org/index.php/thresholds_database
[3] http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf
[4] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ability

Ecology and Engineering – a perfect match?

If ecology and engineering would meet at an evening speed-dating event, they might not immediately fall in love with each other. On a quick glance, they seem to be too different. However, later at night, when lying in bed back at home and trying to catch some sleep, chances are that both would start pondering about the other.

Engineering offers a long experience in problem solving and the rigor and power of the methods used for it. Ecology offers deep insights into natural processes and the methods to analyze and quantify them. The application of engineering methods often affects the subjects of study of ecology, while changes in ecology may in turn affect engineered systems. If these two would marry, both fields could benefit from each other.

This  becomes obvious in cases where both of the fields meet directly. Decommissioned mining sites – a left-behind of engineering activities – illustrate how difficult it can be to restore ecosystems. Often the hydrological cycle was fundamentally altered by the mining acivities. The migration routes of large animals were interrupted. The original fauna and flora were removed, together with the humus. In addition, abandoned mine tailings release acidic water into the environment – an almost unstoppable microbiological process. Engineers tend to be overstrained with this problem, because they may lack ecological understanding. On the other hand, even if ecologists knew what could be done, they often wouldn’t know how to do it. Both of them need each other.

The same phenomenon, just a little less obvious, can be observed in cities. Cities keep growing rapidly in almost all parts of the globe. Their urban water management practice is usually heavily built on an old invention, the sewer. Sewers allow to quickly drain away water from human infrastructures, carrying with them human fecal matter, industrial and hospital effluents, road runoff and a lot of other unwanted things. This is beneficial for the cities but causes a lot of problems dowstream. In many places on the world, the wastewater is just discharged directly to natural waters. This practice produces a lot of harm in these environments. Even if treatment exists, nutrients are usually not recovered.

Ecology offers some fundamental opportunities to engineering: A profound understanding of ecosystems, natural cycles, their functions and their properties; the capability to think in different scales; and system’s thinking, together with the tools to support it. In turn, engineering offers, e.g., the tools and practices to conceptualize, design and build infrastructures, the skills to develop new practices and devices needed for low- or zero energy cities and a closed-loop circular society.

I think, ecology and engineering are a perfect match! However, it’s a long way from nightly considerations to a wedding. Let’s have a closer look at this sprouting relationship in the next weeks. Stay tuned 😉

Why should engineers care about ecology?

Engineering as a field of practice has deep roots in human history. It dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, and might be much older. In ancient civilizations, the predecessors of engineers were probably craftsmen and artists. I believe that this eternal urge to do things better has always been their main driver.  Since new solutions usually come through a long chain of trial and error, this is critical for success,

Current engineering practices in the Western world evolved since renaissance times. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and a diversity of other practical and scientific disciplines were increasingly included. Engineering is widely ramified today. All fields of engineering encompass a large formalized body of knowledge and practices, which is carefully guarded by engineering boards.

Engineering has become the single most important human practice on Earth. Compared to earlier ages, the potential impact of engineering has drastically increased in scale. Successful engineering design may now lead to its global distribution in a very short time. Think, e.g., of new types of plastics, pharmaceuticals, anticorrosive coatings, or sunscreens based on nanoparticles. If such inventions are introduced into the global market, they often also enter the global ecological cycles. This may (and often does) lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences in ecosystems.

Almost all ecological processes on Earth are connected through material cycles. The tremendous amount of human activities and our high mobility accelerate the velocity of material distribution through these cycles. The global biosphere is now changing in an unprecedented way. Nature has sustained life on Earth for more than a billion years, in spite of disasters of all kinds. Do we really want to find out by trial and error, if it can continue sustain us?

Forming a sustainable human civilization is the greatest challenge we face today. As a civilization, we need to understand how we – a biological being and part of nature – can co-exist with all the other biological beings in nature in a healthy and sustainable way. The science of ecology has been unraveling and trying to understand the incredibly flexible, yet resilient web of life on Earth. The principles and processes found by ecologists can inform engineers and inspire a new kind of truly sustainable design. This is why engineers should care about ecology.

After all, we are dealing with our own life-support system! In the following weeks, I want to explore how an ecologically inspired practice of engineering might look like.

Why should ecologists care for engineering?

Simply spoken: because engineering is the most influential human practice on Earth. “It is no longer possible to understand, predict, or successfully manage ecological pattern, process, or change without understanding why and how humans reshape these over the long term“, Erle C. Ellis, a well-known anthropoecologist, stated in 2015 [1].

We humans have learned to engineer machines, devices, tools and processes across several orders of magnitude, ranging from lakes or mile-deep open-pit-mining holes to molecules, nanoparticles or microorganisms. The outcomes of engineering – and the waste it produces – heavily influence our climate and all ecosystems. The effects can be measured at the highest mountain summit and in the deepest ocean abyss.

IEES aims to become an umbrella organization for ecologists, engineers and a wide range of other professionals who share a holistic view on Earth’s ecology and the human influence on it. IEES promotes the idea that a sustainable co-existence of humans and nature can be achieved. Interested in ideas how this works in practice? Stay tuned to this weekly blog.

 

[1] Erle C. Ellis, Ecology in an anthropogenic biosphere, Ecological Monographs 85(3), 2015, pp. 287-331

Restart IEES: Update on the process


To all interested in ecological engineering

Dear friends of IEES,
It’s great to see that some progress has been made in the past months. Here’s a brief update:

  • IEES now has an active board that meets about every 2 months to reflect and steer the process
  • the renewal of the collaboration with a scientific journal is under way
  • an Ecological Engineering symposium is planned for Sep. 2019, together with the Zurich University of Applied Science at Waedenswil, Switzerland (where 2 previous ecological engineering conferences took place in 1996 and in 2012)
  • a small support group with committed students has been set up, to maintain the website, collect lighthouse projects and help with related issues. If you are a student and would like to join in, please contact us at contact@iees.ch
  • and last but not least, we have a new logo (see above)

If you feel that this is your society and that it’s going the right way, please support IEES by becoming a member (again).

Yours sincerely

Andreas Schoenborn & Raffael Kaenzig
Co-presidents