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In Search Of Alternatives

Of Engineers and Engineering

T Vijayendra

Engineers don't win Nobel prizes—Shreekumar

I belong to the most rapacious predator that stalked the Earth—humans, and to a net destructive discipline—engineering, that has to take more than a fair share of the responsibility for bringing the Earth and human society to a tipping point
Sagar Dhara

Both Shreekumar and Sagar Dhara are some of the most politically conscious thinking engineers. Between these two statements there is a range of meanings and nuances which cover a description and critique of engineers and engineering as profession.

The first thing to note is that both the statements carry negative connotations about engineers.

Shreekumar is saying that engineers are not good scientists. In fact there has been only one engineer who did win the Nobel Prize. It was the Soviet engineer/scientist Peter Kapitsa (1894-1984). But he won it as a physicist. He had worked with Ernest Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. In 1978, Kapitsa won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the work in low temperature physics that he did in 1937.

However for a real engineer who was a scientist the pride of place must go to J W Gibbs (1839-1903), one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. In 1863, Gibbs was awarded the first PhD, in engineering in the USA from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale for a thesis entitled On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing. But there was no Nobel Prize in his days. However, in 1901, Gibbs was awarded the highest possible honour granted by the international scientific community of his day, granted to only one scientist each year : the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, for his greatest contribution of being "the first to apply the second law of thermodynamics to the exhaustive discussion of the relation between chemical, electrical, and thermal energy and capacity for external work".

There are many engineers who in fact are good scientists (including Shreekumar himself) but they are on the whole exceptions and what Shreekumar says is by and large true. Engineers are mostly interested in immediate results and rarely bother about the science of it. If they had bothered about it, as Shreekumar shows in his writing on ‘Thermodynamics and Sustainability’, they would have been aware of the larger costs, particularly cost to the environment. They would also have thought about the inadvisability of many of their ideas. In truth the key words for engineers are 'being smart' and the 'thrill' of it!

But what is the difference between a scientist and an engineer? A working definition can be that engineering is applied science. Science is 'uninterested' enquiry, knowledge for knowledge's sake. When did the engineer appear? When did science get together with technology? There have always been exceptional individuals who combined pure enquiry with practical application—like Leonardo Da Vinci. There is also a case that many 'great' people claimed credit for work done by the artisans. In the play 'Galileo' by Bertolt Brecht it is shown that while Galileo was showing off his telescope to the aristocracy, it was sold as a toy in the streets of Rome!

But on the whole engineers are a relatively new breed. They are products of capitalism and democracy. How Come?

Historically science was developed by people of leisure—aristocracy and priests. Technology was developed by artisans on the basis of their long and continuous association with tools and equipment. Capitalism brought a demand for educated working class and democracy made science education accessible to all citizens. Technical institutes and later technological universities came into being. Children of the artisans and working class came to know the laws of science—particularly mechanics and hydraulics. Later chemistry and electricity got introduced. Thus the modern engineer was born. They were in great demand by the industry and their education and careers were guided by the demands of the industry.

Now the industry is guided by the return on investment. New technology often gave greater productivity. Very often workers' protest against horrible conditions, compensation paid to the injured or dead workers gave impetus to new technology. Engineers were also asked to design machines and work places to get greater productivity from the workers. Thus the science and technology of ergonomics was born. In engineering design it is very often asked, 'if we gain by this improvement, where do we lose?' Trade-offs is a common discussion topic, but never do engineers discuss the increased load on the environment. Dumping your losses on the environment is the unwritten law. Environment is considered free and it is assumed that it is 'an infinite source and an infinite sink'.

Dhara's description says a lot about humans as species and their increased role as predators due to engineers in the last two hundred years. Human species has for a long time changed its environment to suit itself more than any other species. This however reached a very high level with capitalism and access to 'cheap' fossil fuel. They have destroyed vast stretches of forests, grassland and wetland and brought these areas under cultivation. This has had an effect on destroying ecosystems and endangering, and in some cases even leading to extinction, a large number of species within a very short period of time. This agriculture also increased the human population to seven billion. Other developments in consumerism led per capita consumption to several times higher and have led to resource constraints. It has increased greenhouse gases leading to global warming which can endanger all life on earth. The era of 'infinite source and infinite sink' is over.

The Manhattan Project
The greatest travesty of science and engineering is of course the Manhattan Project—the secret project to make the atom bomb in the 1940s by the United States. Here to their eternal shame the greatest minds of science and engineers got together to make the worst weapon in the world—the atomic bomb. What is even more horrifying is that the top leaders of the project agreed to test it on innocent civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan when it was not even needed to win the war!

The sad fact is that even after this shameful event engineers continued to develop atom and hydrogen bombs and design and test missiles which can drop those bombs thousands of miles away, kill and maim hundreds of thousands of people within minutes! They also developed a large variety of weapons of mass destruction which go under the innocuous name 'Chemical and Biological Warfare'.

The saving grace of the Manhattan project is the Pugwash Conference and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In essence it was an Apology to the world by many important scientists (and hopefully engineers) about their involvement in the project. There is the Pugwash clock which tells the world how many minutes the human race is away from a global mutual destruction. Usually it is around 5-6 minutes but it moves up when a political crisis at a world scale develops.

The Bulletin is a monthly journal and recently it has become an online journal and is no longer printed. The journal's editorial board invariably has a few Nobel Laureates and Einstein was one of its founder editors. The journal carried articles about destructive science and engineering projects in every field. For example it even carried an article on how unscientific city's central sewage systems are! But the tragedy is that hardly any engineer knows even the existence of this journal let alone be inspired by it.

The devastation caused by capitalism evoked protests not only from the victims—'the exploited and oppressed' classes, but also from enlightened people from all sections of society, including engineers and scientists. Predictably it first came from those fields that are closest to life. From naturalists, many of whom had background in biological sciences and forestry, from agriculture scientists and from town planners! In the Indian context Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has been leading in crying 'fowl' of many destructive projects. Albert Howard, author of 'An Agricultural Testament' and father of modern organic farming, worked in India during the 20s and 30s, was a botanist and gave a powerful critique of chemical agriculture. Patrick Geddes who worked in India during 1915-1919, carried out some 60 town planning exercises and gave a critique of engineer led town planning exercise which ignored the human beings living in the towns.

After the Second World War and the atomic bomb many scientists and engineers started questioning their profession. Einstein maintained that a scientist is responsible for his actions and cannot hide behind government policies. So he publicly apologised for his role in the bomb and started the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Today there is a flood of engineers and scientists who are opposed to big hydraulic dams, coal based power plants, nuclear power plants, polluting chemical plants and host of other destructive aspects of capitalism. However, the mainstream media is controlled by the capitalists and these scientists and engineers do not get the exposure to the general public. They get known mainly by their work with the grassroots movements of protests, through alternative journals and publications and now through internet. Increasingly, grassroots movements of protests by farmers and other poor people whose livelihoods are endangered by these projects are seeking and getting support by many environmentalists, engineers and scientists.

What can an engineer do today?
The essay is addressed to young engineers who are troubled by their profession and are seeking alternatives. What is an alternative? Many people think that solar, mini hydro power projects or pedal power and other appropriate technology projects are the alternatives. Yes, they certainly can be components of an alternative system, but it is the present system itself that is at fault and plugging with a few softer alternatives is not enough. One has to work towards changing the whole system.

However to do so one has to change the mind-set which sees nature as meant for 'conquering' and for 'exploitation'. This has resulted in overexploitation of nature and human being so much that the system has become unsustainable and is on the verge of collapse. The focus of an alternative system would be restoring the ecosystem, reduce consumption and work towards equality. How does one go about it?

The present life style and education is already a big load on the environment and on poor people. But awareness about this is very superficial, it is not a driving force for life choices and actions.

Some people think that one can build one's capacities for change by further studying say by getting a degree in sustainable development. While learning is always welcome, in fact it is a lifelong process; another stint at a university may not be the best course. It continues to increase the load on the environment and on poor. It is more so if one goes abroad where typical costs are Rs 20 Lakhs. It does not matter whether one gets a scholarship, the family pays for it or the scholar takes a loan. In essence it leads to an elite existence. Then after finishing the course one will have to take up a job to pay back the loan that will put the borrower back in the same life style and similar peer group, one can end up spending 5 years in this.

Most prestigious universities teach students to become professional allies of the ruling class and they instill a value system in their thinking. If one wants to do anything meaningful for the people one has to go through a long unlearning process and often it is not complete unlearning. Vestiges of ruling class attitudes and ideology remain. So why all this Kolavari di?

For real learning one has to go to the people directly. Here is a book 'My Universities' by Maxim Gorky in which he describes his learning through wandering all over Russia. Secondly if one doesn't want to go through a formal learning course, then may be an online distance education course would serve the purpose. It offers some book learning at a fairly low cost and will still give enough time to learn directly from people.

There are a variety of people's movements going on. There are regional and ethnic movements like those in Kashmir, North East India and there are poor people's and Tribals' movements in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and West Bengal that have significant Maoist involvement. There are trade union movements both in the organised sectors and newer sectors like NREGA workers' trade unions. One can get mentors in all these fields and there is a lot to learn there—both about oneself and about how the Indian society works. Then there are other issues like gender and caste in these struggles. Also, there are struggles against specific anti-people large projects—like large dams, coal based and nuclear power plants, chemical plants, SEZ's and so on. These combine poor people's struggle and environmental issues. There are movements about wild life conservation and preventing cruelty to animals. These are mainly led by NGOs but one can learn a lot there. There are also enough books and films on all these issues.

It is not necessary to study all those in one go. A selection of them according to one's inclination and opportunities will suffice. One can get involved for a longer periods in any one of them.

Then there is a whole range of activities for building alternatives. Education and health care takes the bulk of these, but for engineers these are not so attractive. Restoring eco systems is the main agenda for this century and here there is a lot of scope for engineers. The biggest and most urgent area is water (not energy as many engineers would tend to think). Without water no life is possible and water is the biggest scarcity facing mankind. Water harvesting implies a host of activities—from rooftop rain water harvesting to watershed management and restoring forests. This is a huge agenda and it alone can give meaningful work to all who want to save the society. Other areas of priority are food, fuel for cooking, fodder, transport (pedal power and draught animals) and waste management.

So there is a lot going on and if one gives say, about three years to learn and choose, one can firmly join the alternative movement somewhere or the other. In these three years one need spend only a fraction of the money involved in and university course and learn a lot more. This learning is through travel, stay and participation at the field level, meeting some of the most experienced activists and from books, alternative journals and films. Also one will be part of a different peer group of young people and this will strengthen one's convictions.

Help Available
Below, there are few institutions/organisations and individual engineers, who are practising alternatives. One can contact them and learn more about how to proceed.

These are the names of the institutions and engineers. Almost all the engineers are above 50 years, many even above 60 years. So they have at least 20-30 years of experience.

1.     Arvind Gupta, IIT, Kanpur, Located at Pune, Scientific toys. <arvindguptatoys @gmail.com>
2.    Arun Bidani, Delhi Platform, Located at Delhi, Supports political struggles. <[email protected]>
3.     Dinesh Mishra, Civil Engineer., IIT. Kharagpur, 1967, Located at Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. Worked on rivers of North Bihar. <[email protected] sify.com>
4.    Himanshu Thakkar, IIT, Mumbai. Dams, Rivers & People, Located at 86-D, AD Block, Shalimar Bagh, Delhi 110 088. <[email protected]>
5.    Kalpana Mehta, IIT, Kanpur, Aeronautical Engineer. Located at New Delhi. Women and health issues. <[email protected]>
6.    Madhu Sarin, School of Architecture, Chandigarh and London. Located at Chandigarh. Town planning, forest bill and tribals' struggle for forest rights. <[email protected]>
7.    Mansoor Khan. IIT Bombay. Electronics. Film Director. Organic Farmer and Cheese Producer, and communicator on the fossil fuel depletion crisis and development paradigm. Author : The Third Curve. <[email protected] com>
8.     Manu K—National Institute of Engineering, Mysore MAN-Mysore Amateur Naturalists, Located at Mysore. Known for his work on captive care of abandoned Pelican chicks in a pen at Kukrebellur, near Bangalore. [98863-83793, 81059-00631]
9.    Mohan Mani, IIT Chennai, IIM Kolkata, located at Bangalore. Action research with trade union
10.   Rahul Banerjee (1960-) Civil Engineer, IIT Kharagpur. 1983 Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Interested in Mobilisation of Adivasis and Natural Resource Conservation. <[email protected]>
11.    S Srinivasan, Physicist, IIT. Kharagpur, IIM. Bangalore, LOCOST (Alternative pharmaceuticals) Located at Baroda. <[email protected]>
12.   Sagar Dhara (1951-) Mechanical Engineer, IIT Mumbai, Cerana Foundation, Hyderabad. Telangana. Areas of interest are industrial pollution, energy. <[email protected]>
13.   Shreekumar (1959-) Chemical Engineer. IIT, Suratkal, 1981, PhD. IISc. Bangalore (1996), worked in ONGC for 6 years. Located in Udupi district Karnataka. Sustainable living, organic farming, thermodynamics and sustainability. <[email protected]>
14.   Shripad Located at Badwani, MP. Worked many years with NBA. <[email protected]>
15.   N. Sreekumar, IIT, Mumbai Prayas, Located at Hyderabad. Prayas works in the field of critical assessment of our energy needs.
<[email protected] prayaspune.org>
16.   Suren Gadekar MSc. Physics IIT Kharagpur, PhD from USA. Anti nuclear activist. <[email protected]>
17.   Suresh Kosaraju M. Sc Agriculture, Pantnagar University. Located at Hyderabad. Interested in organic farming, seeds, translation and publications, education and children's literature in Telugu. <[email protected]>
18.            T Vijayendra (I943-), Electronis and Elec. Comm.. IIT. Kharagpur, 1966. Main area of interest is political activism and education of activists. Author of several books, fiction and non fiction. [email protected]

Frontier
Vol. 50, No.20, Nov 19 - 25, 2017