Musings of an environmental engineer in the 21st century

About the Author: Dr. Peter Vikesland is a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia and Co-Director of VTSuN.

What is Environmental Sustainability? This is a question that I regularly grapple with. Now as the co-director of the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (VTSuN) I probably should not be admitting that I do not have a solid personal definition for sustainability, but it is true! While numerous definitions or environmental sustainability have been developed, I often find them to be dry and somewhat vague. These definitions throw around terms such as ‘preserve’, ‘avoid depletion’, and of course  ‘resource limitations’. As a scientist, an engineer, and a teacher, I understand these definitions and why they are worded the way they are, but at the same time I struggle with what they should mean to me on a personal level.

Recently, I had the privilege to visit the China University of Geosciences (CUG) in Beijing and this opportunity provided me with new insights about my place in the world and environmental sustainability.

China University of Geosciences-Beijing
The China University of Geosciences-Beijing

 

A clear warning to not drink the hotel water.
A clear warning to not drink the hotel water.

As many others before me have written, Beijing is far from environmentally sustainable – the roads are clogged with cars, the air is heavily polluted, and the water that comes out of the tap is questionable. However, even with these problems (and many others) people from all over China and the world flock to Beijing at ever accelerating rates. To illustrate: in the 1950’s Beijing had an already robust population of 2 million people, by the year 2000 it had grown to about 14 million, and it presently has an estimated population of 22-23 million. At its current rate of growth, there are expected to be 50 million people living within the city by 2050. That growth would be like having the entire populations of the ten largest cities in the U.S. moving to Beijing in less than 35 years!

The Ten Largest Cities in the US (as of the 2010 Census)
The Ten Largest Cities in the US
(as of the 2010 Census)

Signs of Beijing’s development are everywhere, from the new ring roads (freeways) being constructed in ever-larger concentric rings around the city center to the new apartment buildings that are being put up everywhere you look. The question that kept running through my mind during my weeklong visit was WHY?

Why would people want to move to such a congested and unhealthy place?

My attempt to answer this question while taking in the visual, aural, and olfactory cacophony that is Beijing ultimately led me to a definition of sustainability that I can truly relate to.

Sunrise in Beijing: Two photos taken at ~6:00 a.m. on September 17 and 18, 2014. In both cases the photos are taken directly in the direction of the sun.
Sunrise in Beijing: Two photos taken at ~6:00 a.m. on September 17 and 18, 2014. In both cases the photos are taken directly in the direction of the sun.

To put it simply, people move to Beijing for the opportunity to better their lives or the lives of people they care for. People are willing to put up with the traffic, the bad air quality, and all of the other challenging things that typify Beijing (or any other megacity) because they perceive that it provides an improved opportunity for a better life relative to wherever it is they came from. Simple awareness of this fact caused me to reflect upon my life and those of the people I care for and it dawned upon me that many of the decisions I’ve made over the years have been for similar reasons. Most of us want our families to prosper and our children to live healthy and long lives such that they can raise children of their own. The challenge of course is in trying to achieve that goal without impinging upon the capacity for others to do the same for their children. That is where environmental sustainability comes in – it is an attempt to consider not only our own needs, but also those of the people that surround us, and those of all of our children.

Beijing’s six concentric ring roads. The sixth ring road is approximately 20 km away from the city center (source: Google Earth)
Beijing’s six concentric ring roads. The sixth ring road is approximately 20 km away from the city center (source: Google Earth)

Beijing, just like the rest of the world, is not currently on a sustainable path, but it is a beacon of hope for millions nonetheless. If we want to develop truly sustainable solutions to global environmental challenges it seems clear to me that we need to consider not only readily quantifiable inputs (raw materials, money, etc…) and outputs (pollution, lost opportunities, etc…), but also the wants and desires of individuals and the forces that drive them.

In the end, I think many of us struggle to define sustainability because the term inherently means something different to everyone. For me, I now see my own personal definition of sustainability every time I look upon my children’s faces and think about how important it is that each of us works to try and maintain the world to a sufficient degree that our children experience its full beauty. I hope that is a definition that everyone can agree upon. The challenge of course is how to figure out how to best achieve it.

Sources: http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/beijing-population/

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