New Leaders Wanted To Tackle Climate Change

Many years ago in an engineering lecture, one of my fellow students put his hand up and asked the lecturer a cheeky “What is the point of this degree?” The answer has stayed with me ever since and with climate change starting to grip political discussion his reply has become more relevant.

The lecture was part of a degree in Agriculture Engineering which covered a broad range of skills from mechanical to electronic engineering and included science and economics. We were developing skills that would be used to improve the productivity of agriculture and horticulture through mechanisation and automation. It was the early seventies and there was a lot of economic and political turmoil and therefore there was an air of foreboding. The lecturer, who was a favourite amongst the students, took the question in his stride and replied “if society ever broke down then as an Agriculture engineer you would survive because we could grow crops, rear animals and build machines to generate electricity and pump water”. However, in the silence that followed his reply, we looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and quickly got back to his lecture.

The lecturer’s reply remained with me more as a curiosity rather than a serious comment. But recently there has been a number of reports published where his reply may be relevant. For example the paper: Deep Adaption: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy concluded that all of the initiatives discussed to reduce the human activity on climate change will fail and there will be “a near-term collapse in society”. In a similar vein Simon Kuper’s article Emission impossible? Harsh facts on climate change where he supports the view that climate change will happen and it will take global collective action to limit climate change. He goes on to say that the current political leaders are using green ideology as add-ons to policies that are contributing to the climate change and will not be effective. The article continues “As temperatures rise, the hotter days will start to dominate politics with problems such as less water, more illness, lower productivity and unliveable regions of Europe, a permanent cordon.” And points out that political debate will eventually revolve around which huge engineering projects to finance, and that the current political leaders do not have the expertise to make those decisions. The article concludes with the identification of a new type of climate leader who has an engineering background. Currently, there appears to be a lack of leaders with an engineering background, for example amongst the UK MPs there are none.

Of course the type of engineering background required will be significantly different than the one that I was trained in over forty years ago. Scientific knowledge about the environment and the climate along with huge advances in technology provides new opportunities to tackle the problems of climate change. And although there are new branches of engineering for example geoengineering specialising in reducing the effect of CO2 or limiting the sunlight that reaches the earth they do not face up to the possibility that the initiatives will fail and therefore there will be social breakdown. What is required is a new type of engineer that uses a broad range of engineering skills but also takes the social context into account when mitigating the impact of climate change. The engineering-savvy leader will have many traits For example, being skilled in the use of both the media and social media, and using it to effectively communicate to different sections of society at the local and national level. Image persuading a small seaside town that they will all have to move inland because of rising sea levels or convincing different governments to build a transnational water pipeline so that drinking water can be transported from a wet country to a dry one. Also, because of the global nature of climate change they will have to be recognised as strong climate change leaders with enough credibility to make the compromises that will be required between nations. They will need to be critical about the current and future initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change so that resources will not be wasted on unfeasible ideas as well as cutting through a cacophony of consultants predictions to get to the core of the problems. They will be passionate, with clear goals and show great courage in taking action against a background of criticism and setbacks.

Although our lecturer’s reply to the question was about how we would survive as individuals if society broke down, the future leaders will be looking at societies and nations as a whole and if the increase in extreme weather is a sign of a climate crisis then lets hope that new type of leader emerges soon!

Health Advice From Uncle Albert

During my regular chats with my mum, the conversation quickly turns to her health problems and how her GP has not helped. Yet the health advice from her Chiropodist is fiercely defended when I challenge its scientific basis. Why does the health advice from her Chiropodist, which is anecdotal, have such a strong influence on my mum ?

I remembered listening to a radio programme where the concept of an Uncle Albert Syndrome was discussed. There is a lot of public health information available for example on reducing weight, a balanced diet, increasing exercise, reducing alcohol consumption and how stoping smoking will extend your life. But in every family there is an ‘Uncle Albert’ who drinks like a fish, smokes like a chimney and has a balanced diet of cooked breakfast, fish and chips and pies and who is living a healthy life well into their eighties! When compared to public health information, which is science based, many people follow Uncle Albert!

There are many reasons for people relying on their Uncle Albert for health guidance rather than science based health information. For example the reliability of public health information. There seems to be regular headlines that contradict some earlier study. Should we eat more or less butter, drink a glass of red wine per day or abstain, drink more or less coffee? - all of these questions, and many more have swung between yes - maybe - no over the last thirty to forty years.

There are subtle reasons for accepting health evidence from Uncle Albert. In the case of my mum’s Chiropodist, who has many clients, he can gather examples of what medical solutions are working and what is not. With the NHS resources stretched he is filling the gap between them and low level aches and pains that irritate but are not serious enough to book an appointment with the GP.

At the end of my chats with my mum, I usually receive clear instructions to go off and buy whatever her Chiropodist has recommended which luckily only requires a few clicks on a web site. His track record so far is: the special fruit juice for her stomach which didn’t work and had adverse consequences, the copper band for arthritis is still under review and the knee brace to reduce the pain on her knee seems to be working. The easy acceptance of evidence for health of an Uncle Albert is very complex. For many of the complex and serious health problems such as cancer, diabetes etc. then a science based approach will be always be needed. But for the everyday minor aches and pains then it looks as though finding a good Chiropodist could be the best solution.

Advice About Discovering Ideas

I recently read about the death of Brain Magee the TV presenter, philosopher, broadcaster, politician and author best known for bringing philosophy to a popular audience. I never met him but I wrote to him and he replied.

In the late seventies television had only a couple of channels and the Radio Times could get all of the programmes on two pages! One day I was quickly scanning through the schedule when I came across Men of Ideas with Brian Magee. The series introduced the audience to philosophy and particular areas such as Marxist philosophy, the Frankfurt School, the ideas of Noam Chomsky and modern Existentialism; all names that sounded strange to me. During each programme, Brian Magee discussed the ideas of the philosophers with a prominent contemporary philosopher in a way that made it accessible. In the late eighties there was a follow up sreies The Great Philosophers, which discussed the major historical figures of Western philosophy with fifteen contemporary philosophers. The series covered the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others, ending with a discussion on the philosophy of Wittgenstein. Both series had a big impact on me and I have read philosophy ever since.

When I read about his death I remembered that I had wrote to him about a few ideas that I had and which should be published. Looking back it makes me laugh at my naivety given how difficult it is writing this blog on a regular basis. In his reply he listed all of the organisations that I could either join or submit an article. But then he went on with some advice:

“Will you permit me to issue a warning? The great danger facing intelligent people who study philosophy alone is that they keep re-inventing the wheel. They get some very good good ideas about something of fundamental importance, which they’ve genuinely thought of themselves, and they get all excited about it and want to tell the world, when it has in fact been a commonplace in the world of ideas for two or three thousand years, and is already familiar to every serious student of the subject. To put the same point another way, if a clever person starts thinking about a particular problem seriously for the first time they are certain implications and certain explanations that will naturally present themselves to him. They are genuinely his, but they have already occurred to most other people who have given similar thoughts to the subject. One has the experience when teaching: all one’s brightest pupils, one after the other, get the same good ideas, and each one thinks he is the first to have thought of it.

    So think twice before you attempt to rush into publication”

Over the years I have found that his advice has been applicable in other areas other than philosophy when discovering new ideas. A large part of my career has been involved in product development and for every hundred new ideas discovered to improve a product about ninety nine had either been tried before and failed or the competition had developed a better idea. Even today when I am discussing problems and possible solutions involving a new idea a quick search on the web usually finds that it has already been found. However, it is important that people are encouraged to discover and explore ideas for themselves, even if they have already been discovered by others, because of the excitement the discovery brings.

I am indebted to Brian Magee and his TV series and the subsequent books for opening my mind to the world of ideas in philosophy and for the gentle reminder that if I was thinking about publishing any philosophy then I should be prepared for an uphill struggle. I followed his advice and never attempted to publish anything. However, I continue to read philosophy, and if I feel that I have discovered a new idea then I enjoy the moment but quickly realise that I am following in the steps of others!

Experience Sharpens The Point

When researching for a post I sometimes come across an item where a point is made in a clear and precise way that is much better than anything I can pen. This is what happened recently when I was gathering material on a topic about education.

Searching on the web for some background material on the effect of education on peoples lives, I came across a YouTube clip from The Daily Show in 2012 with one of my favourite American comedians Jon Stewart. In the show he usually lambasts rival TV network commentators, celebrities and politicians. But in this clip he was interviewing Malala Yousafzail the girl who stood up for education in her local community in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban.

During the interview Jon asked two important question that highlighted points about the importance of education, the first was:

Jon: “Where did your love of education come from?”

Malala: “We are human beings, and this is the part of human nature. We don’t learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands. When in Pakistan we were stopped from going to school at that time I realised that education is very important. Education is the power for women and that is why the terrorists are afraid of education, they do not want women to get education because women will become more power.”

Towards the end of the interview Jon asked how the American people could help with her campaigning and in Malala’s reply another important point is made:

Malala: “I think that the people of America, the United States, they truly support peace, and they say that they must not fight against war with war, dialogue is the best way and we must find a solution for it. In my opinion the solution that would work to fight all these wars and all these problems that people are facing is only education” and she continued “… going to school is not only learning about different subjects it teaches you about communication, it teaches how to live a life, it teaches about history, it teaches about how science is working, other than that you learn about equality because students are provided the same benches, they sit equally, it shows us equality, it teaches students how to accept each other together how to accept each others language, each others religion, it teaches justice and respect, it teaches us how to live together”

At the end of the interview the comedian was clearly moved by the interview.

In 2014 Malala and Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” Today the Malala Fund continues its campaign to to get more than 130 million girls into schools, and in her childhood home in the Swat Valley her fund is rebuilding the schools that were destroyed by the Taliban.

Over the years of writing this blog I have learned that when struggling to clarifying a point about a subject sometimes it is better to stand back and let those who know their subject have their voice. In this case Malala using her experience and courage to make two clear points about education overcoming terrorism.

Neil Armstrong - The Engineer

Watching Neil Armstrong landing himself and Buzz Aldrin safely on the surface of the moon in 1969 I made a note to add him to my schoolboy list of heroes, where he has firmly remained.

What caught my imagination was his courage in making the decision to take over from the computer guidance system and use his own experience and training to fly the the landing module away from a rocky surface to a safer landing place. Over the years I have read about the science and engineering behind the successful moon mission, as well as the complex organisation that managed over 400,000 people to successfully land people on the moon. But for me, Neil Armstrong engineering’s career stands out, and he epitomises the type of engineer that we need today.

Neil Armstrong was passionate about flight and aerodynamic engineering from an early age. There is a story told by an old school friend about the time that they were trying to make their rubber powered model aeroplanes fly longer. His friend gave his plane a few extra turns on the propellor to make it fly longer. But Neil built a small wind tunnel in the basement of his home, that shook the house when it was switched on, to explore the effects of aerodynamics on the design of the plane. This fascination in flight can be traced throughout his career. His first flight was at age 16 years, and continued through university where he studied aerodynamics. He showed great courage and skill as a combat pilot during the Korean War which involved the dangerous task of landing on an aircraft carrier. After the war he was a test pilot flying experimental planes such as the X-15 where he caught the attention of NASA. After the successful moon landing he headed the Department of Aeronautics at Cincinati University. Looking over his career there are a number of observations that are crucial for future engineers. They must be passionate about the area of engineering that they are interested in. This passion will keep them going when overcoming many barriers such as lack of funding for a project, or getting an organisation’s support for an R&D project, or inspiring a team when the problems seem overpowering.

I also admired Neil Armstrong’s ability to weather criticism. It is hard to imagine but when he spoke the famous “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind” he was later challenged that it should have been “one small step for a man!” He maintained that he did say “a man” but due to the transmission the “a” had got lost. The criticism continued throughout his lifetime. Another criticism that he faced was about his flying competence. Although he was admired by many colleagues for his technical proficiency with aircraft, owed in part to his engineering training, others, mainly of the ‘top-gun’ type said that he lacked a natural feel for aircraft. Indeed his involvement in several high-profile near-miss incidents as a test pilot did very little to convince his critics that an engineer belonged in a cockpit. As an engineer, criticism is part of the job. Whether it is about budget overspend, failing to meet an overambitious specification or criticism from people who don’t appreciate the complexities of engineering.

We need more engineers with an Neil Armstrong attitude. They need to take the many facets of engineering and apply them to areas such as health, transportation, infrastructure, energy or information. But there is one overriding challenge that will require a critical engineering effort and that is the reduction in global warming and its impact on climate change. Maybe the next gigantic step for mankind will be here on Earth.

To see a rare interview where Neil Armstrong discusses his life then click on the following: Youtube video