The Engineer as Agent of Global Change (4 August 1995)

The challenge at hand for engineers goes well beyond career choices or job opportunities. For that, one has to look at the issues in a broader context. Uniquely in our times, human numbers and the scale and intensity of human activities have reached the point at which we have become the primary agents of our own evolution. The explosion in knowledge, science and technology, particularly in the last century, has made us the most successful of ail the species of life on earth. They have also set us on a pathway which is not sustainable and which threatens to make us the victims of our own success.

Speech by Maurice Strong, Chairman, Ontario Hydro and Chairman, Earth Council to the American Association of Engineering Societies and Engineering Foundation Conference, entitled "Sustainable Development: Creating Agents of Change", held at Snowbird, Utah

Thank you for those kind words of introduction and for extending to me the honour of speaking at your national conference. 1 take much satisfaction in the fact that you' ve set as the theme of your conference: Sustainable Development: Creating Agents of Change, and congratulate the Engineering Foundation for organizing it.

Based on my reading of your Policy Statement on the role of the engineer in sustainable development, it is evident that you are becoming seasoned travellers on the road from Rio. It is highly significant to see that you will be focusing on the six action principles for the engineering profession over the course of your conference.

I can tell you it is very refreshing to be speaking to the converted. It provides me with an opportunity to contemplate the future in a more relaxed atmosphere, in the company of like-minded professionals who have taken major steps in dealing with the challenges and opportunities of sustainable development. It is when the grand ideas and policies are translated into action, when the rubber hits the road so to speak, that we begin to realize that action can be taken and results can be seen.

I shouldn't be surprised at the accomplishments of the engineering profession in the United States in the area of sustainable development. When I spoke to the National Academy of Engineering at Irvine, California in 1993, I was even then noting the progress of your profession in following up on the Earth Summit. The burden placed upon your profession in the 21st Century is one of immense proportions. It is surely not one you would have asked for, let alone conceived, only a few short years ago. But it is one you have taken on of your own volition and have begun to respond splendidly to the Challenge.

Engineering profession

The engineering profession, particularly in the United States, has always prided itself, and justifiably so, on being on the leading edge of technical development, research achievements and technological breakthroughs. Your schools of engineering are second to none in the world. Now, after achieving that lofty status, it is natural that you take the lead in redefining the role of the engineer in society, and consequently to ponder the training, knowledge and streams of study that aspirants to the appellation of engineer must undertake to prepare them for their crucial new role in society.

The role of the engineer is changing from the technical innovator of the industrial revolution to agent of global change in the quest for sustainable development in the next century. But just as importantly 1 as your own policy statement points out, your new role includes the promotion of "public recognition and understanding of the need for sustainable development."

This will result in a profound change in the public perception of the engineer, as well as for the individual engineer's perception of his or her own professional role. It's a role that had not changed dramatically in the millennia since our early prehistoric ancestors picked up the first stone and threw it at an animal or a foe. Once the idea was adopted by society as a plus, the "engineers" of the time worked to put the idea into action and then to improve on it.

From the mastery of fire to putting the wheels on the wagon to landing on the moon, engineers and society have always danced an arm's length waltz, sometimes one leading, other times following. But it was usually society that paid the piper and ultimately called the tune. I don't mean that in a negative sense, for the many inventions and technological breakthroughs that engineers have pioneered, such as electricity or flight, have had profound impacts on society. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that your profession has done more to shape the nature of Our industrial civilization than the political leaders whose names figure more prominently in the history books.

Social decisions

But for the most part, society hasn't stuck its nose into the engineering or technical side of things, preferring to "leave it to the experts" once they figured out where they wanted to go. And I dare say the engineering and technical sectors preferred to let others make the social decisions while they were left to their own devices.

Now the call has gone out for the two camps to join. Society has taken a much larger interest in matters technical and how they can further society's goals. And the engineering profession, in particular, has recognized that its voice must be heard in the critical social debates of the day. Bigger, better, higher, faster doesn't wash in the developing world where they are still trying to set the wheels of economic growth in motion.

Under the umbrella of the AAES, and in conjunction with the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development, you are making strides in the advancement of sustainable development where others are only beginning to come to grips with the need to re-examine and renew our stewardship in relation to the impact of human activity on the earth.

But to be effective, you must have the broad-based and sustained support of your profession, in particular the large engineering organizations which must show commitment by participating in a visible way in individual initiatives and by making practical contributions. For example, my own company, Ontario Hydro, and our neighbouring provincial utility, Hydro Quebec, have demonstrated our support for the Partnership by each seconding an engineer to the Partnership's staff.


On a larger scale, Ontario Hydro is heavily involved in the development of renewable energy technologies, which promise to play a major role in helping us deliver cost-effective energy services While we meet, and even exceed, our environmental responsibilities. This is the result of a carefully calculated business decision to invest in the commercial development of methods of generating electricity that offer declining costs, increased flexibility, greatly diminished environmental impacts and global marketability. This is but one outcome of the new direction Ontario Hydro took with the adoption of a 1993 Task Force report which recommended our current Strategy For Sustainable Energy Development and Use.

Exciting new area

This is an exciting new area for the engineering profession and an exciting new era for utilities like Ontario Hydro whose roots are steeped in the traditional engineering disciplines. Since 1993, we have scuttled about $24 billion in capital spending, much of that geared to building traditional generation and transmission facilities,

Now we are looking for sustainable alternatives and we are asking much more of the engineering profession in order to provide them. Unquestionably, an expanded skill set and broader-based education are key criteria we are looking for in today's engineer. We look to you and your profession to provide them.

But clearly the challenge at hand for engineers goes well beyond career choices or job opportunities. For that, one has to look at the issues in a broader context. Uniquely in our times, human numbers and the scale and intensity of human activities have reached the point at which we have become the primary agents of our own evolution. The explosion in knowledge, science and technology, particularly in the last century, has made us the most successful of ail the species of life on earth. They have also set us on a pathway which is not sustainable and which threatens to make us the victims of our own success.

World business leaders, led by Swiss industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny, in their report to the Earth Summit at Rio made it clear that our current industrial civilization is not sustainable and call for a fundamental change of course. Inertia is as powerful a force in human affairs as it is in the physical world. The longer we delay initiating this change of course, the greater will be the human and economic cost of doing so. And the less the chances of our making the shift successfully. Indeed, J am persuaded that what we do, or fail to do, in the next two decades will determine, perhaps decisively, the prospects for the human future.

Under current conditions there is a strong temptation to be pessimistic. Resurgent parochialism is concentrating people's attention and their priorities on their own immediate needs and concerns. The demise of the Cold War has reduced the risk of a global nuclear war and paved the way for a new era of cooperation amongst the world's great powers.

The political will

Paradoxically, the development of a more positive political basis for cooperation amongst the great powers has been accompanied by a diminishment in the will to commit resources to maintain international peace and security and to meet humanitarian and development needs in developing countries.
And as we mark the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations, support for multi-lateralism and the system of international cooperation of which the United Nations is the centrepiece is weaker now than at any point since the UN was created fifty years ago in the aftermath of World War II. And despite agreement on the establishment of a new global trading system to be administered through the newly created World Trading Organization, progress towards economic and political union in Europe and the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, there is a disturbing tendency toward protectionism and economic parochialism, particularly in this country.

But we must not accept the case for pessimism. However persuasive it may be in intellectual terms we must continue to be operationally optimistic. For to accept the case for the pessimism would make it self-fulfilling.

In no area is this more true than in respect of the environment. For the cause and effect system through which human activity interacts with the environment is complex in nature and global in scale. Cause and effect are often separated by significant dimensions of space and time, Like the advance of cancer in the human body, such risks as those of climate change may be irreversible by the time its consequences become so evident and acute that they can no longer be ignored. Our enlightened self instinct surely dictates that we invoke the precautionary principle in dealing with these risks and base our actions on the best scientific evidence available. This is, after all, what we do in our own business and professional lives. And it is the reason Why we must be concerned by the ominous decline in the political will for sustained action to protect and improve the environment, particularly in this country, since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro just three years ago.

Action for the future

Despite deficiencies, the Rio Agreements, and particularly Agenda 21, represent the most extensive and comprehensive program of action for the future of our planet ever agreed by governments. And the fact that they were agreed -word by word -by virtually all of the nations of the world, most of them represented at the highest levels, provide them with a unique degree of political authority. But this does not assure their implementation. Three years after the Earth Summit, it is clearly too early to pronounce final judgement on its results. After all, the changes called for at Rio are fundamental in nature, and fundamental change does not come quickly or easily. But it must begin immediately if it is to produce the kind of sustainable, secure future to which we aspire, and which I believe is still possible to achieve.

Despite progress in a number of areas since Rio, it has to be said that there is all too little sign of a fundamental change of course, particularly at the level of governments. Although the first meeting of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention in Berlin recently did manage to patch together an agreement that will keep the process of implementation and further negotiation alive, it highlighted the continuing differences that exist, particularly as between industrialized and developing countries, and the degree to which political will has receded since Rio.

The preoccupation with more immediate and pressing economic pressures and budgetary constraints at home and persistent international conflicts with their accompanying humanitarian needs, has diverted attention from the environment and sustainable development. Even the progress that has been made in dealing with many of the most visible and acute environmental problems of the United-States and other industrialized countries is fostering a growing sense of apathy and complacency.


Environmental journalist Gregg Easterbrook in his recent book "A Moment on the Earth" strikes a responsive cord in many when he says that environmentalists have been too pessimistic. But he also concedes that the progress that has been made in the industrialized countries has come about largely as a result of government regulations and incentives and confirm the importance of these rather than supporting the arguments for their recision or relaxation.

Our own experience confirms the evidence of the scientists and statisticians as to the progress made during the past twenty-five years on what you might call the "close-in" environmental problems which have produced observable reductions in air and water pollution and improvements in the Quality of life in our cities and in much of the countryside. But these welcome improvements at home provide no basis for complacency. Developing countries are now experiencing these close-in environmental problems in even more acute form than we did. Some of the most heavily polluted environments in the world are the exploding mega-cities of the developing world.

Their cities are growing at unprecedented rates. Fifty per cent of the world's population will be living in urban centres by the year 2005, making cities a primary focus of the struggle for sustainable development, and a key challenge for professional engineers as we face the enormous challenges of providing water, food, transportation and energy. Indeed, the last large UN Conference, Habitat II, scheduled for Istanbul in 1996 has urban population growth as its focus and is aptly named the City Summit.

At the same time, developing countries are contributing more and more to the larger global risks such as climate change, ozone depletion, degradation of biological resources, and loss and deterioration of arable lands. These are issues somewhat more removed from our own immediate experience and it is therefore more difficult to maintain the levels of public interest and commitment required to support the actions needed to deal with them. Yet the risks continue as the forces that drive them persist. It is sobering to remind ourselves that all of the environmental deterioration and risks that have arisen to date have occurred at levels of population and economic activity that are much less than they will be in the period ahead.

Tendency to complacency

The current tendency to complacency is reinforced by mixed and often confusing information that people receive through the media. In some cases, this is based on objective scepticism and differences of opinion. But it is too often motivated by special interests or prejudices, exaggerating the degree of scientific uncertainty in respect, for example, of the evidence as to the risks of climate change. Contributing to this confusion is the widespread assumption that measures designed to foster environmental improvement through sustainable development run counter to job creation, economic opportunity and competitiveness. In fact, the evidence is. on the whole, to the contrary.

During the past two decades, Japan has reduced domestic air and water pollution levels and increased the efficiency of energy and materials used more than any other industrialized nation while maintaining high rates of economic growth and improving competitiveness. There are some impressive examples, too, in the experience of Germany where more people are now employed in environmental industries in the Ruhr Valley than in the steel industry, There are, of course, good examples too in the United States and in my own country, Canada, but overall the rate of improvement is less. Nevertheless the United States still spends a greater proportion of its GNP on environmental protection than any other country,

The principal reason we cannot afford to be complacent is that the new round of growth in the world economy is taking place primarily in the rapidly developing countries of Asia and Latin America. A recent survey of the global economy by The Economist points out that if current growth patterns continue by the year 2020 nine of the fifteen largest economies in the world will be what we now call developing countries. On this basis, China would replace the United States as the largest single economy, India would replace Germany as the fourth largest and Indonesia would replace France as the fifth. It is always dangerous to extrapolate the future from current trends, and there will certainly be setbacks in the growth of developing countries, as we have seen recently in Mexico. But there is little doubt that The Economist will be correct about the general direction to which these indicators point.

If the developing countries follow the same growth pathway taken by the more mature industrialized countries, their impacts on the larger global environmental risks we face will undoubtedly move us beyond the thresholds of safety and sustainability, Our environmental future will be largely determined by what happens in the developing world.

Emphasis on incentives

What, then, is the answer? To retreat into a domestic shell of complacency and apathy. however tempting, would be ultimately self-defeating. Surely we must continue to build on the environmental improvements we have effected during the past twenty-five years, with a greater emphasis on incentives which complement and reinforce regulation rather than replace it.

AS pointed out by Stephan Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable Development in their book "Changing Course," ceo-efficiency is the key to sustainable development which meets both environmental and economic goals -efficiency in the use of energy and materials and in the prevention, disposal and recycling of wastes.

This will enable us to leave "spate" for developing countries to grow and to set them an example that enables them to avoid the abuses and the costs of our own growth experience. But they will be much more influenced by our example, and by evidence that sustainable development is in their own interest, than by our exhortations.

And it is clearly in our own interest to ensure that they have both the incentives and the means to make the transition to sustainability. This means facilitating their access to the latest state-of-the-art technologies and to the additional capital they will need to employ them. It would be unrealistic to expect that this would come through increases in foreign aid in traditional terms. Foreign aid is in decline and private investment now accounts for the principal flows of financial resources to the rapidly developing countries. Accordingly, we must develop the incentives and innovative financial mechanisms to ensure that private capital will be utilized for sustainable development. Otherwise it would be illusory to think that we can make the transition to sustainability provided for in Agenda 21.

A win-win solutions

In no field is this more important than energy. It is inconceivable that the massive amounts of new capital required by developing countries to meet their needs for electric power alone will be available if they attempt to do so on the basis of current wastefully low levels of energy efficiency. And given that electric power generating facilities have a long life, the environmental consequences as well as the economic and social costs of proceeding along the traditional pathway would be, for all practical purposes, irreversible. Energy efficiency, as my own company, Ontario Hydro, is demonstrating, offers the best "no regrets" basis for improving economic performance as well as reducing emissions. It offers a win-win solution for both developing and industrialized countries. And it buys precious time to change the energy mix away from our over-dependence on fossil fuels. There are similar prospects in other sectors.

At a time when all governments are experiencing limits on the amounts of new debt they can incur and new taxes they can levy1 it would clearly be unrealistic to expect totally new funds to be made available for these purposes. Such new financial mechanisms as tradeable emission permits can utilize markets to channel funds available for environmental improvement to the places where they can be employed on the most cost-effective basis.

The most exciting and promising post-Rio developments are occurring outside of governments, where there has been a virtual explosion of activities and initiatives on the part of grass-roots organizations, citizen groups and other key sectors of society.

As we move into the 21st Century we have much to rejoice and to be proud of. Human ingenuity and the miracles wrought by our mastery of science and technology have produced a civilization beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations and given us the tools with which to shape an even more exciting and promising future. Engineers are at the centre of this movement. But the same forces that have produced our industrial civilization have also given rise to some serious and deepening imbalances which must be seen as ominous threats to its future.

Solutions are available

In the technological civilization knowledge is power and a primary economic resource. But it is encouraging to know that knowledge does not diminish or deplete with use. Rather, the more widely it is disseminated the more it grows.

So I see signs of hope as well as reasons for continuing concern. Our experience over the past quarter century has demonstrated that solutions are available, or can be found, when there is a clear political will for concerted action through a combination of policies, regulations and incentives, Even the most local of solutions must be applied in a global context. This requires new dimensions of international cooperation, particularly as between developing and industrialized countries, as well as the re-developing countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. No society today can escape the realities of global interdependence or the responsibilities of cooperative stewardship,

The United States, more than any other country, has a primary interest in and responsibility for developing the ethos and supporting the institutions of stewardship that will be the key to our security and sustainability in the 21st Century.

Engineers are those who translate out vision for the future into reality. And I believe the leadership shown by the American Association of Engineering Societies can play a decisive role. I congratulate you for setting up a programme of action and change that will be emulated by others well into the future. And I thank you once again for honouring me with this opportunity to be here with you.