Saturday, April 25, 2015

Earth Day Events

In honor of Earth Day (Wednesday), a lot of events have been going on around campus. Some other events have also happened that are unaffiliated with Earth Day. I don't feel as though I've had a chance to sit down and think through these things yet, because my personal angst got in the way for the last two posts--but I'm thinking now and I want to let my thoughts out and see what sense can be found in them.

Events to think through today:
  • Connecting the Dots symposium (Fri, 4/17)
  • Celebrating Sustainability (Wed, 4/22)
  • BART Warm Springs Extension lecture (Fri, 4/24)
  • EmPower Sun Edison presentation (Fri, 4/24)
  • Planet Earth New Play Festival (Fri, 4/24)

The Connecting the Dots symposium was about the nexus of food, water, energy, and health--though mostly food. I really dig interdisciplinary discussions but what I'm realizing is that I am less than a dilettante. What makes interdisciplinary events interesting is how they bring together experts--people who have done the deep work in their own field, who have made something their life's work and have drilled down deep enough that they have something new to bring back and share.

What did I learn? Food security is a many-headed beast. Getting enough calories to survive is one level, but even if that problem is solved then one must still ensure the right nutrients. Of course, growing food takes a lot of water and energy and land, and the tradeoff there is that livestock is environmentally very unfriendly--but people need protein and nutrients that are difficult to get from non-meat sources. One answer proposed was that focus could shift away from the most environmentally-unfriendly meats (beef and pork)--but this again runs into issues because in many regions these animals represent a high-status, high-value investment. And then, how do you ensure that the food you get is safe to eat? Conflict and food insecurity have a feedback loop going. Path dependence comes up again and again: harmful institutions cannot simply be uprooted.

Though this fascinating article also poses the question: if we had taken the cleaner path, would we even have reached this point of development? And as a very interesting person said on Wednesday, if we took the other path, what would our regrets be in that case?

More on Wednesday: I went to a big event called Celebrating Sustainability held at the new Central Energy Facility of the SESI program that was deployed earlier this year. Lots of interesting tables. I played a quiz game about renewable energy and was appalled at how little I retained from the energy IntroSem that I took in the fall. Then, I was on the very last tour and it got cut short, but two very intelligent and very interesting older women stayed behind to talk to the tour guide, asking all sorts of fascinating questions, and (though embarrassed at having nothing to add) I was very happy to stay and listen. How do technically challenging solutions to energy problems scale, when there are not enough Navy-trained nuclear engineers to go around? How can important fields attract intelligent people when other fields are much more lucrative and attractive?

They asked me what my major is and I could feel a small bit of judgment when I said civil engineering, because they had just been talking about how "you can go anywhere with a math major." At least I'm not in CS: that would really have brought down the judgment. I am very happy to have declared civil and I love the department, but I realize that my typical articulation of why I'm interested in civil might not really capture all the compelling reasons I have that have led me to the field. And there are some questions that I still have to grapple with: I want to help people, increasing the scope of transportation/energy/water infrastructure is one scalable way to do that, but along with quality of life increase comes consumption increases, and that's going to kill us.

I need to start asking questions. I'm good at listening. But how much information do I really retain? Not a lot. I know this and it terrifies me, because what is the point of getting an education if I don't remember any of it?

This morning I went to the latest episode of the lecture series on global infrastructure. Today's was about the BART Warm Springs Extension, and it made me wonder about my motivations for civil even more. Because this is what really gets to me: infrastructure. Systems. My major advisor does more analysis, sustainable construction materials stuff, and that is interesting to me but infrastructure just grabs me. I want to work for Bechtel at some point in my life, and I want to be a project manager, and I want to try my hand at running something big with a lot of moving parts and see how I do. I want to execute projects well and thoroughly and I want to be really good at what I do.

Sustainability is about self preservation. That is a line that stuck with me from Leyla Acaroglu's TEDxMelbourne talk that I presented to my ELit class last quarter. But as much as I feel it, I hear an echo in the back of my mind: infrastructure is about elevating lives. But how can I build when the ground is dissolving beneath our feet?

This afternoon I went to a Graduate School of Business event at which the current president of Sun Edison spoke about the work his company is doing in bringing solar PV panels and solar irrigation pumps to underserved areas of the world. Electricity access has emerged, for me, as a major interest region, and I know I want to do work in this space. Constructing distributed generation systems, making grid connections, I don't know. I am a little concerned that heading full tilt down the structures and construction track will close doors for me in this space. If I thought I could swing it, honestly, I'd get a EE minor. But adding a 25-unit minor on top of a 115-unit major and a slew of university requirements and classes that don't fulfill any requirements but that I absolutely do not regret taking (German, ESW) and...well. I'd definitely have to take multiple quarters at over 20 units and I don't want to do that to myself and I need to remind myself of that because otherwise I'll try to make it happen.

Anyways. This evening I saw a series of short plays presented by the Residential Arts program in association with PlayGround, a group that describes itself as a "playwright incubator." The guiding prompt for the PlayGround plays was "is Earth f**ed?" and the plays explored that question through how people respond to it--yes or no, and if so, what do you do?

The plays were great. I have a terrible time trying to write anything short and contained, and capturing a moment or a scenario and having it matter, having it generate a genuine feeling in the audience, is impressive. But I respond to art foremost with my gut, and there were some things about the plays that were problematic. First, as someone who will never have children, the presentation of "why bring children into this world" as an overreaction and a giving up of hope really irked me. Sure, maybe having kids is a sign of hope for the future. But so are other actions.

Second, the plays got very preachy at times. I am concerned about sustainability and even I felt myself shutting down at moments during monologues about how terrible it's going to be. The immediacy of live theater definitely has something going for it in terms of reaching people emotionally, but alienating them cuts against that.

Third, each seemed to contain the implicit assumption that there is a point at which we can say, definitively, "game over, we're screwed." That there's a tipping point after which hope is pure self-delusion. Okay, admittedly, if we cross 2 degrees Celsius of warming above natural then the methane clathrates at the bottom of the ocean will release their GHGs and the temperature will spike and then things will get really bad. But if we keep looking for cataclysm then we might ignore the little signs. If we ask ourselves "are we headed someplace bad" then we're ignoring the fact that we are someplace bad right now.

But for all my criticisms, I was duly impressed by how the stories carried the ideas. I was also very struck by something that the gentleman who went onto the stage for Q&A with the writer and stage director of the last play, "Preapocalyptica," said. The play opens with a woman who is living on the streets and trying her hardest to make as small of an impact as possible, and he compared it to the Jewish mourning tradition of "sitting shiva." What I wondered was what she was mourning, then: hope? The ignorance that let her keep going? The Earth?

One other observation about the plays: I couldn't empathize with the people who gave up. I work from the premise that things can always be made better. This is probably wrong in some circumstances--sometimes, choosing non-interference can be the best path--but I cannot imagine myself, with my current psychology (which will definitely change, but hopefully not in this regard) ever asking, with despair, "What's the point?" Life is the point. Making life better for people is the point. May I always hold to that.

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Events to think through another time:
  • Adventure with friends (Sat, 4/18)
  • Cooking dinner (Wed, 4/22)
  • Admit Weekend rally (Thu, 4/23)
  • Admit Weekend (Thu, 4/23 - Sat, 4/25)

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