Global vs. Sustainable
Monday, June 06, 2011By Steven H. VanderLeest
The engineering department at Calvin College recently updated our mission statement. Two of our self-identified features caught my eye because they can be contradictory: sustainability and global. Sustainability has been part of our program since its inception, though it was called stewardship back in the day. Dr. James Bosscher was a professor of engineering at Calvin in the 1960’s to the 1980’s. I took my first materials science course from him while a student at Calvin. Bosscher saw the need to connect engineering with stewardship, establishing the first recycling program in the Grand Rapids area using devices designed by his students, such as a glass smasher. The scriptural principle of stewardship (now labeled with the PC term “sustainability”) continues to drive our engineering program today, where we regularly see engineering senior design projects that focus on sustainability topics such as energy conservation, recycling, environmental remediation, and more. In addition, some of our faculty at Calvin, such as Matt Heun, are now teaching about climate change due to human activity, emphasizing the grand challenges society now faces in balancing a voracious appetite for energy with the huge resource demands that need implies. Climate change is a complex issue that is global in nature. It ties us all together from Shanghai to Seattle, from Detroit to New Deli. So in some sense, my department’s inclusion of both sustainability and global education is complementary.
Our focus on the global nature of engineering has been more recent. As the world has become flat, in the last 10 to 15 years we have started to add more international flavor to our curriculum. We have encouraged our students to pursue mission projects in the underdeveloped 2/3 world. We have brought classes of engineering students to Europe, Asia, and Africa. We have studied the effect of today’s global market forces on the practice of engineering. Today we offer multiple courses abroad during our January interim, a semester abroad in the Netherlands, a summer program in Germany, and international internship opportunities.
While the goals of stewardship and global education are both key features of our program that provide high value to our students at Christian engineers, these strategic directions can also conflict. The cost and environmental impact of flying 25 students and a professor between continents is significant. I wonder if our goal of stewardship would ever sway us to skip an international flight? I’m not saying that stewardship dictates we never spend resources. As stewards, God has called us to cultivate his creation, allowing us to carefully use the resources in creation in ways that allow all creation to flourish: both human and non-human, both living and non-living. The difficult part of this assignment is identifying when resource use becomes abuse. In my classroom, I believe I can justify the use of electricity for lighting the classroom, though it would be better to use natural sunlight or perhaps high efficiency fluorescent bulbs (while avoid use of mercury). I can probably justify heating the classroom in the winter, though it would be better if we wore sweaters so that the thermostat could be dialed a little lower. As for intercontinental airfare, it seems to me that occasional trips can be justified, but it would be better to plan an extended stay requiring just one flight there and one back – rather than splitting a visit into two different trips. It would also be better to provide forums for students returning from international opportunities to share their experiences with students on campus, maximizing the value of the resources spent in traveling.
This task of balancing reminds me of Ghandi’s famous phrase: “There is enough in the world for everybody’s need, but not enough for anybody’s greed.” That is, there is a sense that justice, yet another scriptural mandate, also comes into play when we think of the stewardly use of resources in a global context. Engineers are quite familiar with trade-offs in engineering design. For example, making the car safer often requires adding weight, which makes it less fuel-efficient. Likewise, we encounter tensions between Biblical values in real-world situations. This means decisions about strategy and priorities are rarely black and white. Nevertheless there are still better and worse solutions that we must evaluate on multiple dimensions, such as their impact on the environment (stewardship), their fair allocation of goods (justice), their service to humanity (love), their opportunity to witness (mission) and more.