Personal Motivation Dictates Choices to Greater Extent

By G. Venkatesh
May 2008

The Author is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway.

Prof. Dr. Helge Brattebų is the Head of the Department of Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim in central Norway. He is also spearheading the Industrial Ecology Programme in this department which has attracted students and researchers (including this writer) from the world over. The academician expresses his views, opinions and concerns about the environment, environmental education and the economy-environment-society (triple bottom line in other words) balance, in this Q and A with G Venkatesh. Excerpts follow…
  1. In an era when students generally opt for mechanical, electrical, electronics and computer science engineering, what would typically motivate students to take up environmental engineering studies?

It is a known fact that there have been and still are large negative environmental impacts in society which can be directly attributed to industrial production of commodities and consumption by the end-users of the same. Over the last few years, there has therefore been a direct demand for investments in the environment sector, which has resulted in a need for more and more environmental engineers in most countries of the developed world. The scenarios may be different in the former Third World nations, but even these will slowly have to toe the line of the Western World with respect to environmental awareness, in order to make their rapid economic growths more sustainable. Apart from a fast-growing job market for environmental engineers, I would say that in many cases, personal motivation also plays a major role. [Newsweek (November 27, 2006) reported that 70 per cent of the students who responded to a survey conducted in Indonesia, said that they would prefer to work for NGOs after they graduated – Editor] In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I completed my post graduation and PhD, environmental engineering was entirely associated and identified with end-of-pipe treatment. But increasingly, with new fields like industrial ecology emerging, environmental concerns are influencing the entire life cycle of a product and thereby are being applied not just to end-of-pipe as before, but practically every operation right from raw material extraction through to the manufacturing / production process to maintenance during end-use and finally recycling at end-of-life. This, then, is the backdrop in which students are very likely to opt for environmental engineering studies in the future.

  1. As far as application of environmental engineering in real life is concerned, what are the obstacles which are faced while translating precept to practice?

I would identify three main obstacles

  1. Can it be stated that while for other branches of engineering, one needs a brain and a mind, while for environmental engineering one needs a heart as well?

Yes, I would certainly say so. As mentioned earlier, personal motivation plays a key role; and this is more often than not, connected to heartfelt decisions, so to say. The brain and mind may serve as tools, but it is the heart which is the guide that helps one keep on keeping on! The heart component is like the wind in one’s sails. Without it, the yacht dodders.

  1. Can environmental engineering be incorporated into every other branch of engineering, as a necessary paradigm to be observed during design and development?

Yes, when you consider that housing, transportation, food, and energy sectors have been identified as the ones with the greatest negative environmental impacts, and then realise that these sectors take into their fold, civil engineering, electrical engineering, automobile engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, if the environmental impacts are to be curtailed, all these branches need to embrace environmental engineering as an ally. Ultimately, it all boils down to resource management – and that could be energy or materials or land; and this is what environmental engineering or to be more exact, industrial ecology (IE) concerns itself with.

  1. Compared to other branches of engineering, how many students take up environmental engineering studies as a rough estimate?

The proportion would be quite low. If NTNU is considered, out of the roughly 1500 students who enrol for a variety of engineering disciplines, only about 40 specialise in environmental engineering and that is hardly 3 per cent. However, there are many environmental-engineering-related courses offered by other departments as well, and about 15 per cent of all the students who enrol for engineering studies study at least one of these courses.

  1. While functioning within an industry, it is often said that environmental engineers are not treated on par with engineers from other disciplines.

I would never think so. In fact, with environmental regulations getting stricter by the year, companies are realising that the role played by an environmental engineer is indispensable to their “triple bottom line”. When the awareness is strong as in the case of a paper and pulp mill for instance, which has been increasingly focusing on reducing freshwater use and raising the standards of effluent treatment, an environmental engineer who could contribute to these end-goals of process efficiency and eco-friendliness is as necessary and valued within the industry as a paper technologist is. With changing times, the attitude of the industry has been changing slowly but surely.

  1. Your comments on how speedily the concept of “Triple Bottom Line” is catching up with the industry. Further comments on difficulties associated with reconciling to the triple demands of profits, social welfare and environmental safe-keep?

In Western Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland especially) and Scandinavia for instance, the concept of Triple Bottom Line is very well entrenched. This is partly out of compulsion as well, as it is on the basis of a sound triple bottom line that companies are given licenses to operate. I am not aware of the degree of acceptance of this concept in other parts of the world. However, decisions on new industrial projects are based predominantly on economic performance, and when this is ascertained, the environmental angle is considered. The social aspect follows, and if this can be well and truly integrated into the decision-making process, it would be a bonus. But, the small and medium enterprises which account for a considerable percentage of the GDP of many countries in the developed world, find it difficult to adopt the triple bottom line religiously. And yes, the countries of the developing world needs to inch towards an economy-environment-society balance as their GDPs surge.

  1. Your views on India and the awareness of environmental safe-keep therein? Have you undertaken any projects in India thus far? Would you be keen on collaborating if entities here seek your support – be that educational projects or industrial endeavours? The Resource Optimisation Initiative (ROI) in Bangalore for instance, has plans to offer some courses in IE and has already been conducting short learning sessions for IE students from Europe.

I have never visited India thus far but would be greatly interested in doing so. Certainly, it would be a wonderful experience to visit India and get to know how India is coping up with the dual demands of environmental safe-keep and rapid economic growth. It would be doubly satisfying to be associated with projects like the one you have mentioned. Knowing one of the co-founders of ROI – Suren Erkman – very well as a dynamic and committed individual, it would be a great pleasure to be associated with ROI’s projects in the future.

  1. Lastly, your comments on the irony that even when environmental engineering is picking up speedily in US and Australia, these Governments have not yet signed the Kyoto Protocol. Loose ends here?

I have not been to Australia and hence may not be able to comment. But I could tell you about the USA, where I spent a year in 2003-04. The incumbent Government may possibly have its own strange views about the Kyoto Protocol but considering that the US is a big country with 50 States, the levels of awareness vary across the length and breadth of the country. California for instance has set a wonderful example in many ways. There are several research projects on in the country and you will find many individuals there dedicated to the cause of the environment. Perhaps, things may change when a new Government takes over the reins sometime soon?

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