One of the topics Mary Anne and I care greatly about is sustainability. Unlike some of my engineering student peers, I took extra economics classes in undergrad. I had troubles with a statement made by one of the professors: roughly phrased he said “There is always either growth or decline, never stability” (his main point was that investors can make money from either bull or bear markets). Yet as engineers we always preferred stable states (afterall, statics is much easier than dynamics!), and especially in my field of computer engineering, stable electrical states are mandatory to perform digital processing. Processor speeds are limited by the capacitance of the circuit, i.e. the time it takes for the electrical state stabilize after a state change. Of course in the last 30+ years CPU clocking cycles have gone from the kilohertz range to gigahertz, as semiconductor unit sizes have shrunk.
After I left school and entered the working world, it was the economics viewpoint that became my firm belief. Afterall, prices were always increasing (due to inflation or limited supply), or sometimes decreasing (increased supply, e.g. computers), but never stayed stable for long. But then Mary Anne went back to school for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at Rutgers. She left the clean world of math and computers to study all those wet sciences: chemistry, biology, ecology, etc. Somewhere in that time (1994-2002) I first learned of climate change and the human-caused increases of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. As an engineer, and especially as a “systems” engineer, the large movement of carbon from trapped underground formations into our atmosphere is easy to grasp (burning), and it’s just as easy to understand that the system (Earth’s atmosphere) must change as a result. The positive feedback loops are, perhaps, not as easy to grasp, but appear to be just as real. This is not sustainable for human civilization!
Even as Moore’s Law keeps hanging in there (due to economic drivers), we still know it can’t continue past certain real physical constraints (the size of atoms, if nothing else). And so it is with our civilization’s burning of carbon…
So, now the critical question: How do we humans wish to live in the future?
I vote for a gradual self-directed change, rather than the dynamic (and likely harsh) consequences of continuing the same behaviors as the past 30 or 130 years. Oh, and yes, we very likely need both engineering and economics (and time) to reach that more sustainable state… [Oh, the ambiguity!]