LONDON -- The world's economic model that has continuous growth in consumption as its main driver and measure of success is in serious need of repair. Just how to fix it is a question that needs urgent, global attention, according to Rod Smith, the current head of the United Kingdom's Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).
While some economists and many environmentalists have voiced similar concerns over the years, it is rare to hear the warning coming from a pragmatic group of people who pride themselves on their ability to fix pretty much everything.
But for Smith, a railways specialist, a professor at London's famed engineering university Imperial College and currently the 126th president of the IMechE, the problem is so glaringly obvious that he has made it his mission to spread the word as far and wide as he can -- even if not all of his fellow mechanical engineers always agree.
"We engineers like to think that as a profession we can do more for less, and that by applying our ingenuity to all sorts of problems such as making motorcars go further on less fuel and with less carbon dioxide, we can improve things. But I have to admit that many of our products have caused the problems we have in the first place," Smith said.
"The economic model of continuous growth is, by definition, unsustainable. It is broke, and we need to try to fix it," he told ClimateWire. "The big question is how to engineer a system that engenders material as well as moral health, not just material wealth as now. The system as it stands is nonsense and needs to be exposed as just that."
One indication of how hard this message is to sell came this week when British Prime Minister David Cameron had to rapidly rewrite part of his closing speech this week to his Conservative Party's annual conference. Retailers and even some economists expressed outrage at a section in leaked early drafts in which Cameron urged people to pay off their credit card debts.
The British Retail Consortium said the message to cut back on spending was at odds with the need to promote growth. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank, said that if people took the message at face value, the economy would be in serious trouble.
Aides later insisted that Cameron had meant the message to be about the need for nations and individuals struggling with mountainous debts to try to live within their means, rather than simply stop spending.
Smith, though, intends to press the point that future growth may be illusory. "I have a big speech at my annual dinner coming up, and it would not go down well if I used it as an opportunity to rehearse all the arguments of why the economic system that we have got is doomed," he said. "But I can't drop this. I am an educator."
Limited resources vs. unlimited aspirations
Needless to say, not all of his members are convinced. "While the world's politicians have been locked in talks with no output, engineers have been busy developing technologies that can bring down emissions and help create a more stable future for the planet," Colin Brown, the IMechE's director of engineering, said at the end of the institution's recent meeting on climate change.
There is also geoengineering, the possibility that man could solve global warming by manipulating the Earth's climate. It appeals to many mechanical engineers. Last summer, they released an artist's impression of 'artificial trees' that might suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Smith notes the world's physical resources are in many cases very limited, but the demands on them are growing exponentially as the population heads rapidly towards the 9 billion the United Nations predicts will be peopling the planet within four decades.
Add to that the rising material wealth -- and with it demand for goods and services -- of many in the developing world and aspirations for a better life for those further down the economic pecking order, and the recipe for economic, societal and environmental disaster becomes inescapable, argues Smith.
"If we all want to attain the standard of living currently enjoyed by the richest nations, it has already been calculated that we need many multiples -- three or four at least -- of the Earth," he said. "So the big question is, what population can the Earth sustain?"
Politicians and 'short-termism'
The world's poor have a right to aspire to and expect a far better quality of life -- food, shelter, security, health and life expectancy -- but if that meant those in the richest nations would have to give up some of their material comforts and expectations, it would not be a terribly welcome message, Smith added.
Smith's remarks come as the world's developed nations are preparing to send diplomats to Durban, South Africa, to confront demands from poorer nations for a $100 billion "green fund" that will help them adapt to climate change. Meanwhile, Britain's Conservative Party seems to be rethinking its commitment to climate change.
Facing a mounting barrage of criticism after a series of reports pointing to sharply rising domestic fuel bills as a result of green taxes to fund the country's ambitious but legally binding goal of cutting carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has pledged that the United Kingdom will not move faster than its European neighbors -- many of which are rapidly backpedaling on support for renewables because of empty coffers.
Osborne's comments are in stark contrast to Cameron's boast 16 months ago, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power, that he would be leading the country's "greenest government ever."
Undaunted by political backsliding, Smith intends to press on with his personal mission.
"In private conversations with politicians, you tend to get a good hearing," explained Smith. "They nod and say, 'Yes, yes, we ought to do something about that.' Then they will put their hand on your knee and say, 'But you know, old chap, there is an election in a couple of years' time.' Short-termism is an absolute killer. We are so short-term it is a tragedy."