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In our quest to increase our chances of survival and our quality of living on the planet human have been engaging in engineering activities to maximize the availability of air, food, water, and shelter. These activities have been characterized by the waves of revolution namely, the agricultural revolution, industrial revolution, industrial production, scientific revolution, scientific-technical revolution, and information and telecommunication revolution. It is unarguable that these waves of innovation have contributed to making life easier and better for humans. However, it is saddening that the same innovative activities which have brought about ease of life in our society are also the same activities that pose grave challenges to our continued existence on the planet. A lot of our practices and lifestyles, especially in industrialized societies are not as sustainable as our engineering activities have continued to siphon the resources of the planet without replenishment. It is no longer news that the human population is exceeding the capacity of the planet to provide many of the resources we enjoy, and some societies are already experiencing severe hardships in an effort to meet the essential needs of air, food, water, and shelter. It is therefore imperative to examine the engineering innovations and current unsustainable practices which are negatively affecting the essential needs of human and contributing to the depletion of the planet’s resources in an effort to design effective solutions which will ensure that these resources are available for the use of future generations.
The activities of modern societies have placed a heavy burden on the planet’s capacity to sustain human life and the exponential increase in the population has depleted the natural resources and contributed wastes to the environment, resulting in pollution. These production and consumption patterns have continued to strain the already finite resources of the planet leading to the clamor for sustainable development and sustainable consumption.
According to the World Commission on Environment and Development Report of 1987, titled, ‘Our Common Future’, the definition of sustainable development was given as the development which meets the need of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
The report further explained that sustainable development is not a call to return to pre-industrial or pre-technological era, but it requires businesses and industries to keep the maintenance of the planet’s integrity in mind as they engage in economic and production activities to alleviate poverty and improve the quality and standard of living.
The general belief that the planet is an infinite source of raw materials and energy generation has been a motivating factor for business and industrial activities which have continued to exhaust the limited resources and spelling a bleak future for the generations to come as the impact of these activities are already being felt in the society.
The publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in October of 2018, warned us that we just have twelve years to act to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C or else face the increased prospects of floods, heatwave, droughts, and other extreme conditions. Already there have been cases of severe forest fires in California and flooding in parts of Japan and East Africa which underlines the urgency of the situation.
The world needs to change if it is to survive and since we are at a critical point in terms of the depletion of natural resources and the environmental repercussions of our innovative endeavors, there has never been a greater time to push for sustainable living and sustainable products than there is today. However, it is essential to review how the engineering innovations and human activities have impacted the resources which are basic to human survival in order to be able to come up with effective and sustainable solutions to address them.
According to the 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report, cities and metropolitan areas are powerhouses of economic growth which contribute to about sixty percent of the global GDP but they also account for over seventy percent of global carbon emissions and over sixty percent of resource use. The report also stated that nine out of ten urban dwellers in the year 2016 were breathing in polluted air as their air did not meet the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines for the annual mean level of fine particulate matter. The air quality was observed to have worsened between the years 2010 to 2016 for more than fifty percent of the world’s population. The report further observed that ambient air pollution from traffic, industry, power generation, waste burning, residual fuel combustion, and household air pollution combine to pose a major challenge to human health and the environment.
According to the report, the number of people suffering from hunger has been increasing since the year 2014. This has resulted in stunted growth and loss in cognitive development in children while the absence of nutritious and sufficient food has led to malnutrition across all age groups in communities. The report estimated that about 821 people were malnourished in the year 2017 and there has been no reduction in the figures except in sub-Saharan Africa where the situation has significantly deteriorated with the rate of hunger increasing from 20.7 percent in the year 2014 to 23.2 percent in 2017. This situation is a result of intensive farming practices that have exhausted the resources of the land combined with rapid deforestation which has contributed to soil erosion, flooding and desert encroachment all of which have had a debilitating effect on the world’s food production.
The industrial and production activities of advanced nations combined with the traditional use of firewood as a source of fuel has not only had considerable impact on the standard of living in sub-Saharan Africa but also in South America where an economic slow down coupled with adverse weather conditions have affected food availability and prices with cases of prolonged armed conflicts also documented. The Sustainable Development Goals Report also stated revealed that as of the year 2017, 785 million people still lacked basic drinking water services while it was estimated that nearly three billion people are still unable to wash their hands at home. The report further revealed that one out of four healthcare facilities worldwide lacked basic drinking water services with this affecting over two billion people and increasing the risk of infection among those seeking medical care. These problems are as a result of the excessive use of the finite water resources of the planet and the lack of sustainable practices like water conservation, and recycling. The disposal of domestic and industrial wastes into the ocean and other bodies of water has also contributed to the pollution of this resource making it unfit for consumption.
The appropriate shelter is a basic human right and its absence has a negative impact on equity and inclusion, health and safety, and livelihood of the population. It is estimated that the number of people living in slums and informal settlements has grown to over one billion with eighty percent of this attributed to Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and Southern Asia. This is an aftereffect of the lack of oversight in the housing sector which has encouraged corporations and individuals to embark on the massive large acquisition on which housing estates are located with very high and mostly unfavorable rates for occupants. The result of this is the growth in the number of slum dwellers and a strain on the limit infrastructures which are free or affordable. It has also given rise to growing air pollution and unplanned urban sprawls where temporary structures are erected haphazardly and usually in clusters in order to maximize access to infrastructures such as water and sanitation systems, roads and transportation, and waste collection services.
These problems can, however, be addressed by implementing appropriate sustainable engineering solutions to address the causes and also roll back the impacts already being felt.
The problem of excessive carbon emissions which is a major factor influencing air pollution can be addressed by placing exorbitant taxes on industrial emissions. This will serve a dual purpose of reducing the emissions while the funds generated from these taxes could be channeled into the construction and establishment of sustainable infrastructures such as High-speed rail systems, electric buses, and pathways for cycling.
It is obvious that this will also lead to a reduction in vehicular emissions and as the system becomes more effective, public transportation can be used to phase out individual ownership of vehicles which has been on the rise. To address the problem of already polluted air and a decrease in air quality, the mechanical branch of engineering can design more cost-effective carbon capture and storage devices which can be used to clean the atmospheric carbon.
The problem of food insecurity and rise in hunger level can be addressed by adopting agricultural practices of crop rotation on lands whereby food crops that consume the land resources heavily are alternated with crops that replenishes the land. This cycle keeps the soil nutrients available for future generations to produce their food as well.
Deforestation practices have also influenced the availability of land for food production as soil erosion and flooding have led to the loss of nutrients. Active and concerted efforts to recover lost forest will yield positive results in security these lands for future generations.
The problem of water scarcity can be addressed by making laws to ensure that industries are culpable for their wastes and have efficient recycling and disposal infrastructures in place. The wastes in the oceans and other bodies of water should also be recovered and dispensed properly to reduce pollution.
The chemical engineering branch should develop sustainable desalination processes to allow human take advantage of the abundant water resources the sea has to offer while the mechanical engineering branch should develop efficient transport systems to distribute the water across long distances to areas which are not easily accessible.
The problem of shelter can be addressed by the civil engineering and the architectural branch which can design cheaper and sustainable structures with the assistance of material engineers to ensure that houses are affordable and in abundance to prevent urban sprawls and situation of slums.
The four basic needs of air, food, water, and shelter are the very essence of human survival and the absence of one of these has catastrophic implications for the whole plane and future generations. Therefore it is essential to support sustainable initiatives aimed at curtailing the activities and lifestyles which have had a negative impact on the planet and embrace sustainable and conservation practices so that future generations will have these resources to ensure their survival as well.
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