What is the Environmental Engineering?

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Javier Godoy is from Chile, he is 23 years old and has been an exchange student at the University of Oslo and a Concerned Student member for one year. He is taking a bachelor degree in Environmental Engineering – a discipline that many norwegians wonder what it is because it does not exist here.

 

 

From time to time I get the question “What is the Environmental Engineering anyway?” and it’s quite tough to answer it sometimes. When people listen “environment” they may think it’s about renewable energy, saving the trees, protecting the whales or stopping global warming. It may deal with those topics, but it’s more than just that.

When I try to answer it, I usually say that we have to see at three different areas at the same time. First, the environmental one. For obvious reasons, we don’t want to screw up our planet, we must protect our natural resources, our drinkable water, our glaciers, wildlife, native forests. Almost all the environmental problems we have today are our fault, so it’s a moral responsability to clean up the mess we created in the most sustainable and intelligent manner.

Quebrada de la Plata is a National Reserve near Santiago which has many endemic species only found in the mediterranean hills of the country. An uncontrolled wildfire in 2014 burned many km², seriously affecting the entire ecosystem.

Quebrada de la Plata is a National Reserve near Santiago which has many endemic species only found in the mediterranean hills of the country. An uncontrolled wildfire in 2014 burned many km², seriously affecting the entire ecosystem.

 

The second area we must watch is the economic one. First, you’re doing your job…so you do want to get your money at the end of the month. At the same time, your boss wants results, and those results are usually expressed in numbers. The same applies to your country: the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the HDI (Human Development Index) and many more. And this is a more edgy topic for some people, because they say “don’t use this chemical in this process” with signs while marching on the streets, but often it’s not that easy. It’s not that easy to change a production model, a cheap model and an already-working model just because environmental reasons. It’s not easy, and that’s what makes it so interesting. How to connect the many environmental issues we have today with our economic model, that’s a question you can not answer while marching on the streets, but you need to sit down and look at all the factors.

And when combining economic and environmental discussions is not hard enough, we also care about the social aspect. By far, the hardest and the blurriest. Basically, everything you do, everything a government dictates, every policy, every project design and every action a company does…matters to someone. And that someone is not a number or a statistics page, is a person. When we talk about the desertification process in subsaharian Africa and how in those areas there is not drinkable water, we are clearly discussing about an environmental issue. We are talking about money, about poverty, about access to basic services too. But most important: we’re talking about humans. About humans that matter. When we talk about the new hydroelectrical plant in a small town lost in the mountains, we MUST talk about all the people that live there, all the people that have their own culture, customs and lifestyle. It’s necessary to discuss the new technology involved in the plant, how many Kwatts/hour, how the entire country can be benefited from this, that only a few km² will be damaged, that the current law approves the project, etc. But if we forget the people that live there, the humans that consider that small town their home, we’ll have an environmental conflict.

Maipo River, where many locals have tourist, recreational and agricultural activities, and at the same time an hydroelectrical company wants to build a Power Plant.

Maipo River, where many locals have tourist, recreational and agricultural activities, and at the same time an hydroelectrical company wants to build a Power Plant.

 

These three areas we have to see in the environmental engineering, because environment is not only forests and endangered species, is not only solar energy and global warming. The environment is a specially complex network of living actors affecting each other. In order to understand one aspect, it’s necessary to understand this aspect within a living system.

In one of my courses we had a group assignment. We went to a traditional and picturesque neighborhood of Santiago de Chile, called Yungay. Yungay has these 19th century houses surrounding a square of a colonial style, so it’s an interesting layout and a pretty area to see, both for tourists and residents. The problem is that it’s very close to downtown so there’s a lot of pressure to build new houses and apartments to contain the everexpanding population. In adition the tenants have limited resources so they must rent thehouses to many people per room, the buildings are old and poorly maintained (because of the limited resources), and a few years ago an extremely powerful earthquake struck central Chile, damaging many of Yungay’s structures. In this scenario, our job was to see if it was possible to boost the patrimonial feeling of the area without compromising the desire to build new apartments.

During our project we realised how complex the relationships between the different actors were, and if you wanted to solve the problem “in real life” you need people from all over the place, from all the faculties. Because yes, we are expected to learn about everything in order to understand the whole system, but we are no experts in every single matter. When it comes to environmental and civic law, a lawyer is greatly appreciated. We also work closely with sociologists, industrial engineers and so on. The interesting here is that we need to know things from here and there in order to sit down in the same table with a lawyer, a construction engineer, a CEO and a financial director. And at the same time, we may need to “translate” terms from one speciality to the other, so we can get a good agreement. Some people get scared when exposed to difficult equations or large graphs full of information, others (like me) freak out when a law is over two paragraphs long. But the same way the environment is complex, finding solutions to all its problems also requires a complex, systemic and interdisciplinary thinking.

One of the many traditional buildings in Yungay.

One of the many traditional buildings in Yungay.

 

We need people from all the areas of knowledge, and we also need people like us who can gather all these valuable colleagues into action, into solving all the issues we’re facing today. That’s what I like so much about my degree, it forces you to realise the scale of knowledge that we must put into action if we want to preserve this place we call home.

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