Anthropocene: The epoch of engineering
Michael E. Chang reflects on his discussions with Dr. Wayne Clough
On a hot summer day in Atlanta, Georgia, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. G. Wayne Clough about the advent of the Anthropocene. Having just completed his service as the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Clough now returns to academia at the Georgia Institute of Technology as President Emeritus. A civil engineer by training, Wayne is the worldly scholar that other scholars seek out when they need advice, and the visionary leader that other leaders call on when they need direction. In 2004, he chaired the National Academy of Engineering’s Committee on the Engineer of 2020 that repositioned “engineering education in the United States for what lies ahead.” As a new editor of a young journal that reports on novel engineering advances in an emerging epoch, I was glad to have his counsel.
Excerpts of our discussion that day are available online. With these accompanying comments, I hope to convey the sense of responsibility and purpose that I felt after our talk. Wayne said directly that the Anthropocene was “the age of humans.” Perhaps he was being kind to spread the onus across all of humanity. But as I listened to him describe every way in which future generations would define this time period, it was clear to me that the Anthropocene will be the age of engineers. It already is. All the atmospheric, oceanic, biological, and geological markers that are causing the science community to consider amending the geologic calendar are a result of technological innovation and efficient scaling, i.e. the purview of engineers. We engineers can rationalize that the Anthropocene is an unintended consequence of tremendous human progress over the last 250 years that we made happen, but now that we know the whole story, we can’t ignore the faults in our good faith efforts.
That day in Atlanta, Wayne Clough challenged me to accept this burden of my profession. But he didn’t just weigh me down, he also picked me up. Engineers invent. We make. We fix. Now we must also lead. Wayne called it “voice” and it was a practice he said engineers don’t exercise enough. Voice is not just contributing technical expertise on how to achieve goals, but participating in the discussions and decisions about what the goals themselves should be. Some of these will pull us out of our comfort zones and will require engineers to communicate with scientists, politicians, business persons, philosophers, and so many others. If the Anthropocene is an epoch that has been and will be created by engineers, shouldn’t the creators have a say? What do engineers think about climate change? What do engineers think about urbanization? What do engineers think about mass extinctions? What do engineers think about poverty and inequality? In short, what do engineers think about the Anthropocene?
Exercising our engineering voice requires effort, and it also requires a platform. But to be effective in the way that Dr. Clough encouraged, it must be a platform from which other voices are also speaking and towards which other ears and eyes are turning. A mission-driven, nonprofit collaborative, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene is a trans-disciplinary, open-access journal committed to the facilitation of collaborative, peer-reviewed research. With the ultimate objective of accelerating scientific solutions to the challenges presented by this era of human impact, it is uniquely structured into six distinct knowledge domains, including sustainable engineering, and gives authors the opportunity to publish in one or multiple domains, helping them to present their research and commentary (voice!) to interested readers from many disciplines. As Editor-in-Chief of Elementa’s Sustainable Engineering knowledge domain, I look forward to hearing you express your voice and using all the resources of the journal to amplify and share it broadly for maximum impact.”