Can We Fix It? Erm...
by Mike Clifford
The Google generation, along with readers from outside of the UK, may not be familiar with the Yellow Pages. This weighty publication contained the telephone numbers and addresses of local businesses and organizations from abattoirs through to Zumba classes. Of course, it’s all online now, but in the days when the majority of the population thumbed through the alphabeticalized volume, cross-references were provided to avoid repeating entries which would make the directory even more unwieldy. So, for instance, if you were looking for someone who could come and repaint your house, searching under D for decorators might produce the result “DECORATORS – See PAINTERS & DECORATORS”. Sometimes the need to search again produced frustration, but on one occasions at least, the consequences were mildly amusing. In particular, the entry “BORING – See CIVIL ENGINEERS” was torn out and pinned to the noticeboard of just about every Engineering Faculty in the country.
And so it is with some trepidation that I write about the often uneasy relationship between technology, engineering and the Church. I still have nightmares about one ill-fated conference presentation where I had inserted the words “technology” and “engineering” into the title of my paper. The conference was a multi-disciplinary event, with three parallel streams. Out of the hundred or so delegates, I managed to attract an audience of three: the conference organizer, someone who I had dragged forcibly into the room with me after the coffee break, and a third person who I can only assume had got the rooms for the sessions muddled up.
But just in case anyone is still reading, here are some thoughts…
Forming a biblical perspective on technology is somewhat problematic and some biblical passages can be read as being not very encouraging in the development of technology. The tower of Babel – where bricks were used for construction instead of stone - provides a solemn warning of how technology can be misused to try to bring glory to men rather than to God, and is perhaps reminiscent of some current vanity construction projects.
The word “engineer” is a fascinating one, with its roots in Medieval Latin. In modern use, as well as describing someone who invents or supervises machinery, the word also can be used to suggest a slightly underhand approach, with more than a hint of trickery. For example, “He engineered another meeting with her to discuss his promotion.” The word is related to the Latin verb gigno, which can be translated, "to bring into being, to create, or to produce" and also gives us the word “genie.” To the ancient Romans, a genius was a spirit that guides a person. The theory was that rather than anyone being a genius, they possessed or were influenced by a genius – a guiding spirit. This philosophy can also be seen in the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus.
Exodus 31: 1-5 Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.
Notice that Bezalel is chosen by God to work on the temple, not because God has seen Bezalel’s portfolio and he quite likes some of his sketches, but because God can fill him with the Spirit of God. Bezalel is not a genius, but he is open to being influenced by God. Another Old Testament story involving engineering on a grand scale is the construction of Noah’s ark. After the rain, the flooding, the widespread loss of human and animal life, God promises never to flood the earth again. However, if current climate change predictions prove to be accurate, man, on the other hand, might manage to flood most of the earth without divine assistance.
Perhaps my biggest concern about current engineering practice is that engineers can be arrogant and over-optimistic, particularly when it comes to their own pet projects and favorite gadgets. Politicians seem to have every confidence that “the engineers can fix it” when it comes to just about any problem. Take for instance the Institute of Mechanical Engineers' approach to climate change. Concerns over the state of the planet, the levels of pollution and the potential for climate change and so on, can largely be laid at the feet of technological development. The response of the world’s foremost professional engineering institution is a three-fold technology-rich plan. The first step is mitigation – which involves trying to reduce the impact of climate change by cleaning up current technologies, for example by cutting harmful emissions from diesel engines (or in the case of VW creating technology to fool the testers). The second step is adaption – strengthening sea defenses against rising sea levels, building increasingly resilient transport links and so on, but probably only in countries that can afford to do so. The final step, and perhaps the most controversial, involves geoengineering or “climate engineering” which could include the development of artificial trees to absorb CO2, ocean iron fertilization to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom and solar radiation management via cloud whitening or space sunshades. The naïve belief that technology can be employed, usually with little or no thought to ethics or any potential unintended consequences, to get us out of the mess created by in large by technology, seems a bit like trying to dig our way out of a deep hole with a shovel and a return to the way of Noah.
What’s the alternative? Well, one approach is to accept that there are problems that cannot be solved, or at least that there are problems that cannot be solved solely via technology. For instance, fracking is only on the agenda because it’s easier to continue to over-consume rather than to reduce our demands for fossil fuel and energy in general. Turning up the thermostat is much more convenient than pulling on a jumper. Accepting that we are not omnipotent or in full control of our destiny remains one of the hardest lessons to learn. Mea culpa. Lord, have mercy.
I have written elsewhere about the use and abuse of technology – see for example this article in CiS's academic journal, Science and Christian Belief, and also this resource about the challenges faced by Christians working in, or studying, engineering: http://www.cis.org.uk/upload/Resources/Students/Being_A_Christian_In_Engineering_Online_Version.pdf
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.
In 2009, he was voted "engineering lecturer of the year" by the Higher Education Academy's Engineering Subject Centre for his innovative teaching methods involving costume, drama, poetry and storytelling.