Railway Bridge to Write Home About
Image by urbanworkbench via Flickr

Writing is part of my daily routine, I write a lot, both for work and for myself. Being an engineer and a writer seems to be a contradiction to most people, as though the hard analytical mind of an engineer can simply not operate in a creative endeavor such as writing. I’ll share a secret – my mind is not the typical rigorously analytical, process-driven computer that people expect to it to be. Instead, I see myself as part of the Creative Class – a thinker, a problem-solver, as much a “social” engineer as a civil engineer.

The role of engineers in society is slowly moving away from a narrow focus of building stuff and toward a recognition of engineers as having value outside of the traditional realms. Writing puts a human face to what I do every day. The ability to tell a story and share my point of view, removed from the technical constraints and other anti-social aspects of engineering, is truly liberating. My experiences have spanned several countries, many areas of practice with roles in sectors such as development, water, sewer, urban planning, mining, transportation, environmental, materials, military, emergency and municipal. These experiences give me a different perspective from many on the issues that face our towns, countries and the world we live in. I am not a traditional engineer, sure, there is plenty of need for engineers to design roads, buildings and other works and products. Sometimes that’s me too, but mostly, I’m working to improve the sustainability of where we live in the long run, through choosing methods and products that have lower impacts and advocating for solutions that reduce energy consumption or the cost of operations and maintenance.

A few months ago I travelled to Kelowna to participate in a Mentoring session titled, “Careers that Change the World”.  I felt a little out of place – I’m a City Engineer and sustainability evangelist in a small town in rural BC. When most people think of changing the world, I’m sure they conjure up images of feeding starving children or designing a vaccine for AIDS. My opinion is that the actions that are going to save our world in the future are those that focus on the local and regional resilience of a group of people. Bringing context to issues like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill to a mountain community in British Columbia is an imperative for sustainability and resilience. Knowledge is power and feeds change. The imperative to change is becoming clear – my children are likely to see the end of abundant oil, and if you understand what that means for the lifestyle we have become accustomed to, it should prompt one of two responses. We either need to decarbonize and return to a simpler way of life with a contraction of growth and consumption; or we need to immediately find plentiful, powerful, and portable sources of energy to maintain the lifestyles we love. The lowest risk solution for society to take is the former path – the path most likely to be chosen by politicians or business leaders is the latter. This contradiction is at the heart of much of my writing, the tension between growth and sustainability is evident across all scales of society, from households right through to federal governments and everyone in between.

So I pause, consider what part of the story needs to be told next, and write.

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

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