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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Clara Breteau

Engineering in a collapsing world - Impacts on the engineering profession and paradigm of Western civilization collapse


In september 2013, as the 12th ESD cohort was converging to the UK, some of Cambridge's finest minds including Martin Rees or Stephen Hawking were midwifing into existence the «Centre for the Study of Existential Risk». In an attempt to fight the denial and promote the importance of potentially world-wide catastrophic events, the CSER was designed to address the concern that climate catastrophes, resource depletion, increasing reliance on technology or the formation of complex interconnected networks were making societies around the globe more and more vulnerable to collapse. This Cambridge-based Centre stands as one example though among a growing number of initiatives spurred by the awareness of today's multiple crises and of the collapse risk arising from their combination. Intensified whistleblowing coming from both scientific works and social movements about the sometimes called « human predicament » suggests today quite strongly that the perspective of civilization collapse is not anymore to be marginalized and reduced to doom-and-gloom or scaremongering narratives: it might as well be taken as a research hypothesis, and be considered seriously as opening a heuristically credible, fertile and important arena for investigation.

Through interviews with engineers across the whole profession, as well as with scientists, historians and philosophers, this research project proposes to build on such premise and focus, rather than on the scenarios and forms of collapse itself, on the potential implications for engineers and engineering activities of the end of industrial societies. One reason behind that choice is that, as stated by the researcher J.M. Greer «few things will be affected as powerfully [by collapse] as the realm of work and employment. Too little attention has been paid to the question of how people will earn a living during the descent into the deindustrial future » (Greer, 2009). In that respect, this study is as far as we know the first one to dig deeper into this unexplored area while examining the specific impacts of collapse on a particular profession. But we have not chosen any narrow or anecdotic occupation among the nearly 1,000, 000 different roles identified in modern industrial societies (McGuire, 1983). Indeed, in our unprecedently highly engineered world (Mitcham, 1998), engineers play a key role in building and maintaining the critical infastructures on which the population's life support systems rely. Engineering therefore appears as an unparalleled object of study. This being said, this involvement in our society’s vital functions also provides an entry into one possible remit of the engineering community : designing things that can not only work but that also sustain the trials of time and the shocks of history. The famous structural engineer and former head of Cambridge Engineering Department, John Baker, also designer of the Morrison shelter, used to demonstrate the resistance of his invention to schoolchildren by putting his golden watch under the shelter, smashing a big weight on it and showing the golden watch left untouched. As he was doing so, John Baker was also giving to pupils an illustration of the link between the engineering's remit and the collapse risk – demonstrating that some of engineers' inventions can aim at resisting collapse while sheltering what society values as its most precious. This being said, how far is this remit taken today, and would the engineering community itself be able to withstand a societal collapse ? What can we say of engineering’s collapse-proofing work and own collapse-proofness ?

Interestingly and paradoxically enough, playing with the shadows of collapse casts back a new light onto engineers. As much as the alternate perspective of sustainability can sometimes play as a complacent mirror, the collapse one can turn out to be some sort of disturbing and thought-provoking boomerang. As it appears, in French, « collapsing » is also the name of an old agricultural practice, consisting in moving and rummaging deeply the soil while incorporating green manure to enrich its deepest layers1. Trying to draw the figure of prospective post-collapse engineers entails drawing lines between the dimensions of today engineering which are dependent on and coextensive to our current complex thermoindustrial societies, and these which may partake in deeper historical and anthropological layers of the human condition. In an echo to the name of the above-mentioned research centre, the perspective of “collapse” turns out to be « existential » not only in its considering the threats hanging over our current civilization's existence, but also in the way it catalyzes a reassessment of the very fundaments of engineers' existence within society.