Knowing Our History
When I was in college and working on my undergraduate degree, I majored in engineering. I and my fellow students learned a great deal in those few years – we learned about stresses, like those in engineering: static and dynamic…as well as those resulting from the curriculum itself. We learned about Laplace transforms – look it up on Wikipedia for an interesting (or not) read. We learned about engineering economics – and, no, that is not an oxymoron!
We focused on factors of safety in order to ensure that the structures we designed would not fail. I referred to them back then as FUDGE factors, rather than fudge factors (Future Undetermined Deviations, Gyrations and Errors). Many of the coefficients we used were determined through laboratory failure analysis – the old tried-and-true. But, I suppose there was always a bit of risk in any of problems we solved and the designs we worked on – I mean, we were working on them! In essence, we combined the functional design with the safety requirements – it had to work, and it should not fail.
What we did not have any classes in, and didn’t have time within the curriculum, frankly, was history. Any history. No world history. No U.S. history. Maybe the history of mathematics, but that doesn’t count for this discussion. And, it was a shame, really, since I enjoy history. I mean, I really enjoy it. Always have. But, I did not have a single class in history during this time. We had to have the social sciences in order to meet the degree requirements. So, I had the requisite psychology classes, and even elementary logic – essentially, introspective, inner views. But, no rearview view – what societies did; why they did it; and what outcomes occurred.
What about sustainability, you ask? Well, here’s how I think this relates:
Rearview views are also important in sustainable business or corporate social responsibility, I think, if one is trying to look forward. We have to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it, and our chances of success. We want to bring about a better future. Wonderful. How? What repercussions are possible from our efforts? Are we simply working to avoid a dire future, or trying to create a better one? Is it all about all doing with less, or helping more attain more? Are we working to have everyone abstain, or are we trying to have everyone sustain?
Without balance, we risk following a modern-day Savonarola. Willing to burn all perceived vanities on a sustainable bonfire. To diminish Renaissance-like beauty for austerity. To tear down stunning architectures for penance. Throwing out scientific tenets for rigid and judgmental doctrine. Discounting what we know to be so for what we believe should be so.
To be candid, I sometimes wonder if my interest in history is one reason I include quotations in many of these posts I write. I don’t really relish quotations, in and of themselves. But, I do believe that the thoughts and experiences of those that came before us can help illuminate our path forward, whether that be through imitation or avoidance, respect or ridicule. And, I believe heartily in applied thinking, just like engineering is applied science.
So, I think we can all learn from other subjects, and from other times. Science (including engineering) and history can help with sustainability’s yin and yang. I mean, both of the following opposing views of history are correct – that is its power:
“History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind” – Edward Gibbon (author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)
“You have to look at history as an evolution of society” – Jean Chretien