BY TARA KULKARNI, Ph.D., PE
Earth’s climate has always changed, and we humans have always faced a multitude of distractions. But today these two phenomena are con¬verging in unprecedented and perilous ways. Just as the nature and pace of socially engineered distractions leveraging our interconnected world are raising alarm bells about our cognitive decline, so too should our changing climate. Even if one ignores the pace and nature of the changes, what should give us all pause is our interconnectedness. Globalization and myriad physical and virtual connections have woven a web so dense that even small changes in our climate create domino effects that were unimaginable or easily contained in previous eras of natural climate change. Now, drought, floods, crop failure, deforestation, the collapse of fish stocks, and devastating fires brought or exacerbated by the planet’s increasingly extreme weather create the human misery and desperation that are among the root causes of civil war, political unrest, homelessness, terrorism, and human migration crises around the globe. Our climate and making it whole again holds the key to making us whole again.
As an engineer, I help shape technological progress and innovate green designs for the built environment. But a steel ring on my right pinkie, earned at my induction into the Order of the Engineers, is a reminder of the oath taken at that ceremony “to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.” This means that I serve my community by designing resilient infrastructure that can adapt to the changes it experiences; by lobbying for better building codes and standards, relevant floodplain maps, and expanded river corridors; by building with nature in ways that extract and pollute less, and reuse more, al¬ways mindful of a cradle-to-cradle lifecycle of everything I engineer.
As an educator, my hope for my students and all of us is that we open our eyes and really look around. That we read, reflect, and think for ourselves — lest we be swayed by yet another socially engineered distraction. Each occurrence of the increasing instance of floods, droughts, wildfires, ice jams, and power outages is a reminder to act now. It is a call to action, because we are members of a global community and stewards of this planet, regardless of our personal disagreements on how or who caused it to happen. It is a call to action so we may earn our place in the Norwich legacy, building on the 200 years of service, leadership, and commitment to embrace hands-on, boots-on-the-ground experiential engagement.
The challenge of a changing climate and all the impacts that follow in its wake can be over-whelming. But small actions can build over time. Small choices in our homes to repair and reuse, small tweaks in our communities, to clean up a street or build a garden, small nudges to friends to carpool or bike, small acts in our professions to share best practices and create support structures, small changes in our lives in how we eat and drink. Many of these actions address not just climate change, but form the foundations of civic society and accord with one’s version of a higher power. As we make ourselves whole again, perhaps our climate will also go back to its natural rhythms of change.
Tara Kulkarni, Ph.D., P.E.is an associate professor of civil and environ¬mental engineering and director of the Center for Global Resilience and Security, an interdisciplinary research and design collaborative that studies issues related to cli¬mate change and security.