Monday, March 26, 2012

From Nuclear to Ecological Engineering

A couple of years ago I left a good-paying government job in nonproliferation to first write a book and then pursue a career change. I had a MS in Nuclear Engineering from North Carolina State University in 2007 and worked for almost three years at this government job.

Why did I do this? And why did I go into nuclear engineering in the first place? At the time, I was interested in two areas within the field: 1) nonproliferation and 2) nuclear waste. Nonproliferation seemed interesting to me because I could potentially work in a technical field but related to ethics - to hopefully contribute to a safer world. 2) Nuclear waste is of course one of the biggest issues with nuclear power, and a solution to that would be great.

In graduate school (and this could just be representative of where I happened to be), I didn't find the particularly progressive atmosphere I was hoping for. (Perhaps Berkeley would have been better!!!) Some people were simply gung-ho for nuclear power, with little changing from our current culture's excessive and wasteful energy usage other than what source it comes from. Other people were more into research and other applications of nuclear technology, for which there are many very solidly good uses.

After working in nonproliferation for awhile, I realized I had difficulty keeping up a high level of interest in the affairs of all sorts of different countries pertaining to their programs and speculation about their attention. There was lots of concern about terrorist use of materials - where I worked, not so much nuclear bombs, but just pure radioactive material that could possibly be spread around a city creating a whole mess of a problem, even though there would be few deaths. This is called a dirty bomb. It just didn't fit with me to worry so much about a relatively remote chance of such a terrorist threat, even though it would be scary, and I'm glad overall that other people are doing something about it. It's a pretty nonpartisan topic.

So during this time, I discovered two fascinating books. Joseph Jenkins' "The Humanure Handbook" and Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma". The first opened up to me the world of microorganisms, and an understanding of the resources inherent in our waste. All waste in nature is recycled, yet when we throw away our wastes we not only lose their value, they actually become pollutants and disease carriers because we concentrate them and mix them with all sorts of other stuff. Omnivore's Dilemma had a bit of a sciency feel and it taught me about the complex and beautiful ecology and patterns of nature, and how synergistic agriculture could be far more productive, beautiful, and actually beneficial to nature. I learned about why fertilizers and standard huge-scale agriculture is so damaging, and it was a fun and exciting read packed full of interesting knowledge.

I finally saw that there was plenty of science and engineering in these fields, and a great need for more precision and quantifiable information to counteract the well-meaning but very subjective fluffy trends in the environmental movements. Many schools had Environmental Engineering programs, but they tended to simply solve the symptoms of the problems we create, instead of really look back to the beginning of the system and try to solve them there more holistically. I found an Ecological Engineering program that was focused much more on true sustainability, wary of "greenwash" or misleading green advertising/propaganda, and where I could study things like urban sustainability, microorganisms, and even poo! (This is what's composted in humanure). They have a great Engineers Without Borders group, and in 2010 I went to Haiti to volunteer with a non-profit that does ecological sanitation there.

The composting of human wastes is a simple, beautiful, not as smelly as you'd imagine, and awfully effective way of dealing with human waste, challenges of fertility, and preventing illness due to poor sanitation. It doesn't require expensive plumbing, water for flushing, sewage treatment plants, and it doesn't treat the nutrients in our waste as well...waste! For instance, the function of our urinary tract (how we pee) is to get rid of excess nitrogen in our body. That is the only way we get rid of nitrogen, so wow, it makes sense that our urine is an extremely rich source of nitrogen fertilizer! In fact, Sweden is really into using urine as fertilizer, and in many developing countries it's a really important and free source of fertilizer.

Especially with Haiti's poor soil, erosion, and cholera epidemics, ecological sanitation has promise to literally save tens of thousands of lives, provide people with the dignity of having a place to go to the bathroom without poisoning themselves, and to create high-quality fertilizer to help Haiti be self-sufficient in food.

So these are some of the things I'm excited about, and why I wanted to switch to Ecological Engineering. I'll get to study these things, make cool synergistic systems, learn about biogas (making natural gas from human wastes and food wastes), and so forth. In the urban environment, these also have a lot of potential. If we all got natural gas from our wastes, it would be free and we wouldn't have to do all this shale oil and gas extraction that is more environmentally damaging even than other fossil fuels. Green New Yorkers is leading a CSO trip soon. Think if we got natural gas from our human waste, which then becomes fertilizer, instead of flushing it down the toilets and into the rivers when it rains!

It's about common sense and learning to see and use what's right in front of us. There's nothing weird about the fact that we poo and pee. Every living thing does, or creates waste in some other way, and there's always another living thing that thrives off that waste, breaking it back down into the ingredients of life to keep the cycle going.

I feel fortunate to have found the right field for me, and I can't wait to be around people who know so much more about it all than me!

I remember reading an article in the NY Times about a project to interview elderly people and ask them to reflect on what's most important in their lives. A huge percentage of them said, that after thinking about it, it's so extremely important to have a job that you care about, find important, and have fun with. So although I've had financial and other setbacks, I think it's a good investment for my future, and hopefully the future of the planet!

Hope you enjoyed my post and some of my story. I move to Syracuse this summer to begin a Ph.D. program in Ecological Engineering.