How do we choose to live?

Mechanical engineering student Seiji Engelkemier has faced many choices of what projects to work on, but since 2011 the influence of climate change predictions on his decisions seems ever-growing. Such considerations do not leave those decisions any easier to make. On the contrary: Seiji, like many of his generation, is caught between paradoxical ideals, and at each step of shaping his life has to ask: is it possible for my work to focus on societal needs without losing its transformative vision? As international order erodes into the rising seas, is it possible to balance the potential of a project with its feasibility in the world, or the potential of a career with its suitability for me?

Where do you decide to make a survivable world?

Seiji first encountered reports of global warming while in middle school, watching An Inconvenient Truth on pay-per-view; at the time he was surprised he hadn’t heard of global warming on the news, and did not imagine then the extent to which it would guide his later interests. He found more to read on the topic and discussed climate change with a father interested in the technical challenges and novel technologies more than in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Seiji then went to a residential private high school where he accelerated his readings on climate change but didn’t find many conversations on campus addressing it at a global scope; the school’s sustainability group, for example, was concerned mostly with local recycling.

Who can make a survivable world?

As a student at MIT, however, Seiji did find those global conversations, and followed some of them along branches that left the realm of technological solutions. In looking to the environmental consequences of diet he decided to become mostly (“like 95%”) vegetarian. In labs and internships he helped develop new technologies: he used optical fibers to grow algae more quickly (turning atmospheric CO2 into food), and made mushroom-grown materials to replace styrofoam, leather, and rubber foam. In groups of students, including the organization pressuring MIT’s endowment to divest from fossil fuel companies, Seiji joined discussions of how political decisions made by public institutions could determine feasibility or infeasibility of a technically perfect solution. This awareness that perhaps more of the problems underpinning climate change were political than were technical led Seiji to design visualizations of MIT’s funding sources, and to build a database of power plants for evaluating policy impacts.

What need you do to make a survivable world?

But while he recognizes the necessity of politics, Seiji feels that his next job will stay on the technological side because that’s where his skills and patiences are. (“I’m not the type of person for that [policy] work.”) He’s considering startups but also applying to graduate schools this semester, so I ask him how he’s evaluating the projects he visits: is he really comparing the environmental consequences he could have in each one? In a haha-but-serious tone Seiji says he prioritizes short-term impacts over long-term ones, proposing “a Net Present Value model of carbon abated”. But, I ask, it’s not like you’re going in sequence through Project Drawdown’s sorted list of impactful solutions and sending out job applications, right? It turns out he had a class project on refrigeration because it was at the top of that list – but no, he generally feels he’s read enough he can trust his gut to make informed decisions rather than doing the calculations by hand. How much does he value finding projects through which to express this internalized insight over those (like refrigeration) with a potentially larger effect but not much room for transformative creativity? For incremental technologies like refrigeration, Seiji says, more people besides him can and are working on it; for him it always comes back to “how good I think I could be at [these projects], how good I think everyone else is at them” and how many others are already working on them.

How do you start making a survivable world?

Seiji, like many of his generation, expects himself to do the analysis of what everyone else is already doing and balance it against his potential contribution to an overarching societal goal. This analysis can be a burden; Seiji’s plan to invest 5-6 years in graduate school is informed by being “pretty sure we’re gonna overshoot 2 degrees” of global warming (the temperature rise at which, among other things, 98% of the world’s coral is expected to die). “My generation and the next generation are responsible for whether humans can make it; and we probably will, but as to whether that is a bleak future or a kind of better future, I think my generation will be largely responsible.” He says that sometimes that’s pretty depressing, but laughs and adds that the depression “is also motivating: ‘Oh, things aren’t going well’ means there’s all the more incentive to work harder and try to make it less bad.” Of course, this “sense of urgency/worry/stress pushes you, gives you drive, but it’s not necessarily sustainable mentally.”

When can we start making a survivable world?

Reflecting after our conversation, it seems to me that Seiji’s “from each according to their ability”-style choices have been made in a life where his understanding of and orientation towards climate change are seen always as a personal duty, where it is considered each individual’s responsibility to understand the entire world and change it despite the malices and negligences of our political institutions. This trap of individual responsibility and collective impotence is, I feel, a precise target of the Green New Deal. It asks of us “When can we start making a survivable world and how?”, then answers itself with a loud and public “Now, here’s how.” Whether or not it passes in any useful form, acting on the realization we can say such things powerfully, clearly, and together could transform some of these impossible ideals imposed on our individual decisions into a collective analytical ability to make a better world, or at least a survivable one.

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