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LectureHop: Engineer Lord John Browne Talks Engineering, Energy, and Civilization

(Though colleagues advised him against using the word “engineering” in his book’s title lest it scare off the general public, Lord John Browne did so. So, art history majors, I dare you to click this.)

This past Wednesday, the Columbia SIPA Center on Global Energy Policy hosted Lord John Browne, author of the new book “Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilization.” Columbia CGEP Senior Research Scholar Jonathan Elkind moderated as Browne fielded questions from both Elkind and audience members mainly associated with Columbia’s graduate schools.

Lord John Browne has assumed a number of roles throughout his career. For a little over a decade and up until 2007, he was the CEO of BP. He’s been a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and has served on the boards of some of the world’s most influential companies. However, throughout his hour and a half talk, the title he was most willing to give himself was that of “optimist.”

It’s an apt title, considering the number of stances he took in response to questions posed by both audience members and Elkind. Even so, Browne’s optimism often capitulated to reality. Asked by an attendee about the viability of fusion power as a future energy source, Browne alluded to his interview with a researcher at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. Though feasible, without proper funding, it would be at least a century before fusion could even be thought of as a mature solution to the energy crisis. Questioned on worries that that which is engineered for “good” can also be used for “evil,” Browne was confident that “evil” uses would fail to manifest – but only because of the threat of “mutually assured disturbance.” Opposing parties would realize the damage they can do to their opponent with the opponent’s own technology, thus avoiding any brinkmanship. (Browne attributes this point to an interview had with the creator of the horror short film “Slaughterbots.” How nice.)

Yet when questioned on the stunted progress on responding to climate change between the start of his BP tenure and now, he spoke not only to the need of effective public policy to meet the issue, but also to the need of civilians to press for that public policy. Per Browne, only until people remember how things used to be, with their favorite lakes and natural landscapes lost, will they demand effective public policy. Browne stressed the importance of this vocal civilian class not only in approaches to climate change, but to the ambitions of engineers. As was the case when Facebook changed policy during its Cambridge Analytica scandal in response to consumers’ ire about its privacy practices, Browne believes it incumbent on company stakeholders, non-engineers, and end users alike to ensure that tools are created and implemented not just because they can be, but because they sensibly should be.

Browne shared much with the audience Wednesday night, such as the idea that anti-microbial resistance, not climate change, may be the largest threat facing humanity today. The reasoning, gleaned from an interview with a chief medical officer friend of his, is that the timeline between now and creating the solution to resistance is arguably shorter than that of reducing carbon emissions. Browne proposed that the form of nuclear power used in aircraft carriers and submarines be made available for civilian use, expressed no regrets for BP’s use of petroleum to “provide people with light” and other utilities during his tenure, and argued in favor of public policy made specific to a country/region. Per Browne, global policy like the Paris Accords disadvantages underdeveloped nations unable to meet the goals of those policies without severely hurting their economies.

Speaking at the event’s start on Browne’s newest book, Elkind noted how all-encompassing its subject matter was. From medicine to climate change, there were few subjects into which Browne did not delve through his myriad of interviews with professionals on their respective subject matters. That, per Browne, is the point of the text – to clearly link engineering in a number of fields to the decades of development of civilization.

Though this talk skewed a lot more towards energy and climate change (this was an event put on by the Center for Global Energy Policy, after all), Browne managed to speak to a number of different issues and anxieties within the relatively short time he had. He was never preachy, and even when mildly alarmist he proffered his thoughts on what a solution might be, be that by redistributing the wealth collected from a carbon tax to national laboratories focused on moving towards renewable energy, or by looking into public policy that starts facing the reality – not threat – of “robots taking our jobs.”

Honestly, I think Browne summarized the tone and message of his talk in his final thoughts to a question posed by Elkind: “We pay today to look after the future.”

Image courtesy of Columbia SIPA

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