Noam Lior, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has been elected to the Club of Rome, an interdisciplinary, international think tank dedicated to sustainability issues.
“I join many in a conviction that the world faces critical problems if all major activities and development are not conducted sustainably,” Lior said. “There are three pillars to sustainability — environmental, economic and social — which are inadequately quantified. So my work has included development of methods to make assessing value in these three areas more scientific and quantitative.”
The group was formed in 1968 as an informal collection of scientists, economists, politicians and other public intellectuals. With an international environmental movement starting to coalesce, the group was primarily concerned with long-term ecological problems. Its 1972 publication, “The Limits to Growth,” was one of the first to use computer modeling to show how rising population growth trends would intersect with decreasing availability of various natural resources and would become a rallying cry for research into sustainable development.
Lior was invited to speak at the Club’s general assembly meeting in 2011 in Switzerland, giving a lecture on the status and potential of space-based solar power generation.
Lior’s own engineering research has run the gamut of alternative and conventional energy projects but also extends to other branches of environmental science. He published a book on advances in water desalination in December.
The inherently complex and interdisciplinary nature of sustainability research is a driving force behind Lior’s main research and teaching interest, with some focus on developing new quantitative sustainability measures and ways for assessing their effectiveness.
To determine the true impact of, say, clear-cutting a section of rain forest, one must consider a myriad of factors. Not only are there local effects to its ecosystem of plants and animals, there are global effects, such as those rooted in the amount of carbon dioxide its trees would have captured. And that is just the environmental pillar; one must also consider the social and economic systems of local people and the global impacts of the commercial or industrial development that would go in the rain forest’s place. At the other end, similar considerations must be employed when planning development of large electricity generation, water supply and use and food-production systems.
Trying to take all these factors, especially the social and ecological, into account can be paralyzing, or lead to sustainability choices that are superficially effective but meaningless, or even damaging, in the long run. Lior, through collaborations with other Club of Rome members, hopes to forge a more objective way of assessing impact across all three dimensions.
“We aim to develop appropriate metrics, aggregate them together and then use that collective value to weigh options against each other,” Lior said. “Lots of people talk about sustainability and even abuse the term by using it for their own broadly unsustainable benefit, so, if we make the concept more scientific, it can lead to better decisions that could be used in corporate, regional and national planning.”