Engineers Don’t Solve Problems

Logic Magazine, Issue 5, Fall 2018

The story of Mexico City’s battle against flooding offers a telling lesson for us as we face the slow-motion disaster of climate change. The danger today is that we will again fall for the promise of technological fixes peddled by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that seem to allow us to continue with business as usual. The problem with these solutions is precisely that they so often appear to work, at least for the groups whose voices count—for now.
We have been thinking about environmental engineering wrong. It does not “solve problems” as is popularly believed. It transforms problems, creating new and different challenges that burden other people—and future generations. The challenge we face as a society is to build the structures of popular power to decide collectively which burdens are worth their weight, and how to distribute them justly. These are not choices we should leave to politicians, or even engineers.

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"Syria won’t be another Iraq – but it’s already another Afghanistan." 

Seattle Globalist, September 11, 2013


Take a lesson from Afghanistan: the only way to end the bloodshed in Syria is to stop the flow of weapons to both sides.
The public debate over whether to strike Syria is a welcome change from the media cheerleading that led up to the Iraq War.
But it is also missing the point.
Our intervention began long before the debate on a military strike. Along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, we have already thrown our lot in with the rebels. We are providing them with aid, intelligence, training, and arms. In the middle, Israel slowly pushes from behind to keep the bloodbath going. On the other side, Russia (and allegedly Iran and China) are providing Assad’s regime with the same support.
Welcome to Cold War politics in the 21st century.
Americans have been told we have two choices: help Syrians with our bombs or leave them to die on the killing fields. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Read more on the Seattle Globalist's website here. 


 "UW student activist calls on Millennials to be less dreamy, more political." 

Humanosphere, December 7, 2011

There is the social and political movement of Occupy Wall Street. The Arab Spring. And then there is Seattle’s exploding ‘humanitarian’ community. These are all driven, in part or maybe largely, by the younger generation’s desire for change – for a better world.
At the University of Washington, it’s impossible to miss what’s happening. The youth movement for change operates under many banners and goes by many names: development, humanitarian, philanthropic, global health, global service, social entrepreneurship. Here on Humanosphere, this has been described as a key feature of my “Millennial” generation.
New student-run NGOs seem to start here every week. Information sessions pack in students by the dozen. Flyers litter campus for the latest two-week trip to empower African villagers, help with sustainable projects, and oh yes, see a few waterfalls. They seek to work miracles, changing communities forever “in just five days.”
In between volunteer trips, they might send shoes to the Dominican Republic or bras to Nigeria. Yes, bras. Gently used bras.
There is no denying that some of the work they do has real benefits in the short-term for the poor and marginalized globally. But I would argue that many of these well-intentioned efforts don’t have much impact – and that they distract from the most powerful means to fight poverty and inequity, disease and suffering.

 Read more on Humanosphere's website here.


"Grass without roots."

Real ChangeFeburary 16, 2011

When a windstorm blows, roots are strained and grass wilts. Most non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are caught between uplifting gusts of funding and the anchoring tug of their own ideals and those of the people they serve.
Few NGOs in poor countries rely on local member contributions. When foreign funding comes, do they lose their ties to the marginalized communities they serve, causing their vision of social change to wither and die out?
In 2009, I did field research in Nicaragua to find out. As a fellow for an aid efficacy organization, Beyond Good Intentions, I sought to find and profile innovative NGOs working for social change. 
I was optimistic. After all, Nicaragua was the international symbol of grassroots mobilization after the Sandinista revolution in 1979. I interviewed almost 60 NGO staff, volunteers and recipients in 16 local NGOs.
Unfortunately, I found that times have changed. Today, foreign-funded NGOs give their opinions on policy issues almost daily in the media. Membership organizations—sustained mainly by member contributions—are practically nonexistent and voiceless nationally.
Why does it matter whether NGOs or membership organizations take the national stage?


Read more on Real Change's website here.