This article is based on our conversation with Susan Krumdieck for Episode 4 of the Happen Films Podcast.
Those of you who’ve watched our feature film ‘Living the Change’ may remember our interview with Susan Krumdieck. It was great to catch up with Susan again for our latest podcast to talk more about her life and work. We started with how she became a mechanical engineer interested in changing the status quo.
“Well, [it’s] the usual story of a high school teacher that pointed me in the direction of engineering,” she explains. “I asked him, ‘that power plant they’ve built down on the reservation and the pollution it’s pumping up here into our mountains, it seems like it’s killing the rivers and the ponds, it’s killing all the life in there? Who does that? How does that happen?’.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s mechanical engineering’, and I said, ‘Okay, well that’s what I’m going to do then, because obviously they aren’t doing it right!’.”
Growing up in a town of less than a thousand people that was 400 miles from the nearest major city, yet experiencing smog and pollution as a result of the demands of that city for power, seemed ‘out of whack’ to the young Susan. Already fascinated with anthropology, human civilisation and the impact on our environment, it fuelled a passion for figuring out better alternatives.
“When I got to university, what I wanted to work on was sustainable energy, so mechanical engineering seemed to be the way to go. Then on to do a Masters Degree in energy systems engineering – that includes buildings, as well as combustion and air pollution and all forms of generation of energy,” she adds.
“When you have a sustainable society, it isn’t about what technologies you use. It’s about what you believe, it’s about what your whole project is. Societies that are sustainable, their project is about survival, it’s about continuing what works, it’s about not doing things that are risky.”
Unfortunately, the advent of fossil fuels allowed our civilisation to pursue directions that would otherwise have been too risky. And the challenge now is that much of research into alternative energy sources is focused on finding direct replacements for that fossil fuel.
“It’s not the reality you actually have to face,” Susan continues. “We have to start working on not using the fossils! It’s a profoundly ‘other-way-round’ perspective.
“We have to work on what’s unsustainable and downshift that. And yeah, we’ll use renewables if they make sense, we’ll use wind and solar if it makes sense, but that world is profoundly different than the fossil fuel world. That leads [to] a whole new way of looking at things.”
It’s a perspective that many people don’t want to hear or accept. It also leads to enquiry about how the entire system is set up, from building and city design to supply chains and overconsumption, and what an alternative future might look like.
“If you have a sustainable society and things have worked for generations, then you know what the future looks like – it’s what you’re creating right now. [But] we’ve sailed off into some other way of doing things because of fossil fuels and science and engineering.
“Then the question really is [how] to fill in the gap between our expectations and what the planet really does have to offer. I called it Transition Engineering. To understand why solar and wind aren’t just this substitute for fossil fuels, we have to see that transition.
“We have to engineer the transition and then show people, the same way we engineered solar panels and then showed them.”
As Susan points out, the key is to understand that our current behaviour and performance expectations have timetables and consumption rates designed for fossil fuels. And the alternative fuels available to us don’t fit that design.
The solution? Start by downshifting the consumption of fossil fuels in the current system, a change we’re suddenly seeing in action following the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Covid just showed us what that looks like,” states Susan. “You didn’t know what it looked like before. Well, now you do!
“It means don’t drive so much, don’t fly to a meeting in Los Angeles because you can. It’s not a roll back – you can’t go back, you have to be real about the energy and materials you’ve already invested. And then the answer is to use less, doing that in ways that actually generate benefits and real value.
“What if you gave people an option that had much more value? If the changes you’re making that step down fossil fuel [use] also give you back these pieces of life that are actually fulfilling and have a lot of real value, then why wouldn’t you do that?”
Susan acknowledges that there are some things worth using fossil fuels for, and key concepts built into transition engineering are essentiality and importance. It’s easy to see the potential impact of such a perspective shift at a systems level, but what can individuals do?
“I know people like to think about their own lifestyle and they want to make their choices, but you, right now, are sort of limited in what the choice you even have is,” Susan highlights.
“[But] if you have to shop at a supermarket because there isn’t anything else, then push back, let them know ‘I don’t care for all of my vegetables wrapped in plastic’. Everything you see that you know isn’t right, you just push back, let them know. That has a lot of power.”
Having previously worked to get supermarkets to stock produce from local growers, Susan is aware of what’s possible. Carving out a ‘local’ space within the supermarket allowed people to engage in a local supply chain that would otherwise have been hard to access.
“When we [consider] the future a hundred years from now, one thing that has really struck us is that you never hear humans referred to as consumers. That’s not what humans are,” she continues.
“They’re mothers, they’re teachers, they’re policemen. You know, they do something. They don’t just consume, and when they engage in the marketplace they’re actually part of it.
“We’ve spent the last couple of generations with marketing slogans like ‘you deserve it’ and ‘put it on your credit card’. It feels good for a while, but then something’s missing.
“We need to redefine the work we’re going to do and it has to be self-redefined, really. I want to create the next [system], I want to participate with you in creating it. Why not work on that project for a while. We’ll see how that goes.”