E4C: What motivates you to do what you do?
AG: If there is somebody who asks why
I should bother, I would tell them, Look,
we are a single human society on a single
planet, and we share this planet together.
If the bottom four billion follow the high-carbon trajectory to prosperity that we
have followed in the developed world,
we could not handle the pollution. So, we
better find a way to develop along a low-carbon trajectory.
It is highly inequitable that, while those
of us in the developed world have access
to knowledge — it is practically free — you
have 4 billion other people without access to
knowledge, education, shelter or adequate
food on the table. The solutions are at our
fingertips because we have access to knowledge and research while the people who are
suffering don't. It's about empathy.
The self-centered answer is that whatever
we're doing in the industrial world, we'll not
by ourselves be able to stop global climate
change. So, we've got to work with them.
E4C: What promising trend do you see in
technology for global development today?
AG: The most exciting thing I see is that
the best students in the best engineering
schools across the United States are excited
and enthusiastic about how they can make
the world a better place. They're seeking a
more meaningful life as engineers, saying,
“we are also citizens of this planet, and how
can we make this world a little better?”
E4C: What do you think is a dead end in your
field that some people just won't let die?
AG: The dead end that I see in the field,
in which people just keep trying to walk
through a brick wall, so to speak, is that
people don't try to understand the world
view of those they're trying to help. I would
say that the developing world is a museum
of failed projects from developed countries
because they did not answer the right question. We are very good at answering questions, but not so good at finding the right
questions to answer.
For example, in Darfur, some well-meaning
people collected money to air-ship state-of-the-art dentist chairs into the refugee camp.
Into tents. There was no electricity to power
the chairs. The chairs are fine, but they were
sent to the wrong people at the wrong time.
Sitting in the first world and creating a
solution without walking in the shoes of the
people you're trying to help often leads to failure. One really needs to understand the world
view of the people you're trying to help.
E4C: What has kept you awake at night?
AG: The thing that keeps me awake at night is
the problem of global sustainability and that
almost nobody seems to actually do much
about it. We are heading for collapse in terms
of planetary sustainability and we don't seem
to stop. We burden our ecosystems more and
more at a faster rate, and we've exceeded the
carrying capacity in some dimensions already.
It worries me to think about what kind of
world we are going to hand off to our children.
E4C: Five years from now, what improvements would you like to see in the technology
that you and the people you work with use?
AG: I would like to see arsenic remediation
technology in use, commercialized and out
there in the world providing water to 100,000
to 1 million people every day. Affordable,
commercially viable and financially viable. I
would also like to see in five years out of my
own research lab a way to do the same taking
fluoride out of the water.
E4C: Catch-all: Anything else you'd like to add?
AG: I am pleased that the lemelson-MI T
program recognizes this kind of work and
tags it as a valuable contribution to make the
world a better place. There are many awards
out there for just being smart and creative,
but the Lemelson award really addresses
how can people help those who are impoverished and do that with the knowledge at
our fingertips in the industrialized world. I
am pleased that this whole topic is getting
attention from something as prestigious as
the Lemelson program. •
Five questions with Ashok Gadgil
ASHOK GADGIL'S NAME IS ATTACHED TO HUGE, AND HUGELY INFLUENTIAL PROJECTS IN
THE DEVELOPING WORLD. He deals in big numbers. Five million people in six countries drink
water that his UV Waterworks disinfects. Twenty-thousand people cook with his fuel-efficient
stoves in Darfur. And more than 100 million people in developing countries use compact fluorescent lamps as a part of Gadgil's program for utility-sponsored energy efficiency.
“It is a waste of time to try to solve problems in a small way,” Gadgil told E4C. “You need to
think about how will you go to scale and make lives better for at least 10 million people.”
In Gadgil's day job, he directs the Environmental Energy Technologies Division of Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory, and he's a civil and environmental engineering professor at the
University of California, Berkeley. We asked him five questions (plus one).