By Deborah Jackman, PhD, PE, LEED AP™ - originally posted on 03/23/2012

This article represents the first installment of what will be a series of technical essays on trends in sustainability which are occurring across a wide spectrum of businesses and industries.  As a springboard for discussion, and in order to provide historical context, each article will feature one or more paintings from the Man at Work Collection.

The Man at Work Collection held at the Grohmann Museum, located at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), provides a detailed visual record of how technology has evolved since the 16th century.  With the current emphasis on increasing the sustainability of 21st century manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, and construction, and on reducing the carbon footprint of human activities globally, it is instructive and informative to study the technological practices of previous generations.  An understanding of how past generations used technology can be used as a springboard for analyzing and discussing how we can make our 21st century technologies more sustainable.

Each article will focus on one painting from the Man at Work Collection. The painting will be used as a starting point for discussing production practices within the featured industry.  In some cases, the historical practices revealed by the paintings will suggest ways that we can make our modern practices more environmentally sound, i.e., ways we can learn from the past to ensure a more sustainable future. In other cases, they may provide lessons in what should be avoided. In any case, the painting will provide a rich forum for discussing some aspect of sustainability within targeted industries.  The selection of paintings and the industries represented in those paintings will be somewhat random and will be based on my personal areas of technical interest. During the course of the series, we will cover an eclectic mix of industries and subject matter. 

What constitutes a sustainable practice must be defined in order to focus the discussion.  While there are many definitions of sustainability, all are based on certain common underlying principles.  These principles seek to maximize performance in five key areas:  (1) energy efficiency; (2) water conservation and reuse strategies; (3) materials and resources efficiency; (4) environmental health and safety for workers/inhabitants; and (5) site/activity location selection to mitigate potential ecological impacts.  At least one of these criteria will be examined and discussed in each of the paintings studied.

Each painting presents an image that is complex—one that can be taken in any number of directions relative to the sustainability issues discussed.  These essays are not intended to be exhaustive in their discussions of all aspects of sustainability within a given industry.  Instead, references will be provided so that the reader can delve more deeply into those areas that interest him.  I hope that this series of essays will be as interesting and informative for you, the reader, as they promise to be for me in researching and presenting them to you.  Articles will be published approximately every three months.  I welcome your comments.