Making the case for parallel economic and social progress
An alienating narrative often surfaces in discussions of sustainability: it is up to young people to use SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) to fix the errors of those who came before—alienating because it removes the older generation from the conversation. Of course, many in the older generation are passionate about using their own experience to bring about change.
“For many years, I worked on the carbon fibers reinforced plastics used in wind turbines, but while that was renewable green energy, I came to see that it was also an industry with a big recycling problem,” says Larry Lessard, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McGill University in Canada. After three decades of teaching and conducting highly regarded research in the fields of mechanical engineering and composite materials, Larry Lessard is uniquely placed to tackle structural issues in composites—but also in environmentalism. “Solar power is much the same. Through my work, I came to understand that almost everything we think of as ‘green’ brings with it new challenges,” explains Lessard.
“When I was a graduate student, professors would focus on carbon fibers and composite materials as a way of reducing the weight of aircraft, which would in turn reduce the amount of fuel needed, and that would be good for the environment. I was sold on this idea,” reminisces Lessard, “but over time, I realized that it has just made more flight routes economically viable. Now there are more planes in the sky than ever.”
Lessard became disappointed by the exploitation of environmental good intentions by economic interests: “It made me realize that I had to do something different, so I refocused to work on recycling materials. There is a constant battle between economic models and climate-change solutions, so making recycling economically viable is a win on both sides.” This approach is a compromise that is unlikely to appeal to those who want immediate and lasting change in the face of an impending climate catastrophe. For that kind of change, the approach must incorporate sustainable thinking: “Appealing to economic interests works, but at the university level I am seeing calls for more sweeping change.”
Somewhat eccentric and with a keen passion for sports, Lessard considered various options for raising the awareness of environmental sustainability: “Now in my sixties, I have arthritis in both knees, which leaves me with cycling as one of the sports where I can exert myself, so I built a project around that.”
The project became Bike62, a documentary that follows Lessard as he cycles around the world through twenty-eight countries in three continents. Along the way, he will be stopping at universities, organizations, and companies to spread his message and gain local insight. Lessard says that this is a “now-or-never” moment for his own physical endurance at age 62—and for the health of the environment.
Finding a new audience
Beyond raising awareness and sharing his own knowledge, Lessard is modest about how much he knows, and he admits that he has more to learn: “Without visiting these places and hearing local knowledge and realities, we are not going to make progress across society as a whole.”
Lessard decided to film his journey, having originally conceived of the project as a book: “But I came to the conclusion that it would reach a wider audience if it was a long-form documentary. It also needs to be entertaining. I am also going to be examined by a researcher in the effects of exercise on the elderly. So, there should be lots of points of interest for a wide audience: the adventure, the sustainability aspect, and the question of whether extreme exercise is beneficial at my age. We will find out!”
Defining sustainability for a global society
Weaving across the world map, Lessard’s journey will put seemingly disparate countries side by side, revealing some environmental truths: “I want to counter the argument that what goes on in one country doesn’t affect another. Demand for cheap products in an advanced country causes inefficient production in another. Many countries are making things cheaply and inefficiently for advanced countries, and then advanced countries turn round and blame them for their pollution levels. We in the developed countries are causing that pollution.”
Lessard also believes strongly in finding the right solution for each locale. “Advanced countries are generous at providing technical solutions, but we must provide educational opportunities as well,” argues Lessard. “In my experience, helping corporations develop recycling solutions often doesn’t benefit the people. Solutions that, say, twenty people can implement as a small company will have far more impact on the local community.”
Leading by example
Lessard sees legislative change as the catalyst for shifts in mentality that could lead to positive action: “Recycling costs money, so it has always been easier to just dump waste. European countries like Germany, France, Belgium, and Denmark took the initiative to ban a landfill of acomposite materials. This effectively creates an industry to recycle it. We are making these materials so well that they won’t decompose in a landfill—we need recycling solutions.”
Lessard has collaborated with Teijin in the past and is positive about the experience: “Teijin has a very good attitude to sustainability. I personally feel synergy with them on issues relating to recycling, particularly around carbon fiber and glass fiber reinforced plastics. But beyond my field, they seem to have so many ideas; it is just a matter of what they will pursue first. They share my mentality of approaching a problem and asking, How can we do it? rather than saying, This is going to be difficult. You need that attitude to cycle twenty thousand kilometers around the globe!”
His date of departure is approaching fast, and Lessard feels that change can’t come soon enough: “Setting targets that encourage incremental change and increasing the proportion of parts that can be recycled—this all takes us in the right direction. Companies then publicize their sustainable activities, and consumers are increasingly responding to this. When the people respond to this, that is what creates unstoppable change. For now, I will keep leading by example.”
If you are inspired by Professor Larry Lessard’s story, you can follow his progress via the project website below, where you will also find links to his social-media profiles for the project.