Darshan Karwat is a second-year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy. He spent his first fellowship year at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in aerospace engineering, environmental ethics, and engineering activism. His dissertation examined the combustion chemistry of biofuels and also explored biofuel development from a sociological perspective in order to understand how ecological issues have changed the way engineers think about technological development. He also holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan.
Darshan Karwat takes an active role in trying to reshape the way scientists address our pressing global issues, and he is equally dedicated to pursuing solutions to these issues outside of his career. “I feel like given the times, things are very dire,” he reflects, “Things need to be done yesterday.”
While Karwat was working in the lab in graduate school, he was listening to a radio show that featured people who had gone a year without trash but still included recycling. Inspired, he wanted to go a step further and commit to going a full year without producing any waste.
“It’s easy to say that I live in a culture where ecological degradation and social injustice are just an inherent part of the way we live—and that’s true—but I feel like there’s more that we need to do personally,” he explains.
Karwat went a year trying not to generate trash or recyclables, except for soap and toilet paper (although he did later end up giving up toilet paper). He collected all the trash and recyclables he did produce and has a small bag filled with the stickers that come on fruit, a Band-Aid that he used after slicing his hand, and the plastic caps on the glass milk bottles.
Karwat continued this experiment for the remainder of his two and a half years in Ann Arbor, having learned that trash is a material manifestation of choices and that by reducing his trash, he is also saying no to the mining, extraction, and social injustice that went into making the product contained in the packaging that would become trash.
“There is this whole web of things,” he says, “that I’m never going to fully understand that I’m trying to disassociate myself from by saying no to this particular object.”
His experience in going trash-free taught him the importance of being open and vulnerable in talking about his choices in a social context.
“Science and engineering and technology provide a very specific lens to view the world, but it is not the only lens under which to view the world,” said Karwat.
Engineering and climate justice
Karwat moved with his family from the U.S. to Mumbai, India, when he was seven years old. Growing up in Mumbai, he became sensitized to environmental issues and their impact on everyday life. ”You smell things and you feel the pollution—like open sewage,” he recalls. In India, because the very rich and the very poor often live in closer proximity to each other than in the U.S., he also observed the disparate impacts of pollution on different classes of people.
Returning to the U.S. for college, Karwat chose to major in aerospace engineering in order to follow his passion for science, but he also became involved in a community of student activist and advocacy groups that broadened his perspective on the role of scientists and engineers in society. His interests and research since then have centered on interdisciplinary approaches to solving problems.
Karwat believes that environmental problems we face today cannot be adequately addressed through scientific or technical means. For example, when we view climate change as simply a “carbon” problem, “All you want to do is remove carbon from the system and that’s why people are creating biofuels,” he says, but “we need to be thinking more about if and when technological solutions are appropriate and which voices we have at the table.” Biofuels, he believes, carry huge social injustices linked to production—from rainforest destruction to the disruption of agricultural lifestyles. “We are creating other problems,” he asserts, “that are going to have other kinds of socioecological impacts.”
“I feel like there really needs to be a breaking down of walls between disciplines,” he explains, “We’re living in really changing times and times in which everything from the professional identity of scientists and engineers to our economy need to be radically re-imagined and transformed.”
Instead, he suggests we view climate change as a manifestation of deeply ethical and moral problems—as a manifestation of an industrial and corporate capitalist system. Looking at climate change in this light, he says, opens up a whole other set of issues to consider when developing technologies to reduce carbon emissions. Darshan explains, "When developing biofuels as a technological fix for our carbon problem, we must consider the new problems their production creates. Right now, biofuel development continues to draw on the same underlying ethic of technooptimism, and material and economic growth through efficiency, the very ethic that has caused climate change in the first place. If the negative environmental and social justice impacts of biofuels production outweigh our need for them, we need to change the way we think about combustion and energy use, which I think we need to do.”
Lately, Karwat has been thinking about ways of training scientists and engineers to fully incorporate social justice and ecological principles into technical work. He is teaching an interdisciplinary class at Howard University in the spring of 2015 on climate change, energy, and social justice as a way to get engineering, social science, and humanities students to collaborate together and think about some of these issues.
“Alternative ways of thinking about science and technology are threatening to an economic and political establishment that oppresses the Earth and its people, and I think that’s something we need to recognize and understand and take power from,” he emphasizes. “It’s about changing an establishment, and it’s about changing a system. It’s not just at the fringes of developing alternative energy—it’s something much deeper than that.”
As a part of his work as a AAAS fellow, Karwat envisions laying the foundation for an activist engineering movement to make scientists and engineers aware of the politics of science and engineering and technology. This summer he hopes to organize a workshop on political power in science and engineering and, through it, to provide young scientists and engineers with an understanding of how to organize and build political power and solidarity with the grassroots climate justice movement.