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Get it?

It’s not really a joke, but do you? Do you get it?

If you don’t, you’re not the only one, but there are some good, hard-working and super-smart (and middle-smart) people from across all sectors of our economy and our University that are trying to figure “it” out—if they don’t already think they know.

The “it” I’m talking about, of course, is what “green devil” loves to talk about: all this “green,” “sustainable,” “carbon neutral” stuff, of course.

I sat down with one such “it” getter, senior Jared Dunnmon, on Monday. Dunnmon was recently awarded a Rhodes Scholarship giving him instant credibility forever, but I’d seen him before around the halls of Hudson talking about his research on the feasibility of aeroelastic energy harvesting (read: alternative energy, wind). I figured with this new honor he must definitely have it figured out (or at the very least be able to articulate “it”).

Dunnmon is an energy guy. After starting his Duke career in a biomedical engineering research lab at the Medical Center, Dunnmon told me, he started to understand how much energy goes into making a research institution run. He started to wonder where all that energy came from. His questions inspired a stint of economics research with Richard Newell, the Gendell Associate Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics at the Nicholas School of the Environment, who has since taken a leave of absence to serve under President Barack Obama as the administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Agency. As Dunnmon described it, “Obama jacked my research advisor.”

But Dunnmon was moving on. Economics led to engineering and exploration of the technological underpinnings of harvesting wind energy. Then Dunnmon’s engineering advisor, assistant professor Jon Protz, helped bring him to a better understanding of the role policy plays in setting the direction for innovation. Dunnmon has identified a trifecta of drivers (policy, economics, engineering) that will enable him to address the energy challenges of a growing and increasingly demanding population.

Therein lies the crux—that beyond Duke, beyond even the country, the population of the world is exploding from over six billion to a projected nine billion people by 2050. All those people, in addition to the existing ones (you and me), are going to want stuff, be it electricity to power our iPads, homes to live in, food and transportation or more iPads. Making all that stuff that people want and need will require more basic stuff like chemicals, raw materials and energy. It’s starting to sound like Dunnmon is getting into a good business, working on a problem that’s not going to go away.

Certainly there’s money to be made from expanding markets and improving efficiency, both of which the sustainability movement are clued into. But not everything is power bills and greenbacks. Most people need a more holistic understanding before they’re ready to embrace the concept.

In my interviews, I talked to students who were passionate about food, or recycling or another particular environmental issue. Dunnmon put it this way: “I’ve spent a lot of time in the American backcountry, and you see a lot of the things that you realize you’re destroying. That’s something that’s really real for me. There are other things that resonate with other people. And there are some people that it doesn’t resonate with at all.

“There are water issues, air issues and energy issues. Parts are more immediate to certain people. But those are all clearly social issues. In the last 100 years, we’ve made insane technological advances, but we’re reaching a point where we understand that the earth is not a limitless resource, and you have to start taking into account that you have a responsibility to future generations to allow them the same opportunities that you have in the present.”

Speaking of the future, Dunnmon is just returned from the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi. By his assessment, the technology is there. Regulations, powered by political will, and the ability to implement the right economic drivers need to catch up. But what surprised him most was the financial sector’s level of engagement and its interest in driving change and investing in innovation.

The take away: We all can’t, and don’t, want to be Dunnmons, but we all do have a role to play. It’s just a matter of whether or not we get it.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. Her column runs every other Friday.

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