Friday, May 27, 2011

Engineering and sustainability ethics

One thing that I hope has become clear from this blog is that our decisions and choices have impacts far greater in scale, in space and time, than we think they do. This is of course quite obvious given global issues like climate change and biodiversity loss, but I have tried to link these global issues to our individual actions. With the added physicality of trash, which serves solely as a lens, I am hoping that people are encouraged to take actions themselves, not only for themselves, but for their neighbourhoods, their communities, their regions, our world.

To elaborate just a little bit more, with trash, for example (again, as a lens), much goes into making what we throw away (greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, mountaintop removal, fracking, processing), and then the trash itself is transported to places where those least (and not) capable of defending themselves - poor people, future generations, nature, etc. - are disrespected and treated unjustly (landfills, incinerators, their cities, etc.).This of course, calls for a new ethic, an ethic of a wider spatial and temporal scope, as Hans Jonas argues in The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of Ethics for the Technological Age.

As an engineer, I am wholly aware that the engineering profession is complicit in this degradation of nature. We build bridges, missiles, cars, buildings, planes and nanoparticles, all of which have significant negative impacts on nature, regardless of whether they "serve the public" or not. The position of engineering in the society is an interesting and complicated one. As P. Aarne Vesilind and Alastair S. Gunn have written about in Engineering, Ethics, and the Environment, the public's perception of engineering is much different than engineer's perceptions of engineering. Engineers look at the net benefits of their actions, diminishing the importance of harm to the individual. Engineers tend to be utilitarians. That is the reason why cost-benefit analyses are frequently used in making engineering decisions. Yet engineers end up building things that do affect individual lives negatively. Engineers also tend to ignore or dismiss considerations that are unquantifiable. Engineers are positivists. Yet the objects that engineers build interact with people and groups of people. They consequently interact with minds and collections of minds, the emotions of which are unquantifiable. These interactions also might occur over long periods of time - bridges are built to last several decades.

As an aerospace engineer studying biofuels and air pollution, these thoughts are constantly on my mind. Therefore, part of my doctoral work will focus on sustainability ethics and decision-making using biofuels in aviation as a case study. While I am interested in why we choose to have technological solutions to social problems, I will specifically focus on how different ethical frameworks guide and change decision-making. And here is where I need your help. My advisors, Professor Wooldridge and Professor Princen, are interested in having this work open-source, easily relatable, easily understandable, and directed toward both younger and older audiences. Ideas of having this be a part of my blog, of being a magazine piece, of being an editorial piece, of being a Wikipedia page, etc. have been thrown around. What do you think would be an interesting and modular venue for this work? What do you think are important questions to be addressed? Please send me your thoughts. I really appreciate it.


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    I hope all is well.