Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paper - Sustainability Agenda

Sustainability Agenda

        What is the most important thing engineers can do to help realize a sustainable energy future? The most important role is for engineers to provide their services in different areas and professions. They should spread their influence through the sectors of politics and management in order to help companies and the rest of the nation realize what sustainability entails. Although spreading information allows for people to make informed rational decisions, what is more effective is when someone who already has that information is put in a position that can promote a sustainability agenda.

        First we must address the concept of rationality. Rational decisions involve complete knowledge of the situation and making a choice based on the most benefits and least disadvantages. One of the most common obstacles to this is simply that the general population on average isn’t informed about topics and issues, in this case sustainability. There are multiple ways to approach this. The first way is best handled by educators, which is to teach the subject. This is the most direct way to address the problem which is to directly tell people about it and help them learn about the subject. This is a huge role and vital to the sustainability cause however, it is not the primary role of the engineer. They’re not put in a position where they can influence change by teaching the next generation, but they can educate their coworkers and other members in the workplace.

        Currently there are restrictions built into the social structure of the workplace. In general, most engineers do not get to make high level decisions. Level refers to the level of design that the engineer is operating at. Low level design is where the majority of engineers work, which is on a small component of the overall project, for example managing tcp/ip or udp connections in computer networking. An upper level design for the same project would be something like working on the application skype and detailing how it groups multiple people into one phone call. This would be an upper level design specification or project. More computer engineers are required for the low level design and maintenance of the program, and fewer are needed for the upper level decisions. Those high level decisions are generally reserved for the more experienced employees in the field.

        However, since sustainability is a recent concern, the experienced employee’s in the workplace don’t have the same focus in their education on these kind of ethical and long term concerns. Thats why it’s important for newcomers to all fields of engineers to be more vocal about sustainability. In the workplace, there are often forums and associations where engineers can talk and share concerns about a project. Normally this involves meeting tight constraints on time to market, or on fulfilling design specifications. However, it’s important for sustainability to become worked into the main components in the design process rather than as an afterthought. New engineers must have the courage to try and promote sustainability to management and higher level engineers who can influence policy on those levels.

        The other way is simply to be in those positions with a modern engineering background. Engineers who have been trained to think in terms of sustainability have to take an active role to control those upper level decisions that are usually reserved for senior members and management. This is simply a matter of time as engineers progresses in their career, they are able to gain more influence over projects as well as climb up the corporate ladder. The reason this is a necessary step beyond simply trying to inform upper management is because of an issue pointed out in The Ethics of Sustainable Resources by Donald Scherer. The current management is already set in their ways. They are already in a high position and often wealthy, so they are buffered from economic shocks and will be among the last people to feel the effects of the sustainable energy crisis because they can buy their way out of issues. This means that the main way to make your voice heard, is to put yourself in a position of power. This allows for the company to head in a sustainable direction because you have the training and access to information to make good rational decisions about the subject of sustainability.

        Another area where engineers need to make their voice heard is in the political sphere. Most politicians aren’t qualified to speak on scientific and mathematical matters because their background did not include that training, since they mostly consist of political science or law majors. Engineers on the other hand have the training and judgement to analyze scientific and mathematical data which is necessary to properly discuss sustainability issues.

        Luegehnbiehl in his article on Ethical Principles for Engineers in a Global Environment lays out foundational principles of engineering ethics which give us reasons why it is necessary for engineers to put themselves on the political field. The principle of engineering competence say that engineers should strive to carry out work that they are capable of. In this case it is dangerous to let those with a pretense of knowledge rather than formal training make decisions about a subject they aren’t qualified to debate about. This means that we need some engineers to extend themselves beyond their own fields in order to exert their influence on different sectors in society to properly promote a sustainability agenda.

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