Could engineers save the world?

Posted by Derek Mason

11th October 2022

Picture credit: NASA on Unsplash

Often, we do the work we do because we have a passion, and we believe we’re making a positive difference to people’s lives. But it’s undeniable that those of us in the construction industry also play a role in human-driven climate change.

This can be uncomfortable to think about, but keep reading because I don’t think you’ll have heard this angle before. I recently read a research article by Nick Francis, Director of Imagine Engineering, and University Teacher in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield. His 2021 paper, ‘Civil engineers’ role in saving the world: updating the moral basis of the profession’, Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, vol. 174, no. 5, May 2021, pp. 3-9 was named as one of the ten most downloaded papers from the Institute of Civil Engineers website that year. It’s easy to see why, as the author presents a compelling argument for change.

Nick starts by pointing out that the civil engineering profession was forged in the industrial revolution, with a vision to ‘harness the forces of nature for the benefit of mankind’ and yet the profession now has an alarming environmental impact.

He underpins his argument by defining and explaining morality, and the different levels of moral reasoning. Most adults are at the ‘conventional moral reasoning’ level, where we look at what’s normal and aim to fit in with that. Whereas what’s needed to create significant change, is for us to move into ‘post-conventional moral reasoning’ where we look at wider long-term consequences of our actions along with what’s ethically correct.

If we look at the data he quotes, it’s clear that our industry cannot continue on its current path. He says, ‘Humans are now using resources and producing pollution at 1.75 times the rate the planet can recover (WWF, 2018). In the UK, the ecological footprint jumps up to 2.7 times the world’s capacity (Earth Overshoot Day, 2020) and the construction industry is the nation’s single biggest consumer of natural resources. Reducing the consumption of concrete, steel and diesel in construction is therefore an obvious priority.’

So why is it that we’re not taking dramatic action to protect the planet? One reason is that climate change doesn’t strike us as being an immediate threat, ‘because the danger is gradual and imperceptible’.

But, that doesn’t mean we can’t effect rapid change. Nick uses the example of slavery to show how behaviours that were ‘normal’ can seem unthinkable to later generations. As he puts it, ‘the initial legal challenges started in 1765, but it took a further 70 years for there to be sufficient changes in social attitudes for the full abolition of slavery to come into law’.

Another example is safety in construction. When it was no longer morally acceptable for people to die at work and government legislation changed the rules on safety, the industry was forced to instigate rapid change.

Nick argues in his paper that while new technical solutions are needed, it’s behaviour change, legislation change, and redefining the purpose of the profession of civil engineering that are also required.

Of course, this is a very brief summary of the paper – I’m sure you’ll find the arguments within it much more persuasive if you read the paper yourself. But Nick’s conclusion is this: the new moral basis of the profession of civil engineering needs to be, ‘Working with nature to serve the long-term needs of humanity’.

Arguably, it’s not only engineers that need to make a dramatic shift. Clearly there are other professionals who need to make the leap too. What do you think? Is it possible for the construction industry to rapidly evolve for the long-term benefit of us all?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, and if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

Article Author:

Nick Francis, Director of Imagine Engineering, and University Teacher in the Department of Civil and Structural Engineering, University of Sheffield          Twitter:NickFEngineer

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