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The Ethical Future of Engineering

What is the future for the vocation of engineering in a carbon-constrained world? How are engineers of conscience called to act under these constraints? And what does the term “sustainability” really mean, anyway? These questions and others were addressed in a recent presentation by Professor Keith Warner of SCU’s Environmental Studies Institute as part of electrical engineering’s winter quarter graduate seminar, ELEN 200.

After outlining a series of events that included the discovery of a dramatic surge in atmospheric CO2 since World War II, the resulting global climate disruption, and the role uncertainty and misinformation played in a delayed response to scientific facts, Warner said the recent shift in public opinion regarding the need to take  action presents unprecedented opportunities for engineers. “We need to rethink industrial processes and shift the way we think about design,” he said. “We must redesign every part of technology to be sustainable, and every engineering discipline is needed.”

But, in these days of heightened awareness and concern about climate change and diminishing natural resources, Warner contends it is all too easy to lose sight of the intended meaning of the word “sustainability” and the ethical ramifications that definition entails. According to the United Nations’ 1992 definition, for authentic progress to be made in sustainability, three criteria must be met: there must be economic development, there must be ecological health, and there must be social equity. Too often, Warner says, the term is used to mean whatever people want it to mean and it is too easy to “greenwash” the omission of social equity at the commission of economic development for a select segment of society.

Warner challenged engineers to consider what they can do to contribute to solutions to tremendous social need while also being mindful of creating social parity. He urged students to innovate aggressively and entrepreneurially, to look for opportunities to use their skills and imagination for the betterment of society. Finally, he invited students to understand life with a moral purpose. “Matching the world’s greatest needs with the heart’s deepest desire brings the greatest rewards,” he said, “and addressing climate change is certainly one of the world’s greatest needs.”