Saturday, September 22, 2012

Uncivil Engineer

After years of attempting to practice civil engineering in the environmental field, there have been many times when I have felt like my profession is not very civil.  We engineers tend to take on projects not so much to make the world a better place, but rather to use the tools of our trade.  And the impacts on the natural world do not speak highly of our practices.  Climate change, impaired waters, polluted air, ever expanding landfills, and the proliferation of pavement - are but a few of the monuments that can be tied back to the work of the engineer.  Legacies such as these make me question my work in the field. 

Most of us engineers still have not grasped the failures of our practice.  Often time’s insights from those outside the practice can shed some light on the problem, if we are willing to take off our blinders.  One such example of insight can be found in a lecture that Aldo Leopold presented to attendees from the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering in 1938.  The text from the lecture can be found in the book THE RIVER OF THE MOTHER OF GOD – AND OTHER ESSAYS BY ALDO LEOPOLD.  

As is typical of Leopold’s work from the time, he demonstrates an amazing ability to tell it like it is - which unfortunately is the way it still is 74 years later.  Some excerpts from his lecture follow.

[…], the word “engineer” in the minds of some conservationists is associated with an attitude toward natural resources which they dislike.  It evokes in them a mental image of marshes needlessly drained, of rivers expensively channeled to revive an expiring navigation, of floods aggravated by stream straightening and by constructing levees, of irrigation reservoirs silted before the maturity of their bonds, and of a veritable mycelium of roads at least a part of which are built regardless of cost or need.

We may perhaps strike at the root of the matter by this generalization:  the engineer believes, and has taught the public to believe, that a constructed mechanism is inherently preferable to a natural one. 

[…] the engineer is to me a symbol for a state of the public mind, as well as a professional man who has made mistakes.  The cited instances of error are chargeable to voters and politicians as well as engineers.  […].  Every professional man must, within limits, execute jobs people are willing to pay for.  But every profession in the long run writes its own ticket.  It does so through the emergence of leaders who can afford to be skeptical out loud and in public […]. 

The engineer has respect for mechanical wisdom because he created it.  He has disrespect for ecological wisdom, not because he is contemptuous of it, but because he is unaware of it.  We have, in short, two professions whose responsibilities overlap much, but whose respective zones of awareness overlap only a little.   

Engineering is clearly the dominant idea of the industrial age.  What I have here called ecology is perhaps one of the contenders for a new order.  In any case our problem boils down to increasing the overlap of awareness between the two.  

The tools which the engineer has given the public are so crude and powerful that they invite coercive use.  It is not likely that the public will lay them down.  The only alternative is the pooling of engineering and ecological skills for wiser use of those tools.

[…]: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do.  They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides.  But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history:  to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.   

It is time for us in the field of engineering to take off the blinders and understand the fields we work in – the ecology.  We need to realize we are not the engines of the economy, but the creators of civility.  We need to retool our trade, before it is too late.           

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