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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering - Global Issues

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Environmental Ethics Through Engineering Ecology and Economics

In addition to global warming, environmental challenges confront us at every turn, including myriad forms of pollution, human-population growth, extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, depletion of natural resources, and nuclear waste.

ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS THROUGH ENGINEERING ECOLOGY AND ECONOMICS:


In addition to global warming, environmental challenges confront us at every turn, including myriad forms of pollution, human-population growth, extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, depletion of natural resources, and nuclear waste. Today there is a wide consensus that we need concerted environmental responses that combine economic realism with ecological awareness. For their part, many engineers are now showing leadership in advancing ecological awareness. In this chapter, we discuss some ways in which this responsibility for the environment is shared by engineers, industry, government, and the public. We also introduce some perspectives developed in the new field of environmental ethics that enter into engineers‘ personal commitments and ideals.



Engineering ecology and economics:

 

Two powerful metaphors have dominated thinking about the environment: the invisible hand and the tragedy of the commons. Both metaphors are used to highlight unintentional impacts of the marketplace on the environment, but one is optimistic and the other is cautionary about those impacts. Each contains a large part of the truth, and they need to be reconciled and balanced. The first metaphor was set forth by Adam Smith in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, the founding text of modern economics. Smith conceived of an invisible (and divine) hand governing the Market place in a seemingly paradoxical manner. According to Smith, businesspersons think only of their own self-interest: ―It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. Yet, although ―he intends only his own gain,‖ he is ―led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.


In fact, professionals and many businesspersons do profess to ―trade for the public good,‖ claiming a commitment to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Although they are predominantly motivated by self-interest, they also have genuine moral concern for others.3 Nevertheless, Smith‘s metaphor of the invisible hand contains a large element of truth. By pursuing self-interest, the businessperson, as entrepreneur, creates new companies that provide goods and services for consumers. Moreover, competition pressures corporations to continually improve the quality of their products and to lower prices, again benefiting consumers. In addition, new jobs are created for employees and suppliers, and the wealth generated benefits the wider community through consumerism, taxes, and philanthropy.

 

Despite its large element of truth, the invisible hand metaphor does not adequately take account of damage to the environment. Writing in the eighteenth century, with its seemingly infinite natural resources, Adam Smith could not have foreseen the cumulative impact of expanding populations, unregulated capitalism, and market ―externalities‖—that is, economic impacts not included in the cost of products. Regarding the environment, most of these are negative externalities—pollution, destruction of natural habitats, depletion of shared resources, and other unintended and often unappreciated damage to ―common‖ resources. This damage is the topic of the second metaphor, which is rooted in Aristotle‘s observation that we tend to be thoughtless about things we do not own individually and which seem to be in unlimited supply. William Foster Lloyd was also an astute observer of this phenomenon.


In 1833 he described what the ecologist Garrett Hardin would later call ―the tragedy of the commons. Lloyd observed that cattle in the common pasture of a village were more stunted than those kept on private land. The common fields were themselves more worn than private pastures. His explanation began with the premise that individual farmers are understandably motivated by self-interest to enlarge their common-pasture herd by one or two cows, especially given that each act taken by itself does negligible damage. Yet, when all the farmers behave this way, in the absence of laws constraining them, the result is the tragedy of overgrazing that harms everyone.

 

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