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Lessons learned in the Gulf spill over into engineering ethics
April 26, 2011Tweet
It’s been almost a year since a series of explosions ripped through an oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the surrounding ocean. As the world watches yet another disaster unfold – the nuclear crisis in Japan – the initial question of “what went wrong?” has now become “how can we avoid it happening again?” Binghamton University professor George Catalano has a possible solution. But it calls for a whole-scale re-examination of the engineering profession and its notions of ethical responsibility.
In his latest book, Tragedy in the Gulf: A Call for a New Engineering Ethic, Catalano, a professor of bioengineering, uses the events leading up and to and including the oil-spill as the catalyst for a much broader discussion of engineering that not only considers the technical side of the profession but also its impact on the environment and society.
“Many different engineering disciplines contribute to the oil industry as is also the case for nearly all the technologies we use and take for granted,” said Catalano. “So, while the oil spill triggered a personal reflection of my own ethical responsibility in this particular field, the truth of the matter is that it is much greater than just this one industry.”
According to Catalano, engineering has always been a profession with strong ethical dimensions awash with codes of ethics. These principles have helped propel technical advancements in every facet of our daily lives. But these developments are being made at such incredible rates that the question Catalano challenges his fellow engineers to answer is whether or not ethical responsibility both as a profession and through their roles as individual practitioners has kept pace. Catalano argues that it hasn’t.
“Too often, it is only after a tragedy – when we’ve seen the dramatic images and heard from the victims of the devastation – that we pay attention,” said Catalano. “As a profession, we seem even more reluctant to tackle the ethical issues involved. Given the damage the disaster in the Gulf has done to the environment and to our profession, it’s time to regroup and construct a different vision of the responsibilities we have as engineers.”
Catalano’s proposed set of engineering ethics calls for a union of such disparate fields as quantum mechanics, eco-philosophy and complex systems, that, when brought together, present a very different understanding of the world.
“In the quantum world, all things are interconnected far beyond the limits of space and time,” Catalano said. “From this, we can learn to draw from the vast array of potentialities rather than limited certainties. To this we must add an eco-philosophy sensibility – one that incorporates a strong grasp of the evolution of the universe and our place and role in that process. Finally, we must incorporate an understanding of complex systems, which is in essence, an understanding of indirect effects – meaning if we push a complex system ‘over here,’ it often has effects ‘over there.’ When we put these elements together, we have a profoundly different sense of ethical responsibility both as practitioners and as a profession.”
As this new set of ethics presents somewhat of a change to “business as usual” for the engineering field, Catalano is well aware that his proposal is going to take time for it to be even considered by his peers. But there is growing support for his call to action, as demonstrated by an increase in the number of like-minded colleagues around the world, ranging from a group led by materials scientist Caroline Baillie at the University of Western Australia, to Jens Kabo and his team of budding engineers at Queen’s University in Canada.
“Whether or not anyone finds my arguments compelling doesn’t matter in the long run,” Catalano said. “What does matter is that as a profession we are doing everything we can to safeguard our planet and all of its inhabitants. And for me, that begins in my classroom. I know that I may not be able to change things overnight, but I do know I can help influence the next generation of engineers by helping them to think differently about their place in the engineering world and the ethical responsibility that comes along with it.”