Activist Engineering: Changing Engineering Practice By Deploying Praxis
- 340 Downloads
In this paper, we reflect on current notions of engineering practice by examining some of the motives for engineered solutions to the problem of climate change. We draw on fields such as science and technology studies, the philosophy of technology, and environmental ethics to highlight how dominant notions of apoliticism and ahistoricity are ingrained in contemporary engineering practice. We argue that a solely technological response to climate change does not question the social, political, and cultural tenet of infinite material growth, one of the root causes of climate change. In response to the contemporary engineering practice, we define an activist engineer as someone who not only can provide specific engineered solutions, but who also steps back from their work and tackles the question, What is the real problem and does this problem “require” an engineering intervention? Solving complex problems like climate change requires radical cultural change, and a significant obstacle is educating engineers about how to conceive of and create “authentic alternatives,” that is, solutions that differ from the paradigm of “technologically improving” our way out of problems. As a means to realize radically new solutions, we investigate how engineers might (re)deploy the concept of praxis, which raises awareness in engineers of the inherent politics of technological design. Praxis empowers engineers with a more comprehensive understanding of problems, and thus transforms technologies, when appropriate, into more socially just and ecologically sensitive interventions. Most importantly, praxis also raises a radical alternative rarely considered—not “engineering a solution.” Activist engineering offers a contrasting method to contemporary engineering practice and leads toward social justice and ecological protection through problem solving by asking not, How will we technologize our way out of the problems we face? but instead, What really needs to be done?
KeywordsActivism Activist engineer Climate change Praxis Ethics Paradigm Social justice Ecological soundness Sustainability Responsibility
We gratefully acknowledge the students of the Combustion Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan for their insightful thoughts, comments, and criticisms of this work. We also would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and challenges to us.
- Allen, D., Allenby, B., Bridges, M., Crittenden, J., Davidson, C., Hendrickson, C., et al. (2009). Benchmarking sustainable engineering education: Final report. Austin: University of Texas at Austin, Carnegie Mellon University, Arizona State University.Google Scholar
- Baillie, C. (2006). Engineers within a local and global society. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool. Google Scholar
- Beck, U. (1992). Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. New Delhi: Sage Publications, translated by Ritter, M. from Beck, U. (1986). Risikogesellshaft: Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.Google Scholar
- Davison, A. (2001). Technology and the contested meanings of sustainability. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
- Florman, S. (1976). The existential pleasures of engineering. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
- Friere, P. (1970 ). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Continuum Publishing, translated by Ramos, M. B.Google Scholar
- Hecht, G. (1998 ). The radiance of France: Nuclear power and national identity after World War II Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
- Hughes, T. (1987). The evolution of large technical systems. In W. Bijker, T. Hughes, & T. Pinch (Eds.), The social construction of technological systems (pp. 51–82). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
- Jonas, H. (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility. In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Karwat, D. (2012). On the Combustion chemistry of biofuels and the activist engineer. PhD Thesis, University of Michigan.Google Scholar
- Kuhn, T. S. (1962 ). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- MacKenzie, D. (1990). Inventing accuracy: A historical sociology of nuclear missile guidance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
- Martin, M. W., & Schinzinger, R. (1996). Ethics in engineering (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.Google Scholar
- Marx, K., & Engels, F. eds. (1845 ). Collected Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1845-47, Vol. 5: Theses on Feuerbach, The German Ideology and Related Manuscripts New York, NY: International Publishers.Google Scholar
- Misa, T. (2011). Leonardo to the internet: Technology and culture from the renaissance to the present (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
- Mitcham, C. (1994). Thinking through technology: The path between engineering and philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Mitchell, T. (2011). Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.Google Scholar
- Noble, D. (1977). America by design: Science, technology, and the rise of corporate capitalism. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
- Princen, T. (2012). A sustainability ethic. Handbook of global environmental politics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
- Princen, T., Manno, J. P. & Martin, P. (2013). Keep Them in the Ground: Ending the Fossil Fuel Era. State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? (pp. 161–71). Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.Google Scholar
- Riley, D. (2008). Engineering and social justice. San Rafael, CA: Morgan and Claypool.Google Scholar
- Sakellariou, N. (2013). A Framework for Social Justice in Renewable Energy Engineering. In Lucena, J. (Ed.), Engineering Education for Social Justice: Critical Explorations and Opportunities. Philosophy of Engineering and Technology 10 (pp. 243–267). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
- Smith, M. (1999 ). What is praxis? The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-praxis.htm. Accessed July 26, 2012.
- Tucker, R. P. (2010). Containing communism by impounding rivers: American Strategic interests and the global spread of high dams in the Early Cold War. In J. R. McNeill & C. R. Unger (Eds.), Environmental histories of the Cold War. Washington, DC & New York, NY: German Historical Institute & Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Vesilind, P. A., & Gunn, A. S. (1998). Engineering, ethics, and the environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
- Walter, G., & Gutscher, H. (2010). Public acceptance of wind energy and bioenergy projects in the framework of distributive and procedural justice theories: Insights from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. http://www.advisoryhouse.co.uk/UserData/Publication_00685_00.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2013.
- World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future. United Nations Documents.Google Scholar