A historical perspective on the engineering ideologies of sustainability: the case of SLCA

SOCIAL LCA IN PROGRESS

Abstract

Purpose

The 1990s produced two distinct engineering ideologies of sustainability—one emphasizing engineering innovation and the other emphasizing socio-cultural change. The technological change ideology of sustainability refers to engineering reform controlled and directed by engineers themselves—in other words, technological practices can be improved through the application of expertise. The technopolitics’ ideology of sustainability is about engineering challenge; it places more emphasis on the devolution of expertise from the existing model of engineering and society, and it questions the dominant values of engineering practice. In this article, I present a historico-philosophical perspective on the development of social life cycle assessment (SLCA) to highlight how the dialectic between sustainability and engineering has been defined largely by the ideology of technological change.

Methods

I provide original historical evidence regarding the roles of key actors and institutions in fitting the life cycle perspective and corporate social responsibility (CSR) into sustainable development. Primary data for this chapter is based on archival materials as well as on 30, in depth, semi-structured interviews with North American and European LCA and SLCA experts. Other primary data were collected from participant observation in SLCA webinars and workshops.

Results and discussion

Technology is at the heart of SLCA—it is a shared faith in technology as the solution. At the same time, there is growing appreciation amongst SLCA proponents that such technology must be construed more critically. Although it remains a subaltern current within LCA, SLCA is evidence of how technological change and technopolitics are starting to converge and influence each other—a probe toward a more reflective form of engineering discourse and toward the formation of a new hybrid sustainability ideology.

Conclusions

SLCA, I argue in this article, is an ideological hybrid where there are many spots of dissent and disagreement but also some surprising fundamental alignments between those who see engineering as techniques and those who believe that engineering needs to be socially and politically contextualized. Yet, even as the concepts of sustainable development, CSR, and LCA provide the intellectual and institutional mold within which SLCA becomes conceivable, these concepts may also obscure the historicity of sustainability engineering.

Keywords

Engineering History Ideology LCA SLCA Social Sustainability 

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Computer Science, Humanities and Science, Technology & Society Affiliated FacultyCalifornia Polytechnic State UniversitySan Luis ObispoUSA

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