Activist Engineering: Changing Engineering Practice By Deploying Praxis
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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.
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