Activist Engineering: Changing Engineering Practice By Deploying Praxis

Abstract

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?

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Davison (2001, p. 69) writes, “In the world Descartes and Bacon saw, external limitations are overcome, and thereby progress attained, to the extent that rational knowledge about natural machinery takes over from the inefficient meandering of evolution. A lack of rational development in existing social practices, a lack of material advance, i.e. a lack of progress, appeared as backwardness, idleness, moral decay. Yet, notions of progress and stability do not stand over and against each other so much as they inform and shape each other. The Enlightenment idea of stability was derived instrumentally from the antecedent metaphysical conviction that the purpose of social life was to develop the raw stuff of existence into a rational form, a Paradise on Earth.”

  2. 2.

    For example, in 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development noted that more than half a million of the world’s scientists worked on weapons research that accounted for 50 % of all research and development expenditures (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). Also, as boasted by an executive vice president of Lockheed Martin in 2005, “We are the largest single supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense and the largest provider of information technology services to the federal government. We also happen to be one of the nation’s largest employers of engineers and scientists, with about 50,000 of our 130,000 employees around the world holding some sort of technical degree or credential. To sustain this critical mass of talent, we will hire approximately 9,000 engineers this year, including 3,700 new graduates. In fact, in any given year, Lockheed Martin hires about one of every 20 engineering baccalaureates in the United States—four to five percent of the entire nation’s undergraduate output” (Riley 2008).

  3. 3.

    We take “agency” to mean the capacity to make decisions and choices for oneself given one’s knowledge.

  4. 4.

    We understand reductionism as the division and discretization of complexity into well-defined parameters that can therefore be adjusted. An example of reductionism is how federal engineers converted the storage reservoir problem of dams into a differential equation with terms that could be manipulated. Reductionism thus sets up cause-and-effect relationships. It is also referred to as “atomism” (Hauser-Kastenberg et al. 2003).

  5. 5.

    Positivism, which is the application of the empiricist tradition of Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, allows the engineer to stand as a supposedly neutral observer to the forces of nature that dictate empirical outcomes.

  6. 6.

    Dualism is related to positivism—it is the separation of humans from the environment, the distinction, particularly in Western philosophical traditions, of mind and matter.

  7. 7.

    In the contemporary world, technological development and investment by the American military can be viewed for the purpose of maintaining the vast empire of American neoliberal influence, just as the British used technologies such as steam engines and telecommunication to consolidate its empire in the Indian subcontinent. Misa (2011) discusses how the British developed steam engines, quinine, railroads and telegraph systems to maintain control over the Indian subcontinent. Baillie (2006) describes how famine in India was worsened because of the development of railroad infrastructure.

  8. 8.

    Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a fitting example of how large-scale “clean energy” alternatives to oil and coal still result in social injustice and ecological degradation and do not fundamentally change society to be less energy intensive and materially consumptive.

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Acknowledgments

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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Correspondence to Darshan M. A. Karwat.

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Karwat, D.M.A., Eagle, W.E., Wooldridge, M.S. et al. Activist Engineering: Changing Engineering Practice By Deploying Praxis. Sci Eng Ethics 21, 227–239 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-014-9525-0

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Keywords

  • Activism
  • Activist engineer
  • Climate change
  • Praxis
  • Ethics
  • Paradigm
  • Social justice
  • Ecological soundness
  • Sustainability
  • Responsibility