Why Aren't All Engineers Ecologists ?

Albert H. Wurth, JR.

"What is Engineering? The control of nature by man. Its motto is the primal one—'Replenish the earth and subdue it'.... Is there a barren desert—irrigate it; is there a mountain barrier—pierce it; is there a rushing torrent—harness it. Bridge the rivers; sail the seas; apply the force by which all things fall, so that it shall lift things.... Nay, be 'more than conqueror' as he is more who does not merely slay or capture, but makes loyal allies of those whom he has overcome! Appropriate, annex, absorb, the powers of physical nature into human nature!"

—Rossiter W. Raymond1 — 1913

Ecology and Engineering

The modifications made to the environment by human activity have been anthropocentric, directed at adapting natural systems to human needs and wants. The scale and scope of human intervention in natural systems have increased with growing capacity for engineering, but it is difficult to argue that this increase has been pursued for its own sake. Put another way, though we have relentlessly attempted to "improve" on nature, the undesirable effects of this effort have been caused not so much by hostility toward natural systems as by a lack of careful attention to them.2 Pollution, resource depletion, and environmental degradation have not been desired outcomes. Rather, such impacts have increased as "side-effects" of improved production. Engineers have sought faster transportation, better shelter, improved communication, and more efficient processes, not more pollution or development pressure on natural areas.

The almost inadvertent character of the impact of engineering on natural systems has made it difficult for the engineering discipline to recognize and address issues like sustainability. In fact the source of the concern about the sustainability of natural systems in the face of ongoing human modifications has emerged primarily from another quarter, the work of the ecologists.

Current concern for ecological sustainability focuses especially on the long-term and less-apparent costs of human modifications, on the counterproductive effects or "unintended consequences" of human activity, on paying attention to the "by-products" (costs to natural systems) as well as the products (benefits to humans) of our technological system. These concerns have been brought to the



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement



Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.

Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.

OCR for page 129
--> Why Aren't All Engineers Ecologists ? Albert H. Wurth, JR. "What is Engineering? The control of nature by man. Its motto is the primal one—'Replenish the earth and subdue it'.... Is there a barren desert—irrigate it; is there a mountain barrier—pierce it; is there a rushing torrent—harness it. Bridge the rivers; sail the seas; apply the force by which all things fall, so that it shall lift things.... Nay, be 'more than conqueror' as he is more who does not merely slay or capture, but makes loyal allies of those whom he has overcome! Appropriate, annex, absorb, the powers of physical nature into human nature!" —Rossiter W. Raymond1 — 1913 Ecology and Engineering The modifications made to the environment by human activity have been anthropocentric, directed at adapting natural systems to human needs and wants. The scale and scope of human intervention in natural systems have increased with growing capacity for engineering, but it is difficult to argue that this increase has been pursued for its own sake. Put another way, though we have relentlessly attempted to "improve" on nature, the undesirable effects of this effort have been caused not so much by hostility toward natural systems as by a lack of careful attention to them.2 Pollution, resource depletion, and environmental degradation have not been desired outcomes. Rather, such impacts have increased as "side-effects" of improved production. Engineers have sought faster transportation, better shelter, improved communication, and more efficient processes, not more pollution or development pressure on natural areas. The almost inadvertent character of the impact of engineering on natural systems has made it difficult for the engineering discipline to recognize and address issues like sustainability. In fact the source of the concern about the sustainability of natural systems in the face of ongoing human modifications has emerged primarily from another quarter, the work of the ecologists. Current concern for ecological sustainability focuses especially on the long-term and less-apparent costs of human modifications, on the counterproductive effects or "unintended consequences" of human activity, on paying attention to the "by-products" (costs to natural systems) as well as the products (benefits to humans) of our technological system. These concerns have been brought to the

OCR for page 129
--> fore by the work of ecologists, who attempt to analyze ecosystems as wholes and investigate interactions and other effects in natural systems not immediately apparent to humans. From the ecologists' perspective, which unlike the engineers' does not begin with human wants and needs, concepts like "side-effects" or distinctions between products and by-products are difficult to incorporate into ecosystem analyses. Natural systems or ecosystems are studied, at least in theory, in terms of their overall operation, not their productivity for human wants and needs. Thus, the different attitudes of engineering and ecology toward natural systems can be attributed to their different starting points. Steven L. Goldman has underscored these differences in approach between engineering and science. He contrasts engineering's theoria, that is, "its characteristic world-view and rationality" with the theoria of the physical sciences (1990, p. 125). Engineering is distinguished by its grounding in context and valuation, with its emphasis on design; science seeks to understand universal and independent natural systems, with a focus on discovery. As Goldman notes, "the problems addressed by the sciences are ... supposed to be given to them by 'Nature'.... Within the practice of science, scientific problems are commonly conceived of as discovered; they are not arbitrary human inventions" (p. 129). On the other hand, "engineering problems are overtly invented.... given to engineers not by a supposed independently existing Nature, but by people who have, for a variety of generally obvious ulterior motives, invented them" (p. 130).3 These differences, however, can be overstated. The emphasis on design in engineering, while perhaps distinct from the focus of analytic physical sciences, is less incompatible with ecological science. This paper is offered as an argument that ecologists and engineers have a great deal in common, and that recognition of that common ground offers significant opportunity for a new twenty-first century synthesis that could give energy and direction to the quest for sustain-ability. Engineering Students and Ecology The impetus for this paper came from a recognition of a recurring phenomenon in my course in environmental politics. It seemed that every time the course, a political science course in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been offered, some of the best and most engaged students have been engineering students. While part of this phenomenon can, no doubt, be attributed to the fact that many of these individuals have been excellent students who have performed well in all their classes, it has always seemed that these students not only have done well in all aspects of class performance, but also have exhibited genuine interest in ecology and environmental issues. In short, it has been my impression that these engineering students seem to display a particular attraction to, or affinity for, the course material.4 While the historical and philosophical writings in the course are also popular

OCR for page 129
--> with the students, the readings and arguments that seem to have the most impact on the engineers tend to be the ones that deal with ecology and resource use. In particular, classic environmental analyses that use concepts familiar to engineers like entropy and systems (e.g., Boulding, 1993; Georgescu-Roegen, 1993), studies using models (Meadows et al., 1992), and energy analyses emphasizing efficiency (especially Lovins et al., 1986) seem to have particular appeal with the engineering students. The enthusiasm of the engineering students suggests that there are aspects of ecological and environmental analyses that have an inherent attractiveness to students of engineering. A quick analysis suggests where this appeal might lie. Engineering and Ecological Systems A discipline like engineering, focused on material balances, production efficiency, and waste minimization will very likely be attuned to the inputs (resources) and outputs (product and waste) of the systems it engineers. Indeed, an emphasis on efficiency of resource use and waste reduction is inherent to the engineering project. Ecologists seem to have a strikingly similar focus in the necessary inputs, efficiencies, production, maintenance, and waste handling of the ecosystems they study.5 Despite their differences in theoria, their pursuits and subject matters have marked similarities. Both ecology and engineering seek to understand the integration of components of systems to produce functional wholes. This approach actually equips the engineer to be receptive to ecosystem models, because ecosystems, like artifacts, have to work; their parts have to fit together.6 If the engineers and ecologists share an interest in working systems, why is it that the two disciplines often assume conflicting positions on issues? Indeed, one primary force that has contributed to the intrusion of human activity on the ecological systems of the natural environment has been the growth of engineering. Despite their affinities, the directions taken in the real world by the two disciplines have tended to place practitioners at odds rather than to emphasize their common practice. Given their similarities in orientation, the divergence of the two disciplines seems to be artificially constructed by the professional, educational, and social influences on the two fields. Despite their shared concerns with systems, the ecologist's definition is an expansive one, attempting to explore and understand a complex network, while the engineer's has been much more susceptible to constraints on both the size and character of the particular system and on the relevant inputs and outputs. Here, Goldman's argument about engineering's distinct theoria again helps explain the engineering approach. Nevertheless, despite the differences in the two disciplines' treatments of relevant or important components and limits of the system being studied, the understanding of the nature of a system, and thereby of an ecosystem, should be

OCR for page 129
--> much more familiar terrain for an engineer than, say, for an economist or a politician. Indeed, engineers are well equipped to understand impacts of human activity on ecosystems; any reasonably complete materials balance analysis of a manufacturing process reflects the fact that car manufacturers produce more than cars, that steelmakers make more than steel, and that nuclear plants generate more than electricity. The profession we would most likely charge with determining the impact of a year's production of automobiles on air and fuel resources would be engineers. This basic understanding of physical processes and materials balances clearly equips engineers to identify stresses to ecosystems. Their grounding in real-world inputs and outputs makes engineers less susceptible, at least on a theoretical level, to ignoring real costs of the industrial system (like pollution). The externalities, or uncounted costs of production, that economists quibble over have real measurability to engineers (valuation is another issue—see below); no engineer believes that smoke goes "away." Engineering and Politics Still, it would be a mistake to overestimate the capacity of engineers to apply ecological models to the systems they design. There is a reason that the engineer's attention is not turned toward the same overall analysis of a system that an ecologist might perform. While Goldman (1991) has called this the "social captivity of engineering," I would prefer to use a language that might be even less familiar, namely, that political decisions determine the approach taken to the technical analysis made by an engineer. Here, the definition of politics is much broader than the conventional "activity of the government" that so often defines American images of politics. The politics is the capacity to make decisions that shape or constrain the lives of others, the possibility to exert power over others. To the extent that, as Goldman argues, the decisions about which systems to investigate and which to avoid, or which variables must be carefully monitored and which can be ignored, are made by "managers," these managers inform, or hold captive, the engineering practice. This captivity is an undeniably political (in the broadest sense) constraint. Goldman sees these "managers" as employers, government agencies, other institutional authorities who define the practice of engineering in context, making it "a decision-dominated, rather than a (technical) knowledge-dominated process" (1991, p. 122). So rather than finding the natural boundaries of the ecosystem, the engineer is trained to accept the project or system as defined by the manager. Which costs count and which do not is a decision made in terms of social values determined by the culture, the economic system, and the preferences of the decision makers. Inputs and outputs are not measured in terms of their impact on

OCR for page 129
--> natural systems or their sustainability unless those values are included in the constraints imposed by the managers. Thus, the environmental impacts and side-effects of engineering practice have occurred not because of engineering's inherent tendency to ignore ecological constraints. Sustainability is not necessarily at odds with engineers' efforts. Engineers work under the conditions set by the political decision makers, those with the power to define the engineer's problem and to set the constraints on its solution. Much as the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider (1975) has argued about political agendas, the questions asked delimit and determine the answers provided. The political constraints that limit engineers' attention to ecosystem effects are many and various. The most obvious are economic—in market systems, services of nature are underpriced, and all externalities or social costs are, by definition, misvalued. Monetary, not ecological, cost drives engineering design. In practice, the bulk of this power lies in the hands of the economic decision makers in the business world.7 But the design parameters for engineers can be ecologically wrongheaded for a variety of other reasons besides inaccurate estimate of environmental externalities. As Herman Daly and John Cobb have argued, the sheer scale of the impact of the engineered world has a cumulative effect in relation to the ecosystem, so it is not simply a matter of better estimating the conditions imposed on engineering to reflect more accurately costs that had previously been ignored. As Daly and Cobb note, "the price system, with marginal Pigovian adjustments [for externalities], leads to an optimal allocation of a given resource flow, whatever its scale happens to be. But the price system does not lead to the optimal scale" (1989, p. 144). New scale constraints must be acknowledged.8 The relative size of the industrial and engineered world in relation to the ecosystem that supports it must be recognized. "Continuous growth in the scale of the aggregate economy could only make sense in the context of an unlimited environment" (Daly and Cobb, 1989, p. 145). Similarly, even accurate pricing does not deter certain kinds of politically popular engineering enterprises, like nuclear weapons, space programs, defense systems, and other governmental programs criticized by detractors as pork barrel projects. All such undertakings typically have benefits that are difficult to estimate, high costs and, most important, a strong political constituency. Similar tales are told outside of government regarding pet projects for corporations, universities, and other bureaucracies. All such institutions can fund large pie-in-the-sky projects with little "bottom-line" justification. It would be difficult to explain either the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower on the basis of real estate market analyses. All these real-world political decisions shape the character and scope of engineering practice, and often direct it away from ecological sustainability.

OCR for page 129
--> Perhaps then, the ''prepolitical'' state of their engineering training explains the interest of the engineering students in my environmental politics classes. These young people who are attracted to engineering haven't yet learned the conventional levels of analysis, the appropriate and inappropriate systems to analyze. The questions they ask have not yet been delimited by the political forces that define standard engineering practice. Indeed, the reason, arguably, that I find the interests in ecology in my engineering students is precisely that they have a naive or, dare I say, pure attraction for the elegance and complexity of ecological systems. Their interest in design and models, which underpins their pursuit of engineering, easily translates into an appreciation of ecosystems. In a sense this argues that despite engineers' "captivity," there is an essential element of engineering and the engineering approach that is very likely shared by engineers long before their capture by social or professional or economic forces. It is something more primal—maybe a problem-solving mentality, perhaps an instinct to make things work, or an urge to build something—that distinguishes the interest of the engineers (and presumably makes them likely candidates for captivity) and is the element evinced by those students in my environmental politics class. Toward A Synthesis Investigating the sources of their differences, then, reveals the underlying affinities between engineers and ecologists and suggests a potential for fruitful communication and synthesis. Such a synthesis would require not so much a change in technical methods or training, but rather what I have called a political change. One obvious possibility is a redefinition of the scope of engineering practice, with an emphasis on expansion of system boundaries to extend to the impacts on natural systems on both input and output sides. As indicated, this is necessarily a political undertaking, one which, while not partisan in the traditional sense, does require some managerial or leadership effort to redefine engineering practice. While in one sense this might seem threatening to standard engineering practice, it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the argument to perceive such change as problematic for engineering. Engineering in essence, with its intuitive problem-solving and system orientation, might need to change very little. Engineering as practice, for whom and for what, might have to change a great deal and adopt an additional set of constraints. Recent efforts to bring ecology and engineering closer together have taken many forms ranging from industrial ecology (Frosch, 1993) to ecological engineering (Mitsch, 1993). While all these initiatives reflect the spirit of the argument presented here, they tend to fall short of what might be the ideal long-run perspective. If the ecology of natural systems identifies significant earthly limits in terms of which sustainability must be expressed, then the devotion of a branch

OCR for page 129
--> of engineering to this area of research and development represents another boundary that limits the potential integration of the disciplines. The systematic understanding of ecosystems can hardly be a branch of engineering independent of, and parallel to, other engineering fields. Rather, it would seem that all engineering fields should redefine their disciplinary specializations in terms of their respective systems' places in ecosystems. Rather than a new subfield or discipline destined to take its place alongside existing specialties, the ecological model really is better understood as informing all subfields. It is this same ubiquity or inescapability that, I think, catches the attention of engineering students. The impact of ecology looks more like the constraints of thermodynamics than like the opportunity for a new branch of the profession. If we accept the need to face ecological constraints, the fundamental recognition must be that the economy and the industrial system exist within and depend on the ecosystem. Accordingly, twenty-first-century engineering and development must challenge industrial gigantism and expanding control and scale with a commitment to reengineer the developed world to have less impact on ecosystems. In practical terms, engineering within ecological constraints means turning engineering away from natural systems and back onto previously engineered systems. Two easy suggestions would be to follow Amory Lovins's recommendation to "wring more efficiency" out of existing technologies and Herman Daly's recommendation to substitute development for growth. Finally, a metaphor might serve better than a list of recommendations. The treatment of wildlife by civilized societies has seen two conflicting models, the zoo and the wildlife refuge. In the former, wild natural creatures are brought into civilized, developed settings; in the latter, wild areas are set aside to be protected and undeveloped, and civilization makes small unobtrusive outposts that (at least in theory) do not upset the ecosystem that supports the wild area. The lesson for future engineering is obvious. Wild creatures don't survive in zoos. The zoo model must be displaced by the wildlife refuge. In place of specimens from the wild transplanted into our engineered world (which we don't do well), we need to reengineer our artificial world and tidily insert it into an otherwise protected and undisturbed global ecosystem. Notes 1.   From "The New Age," an address delivered at the Perkin Medal Meeting, Society of Chemical Industry, Chemists' Club, New York, January 24, 1913, by Rossiter W. Raymond, quoting "a statement uttered by me ten years ago, in an address on the Dynamics and Ethics of Engineering. It is so delightful to be able to reiterate without change an opinion ten years old." [That is the reason for the quotation marks in the text above—quoting himself.] In The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, March 1913, pp. 249-251. 2.   One obvious exception might be the view of natural systems as "unproductive," which generated a kind of restless urge to improve them, whether by irrigating arid lands or draining wetlands.

OCR for page 129
-->     This perspective assumed that river, grassland, and forest ecosystems didn't do anything, that they were wasted or unproductive resources. John Wesley Powell's account of his journey through the American West portrayed the land as potentially useful through reclamation. In contrast, a current concern of ecologists is with the productivity of unengineered or natural systems, and especially with unrecognized productivity. 3.   Goldman offers a series of contrasts between the two disciplines: ... the distinctive world outlook of engineering,... its theoria,... would be to the theoria of the physical sciences as induction is to deduction, as the pragmatic is to the rational, as nondeterministic design is to deterministic law, as the contextual is to the universal, as the pluralistic and contingent is to the unique and necessary, as the open-ended is to the once-and-for-all, as Ciceronian rhetoric is to Platonic philosophy, as the skeptical is to the certain, as the Principle of Insufficient Reason is to the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1990, p. 135). 4.   While most students find the material from a course on such issues to be obviously timely and relevant to current events, the dedication exhibited by the engineering students seems to reveal a special affinity between the interest they have in engineering and the logic or character of ecological science. Though my impressions are just that, impressions, and not based on a systematic review, I feel that this same enthusiasm and interest on the part of engineering students is much less pronounced in the other political science classes I teach. 5.   Both fields, arguably, also seek a kind of internal elegance in the processes they investigate. 6.   See James Karr's discussion of ecosystem "integrity" and "health" (in this volume), and C. S. Holling's investigation of ecological ''resilience'' (in this volume). Eugene P. Odum has argued that the "holism" of ecology distinguishes it from the "reductionism" of analytic science and should be a model for broader syntheses of the natural and social sciences (1977). 7.   If monetary constraints are the only costs considered, the only design parameters, then engineering, which might be good in terms of the specified constraints, could mean potential disaster for the broader ecosystem. Illustrations of "well-engineered" products like lead paint, chlorofluorocarbons, and 8-mile-per-gallon cars indicate the nature of the problem. A similar point put in a slightly different way, as I suggest to the engineers in my classes, is that designing a better car for an insane traffic system is not necessarily a design for an improved transportation system. 8.   This scale issue is especially critical in a world that regards bigger as better. See Bryan Norton's argument that all environmental problems are essentially problems of scale (in this volume). Daly and Cobb recommend sustainability quotas for resources, both sources and sinks, to regulate the scale of the industrial economy. Instead of beginning with the impossible task of calculating full-cost prices [prices including externalities] and then letting the market determine the right quantities on the basis of these prices, we could begin with the 'right' quantities and let the market calculate the corresponding prices. But what do we mean by the 'right' quantities? Only that the economy is constrained to operate with volumes of resource flows that are within the renewable biospheric capacities of regeneration and waste absorption (1989, p. 142-143). References Boulding, K. E. 1993. The economics of the coming spaceship earth. Pp. 297-309 in Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology Ethics, H. E. Daly and K. N. Townsend, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Daly, H. E., and J. B. Cobb, Jr. 1989. For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press. Frosch, R. A. 1993. An approach to scenarios of the future industrial ecology. Paper presented at a Conference on Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment. The Rockefeller University, New York City, October 28-29, 1993.

OCR for page 129
--> Georgescu-Roegen, N. 1993. The entropy law and the economic problem. Pp. 75-88 in Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology Ethics, H. E. Daly and K. N. Townsend, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. Goldman, S. L. 1990. Philosophy, engineering and Western culture. Pp. 125-152 in Broad and Narrow Interpretations of Philosophy of Technology, P. T. Durbin, ed., Philosophy and Technology, Vol. 7. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Goldman, S. L. 1991. The social captivity of engineering. Pp. 121-145 in Critical Perspectives on Nonacademic Science and Engineering, P. T. Durbin, ed., Research in Technology Studies, Vol. 4. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press. Lovins, A. B., L. H. Lovins, and S. Zuckerman. 1986. Energy Unbound: A Fable for America's Future. San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club. Meadows, D. H., D. L. Meadows, and J. Randers. 1992. Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse ; Envisioning a Sustainable Future. Post Mills, Vt.: Chelsea Green. Mitsch, W.J. 1993. Ecological engineering: A cooperative role with the planetary life-support system. Environmental Science and Technology 27:438-445. Odum, E. P. 1977. The emergence of ecology as a new integrative discipline. Science 195:1289-1293. Schattschneider, E. E. 1975. The Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America. New York: Dryden.

OCR for page 129
This page in the original is blank.