Readers respond: Ethics and sustainable development

January 2009 » Columns
This Insider’s View comprises feedback sent to Civil Connection in response to my December column on ethics and sustainable development. I thank all the contributors for their time and effort in conveying their thoughts and hope that the responses promote further conscientious thought and timely advocacy and action on sustainability and related issues. Following are excerpts from readers’ responses, with links to the complete letters.
Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E.

This Insider’s View comprises feedback sent to Civil Connection in response to my December column on ethics and sustainable development. I thank all the contributors for their time and effort in conveying their thoughts and hope that the responses promote further conscientious thought and timely advocacy and action on sustainability and related issues.

Following are excerpts from readers’ responses, with links to the complete letters:

I think it is extremely short sighted to claim financial constraints with respect to sustainability. We cannot afford not to incorporate sustainable practices into development. … Education is key to the implementation; the more we understand about the options and impacts, the more we will continue to develop solutions that support our people, our planet and our prosperity.—A. DiRienzo, P.E, LEED AP
(Click here to read entire letter)

I consider it a fad and a farce of enormous waste to our people. It’s the reason I quit ASCE: that code of ethics bit. I have worked in (mostly heavy) construction since 1948 … I haven’t seen one of these fads last over time (example: highly subsidized wind generators) unless enormous amounts of tax money is thrown at it, taken from everyone at the whim of a few.—R. J. Cook, P.E.
(Click here to read entire letter)

Our economic growth has been historically predicated on environmental and social degradation; it is not the result of innovation as we teach so often in undergraduate curricula around the country. It is the charge of sustainable development to resist, even reverse, this paradigm. … The solutions involved are not simply innovations but existing technologies that have been discarded or dismissed in the frenzied and thoughtless pursuit of comfort and convenience. It is clear that there are strategies to achieve these same comforts and conveniences with no adverse impact to our social and natural environments. … Sustainability problems are solvable and even fun to solve.—C.J. Riley, assistant professor
(Click here to read entire letter)

What is it that we seeking to sustain? In its basic sense, the word "sustainable" does not automatically refer to the natural environment. It means to keep something at its present level. In the broadest sense, manufacturers, developers, and consumers are as much part of "the environment" as are the rain forest and the atmosphere. … Engineers, with their natural predisposition toward a dispassionate analysis of facts, can offer a perspective that zealots (and special interests) from both sides of the debate may prefer to ignore. … We civil engineers have to rise above our own fear that some of our own current practices will not be (and maybe should not be) sustained.— W. J. Meyer, P.E.
(Click here to read entire letter)

The great engineers do not settle for fulfilling only basic duties. We strive to make the world better. We are, must be, and shall be the force behind the development of new technologies. … So, the question is not, what do we as engineers think? The question is, do we think?—J. Reynolds, P.E., LEED AP
(Click here to read entire letter)

We have to see and weigh all sides of the issue and address the answer in an openly defensible manner. … Weighing into the environmental cost should be the overall impact on both the current condition and the long-term future condition. … Let’s continue this debate, and make sure we stand the high ground. Our obligation as professional engineers, requires it of us.—F. Timm, P.E.
(Click here to read entire letter)

The definition in the Code of Ethics provides a good summary of what it means to be sustainable, but sustainability represents much more. … A sustainable project meets multiple goals; a project that only meets a single, immediate goal is not sustainable. A sustainable project minimizes the impact on the surrounding communities—communities inhabited by humans and wildlife. A sustainable project is economically equitable—the project will not cost more than it can give back.—C. Harris
(Click here to read entire letter)

Sustainable developments are the future of our planet. … An entire industry has sprung up to green existing buildings. … If we are not "adequately armed" to complete sustainable developments, then get adequately armed. Get LEED certified. … If engineers of any type are not ready to address green issues, then they are not upholding the first sentence of the first canon which says that "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public."—E. Hilton, student
(Click here to read entire letter)

What is sustainable development? … It is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This is a vision, an ethic; not a strategy and supporting tactics; not a set of specific technologies, processes, laws, regulations or standards. … These adverbs [environmentally, economically, politically, socially and ethically] are not independent but are clearly interdependent and any successful endeavor must address and satisfy them all. … You can argue that any enterprise and undertaking should be sustainable.—H.J. Hatch, P.E., Dist.M. ASCE
(Click here to read entire letter)

E-mail comments in care of bdrake@zweigwhite.com.



Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E., is senior staff engineer for DiGioia, Gray & Associates, LLC, Monroeville, Pa.




Complete letters

I believe that as engineers we have more than a moral obligation to address development in a sustainable manner. Whatever your stance on global warming, I think that everyone can agree that it is not responsible to be wasteful. There are natural resources that we can incorporate into development that are not finite. The infrastructure that is currently in place can more affordably and efficiently support development than new infrastructure that is required for suburban developments. We need a general shift in our approach—we must balance the societal, environmental and economic pressures if we expect the world to operate in a viable manner. I think it is extremely short sighted to claim financial constraints with respect to sustainability. We cannot afford not to incorporate sustainable practices into development. Obviously, land planners and developers play a large role in the support of these concepts, but I believe that we as engineers need to do our part to implement sustainable building practices. Education is key to the implementation; the more we understand about the options and impacts, the more we will continue to develop solutions that support our people, our planet and our prosperity.—A. DiRienzo, P.E, LEED AP
(Click here to return to column)

I consider it a fad and a farce of enormous waste to our people. It’s the reason I quit ASCE: that ’code’ of ethics bit. I have worked in (mostly heavy) construction since 1948, am still in it, and all from the construction side of things. I haven’t seen one of these fads last over time (example: highly-subsidized wind generators) unless enormous amounts of tax money is thrown at it, taken from everyone at the whim of a few who all know better than the poor, benighted heathen common folk, and are happily willing to take their money to "do right with it." Same with green buildings. Just wait until those green roofs, planted so heavily and at such great cost in steel and concrete, begin to leak… and, they shall… betcha the owner won’t go back with the same plan again!

Easiest way to "green up" projects of any kind, including housing, is to let fuel/energy costs do it: rise to whatever, causing wasted energy to be a fact to owners, be it in 12-foot ceilings in residences or 30-foot amphitheatre entries to simple elementary schools or inoperable, single-pane windows in hotel. Foo.—R. J. Cook, P.E.
(Click here to return to column)

Your article caught my attention because I have been addressing green and high-performance building with my project management class this term. The students are at times inclined to incorporate sustainability concepts and at times not, depending on their personal background and their view of its profitability. I would contend that this discussion has primarily to do with our paradigms in conventional construction. Our impression of the economy’s role in construction is fundamentally flawed, as evidenced by the second question posed in your article: "Who pays for this conservation and/or protection of the environment?" This question implies that conservation costs money and conversely that environmental degradation makes money. Unfortunately, this is our functioning (but rapidly changing!) paradigm. Our economic growth has been historically predicated on environmental and social degradation; it is not the result of innovation as we teach so often in undergraduate curricula around the country. It is the charge of sustainable development to resist, even reverse, this paradigm.

It is clear that there are steps we can take now to build structures more sustainably than we have. That there is extra cost associated with some of these steps is the result of our own flawed paradigm. Those who should incur the extra cost are those (people and industries) who have profited for so long on the negative impacts of their profit-generating activities. Sustainability as a movement has caught on because it incorporates economic, social, and environmental considerations without allowing any one consideration to be promoted at the expense of another. Those whose buttons are pushed in this debate are those who are entrenched in conventional thought and feel that sustainable development is an affront to their consequence-free trampling of our social and natural environments in pursuit of profit. We are seeing a rapid development of projects that incorporate concepts of sustainability. The solutions involved are not simply innovations but existing technologies that have been discarded or dismissed in the frenzied and thoughtless pursuit of comfort and convenience. It is clear that there are strategies to achieve these same comforts and conveniences with no adverse impact to our social and natural environments. It is to our fortune that these strategies simply require us to think harder. As engineers we are educated and prepared to do this. Sustainability problems are solvable and even fun to solve. Add constraints to an engineering problem and watch the most talented engineers rise to the challenge. Those who shy from the added complexity of the problem may find it angering as though they have been bested. They simply need to swallow that pride and come back to the problem!

I would encourage anyone who feels angry or dismissive of the role of civil engineers in sustainable development to come back to the table and enjoy the discussion. As Henry Ford said, "There is no man living who isn’t capable of doing more than he thinks he can do."—C.J. Riley, assistant professor
(Click here to return to column)

I offer these comments on Cathy Bazán-Arias’ well-written article from CE News’ website. The two items she offers as the root causes of the debate are a good summary, but I believe they should be preceded by yet another question: What is it that we seeking to sustain? In its basic sense, the word "sustainable" does not automatically refer to the natural environment. It means to keep something at its present level. In the broadest sense, manufacturers, developers, and consumers are as much part of "the environment" as are the rain forest and the atmosphere.

As with nearly every aspect of life, sustainability involves trade-offs. Sustaining one thing usually diminishes something else. The word has recently been appropriated by the environmental preservationists, who believe that sustaining certain aspects of the natural environment should take precedence over sustaining certain aspects of the human-built environment. As with most heated debates, this one is fueled by fear of loss. Each proposed solution means that something is sustained and something is lost. Some perceive that their source of income will be among the things that are not sustained as a result of a societal effort to sustain something else. This perceived threat to livelihood is a key to the heat generated in the current debate over sustainability.

Despite what many strong voices on both sides of the argument imply, there are no eternally objective standards of right and wrong on this matter. Most appeals to such standards presuppose certain conditions and thus become circular in their reasoning. Even if there were such standards, our knowledge of how systems interact is limited. Society continually evaluates and adjusts its standards and practices on such matters in light of conditions and knowledge at the time.

As to whether engineers should be involved, it is my opinion that engineers must be involved in the ongoing debate on sustainability, as well as its implementation. Engineers, with their natural predisposition toward a dispassionate analysis of facts, can offer a perspective that zealots (and special interests) from both sides of the debate may prefer to ignore. Because of our training and expertise in so many of the issues surrounding the sustainability debate, civil engineers have an especially significant contribution to make to the discussion. Our professionalism, as well as the ASCE code of ethics, compel us to contribute, because the health and welfare of society are involved. I believe that U.S. society consists collectively of rational individuals who will, in the long run, insist on sound policy decisions. Society needs the objective analysis that engineers can provide as a supplement to the passion that the zealots offer. If engineers sit on the sidelines and let the zealots fight it out, we almost guarantee society’s decisions will be based more on feeling than on fact, and without consideration of the best available information.

We civil engineers have to rise above our own fear that some of our own current practices will not be (and maybe should not be) sustained. We need to join the debate by doing what we do best: objectively reviewing the available data, analyzing the results, and rationally reporting our observations, predictions, and recommendations. We must also realize that our recommendations might be based on values that society rejects to some extent, along with some of our recommendations. If that happens, we civil engineers must remain rational (dare I say civil) and not slip into our own form of one-sided zealotry. As decisions are made, we can do what we are most comfortable with—implementing them. However, we civil engineers should also be involved in shaping those decisions.

The challenges related to stewardship of resources and sustainability have been with us since the Lord told Adam and Eve that He was putting all of His creation under their care, while at the same time telling them to have many children. I doubt that they will be solved in the near future.—W. J. Meyer, P.E.
(Click here to return to column)

Well, I think this debate originates within the spectrum of engineers similar to the political arena. There is the far left and far right in Washington. In the engineering field there are people who use the resources currently available to solve issues that occur on a daily basis. The other end of the spectrum has the engineers that develop new methods, and tend to create the new technologies for solving issues with improved means. One puts out fires, the other makes long-term (sustainable) solutions. So which is right? In my opinion, both. However, the debate continues on, similar to Washington. All have good intentions, just a different method to solve the issues at hand.

Upon looking at a dictionary definition, one may think or rethink about the duties and responsibilities of the engineer. Engineers are the link between "society and commerce applications." That link is merely our basic job as an engineer to put together the legos. The great engineers do not settle for fulfilling only basic duties. We strive to make the world better. We are, must be, and shall be the force behind the development of new technologies. As Webster describes the engineer, we are the problem solvers by "skillful and artful contrivance." One last note that we must not forget is the implication of "ingenuity" in the root and evolution of the word "engineer." So, the question is not, what do we as engineers think? The question is, do we think?—J. Reynolds, P.E., LEED AP
(Click here to return to column)

In response to your question from today’s update, I do have a comment on why the green debate is so specific to civil engineers. We have to see and weigh all sides of the issue and address the answer in an openly defensible manner.

For instance: The debate over open-graded porous verses traditional graded paving. Most certainly, the intent to allow stormwater to infiltrate through paving and base material is appropriate. However, weighing into the environmental cost should be the overall impact on both the current condition and the long-term future condition. Open-graded pavement with large pore space should by nature clog with fines. No way that I know to clean them back out, but they are not in the stormwater discharge, so it is both good and bad. Does that limit their long-term viability? It certainly does if measured by the ability to infiltrate stormwater. It also leads to more rapid degradation due to freeze-thaw. What about load carrying capacity? If the pavement has to be replaced sooner than traditional pavement, would we as engineers have a responsibility to measure that into the environmental costs? It is still tough to do at this point because we don’t yet have empirical data on the porous pavement longevity. Being conservative would lead me to recommend against porous pavement till I know more about its longevity. If the pavement has to be replaced twice during the life span of a traditional pavement, which is more appropriate for my municipality?

These are all questions that have to be weighed into the debate and who is more appropriately armed to answer those questions than the civil engineering community? In my opinion, no one.

Let’s continue this debate, and make sure we stand the high ground. Our obligation as professional engineers, requires it of us.—F. Timm, P.E.
(Click here to return to column)

Sustainability is not a debatable issue. No one can define a level of sustainability for a project. The definition in the Code of Ethics provides a good summary of what it means to be sustainable, but sustainability represents much more. One can not truly set a level at which, once crossed, you can call a project "sustainable." Although LEED certification creates levels to strive for in design, even these are more guidelines. Sustainability must be on the minds of all involved in the design of a project—from the architect to the engineer to the interior designers. Designing in a truly sustainable way benefits all parties involved in the project, which includes the designers, the constructors, the occupants, the community, and the environment. To be sustainable means to aim to solve as many problems as possible, while creating no new problems. A sustainable project meets multiple goals; a project that only meets a single, immediate goal is not sustainable. A sustainable project minimizes the impact on the surrounding communities—communities inhabited by humans and wildlife. A sustainable project is economically equitable—the project will not cost more than it can give back.

While designing in a sustainable manner may appear to cost more in the short term, sustainability is about the future. We pay now to be sustainable so that the future is not stuck paying for the messes we leave behind.—C. Harris
(Click here to return to column)

I’m writing in response to the Dec. 2, 2008, column, "Guidance on ethical dilemmas and the history of sustainable development," by Cathy Bazan-Arias.

To be honest, I was shocked when I saw that there was a debate within civil engineering on sustainable developments. I am only a student, so I may not have been exposed yet to this debate, but I feel as if there shouldn’t even be one. Sustainable developments are the future of our planet. It is blatantly obvious that global warming and climate change are issues that must be dealt with now. As scientifically educated individuals we are responsible for sharing our knowledge and expertise with the rest of the world. If we don’t take leadership on sustainable developments, no one will.

I strongly disagree with the assertion that a development being sustainable hurts its probability of being completed. If anything, it helps it! So many developments are advertised as being LEED certified. Many people are looking to build specifically LEED certified projects. An entire industry has sprung up to green existing buildings.

Next, the column states that "Others think that engineers, in general, are not adequately armed to address green-related issues, including sustainability, and that the decisions for sustainable development actions are best left to others." If we are not "adequately armed" to complete sustainable developments, then get adequately armed. Get LEED certified. Go to some seminars. This is the most pressing issue of our times. If engineers of any type are not ready to address green issues, then they are not upholding the first sentence of the first canon which says that "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public."

As a young person, sustainable developments are especially important to me. If the current generation of engineers is not thinking about sustainability, the next generation of engineers may not even have the option to think sustainability. It may be too late.—E. Hilton, student
(Click here to return to column)

What is sustainable development? The World Commission on Environment and Development took the lead in outlining a sustainable future, culminating in the 1987 publication of Our Common Future. This report (often referred to as the Brundtland Report) provided a focused definition for the concept that has endured: "[Sustainable Development] … is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations." In other words, it is "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

This is a vision, an ethic; not a strategy and supporting tactics; not a set of specific technologies, processes, laws, regulations or standards.

This definition focuses on environmentally sustainable development. Over the years I have been adding other adverbial modifiers to the phrase "sustainable development" to better express the context of sustainability. I began with the obvious one in a market economy—economically sustainable. In a free democratic society (or even one that isn’t) I add politically sustainable. In a socially conscience society I add socially sustainable. And, more recently, I add ethically sustainable as we have become more aware of the religious and ethical underpinnings of so much of human behavior—particularly the extreme. These adverbs [environmentally, economically, politically, socially and ethically] are not independent but are clearly interdependent and any successful endeavor must address and satisfy them all. One could also substitute other nouns for the word development. You can argue that any enterprise and undertaking should be sustainable.

Today there is wide acceptance that sustainability must have at least three modifiers: environmentally, economically, and socially.—H.J. Hatch, P.E., Dist.M. ASCE
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