International Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) (7th : 2015)

Do the big sustainability challenges lie in the economic and social domains and does engineering education need to engage more with these? Fitzpatrick, John J.


Engineering education is mainly a technical education. However, in the context of the sustainability of the human species, it could be argued that graduate engineers entering the workplace and applying their technical education may be only accelerating humanity towards unsustainability and societal collapse. The rationale being that engineering graduates mainly enter industry and the private sector which is dominated by the neo-classical economic paradigm and short term pursuit of economic growth and profit to the detriment of the sustainability of natural systems that are underpinning the survival and flourishing of humanity. The author has been teaching engineering students for nearly 19 years in technical subjects and later on in sustainability and environmental protection. Over the last few years, he has had the niggling feeling that he, and other engineering educators, are complicit in the formation of engineers that may only accelerate humanity towards unsustainability. They mean well and truly believe that they are doing good for society. There may be good in the short term, but it is unsustainable and ultimately bad for society in the longer term. This paper briefly explores the impact of engineering on environmental sustainability in the current dominant neo-classical economic paradigm. It questions if engineering educators are producing engineers that are accelerating humanity along an unsustainable path. Even though technology and engineering are important drivers in trying to move humanity towards an environmentally sustainable paradigm, the paper constantly tries to suggest that maybe the most important levers and challenges lie in the economic and social domains. Short case-studies of energy efficiency, the experience of the industrialist Ray Anderson and the authors own reflection of teaching chemical engineering students are used to highlight this. Engineering / technological innovation is not enough and is often used and counteracted by the rebound effect and the current dominant neo-classical economic paradigm. The paper discusses what engineering educators can do to produce sustainability informed engineers who are able to engage with the economic and social dimensions of sustainability. Some suggestions for engaging engineering students with the economic and social dimensions of environmental sustainability are provided. Engineers must somehow find ways, not just to influence technological levers (which are very important) but also to influence economic and social levers so that changes in economic and social behaviours can complement and facilitate technological change in moving humanity to an environmentally sustainable paradigm.

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