Saturday, 21 September 2019

The Ethical Question

Yesterday saw the global climate strike and as I was on the train to work, it led me to pose a question on Twitter about how my industry should respond.


The tweet spawned some really good debate during the day and I am grateful for the various options and comments given. There was of course a wider discussion across Twitter and it had me thinking for most of the day to the point where I thought it might be helpful to put some longer thoughts down. Of course, the best tweets have a mistake in them because I of course meant conscientious objectors!

I think that a largest issue we face is that we are dealing with irrational humans who in the main cannot grasp the enormity of the situation. In fact, there are stark parallels with the only piece of management training that has stuck with me - the K├╝bler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (something I have covered before) and while it has its critics, it serves a useful reference point of me - as an engineer, I like to have things nicely compartmentalised!
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
Literally, we have climate change deniers which covers people who simply do not believe there is a problem and people who know full well what is going on, but their interests depend on denying it.

I think I have to put a chunk of my industry at the first stage given the type of schemes we are working on, but is it as simple as that? Let's take the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Should everyone in the industry simply say "no, we're not going to work on it as we'd be complicit in adding fuel to the fire"? 

The problem with the purist approach is that there is absolutely no way anyone is going to get everyone involved to simply walk away from a project like this and to think that would happen is naive. I'm afraid that's a hard truth for many to understand because at the same time as we are campaigning for the future of our children, there are people working in the industry (and indeed at the airport) who rely on their jobs to feed their children. 

This brings us to the next stage - anger. So we are past denying climate change, but we are angry. Those of us in the West are being told we need to radically change our lives and this means being less comfortable than we are now - it especially sticks in the craw when we are being told this by the Boomer generation who have had it all (wait until you hear about the people on our planet with nothing). People working on the Heathrow scheme are now being vilified for their involvement and they are now angry after investing their careers in the airport.

But hang on, we can maintain our standard of living because we are clever. What we can now do is develop a whole new technology of electrically powered aircraft. We can use public transport to support the expansion and so in doing so, we protect jobs and people can carry on as they are. Of course, many people cleverer than I will tell us that we simply don't have the resources on the planet to decarbonise Western transport with a business as usual approach. It doesn't matter because other people cleverer than I think we can mine the materials we need from space. Yes, we are now in the bargaining stage.

Eventually, we realise that we do in fact need to change, but it's a massive challenge and as individuals or companies, we cannot possibly deal with climate change. We may as well crack on and expand the airport because after all, the UK's contribution to climate change is nowhere as much as other countries. It is extends to the personal as well, we can cycle, eat less meat and put solar panels on our roof, but it needs government-level change.

Finally, we accept the reality of climate change and we realise that effort is needed individually, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We also accept that people and systems are not binary, we accept that people are fallible and we realise that every step taken is important. Perhaps over time, people is West London decide that a career at Heathrow isn't for them. People choose or are taxed to the extent where there isn't so much demand and expansion plans are scaled back or shelved. Designers start to see that there is more work in rail electrification and so start bidding on those projects.

Beyond the five stages of grief, we can talk about my industry as a profession and by that I mean that the professional institutions, trade bodies and societies with their membership need to start discussing climate change with a great deal more urgency. This discussion also needs to permeate through to where we all work too. As someone said to me yesterday, we can come up with a low-carbon motorway, but it's still a motorway!

In parallel to the people working on the Heathrow expansion, I have many years invested in my industry and at least in the medium term, I can't see myself doing anything else. It's probably ironic that I'm a highways engineer who doesn't support road building, but we are where we are and I know it is possible for me, my colleagues and my industry to use our skills and knowledge to do better. A properly designed and constructed cycleway uses the same kind of knowledge and design process as building a road after all!

So back to my original question;

"Do we refuse to work on roads schemes as conscientious objectors, or do we try an influence how they're done?"

I'm in agreement with my peers who responded to the tweet saying both. If the government is absolutely determined to expand Heathrow, then perhaps working on the project to make sure airport workers can easily cycle to work is better than throwing our hands up in the air as the runway surface is laid. 

We are expanding our trunk road network and so is it possible that we can argue for grade separated crossings as part of a dualling scheme at the same time as arguing against the scheme (close to home that one) - perhaps we can make that argument while taking a general position against expanding the road network. Can we work on a new retail park, but at the same time encourage our client to make walking and cycling into it/ around it easier than driving?

I know there may well be a whiff of cognitive dissonance here, but what is the alternative? If everyone in my industry who are even vaguely aware of the scale of climate change stopped working on anything vaguely damaging, then I'm afraid there are plenty of people who don't know about the impacts of climate change or are not bothered and so I actually think it is very important that we are in the thick of it trying to push change. 

As members of institutions, trade bodies and societies, we should keep raising the issue of climate change - even the odd letter to a trade magazine means the message reaches other people or a question at a learned society meeting might challenge the status quo. Getting people elected to boards and councils will help shift an organisations position. There are lots of things we can do to make a difference.

I think this Mister Gotcha cartoon by Matt Bors probably sums things up for me quite well;


Of course, you may disagree with me. In fact I want you to disagree because we need to be challenged at every stage. But I will put this to you as well - I think we need people out on the streets shouting for change for sure, but we also need people sitting in client meetings and institution meetings putting the case for change. It's not either or.

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