Donelly et al., 2006.the catch-22 of engineering sustainable development

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The Catch-22 of Engineering Sustainable Development
Richard Donnelly
International Centre for Sustainability Engineering and Research, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. E-mail:

Carol Boyle
International Centre for Sustainability Engineering and Research, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.

The International Federation of Consulting Engineers FIDIC has recognized that engineers are “uniquely positioned to provide leadership in implementing sustainable development” FIDIC 2002, p. 7 . Because of their knowledge and skills and the central role that they play in the development of society, engineers have a “tremendous responsibility in the implementationof sustainable development” World Federation of Engineering Organisations WFEO 1997 . Professional engineers provide innovative, technically excellent, and cost effective solutions to society’s problems and are largely responsible for the high quality of life enjoyed by the world’s developed countries. But, sustainable development is a fundamentally different challenge for the profession, andengineers must evolve to meet this challenge. Unfortunately, at present, the profession is caught in a number of difficult Catch-22 situations, which constrain the ability of engineers to tackle sustainability issues in their work. Broadly, these situations can be described as 1 the problem of existing paradigms of development; 2 the problem of scope; 3 the problem of framing versus solving; 4 theproblem of context; and 5 the problem of conventional education. The engineering profession must address these issues if it is to fulfill its responsibility in implementing sustainable development.

Vision for Achieving Sustainability
To discuss the difficulties engineers face with respect to delivering sustainable development, it is first necessary to provide a vision for achieving sustainability.This vision focuses on short, medium, and long-term sustainability of human cities and societies, requiring that we adopt, at the minimum, a 1,000-year perspective on human habitation: “Many of the major cities in Europe, north Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been in existence for over 2,000 years; some for over 5,000 years. Some environmental impacts can last for thousands of years,particularly loss or salinisation of soil, loss of resources, degradation of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity while extinction of species and desertification may not be reversable. Some impacts can take long periods of time to develop or occur, such as loss of soil or biodiversity, desertification, deforestation and depletion of resources and, without monitoring, the

severity of impact may not beapparent until significant damage or loss has occurred.” Boyle 2004a, p. 2 The actions of today must be evaluated for their effect over 1,000 years to identify those which, over such a long time frame, threaten the survival of cities e.g., depletion of water supplies . A thousand years is also long enough to unmask large-scale risks. For example, over 50 years rising sea levels may not be devastating,but within 1,000 years, large swaths of countries such as Bangladesh will almost certainly be inundated by rising seas Tonn 2004, p. 93 . To achieve the sustainability of human cities and societies, there are two major objectives: 1 ensuring the maintenance of options to meet critical needs; and 2 the identification and avoidance of critical threats to sustainability. Although it is not possible toknow what technologies will be available or what changes may occur over the next 1,000 years, it is likely that humans will still have critical needs, such as Boyle 2004b : • Food, and the means to grow and transport it; • Water supply and sanitation; • Provision of energy and electricity; • Building materials for the construction of buildings and infrastructure; and • Transportation for people,...
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