WE NEED A MORAL INFRASTRUCTURE
The engineering profession’s inadequate responses to both the climate crisis and our lack of diversity share the same root cause.
By Alice L. Pawley
I study gender and race in engineering education, and, prompted by the recent death of my scientist and climate activist father, I have started to think about and explore through scholarship the way our profession’s thus-far insufficient action on diversity may be related to other issues that need more action, like preparing engineering students for a world governed by anthropogenic climate change.
George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant, 2004) helps us think through our insufficient action in engineering education on diversity and inclusion, and on climate change. He makes the case, first, that people are excellent at thinking about individual causation and poor at thinking through systemic causation; and second, that using what he calls “enlightenment reason”—data, facts, figures, and science-based rationales—to persuade people to counteract climate change is ineffective. Instead, he writes, we should draw on moral arguments to convince people to change. Gert Biesta, writing in the Journal Educational Theory in 2007, argues that not all important educational
questions that professions (like engineering) need to answer can be answered empirically. But I think we as engineers don’t engage in many venues to have those conversations, nor are we trained in how to have them. Dorothy Smith’s work (Texts, Facts and Femininity, 1990) shows me how social relations are produced by actors drawing on texts, and often acting not in their own interests but in the interests of a ruling group. And finally, Derrick Bell argues convincingly (Faces at the Bottom of the Well, 1992) that a majority group will promote justice for minority groups only when justice also serves the majority group’s own interest.
Two journalists’ exhortations concerning impending climate catastrophe provide additional context. Writing in the Washington Post in January 2019, Dan Zak asserts that we can’t afford to freeze and instead should “[h]old the problem in your mind. Freak out, but don’t put it down. Give it a quarter-turn. See it like a scientist, and as a poet. As a descendant. As an ancestor.” In a July 2017 article published by the Guardian, Martin Lukacs castigates neoliberalism in society at large, which he says makes the necessary large-scale action on the climate crisis not only
politically impossible but unthinkable.
You may be thinking, what’s neoliberalism again? How does this relate to diversity? Good grief, you say, I teach sophomore thermodynamics. Why should I spend my time reading this when I have much more immediate problems to think about? And indeed, Zak’s piece hits on just this point:
“But here’s where you stop reading, because you have a mortgage payment to scrape together. You have a kid to pick up from school. You have a migraine. The U.S. government is in shambles. You’re sitting at your desk, or on the subway, and deep in the southern Indian Ocean, blue whales are calling to each other at higher pitches, to be heard over the crack and whoosh of melting polar ice. What do you even do with that?”
These writers and scholars help us see that our insufficient collective professional action on climate change shares a root cause with our insufficient action on diversity: an inadequate moral infrastructure for thinking and talking about solutions. Instead, we rely on a largely techno-rational one. But we need to build this moral infrastructure—create the discussion forums, for instance—and quickly. We need to help students understand neoliberalism as a moral choice for engineering, and see that we could collectively choose otherwise in order to improve diversity and respond to the climate crisis. We need to “freak out,” and keep asking ourselves how we are preparing the more than 615,000
engineering students in college now to design not just a diverse profession but a literal world making 50 percent fewer climate-changing emissions in 11 years—a tipping point, according to a U.N. panel. My ancestor self, who hears my dad still, says we’d better get moving.
Alice L. Pawley is an associate professor of engineering education and affiliate faculty member with the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and the Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. This article is adapted from “Asking questions, we walk: How should engineering education address equity, the climate crisis, and its own moral infrastructure?” in the Fall 2019 issue of Advances in Engineering Education.