DSGN 119 / 129 Ethics and Sustainability Notes


1. Ethics
As professional engineers you will be required to behave in an ethical way. Professional bodies publish codes of practice about what is acceptable - and in some cases - what is not. However there are areas where interpretation can lead to differences of opinion.
Armaments industry. Some people might on ethical grounds decide they do not wish to work for an arms manufacturer or dealer. However it is much more difficult to have nothing to do with the arms industry as so many companies provide sub-contracting of some type which may include work for an armaments company.
Interestingly, Krupp, in Germany, who for almost 200 years was one of the most successful and ruthless armaments manufacturer and dealer had excellent 'ethical' support for his employees in place 100 years ago which included hospitals and pensions, which were un-heard of in any other country or organisation. In many ways Krupp was also retrogressive, they were very strongly opposed to unions and during the second world war made extensive use of slave labour.

The other seedy face of the arms industry is bribery and corruption which seems to be widespread. However there is is frequently offered argument that:

'if we don't someone else will' This statement may well be correct, but if you take it that in a free market society, it is a 'good thing' to 'make money' - should engineers set up and run a drug dealing ring in part of the city? (I assume that most of us would say 'no'). This leads on to consideration of 'damage to innocent third parties', but exactly the same questions should be asked of the arms industry, and in some cases the answers have been no more acceptable.

Other issues may involve conflict of interest and although guidelines are clear on this, they have not always been and sometimes they have been ignored. The financial services industry has a poor reputation for this problem and even now further tightening up of regulations is needed.
There is a thin line between tax minimisation and tax evasion, but it is probably reasonably clear to people who believe in behaving honestly.
It is also a point that some types of financial dealings are essentially gambling, which some religious groups do not wish to have any involvement.

Industrial espionage - a lot of people consider this to be acceptable whereas they would consider espionage between states to merit severe punishment (in some cases).
If it were possible to compare the efficiency of industrial with state espionage it would be very interesting! But some things are known about the efficiency of state espionage and in some cases it has been dismal.

Ethics in Design
Ford Pinto.
Re-engine fishing boats.

Ethics in Manufacturing
Outsourcing - consequences are not always beneficial to the countries / people where the work is done. eg China, pollution and bad working conditions - eg workers (in some cases children) having to sleep next to their machines. More ethical UK companies inspect the factories they are planning on using to try and avoid being involved with companies with the worst conditions.
Use of wood - deforrestation, recent mud slides in Philipines have killed 1000+ and it is widely believed that these mud slides are due to excessive logging.

2. Sustainability
Sustainability may be considered an aspect of ethics. Some of the issues are linked. For example it is thought that the pollution in China is so bad it would not be feasible to hold the Olympic Games there.

Approach: The resources on the planet are finite - how do we prolong their use and avoid ruining remaining resources?

Some irreversible changes have already happened. All steels produced since the first atomic explosion (1945) have been very slightly contaminated by the radiation. For a very small number of applications this is not acceptable. If you want a piece of uncontaminated steel you need to find a ship wreck (pre 1945), a popular - but shrinking - source is the remains of the first world war German Battle fleet that was skuttled in Scapa flow.

In many cases resources of useful materials (usually chemically combined with other elements) are known to be huge, eg aluminium, titanium, silicon. For other important materials the reserves are quite small and it is conceivable that oil could run out in some of your lifetimes. This is complicated as new reserves are regularly found, but they are usually in remote hostile environments requiring complex expensive extraction. Another valid point is that coal reserves are much greater and most things made from oil could (with increased difficulty) be made from coal. However these are probably only a few hundred years worth.

Increasing the use of renewable energy is an obvious aim. At this point we can gloss over the fact that tidal energy, which appears renewable is strictly in the long term non renewable as extracting this energy further decelerates the rate of rotation of the earth, which is decelerating in any event due to tidal effects.
For land based wind energy there is a lot of 'NIMBYism', (Not In My Back Yard) and a lot of debate about the level of backup needed for calm days. Tidal energy and in many locations wave energy is more reliable, but very large forces can be generated by waves and designing and building equipment to withstand these forces is challenging.

One obvious and unpopular option for potentially low polluting energy sources is nuclear energy. However there has been disagreement about true costs and processing wastes. The industry has got itself a bad name which is now making people in many countries unwilling to accept new nuclear power plants, even though there are potential benefits.

A major difficulty with major decisions and changes, such as a decision to build some nuclear power plants, is that the benefits would not be achieved for a few years, which is longer than the time to the next election in all democracies (typically 4 to 5 years) and politicians are only interested in things that will help them stay in power - win the next election - and a difficult decision over nuclear power stations would not bring any political benefits in the required time scale of well under 5 years. This is compounded by the recent behaviour of politicians which has erroded the public's faith in them.

Some governments are more cynical than others, in the USA the Bush administration is doing largely what former cronies in the petroleum industry want done. It does seem however that the majority of US citizens accept this approach.

In Europe and the UK thinking is hardly joined up. Hiking fuel tax on land transport is of limited use when aviation fuel is tax free and cheap flights are being encouraged. Obviously taxing aviation fuel would have to be introduced gradually and Europe wide, but these things are too long term for politicians and would upset some voters.

People think completely differently about things, for example some people who think they care for the environment and drive an economic car, think nothing of taking a return holiday flight to a long haul destination which causes as much pollution as a year of motoring in an economic car.
In the US most people live in small towns, not designed for walking, and in parts it is very hot in summer, there may be large distances to drive between towns so large cars with air conditioning seem obvious choices. There is very little pressure on space.
In Europe the situation is completely different. Interestingly the increasing cost of parking, traffic congestion etc. is driving more people to do more internet shopping and the high street shops are starting to suffer.

Sustainability for Design
* Consider energy used and pollution generated in extracting the materials for the product. As plastics are derived from oil (via ethylene etc.) their prices are closely linked that of oil
* Consider the energy used and pollution generated in manufacturing the product.
* Consider the energy used and pollution generated during the lifetime of the product.
* Consider the possibility of extending the product life, by rebuilding, recycling the components and materials at the end of the product life.

Many metals are comparatively easy to recycle, plastics, especially filled ones, are often more difficult. The energy input required to recycle some aluminium alloys is only about 5% of that required to extract fresh metal.

Sustainability in Manufacture
In manufacturing the need to conserve materials has led to increased use of near nett shape processes, eg: casting, forging and less use of metal removal processes such as turning.

The planet is finite - we need to take care of it.

David J Grieve, 14th December 2004.