theReactor

April 19th, 2010

Space for Ethics in Sustainability?

By Alessandra Carreon | Comments (8)

A First Time for Everything

Last month, the local Puget Sound section of AIChE, with help from other Washington state AIChE sections, organized the first event of its kind for the greater Pacific Northwest region (get ready for a mouthful): The AIChE Institute for Sustainability (IfS) First Regional Conference on Sustainability and the Environment for the Pacific Northwest. The name already gives away everything—it’s about sustainability, it’s for the Pacific Northwest and it was sponsored by IfS. What was unanticipated, however, was the number of speakers who came to Seattle for the event (more than 45) and the nation-wide representation (participants came from nearly 10 different states, from as far away as Hawaii and Delaware). What ensued was a unique experience combining engineering and policy, regional topics and ethics, scientists and businessmen. Though I was on the planning end, I did get to sit in on my fair share of sessions. [caption id="attachment_1073" align="aligncenter" width="460" caption="Discussions in Progress at The AIChE Institute for Sustainability (IfS) First Regional Conference on Sustainability and the Environment for the Pacific Northwest "][/caption]

The Question of Regulating Sustainability

One speaker I particularly enjoyed was Mark Morford, attorney at Stoel Rives LLP in Portland, Oregon. I was first introduced to Mark through his article in The Oregon Insider: “Sustainability Regulation”. Mark has since written a second article, “Steps Toward Net Environmental Benefit in Agency Decisions,” also from The Oregon Insider. The motivation for Mark’s investigation of this topic on sustainability in legal or regulatory settings is stated in his February article:
“For decades, regulated entities (sources) have complained about the cost of complying with regulations that include seemingly illogical requirements to consume large amounts of limited natural resources and create more waste and pollution in the pursuit of singular environmental goals.”
He cites the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act as examples, and his work culminates in his latest article in which he describes weighing environmental values, wherein “Ecological Services” are pinned against protecting “Public Health.” This comparison leads to net environmental benefit assessments—for chemical engineers, this should be old hat: like a mass or energy balance, we should be able to understand whether what we input to our “system” leads to a favorable output (or, at a minimum, understand and predict the output). But when earth’s ecology and our definition of and standards for sound human health factor into the equation, we get to a bit of a moral quandary…

If We Don’t Regulate it, it Must Be Ethical

What interested me about Mark’s talk and this topic was the relationship of sustainability to ethics (thank you, environmental law)—fittingly, the close of the conference ended on Friday night with a banquet featuring keynote speaker John [caption id="attachment_1072" align="alignright" width="225" caption="Sessions in Progress"][/caption] Dienhart, The Frank Shrontz Chair for Professional Ethics at Seattle University. His talk was titled: “Is the Sustainability Movement Sustainable?” John grouped together history’s underlying causes for change among: religion (today, including NGOs); government; and business. For a topic that encompasses so many different fields and disciplines and can virtually apply to anything, a conversation about sustainability rightly deserves a large focus on its ethics angle. Chemical engineers are always held to high ethical standards when designing, managing or overseeing technical projects at work. I would argue that it should be a simple and analogous act to apply that same professional, conscientious attitude towards our technical work to our stewardship of the environment and proliferation of sustainability. The very principals of chemical engineering tend to focus on optimization: in my opinion, reducing the amount of raw materials for feedstock, minimizing waste and preserving natural resources as a result only makes for sound engineering practices. By reducing, reusing and recycling, we should have more with which to “make” (manufacture, produce, build, create) invariably. Thus, these practices become an ethical problem when ignored and, I argue further, must indubitably require us to acknowledge sustainability in some form through our own chemical engineering Code of Ethics.

As we enter this philosophical realm, let us remind ourselves that there is no wrong answer, so please voice your opinion!

Photos Courtesy of fellow AIChE Member and Conference Attendee Scott Butner (http://www.flickr.com/rs_butner/)
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8 Responses to “Space for Ethics in Sustainability?”

  1. Kendall Fosse says:

    The article brings up a good point, improving efficiency and minimizing
    waste are some of the core tenants to chemical engineering today. This
    was not always the case. In the past, as long as a process was
    profitable, no one cared about how much waste it generated or how it
    was disposed of. New regulation forced the industry to be more
    innovative. And I think we are all better off for it today.

  2. Wishnick says:

    What a great overview of the conference Ale! I gotta comment on such a pivotal issue of course. I believe it is imperative to push a green agenda forward between the economic upturn and this post healthcare legislation time frame. I hope environmental concerns become front and center now that healthcare is out of the way, but think actually passing anything may actually be a disservice to the overall cause.

    One book that I read that makes the business case for firms to willingly adopt green practices and innovation mind frames is described in a book titled "The green recovery"http://www.andrewwinston.com/books/.

    I think it may be more effective to have a looming legislation (or compliance code) to drive sustainability behaviors rather then creating a law or standard. I am a capitalist, but also think there should be minimal standards and codes of ethics. But in the long run interest of the U.S the looming compliance standards may, in contrast to moving fast to write them down and enforce them, put competitive pressure on firms to change and unfreeze.

    My rational is that competitive leading firms would rather be part of creating the standards and actively participate in the compliance forming process then having it forced on them by law, codes, standards, etc….

    Eventually there will be a cod of effects or law standard, but think the actual possibility of one may actually push firms to work with the NGO's more then actually passing law that would result in heated conflicts. Of course some firms just don't play nice,but think the good ones do see the ethical framework without it being written. To the point should there should be a code of ethics for ChE and engineers, absolutely. Should it involve sustainability behaviors? I am not so sure. At some point yes, but in the context of the here and now I think it may be more effective to build a case why it is in a firms best interest to adopt the behavior on their own terms.

    Thanks for the blog post…
    David

  3. Andrea Mogab says:

    Excellent blog post, Ms Carreon. Well done! I would like to focus my comments on the area of ethics. I used the link you provided to review AIChE's Code of Ethics and it appears the code has not been updated in more than seven years. My first suggestion: any professional organization, such as AIChE should review and update their Code of Ethics at least every couple of years, and ideally, once per year. A Code of Ethics is a living, breathing document and deserves to be taken seriously in the context of the profession. It is only meaningful to the extent the organization's members believe in and practice it.

    It is 21st century knowledge that sustainability is critical to our future, and the present course of environmental practices is unsustainable. It seems that the AIChE is in a perfect position to lead the way in the area of sustainability, and what better way to reflect AIChE's view than to have a specific commitment to sustainability in the Code of Ethics? Your Code of Ethics already mentions the "enhancement of human welfare" and "protecting the environment". Language regarding sustainability is a natural evolution of concepts already contained in the Code of Ethics. The fundamentals are there.

    AIChE can actively promote sustainability, from advocating for the development of green technologies to promoting individual practices that preserve our natural resources.

    I wish AIChE well in furthering sustainability awareness and practices. Again, great job with your blog post, Ms Carreon. Thank you very much for providing a forum for this important exchange of ideas.

  4. Andrea Mogab says:

    Excellent blog post, Ms Carreon. Well done! I would like to focus my comments on the area of ethics. I used the link you provided to review AIChE's Code of Ethics and it appears the code has not been updated in more than seven years. My first suggestion: any professional organization, such as AIChE should review and update their Code of Ethics at least every couple of years, and ideally, once per year. A Code of Ethics is a living, breathing document and deserves to be taken seriously in the context of the profession. It is only meaningful to the extent the organization's members believe in and practice it.

    It is 21st century knowledge that sustainability is critical to our future, and the present course of environmental practices is unsustainable. It seems that the AIChE is in a perfect position to lead the way in the area of sustainability, and what better way to reflect AIChE's view than to have a specific commitment to sustainability in the Code of Ethics? Your Code of Ethics already mentions the "enhancement of human welfare" and "protecting the environment". Language regarding sustainability is a natural evolution of concepts already contained in the Code of Ethics. The fundamentals are there.

    AIChE can actively promote sustainability, from advocating for the development of green technologies to promoting individual practices that preserve our natural resources.

    I wish AIChE well in furthering sustainability awareness and practices. Again, great job with your blog post, Ms Carreon. Thank you very much for providing a forum for this important exchange of ideas.

  5. Tracey says:

    Although I fear that my post will be a little more conceptual and dare I say philosophical than some of the others, I would like to comment on the relationship between ethics and sustainability in general. Sustainability for me is strongly connected with ethics. The most widely used definition for the term sustainable development in this context comes from the Brundtland Commission — development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." I think sometimes people forget that sustainable development is not just aimed at protecting the environment — it's also aimed at protecting people. Having said that, how we treat the environment ultimately says something about how we are willing to affect people — ourselves, our neighbors, those in other countries, and those in other generations. For most scientists the data shows that what we are doing to the planet is affecting environments and therefore the people in those environments. I care about people, therefore sustainability is very important to me.

    Still, there are other ways to think about sustainability and ethics. For me the approach is mostly one from a social justice standpoint. How does one action affect others? Another way to think about sustainable development in an ethical context is through environmental ethics. Do we have the right to do whatever we want to the planet? Are we obligated to keep species from going extinct? What kind of value to we place on the environment? Intrinsic value? Instrumental value?

    From what I understand most businesses (let's hope) concern themselves with business ethics. Companies have the ability to set their own mission statements and evaluate their own practices. What does my company really value? Equality? Social justice? How much money they are making? Many have done a great job self regulating. However, I question whether self regulation is really enough. Can we trust that all businesses trying to earn a profit are adopting a code of ethics?

    It seems to me that consumers have the potential to to influence businesses and corporations to adopt more sustainable policies and practices. By being more selective with what we purchase, we as consumers can push organizations to make changes in favor of sustainability and social equity.

    For me ethics and sustainability are necessarily related. When I started college I knew that I wanted to study philosophy. However, what I didn't realize is that my interest in ethics would lead me to pursue a major (and now a career) in Environmental Studies — Sustainable Development. The sustainability movement is partly driven by the reality of our situation. We simply cannot continue what we are doing and consuming at the same rate, the same way. Literally, the planet cannot sustain it forever. The sustainability movement is also driven by ethics — should we be consuming what we are consuming? At the rate we are consuming? Should we change our behaviors in order to conserve resources and protect the health of the planet?

    When we talk about ethics we are talking about what is right and what is wrong. I think it is right to promote human welfare, and that adopting the principles of the sustainability movement will do this. It seems that in order to protect people, we must protect the environment.

  6. Alessandra says:

    I am certain this can lead to a pretty charged discussion, but for reference:http://www.icis.com/blogs/chemicals-and-the-econo... We can turn to many current events that reinforce the need to revise and update our Code of Ethics.

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