ASU professor says engineers need to look at sustainability in different light

February 16, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Engineers, trained to be object problem solvers, need to look at sustainability in a different way than they would approach other subjects in order to fully understand it, according to Arizona State University researcher Brad Allenby.

Allenby, a civil and environmental engineering professor in ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, is speaking at this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco. His presentation, "Defining Sustainability," will be given on Feb. 16 in a session on issues involved in the teaching of sustainability.

Allenby will borrow concepts from the field of industrial ecology to offer a working definition of sustainability for use in teaching the concepts of sustainability to engineers. Sustainability is a normative, non-objective concept - one that Allenby said is difficult to define and should be approached differently by engineers.

"If you say that you're interested in sustainability, what that generally means is that you are a person who is inclined towards egalitarianism, both within and among generations; you'd be inclined toward the redistribution of wealth, and probably inclined toward restrictions on consumption; and you'd have a certain enlightenment conceptualization of nature and what's appropriate for nature," he says.

The ideological aspect of sustainability makes it a particularly difficult concept to present to engineers, who are trained to look at the world objectively.

"If a climate scientist insists on looking at the world with an egalitarian perspective, it wouldn't necessarily affect their work," Allenby said. "But an engineer needs to look at the world the way it is now in order to problem-solve within it."

The AAAS Annual Meeting is the largest scientific conference in the United States, drawing experts and media from around the world to discuss contemporary issues in the field of science.

This year's theme, "Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being," reflects the growing concern in the scientific community and among the general public about issues such as loss of biodiversity, unequal living standards throughout the world, weather-related disasters, proliferation of nuclear weapons and overdependence on petroleum.
Brad Allenby, (480) 727-8594

Arizona State University

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