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Guest Column: Socially responsible engineering is key

Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a two-part commentary about “fracking” in Southeast Ohio. Part one appeared in yesterday’s edition.

The words that I use for Russ College of Engineering Dean Dennis Irwin’s “socially responsible engineering” are “Green Technology by Design” — that is, technology and systems that are designed from the very beginning with two new design criteria.

The two new design criteria are that this technology system must minimize the consumption of Planet Earth’s finite and declining resources, and it must not pollute or “globally warm” this beautiful home of ours, dear Mother Earth.

Unfortunately, that is something our culture seldom sees fit to ask of us engineers and scientists. These new “design criteria” do not yet appear in our “Engineering Codes of Ethics.”

I think of GTBD as helping to give Mother Earth a seat at the “Benefit/Cost decision-making table,” where we make decisions as to what technology systems we create, consume and dispose of. Engineering-economy B/C calculus, a course that I taught for almost four decades, offers Planet Earth essentially no voice at this B/C table.

Most importantly, GTBD is a healthy recipe for “resource-war” and “global-warming” prevention.

In order to help move us more expeditiously toward Dean Irwin’s “socially responsible engineering” and my GTBD, we will probably need much more good “engineering and public policy” measures, such as the 1978 PURPA Law that encouraged our OU “co-generation” project.

To illustrate with another example, see the U.S. Congress 1975 Public Law (PL 94-163) “The Energy Policy and Conservation Act,” a law that was passed to correct an automobile fuel consumption “free-market” failure. EPCA was inspired by the October 1973 Yom Kippur War when Middle Eastern oil-producing nations shut off our oil supplies.

EPCA required that the fleet fuel economy of all automobiles manufactured and sold in America — instead of getting smaller each year, as “the market” was taking it — be doubled, from the 13 mpg it was in 1972 to 26 mpg by 1985.

After much foot-dragging and whining by U.S. automobile companies about the unconstitutionality of EPCA, etc., as they began to lose the market to much more fuel-efficient Japanese and European models, they finally capitulated and asked their engineers to put into practice my No. 1 new design criterion — designs that minimized the consumption of oil resources. It worked. By 1986, automobile fleet average fuel economy in the United States was 26 mpg.

Almost a half century of interest in and involvement with engineering and public policy has left me sometimes feeling lonely. My experiences in EPP include: a late 1970s sabbatical year with the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment doing research on the U.S.’s unnecessarily profligate resource consumptions and the consequences thereof, including “oil resource wars” and that which we now call global warming; and the opportunity in the summer of 1980 to be the first faculty member in the U.S. to run a new program on educating engineers in public policy — the Washington Internships for Students of Engineering, a program that still continues in 2012.

Chuck Overby is a professor emeritus of engineering at Ohio University.


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