What Engineers Need to Know About Peace

From contributors Michael Lachney and David A. Banks:

What do engineers need to know about peace to think and act ethically? This is a difficult question given that so much engineering pedagogy implies or explicitly points to users as the agents of morality. In other words, rockets, drones, and smartphones are as peaceful as their owners want them to be. Such thinking may seem logical on the surface, but if engineers truly believe that their creations make human endeavors safer, cheaper, or easier, they must also consider what it means to make war cheaper, easier or safer. We can look to the activists, educators, and practitioners that make up the Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace network and the American Society for Engineering Education for explicit examples of studies and initiatives at the intersection of peace and engineering.


In these networks peace is a broad banner under which authors challenge engineers’ long-standing role as “hired guns” for the military-industrial complex. Caroline Baillie, George Catalano, Aarne Vesilind and others have used the language of peace in education and reform initiatives to prioritize engineers’ social responsibilities to the safety, health, and welfare of humans and the Earth over that of war and corporate profit. This approach includes everything from practical advice on career paths and how to decline working on ethically dubious projects, to more structural critiques of engineering firms’ relationships to state violence.


Other social justice oriented scholars discuss peace in ways that challenge engineers’ historical intimacy with war. Joseph R. Herkert, Dean Nieusma, Donna Riley and Amy Slaton explore how peace, among other non-canonical engineering ethics frameworks, can act as a foundation for working with marginalized populations that may stand to benefit the most from engineers’ skills and problem-solving capabilities. Crucial to this approach is understanding how, at the levels of historical precedent, pedagogy and abstract reasoning, engineering is valenced toward war rather than peace. Examples range all the way from Newton’s choice of topics in Principia being directly relatable to maritime ballistics, to the way young engineers are prepared to work in very hierarchical command-and-control institutions and are far less prepared to do their job within organizations that rely on consensus-building.


One of the most striking efforts to scale the language of peace into engineering education and profession is Catalano’s 2004 proposition to modify the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology Criterion 3, which deals primarily with student learning outcomes such as “ability to design and conduct experiments” and “ability to communicate effectively.” Catalano suggests reorganizing this section so that the ethics of living in peace with others, the planet, and ourselves is brought to the forefront. Riley and Yanna Lambrinidou (2015) extend Catalano’s peace paradigm into an ethical principle where engineers reflect on their profession’s history with militarism and environmental destruction to ultimately resist historical repetition through studying the sociotechnical complexities of global relationships.


Indeed, a peace paradigm might be needed now more than ever. Muscat et al. (2015) documents how engineers are often positioned within “violent conflict situations arising from geopolitical disputes, rival claims over resources, unequal distribution of benefits and costs or power struggles.” Consider for example the US Army Corps of Engineers’ role in the decision to save $100 million at the cost of canal wall failures that resulted in the massive flooding of New Orleans from hurricane Katrina (Rogers et al. 2015); also the Corps role in house demolition post-Katrina, despite community protest. When viewed through Catalano’s peace paradigm, these cases would be considered an engineering failure because they continue a long-standing trend of underserving poor and primarily minority neighborhoods.


In considering the above it is important to not conflate war with violence. War, to quote Nieusma and Blue (2012) is a “means of naming differences in power, in wealth, and in wellbeing, which persist between and within national frames. Warfare, in this sense, is a strident conceptualization of social conflict as well as the measures taken to ensure or combat its persistence.” Violence is a large component of war, but not all violence is associated with warfare. Therefore, a dogmatic adherence to nonviolence in the name of peace overlooks a long history of effective armed resistance and defense against warfare. The language of peace should not be mobilized in the way US liberals and the right have used it: to discredit social movements that employ a “diversity of tactics” –which may include property destruction or defensive violence — to achieve their goals.

Peter Gelderloos (2014) among others have explored how dogmatic adhere to nonviolence hamstrings social movements, especially those resisting unjust wars. From the Zapatistas’ armed struggle against neoliberalism to black communities’ armed defense against the KKK and police malfeasance, violence has been used to thwart larger threats of organized violence.


Property destruction has a similar relationship to violence as violence has to warfare. That is, property destruction may be violent if it directly and intentionally causes physical pain or loss of life, but property destruction is not always violent. This is an important distinction, especially when one takes into consideration how, historically, certain lives have been considered property. Raven Rakia (2013) makes this point very clear when it comes to race:


When property is destroyed by black protesters, it must always be understood in the context of the historical racialization of property. When the same system that refuses to protect black children comes out to protect windows, what is valued over black people in America becomes very clear.


Given the differences between war, violence, and property destruction described above, engineers would do well to reconsider how some of their work may contribute to warfare or violence in the name of preventing property destruction. For example, the myriad ways outdoor seating areas have been designed to make it impossible for homeless people to rest or even congregate. Redesigned bus benches and overpasses that have removed the last semblance of sheltered space for the homeless is part of a larger war (as defined by Nieusma and Blue) against the poor and those engineers and designers who are making this new kind of street furniture are at its front lines.


Engineers should also reconsider how so-called “non-lethal” weapons given to law enforcement contribute to the gradient of war, violence, and property destruction. In 2015, according to the Washington Post, police killed one person nearly every week in the United States. Of the 48 killed, over half suffered from some form of mental illness, 55 percent were racial minorities, and “at least 10 were Tasered while handcuffed or shackled.” When technologies like Tasers go out to market, who gets to use them? Certainly some civilians were able to defend themselves successfully with these devices but might there be a way to design the device so that they are less lethal in the hands of the police? In general, engineers should be asking: Who predictably benefits from a technology’s adoption and who loses? It is not enough to delegate all of the blame for negative impacts to users while taking all the credit for the conveniences technology provides.


While peace has been useful for moving engineering towards social justice goals, engineers who work from these goals must be aware of the politics of peace. Peace can help to effectively organize individuals and professions against ongoing war and state violence, but it can also be used to undermine social movements. If engineers are going to take on social justice concerns they will need to stand in solidarity with communities that are different then themselves and work to legitimize the actions of those communities, deemed peaceful or not.



References and Further Readings


Catalano, G., & Baillie, C. (2006), Engineering, Social Justice And Peace: A Revolution Of The Heart Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois.


Catalano, G. (2004), A Peace Paradigm For Engineering Education: A Dissenter’s View Paper presented at 2004 Annual Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah.


Gelderloos, P. (2015). The Failure of Nonviolence. Left Bank Books.


Muscat, R. J., & Bielefeldt, A. R., & Riley, D. M., & Bates, R. A. (2015), Peace, Conflict and Sustainability: Addressing Global and Ethical Issues in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington.


Nieusma, D. (2011), Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace: Strategies for Pedagogical, Curricular, and Institutional Reform Paper presented at 2011 Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. https://peer.asee.org/17890


Nieusma, D. and E. Blue. (2012). “Engineering and War.” International Journal of      Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace 1 (1): 50–62.


Rakia, R. (2013). “Black Riot.” The New Inquiry, November 14. http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/black-riot/.


Riley, D. M., & Lambrinidou, Y. (2015), Canons against Cannons? Social Justice and the Engineering Ethics Imaginary Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington.


Riley, D. M., & Nieusma, D., & Baillie, C., & Catalano, G. (2008), Engineering, Peace, Justice And The Earth: Developing Course Modules Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Riley, D. M., & Slaton, A. E., & Herkert, J. R. (2015), What is Gained by Articulating Non-canonical Engineering Ethics Canons? Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington.


Rogers, J. D., Kemp, G. P., Bosworth, H. J., & Seed, R. B. (2015). Interaction between the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Orleans Levee Board preceding the drainage canal wall failures and catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Water Policy17(4), 707-723.


Slaton, A. E. (2010). Race, rigor, and selectivity in US engineering: The history of an occupational color line. Harvard University Press.


Tang, X., & Nieusma, D. (2015), Institutionalizing Ethics: Historical Debates Surrounding IEEE’s 1974 Code of Ethics Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Seattle, Washington.


Thompson, C, and M. Berman. (2015). “Improper Techniques, Increased Risks.” Washington Post, November 25. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2015/11/26/improper-techniques-increased-risks/.

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