The profession of civil engineering was born from the
industrial revolution with the vision of “harnessing the forces of nature for
the benefit of mankind”. Before this step-change engineers created castles,
stately homes and cathedrals, but afterwards created the infrastructure and
utilities to underpin the health, wealth and wellbeing of a nation.
For 200 years we have reaped the extensive benefits of the
engineering professions, based on a clear moral framework. However, the urgent
issues of habitat loss, resource overconsumption and catastrophic climate
change mean that the situation now is completely different to the one in which
our moral framework, and therefore our rules of behaviour, were formed.
US psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg identified that ethical
behaviour is a cognitive process, based on three levels of moral development: the
first and basic level is “preconventional”, this involves doing things for
immediate reward or to avoid punishment, and is the level applied by young
children and domesticated dogs; the second level is “conventional”, this
involves following rules or laws and fitting in with other people, this is the
level used by most adults most of the time; the third and highest level is
“postconventional”, this requires consideration of long term consequences and
is the ethical basis for law and democracy, this level is mentally demanding
and few people operate at this level much of the time. The postconventional
thinking which forms the moral basis for our profession was forged during the
industrial revolution, and all of our laws, contracts, codes of practice, and
education reinforce these values.
Step-changes in a moral framework (such as the abolition of
slavery) can be identified as events where behaviours are completely normal to
one generation, but unthinkable to later generations. History demonstrates that
such step-changes typically take decades or centuries to come about, following
a pattern of “Know – Feel – Do”. We first need to “Know” the right thing to do,
by conducting the difficult postconventional thinking and winning the logical
moral argument; we then need to “Feel” the right thing to do, by adopting the
new behaviours into law or codes of practice; and finally we need to “Do” the
right thing, making the behaviours so normal that they become automatic.
Historically, delays to enacting step-changes in behaviour
(i.e. the adoption of postconventional moral reasoning into common practice) have
resulted in years of avoidable human suffering: gender equality, gay rights and
attitudes to construction safety, being obvious examples. However, the current
threats of climate change and habitat loss mean that the requirement for change
is uniquely urgent, as delays now will have catastrophic and irreversible
consequences. The construction industry, as one of the largest consumers and
polluters, is front and centre in the need for urgent change.
Stating that our industry “must think harder” and “must do
better” are vague and useless sentiments. Therefore, a more pragmatic approach
is to understand the blockers to postconventional levels of moral reasoning,
and then identify measures which will enable acceleration of the “Know-Feel-Do”
process of change. Key barriers to
postconventional levels of moral reasoning within our industry include:
- Double Think –
our innate ability to believe mutually exclusive things at the same time.
This can best be combated by changing our approach to education away from purely
“knowing” things, to actually “feeling” them. As humans our decisions are rarely
based on knowledge and fact alone, if we have a visceral experience of the
energy or resources used by a process, we become empowered, as our
feelings can then influence our decisions and behaviours;
- Proximity of
Consequence – our brains focus on the things we can see and feel. Within
the construction industry our supply chain is hugely dispersed, making it
extremely difficult to make holistic decisions. The adoption of
appropriate metrics, and linking individuals’ decisions to their physical
consequences, can be a useful tool to close these gaps.
- Mental Effort –
postconventional thinking is exhausting, we therefore need to make it easy
and normal. The habit of asking questions such as “what can you do to
reduce the embodied carbon?” or “what will this be like in 50 years’
time?” can help set the conditions for change.
- Fear of
Isolation – humans are social animals and our understanding of “good” is
intrinsically linked to what is “normal”, we must therefore consciously
shape our norms. Industry awards must be aligned with our latest
postconventional ethical perspectives. We should tell new stories (the job
where I created the most habitat, not the job where I poured the most
concrete), and we must consistently support rebels. Even when people are
wrong, we must praise them for questioning and thinking differently.
- Take Ownership –
arguments against unilateral action are rooted in preconventional and
conventional moral reasoning, and completely inhibit the vital
postconventional reasoning required to bring about change. History shows
that unilateral action is the only morally defensible stance, and the essential
precursor of universal change.
Consequences – our commercial and economic environment make it extremely
difficult for commercial organisations to provide moral leadership, the
best hope is therefore to turn to collectives and institutions. Our
professional institutions must be firewalled against commercial pressures
in order that they can cultivate the new postconventional moral framework.
This thinking should form a new vision, which then underpins vital changes
to contracts, design codes and legislation. Our institutions must become rigorously
evidence based, and lobby relentlessly for the fundamental systemic change
required to realign commercial drivers with the needs of the future.
- Language – in
order to do the hard thinking, and then embed this new morality into our
behaviours, we need appropriate language. The introduction of negative
terms such as “Resource Gluttony” or positive phrases such as “A Phoenix
Project”, will enable and accelerate this vital change.
It is now increasingly obvious that we are at a step-change
in the relationship between the built and natural environments. Current levels
of resource consumption, pollution and habitat loss, that appear normal to us,
will be abhorrent to our grandchildren. We have reaped the benefit of our infrastructure
and utilities for two centuries, but as built environment professionals we must,
once again, redefine the moral basis for our industry.
The global scale of these problems can feel overwhelming, lulling
us into a false but comforting feeling that we are just passengers, impotent to
change the course of our industry. However, instead of considering our actions
in isolation, we must view our behaviours in the context of nudging our collective
moral framework in the right direction.
Through small individual actions, in the stories we tell,
the words we use, and the questions we ask, we can create the fertile environment
required for change to happen. By slightly altering our behaviours we can
unlock our collective ability to engage with postconventional moral reasoning
and accelerate the urgent “Know-Feel-Do” process. These simple steps will
empower us to transform our industry in a handful of years, rather than
decades, and provide vital global leadership in the battle against climate