Why Engineers Must Try to Save the World

Scientists also should heed the messianic impulse

6 min read

G. Pascal Zachary researches and writes about the past, present, and future of technological change.

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IEEE Spectrum

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Scientists have always been divided about whether or not to save the world. Who can blame them? When physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first test of an atomic bomb, his pride over creating an inconceivably powerful energy source was immediately overshadowed by a brooding awareness that scientific knowledge can bring fantastic destruction as well as glorious salvation. Quoting Vishnu from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, Oppenheimer observed, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Ever since Oppenheimer’s reveries in the deserts of New Mexico 65 years ago, scientists have been more sophisticated in their embrace of the messianic impulse. They are now more restrained in their drive to change the world. Even as the scientist as messiah emerged in the 20th century as a new social type, so too did the mirror opposite: the “mad” scientist who, overreaching in pursuit of power, lays waste to his own kind. So the messianic impulse among scientists has coevolved with a darker, murkier image of the scientist who wittingly or unwittingly launches a cataclysm.

As Oppenheimer found during his stewardship of the Manhattan Project, sobriety must leaven the drunken glee that arises from the experience of monumental discovery. In the popular mind, unalloyed goodness is no longer the signature of science. Today, Science with a capital S wears a Janus face: For every celebration of a signal scientific advance, there’s a festival of fretting over the unintended consequences of new knowledge and its application.

No commitment to sobriety, however nuanced, can ever fully stifle the messianic impulse, which is deeply rooted in the Western tradition of discovery. Saving the planet, in an era of multitudinous threats, is the new mantra. Sustainability is fervently preached as an ideal for technoscience and society both. The new saviors, however, are not solely drawn from the ranks of science. Increasingly, professional engineers are considered among the chosen actors in the great drama of human civilization’s preservation.

I choose to call engineers a profession because the very social categorization implies a responsiveness to human needs and norms that physical scientists from various disciplines at times appear to lack (or, more precisely, to transcend). Engineers, by contrast, resemble lawyers and physicians. In the classic formulation of Don K. Price, writing in his book The Scientific Estate (Harvard University Press, 1965), from which my series takes its name:

“Engineering, medicine, and law, in different ways, have the function of taking the applications of science (or other systematic knowledge) and applying them to the concrete and practical affairs of men. That is not only their function; it is their purpose. Science can insist on ignoring questions of purpose in order to be objective and precise; the professions cannot. So they sometimes take their purposes from generally accepted values….Or the professions take their purposes from the demands of their customers or employers, as an engineer does when he designs a bridge or an automobile.”

Price was right about a lot, but wrong that scientists can ignore questions of purpose any more than they can pretend to be blind to the outcomes of their investigations. Neither do “the professions” take abstract knowledge and forge out of these abstractions concrete solutions to practical problems. We all now exist on a technoscientific continuum that mocks routine 20th-century distinctions. Yet Price, writing in the 1960s, was supremely wise in recognizing that a set of urgent human problems required the attentions of engineers working in a manner that delivers, in his shrewd term, “professional competence.”

Competence is crucial. After all, the human response to the planet’s seemingly difficult situation must, above all, work. Adaptations and interventions that forestall or remedy or extinguish the ultimate lethal threats, such as catastrophic climate change, an exotic pandemic, or a mysterious collapse in large-scale agriculture can always be moral or immoral, normative or not, sublime or ugly, inspirational or dour. But adaptations and interventions aimed at saving the world as we know it, or want it to be, must work. Pragmatism rules. Or if failure is an essential experience, even our technoscientific failures must reflect the core competence that the practice of engineering holds in the highest of regards.

Before I address the logic of a “messianic impulse” among engineers, let me merely note in passing that scientists face radical challenges from both the Left and the Right—a political challenge that constrains even those few scientists who would roundly declare their intentions of saving the world through their work. The Left compulsively concentrates on the unintended consequences of science: the bad, the ugly. The Right resents and resists any claim by science as such to remedy the existential flaws in the human personality and the social experience. And to save the world, without accessing the supernatural, seems to the religious Right to be a kind of fatal hubris that obscures an even deeper epistemological blindness.

No such clear polarization exists on the role of engineering in the prevention of human self-destruction. In large measure, engineers are exempt from the paralyzing effects of political polarization because the language and expectations of “professionalism” both liberate and constrain their expertise in ways that undercut political polarization and improve the chances of forging a durable marriage between reason and faith, technique and ethics.

In short, the circumstances of our fragile, peculiar time favor grand interventions from engineers. These interventions are consistent with the worthy and ambitious initiatives proposed by the National Academy of Engineering. But while most “prizes” and “challenges” encourage the pursuit of well-defined breakthroughs, "saving the planet" will require assembling many well-defined breakthroughs into technological systems that deliver durable solutions to urgent problems. These problems increasingly require the talents of engineers of various sorts, working in tandem with scientists at a minimum.

Another way of putting my point, and more provocatively, is to declare: Scientists have had their chance to save the world. Now, are engineers about to get their turn?

Henry Petroski clearly believes so. In an important new book, The Essential Engineer, Petroski argues that science alone will not solve our global problems.

Drawing on many fresh examples, Petroski builds a persuasive case for the central role of engineers in helping societies cope with urgent environmental and sustainability problems. In stumping for engineering as a relatively neglected asset in response to the most ominous threat—climate change—Petroski echoes a well-made critique by Daniel Sarewitz, a colleague of mine at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, who has argued for more than a decade that the most rational and effective response to environmental challenges is not more science—or, precisely, more money to conduct scientific research—but rather more adaptations drawn from existing knowledge. As Sarewitz (along with his longtime collaborator Roger Pielke) argued in The Atlantic Monthly in 2000, “if we took practical steps to reduce our vulnerability to today’s weather, we would go a long way toward solving the problem of tomorrow’s climate.”

A new era is dawning of engagement by professional engineers in the task of providing useful adaptations to climate change. In mobilizing their competencies, engineers must be mindful of what James Rodger Fleming describes as “the checkered history of weather and climate control” in his revelatory book, Fixing the Sky (Columbia University Press, 2010).

The prospect of engineering on a planetary scale is giving rise to an emerging movement: geoengineering, which is already igniting worries and resistance: even among supporters of the concept in general. A few weeks ago, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Japan, backed a moratorium on geoengineering projects and even experiments. The U.N. declaration is a response to a conclusion reached at a meeting in March of this year—of scientists, engineers, and sundry other intellectuals from a variety of fields—that research on geoengineering should proceed in case the planet proves broken beyond conventional means of repair.

These are early days, and geoengineering is no panacea. As Fleming writes, “For more than a century, scientists, soldiers and charlatans have hatched schemes to manipulate the weather and climate….This is not, in essence, a heroic saga about new scientific discoveries that can save the planet…but a tragicomedy of overreaching, hubris, and self-delusion.” He demonstrates that the impulse to geoengineering has so long a history as to parallel the “messianic impulse” invoked earlier. From dreams of flooding the Sahara Desert more than a century ago to real efforts by the U.S. government to modify the climate during the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, geoengineering is a variant of the long human aspiration to save the planet.

So, yes, engineers will try to save the world, also. And despite the reasonable forebodings of Fleming and others, this time the outcome from geoengineering interventions should be different, though of course any intervention must be weighed against the unintended consequences that may follow.

With the planet’s ecological and climate systems under levels of stress unimagined even a decade ago, concerns about technoscientific hubris, while always valid, ought to give way to a sense that humans must respond to anticipated crises. If engineers lead the way, they will not march alone. Rather, as Petroski recognizes, engineers must “be connected with the cultures of the humanities and social sciences.” In the end, “messianic” engineers will work alongside scientists, but also physicians and social workers and priests and poets. Saving the world from climate change, or novel pandemics, or even from weapons of mass destruction, means that experts must cooperate and coordinate in ways rarely attempted in the past.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

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