Welcome to your first day on the job. Our clients are heavily invested in the performance of a vast endowment which you will be overseeing. This endowment is an enormously diversified portfolio with incomparably-complex instruments—we call it “Earth”. Said endowment comprises all of this world’s natural systems and actors, from the depths of its crust to the outer reaches of its atmosphere.
From this day forward, you will be responsible for investing this endowment to create shareholder value. You will create the technology that transforms this natural capital into engines of value-creation. Though the definition of value will vary by client, it is generally associated with stability, comfort, and happiness. I hereby bestow you with the title “engineer”, providing you a social license to so manage this endowment. So what will you do with it?
But before you begin, let me briefly recount the history of our (engineering) firm. The endowment was not originally owned by our clients (humanity). Instead, all actors (species and abiotic structures) in Earth’s natural systems were equally-rightful inheritors of the endowment, each able to manage the Earth’s natural capital at will. Relationships among inheritors tended to create a self-regulating system, preventing any one inheritor from overstepping its bounds. After 4 billion years and innumerable changes, our ancestors evolved, becoming yet another inheritor and member of the endowment’s distributed management team. For many years, our ancestors simply lived off of the interest resulting from their investments, producing small but sufficient returns in various forms (e.g. food, water, shelter).
Our firm was founded on a revolutionary idea—producing greater returns by investing this natural capital in technology. Technology greatly increased our ancestors’ abilities to access and to modify natural capital. With the aid of technology, our ancestors’ developed sufficient power to overturn the decisions of other managers (non-humans) if desired. The technological infrastructure they developed enabled management decisions of unmatched speed, scale, and impact.
For several hundred years, few questioned the management decisions of our firm. Recently, increased attention has been given to the state of the endowment, and some troubling discoveries have been made. It appears that the “returns” from our current technological infrastructure would be more accurately described as “withdrawals”. Though our clients have gained much wealth through these investment practices, they have turned a blind eye to the consequences. The endowment is diminishing across nearly all sectors of the portfolio. Worse yet, the declining state of the endowment damaged its self-regulating systems, increasing future instability.
The internal stabilizing factors of the endowment will continue to degrade, accelerating the decline of its value. In just a few decades, our clients may no longer be able to live on the interest; significant austerity measures will be required to rebuild the massive amount of expended capital, likely without the aid of the self-regulatory mechanisms that remain at present.
It will be impossible to provide continued strong returns to our clients without a new investment strategy. Our directors have bought you some extra time to think by disenfranchising our less wealthy clients. However, we will not be able to keep them disenfranchised much longer—the less wealthy clients are rapidly developing their own competing firms with similar access to the endowment.
The majority of people are not aware of the degraded state of the endowment, as they lack access to the balance sheets. You cannot claim such ignorance. As an engineer, you will build the technologies and systems which draw from this shrinking pool of capital in order to create value. And you’re not just any engineer—you have been trained at one of the finest engineering institutions in the world. No one is in a better position to determine the future of this endowment. There is very little time remaining to change our investment strategy and produce value-creating engines which simultaneously restore and support our natural capital.
Achieving a sustainable world will not be fast or easy, but it will not even be possible without your help. Yes, it may seem impossible to effect change as an individual, and you’d be correct. But together, we can change the hearts and minds of our families, friends, bosses, and co-workers. We must act swiftly; the longer we wait, the longer the odds of success. Lead by example—make sustainability a top priority in the workplace, in your everyday behaviors, and in the products and services you purchase. Without global agreement that preemptive action is gravely necessary, we will not succeed.
If present trends don’t drastically change, I don’t like our future prospects in the year 2040. If I sound like a doomsayer to you, I urge you to take a look at the evidence yourself and draw your own conclusions.
You have a choice. You can either help to make the world a better, more equitable place for all of humanity and the rest of nature, or you can dismiss me and continue to lead the world on a path towards destruction. For now, we will all continue to participate in unsustainable behaviors, regardless of our perspective; often, we don’t have another choice. But we are engineers—we will determine humanity’s future choices.
I hope you understand the gravity of the situation, and the responsibility that you bear. The future rests in your hands.
Author’s Note: I will be preparing material to teach environmental ethics to engineers for my AHS/E! Capstone project this semester. If you have any experience with ethical dilemmas as a scientist or engineer, especially with regards to the environment, please contact me. Even if you have no such experience, let me know if you’d like to share with me your perspective on an engineer’s ethical responsibilities to the world at large.