Engineering and Sustainability: Control and Care in Unfoldings of Modernity

Working Paper

SPRU Working Paper series
SWPS 2019-06 (February)

Forthcoming as a chapter in Diane P. Michelfelder and Neelke Doorn (eds), Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Engineering, London: Routledge, 2019

This chapter explores some underlying issues bearing on relationships between engineering and Sustainability. It aims to help point towards ways in which engineering practice might avoid some of the dangers associated with pressures and rhetorics of justification and legitimation, such as to become more robustly aligned with authentic values and interests of Sustainability. Key to this is to recognise some deep resonances around the central preoccupations of much instrumental-style engineering with attempted performances of control. For it is similar imaginations of control that characterise the presently globalising ‘infraculture’ of Modernity itself. And it is to the associated problems of failed efforts at control, that the Sustainability movement is a reaction.

In order practically to resist the associated fixations, fallacies and fantasies of control both in engineering and Modernity more widely, it is suggested that a starting point lies in enacting a distinction between control and care. A number of examples are explored –for instance around current responses to ‘climate change’and visions of ‘the Anthropocene’ –where controlling imaginations are aggravating progressive values and where more caring practices would be more supportive of Sustainability. At the end, the chapter critiques visions of transitions to Sustainability as relatively technical expert-led challenges of controlling progress in particular notionally singular, depoliticised directions. It is argued instead, that a more caring approach might recognise the inherently diverse, political nature of Sustainability. Here, engineering is more about collective action than instrumental policy intervention – as just one among many ways to care for more plural, open-ended transformations.