When Dave Clark of engineering firm Cundall sent over his Spinifex op-ed contribution on the ethics of working on dodgy engineering projects such as the Adani coal mine early this week, we knew it would hit a nerve.

As the comments rolling in indicate, the issue of what work you take on or even where you work as an individual is one that’s floating closer to the surface of corporate – and personal – thinking.

If you hang a shingle out that says you’re a sustainable engineer, should you work on something that will absolutely and inevitably damage the planet?

The Adani coal mine is an easy job to say no to, Clark says (though not for some big companies we know).

But is it always so easy?

Not if your business is on the verge of collapse and you might be forced to sack all your staff as a result of saying no.

And not if your own family’s financial future is in jeopardy.

As Clark pointed out there’s also the issue of building itself. Everything we build uses natural resources – unless you are trying to achieve standards such as the Living Building Challenge, or similar, which aims to be energy positive and a biophilic giver, not taker.

But it’s even more complex.

A chat a while ago with an ethical investor revealed how complex ethical investing can get as well. You might choose to buy food that’s locally grown or goods locally produced but your decision might deprive a family or entire village of a means of survival.

There’s the eternal political question. Do you jump inside the tent so you have a hope to influence the impact of the project, as one commentator suggested (but risk the chance you will sully your morals)?

Or do you stay pure and clean (and sleep well at night) and but have little chance of impact other than what you can do from opposition and a chance to pierce the conscience of others?

In the case of Adani it’s unlikely that working inside the tent would change the trajectory of the additional carbon released into the planet’s atmosphere. The most it might do is improve processes. Which is like saying, “We produce Agent Orange but the processes we use are world’s best practice and we work inside a six star building with the highest ethical standards for our staff and customers.”

Personal ethics can also be expensive

At the recent All-Energy conference in Melbourne we bumped into Jeremy Burke who’s back in Australia after being inaugural finance director at the UK’s Green Investment Bank until it was sold to Macquarie in July this year.

We mentioned the ethical dilemma and reputational issues we’d been dealing with recently and he said in the UK after the GFC it was clear that some young, talented people were averse to working for the traditional bankers that they saw as having tainted ethics and were prepared to take a pay cut in order to align themselves with a employer of choice.

The Green Bank was a “mission-oriented organisation”, he said, so this meant young investment professionals were drawn to it, often willing to take relatively lower salaries to do so.

“Often it was clear that younger bankers were genuinely concerned about reputational issues, particularly after the financial crisis hit UK banks hard,” he said.

What about the ethics of meeting consumer demand?

Much is justified by the ultra importance we put on meeting consumer demand. Like it’s a real thing.

To respect consumer demand implies there’s some form of agency and knowledge backing the demand.

But who creates the available options for the consumers to choose from, and are their criteria good value, health, or benefits for the public good? Or are they simply what’s most profitable or convenient, perhaps at our expense?

So with this in mind we were a bit nonplussed (as in the original meaning of the word, that is, to be “surprised and confused…unsure how to react”) with news that the landscape architects were planning to pepper our parks and natural environments with bins that say “thank you” and benches that can recharge our electronic devices.

There we were thinking that landscape architects were committed to providing an escape from the harsher side of our built environment and the constant attention-seeking devices that are driving many of us to distraction.

An excellent article in the current issue of the New Philosopher mentions that devices, billboards and advertising are a constant theft of our attention, which is, like every other resource, scarce and valuable.

So even spam in our inbox steals our attention because whether we want to or not we’re forced to at least glance at it before deleting, and deleting itself takes time.

The trial project in question iw about how technology and landscaping can be integrated. But do we really want this? Just because we can, must we? Shouldn’t we be protecting our natural environments (and outdoor spaces) as much as possible to enhance our biophilic assets, not reduce them? Otherwise we will not only ask, do the walls have ears but do the trees have ears?

People expect technology in public spaces, we’re told. Do they?

We now have groups and businesses dedicated to getting people offline and treating device addiction.

We’re told smart parks will require cabling in addition to the water infrastructure and so on. Sorry, but in our humble opinion we’d rather trees, grass and plants be free of our hi-tec and wi-fi.

UPDATE: late 19 Oct 2017: We know there is so much more to this work and project. Of course it is about some fabulous ideas and outcomes. As some feedback pointed out, “It was about greenspace, and trees. There was a net biophilic contribution. It was about kids, and healthy living. It was about a greater mix of uses for more people. It was about climate change, waste management and ensuring our streets become net producers, as opposed to net consumers. When I read the article it almost felt like you had not even visited the project? ”  Yes, true. We know we’ve taken the small bit about the wifi and technology totally out of context…. yes. It’s just about the wifi.

2 replies on “News from the front desk: Issue No 361 – On working inside the tent or outside, and how much it will cost us”

  1. Great article, however the ‘jobs angle’ is a vanilla answer to the more complex problem of short-termism. Companies, large ones in particular, are driven by growth underpinned by quarterly reporting. The way this performance is assessed is key to business choices, and ethics comes second, if at all. If a company acknowledged climate risk and disclosed scenarios planning on how market changes, whether physical or transitional, are going to affect its buisiness model, then probably boards would think twice and really weigh job losses versus reputational risk or future project write down risks, etc. In the U.K., short-termism in the financial system was addressed by the Kay Review in an attempt to reform banking and finance. It’s not just the complexity of ethical investing, it’s more about conviction and valuation, of both assets and risk. It would help if the AU government had a more mature discussion and debate on climate and the future wealth of the country, particularly to respond to the recent allegiances of corruption and stranded asset risk.

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