Guidance on ethical dilemmas and the history of sustainable development

December 2008 » Columns
Have you ever found yourself between a rock and a hard place about a professional issue? As my career has progressed, I have. In such situations, the counsel of colleagues, mentors, and sometimes, the case studies from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Committee on Professional Conduct have proven valuable in deciding how to approach the dilemma. One such professional dilemma facing civil engineers is the sustainable development provisions of the ASCE Code of Ethics.
Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E.

Have you ever found yourself between a rock and a hard place about a professional issue? As my career has progressed, I have. In such situations, the counsel of colleagues, mentors, and sometimes, the case studies from the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) have proven valuable in deciding how to approach the dilemma.

The CPC is the body responsible for investigating ethics complaints against ASCE members and recommending sanctions, when appropriate, to the Board of Direction and the Executive Committee. The ethical standards upheld by the CPC is ASCE’s Code of Ethics. Adopted in 1914, the code focuses on the relationships of engineers with their clients, with other engineers, and the engineer’s responsibilities to the public.

Some of the CPC’s work is published in Civil Engineering magazine and is available on-line in each issue as a section titled "A Question of Ethics." Some of the topics previously discussed in this column include the following:

  • improper sealing of plans;
  • bid fraud;
  • campaign contributions;
  • project over-billing;
  • gender discrimination;
  • accuracy of field data;
  • bribery by state legislators;
  • incompetence;
  • plagiarism; and
  • conflicts of interest—property ownerships, raffle prizes, resigning (and taking employees), et cetera.


The November issue of "A Question of Ethics" inspired this column. The case study dealt with the history of sustainable development provisions of the Code of Ethics. This topic dates back to 1976 with the adoption of a canon that has since been amended to read: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties." In 1996, when the cannon was amended, sustainable development was also defined as "the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development."

As far as I have witnessed, few subjects have been more debated within civil engineering than this topic. Some folks opine that adding the adjective "sustainable" to a project lowers the probability of the work being conducted. Others think that engineers, in general, are not adequately armed to address green-related issues, including sustainability, and that the decisions for sustainable development actions are best left to others. Still others think that as long as a design fulfills its function, with the resources available at the time, there is no need to address sustainability—future innovations may address these issues as technology and science progress.

My opinion as to why this topic pushes so many debate buttons is two fold:

  1. Who defines the "sustainability" of a given project?
  2. Who pays for this conservation and/or protection of the environment?


In my next column, I would like to present readers’ opinions on this issue. Why do you think sustainable development is so debatable? What are your thoughts on sustainable development and the role of civil engineers, if any, on addressing or implementing this concept?

Please send your opinions and comments on sustainable development or green-related issues to Civil Connection in care of bdrake@zweigwhite.com.


Cathy Bazán-Arias, Ph.D., P.E., is senior staff engineer for DiGioia, Gray & Associates, LLC, Monroeville, Pa.


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