A historical reflection of engineering practice in the lens of social justice

Format: Panel discussion

  1. Panelist: Jen Schneider
    Affiliation: Colorado School of Mines, US
    Title: Blood, Energy, Justice:  Engineering, Energy Extraction, and Social Justice
    Abstract: Focusing on a case study of a small former mining town in western Colorado in the United States, this presentation attempts to situate current geothermal exploration projects within the larger history of energy and resource extraction.  The town, Rico, is home to only 250 year-round residents.  It has no industry; some small-scale tourism; and no grocery store.  Its public school recently reopened after being closed for decades, enrolling 18 students, which is considered by Rico’s mayor to be evidence of a “baby boom.”  In terms of large-scale energy policy in the United States, Rico doesn’t matter—its role in large-scale energy production and consumption is negligible.  Yet there is an experiment occurring in Rico, involving energy extraction, community development, and social justice, which deserves our attention and which may hold lessons for engineers, scientists, community developers, and citizens interested in alternatives to the business-as-usual model of energy extraction.  Using the recent films There Will Be Blood and Gasland as metaphors for historic and contemporary modes of extraction, this paper attempts to tell the story of a young, small geothermal development project in Rico, the engineers and scientists involved in the project, and the impact of the project on the residents of the town.  We cannot generalize or extrapolate Rico’s experiment to energy production on a large scale, yet what is happening in Rico must be placed within the larger context of energy politics, which is both the politics of progress and the politics of blood.
  2. Panelist: Juan Lucena
    Affiliation: Colorado School of Mines
    Title: Engineers and Social Justice in the Progressive Era (1870 – 1930)
    Abstract: This paper situates different groups of engineers of the Progressive Era with respect to social justice issues of the time. First, it outlines how the rise of industrial capitalism brought the expansion of urban industrial centers, creating deteriorating conditions for immigrants, working children, and others involved in wage labor. Within this context, different groups of engineers responded differently to these social challenges. Inventor/engineers like Tesla and Sperry did not become active in social justice, showing that perhaps inventive autonomy was not a pre- condition to be involved in social justice. In contrast, another group of “self-made” engineers like Tom Johnson (1854-1911) and Jacob Sechler Coxey (1854-1951) became active in equal access to public transportation, unfair labor practices, and industrial hygiene. In federal and state governments, other engineers show a mixed history of activism in social justice, from unjust practices, like depriving flood victims from food rations unless they performed work as done by the US Army Corps of Engineers, to working for improving urban sanitary conditions. This analysis stands in contrast with historical accounts of engineering (such as Layton’s and Noble’s) that show how the autonomy of engineers was co-opted by the interests of corporations. The examples presented here will shed new light on how socio-political dimensions and actor’s perspective and agency come together to create the circumstances for activism of engineering in social justice.