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This paper shows through a comparative case study that many contemporary engineers working on a technological response to climate change—biofuel production—continue to be guided by traditional ethical and historical principles of efficiency and growth in spite of the uniqueness of climate change as a problem unbounded globally in space and time. The comparative case study reveals that in the past environmental issues like water scarcity were viewed as deficiencies of nature. In contrast, the development of biofuels as an engineering response to climate change shows that environmental and ecological issues today are viewed as deficiencies of technologies. Yet, just like large dams on rivers had (and continue to have) negative socioecological outcomes, political economy and political ecology research show biofuel development has socially unjust and ecologically degrading outcomes. Many engineers continue to separate the “technical” from the “political” aspects of engineering work, resulting in lost opportunities to reshape the technological development paradigm. While every technology has some negative impacts, engineers, as socioecological experimentalists, must account for these outcomes in their work to mitigate them. Encouragingly, the engineers interviewed for this paper (along the authors of this paper, who are all engineers) believe that problems like climate change are too narrowly defined, and that the problem-solving capabilities of engineers would lead to more favorable outcomes if problems were more broadly defined to incorporate concerns of social justice and ecological holism, and if we are given legitimacy and agency in proposing alternative, radical, and paradigm-changing solutions to problems like climate change.
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