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Engineer Thomas Daulton finds where there are monetary interests, society will always choose financial growth over environment and social progress.
Money is supposedly a neutral medium of exchange with no agenda of its own. But what happens when money is on both sides of an issue? The financial interests cancel out and we can see our culture’s default strategy is towards development, growth and exploiting the environment.
I’ve spent decades telling people how our American culture is biased towards the rich and big business. But recently I found myself in a situation that convinced me our real bias is less towards money, and more towards growth and development.
Several years ago, a hotel in my city built an expansion of their existing patio which encroaches upon an environmentally protected area: public property. Environmentalists sued to take it down. Instead, the hotel spent years trying to obtain a retroactive building permit.
As an engineer, I was hired by the environmentalists and attended a public comment meeting at the city’s local permit board. The vast majority of permit board members noted that times were tough, jobs were scarce and the hotel generated income for the community. So they voted to grant the retroactive permit; despite knowing past construction was against the law.
One member wanted my opinion before making up his mind. “I’d like to hear from that neutral engineer again,” the board chairman said.
“He’s not neutral,” said the hotel lawyer. “He was hired by the environmentalists.”
“Oh, never mind,” said the Chairman. “You can sit down again.”
I wasn’t allowed to comment further; and afterwards, I struggled for a while to express why this bothered me.
So let me get this straight. According to the permit board, because the hotel is making money, we must permit their illegal activity. Because they earn money and pay employees, they are trustworthy and we must support them. Taking down the patio wouldn’t doom the hotel nor throw anyone out of work. All it would be was an expense and inconvenience; and we don’t dare impose such restrictions upon a pillar of the local economy.
In almost the same breath, the permit board suggested that I’m a mercenary because I’m making money as an engineer. That automatically means my opinion is biased and can be disregarded. Just a small amount of money, they implied, will clearly sway my professional opinion to whatever my paymasters want me to say.
Our culture’s bias is the worst of both worlds. Money can be used to lend moral authority to an illegal activity; in the very same minute it can be used to impugn somebody else’s motives and paint them as biased.
Engineers, scientists and developers, take note. If you believe that it will ever make economic sense to change our habits and start building sustainable and environmentally-friendly energy systems and developments, that day will never come. Or rather, it has come and gone and nobody noticed.
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