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Mining has always been a significant contributor to Australian trade and income, from

the gold rush of the 1800s to the more recent boom in the resources sector. This rise of
mining in Australia has seen a wide range of effects on life both within Australia and on an
international level, mostly raising the question of economic and environmental sustainability.
This presents a unique set of moralistic issues for the next generation of Engineers, with
issues specific to Mechanical Engineering being of specific significance for myself. This
essay seeks to explore these issues, and aims to examine the specific ethical problems facing
a mechanical Engineer in current global engineering practice and typical corporate structure.

The growth of Australia as a producer of raw material has seen a large rise in the
number of Mechanical Engineers employed in the resources sector; a 25% increase from
2006 to 2011 alone4. This will have influence on a great number of things, which can be
grouped into national and international factors for ease of analysis. On a national front, this
industrial focus on mining has very lucrative short term effects for both Engineers and the
general public, such as a strong Australian dollar, increases in employment and very
profitable mining jobs for engineers. However, these advantages set up circumstances similar
to those in the Netherlands during the resource boom of the 70s; The stronger Australian
dollar means other exports are too expensive for other countries, and skilled labour is pulled
in by the large incentive of mining salaries, effectively pulling both the people and the
business away from industries like manufacturing. This leads one to conclude that Australia is
suffering from the Dutch disease, an economic similar to the conditions described above
that potentially leads to recession3.

On an international level, this increased focus on mining will mean the elongation of
dependence on fossil fuels, which in turn, continues the effects of climate change and
environmental degradation. While both the national and international factors of Australia's
mining boom are not localised to Mechanical Engineers, what is specific to the discipline is
how little consideration of the matter there is in the degree. From firsthand experience, the
Mechanical engineering degree is sorely lacking in content outside of technical skills. Over
the full 32 courses undertaken in a Mechanical Engineering degree at this University, only
two touch on environmental sustainability; both are general engineering courses that every
discipline completes, and focus more upon economic sustainability. Chemical, Civil and
Environmental engineering students I talk to have each stated that one or more of their
courses at least touches upon discipline specific studies of sustainability. In a recent material
selection course, the database on materials had extensive documentation on energy and water
consumption as well as the CO2 footprint associated with the material, but at no time did the
course use this data or reference it in any way. This all leads me to conclude that Mechanical
Engineers are not being adequately informed about the repercussions their choice of
employment could have on the economy, the environment, and the profession itself.
Another repercussion of Australia's mining boom is the increased interaction with
foreign countries, which gives rise to potentially conflicting values, especially in cultures
outside of Europe. China is a very apt example of this, given Australia's increased trading
with the country over resources1. China is a country run by a fundamentally different political
and cultural system, with entirely different values; what may be deemed an appropriate
solution to an Engineering problem in Australia, could be culturally incompatible with the
Chinese Engineers and public. My cousin works for Bradken Engineering in Newcastle, and
regularly flies out to China to work on the high speed rail being built there. When he leaves,
his internet access and ability to contact home from the country are seriously inhibited by the
Chinese governments censure of communication and controlled social media. This
fundamental difference in ideologies is a good example of how a Mechanical Engineer
working abroad must not only consider the optimal solution for the problem, but also must
consider its appropriate in the framework of local values.

A number of actions have been implemented by various parties to try and ensure the
sustainability of the mining sector, both economically and environmentally. The most
prominent of these is by the Australian Government; its introduction of a sovereign wealth
fund (The Australian Government Future Fund) meant that surplus gained in boom times
from mining would be kept and used to assuage the losses felt by other industries after the
mining boom wanes3. Similarly, the introduction of the Carbon Tax was intended to put a
price on the social and environmental costs of industrial pollution. In regards to interventions
outside of the government, Engineers Australia states in its code of ethics that an Engineer
should "Balance the needs of the present with the needs of future generations"5. These
responses are fairly effective in promoting sustainable engineering: Vesilind (2006) notes that
litigious enforcement of sustainability is effective in motivating companies toward ethical
behaviour. In this way, sustainability is forcibly worked into the financial and legal
considerations of the projects (facets which are very rarely overlooked by management) to
ensure it is not ignored.
This approach to ensuring sustainability is a justifiable one. Utilitarian thinking states
that the most moral option available maximises benefit for the greatest number of people8.
This thinking means that the relatively small losses imposed on the businesses would be far
outweighed by the much greater benefits for the global environment and Australias economy
(which, by extension, includes everyone). In this way, the greater good of preserving
resources for future use is achieved while reigning in comparatively small profits of business.
Similarly, Kantianism postulates that one should justify morality by applying universality,
that is, thinking if an action would be moral if it were to be undertaken in every instance of
the same situation 8. We note then that if every government were to place restriction on the
impacts industry makes on the environment and hold it accountable for the social cost of
business, then the world would be a more moral place8. This means that the government
interventions are also justifiable in the Kantian framework. While the Engineers Australia
code of Ethics may not be as enforceable as federal law, it is still no doubt morally acceptable
to have this code of ethics. Virtue ethics states that one should cultivate moral substance by
acting virtuously, and the code of ethics provided by Engineers Australia clearly enunciates a
series of virtues a moral engineer should have.
Despite this, the fact remains that those actions are punitive rather than formative
measures to make industry conform to modern views on sustainability. They aim to treat the
behaviour of industry but make minimal effort toward changing attitudes. The problem with
the mining boom is therefore ultimately precipitated by cultural factors. By this, I dont mean
foreign culture, but engineering culture. A combination of tradition, financial incentive, and
the fact that long term consequences are removed from the immediacy of benefits means
Engineering graduates simply don't value environmental and economic sustainability as
highly as monetary reward. Engineers are expected to have a core set of values, outlined in
the Engineers Australia Code of Ethics; they must value the health, safety and wellbeing
of the community and the environment 5.The education of discipline specific sustainability
however, tends to be fragmented. Likewise, industry itself sets a fairly poor example in
attitude toward sustainability, seeing it as a legal or fiscal goal rather than a moral one. These
factors combine to undermine critical values in the Engineers, resulting in garbled
expectations; the government and Engineers Australia set out a list of virtues to embody,
while the employer deemphasises these and focuses on profit.
Modern mining in Australia is characteristic of the culture described above. While the
government does impose legislation on sustainability issues, it has possibly confounding
personal interest in the mines; they are an excellent source of income tax, gross domestic
product, and have large lobbying groups. This is entirely typical of large corporate business
with strong political ties, in that the government is reliant on the business for political and
economic reasons. The same corporate/government structure existed in the case of the
Challenger disaster, where NASA and Morton Thiokol were able to effectively avoid legal
responsibility because of their ties with government funding and image8. Corporations and
private industry have a big hand in this issue, as they perpetuate the attitudes that have
precipitated the issues associated with the mining boom.
Key to morally virtuous Engineers is the role of corporations as their employers.
Industrial interests all too often focus primarily on fiscal bottom lines while maintaining the
front of a sustainable company out of necessity, a mindset which is then passed on to the
employees. The formative powers of the corporate structure can easily tend to the
perpetuation of adverse attitudes, but this same structure means that Engineers with
favourable attitudes toward sustainability can enter the industry, move upward and supplant
the outdated values over time. The best thing that an Engineer can do is realise that a
corporation is an abstraction, that people make up its structure, and that only individual
morality can lead to corporate morality. This means an Engineer should act as if it were their
sole personal responsibility to ensure that all of the companys actions are socially, morally,
economically and environmentally sound. This would not only ensure that corporate culture
improves its morality, but would also fulfil the expectations placed on Engineers from society
in general.
The large growth in the mining sector of Australian industry has introduced numerous
moral issues, complicating the roles of Mechanical Engineers and the expectations placed on
them. With a dangerous undercurrent of negligence toward sustainability, as well as a lacking
of specific sustainability education, the Engineers of tomorrow are entering industry with
values in disharmony with modern attitudes. As such, Engineers generally should treat it as a
personal prerogative to embody the values reflective of society, and Mechanical Engineers
specifically should refocus education toward sustainable practice.

1. Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2010. China, Retrieved on 5/6/13
2. Clarke, S (18 November 2009). "Australia leads world in carbon emissions". ABC
News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 18 June 2012.
3. Ebrahim-zadeh, C. (2003). Dutch Disease: Too much wealth managed unwisely.
Finance and Development, Vol 40, Number 1, 50-62.
4. Engineers Australia, 2011. The Engineering Profession; A Statistical Overview.
5. Engineers Australia, 2010. Our Code of Ethics.
%20Us/Overview/Governance/codeofethics2010.pdf. Retrieved on 5/6/13
6. Harris, C.E, 2009. Engineering Ethics; Concepts and Cases. 4th ed. California,
U.S.A: Wadsworth
7. Marris, Sid; Korporaal, Glenda (23 January 2007). "Future Fund gets time-out on
Telstra stock". The Australian. Retrieved 16 March 2012.
8. Van de Poel, I., 2011. Ethics, Technology and Engineering. Sussex: Wiley & Sons.
9. Vesilind, PA., 2006, Ethics of green engineering, Sustainability Science and
Engineering, vol 1, pp. 33-46.