CONSTRUCTION AND CONSCIENCE

I have an attachment to India (see Blog 15.11.10), and I sympathise with the multiple challenges faced by that country.  One of those challenges is the need to provide sufficient energy to meet its burgeoning industrial growth and improve living standards for citizens – while at the same time doing all it can to arrest increases in carbon emissions.  Western industrial nations developed at a time when there were few perceived  moral or environmental constraints, but economic growth is no longer welcomed uncritically.

These thoughts are prompted by the current controversy surrounding the proposal to build a £13.5 billion ‘nuclear park’ in Jaitapur on India’s west coast.  This generating plant will have an output of 9,900 megawatts – equivalent, in British terms to eight Sizewell B power stations.  The plan has attracted criticism from opponents of nuclear power, and from environmentalists who say that the area concerned has some of the richest biodiversity in the sub-continent – 6000 species of flora and fauna,  including 325 threatened species. (The Times, 21.02.11)

Ultimately it must be for national governments to make decisions like this – relying on a democratic mandate and having due regard to minority views.  The Jaitapur project will go ahead, and its size will guarantee the involvement of many firms from abroad.  Indeed, David Cameron signed an agreement to share civil nuclear expertise when he visited India last year.  Whatever the commercial attractions, however, many individual construction professionals are bound to share the concerns of local protesters – concerns about nuclear energy and environmental damage.

How do we reconcile personal ethical beliefs, professional roles and commercial objectives?  The short answer is ‘with great difficulty’, but the issue deserves debate – and what follows is an attempt to identify its components.  Firstly professional formation (education and training) must include consideration of the full range of ethical issues which are likely to be encountered in practice.  On a matter such as nuclear energy there are (I would suggest) no right answers.  Students will form their own conclusions, but they should at least be exposed to the relevant issues, so that those conclusions are informed opinions rather than emotional responses.

Next, when they emerge into the world of practice, professionals deserve the assurance that the firms that employ them have themselves thought through the ethical issues relevant to any particular project, and that they are comfortable that the project is consonant with their view of corporate social responsibility.  This is not starry-eyed idealism – we are long past the time when ‘obeying orders’ or ‘earning an honest crust’ could justify plainly unethical conduct.  Nevertheless, on projects where there are strong environmental objections but clear legitimacy, firms may decide to mitigate both damage and concern through, for example, investment in local communities – bearing in mind that such action may itself sometimes be judged  unethical.

Finally, I would suggest that firms should recognise, to the extent that they can, individual rights of conscience – much as happens when health professionals are allowed not to be involved in procedures to which they have ethical objections.  On the question of the Jaitapur project, my judgement would I think be influenced most by India’s need to achieve low-carbon industrialisation and alleviate poverty.  But the moral complexity of such decisions is inescapable.

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