Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The case for Aspiring Engineering Leaders to get Politically Active

Bertie Knight, Cohort 2018

It may upset some of you to read this, but just because the UK 2019 General Election is two months behind us, politics isn’t something that’s simply going to go away for another five years. It’s a topic that’s stressful, complicated, often boring, but also undeniably important since it impacts almost every aspect of our daily lives in ways that we generally take for granted... a lot like engineering! When was the last time, for instance, that you stopped to think of all the ways in which engineering shapes your daily life?

In this blog, I want to highlight some ways in which engineering and politics are aligned, and show that sometimes political struggle is integral in facilitating our broader goals as engineers. I believe the next generation of leaders in engineering need to be engaged with politics now more than ever before, which is difficult given that many young people are disenfranchised and inactive where politics is concerned.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ll have notices that politics in Britain (and in Sheffield) was very much alive and kicking during the latter half of last year. UCU strikes, strikes for climate and the General Election were hot topics.

Back in August, I decided to do what I’d been meaning to do for years which was join the Green Party, given it’s the party I’ve always voted for and the one I find myself most aligned with on policy. With the Greens, I attended the climate strikes, went to the October party conference, and did canvassing in the Sheffield Central constituency – which luckily for me is where I live and was one of our three national target seats. As well as this, I joined the University’s Marxist Society where I got the chance to hear talks about Marxist theory, history and class solidarity, which I found deeply interesting, even if I wouldn’t self-describe as a Marxist. As we return to studying after winter exams, I aim to deliver my own talk for the society, discussing what Marx wrote about the ecological consequences of capitalism, as well as why I think the climate crisis should be the number one issue for the multinational working class. Through both these things, I’ve come to know and learn from loads of amazing people with far more expertise than myself, who have greatly expanded my knowledge about politics, class-based struggle and, of course, the climate crisis. Knowing more about these things puts me in a better position to prepare and deliver more talks analogous to the one I did with SELA back in September, which was for the most part about how engineers are working to tackle the climate crisis. I also wrote a blog about that talk available here.

These experiences helped me reflect on my own politics, and see the value of being politically active as a young engineering leader. But even if your own views differ from mine and you believe that Brexit is the best thing since sliced bread, or that rugged individualism, free markets, and lean government are strong ways to improve people's lives, I still strongly encourage you to get active! Here's two reasons why.

Political experience can be engineering experience

Two years ago, one of my lecturers defined engineering to a cohort of first year engineering undergraduate students stating ‘engineering is about people’ – and I don’t disagree. Engineering, in my view, is as much about networking, teamwork and communication as it can be about cogs, pipes and wiring. At the end of the day what winning political campaigns boils down to is persuasion, mobilisation, organisation and communicating a strong vision on a large scale. Doing these things can allow you to hone useful ‘people-based’ skills that are involved in engineering too, whether it's on the voting public’s doorsteps, behind a podium, or at party conference.

Engineers can’t tackle engineering challenges without good policies to facilitate them

The reality is that there are many challenges in engineering which are dependent on the political and economic climate determined by strategy coming from institutions at the top. All kinds of driving forces that are ultimately contingent on politics and democratic engagement such as business regulation, taxation, direct non-market incentives and public sector investment can be positive or negative for the engineering community in achieving specific engineering goals.

This is particularly applicable to the issue of the climate crisis and our need to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we have less than 12 years before the impact of our historic burning of fossil fuels cannot be undone and we cause irreversible damage to our climate – for which future generations may never forgive. To prevent this we need unprecedented changes in all aspects of society including at least a 50% reduction in global CO2 emissions, the brunt of which needs to be undertaken by countries like the UK in the global north.

Engineers are ultimately the men and women who will have to build the renewable technology, new transport infrastructure, carbon capture facilities etc that we desperately need to make the necessary transition. But we just can’t do that without the right policies to expedite their introduction. Moreover, engineers will likely need to find methods of protecting people from the effects of climate change like sea-level rise; an increase in the severity of natural disasters such as hurricanes and
drought and the inevitable refugee crises that will spawn from these problems. For the climate crisis and many more challenges, politics is very much part and parcel of how we are going to achieve broad engineering goals. Therefore, those who want to be the best leaders in the engineering sector need to find ways to engage with, or at least influence, policy and decision-making.

If you are a student and would like to get politically active, I strongly recommend having a look at the multitude of political societies that are available at the university, as well as joining a political party - that I can guarantee will welcome you with open arms.

Thank you for reading. If you'd like to find out more about my involvement with SELA or even my environmentalist work then feel free to add me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Bertie. Really good points and fascinating to read.