Sustainable development has become an increasingly common topic of both day-day conversations and in discussions about professional responsibility. In recent years, most of the professional engineering societies have moved to incorporate language about environmental responsibility, including sustainable development, into their codes of ethics. The ASME Code, for example, states that “Engineers shall consider environmental impact and sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties” (2).
Despite this increased focus on sustainable development, it remains a nebulous concept at both a theoretical and practical level. Few engineers would deny that they have a responsibility to the environment. Ask those same engineers what this responsibility means in practice and you are likely to get a variety of answers; most of which will probably be on the vague side. Of course, variation and generality are not always negative features of a professional ethic. Nevertheless, it is important to get more precise about what sustainable development looks like in practice.
In this paper, I will analyze ASME’s prescription that mechanical engineers consider their impact on the environment. I will examine how this prescription fits into the ASME Code as a whole. I will then survey several definitions of sustainable development; exploring challenges along the way. From here, I will begin developing a functional definition of sustainable development. In doing so, I will attempt to balance the demands of the principle of conservatism when spelling out professional obligations with those of moral leadership. The goal is to provide a useful and rigorous definition of sustainable development for practicing engineers. If am successful in this, this definition will lead to an operational understanding of sustainable development.