How to be a Peaceful Engineer

How to be a Peaceful Engineer

In order to live in a peaceful world, it is essential that our engineers and technologies be peaceful. A week ago, I was at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL’s) Annual Meeting, where attendees learned about building peace and lobbied our representatives to make the Atrocity Prevention Board (APB) permanent. Although the gathering did not focus on engineering, it led me to contemplate the roles that technology, engineering, and engineers play in peace building. I have collected some of my thoughts for this post.

Swords into Plowshares

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” King James Bible: Micah 4:3

While I was living in South Africa, I learned that, with the fall of Apartheid, the large prison that had confined peace activists like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela was turned into South Africa’s constitutional court. Like in Micah 4:3, this structure of war and violence was transformed into a structure for peace and justice. In the verse above, the new technologies—plowshares and pruning hooks—offered people a new livelihood, resulting in food and nutrients for the entire society. So instruments of war and strife were transformed into tools meant for the success of the people.

Today we have guns, bombs, drones, and a multitude of other technologies that bring terror and death to people’s lives. If we want to build a peaceful world, we need to remold these technologies into ones that promote peace. It is the obligation of peaceful engineers to dismantle the technologies of war, and utilize the same material to build technologies that create respectable livelihoods and provide for the needs of all people. For example, engineers can create processes to turn guns into gardening tools for community gardens. Or turning manufacturing lines that produces tanks into manufacturing units creating solar panels. Engineers who actively dismantle the systems of war and turn them into systems of peace, are peaceful engineers.

Providing Access to the Marginalized

Technology has the ability to open up the world; it works like a bridge that provides access to land that is otherwise unreachable.

People throughout the world are marginalized, unheard, and do not have opportunities to pursue their dreams. During the Arab Spring, social media provided a platform for people to unite marginalized voices. Oppressive powers were attempting to silence people, yet through technology they found a way to speak, and they spoke loudly. This was only possible through technology.

An engineer working on technology that provides a voice and opportunity to the disenfranchised is an engineer for peace.

Holding Tension of the Whole System and Your Contribution

The examples above are a bit narrow in scope and complexity. These are small acts of peace that made a difference; in the complex industrial war system we live in, though, things are not that easy. Twitter may provide a voice to the unheard, but the cellphone where the Tweets originate was made with raw materials that were mined by children in forced labor, and overseen by the militias who cause war. The peaceful engineer needs to recognize, remember, and remold this system moving forward. It is not enough to focus so narrowly on one piece of the system. The end result is not the only issue; the process by which technology is created and made available also needs to coincide with our peaceful goals.

At the same time, viewing all the atrocities of the system can be daunting, and result in a feeling of paralysis. While recognizing the whole system, an engineer also needs to do what they are able to move forward on an individual basis. We must concentrate on the contributions we are able to make, while also supporting others who are working on different points in the system.

So, the peaceful engineer needs to open their awareness and heart to the complex systems in which they are living, while at the same time taking the steps that are actually within their grasp. We should know everything that needs to be done, and do everything that we are able to do.

I think this is where praying is most useful. As Quakers, we have the phrase “Holding in the Light” that essentially means that I am holding a situation into Divine presence. Here is a better explanation. If you are not religious, you may just want to send positive thoughts. No one person has control of the whole system, and we can only do our best.

Engineers Need to Know When Engineering Is Not Appropriate.

Bridget Moix from the Genocide Prevention Program recently returned from the Central African Republic. Last year, the villages were too violent to travel, but through intentional acts of peace, the region was stabilizing enough for her to enter. She spoke at the meeting about her experiences.

Bridget gave an illustration of an act of peace that she witnessed. In the village, a social cohesion committee mediated a conflict over a stolen cow. The villager who had stolen the cow agreed to pay for it, and this satisfied the villager whose cow was stolen. The social cohesion committee was able to address the conflict through peaceful means.

In this context, the role of an engineer is to do nothing – unless, of course, the engineer is a trained mediator. There are situations and times when it is not technology that is needed to solve a problem. The peaceful engineer needs to be trained to recognize these instances and respond accordingly. We cannot say that simply because technology is not called for, we have no responsibility.

“Building” Peace

We cannot create a peaceful world in a vacuum; we must work together to accomplish peace. Even though it seems daunting and impossible, it is important that we continue striving for peace.

These are some of my personal reflections on what it means to be a peaceful engineer. I would love to hear your thoughts on what I wrote and any ideas you may have on what is needed to build peace.



Photo: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares” by Suzie Tremmel is licensed under CC BY 2.0