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By Tara Hoke

In November 1996 ASCE's Board of Direction approved changes to canon 1 of the Code of Ethics and to the guidelines to practice for that canon. These changes, incorporating the concept of sustainable development as an ethical objective, were the result of a long and hotly contested debate about civil engineers' obligations to their clients, to the public, and to the environment. This column explores the background of the sustainable development provisions of the code on the 12th anniversary of their adoption.


In 1976 ASCE's Board of Direction approved an extensive revision of the Code of Ethics, transforming it in such a way that, rather than focusing narrowly on business practices, it became a more comprehensive guide to professional conduct. In addition to canons mandating honor and integrity, professional development, and, above all, concern for the health, safety, and welfare of the public, the 1976 edition included a provision on the engineer's obligation to the environment. This provision was set forth in paragraph (f) in the guidelines to practice for canon 1: "Engineers should be committed to improving the environment to enhance the quality of life."

While the new provision was intended to reflect the philosophy that concern for the environment was part of an engineer's "paramount" obligation to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, for many ASCE members it did not do nearly enough to demonstrate the Society's commitment to the principles of environmental stewardship. In a decade that saw major strides in the environmental movement in the United States, including federal legislation aimed at ensuring clean air and water, preserving endangered species, and protecting the environment, proponents of so-called environmental ethics argued that the code should require, not merely recommend, that ASCE members take environmental factors into consideration in meeting their professional obligations.

Almost immediately after the adoption of the 1976 edition, ASCE's Environmental Impact Analysis Research Council began work on new language that would make a commitment to the environment an ethical obligation. After several versions of the new language were considered, in 1984 the council proposed to the ASCE membership a new canon, canon 8: "Engineers shall perform services in such a manner as to husband the world's resources and the natural and cultured environment for the benefit of present and future generations." This canon, together with the nine clauses pertaining to it in the guidelines to practice, required engineers to possess knowledge of environmental issues, to determine and disclose any untoward environmental effects of civil engineering projects, and to promote and support efforts to preserve areas of archaeological, geological, or biological significance.

While the proposed canon was hailed by supporters as a statement of the profession's existing standard of practice and a means of dispelling any public misperception of civil engineers as supporters of unchecked development, the proposed canon met with immediate resistance within the ASCE membership. Critics of the canon argued that, while good engineering includes stewardship of resources, it was inappropriate to place the abstract concept of conservation above the engineer's duty to his or her clients and the profession's goals of technological advancement.

Many feared that creating an express obligation to husband resources would create a new source of legal liability for members rendering professional services. Still others, while supporting the concept of environmental ethics in general, believed that the issue was amply covered in paragraph (f) in the guidelines to practice for canon 1 and in ASCE's policy of "assuring a desirable quality of life," which included many of the considerations contained in the proposed canon. In the face of this opposition, ASCE's Professional Activities Committee voted against recommending canon 8 to the Board of Direction, and the initiative stalled.


The term "sustainable development" was popularized in the late 1980s as a concept that stressed the importance of balancing the needs of today's population to develop and use natural resources against the need to preserve finite resources for the benefit of future generations. The increasing global focus on sustainability gave new life to the quest to strengthen the civil engineer's responsibility to the environment and to have this responsibility reflected in the Code of Ethics.

In 1994 the Professional Activities Committee drafted a second version of canon 8: "Engineers shall perform services that help sustain the world's resources and meet long-term human needs, while protecting the natural and cultural environment." This version was disseminated to the membership for comment in February 1995 but again met with opposition.

Some ASCE members argued that the focus on sustainable development was harming the civil engineering profession in that major infrastructure and other projects throughout the country were drying up because of vague concerns about sustainability. Others challenged the murky definition of sustainable development as popularly used and questioned whether any engineer could have a sufficient understanding of the concept to comply with a canon in the Code of Ethics. At least one ASCE district objected on the grounds that the term "sustainable development" had been used in the media in debates over such issues as birth control and abortion, and it opposed any action by ASCE that might be perceived as taking a position on such issues. Finally, some members repeated the argument that sustainable development was adequately addressed in paragraph (f) in the guidelines to practice for canon 1.

After tallying the wide range of member responses, the Professional Activities Committee again voted against recommending canon 8 to the board. Instead, it proposed an alternative means of introducing the concept of sustainability into the code, namely, by modifying canon 1. Their proposal for canon 1 read as follows: "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties."

The proposed amendment also included several changes to the guidelines to practice for canon 1. The new guidelines stressed that engineers should seek opportunities to protect the environment and demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, and they required engineers to advise clients and employers of possible consequences if their advice in matters of sustainable development was not heeded.

The proposed revisions to canon 1 were announced to the ASCE membership in April 1996 and approved by the board in November of that year, along with the following definition: "Sustainable development is the challenge of meeting human needs for natural resources, industrial products, energy, food, transportation, shelter, and effective waste management while conserving and protecting environmental quality and the natural resource base essential for future development."

Since the passage of its amended Code of Ethics, ASCE has supported a number of other policies and initiatives in furtherance of sustainability. Policy 418 ("The Role of the Civil Engineer in Sustainable Development," http://apps.asce.org/pressroom/news/policy_details.cfm?hdlid=60), last modified in April 2007, encourages civil engineers to consider economic development and environmental sustainability as "complementary aspects of the common goal of improving the quality of life."  The Vision for Civil Engineering in 2025  (http://content.asce.org/vision2025/index.html) depicts civil engineers as leaders in implementing "green" design and environmentally friendly innovations. And in May 2008 the Board of Direction approved the dissemination of the Sustainable Development Action Plan, which summarizes achievements and outlines new objectives in education, outreach activities, and research in relation to sustainable development. 

Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.

© ASCE, ASCE News, November, 2008