Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

Pop Quiz


Here is a pop quiz for those who make their living from the oil refining business.

Question #1
The refinery that provides you with your salary/consulting fee/taxes/contract payments processes 75,000 barrels of crude oil (12,000 m3) per day. How long will it take to fill the tank shown in the picture?

  1. 100 days
  2. 10 days
  3. 1 day
  4. 1/10 day
  5. 10 minutes

Question #2
Crude-Oil-Hands-1Have you ever had crude oil on your hands?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I don’t even know where to find some crude oil to put on my hands.
  4. That would be contravening HSE rule 33.121.§H(c).subpart(iii).
  5. What is crude oil?

Question #3
What is your reaction to the picture on the left?

  1. I use one routinely.
  2. Oh dear! They are so 1980s. Our new instrument systems measures level every hundredth of a second to an accuracy of ±0.01%. What planet have you been living on?
  3. What is it?

There are no “correct” answers to the above questions but the following responses indicate that you are a true refinery worker.

  1. About one day
  2. Yes
  3. Routinely (it’s a strapping tape)

But consider all the other people who work in the refining business (or at least derive their income from it).

  • Insurance agents;
  • Conference organizers;
  • Bankers;
  • Shop stewards;
  • Blog writers;
  • Instrument manufacturers;
  • Tax collectors;
  • Book publishers
  • LOPA analysts;
  • Attorneys;
  • Engineering professors;
  • Shipping schedulers;
  • Human resource specialists;
  • and so on and so on.

I have absolutely no idea how many of the people in the above list could answer the three questions “correctly” but I would be surprised if it were more than one in a thousand. In other words the refining industry has become very complex and has attracted to itself a host of specialists who make a living off it but who are not actually directly involved in the production of gasoline or other refined products. And, of course, these comments do not apply to just the refining business. Any technical activity — drilling for oil, manufacturing chemicals, pipeline operation — you name it, gathers around itself a constellation of peripheral activities and actors.


Growth in the number of these support activities (and the corresponding decline in actual production work) is quite a recent phenomenon. I grew up in northern England. My early childhood memories are of shuttered wool mills: one at the top of our street, the other at the bottom. I also have memories of the stories that my grandparents would tell of what it was like to work in those mills. But, in spite of the silence of those mills, there was quite a lot of active industry in the area — not least the magnificent steam trains. But a couple of years ago I returned to northern England; I took a train from Manchester down western Lancashire to Wales. This used to be an industrial heartland. But the only “factory” that I saw on the whole journey was a building that had something to do with re-packaging toys. I also


I also visited the Glasgow Museum of Transport. It was very interesting and I recommend a visit, but ultimately it was so dispiriting that I wanted to leave. The exhibits all seemed to have the same message regarding industry in the Glasgow area.

  • Here are steam engines that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here are ships that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here are the motor cars that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here is a view of the Glasgow Harbour (but there are no commercial ships in it).

The following is from an earlier post, A Magnificent Navy on Land.



With regard to the European chemical industry the open letter from Jim Ratcliffe, Chairman of INEOS, to Mr. Barroso of the European Commission states,

I wish to express my deepest concerns about the future of the European chemical industry. Sadly, I predict that much of it will face closure within the next 10 years . . . In the UK we have seen 22 chemical plant closures since 2009 and no new builds . . .

I can see green taxes, I can see no shale gas, I can see closure of nuclear, I can see manufacturing being driven away.


One has to wonder how modern-day English and Scots will survive in a world where they actually have to make something rather than merely provide services to one another.

The thread that runs through the above discussion is complexity. The ability of a wide variety of service-providers to make a living from refineries is an example of complexity even though refinery activity is diminishing; ; the ability of entire nations to largely de-industrialize but still remain reasonably prosperous is another example.

But there are limits as to the benefits to be gained from increasing complexity. The chart below, which is taken from Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows that there comes a point when increasing complexity actually leads to reduced incremental benefits. (A series of videos of Professor Tainter explaining his ideas is available here. The videos also explain the diminishing returns that we obtain from modern scientific developments.)


John Michael Greer explains the issue of too much complexity in his description of the modern health care industry.

. . . we’ve long since passed the point at which additional investments in complexity yield any benefit at all, but the manufacture of further complexity goes on apace, unhindered by the mere fact that it’s making a galaxy of bad problems worse. Do I need to cite the US health care system, which is currently collapsing under the sheer weight of the baroque superstructure of corporate and government bureaucracies heaped on top of what was once the simple process of paying a visit to the doctor?

He goes on to say that the health care industry is not unique in its tendency to solve overly-complex problems by adding further complexity.

We can describe this process as intermediation — the insertion of a variety of intermediate persons, professions, and institutions between the producer and the consumer of any given good or service.


The situation is reminiscent of Kafka’s novel The Castle. And we need to face the reality that most safety professionals fall into the category of intermediaries. They provide a valuable service to the process industries but often they do not actually make anything or even contribute directly to the making of anything. However, as the Age of Limits starts to bite — they, like all intermediaries — will find it increasingly difficult to find funding from the refineries and other industries because those industries will be struggling just to keep production going.

Therefore, when looking to improve safety, it is important to recognize that,

  1. Adding complexity adds cost.
  2. Adding complexity leads to diminishing returns.
  3. Irrelevance.

1. Complexity Adds Cost

The first of these issues — that additional complexity adds costs — is evident from the length of the above list of professionals who are paid by the refining industry but who do not actually make gasoline.

For example, when faced with the challenge of preventing large accidents the reaction of many safety specialists is to develop models of the system being studied and then to generate case studies. This analytical work is, in and of itself, highly complex. It involves hiring specialists, training them in the company’s safety procedures, organizing computer facilities, training managers to understand the final report, and so on and so on. Moreover, the recommendations resulting from all this analytical work are likely to result in yet more complexity to be added to an already complex system.

The safety specialists need to understand that such an approach makes sense only if  that industry can pay for the added complexity. If the industry cannot make that payment (where payment is measured not in dollars or euros but in barrels of oil) then solutions of this type merely make a bad situation worse.

But the difficulties to do with increased complexity are more troublesome than mere cost. One of Tainter’s most disturbing observations is, “Complexity in problem solving causes damage subtly, unpredictably, and cumulatively”. What he means by this is that solving one problem can have unpredictable and often negative effects on the entire system. It is an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. For example safety programs can themselves actually reduce overall safety. A sub-system is made safe at the expense of the overall system. The following are examples from the offshore oil and gas industry.

  • A maintenance technician was replacing stair treads (a routine task) in order to ensure that no one slipped when walking on the stairs. During the course of his work the technician fell through a gap in the stairs and died of his injuries.
  • A technician was preparing to stop a very small leak that was creating a near-trivial environmental problem. As he was setting up the task a drain valve fell out and he was seriously injured.
  • It was found that actually launching lifeboats during evacuation drills was hazardous. Indeed, in one such drill a man died.

2. Diminishing Returns

Even if an activity does not increase overall complexity and/or cost too much, questions need to be raised about its value. Safety work, like every other human activity is subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Another Pop Quiz

Which single invention did the most to save lives in American industry? I don’t have documentation to answer this question, but I have heard it is the item shown in the picture below (which I took about ten years ago).

Knuckle Coupler

The answer is the knuckle coupler, invented in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Prior to this invention men had to go between rail cars to connect them. This was very hazardous since they could get dragged along if the train moved or they could be crushed between the buffers. The new coupler allowed two cars to connect automatically — the worker could stand to one side and stay out of danger.

In our time there are no low-hanging fruit or easy-pickings of this sort — all the simple/high reward actions have been taken (something else alluded to in the Tainter video).

3. Irrelevance


We have already referred to the post A Magnificent Navy on Land in which we suggest that, if we increase safety regulations and standards, we will have magnificent safety management systems, but no industry to manage. In other words there is little point in developing highly sophisticated and complex safety systems that result in the host company being driven out of business. The source of wealth disappears — we kill the golden goose.

In conclusion, it was suggested in the first post in this series — The Newness of Safety — that safety professionals will challenged in coming years will be to maintain the ethic of “Safety as a Value” in a time of shrinking resources. But the above discussion suggests that safety professionals will have to achieve that goal without adding complexity to the system that they are working on. In fact, it will be in their best interests to make systems simpler. Hence we reach the following conclusions.

  1. The industrial systems that we operate are complex.
  2. Our safety programs are frequently complex.
  3. We solve specific problems by adding more complexity, not realizing that we have made the overall system more prone to failure.

A much sounder approach is to respond to problems by making systems simpler. Some thoughts as to how this can be done, and what the broader implications of such an approach may be, will be provided in subsequent posts.

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