Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

We Hope It Rains


We had a strong response to last week’s post: Pop Quiz to do with excess complexity. If you did not get a chance to do so I strongly recommend that you view Joseph Tainter’s video Why Societies Collapse — And What it Means for Us. He has also published a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Tainter-Joseph-1For myself there were two take-away messages from the video. First, societies that are already complex tend to solve specific problems by adding further complexity thus creating yet more problems to solve. An example of this, as illustrated in the post Nine Pounds of Gold is the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) —  the costs associated with extracting a particular resource are greater than the benefit provided by that resource.

In the case of safety a technical team may take the actions needed to resolve a particular safety issue only to find that the safety of the overall facility has gotten worse.


Even Mario Draghi , President of the European Central Bank, seems to recognize the problem. He states,

“If — for a young entrepreneur — it takes months in some countries before he can have the permits [and] the authorizations to open a new shop, he will not ask for this credit.”

In other words simply making credit available to new businesses is not enough. If the business people feel deterred by the presence of too many intermediaries, each of whom requires payment (fee, tax, salary, whatever), then that business person will not bother to make the effort.

The second message in Tainter’s video was, in some ways, even more disturbing than what he says about over-complexity. He shows how developments in all areas of technology are slowing down. I had written the post The Newness of Safety before viewing the Tainter video. But when I heard what he had to say it explained much of what I had written — particularly the sense that we do not always progress and that, indeed, regress often takes place (witness the abandonment of the manned space program and the peak of airline travel speeds in the year 2003).

Bringing these thoughts back to the world of industrial safety, it would suggest that (1) We should strive for solutions that make systems simpler, and (2) We should not rely on technical developments to maintain and improve safety standards.

And so — on to this week’s post.



My attention was caught by an op-ed written by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (“The World Is Fast” 2014-11-04). In it he alludes to the likelihood of severe water shortages in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. “South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon. São Paulo, a Brazilian megacity of 20 million people, is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.” The article goes on to attribute the problem to global warming, deforestation of the Amazon basin and the conversion of local forests to farms. Given the severity of the crisis one would expect that the local and national authorities would be taking urgent action. Evidently this is not the case. Friedman writes that the actual response is, “we hope it rains”.

File photo of a view of the Jaguari dam station, with record low water levels in Braganca Paulista

The decision to deny the problem was made consciously even though there has been no lack of information to do with the severity of the drought and its consequences. For example, immediately prior to the recent elections in Brazil, the news agency Reuters ran the following headline.

Eyeing elections, drought-hit Sao Paulo resists water rationing

Friedman wonders why such denial occurs and suggests that it is, “Because the implications of acceptance are so significant, and we know in our hearts there’s no going back once you end denial.” Although this insight may be true there are other reasons for denial. Indeed, the article itself exhibits its own form of denial by dodging a critical issue: one way or another the standard of living of the people of São Paulo is going to take a hit. If the city truly does run out of water then there will be widespread and serious suffering: businesses will close down, people will lose their jobs, infectious diseases could spread and emigration from the city is likely. But even if the city’s residents choose to take action it is likely that they are going to suffer some hardship anyway; they will have to voluntarily cut back on their water consumption, they will have to pay taxes to upgrade the water supply system and they will need to change their current strategy of replacing native forests with farms. Denial is much easier and cheaper.

If the problems of denial were limited to just one city then there would be little to worry about. But the reality is that the response of the good citizens of São Paulo is near universal. People everywhere choose not to think about the issues associated with the Age of Limits. The reasons for this are basically emotional. Which means that the response to situations such as Friedman talks about has to address feelings — a mere statement of facts will make little headway. (One way of developing such a response is by telling stories as discussed in other posts, including That would be telling.)

Having said which any response to the issues that we face has to be based on fact and logical analysis. And this is where engineers and safety professionals can make a contribution. They are trained to to go where the numbers take them, to think rationally, to make careful analyses of objective data that are presented to them and then to provide rational, sensible and defensible recommendations.

Examples of this approach with regard to resources (oil reserves), the environment (global warming) and economics are provided below.
In discussions to do with the world’s supply of oil statements on the following lines are frequently heard, “We will never run out of oil — there are billions of barrels in the ground, we’re good for hundreds of years.” The objective response to such a statement is to note that oil availability is not a function of quantity but of economic rate, as discussed in Nine Pounds of Gold. What matters is not the amount of oil in the ground but the cost (in terms of barrels of oil, not dollars) of extracting the next, incremental barrel.

The facts to do with oil extraction costs are demonstrated in the following two charts. The first, which is taken from the Wall Street Journal, shows the enormous amounts of money that oil companies have spent on exploration in recent years — yet their production has been flat, even down a little bit.


The second chart shows similar data. Capital expenditure on oil exploration since the year 2000 has soared by a factor of five, yet production is declining at a rate of 5% per annum.


Facts need to reviewed in context — they are always part of a larger system. For example, the recent fall in the price of crude oil may indicate that oil is becoming more plentiful, maybe due to the increased extraction rates in the United States. But a glance at the oil price picture over the last twenty years (see below) shows that the recent drop to around $80/bbl is probably not significant — similar drops have occurred in the past, and the price of oil is still about 300% higher than it was in the year 2000.


Moreover news stories to do with the strategies of the Saudi Arabian government suggest that there are some explicitly political factors in play. Nevertheless, if the price of oil stays down that may be an indication that fundamentals have changed and that our economy has entered a deflationary phase, which would be very bad news indeed.


The topic of oil reserves can generate an emotional response but it is technical enough to make most people somewhat cautious in their statements. The same cannot be said about global warming — a topic creates an enormous number of subjective and tedious “I believe/I don’t believe . . .” responses. One reason for this difficulty is that the time scale is long and there are so many variables in play. It is easy to cherry-pick data and to ignore the big picture.

One way of addressing these concerns is to cite authorities that are recognized and accepted. For example, the chart below is from NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) — an organization that is associated in most minds with putting men on the moon and hence is highly credible. Therefore, when they show that global temperatures have risen 1.2ºC (2.2ºF) since the year 1910, as demonstrated in the following chart, they are likely to be believed.



Although oil reserves and climate change can be addressed with some pretty solid facts we are on much thinner ice when we look at the vexed topic of economics: the dismal science. But even here there are data that provide a basis for discussion. For example, the chart below shows Debt/Gross National Product trends for the United States. It is clear that individuals and businesses have been taking on more and more debt in the last thirty years. Whether taking on this debt is justified is a discussion for another time. But the chart does show that we are creating debt that will have to be paid back one day. This is a worrying conclusion given that the repayment will have to be funded by an oil-based economy, yet the cost of extracting oil continues to rise.



Simply having the correct facts lined up is going to do little to help “win” a discussion/argument. People view the world subjectively. Their opinions and beliefs are shaped by factors such as upbringing, friendships and life experiences and hope for the future. When presented with information about the world we all try to make that information fit our world view. Frequently people will use the words “I believe” to preface their opinions. To respond to a belief with facts that contravene that belief will generally have the opposite effect to what was intended. People experience cognitive dissonance and become defensive and respond by cherry-picking facts that support their point of view. They are basically not concerned with determining the truth — they merely want to demonstrate that they are right.

But, as the saying goes “Nature bats last”. No matter what we think or believe the laws of thermodynamics, geology, evolution and physics are what they are. It is our responsibility always to look the facts in the face and to take actions based on what those facts are telling us.

As we enter the Age of Limits we suggest that engineers and safety professionals have both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide the public with sensible, rational and factually accurate information. They will also need to analyze that information in a credible manner, particularly if the information suggests that conditions, such as the water supply to São Paulo, could get worse.

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