Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Jack of All Trades


California Drought

California Drought

In last week’s post we discussed the drought situation in São Paulo, Brazil. It turns out that this is not the only part of the world suffering from the effects of no rain and a sinking water table. In parts of central California the situation is even worse, as reported by the New York Times.

The lesson to be learned from situations such as these is that resource limitations go beyond Peak Oil — many other finite resources, of which water is probably the most important, are declining to the point where irreversible shifts in the way that people work and live are taking place.


And now on to this week’s post.

This series of posts is to do with “Engineering in an Age of Limits” and the problems and challenges that society faces and, more specifically, how they will affect industry. However simply listing the problems and difficulties is a discouraging and rather pointless exercise; engineers and safety professionals have an opportunity and a responsibility to suggest means of responding to these difficulties — in particular making sure that the concept of Safety as a Value is not lost. Moreover, the qualifications and work experience of many engineers and safety professionals are such that they can become leaders to a much larger community.

In order to grasp the range of issues that we face it useful to list the titles of the posts that have been published so far in this series and to examine the number of topics already covered.

  1. In The Newness of Safety we showed that the concept of “Safety as a Value” is a cultural artifact, one that was developed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The challenge that all engineering professionals will face in coming years is to ensure that that ethic remains unchallenged.
  2. In Nine Pounds of Gold we showed that the absolute quantity of a resource (whether it be gold, oil, ground water or anything else) is is not what matters when we are determining how much of that resource can be economically extracted from the earth. It’s a rate, not a quantity, function.
  3. Thinking the Unthinkable demonstrated that technological progress is not a given and that regress can and does occur. Hence safety professionals should be cautious about relying on technology to solve their problems.
  4. Pop Quiz used the refining industry to note how many people who actually know very little about the oil business nevertheless make their living from it. It showed how complexity adds cost and suggests that the best way of making industrial systems safer is to make them simpler.
  5. We Hope It Rains discusses the opportunity and responsibility that engineers and safety professionals have to communicate the facts to do with the issues that we face.
  6. Jack of All Trades (this one)

The variety and range of the topics is the reason for the selection of the title for this post: Jack of All Trades but Master of None — a phrase that is normally used in a pejorative sense. It indicates that the person in question knows something about many things but is not an expert in any one topic, and hence that person cannot be fully trusted to do a job right. Hence, so conventional thinking goes, it is better to bring in a specialist. But, as with every proverb or slogan, there is an opposite saying — in this case: “An expert is someone knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” In a world where resources are plentiful it makes sense to divide tasks into narrower and narrower parcels with each parcel to be handled by a specialist. But in an Age of Limits it makes more sense for activities, including safety activities, to be managed by generalists. And it in this area that many safety experts excel.

Listed below are the attributes of this ideal person.

  1. Systems thinking
  2. Handling uncertainty
  3. Physics, not Economics
  4. Integrity of language
  5. Numeracy

1. Systems Thinking

A key skill that a safety professional possesses is that he or she is rarely an expert in some particular field of technology — instead he is eclectic, he has a grasp of the big picture and thinks holistically. Too much expertise in one particular area of safety can actually be a handicap. In other words, effective safety management is based on systems thinking, not technical specialization. These skills are going to be of supreme importance in the years to come. Safety professionals understand that an industrial facility consists of a vast web of inter-connected systems, some to do with equipment, some with management processes and others to do with people/human factors. The overall system needs to be thought about holistically, as illustrated by the following quotation from Process Risk and Reliability Management.

The elements of process safety have strong interaction with one another — it is not possible to meet the requirements of one of the elements without considering its effect on the others. The inter-connectedness of the elements can be illustrated by considering the development of an Emergency Response Plan, in which the following sequence of actions may occur.

  • The writing of the Emergency Response Plan requires a knowledge of which hazards have to be addressed.
  • Consequently, a Hazards Analysis is required to identify the hazards.
  • In order to be able to carry out the hazards analysis, information from sources such as P&IDs and MSDS is needed. Much of this information is included in the Knowledge Management program.
  • Once the Emergency Response Plan has been developed, it will be necessary to Train everyone in its use.
  • The Emergency Response Plan has to be Audited on a regular basis.
  • During the training process, those being trained will come up with ideas that will improve the quality of the emergency response plan. This is Workforce Involvement.
  • After going through the Management of Change step these ideas can be used to upgrade the emergency manual.

2. Handling Uncertainty

A professional’s first responsibility is to frame a discussion with facts. This issue was discussed in last week’s post We Hope It Rains. The facts to do with issues such as oil depletion, droughts and increasing debt are well established. The catch is that all true scientific statements are hedged with qualifications. We cannot be totally sure about these topics; it is possible that, in the next few years, we will discover multiple oil fields that have a high ERoEI, are readily accessible and that produce enormous quantities of low sulfur crude. It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

But if an issue has say a 95% probability of occurring as determined by a large majority of qualified scientists then it is the height of irresponsibility for someone to say, “There are some uncertainties in the findings of this report, therefore I choose to ignore its conclusions. I will go with the 5%.” If it then appears that such a statement is used to justify a lifestyle that consumes large amounts of energy or that is highly polluting then one has strong reasons to doubt the integrity of the speaker.

Related to the above issue is the topic of belief. People will say that “they do not believe” in something. There is nothing wrong with this — we all have beliefs and value systems; they are an essential part of who we are. What is wrong is to distort facts to justify such beliefs, i.e., to cherry pick a few facts that are contrary to the general conclusion and thereby create factoids. An example is the recent drop in crude oil prices from around $110 to $80/barrel. This does not really tell us anything about the supply of crude oil in the ground — for that  the only figure that matters is the cost of extracting the next, incremental barrel. And that value continues to increase apace. Nevertheless the factoid of lower prices at the pump could be used to justify the purchase of a gas-guzzling vehicle.

3. Physics, not Economics

Many discussions on these topics focus on human and social parameters such as politics, economics, human factors and personal relations. But such discussion should always be grounded in the hard realities of thermodynamics, physics and geology. If we create fiat money but do not increase the goods available to match that new money then we have not created real wealth.

No matter what we think, Nature Bats Last.

4. Integrity of Language

Another role that engineers and safety professionals can play is to make sure that language, particularly technical language, is used correctly. Not only does this reduce the chance of misunderstandings it helps mitigate emotion, wishful thinking and statements of belief. A simple example to do with language concerns use of the word “production” as applied to the crude oil. We do not “produce” oil — we extract it. And once it is gone, it is gone. Crude oil is a non-renewable resource. Extracting oil from the ground is analogous to making ourselves richer by spending our savings, not by creating new sources of income.

Gas-Gauge-1Another example of the sloppy use of words can be seen in the phrase ‘Energy Crisis’. The person who uses those words is generally saying that we are running out of energy and that therefore our society will eventually grind to a halt unless we come up with an alternative. But a moment’s reflection shows that the term really does not make sense. The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us energy cannot be created or destroyed (leaving aside nuclear reactions)  — energy can only be changed in form. Therefore there cannot be an ‘Energy Crisis’; hence any program designed to solve this ‘crisis’ is likely to lack focus at best, and be a waste of time at worst.

Perpetual Motion Machine

Perpetual Motion Machine

A related example of the misuse of language concerns the word ‘Sustainable’. It is thought that if we recycle waste materials we can develop an ecological perpetual motion machine. But this cannot be: the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us so. Whenever we do any kind of work, including recycling waste materials, the entropy of the overall system will increase. No activity is truly sustainable.

This does not mean that we should not recycle — but it does mean that we should be realistic about the meaning of the words that we use.

5. Numeracy



W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) famously said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data”. This is a concept that most engineers should be comfortable with. One example of this trait has already been given in Nine Pounds of Gold., which introduced the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), the units of which are very simple: Joules / Joules. It is a dimensionless number (the Reynolds number which helps define the degree of turbulence in a flowing fluid is another widely used dimensionless number).

The use of numbers helps resolve “I think / You think” disputes.

Liberal Arts


Harold Bloom

We have just outlined some of the attributes that the ideal engineer would have when discussing issues to do with the Age of Limits. There is one area, however, in which most engineers and safety professionals are not all that strong, and that is the use of the liberal arts, particularly history, to provide an understanding for what they are seeing and doing.

Those who read these posts will have noticed that we often draw analogies between what is going on now and what has taken place in earlier times. Like all analogies these comparisons break down if pushed too far, but they do provide a useful framework in which to think issues through. And we have frequently stressed not only the importance of being able to write creatively but also on knowing How to Read and Why.

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert Spencer

The above phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in the year 1864 after he had read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the context of this post’s discussion a better term might be “Survival of the Adaptable”. None of us know what changes are ahead of us but it is our responsibility to look facts in the face and not indulge in wishful thinking or hoping for the best. Those of us who understand the changes and can adapt to them will have the most success in maintaining the highest standards of safety and the well-being of the organizations that we work for.


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