Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Monthly Archives: April 2015

3. The Mechanical World View

Engineering in an Age of Limits
3. The Mechanical World View


Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented engineers.

What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the third post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; there are limits to our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and there are limits to how much we can continue dumping waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a transition. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests were mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts. How this will impact the engineering profession remains to be seen.

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View (this one)

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are listed at our Welcome page.

From Wood to Coal

Early steam train hauling coal

Early steam train hauling coal

The previous post in this series was entitled Peak Forests. The message of that post was.

  1. In Europe from classical times until the end of the Middle Ages wood was pretty much the only source of external energy. Wood was also used in the fabrication of virtually all equipment, vehicles and agricultural tools.
  2. The wood came from the ancient forests that spread across northern Europe. The wood was used much more quickly than new trees could grow so it was, in effect, a non-renewable resource.
  3. By the end of the seventeenth century many parts of Europe were effectively deforested — a new source of energy was needed. The choice was straightforward — coal was widely available and provided more energy per unit of weight than did wood.
  4. But most coal was located in underground mines which were subject to flooding. Hence a means of pumping the water out was needed.
  5. In response to this need Thomas Newcomen developed the first industrial steam engine. It was crude and inefficient by modern standards, but it worked.
  6. The key point in this sequence is that Newcomen and the men like him did not invent the steam engine for fun (the Greeks had done that two thousand years earlier). They invented their machines in order to meet a specific challenge. And in doing so they happened to invent the profession of engineering.
  7. His invention had enormous unforeseen follow-on effects. For example, the newly mined coal was  denser than wood. Hence it could not be transported in bulk on the unpaved, muddy roads of the time. So they took the newly-invented boiler, put it on a frame, put the frame on wheels, put the wheels on steel rails, and — lo and behold — the railroad, with all its follow-on consequences was invented.

Within a hundred years of Newcomen’s invention the Industrial Revolution was well underway.

The Hubbert Curve

We will have many occasions in this series of posts to discuss in detail the Hubbert Curve, developed by Dr. M. King Hubbert in the year 1956. For now, it is sufficient to say that, although he developed his curve for onshore oil production in the United States, it can be applied to the extraction rate of virtually any natural resource: forest timber, coal, oil, even the fish that can be taken from the ocean. Basically he said that the extraction rate for any newly-discovered resource would follow a profile such as that shown below.

Hubbert Curve

Initially the extraction rate rises steeply, then a peak or plateau is reached, then the extraction rate declines until it reaches a steady level of about 10% of the peak value. Given that all natural resources tend to follow a Hubbert profile there will always be a need to invent new technology to develop new sources of energy. The process of invention did not stop with Newcomen. But the central challenge of our age is that we don’t have an obvious replacement source of energy so the people of the early 18th century had coal, in the first part of the 20th century oil was a natural replacement for coal, but we, in our time, do not know how to complete the following sequence.

Wood → Coal → Oil → ?

There are many suggestions floating around: solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels all come to mind. But none of them show the potential to scale up sufficiently to replace oil and to do so in the time available to us. Consequently we do not appear to have any modern-day Thomas Newcomens to take us to the next stage.

If we cannot find a replacement for oil, then a new way of thinking will be needed and fundamental reorganizations will be called for. Which means that it is useful to look at the way of thinking that developed at the same time as the steam engine, three hundred years ago.

The Mechanical World View

Jacques Turgot

Jacques Turgot

The move from wood to coal as a principal source of energy affected not just technological innovation. It built on and helped create a new way of thinking.

In his book Entropy: Into the Greenhouse World (1989) the author Jeremy Rifkin starts one chapter with an overview of a two-part lecture given by Jacques Turgot in the University of Paris in the year 1750. Turgot argued that history proceeds in a straight line and that each stage of history represents an advance over the previous one. He developed the idea of what we now call “progress”, which is often stated in the form, “I want my children to have a better standard of living than I have”. To quote Rifkin,

Though we are largely unaware of it, much of the way we think, act, and feel can be traced back to the . . . historical paradigm that took shape and form during those centuries of transition. It is ironic indeed that only now as that tapestry begins to fray and unwind is it possible to really see the stuff we and our modern world are made of.

Our current paradigm can be called the Mechanical World View. It is based largely on the writings of three men: Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton. Each one of these gentlemen deserve a post all to themselves. For now we will summarize their works as follows.

  • Bacon (1561-1626) worked out the scientific method — he separated the observer from the observed and thus came up with “objective knowledge”.
  • Descartes (1596-1650) created the mathematical world, the world that engineers inhabit now. In that world everything is completely predictable.
  • Newton (1643-1727) put Descartes’ mathematical principles into action. He created his three laws of motion — laws that accurately described and predicted planetary motions.

To summarize, the Mechanical World View, at least as it described the material universe, was very appealing because it explained the world and it gave results. It provided the basis for never-ending “progress”.

There was one huge limitation in this World View, however. It could not explain the messy, disorganized irrational behavior of human beings. Attempts have been made, with very little success, to incorporate this way of thinking into disciplines such as sociology and economics. But, most of the time, our society is still a mess and we can’t explain what is going on or why people do what they do most of the time.

Also, what the Mechanical World View does not consider is that progress requires ever-increasing quantities of free energy. But, as we hit the Age of Limits, their model of an orderly and progressive universe is no longer working. We are running out of energy supplies that can be extracted economically, we are running out of space (air, land and sea) to dump all our waste and we have an economic system that seems to be increasingly wobbly because money has become detached from underlying material values. And the human side of things, which was always messy and inexplicable, seems to be getting worse.

To summarize: the Mechanical World View worked for three hundred years, but has stopped working for us. Our natural response is to adjust the machinery of our society, for example by making a transition from gasoline-powered to electric cars. But these response aren’t working all that well. We don’t know what to do because we have not yet realized that we cannot solve these new problems with the old solutions. need to replace the Mechanical World View with an Entropic World View.

The Entropic World View


As we enter the Age of Limits the Mechanical World View will no longer hold water. Rather than seeing ourselves as “progressing” in a straight line onward and upward we will need to develop a way of thinking that incorporates an understanding of a world where resources are finite, increasingly expensive and/or inaccessible, and where recycling will be fundamental to our way of life.

As we develop this series of posts (and the book that will come out of them) we will spend some more time trying to understand the decline of the Mechanical World View. But a more positive action is to try to figure out what kind of society will replace what we have now and — more specifically — how the engineering professions will be affected, and how engineers can help make the transition to whatever new ways of thinking may be developing.

What this new way of thinking will look like is anyone’s guess. Could Thomas Newcomen have foreseen the Industrial Revolution as he was tinkering with his steam engine?

But it appears as if we can draw four very tentative conclusions as to where we might be going.

  1. The first is that any activity that draws down our energy supplies will have to be stopped, or at least slowed down. Currently the latest technologies are mostly to do with computer technology: mobile phones, the Internet, tablets are examples. But, as discussed in the The Cloud, these machines consume energy, lots of energy.
  2. The second thought is that engineers in particular can apply rigorous thinking to much of the thoughtless chatter that goes on. For example, people talk about “Energy-Saving Projects”. There are no such things; energy can neither be created nor destroyed — the First Law tells us so. Hence energy cannot be saved. And people talk about “Sustainability”. Nothing is sustainable, entropy always increases — the Second Law tells us so.
  3. The third item to consider is the possibility that somewhere out there is an engineer, a modern-day Thomas Newcomen, developing systems based on an “Entropic World View”. I have absolutely no idea what that invention will look like but I am pretty sure that it will have nothing to do with computers.
  4. The final thought is probably the least palatable. There is no guarantee that we will be able to maintain our current life style in the Age of Limits. History books are full of the corpses of dead nations, empires and good ideas. There is no reason to believe that we are any different. Indeed, given our almost total reliance on declining resources, our impact on the planet and given that the population of the world has increased from about 0.5 billion in Newcomen’s day to 7.5 billion, most of whom eat food that is grown through the use of artificial chemicals made from oil, we can conclude that we are heading into very turbulent waters.

2. Peak Forests

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Part II — Peak Forests


Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented engineers.

What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the second post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; there are limits to our finances (money has to be based on actual goods and services); and there are limits to how much we can continue dumping waste products in the air, the sea and on land.

This is not the first time that society has faced such a transition. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests had largely been depleted so a transition to a new source of energy, coal, had to be found and exploited. However, the extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention.

These technological changes led to the creation of the profession of engineering. It is suggested in these posts that the transitions that we are currently experiencing could generate equally profound paradigm shifts. How this will impact the engineering profession remains to be seen. 

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests (this one)

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are all listed at our Welcome page.

The Ancient Forests

Imagine that, two thousand years ago, you could have flown over northern Europe from what is now western Russia, across northern Germany and France, and then over England and Eire. Looking down from the airplane you would have seen one continuous forest with just the occasional scattering of clearings, villages and towns, the occasional small city and a few narrow roads. The light and dark green areas in the sketch below (Oak Ridge) show the extent of that primordial forest.

Ancient Forests of Europe

Ancient Forests of Europe

Most of that forest has gone now — were you to make the same airplane ride today you would mostly see fields, towns, large cities and extensive transportation systems. Why? What happened in the last two thousand years to cause such a dramatic change in the landscape? The answer to the above question lies in the nature of the soil and climate. The soil is heavy and the climate is cool and wet. Consequently, even if the trees are cleared it is difficult to plow the soil and thus grow crops.

And then, sometime in the 9th century (a period of time that we ironically refer to as the Dark Ages) they developed the heavy cross plow. This plow was able to turn the heavy soils of northern Europe and thus open up huge areas for cultivation — but first the trees had to be cut down.

Mediaeval Cross Plow

Mediaeval Cross Plow

Deforestation and the subsequent availability of new agricultural land led to substantial population growth and to changes in the way society was organized. For example, the new plow, being much heavier than the plows used for turning the light soils of the Mediterranean lands, needed teams of oxen to pull it. Its use also encouraged the creation of long strip fields. And the surplus food produced meant that more people could move to the towns and work in activities that did not directly contribute toward agriculture.

As can be expected, a vicious cycle ensued, a cycle that is eerily similar to what we are experiencing now (except that, in our case, it is oil that is disappearing, not wood). The forests were cleared, more crops were produced, the population grew, so more land was needed to feed the increased number of people, so more forests were cleared and so on and so on. Eventually, of course, a limit was reached; once the forests had been mostly cleared there was no more new arable land to exploit. In some parts of Europe the forests were mostly gone within just a few hundred years.

The problem with this cycle was not just that society was running out of new available agricultural land, but it was also using up its supply of wood making things. And wood was absolutely crucial to mediaeval civilization — not just as a source of heat, but also as the material of construction for most buildings, all tools and equipment — virtually everything was made by wood, including, of course, the cross plow. Only cutting edges were made of iron. So deforestation created a double edged dilemma: there was no more new arable land and the raw material for equipment, buildings and heat had been depleted to a point of no return. The picture below shows the North York Moors in northern England — an area now regarded as a place of natural beauty. In point of fact, the “natural” beauty of this area is forest, not moorland grazed by sheep.

North York Moors

North York Moors

So the people of the late Middle Ages were faced with a conundrum: there is little new arable land and their vital raw material is disappearing. What do? Their answer, just like ours now, was: Alternative Fuels. By the year 1700 an answer was urgently required.


In our time there is no shortage of discussion to do with alternative fuels that will be needed to replace our diminishing supplies of oil and gas. Wind, solar and nuclear are all touted as options. When faced with the same dilemma the people of northern Europe had little doubt as to what that replacement fuel was: coal.

Coal was not a new source of fuel; people of the middle ages had been using it for many years as a source of heat for their homes. Most of that coal was “surface coal”, i.e., it was taken from surface seams or from the beaches (sea coal). But there was insufficient surface coal to meet the needs of the developing coal-based economy — hence it became necessary to extract coal from underground mines. But, as already noted, the countries of northern Europe have a wet climate (and a high water table in most places) hence the new coal mines were often flooded. Some means of pumping the water out of the mines was needed. To do this they needed two technological devices. They needed high capacity pumps to remove the water from the mines and they needed engines to power those pumps — neither human nor animal power was sufficient. Hence, necessity being the mother invention, the industrialists of that time had to invent the steam engine.

In our first post in this series we met Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729), a Baptist preacher and iron worker. He developed a steam engine to pump water from the Cornish tin mines around the year 1710; his invention was quickly adopted by the new coal-mining industry. The essential point here is that men such as Newcomen did not invent these machines because they felt like it — actually demonstration steam engines had been invented two thousand years earlier but had never been commercialized. They developed industrial-scale steam engines because the economy of the time needed them. The forests were “past peak”.

The invention of the steam engine had many, many unexpected consequences: some good and some not so good. Taken together these consequences radically changed the nature of society. Examples of these unanticipated changes include the creation of railways and the development of the chemical industry.

Early Steam Train hauling coal

Early Steam Train hauling coal

Considering railways first, prior to the 18th century there had been no need for a highly developed transportation system. Wood was harvested close to where is it was used and, because its density is quite low, it could be carried on carts or the backs of animals. However, once the coals mines were up and running, a much more robust means of transport was needed. The mines were often a long way from the people and industries that used it, it has a high density and the amounts being used were much greater than had been the case previously. Moreover coal could not be carried on carts over the unpaved roads of the time — the wheels of the carts created huge ruts making that form of transportation infeasible. So what was done was to put the newly-invented steam engine on a frame, put that frame on wheels, put those wheels on iron rails and, lo and behold, the railways have been invented. The consequences of that invention were enormous.

Another consequence of Newcomen’s invention was the creation of the chemical industry. At first coal was used primarily for heating, but the hydrocarbon molecules that make up coal are very complex and can be used as the building blocks of many other chemicals.

ERoEI of Tin

Cornish Tin Mine

Cornish Tin Mine

One of the themes that will run through this series of posts is that of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) — sometimes referred to as the Law of Diminishing Returns. (The meaning of ERoEI is explained in the post Nine Pounds of Gold.)

When a new energy source is ready to be exploited (coal in the 17th century, oil in the 20th century) new technology may be needed but that that technology can be quite simple and not too costly. But, as time goes by the resource becomes more difficult to extract and increasingly complex technology is required. After all, why did Newcomen need to invent his steam-powered pump? Tin had been mined in Cornwall since Roman times without the need to advanced technology. The reason was that the easy-to-find and extract tin ores had been worked out, so the miners were having to dig deeper and deeper mines in order to stay in business.

Creative Times

With the invention of the steam engine what we now call the Industrial Revolution was up and running. This video of the Newcomen engine shows just some of the engineering aspects of that the new technology (it does not show how they disposed of the condensate from the steam cylinder). To us the engine looks primitive and inefficient, but consider some of the new challenges that the engineers of that time faced.

  • Since the pump actually does work on its vacuum stroke the maximum distance that it can lift a column of water is 32 feet. They needed to understand the thermodynamic principles behind this limitation.
  • A counterweight is needed to raise the piston (the steam pressure was too low to do this).
  • A control system has to be developed — originally this was totally manual. An operator would open then close the valve that injected water into the cylinder.
  • Gaskets are needed to maintain a seal around the piston heads.

Wood to Coal to Oil to ?

At the head of this post is the following quotation.

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented engineers.

What will a post-oil society invent?

In the early 18th century the primary energy source for northern Europe (and later many other parts of the world) changed from wood to coal. The next transition, which occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, was from coal to oil. We will look into the nature of that transition and some of its consequences in future posts. And now, in the early years of the 21st century, 300 years after the construction of the first commercial steam engine we are on the cusp of another transition. The Oil Age is coming to an end. What new source(s) of energy will replace oil and how will they affect society in general, and the profession of engineering in particular?

1. Reverse Engineering

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Part I — Reverse Engineering

Thomas Newcomen

Thomas Newcomen (1664-1729)

The Blog and the Book

Over the course of the last two years I have published the occasional post on the topic of “Engineering in an Age of Limits” at I have also, over an even longer span of the years, published many books to do with process engineering and process safety/risk management (Sutton Technical Books at The natural next step is to combine the two activities and write a book with the title Engineering in an Age of Limits. However, I have put off doing so because it really doesn’t seem as if there is a market for such a book. It is a downer of a topic and most engineers are inherently optimistic — they believe that “they” will “come up with something” to address the myriad of problems that we face. However, because the issues to do with living in an Age of Limits are so important, and because engineers can make a major contribution to the structure of the world that we are entering, I have decided to go ahead with the project — even if sales of the book itself turn out to be miserable.

My approach to the writing of this book will be to publish a blog post at regular intervals (this is the first). The posts will not only provide the materials that will eventually make up the book they will also provide a means whereby I can solicit feedback from my readers. I have also created a LinkedIn page to facilitate discussion on these topics.


There are two basic themes behind this series of posts (and of the book that may get written). The first theme is that our society is well into an Age of Limits: limits to the natural resources that we can exploit, limits to the extent to which we can continue dumping our wastes into the air and sea and onto the land, and limits to our financial reserves. The second theme is that engineers are in a position to help us make the transition to the society that is to come; they did it once already, at the beginning of the 18th century, and they may be able to do it again.

I will develop these two themes in future posts. For now, here are some parameters that will frame the discussions.

  • Until the start of the 18th century human beings lived on the energy provided by sunlight. That energy grew the crops and the trees that were used for fuel. In modern parlance, human life was “sustainable”.
  • Then we started to exploit the energy stored in fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil). That energy has been created over a time span of millions of years from dead plant and animal material.
  • If we have to select a year when we started to systematically use fossil fuels then 1712 will do — that is the year when Thomas Newcomen invented his steam engine to extract water from flooded mines. This invention heralded the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
  • We face predicaments, not problems. Problems have solutions — predicaments can only generate responses. This is probably the hardest concept for us to grasp, particularly those of us who are engineers because we are used to finding solutions — the changes that we face will take place, like it or not; moreover most of those changes are bad news, in particular, our current standard of living cannot be maintained.
  • In the 300 years since the invention of Newcomen’s engine the number of people living on earth has grown by an astonishing 1500% from around 0.5 billion to 7.5 billion. Those extra people are fed and supported by the energy provided by fossil fuels. Not only did oil, gas and coal provide the energy needed for transportation, the generation of electricity and the heating of buildings, it also provided the materials needed for the manufacture of the vast array of modern industrial products ranging from fertilizers to chemotherapy drugs to computer screens. Maintaining our current population level in coming years is likely to be a challenge, to say the least.
  • The latest technologies such as “smart” phones and new pharmaceuticals neither create nor save energy. In fact they use energy as noted in our post The Cloud. They also use raw materials and create many environmental problems. Technology is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
  • Actions have consequences. Humanity steadily depleted its sources of energy: first the great forests were gone, then coal, then oil — the world-wide production of which peaked around the year 2005. Moreover, in spite of the almost endless discussion about alternative energy the reality is that we have not been able to find an adequate replacement for oil. “Energy-saving” solutions are an oxymoron — the 1st Law of Thermodynamics tells us so. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. And it certainly cannot be “saved”.
  • Actions have consequences. The burning of those fuels and their transformation into a plethora of chemicals has created all kinds of environmental problems. The oceans are fished out, the coral reefs are being destroyed by the acidity in those oceans, many animal species are disappearing, the glaciers are melting, droughts spread, we wonder what to do with the increasing quantities of nuclear waste, the vast mats of floating plastic in the seas continue to grow, and so on and so on. These problems will not go away because the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics tells us that any attempt to reduce entropy in one location (say the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) will increase entropy elsewhere by a greater amount. “Sustainability” is an oxymoron.
  • At the start of the 21st century financial institutions around the world tried to stimulate their respective economies by reducing interest rates to near zero and by issuing enormous amounts of unsecured debt. They failed because they did not understand that wealth is based not on money in the bank but on net energy. And our net energy is declining.

One of the reasons that we often have trouble understanding what is going on is that there are three vectors that need to be considered. These are:

  1. Financial and economics;
  2. Energy and other resources; and
  3. Environmental issues, including climate change.

These three topics all affect one another. For example, the easy to access resources are extracted first. The development of subsequent resources has a greater environmental impact. And the development of the later sources of energy requires ever increasing levels of investment. The three topics also tend to work on different time scales. The economic situation can change dramatically almost overnight. The resource picture changes more gradually, and environmental changes are more gradual still.

Hegelian Synthesis

It is not the purpose of this series of posts to try and predict the future in detail. All that anyone can predict, and then with a healthy dose of caution, is the general outline of a world of limits. As Wendell Berry said in his post To Save the Future, Live in the Present,

So far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do . . . all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today. 

The only certainty is that the future will not look like either the present industrial age or the time before it — we will create what is sometimes referred to as an Hegelian Synthesis, as shown in the sketch below. The “Thesis” in this sketch is the pre-industrial era — before the year 1712. The “Anti-Thesis” represents our current time: the industrial era. The “Synthesis” combines features of both the Thesis and the Anti-Thesis but is identical to neither. 

Given that we cannot predict the future it is still necessary to think though the broad outlines of where we are going. The following are the parameters that make up my own view of the Age of Limits Hegelian synthesis.

  1. Civilizations decline and disappear routinely. Our society is not immune from this dynamic; we are not special or different.
  2. We are entering a time that the author John Michael Greer refers to as “catabolic decline” — we will use more and more of our resources just to keep existing systems going. Hence fewer resources will be available for new technologies or for the development of alternative energy sources.
  3. The environmental impact of our activities will reach a point such that critical activities, such as the growing of staple foods, will be seriously impaired.


The purpose of this blog series is not only to explore the multiple dilemmas that we have created for ourselves, but also to think through how engineers can help us navigate the troubled waters that lie ahead.

First we must recognize that engineers are the woof and warp of the industrial era. Consider Newcomen’s crude but effective steam-driven water pump. It is based on the thermodynamic understanding that energy from fossil fuels can create useful work (mechanical engineering). The engine was located inside a boiler-house that supported the power beam (civil engineering). His successors would replace the human who operated the valves with automated systems (instrument engineering) and they would use the principles of his engine his engine to create railroads, steam ships and electric power plants.

If engineers were instrumental in creating the society in which we live then maybe engineers have a responsibility to work out a path forward. What skills and attributes do engineers bring to the challenges that we face? Well, here are a few. We will discuss others in future posts.

  1. Engineers have a good grasp of the principles of thermodynamics. The first and second laws have already been cited — they can often be used to challenge superficial ways of thinking to do with terms such as sustainability, energy saving and growth.
  2. Engineers understand the problems to do with scale-up of good ideas. For example, it may be possible to build an electrically-powered automobile. But there are close to a billion vehicles of all kinds in the world (autos, train, airplanes, ships and trucks) — all powered by fossil fuels. The development of a solar or wind power infrastructure to fuel such a fleet would require an enormous investment in a very short period of time. We have neither the time nor the money. Moreover, the development of that infrastructure will require vast amounts of fossil fuels to create the new power plants, transmission grids and vehicles.
  3. Engineers are often good at systems thinking. In The Cloud I mentioned that a small garage close to my home sells electrically-powered vehicles. They tout the fact that their cars do not have a tail pipe hence there are no carbon dioxide emissions. They conveniently forget that the power plant that creates the electricity needed by the car most certainly has a “tail pipe” in the form of a huge stack connected to the boilers that they operate. Fundamentally we need to understand that all human activities create externalities (see the post APEC Blue). It is vital that those externalities be defined and understood, otherwise actions taken with the best of intentions will make existing problems worse.

I recognize that the majority of engineers work for large companies, either directly or indirectly. Even though individual engineers may understand the issues that are discussed here, their day to day work is part of existing industrial systems. There is no easy solution to this dilemma — only when industrial companies recognize that they will need to change their way of thinking (and that they can make a profit doing so) will these engineers have an opportunity to share their ideas.

Reverse Engineering

The key to understanding what happened in the first part of the 18th century is to realize that engineering was a consequence of the first inventions such as Necomen’s steam engine. Engineers did not respond to the first energy crisis, they were made by it. So it will be in the coming years — the responses to the challenges that we face will address the reality of what is taking place. It will not be the role of engineers to desperately maintain the status quo.

But, if engineers and the companies that they work for can develop an understanding of the parameters of the Age of Limits then they have an opportunity not only to develop new technologies but also to create a new type of society. Their inventions will lead to the development of new industries, even to new types of society of ways of living. Indeed, if they become truly successful these engineers may get their names on a postage stamp.