Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

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.



2 responses to “1. Reverse Engineering

  1. Pingback: 10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1 | Engineering in an Age of Limits

  2. Pingback: 11. Denying Blackbeard – Part 2 | Engineering in an Age of Limits

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