Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

7. A Journey Part 3 – A Predicament

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #7. A Journey Part 3 – A Predicament


Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the seventh post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and the environment as we continue to dump 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 shift. 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.

In this blog we consider two questions:

  1. What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century? and
  2. How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?

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
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey Part 1 — Twilight
  6. A Journey Part 2— Hubbert
  7. A Journey Part 3 — A Predicament (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.

Authors and Publications

In the last two posts I discussed two of the authors — Matt Simmons and M. King Hubbert — who helped form my early thinking on what I now refer to as the Age of Limits. In this current post I describe very briefly some of the other events and authors who advanced my subsequent understanding regarding the Age of Limits. Of course, this list is not complete — I will have occasion to cite other writers in subsequent posts.

Deepwater Project

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

I first started looking at Peak Oil issues when I was working for a large engineering company in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was part of a team that was designing an offshore oil platform to be located in deep water (about 1000 meters) in a remote part of Malaysia. Like most technical people I was impressed and fascinated by the technical challenges that the project posed. But, as I started reading authors such as Simmons and Hubbert I did wonder at the amount of effort and money that was being spent to find and extract the oil from this remote location. Why was this effort necessary?

I worked on another project at about the same time. All of the project team members were given T-shirts on which was imprinted the words, “Mooring Water Depth Record – 7200 ft”. This was not the first time that I had worked on record depth project — there seemed to be a pattern here — the fact that so many projects were to do with production of oil at record depths suggested that the easy oil was gone.

Projects such as these were my introduction to the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) — a topic discussed in Nine Pounds of Gold.

The Oil Drum

Oil Drum logo

Much of our understanding of peak oil issues was developed by oil industry experts (particularly retired geologists) who were not directly employed by the industry. These experts applied their expertise to understanding just what was going on. And, being independent, they were free to come up with unappetizing conclusions. Much of their work was published at the Oil Drum web site. That site has since closed down (although past posts are still available) but it was instrumental in helping technical professionals such as myself develop an understanding of peak oil issues.

ASPO Conference

Association for the Study of Peak Oil

Not long after returning from Malaysia I attended a two day conference in Washington, D.C. in 2011 organized by ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil). The conference was well organized and the speakers were both interesting and informative. But what did make an impression on me was the small number of people who take an interest in these issues, an impression that has stayed with me since. There simply aren’t all that many people involved in the peak oil movement.

The Archdruid Report

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

Almost every week since the year 2006 John Michael Greer has published a blog post called The Archdruid Report. His writing covers a wide range of topics — I will have occasion to refer to his insights in future posts. Because of the scope of his writings it is difficult to summarize them in just a few words, but the following ideas are central to his thinking.

  • No solution — predicament
  • No brighter future
  • Dark Ages
  • Green Wizards
  • Personal response
  • Catabolic collapse

In this post I will pick on just one of those topics: Greer’s insistence that we are facing not problems but predicaments. He says that the society that we have developed over the last 300 years is utterly dependent on the availability of fossil fuels — first coal then oil. As the reserves of these fuels decline we will be faced with wrenching changes whether we like it or not. We do not know what the society of the future will look like but we do know that we cannot return to the days of prosperity funded by abundant fossil fuels.

This distinction between predicaments and problems is one that engineers in particular do not easily accept. Their culture is one of solving problems, not adjusting to the consequences of predicaments.

Resource Insights

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

People tend to come at Age of Limit issues from one of three directions: resource decline, environmental issues or financial limits.

In his weekly post at Resource Insights Kurt Cobb discusses all three of these strands. I have found his analyses of government data and forecasts to be particularly useful. For example, at the post The one chart about oil’s future everyone should see he presents the following chart taken from a presentation by Glen Sweetman of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Cobb states,

What Sweetnam’s chart tells us is that we must find and bring into production the equivalent of five new Saudi Arabias between now and 2030 in order to meet expected demand even if the volume of tight oil reaches its maximum projected output.

World’s liquid fuel supply

Obviously there are not “five new Saudi Arabias” out there. Official information from the United States government tells us so. And making up for the identified shortages by the year 2030 is not going to happen.

Our Finite World

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

One of the Oil Drum writers was the actuary Gail Tverberg. After The Oil Drum site shut down she continued to publish at her own site — Our Finite World.

Tverberg focuses on the financial aspects of the Age of Limits, particularly the role of debt. Financial topics are probably the area that engineers feel least comfortable with. The following quotation from one of her recent posts is representative.

. . . economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Peak Prosperity

Chris Martenson

Chris Martenson

Chris Martenson at Peak Prosperity provides discussion and advice to do with upcoming crises. Some of the material is viewable by subscription only. However the free crash course provides a thorough and clear explanation as to the changes that are going on. The following is from the web site.

The Crash Course has provided millions of viewers with the context for the massive changes now underway, as economic growth as we’ve known it is ending due to depleting resources.

The course is organized into the following twenty six video segments that total around two hours of viewing time — two hours very sell spent.

  1. Three Beliefs
  2. Three “E”s
  3. Exponential Growth
  4. Compounding is the Problem
  5. Growth vs. Prosperity
  6. What is Money?
  7. Money Creation: Banks
  8. Money Creation: The Fed
  9. A Brief History of US Money
  10. Quantitative Easing (“QE”)
  11. Inflation
  12. How Much Is A Trillion?
  13. Debt
  14. Assets & Liabilities
  15. Demographics
  16. A National Failure To Save & Invest
  17. Bubbles
  18. Fuzzy Numbers
  19. Energy Economics
  20. Peak Cheap Oil
  21. Shale Oil
  22. Energy & The Economy
  23. The Environment: Depleting Resources
  24. The Environment: Increasing Waste
  25. Future Shock
  26. What Should I Do?

Post Carbon Institute

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg, a Senior Fellow-in-Residence of the Post Carbon Institute, is the author of twelve books on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. Titles include the following:

  • Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels (2015)
  • Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (2013)
  • The End of Growth: Adapting the Our New Economic Reality (2011)
  • The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crises (2010; co-editor)
  • Blackout: Coal, Climate, and the Last Energy Crisis (2009)
  • Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines (2007)
  • The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism & Economic Collapse (2006)
  • Powerdown: Options & Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004)
  • The Party’s Over: Oil, War & the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003)

His thorough research provides a well-informed basis for discussions to do with the Age of Limits.


In the last three posts I have listed some of the writers who have influenced my thinking on Age of Limits issues. Although there are differences of opinion between them what really strikes me is the consistency between them and the thoroughness with which they analyze these issues. They handle what could be very emotional topics rationally and carefully, and with little hyperbole

It can be seen that my education to do with what I now refer to as the Age of Limits came out of my experiences in the oil industry and from reading about Peak Oil (a misleading phrase that I no longer use). Other people approach these issues from either an environmental or financial background. We will discuss these topics in the future posts.


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