Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.
Monthly Archives: October 2015
Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #19. Bright Green Denial
Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?
This is the nineteenth 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:
- What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century? and
- How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?
One of the most critical limits that our society faces is, of course, climate change. It has been suggested that we might look back on the year 2015 as the year when the issue of climate change becomes generally accepted because it is increasingly difficult for an intellectually honest person to challenge the conclusions of scientific research on the topic. In his article The True Scientific Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming James Powell states the following,
For 2013 and 2014, I found that only 5 of 24,210 articles and 4 of 69,406 authors rejected anthropogenic global warming, showing that the consensus on AGW is above 99.9% and likely verges on unanimity.
(His article is based only on articles that discuss the causes of global warming — not on its effects.)
The scientists’ research is being increasingly confirmed by what we see around us: Florida is seeing the effects of rising seawater, California is becoming a desert and the Syrian refugees are fleeing a land where they have not had a proper rainfall in four years.
But, still, many people remain in denial. They do not accept the premise of the quotation from Harlan Ellison, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant”. The presentation of scientific evidence is not enough to persuade many people to change their minds. Their opinions have actually become an article of faith.
But a closer examination of the topic of denial (whether it is to do with climate change, peak resources or some other objective phenomenon) indicates that there are actually three types of denier:
- True Believers;
- Cynics; and
- Bright Green Deniers
It is the Bright Green Deniers that I would like to focus on in this post. But first, a few words about those in the first two categories.
People who simply deny that climate change is happening are the people of faith just referred to. Their response is ideological, not scientific. They exemplify Francis Bacon’s observation that, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.”
If someone has adopted a point of view as a belief or as part of their ideology then they cannot be challenged by scientific studies or the presentation of facts. They will merely buttress their beliefs with cherry-picked factoids.( Within this group there is a subset that accepts the phenomenon of climate change but denies that humans are a leading cause of that change.)
The people in this group face a long-term challenge; as it becomes increasingly apparent that the world is changing — the long-term drought in California is an example — they may face increasing backlash, even anger. They may also be challenged by humor such as that in Hy Brasil.
The second group of deniers consists of people who fully understand what is going on with regard to the climate but who cynically choose to take no action because doing so would be against their short-term interests. Many business people fall into this category — they recognize that a truly honest response to our problems could put them out of business.
Once more, there is little point in discussing the science and ethics of climate change issues with these people. However, if they sense a business opportunity they could react very quickly thus, ironically, making them one of our best hopes. If they figure out that the best way to make money is to come up with new technologies or low-energy products then they will do so. And it appears as if the number of people in this category is growing.
Some energy companies fall into this category. For many of them their core business consists of extracting hydrocarbons (oil, gas and coal) from the ground, turning them into usable fuels and then encouraging people to burn those fuels — thereby elevating the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration. Managers in these companies may deny or ignore climate change issues because they would have to cut back on their production of oil, coal or gas and therefore on profits. But their business model is changing — more and more of their investors recognize that the current approach is a financial dead end and new strategies are needed.
In this context, the following quotation from Mother Jones is pertinent.
One morning in May, Danielle Fugere tried to convince America’s second-largest oil company to get out of the oil exploration business. Standing before a room full of Chevron shareholders in San Ramon, California, she warned that climate change and rapidly shifting oil markets were threatening to erode the corporation’s profits.
[She] pointed out that Chevron—the world’s largest corporate source of carbon dioxide emissions—has spent billions of dollars searching for new, often remote sources of oil that will take years to tap. How, she wondered, can the company remain profitable when it faces plummeting crude oil prices and looming restrictions on fossil fuel use? Rather than funding long-term projects that might never pay off, she argued, Chevron could return the money as dividends or steer it into less risky ventures like renewable energy. “Oil that stays in the ground is valueless,” she said.
Bright Green Deniers
The third type of denier is one that includes many readers of blogs such as this. They support changes such as growing organic vegetables, driving hybrid cars, using public transport and installing solar panels. They make extensive use of words such as ‘green’, ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘recycling’. This response — referred to here as Bright Green Denial — is practised by people who fully accept the conclusions of climate scientists and are even modifying their lifestyle in response. Yet this form of denial may, in the long run, be the most dangerous of all because, fundamental to their way of thinking, is an assumption that these changes will allow us to avoid making serious sacrifices. It is an insidious form of maintaining Business as Usual.
There Is No Brighter Future
Throughout these posts I have referred to the works of John Michael Greer — for example in A Journey Part 3 – A Predicament. And I have little doubt that I will be alluding to his writings in future posts. At the heart of Greer’s message is the phrase, There is no brighter future. As resources become depleted and as the climate continues to deteriorate we are inexorably heading to a much lower standard of living, at least in material terms. He also makes a clear distinction between predicaments and problems. Problems have solutions — predicaments do not, they can only generate responses. This is the fundamental distinction that is not grasped by Bright Green Deniers, and indeed by most other people, particularly engineers who are used to finding solutions to problems.
Greer further notes that throughout history civilizations have risen and fallen and there is no reason to believe that ours is an exception. Therefore, rather than trying to avoid the inevitable, we should prepare for what is ahead. Specifically, we should prepare for a lifestyle that is much, much more basic than the one that we enjoy now.
If that analysis of our predicament is correct then the Bright Green Deniers are doing us all a disservice. They are correct when they say that we should modify our lifestyle with environmentally-friendly actions such as growing our own vegetables of driving smaller cars, but they are wrong if they believe that such actions will allow for a continuation of Business as Usual. They offer a false sense of hope.
Back to 1712
The above discussion presents a future that is, to say the least, discouraging. Very few of us are going to change the way we live because we should change the way we live. Back to Francis Bacon, “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” In other words we will adjust our beliefs to fit our desires, and if that means denying climate change and resource limitations then so be it. Only a tiny minority of people are capable of looking at the facts and then choosing to believe in what they would very much desire to be untrue.
But the reason that I started this series of posts is that I wonder if there might be a different type of response — one that requires us to use our imaginations. In one of the first posts in this series — Peak Forests — I noted that the people of the early 18th century were in a dilemma such as the one that we face. Their dilemma and how they responded to it can be summarized as follows:
- We are running out of wood — the forests are mostly depleted. We need a new source of energy.
- No problem — there is plenty of coal underground.
- But when we dig for coal the mines flood. We need pumps to remove the water.
- But those pumps need a source of power — so we need to invent the steam engine (which is fueled by the coal we have just mined).
- But we cannot transport the coal in bulk using horse-drawn, wooden wagons on muddy roads. So we put the newly-invented steam engine on a frame, put the frame on wheels, put the wheels on steel rails and — Oh, by the way — we have just invented the railway.
- We have successfully turned our predicament into a problem, we have solved the problem, and — Oh, by the way — we have just started the Industrial Revolution.
Can we in our time replicate what people such as Thomas Newcomen did when he invented the first industrial steam engine in the year 1712? Do we have the creativity and the imagination of the people of those days? Of course, none of us know. But when I look at the three types of Deniers that I listed at the start of this post I wonder if our best hopes for a bright future may lie not with the Bright Green Denialists but with the Cynics. In other words, we should encourage people to turn our predicaments into problems by appealing to their self-interest, not to altruistic motives or scientific reason.
So I conclude this post with two well-worn proverbs:
- You cannot have your cake and eat it (in spite of Bright Green Denial)
- Necessity is the mother of invention (Engineering in an Age of Limits)
Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.
- Plant Design and Operations (1st ed.)
- Offshore Safety Management (2nd ed.)
- Process Risk and Reliability Management (2nd ed.)