Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Category Archives: Age of Limits

19. Bright Green Denial

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #19. Bright Green Denial

Green Car

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:

  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.

Denial

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:

  1. True Believers;
  2. Cynics; and
  3. 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.

True (Dis)Believers

Francis Bacon

                  Francis Bacon

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.)

Terry Jones in Hy Brasil

                   Terry Jones in Hy Brasil

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 Cynics

Oil-Dinosaur

Illustration by Johnny Sampson

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

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

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:

Early Steam Train hauling coal

          Early Steam Train hauling coal

  • 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.
Newcomen’s Steam Engine

               Newcomen’s Steam Engine

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)
Thomas Newcomen

        Thomas Newcomen

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

18. Solving the Wrong Problem

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #18. Solving the Wrong Problem

Phytomass

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

This is the eighteenth 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 Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. 

Trickle Down Phytomass

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions. 

Albert Einstein

Just when you thought that things could not get any worse they get worse.

Most ‘Age of Limits’ discussions revolve around the use of fossil fuels: the coal, oil and gas that was formed from the remains of photosynthetic plants hundreds of millions of years ago. We are both using them up (resource depletion) and also turning them into waste products such as CO2 in the atmosphere and acid in the oceans that are killing the environment. These problems are bad enough, but it turns out that the real concern is to do with the the earth’s inventory of living plant and animal material because that is what nourishes us, either directly or indirectly.

The technical term for this living material is phytomass.

Phytomass is critical to the survival of human beings because all of the food that we eat comes from living organisms. The energy stored in fossil fuels can help us extract and use that food more effectively but it does not create food. A person cannot eat a lump of coal or drink a barrel of oil. Phytomass is also vital because it maintains biodiversity and biochemical recycling.

In her latest essay at Our Finite World Gail Tverberg references the paper Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind (lead author John R. Schramski). Published in June 2015 the paper compares the earth to a battery that has been trickle-charged for hundreds of millions of years by energy from the sun. The energy has been stored as biomass, some that is living now (mostly as trees) but most of which is stored underground in the form of oil, gas and coal. The authors argue that humanity is rapidly and irreversibly discharging that battery. They compare the earth to a house whose only electrical power comes from a battery. While the battery is charged all is well. But once it is discharged it is no longer possible to live in the house, except in the most rudimentary way.

The paper states, “Living things use photo-synthesis to convert diffuse but reliable sunlight into energy-rich organic compounds, and they use respiration to break down these compounds, release stored energy and do the biological work of living . . . humans also use technological innovations to burn organic chemicals and use this extrametabolic energy to do the additional work of fueling complex socioeconomic activities.” In other words, over a time span of hundreds of millions of years the earth’s battery has been trickle charged by sunlight being converted by plants into biomass. We are now using up that biomass and running down the battery.

With regard to the energy stored in fossil fuels there is nothing new in the above statements — the depletion of these resources is a central element of the Age of Limits thesis. However, what is new to most of us is that it is the energy stored in living biomass that really matters to our survival. After all, humans lived in rough equilibrium with the planet for tends of thousands of years. It was only with the start of the industrial revolution 300 years ago that the balance was thrown badly off kilter.

The paper estimates that the total energy stored in the earth’s current inventory of phytomass is 19 ZJ (zetajoules) and that 2 ZJ of new phytomass is created each year by plants from sunlight. (A zetajoule equals 1021 joules and is roughly half the amount of energy used by humanity per year.) “An input of 2 ZJ/y of photosynthesis maintains a standing stock of 19 ZJ of stored biomass.” In other words, if humanity were to consume phytomass at a rate of 2 ZJ per annum then we would be in balance with nature. But, needless to say, we are not so sensible.

In fact, in addition to irreversibly using fossil fuel resources, humans are also depleting the earth’s store of phytomass. The authors estimate that its value 2,000 years ago was around 35 ZJ but that now, as already noted, it is down to 19 ZJ. Causes for this depletion include deforestation, over-fishing and paving over vegetated landscapes. And the rate at which we are depleting the phytomass is increasing due to population growth and increased use of energy and phytomass per head of population. The authors of the paper calculate that humanity is consuming something like 0.53 ZJ/y more than is being replaced by the trickle down energy from the sun. This number is likely to increase as the population grows and as people strive for a higher material standard of living.

The Wrong Problem

To put it plainly, it looks as if we have been trying to solve the wrong problem. 

Our fundamental challenge is not the conservation of fossil fuel resources, nor is it reducing our impact on the environment. Our fundamental problem is that we are depleting the earth’s inventory of phytomass. Resource and environmental problems are secondary.

The chart shown below is from the journal Nature. The red line shows that startling growth in total energy consumption that has occurred in the last 300 years.

Total Energy Consumption

Based on information such as that shown in the chart the authors of the paper calculate that humanity has round 1,029 years left before the earth’s store of phytomass is exhausted. This sounds bad enough, but it is overly optimistic for the following reasons.

  1. No all phytomass can be consumed — a large proportion of it consists of trees, and we cannot eat wood.
  2. Although we cannot directly consume the energy in fossil fuel (we cannot eat lumps of coal) we still need that energy to extract phytomass energy through activities such as the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers. And, as we have discussed many, many times fossil fuel energy is declining.
  3. Human actions such as the reduction of biodiversity and pollution of the seas and atmosphere will reduce the rate at which phytomass is created.
  4. The earth’s human population (the blue line in the chart) continues to grow, at least in the short and medium term.

Therefore the value of 1,029 years before the store of phytomass is gone is probably wildly optimistic given the trends. Therefore the red line, the total energy consumed by humanity, will grow with it.

The unspoken assumption in most Age of Limits discussions is that if we can somehow control our use of fossil fuels then all will be well and we will be able to maintain our current lifestyle, or something close to it. Based on the insights of this paper such a conclusion is hopelessly naïve. Moreover, non-biological sources of energy such as wind, tidal power or nuclear energy are all essentially immaterial to the central problem — which is that we need phytomass to live; all that these  other energy sources can do is help us create and extract phytomass more effectively, thus ironically bringing about our demise even more quickly.

End Point

Schramski and his colleagues are saying that it is not enough to achieve a balance with our resources and environment — the current balance is unsustainable. We must cut back both the total population and we must drastically reduce our per capita consumption of phytomass. Simply stopping growth is not enough — we need to drastically shrink our presence on this earth because, “Unless phytomass stores stabilize, human civilization is unsustainable”. 

The authors go on to say,  “Living biomass is the energy capital that runs the biosphere and supports the human population and economy. There is an urgent need not only to halt the depletion of this biological capital, but to move as rapidly as possible toward an approximate equilibrium between [photosynthesis] and respiration. There is simply no reserve tank of biomass for plant Earth. The laws of thermodynamics have no mercy. Equilibrium is inhospitable, sterile, and final . . . the laws of thermodynamics offer little room for negotiation.”

I started this post by noting that I ran across the Schrmaski paper at the Finite World site. One of the commenters there, Fast Eddy, showed the following picture and said, “If that paper is correct… this is the future”.

Dead Plant Earth

l’Optimise

Voltaire

Voltaire

The above sub-title comes from Voltaire’s book Candide, a work that I have referred to in previous posts. His satirical writing can be seen as a work of optimism in spite of all the bad things that take place. Therefore, where possible, I will end these posts with a few words of optimism.

Rhino-1

After reading and thinking about the paper Human domination of the biosphere I can think of little to be optimistic about. We will have to drastically cut back on our energy consumption and on our depletion of phytomass. We need to reduce our energy consumption so that it is no more than what trickles down to us from the sun and is then converted to living plant and animal material. But, based on what we see around us, it would appear that the chances of us doing so voluntarily are slim indeed.

This line of thought takes us inexorably back to Voltaire’s Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Live simply, grow your own food and hope for the best. But there is one other conclusion that can be drawn from the above line of reasoning. Maintaining the world’s vegetative cover and diversity of plant and animal life is not just something we ought to do — it is something that is vital to our existence.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

17. The Red Queen Dilemma

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #17. The Red Queen Dilemma

Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland
Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the seventeenth 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 Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. 

Productivity Slowdown

Trojan Horse
In last week’s post, Greek Gifts, I suggested that one of the root causes of the on-going Greek economic problems is that the world’s economies are hitting ‘Age of Limits’ barriers. In the post I stated,

Once we realize that our problems are caused by resource and environmental limits that prevent the creation of additional complexity then we may be able to work toward solutions, even though those solutions could well result in a conscious decision to simplify and therefore shrink our industrial systems.

The thinking behind this statement is that societies such as ours solve problems by increasing complexity. But increased complexity requires ever increasing expenditures of energy; if that energy is not available then it is no longer possible to add either complexity or growth. If this theory has merit then what we are seeing in Greece is the reverse effect: reduced affordable energy supplies lead to a simplification of systems which will lead, not to growth, but shrinkage. To repeat the words of Joseph Tainter in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. 

  1. Growth comes from increased complexity because it is useful in solving problems;
  2. Increased growth and increased energy use go hand in hand — they cannot be separated;
  3. Complexity is not free — there is always a cost;
  4. When the cost/benefit crosses a threshold decline starts; and
  5. Decline is associated with increased simplification (which is generally involuntary).

If this analysis is true then attempting to solve the economic problems of Greece through ever-increasing austerity will simply make a bad problem worse.

Samuelson-Robert-1

Robert Samuelson

This week Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post wrote an editorial “Productivity mysteriously goes bust”. He starts off by saying,

What’s surprising about the disappointing slowdown in productivity is that, by all outward signs, it ought to be booming.What’s especially baffling is that, superficially, outside forces seem to favor faster productivity growth. 

He notes that this slowdown is a world-wide phenomenon and lists some of the reasons that should have caused an increase in productivity. They include,

  1. The Internet;
  2. Activist investors; and
  3. Globalization

He concludes by saying,

The productivity bust is a big story. It’s also a bit of a mystery.

The Red Queen

Red Queen as a symbol of the need for evolution

Faster! Faster!

Actually, there is no “bit of a mystery” — like most economists he does not realize that growth in productivity requires an abundant supply of affordable resources, particularly oil, as illustrated in Lewis Carroll’s famous story Through the Looking-Glass. In it the protagonist, Alice, meets the Red Queen. Suddenly they start running.

Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she COULD NOT go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything. ‘I wonder if all the things move along with us?’ thought poor puzzled Alice. And the Queen seemed to guess her thoughts, for she cried, ‘Faster! Don’t try to talk!’ . . . and still the Queen cried ‘Faster! Faster!’ and dragged her along. ‘Are we nearly there?’ Alice managed to pant out at last.

‘Nearly there!’ the Queen repeated. ‘Why, we passed it ten minutes ago! . . . ‘Faster! Faster!’ And they went so fast that at last they seemed to skim through the air, hardly touching the ground with their feet, till suddenly, just as Alice was getting quite exhausted, they stopped, and she found herself sitting on the ground, breathless and giddy.

The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in OUR country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, HERE, you see, it takes all the running YOU can do, to keep in the same place. 

This image, with Greece being Alice and the Red Queen being Europe, in which they both must run faster and faster just to stay in one place, is compelling — and extends to most other countries in the world. It also provides an  answer to Samuelson’s conundrum. As a society we are spending more and more effort just to maintain what we have, just to stay in one place, there is little or nothing left over for growth. And this predicament (not problem) will only get worse as the world’s ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) continues to fall (see Nine Pounds of Gold). 

Which brings us to our second Victorian girl: Goldilocks.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Goldilocks and the Three Bears
In Goldilocks is Dead Richard Heinberg compares our plight to that of Goldilocks. She has entered an empty house and sees three bowls of porridge on the table. She tastes them and finds that the first is too hot, the second is too cold but the third is just right. Heinberg uses this story as an analogy for the problems we are facing now. We need a price for oil that is “is not too hot, and not too cold”. If the price of oil is too high then the world economy wilts; if it is too low then oil companies cannot make money on their new, low ERoEI prospects (back to Nine Pounds of Gold).

Heinberg asserts that we have left the “just right” zone.

. . . I discussed what I call the Goldilocks price zone for oil, natural gas, and coal, a zone in which prices are “just right” — high enough to reward producers but low enough to entice consumers. Ever since the start of the fossil fuel era, such a zone has existed. Sometimes price boundaries were transgressed on the upside, sometimes the downside, but it was always possible to revert to the zone. 

But now, for oil, the Goldilocks zone has ceased to exist. 

Price of Oil

One of the most startling developments of the last twelve months was the drop in the price of oil during the second half of 2014 from around $110 to $55 per barrel. As we have discussed elsewhere the proximate cause of this event was likely a decision by OPEC to maintain high production rates in order to drive new producers, particularly U.S. tight oil, out of the market. But there are reasons to believe that there are longer-term reasons for the drop in the price of oil. Most analysts would argue on the following lines:

  1. It is getting more and more expensive to find and extract new sources of oil.
  2. Hence the price of oil will go up.
  3. General inflation of prices will follow on.

However, another line of reasoning would be:

  1. High oil prices cause an economic slowdown.
  2. This leads to increased unemployment and/or low wages.
  3. Hence demand for oil drops.
  4. Hence the price of oil drops.

When we look at what is going on in the world’s economies the second explanation seems to be the better one.

We have seen that that Robert Samuelson faced a dilemma with regard to the productivity of world economies. His puzzlement may lie in the fact that he has failed to recognize the role of diminishing affordable energy supplies. Indeed it would seem as if a structural weakness of most economic analyses is that they rarely recognize the physical limits of the world. For example, they may say, “If prices go up then supply will increase correspondingly”. This may be true for manufactured goods but it is not true for natural resources such as oil. Although there is plenty of oil in the ground its ERoEI is inexorably falling — the supply cannot go up to match prices.

The Red Queen and the Age of Limits

Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland

Alice and the Red Queen

We started this post by describing the with the Red Queen Dilemma  — Alice and the Red Queen need to run faster and faster just to stay in one place. This trope has been used to explain the nature of evolution. In a constantly changing environment all species must adapt just in order to stay in place. If they do not then they eventually disappear. Such a concept is well understood by most of us in the context of endless progress. Businesses and organizations of all types know that they have to develop new products and systems just to keep up. These advances create the productivity gains of recent years — the gains that are, as Samuelson points out, no longer being repeated.

The Red Queen principle applies equally well to the Age of Limits. But successful adaptation will require an understanding that resources are declining and that successful organizations will have to learn to work in a much simpler world than the one we live in now. Failure to do so will lead to their eventual failure.

l’Optimise

Voltaire

Voltaire

The above sub-title comes from Voltaire’s book Candide, a work that I have referred to in previous posts. His satirical writing can be seen as a work of optimism in spite of all the bad things that take place. Therefore, where possible, I will end these posts with a few words of optimism. (I started doing this in Denying Blackbeard — Part 2 and Renaissance Man and Climate Change.) In this post I offer the following thought.

Our economies and societies are going to become much simpler. This is not a choice.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

16. Greek Gifts

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #16. Greek Gifts

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

This is the sixteenth 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 Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our . Thank you.

Unpayable Debt

Greek-Flag-1
Much of the news of late has been to do with the the financial crisis in Greece. There are many theories and explanations as to the causes of this crisis. Most of these theories look at economic and financial issues such as over-generous pension programs, a failure to collect taxes from the wealthy citizens, the flight of savings to other countries and the strait-jacket effect of a single currency among different economies. But, as we think about the Age of Limits and its impact on the engineering professions, there are at least two deeper lessons that we can derive from the suffering and confusion that we witness in today’s Greece. Indeed, the proverb “Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts” comes to mind (the phrase derives from Virgil’s story of the Trojan Horse.) What is going on in Greece now may provide guidance to engineers as they navigate the upcoming Age of Limits.

A fundamental theme of this series of posts is that our society is running into physical limits in all areas: resources, environmental and financial. And this seems to be what is going on in Greece — a nation that has accumulated enormous debts but one that has very little in the way of natural or industrial resources. Normally these debts would be paid off, or at least deferred, through growth in the economy. But if physical economic growth has not only stopped and is unlikely to return then the problems cannot be solved by taking on more debt because there is no way that the new interest payments can be made. Supporting this point of view, Gail Tverberg suggests that the European countries with the greatest economic problems (Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain and Ireland) along with Puerto Rico in the western hemisphere all have the greatest percentage of their energy supplied by oil.

If this were just a Greek problem then we could probably find some way of finessing it. But most other nations have also taken on enormous debt burdens yet few of them are likely to see much physical growth any more. Hence the confusion and hardship that we are seeing now in Greece is likely to repeat itself in those other nations in years to come. Government and financial leaders will try to solve these problems with financial tools of one sort or another — not realizing that none of their actions are likely to make much difference, except to pile on ever-greater burdens of unpayable interest payments associated with new debt. Indeed, their actions will probably make the problems worse by adding unnecessary and confusing complexity.

This is the first gift that the Greeks bring us: what we are seeing in Greece is not just “the end of growth” — we are witnessing the “start of shrinkage”. More on this in future posts — suffice to say for now that this is a very scary observation.

Complexity

The physical limits that we face as a result of the upcoming Age of Limits is a theme that we will keep coming back to. But there is another lesson that the Greeks give us and that is the diminishing returns to do with increased complexity. And it is a lesson that engineers and technical professionals would do well to heed.

 The European Union (EU) is bureaucratic — it issues thousands of rules in all walks of life. The reason for this is not a casual byproduct of the Union — it is the basis of its existence. By forcing the different nations to conform to the rules the people will become more unified (it is hoped).

Straight banana
Most of the rules can probably be justified on their own merits. But some, such as the one that led to the infamous “Straight Banana” controversy, are questionable. In this case Commission Regulation Number 2257/94 stipulated that bananas must be “free from abnormal curvature of the fingers”. This rule led to many jokes about grocery stores being forced to sell only straight bananas. But jokes are funny because they reflect real life. In this case it would, of course, be much simpler to let grocers offer different types of banana and let the customers choose those that they prefer. But allowing the free market to operate in this manner is against the very philosophy of the EU. The burden on society generated by EU rules is not an accidental byproduct — it is the very raison d’être for the EU’s existence.

Not only does a plethora of rules create the occasional absurdity, at a deeper level they create huge amount of complexity. This complexity then creates two problems. First is the direct cost. It takes money to hire the people who write and enforce the rules. And that money has to be paid by taxes. In addition, the companies that are subject to all the rules and regulations have to hire their own people to make sure that they are in compliance. And they have to modify their facilities in order to conform to the rules. None of this investment is subject to financial scrutiny: rules are rules and they must be followed — arguments to do with common sense and return on investment receive very little attention. Yet the taxes and other costs to do with increased rule-making must come, at the end of the day, from productive activities to do with industry and agriculture. If the rules have the effect of killing industry, or driving it to a less restrictive location, then the whole system will starve to death.

So, the reaction of industrial managers tends to be, “Why bother?” Why go to all the trouble of building a chemical plant or refinery when the rules are so onerous? In my post A Magnificent Navy on Land I quote from an open letter from Jim Ratcliffe, Chairman of INEOS, to Mr. Barroso of the European Commission.

I wish to express my deepest concerns about the future of the European chemical industry. Sadly, I predict that much of it will face closure within the next 10 years . . .

In the UK we have seen 22 chemical plant closures since 2009 and no new builds . . .

I can see green taxes, I can see no shale gas, I can see closure of nuclear, I can see manufacturing being driven away.

Hence the physical economy continues to decline and debts that paid off because the rules contribute little to true growth.

But a second problem to do with increased complexity, and one that gets less attention, is that no one can really understand or manage complex systems. People operate in their professional silos; they do not understand how their actions are affecting the overall system. This is not because these people are foolish or willfully ignorant — it is because the systems that they supposedly manage are so complex that they cannot be understood by any human being.

An example was provided this week at the Resource Crisis site. In it the author, Ugo Bardi, reported on a conference to do with food supply that he attended. He states,

The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. 

He notes that each person at the conference was generally very knowledgeable about one area such as agriculture or food distribution or climate change or resource limits. But no one understood all of these issues, nor how they might interact with one another. Instead each person pursues a process of linearization whereby making one change will have a desired effect without considering its systems impact. In particular, they do not give consideration to the possibility that their particular solution might actually make overall conditions worse.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter states that the response of many (not all) societies to problems is to increase complexity. This process continues until the costs of incremental complexity are greater than the commensurate benefits. At that point collapse starts. He makes the following points:

  1. Growth comes from increased complexity because it is useful in solving problems;
  2. Increased growth and increased energy use go hand in hand — they cannot be separated;
  3. Complexity is not free — there is always a cost;
  4. When the cost/benefit crosses a threshold decline starts; and
  5. Decline is associated with increased simplification (which is generally involuntary).

In other words societies initially respond to problems by adding complexity. However there is a cost associated with this complexity. The costs rise but the returns become increasingly marginal. Eventually a tipping point is reached and the society collapses to a much simpler state.

There are reasons to believe that our society may be at such a point because the supply of available energy is decreasing (point #2 above).

The Greek Gift

At the start of this essay we alluded to the gift that the Greeks brought. The Greeks (actually the Achaeans) placed a wooden horse at the gates of Troy. The Trojans foolishly dragged that horse into their city, whereupon Greek soldiers leaped from the belly of the horse and conquered Troy.

But in our situation, if we look more deeply into what is going on in Greece (and many other highly indebted nations), there are useful if difficult lessons to be learned, particularly if we understand that the issues go beyond day to day economics and politics. Once we realize that our problems are caused by resource and environmental limits that prevent the creation of additional complexity then we may be able to work toward solutions, even though those solutions could well result in a conscious decision to simplify and therefore shrink our industrial systems.

l’Optimise

Voltaire

Voltaire

The above sub-title comes from Voltaire’s book Candide, a work that I have referred to in previous posts. His satirical writing can be seen as a work of optimism in spite of all the bad things that take place. Therefore, where possible, I will end these posts with a few words of optimism. (I started doing this in Denying Blackbeard — Part 2 and Renaissance Man and Climate Change.) In this post I offer the following thought.

Our industrial and management systems are  complex. A return to simplicity will occur. Those organizations that wish to achieve high levels of safety and profitability in the new world of an Age of Limits will intentionally seek to make their systems simpler.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

15. The Future Has No Narrative

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #15. The Future Has No Narrative

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

This is the fourteenth 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 Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our . Thank you.

Predicting the Future

This series of posts to do with the upcoming Age of Limits requires that I make predictions about the future. But I find that when I make specific predictions I am often — in fact, usually — wrong. Moreover, when I look at the predictions of writers for whom I have a great deal of respect I find that they are often wrong also when they are discussing specific events and scenarios. So what is the purpose of writing a blog such as this given that none us know what the future holds?

I think that there are two answers to this question. First, we all make predictions about the future in our daily lives, even if those predictions are implicit. For example if someone is deciding whether to buy or rent a house in a particular area he or she needs to think through issues such as long-term trends in house prices and how long he plans to stay in that area.

Second, there is a distinction between identifying broad trends and making hard forecasts as to specific events and when they will occur. For example it is clear the sea level are rising and that many coastal cities will be threatened with floods. But no one knows how much the levels will rise by particular dates.

A Lesson in Humility

If we need a lesson in humility all we need do is look at the following chart.

Crude Oil Price

Crude Oil Price

It shows the price of Crude Oil from 2000 to 2015. Up until the end of 2014 the price rose quite steadily at around 9% per annum — considerably more than inflation during the same time period. (There was a big swing in 2008 but that dampened out quite quickly.) But then, in the latter half of 2014, the price of oil plunged by 50% to below $60 and has remained at about that level since.

As part of my research into Age of Limits issues I spend quite a lot of time reading the work of expert authors who write about resource depletion and related topics. Not one of these authors, to the best of my knowledge, said at the start of 2014 , “I predict that the price of oil in the second half of 2014 will drop by 50%”. Nor did any of the financial pundits or oil company experts publicly anticipate what happened. If ever we needed a lesson in humility this was it. Yet I cannot recall any of these experts saying at the start of 2105, “I completely missed it last year — I totally failed to foresee the dramatic drop in oil prices therefore any forecast I make as to what might happen in 2016 could be completely wrong”.

Yet I have not noticed much humility among the experts.

(I should probably point out that I also make predictions that are, at best, wobbly. For example, when I first started looking at Peak Oil issues the world production of oil had reached what looked like a peak of around 75 million barrels per day. I was quite sure that we would see a decline from that point. Actually we have remained on a plateau for the last ten years, and there are indications that production rates have increased in the last year or two.)

We All Know Why

Given that most  experts missed the dramatic price plunge it might be expected that they would recognize that they cannot explain the causes of such events. Some of the factors that go into oil price movements include: the availability of finance, political rivalries, the geology of the oil fields and the economic health of the consuming nations. No one can possibly understand all of these or how they interact with one another. Yet, within a matter of months, everyone knew for certain what had caused the changes (although the reasons differed from one expert to another). Once more humility was not to the fore.

The book Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb received considerable attention because he talked about wrenching, unexpected changes and how conventional risk management tools fail to forecast such changes. He states that there are three key features of a Black Swan event.

  1. They are a surprise and were not forecast by the risk models in use;
  2. They have a major impact; and
  3. After their occurrence, those involved rationalize what happened.

Most people look only at the first insight — the fact that these events are a surprise and not predicted. But I find the third point to be of particular interest: people quickly rationalize what happened — the surprise factor is quickly forgotten.

It should also be recognized that although most analysts are confident in their explanations they do not necessarily agree with one another. For example,  Stanford economist, Dr. Wolak in a March 2015 paper provides seven possible reasons for the fall in price. Yet he does not mention two reasons that are widely touted by many other authors: the desire by OPEC to drive the American shale oil producers out of business and the possibility that the economy simply cannot sustain higher prices without slipping into recession. Nor does he explain why the price fell so quickly. This does not mean that he is wrong. But it does mean that, six months after the event, there is profound disagreement among analysts as to the causes of that event.

Linear Thinking

I recently attended the 2015 EIA (Energy Information Administrati0n) annual meeting held in June 2015 in Washington D.C. The role of this government agency is to provide “Independent Statistics and Analysis” on energy-related topics. There were two tracks, so I could not attend all of the presentations. However I did attend probably about 75% of the talks. The speakers were from different organizations and companies and each had their own topic. But I was struck by the following.

  • Not one of the speakers said words to the effect, “I did not predict the dramatic drop in the price of oil last year so maybe you should use caution when listening to what I say this year”.
  • They all assumed that the current price of oil would stay at about its present level, say $50-60, for the next few years.
  • They also assumed that there would be a continuing glut of oil on the market and the OPEC would have trouble moving its surplus.

Other analysts take the same approach. For example, Frank Wolak, , whose work has already been cited, states “Global oil prices may stay low for the next 10 or 20 years”. He also said, “predicting the future is always fraught with uncertainty.” Yet his forecast does not express such uncertainty.

The fact is that a new reality concerning oil prices has developed, everyone is confident in their predictions and it is obvious as to what is causing these changes. What we see going on is linear thinking, an assumption that tomorrow will be very much like today and any changes will be gradual and manageable — in other worlds there are no blacks swans about to land.

Weasel Words

Of course, most speakers and writers hedge their statements, as illustrated in the words of Dr. Wolak quoted above. There was one particularly egregious form of this type of hedging at the EIA conference when one of the senior staff members said, “The price of oil in the year 2030 could be anywhere between $50 and $250 per barrel”. My reaction was, “Is that what I am paying my tax dollars for?”

People who are confident in their statements do not need to hedge their statements so much. In last week’s post we discussed the draft encyclical that Pope Francis is about to circulate. In it he talks about the ills that we face — not just climate change, but also excessive use of digital media and our lack of attention to the needs of poor people. He does not mince his words. He speaks with confidence and authority.

Climate and Weather

One of the reasons that forecasts tend to miss the mark is that people making those forecasts tend to mix ‘climate’ with ‘weather’. Regarding the climate we can see long-term trends and talk about them with some confidence. It is reasonable to say that, over the next twenty years, global temperatures will increase and sea levels will rise. However, the weather in my part of the world has been cooler than normal for the last three years — particularly in the winter. Therefore I would be foolish to make strong predictions about next winter’s temperatures or snowfalls for my town.

Doomer Predictions

Another problem to do with forecasting in an Age of Limits is that many of the people who work in this area tend to make “doomer” forecasts that do not pan out. Their extreme comments damage the credibility of not only themselves, but the movement that they represent.

For example, one analyst who has shrewd insights regarding the economy and its relationship to financial systems is Stoneleigh (Nicole Foss). She published a post 40 ways to lose your future in June of 2009 . In it she makes predictions as to what changes are likely to take place.

Point #34 says,

Energy prices are first affected by demand collapse, then supply collapse, so that prices first fall and then rise enormously

Although we have not seen demand collapse prices have fallen a lot.

But then Point #35 says,

Ordinary people are unlikely to be able to afford oil products AT ALL within 5 years.

Here we are in the year 2015 and the freeways seem to be as congested as ever.

No Narrative

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry

Just a handful of people are willing to be humble about their ability to predict the future. One of those people is Wendell Berry who, in the Spring 2015 edition of “Yes” magazine said,

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. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong. The End of Something—history, the novel, Christianity, the human race, the world—has long been an irresistible subject. Many of the things predicted to end have so far continued, evidently to the embarrassment of none of the predictors . . . How can so many people of certified intelligence have written so many pages on a subject about which nobody knows anything?

He advises that we do the right thing, which in his case is to tend the earth properly, and not worry about what the future might bring. Voltaire expresses the same sentiment at the conclusion of his book Candide, ou l’Optimisme (written in the year 1758) when he says,  Il faut cultiver son jardin — we must cultivate our garden/fields (although this sentiment does not protect his protagonists from an invasion of Bulgars).

Conclusions

Predicting the future is fraught — the truth is no one knows what tomorrow will bring, much less what the world will look like a generation from now. But some tentative conclusions can be made.

  • Distinguish between weather and climate
    I cannot tell if it next winter will be colder than normal but I am confident that twenty years from now many coastal cities will be building barricades to keep out the rising sea water and/or simply evacuating.
  • Allow time
    Sooner or later the world supply of oil will start to move inexorably downward but it will probably be at a later date than we anticipate.
  • Recognize complexity
    We are discussing enormously complex systems here; trying to understand the relationships between all the parameters and variables is impossible.
  • Watch out for black swans
  • Be both confident and humble
  • Live a modest lifestyle consistent with your forecasts.

l’Optimise

Voltaire’s satire that we have just alluded to can be seen as a work of optimism in spite of all the bad things that take place. Therefore, where possible, I will end these posts with a few words of optimism. (I started doing this in Denying Blackbeard — Part 2 and Renaissance Man and Climate Change.) In this post I offer the following thought.

Even though the future looks bleak focus on what we can achieve in the current circumstances.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

14. Sister, Mother Earth

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #14. Sister, Mother Earth

Frances of Assisi

Frances of Assisi


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

This is the fourteenth 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?

For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Laudato Si’

In last week’s post Renaissance Man and Climate Change I offered some thoughts as to whether Pope Francis is qualified to discuss the impacts of climate change. I concluded that he was. I further concluded that, if anyone wishes to criticize his encyclical Laudato Si’, then they themselves need to perform as much research and deep thinking as he has done. But then I realized that that statement was a challenge to me also. Before going any further I needed to do was read the Encyclical slowly and carefully. I did so and have jotted down my initial thoughts in this post.

Summary

The following are the key points in the encyclical.

  • The science of climate change is clear
  • Humans are at fault.
  • We are destroying the Earth and killing ourselves.
  • The world’s poorest people are bearing the worst of it.
  • Most of the blame lies with rich countries and corporations that pursue profit and economic growth with little or no regard for people and the environment.
  • It’s time for change.

Above all, his message is one of morality — he is saying that we are trashing the planet and that this is wrong. Even if the climate were to stabilize we still need to change our profligate ways and to pay particular attention to the situation of poorer people.

Style of Language

Apple Think Different

The first thing I noticed about the document was the style of language. In the very first paragraph we find the following quotation from Francis of Assisi (1181/82 – 1226) the founder of the order of which the Pope is a member.

In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”

This is not the style of writing typically found in climate change reports which rarely use imagery about sisters and mothers. What is important about the encyclical is not what is said about technical issues — we can find that on hundreds of web sites. What matters is the tone and framework of the document — which is why I chose the heading I did for this post.

In the late 1990s Apple Computer created the marketing slogan “Think Different”. Yet what is really noteworthy about modern corporations such as Apple is that they are not different at all — in fact it is they who defined our modern culture. In Laudato Si’ Pope Francis really is thinking differently.

Morality

In addition to the manner in which it was written the outstanding feature of the Encyclical is that it stakes out the moral high ground. It is not just that all people, particularly the poor, suffer when the environment is destroyed but that the act of destruction is inherently immoral. For example, in paragraph 53 Francis states,

These situations have caused sister earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course. Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years.

And in paragraph 229 we find the following,

We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it.

Population

Global PopulationFor many the biggest weakness of the encyclical is not what it says but what it leaves out — particularly with regard to population control. In the last three hundred years the world’s population has increased from about 0.7 to 7.5 billion.

The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be dif­ferent, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make eco­nomic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the envi­ronment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”

The final sentence is problematical. Many analysts would not accept the phrase, “. . . it must nonetheless be recognized . . .” without supporting evidence — which is not provided.

Engineers understand that most meaningful analyses are not to do with absolute numbers but with ratios (such as ERoEI). So it is with regard to the problems discussed in this encyclical; it is not that we produce too much pollution but that we produce too much per head of population.

The Good Old Days

In paragraph 102 Francis states,

Humanity has entered a new era in which our technical prowess has brought us to a crossroads. We are the beneficiaries of two centuries of enormous waves of change: steam engines, railways, the telegraph, electricity, automobiles, aeroplanes, chemical industries, modern medicine, information technology and, more recently, the digital revolution, robotics, biotechnologies and nanotechnologies. It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us, for “science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.

Yet he does not provide a path forward that will help marry this “technical prowess” with the “awe-filled contemplation of crea­tion which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi”. Throughout the document there seems to be a hankering for a return to the “good old days” — the time before technology started to take over. Yet all one need do is crack open any history book to learn that such times were not something we should wish for. A word without closed sewers, anaesthetics and social security is not one that many of us would like to see again. But how are those advances to be aligned with “a time of selfless love, a time of  original innocence”? He does not explain.

One of the themes of the posts in this series is that progress, either economic or technological, in the form that we have known it cannot continue because we are running into increasingly severe resource constraints. But the best response is not necessarily to return to life as it was prior to the 18th century (something we cannot do anyway, if only because the population has expanded so much) but to try and retain the concept of technological advancement while at the same time moving toward a more or less steady-state economy.

In a New York Times editorial (June 23rd 2015) David Brooks says,

You would never know from the encyclical that we are living through the greatest reduction in poverty in human history. A raw and rugged capitalism in Asia has led, ironically, to a great expansion of the middle class and great gains in human dignity.

You would never know that in many parts of the world, like the United States, the rivers and skies are getting cleaner. The race for riches, ironically, produces the wealth that can be used to clean the environment.

The above statements can, of course, be challenged. We foul the environment to make ourselves rich and then use some of those riches to clean the environment. In that case why foul the environment in the first place? And there are many who would wonder if the rivers and skies are, in fact, getting cleaner. And we know that the atmosphere and the oceans are becoming ever more polluted. Closer to home we see California moving into a state of desertification.

Brooks himself states,

The nations with higher income per capita had better environmental ratings. As countries get richer they invest to tackle environmental problems that directly kill human beings (though they don’t necessarily tackle problems that despoil the natural commons).

His escape clause, ‘. . . despoil the natural commons’ is exactly what Pope Francis is talking about. Still, technology can, when properly applied lead to a better life.

Motivation

Although David Brooks skates over the issue of externalities (the despoliation of the natural commons) he does understand that few of us are as holy or selfless as Pope Francis. That any solution to our Age of Limits difficulties must include a recognition that most of us do what we want to do, not what we should do. And that lesson applies to corporations as much as to people.

The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.

In other posts I have criticized the approach that many environmentalists take. They hector and blame oil companies, utilities and other organizations for the problems that we face. Yet an oil company is, first and foremost, an oil company — that is its business. And the managers in charge of that company have a fiduciary responsibility to make money within the pertinent regulatory framework.

A much more sensible approach would be for the environmentalists to say to industrial corporations, “The world around us is changing — if you continue with your current business model you will decline and eventually disappear. Let’s work together to see if we can find a way of making money in a steady-state economy.”

Conclusions

My central goal in this series of posts is not think through means of maintaining the advances in the quality of human life that technology has created while, as the same time, maintaining a steady-state culture. Can this be done? It would appear to be doubtful but it is worth trying. So I believe that Francis’ approach to our difficulties is fundamentally sound, but it needs people such as engineers to try and work out real world solutions. And Pope Francis and his church must address the issue of population control if their message is to have a real impact.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

13. Renaissance Man and Climate Change

Post #13. Renaissance Man and Climate Change

Pope Francis riding an Encyclical

An Encyclical

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

This is the thirteenth 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?

For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. 

The Encyclical

This week the Roman Catholic church, headed by Pope Francis, published an encyclical (a circular) on the topic of climate change, particularly as it related to poverty. Already the Pope is being challenged, often on the grounds that, being a churchman not a climate scientist, he is not qualified to (ahem) pontificate on climate issue. Therefore I thought that I would jot down a few thoughts not about the validity of climate change arguments per se but as to whether Francis (and by implication the rest of us who are not climate scientists) has the authority to speak on this topic.

The encyclical contains the following quotation.

Humanity is called to take note of the need for changes in lifestyle and changes in methods of production and consumption to combat this warming, or at least the human causes that produce and accentuate it. Numerous scientific studies indicate that the greater part of the global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases … given off above all because of human activity.

So not only is Francis agreeing with the scientific arguments to do with climate change and human responsibility for the phenomenon , he is bypassing some of the solutions that have been proposed and is jumping the final conclusion: we will have to cut back on our high consumption life styles.

This is not a timid document.

Authority

Many of those who reject the idea of climate change are challenging the Pope’s authority on the grounds that he is not a climate scientist. For example,

During an interview with a Philadelphia radio station on Monday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum — a devout Catholic — said that while he loves Pope Francis, he thinks the Pope should leave discussions about climate change to scientists.

Implicit in this quotation are two disturbing issues.

First, Mr. Santorum is saying that climate change is merely a scientific topic that will be researched and analysed by scientists operating in their own little world. To put it mildy such an attitude is fatuous. If the forecasts to do with climate change are even partially correct we are facing a huge public policy issue which must be addressed by politicians. They cannot hide behind statements that climate change is merely a ‘discussion’.

Second, if the Pope is excluded from the community of those who can ‘discuss’ climate change, then who is included? The vast majority of interested parties, including Mr. Santorum himself, would be excluded. have to recuse themselves. This is silly. It is the responsibility of the scientific community to lay out the facts, observations and analyses as objectively as possible, and then let the broader community decide on what to do. We all need to become renaissance men and women.

Renaissance Man

Aristotle

Aristotle: A Renaissance Man

In his treatise On the Parts of Animals, written almost 2,500 years ago, Aristotle states,

Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgment as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this; and even the man of universal education we deem to be such in virtue of his having this ability. It will, however, of course, be understood that we only ascribe universal education to one who in his own individual person is thus critical in all or nearly all branches of knowledge, and not to one who has a like ability merely in some special subject. For it is possible for a man to have this competence in some one branch of knowledge without having it in all.

Let us unpack this profound statement in order to decide whether the Pope is qualified to pronounce on Climate Change issues. The 1991 book A History of Knowledge — Past, Present, and Future by Charles van Doren provides guidance.

  • There is a distinction between “scientific knowledge” and “educational acquaintance”. With regard to climate science climate scientists possess the first; the rest of us — whether we are denier politicians or the Pope — fall into the second category.
  • A person who possesses “educational acquaintance” with a topic can differentiate between sense and nonsense and has knowledge in a wide range of disciplines outside the area of immediate interest. Those disciplines include not just the sciences but what we now call the liberal arts such as philosophy, history, literature and art.
  • Someone who is “educated” in the above sense is a Renaissance man or woman.
  • This concept of “education” created the “Uni-” in “University” — a goal that has been pretty well abandoned now. It also defines the true meaning of the world liberal — someone who is liberated to think freely and form balanced conclusions. In the extraordinarily complex and confusing world in which we live now, a world which seems to have an infinity of specializations, there is a crying need for universalists — people who are educated, Renaissance men and women.

Experts

Those that say that the only people qualified to pronounce on climate are climate scientists need to respond to the question as to what a climate scientist is. In fact there are very few people who have a holistic grasp of all aspects of climate science — most of them specialize in just one area such as air temperature, ocean pH or the climate in previous geological eras. In fact, climate science incorporates so many separate disciplines that someone who has a grasp of them all becomes an Aristotlean “educated man”.

But there is a more fundamental point. I am a chemical engineer. For part of my career I worked on chemical plants that made plastics. Those plastics have good and bad consequences. Shrink wrap for foods is good because it keeps the food hygienic; plastic trash on the beaches is bad. As a person who “knew about” plastics I was no more qualified than any other citizen to have an opinion regarding the ethic of plastics and their use. (One of the arguments for giving the Pope authority regarding climate change is that he worked as a chemist when a young man. Actually this is not a qualification — it merely means that he might understand the technical literature more quickly than most.)

The Education Process

I suggest that non-experts think on the following lines.

  1. Select topics that are important and that are worthy of attention.
  2. Clear your mind of cant.
  3. Understand the fundamentals of the topic and the definition of the words that are being used.
  4. Research the topic.
  5. Form an educated opinion.

Select the Topic

The first step is to select topics that are worthy of attention and analysis. Climate change clearly falls into that category: given its potential for massive, even catastrophic, change to human life the topic needs to be discussed. Other topics, the current FIFA scandal is an example, do not justify the investment of our time and energy — it does not possess any features that are particularly new or important. Large quantities of unregulated money will generate corruption — there is nothing new there.

Clear your Mind of Cant

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom

In the year 2000 Yale Professor Harold Bloom (1930-) published How to Read and Why. In it he said“Clear your mind of cant”. Cant means, ‘Monotonous talk filled with platitudes’ or ‘Hypocritically pious language’. In this context it also means opinions that follow political agendas.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whom we have already met in the post Peak Forestsexpressed the same concept when he said,

Read not to contradict and confute, not to believe and take for granted, not to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.

What both these writers are saying is that we should refrain from being ‘prejudiced’ in the literal sense of the word: ‘pre + judge’. We should open our minds, as best we are able, to the facts of a situation, not what we want the facts to be.

This is difficult. As Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) said, “A truth ceases to be a truth as soon as two people perceive it.” In other words facts are never truly objective; each person has their own perception of what they perceive to be the same reality. His insight also suggests that there is no such entity as ‘common sense’ — no two people have a common view of the world so they can never share a ‘common sense’. But we have to do our best.

Fundamentals

The next step is to understand the fundamental issues, parameters and vocabulary surrounding the discussion. So many misunderstandings, disagreements and argument hinge on the parties using the same words to mean different things. An obvious example in this context is the difference between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’. It is also best to avoid emotive words such as ‘catastrophe’ unless their use is fully justified.

Research

The “Educated Person”, the “Renaissance Man”, then carries out research into the topic being discussed. If the topic is important — as Climate Change most certainly is — then this research may take a long time. It will involve reading seminal reports and books, listening to videos and attending conferences. It goes without saying that this education should involve looking at all points of view. However, the educated person is under no obligation to listen to mere polemic.

Form an Opinion

The final steps in this process are to form an educated an educated opinion and then to take the appropriate action. In the case of Climate Change the Pope has taken two obvious courses of action. First he has decided to communicate his opinion to the world in the form of the encyclical. Second he is calling upon people to take action — specifically to cut back on their use of consumer goods.

Conclusions

Pope Francis signing an encyclical

I don’t know whether Pope Francis followed the steps shown above. But it is clear that he has thought long and hard about climate change issues, particularly as they affect poor people. And doubtless the Vatican bureaucracy has done extensive research into these topics and has provided him with good information and analysis. Therefore I conclude that Francis is an educated man, a Renaissance man. I further conclude that he is a man of integrity and that his opinion should be respected. This does not mean that people must agree with him but it does mean that, before they enter the debate, they clear their mind of cant and carry out research with as much thoroughness as Pope Francis appears to have done.

There is one final step: will he and his church follow up on the message of the encyclical? Will the church leaders and the church members in general act on the findings of the encyclical and observe a simpler life style? If they do then the Pope has reason to feel proud of what he has achieved. If they do not then the encyclical will be just another report gathering dust on a shelf.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

12. If wishes were horses . . .

Engineering in an Age of Limits

Post #12. If wishes were horses . . .

Electric Car Factory

Electric Car Factory

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

This is the twelfth 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 Welcome page. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join. For a complete list of posts to do with the Age of Limits please visit our . Thank you.

The Engineering Contribution

One of the themes of this set of posts is to identify the skills that engineers and technical professionals possess and that can help us navigate the wrenching changes that are coming up. One of these skills is to challenge casual and ill-thought out statements and predictions as to what the future might hold. I will use predictions to do with the electric car as an example.

Adoption Rate for New Technologies (Financial Times)

Adoption Rate for New Technologies (Financial Times)

The following headline from the June 10th 2015 edition of CleanTechnica caught my attention.

Electric Vehicles To Become Mainstream In Short Period Of Time

The article’s logic is as follows.

  • Over the course of the last hundred years many new inventions have become mainstream. “Technologies we used to live without including PCs, the Internet, and cell phones have become an integral part of daily life”.
  • Once a new invention catches on “the rise to mainstream requirement is meteoric”. It takes about 15 years for an invention such as the radio to become part of normal life.
  • Electric cars will become attractive once a “200-mile-per-charge car costs less than $25,000 and when a 60 kilowatt-hour battery costs $9,000.

The article reveals some assumptions that really need to be thought through.

  1. There is a belief that because we want something it will therefore happen. Yet, in spite of the huge effort that has gone into battery development (capacity and speed of recharging), the technology for the 200-mile-per-charge car is still on the margin.
  2. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are justified because they are “good for the environment”. Yet, as shown by an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, this assumption can be challenged. The article states, The manufacture of the batteries and other components of Electric Vehicles EVs exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts, largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain.
  3. The same article uses the phrase ‘problem-shifting’. In this case, the environmental problem is changed but not removed because EVs are not actually “zero emissions” vehicles. They may not have a tail pipe, but the power plant that generates the electricity that they use most certainly has. So the reduction in carbon dioxide generated will be much less than anticipated, particularly if the electricity is provided by coal-fired power stations.
  4. One of the justifications for EVs is that they get around the problem of depleting oil supplies (‘Peak Oil’). But their batteries use large amounts of lithium — were we to convert to EVs we could run into issues to do with “Peak Lithium”.
  5. All the other inventions that the CleanTechnica article talks about, such as dishwashers, microwaves and radio use energy in different ways. None of them produce energy.

But maybe the biggest challenge posed by switching from gasoline to electricity is the issue of scale-up — a topic that most engineers understand very well.

The Reality

References provided by Wikipedia state that, “As of 2010 there were more than one billion motor vehicles in use in the world excluding off-road vehicles and heavy construction equipment”. There are also many thousands of airplanes, military vehicles, railroad locomotives and ships. They all use refined fuels of one kind or another (gasoline, diesel, aviation fuel, Bunker C, and so on). Altogether we can estimate that there are currently around 1.2 billion vehicles and other forms of transport that use fossil fuels for their motive power.

For the purposes of this analysis we will concentrate on personal automobiles for two reasons. First, they are the only  electrically-powered vehicles that are actually being used. Electric trucks, airplanes and ships are merely at the experimental stage — if that. Second, the number of automobiles is much greater than other forms of transport so it make sense to concentrate on converting them. We will further assume that there are about one billion automobiles being used throughout the world and each has a life of around ten years. We will further assume that these vehicles have a life of 10 years before being scrapped. (This estimate aligns quite well with the 2014 world-wide production of cars and commercial vehicles.) Therefore if a concerted effort is to be made to have an all-electric fleet of automobiles then approximately 100 million such vehicles are needed every year, in order to complete the transition within ten years.

So, how are we doing? Well, the  number of electric cars sold world wide in the year 2014 was just over 300,000, which is about 0.3% of the overall production. In other words electric cars have yet to any meaningful impact. Hence the massive, concerted effort to wean ourselves off gasoline to power our cars has yet to start. But making such a conversion would take a phenomenal effort and investment to make it happen. Not only would we have to build the factories to manufacture the vehicles themselves and the electric motors and batteries that go in them, but we would need a huge new network of “filling stations” and maintenance facilities. There would also be a need to dispose of much of the infrastructure used to manufacture and deliver gasoline and other oil products. in an environmentally responsible manner.

So what are the road blocks (ahem) to such a project? Well, here are at least four.

  1. It would require a dedicated commitment by pretty much all the nations and manufacturing organizations in the world. There are no indications at all that such a commitment is in the works. Indeed, because a project such as this would challenge the livelihood of many existing businesses it is likely that it would face many challenges.
  2. The project would require an enormous financial investment. Debt levels, which are already very high, would have to be vastly increased in order to fund this project.
  3. The project would also require a very high investment of existing energy sources, particularly oil. Yet that energy will be needed just to keep existing systems running. We can’t both have our cake and eat it. 
  4. Above all, the project would take time — a lot of time. It’s hard to imagine that the factories and infrastructure could be brought up to speed (100 million vehicles per year) in less than ten years. So the total time needed to electrify the world’s automobile fleet would be at least twenty years.

Time Available

So, do we have twenty years to execute this huge project?

Ever since M. King Hubbert published his seminal paper in the year 1956 (A Journey Part 2 — Hubbert) there has been much discussion as to when society will reach ‘Peak Oil’, i.e., that point in time when the world’s production of oil heads into long-term decline. We will explore this question in later posts. Suffice to say that it appears as if the the world hit ‘Plateau Oil’ around the year 2005 and it has been about flat since then. When the curve will start to head inexorably downwards none of us know for sure. A conservative estimate would be somewhere in the range 2020-2025. In other words, just a few years from now. Therefore the transition to electrically-powered transportation should have started at least ten years ago. It didn’t.

The Hirsch Report

Robert Hirsch

Robert Hirsch

What I have written in this post is hardly original. In the year 2005 Dr. Robert Hirsch, Roger Bezdek and Robert Wendling published Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, & Risk Management. The following statements are from the Executive Summary. My comments are in italics.

When world oil peaking will occur is not known with certainty. A fundamental problem in predicting oil peaking is the poor quality of and possible political biases in world oil reserves data. Some experts believe peaking may occur soon. This study indicates that “soon” is within 20 years.
Based on the discussion in the previous section the rough estimate of 2025 suggested in the report seems to be quite sensible.

The problems associated with world oil production peaking will not be temporary, and past “energy crisis” experience will provide relatively little guidance. The challenge of oil peaking deserves immediate, serious attention, if risks are to be fully understood and mitigation begun on a timely basis.
The past energy crises that the report refers to were primarily political. Peak oil is a geological phenomenon. Therefore this observation continues to hold true. The report did not receive “immediate, serious attention”. 

Oil peaking will create a severe liquid fuels problem for the transportation sector, not an “energy crisis” in the usual sense that term has been used.
The report makes the important distinction between energy in general and the liquid fuels needed to run the world’s transport fleets.

Peaking will result in dramatically higher oil prices, which will cause protracted economic hardship in the United States and the world. However, the problems are not insoluble. Timely, aggressive mitigation initiatives addressing both the supply and the demand sides of the issue will be required.
This forecast is only partially correct. The price of oil continues to oscillate. Oil is absolutely fundamental to our economies. If its price rises to too high a level economic activity slows down so the demand for oil falls, along with its price.

Mitigation will require a minimum of a decade of intense, expensive effort, because the scale of liquid fuels mitigation is inherently extremely large.
There has not been a decade of intense effort to address the issues presented in this report. Nor does it appear as if such an ‘intense effort’ is about to start.

Conclusions

It is possible that electric cars will make quicker inroads than they have so far (maybe in China in response to their air pollution) but the possibility of converting most of the world’s automobile fleet within a generation seems to be highly unlikely.

We can draw the following broader conclusions from this discussion.

  • The fact that we want something to happen does not mean that it will happen. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride”.
  • Even if a new technology is feasible the issue of scale-up can create near-insurmountable problems to do with finance, political will and new Age of Limits constraints.
  • Engineers can play an important role in helping us understand these difficulties.

One of my goals in writing this series of posts is to show how we can address the problems/predicaments that we face. Indeed, it may even be possible to identify business opportunities. There are any number of web sites and books that describe our difficulties. But many of them conclude with the word ‘should’, as in ‘Society should make a massive investment in electric car technology’. Such statements achieve little — most people and organizations are going to do what they want to do, not what they should do.

The conclusions I come to in this post are:

  • Automobiles powered by fossil fuels (gasoline/diesel) will decline in number over the next twenty years due to increasingly stringent climate change regulations and due to declining oil supplies.
  • The development of a similar-sized fleet of electrically-powered cars in that time frame is not feasible.
  • Therefore we will move into a world where personal mobility is much more restricted and/or there will be much greater use of public transport.

Books

Our books, published by Elsevier, include the following titles.

Books from Sutton Technical Books

11. Denying Blackbeard – Part 2

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #11. Denying Blackbeard – Part 2

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

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

This is the eleventh 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
  8. A Journey Part 4 — Inconvenient Truths
  9. A Journey Part 5 — Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard Part 1
  11. Denying Blackbeard Part 2 (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.

This post discusses the ExxonMobil company therefore I need to point out, as noted in last week’s post, that, as a process safety and process risk professional (see my site at Sutton Technical Books), I have worked as a consultant and project team member with many of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil. I do not own stock in the company.

Introduction

In last week’s post — Denying Blackbeard Part 1 — I reflected on a speech given by Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. In it he challenged the validity of climate change. Consequently his company has elected not to make a vigorous response to the problem. Yet failure to do so, in my view, will likely result in the oil and energy companies becoming the like Kodak: global leaders that fade quickly due to an inadequate response to radical changes in the business environment. (The first response of Kodak management when informed about the digital camera — invented in 1975 by one of their own employees — was simply to wish that the whole problem would go away, or at least that something would turn up to solve the problem. But the digital camera did not go away and climate change is not going to go away either.)

I also noted in last week’s post that I was somewhat puzzled by the response of the oil companies to their changing business environment for two reasons. First, these companies are well used to taking risk: the decisions that they make to spend huge amounts of money exploring for new wells and then producing the oil and gas from those wells require a high understanding and tolerance for risk. It also means that these companies have well-developed risk analysis models.

The second reason for my puzzlement was to do with their approach to safety — which is one of total commitment and a willingness to put the ethic of safety before profits. People who have not worked for large oil and energy companies may not choose to believe that this it is the case. But the reality is, for many of these companies, safety does indeed come first. Yet climate change is simply another ethic; and, like safety, it is one in which people, both employees and members of the public, take priority over other business goals.

The priority given to the ethic of safety can be illustrated by two examples: the Blackbeard (non) incident and the success of behavior-based safety programs, which we will discuss in a subsequent post.

Well Conditions Were Hellish

The Blackbeard Oil and Gas Facility — Gulf of Mexico

The Blackbeard Facility

The (Non) Incident

In 2005 ExxonMobil and its partners started drilling the Blackbeard prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. It had the potential to be an “elephant field”; initial estimates suggested that the well contained at least 500 million barrels of oil. (The Macondo prospect – see below – held only about 50 million barrels.)

Though located in shallow water (just 70 feet) the well itself was ultradeep. After 500 days and expenditures of $210 million the well depth was at 30,067 feet, within 2,000 feet of its target.  However ExxonMobil was running into problems; at these record depths temperatures and pressures were high: 600°F and 29,000 psig. Well conditions were reported to be “hellish”. They had already experienced one kick — a sudden release of natural gas up the drill string — and were concerned that another kick could not be controlled by the drilling mud and that the Blowout Preventer (BOP) may not have sufficient capacity. In the ensuing discussions as to whether to keep going or not Rex Tillerson sided with the drillers. Exxon wrote off Blackbeard as a $187 million dry hole, even though it obviously wasn’t. At the time it was considered to be the most expensive “dry hole” ever.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times Mr. Tillerson said,

“There was a pretty extensive discussion between the geoscientists, who wanted to keep going — here they were near their objectives — and the drillers, who were saying, ‘We are just really not comfortable’. We were right at the ragged edge and they felt the risk was too great.

The prospect was later taken over by the company McMoRan. Using heavier equipment and a bigger blowout preventer they reentered the well bore, went down another 3,000 feet, and hit a big payzone. (This does not mean that ExxonMobil had made an error — they simply made the best decision they could with the data available to them at that time.)

Management Lessons

On March 24th 1989, some sixteen years before the Blackbeard decision, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground near the port of Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Eight of the ship’s cargo tanks were ruptured and approximately 250,000 barrels of oil were released. The accident had major environmental and long-term economic consequences (no one was injured). Spilled oil eventually covered 2100 kilometers of coastline.

This event led to a new way of thinking at ExxonMobil. Mr. Tillerson is quoted as saying, “Valdez led to a profound rethinking of safety management at the company.” As a consequence the company developed a rigid system of rules for all its operations, from gas stations to offshore platforms.
Today, Exxon stands out among its peers for its obsessive attention to safety, according to analysts and industry insiders.

Macondo

Deepwater Horizon /Macondo

Deepwater Horizon

ExxonMobil came in for its share of criticism for its decision to walk away from Blackbeard, and still does. In 2014 Forbes magazine said,

Furthermore, there’s the question of whether Exxon is even up for drilling a complex, ultradeep well in a frontier region. The company has begun to shy away from such risky stuff in recent years — preferring to leverage its gargantuan balance sheet and project management skills bring known hordes of oil and gas to market, rather than look for new ones.

After all, the last time Exxon attempted an ultradeep well, it chickened out . . .

However, for most people questions as to the wisdom of the decision to abandon the Blackbeard prospect were pretty much laid to rest on 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon rig at BP’s Macondo prospect blew up and sank taking seven lives with it and creating the nation’s worst-ever oil spill.

Exxon’s ‘lack of guts’ looks a lot more like justified conservatism and prudence, and a prescient awareness that safety, caution and catastrophic risk avoidance would be key themes as oil companies were forced to push the envelope in the search for new oil.

Paul Sankey, Deutsche Bank

A critical difference between ExxonMobil and BP was that the decision to walk away from the Blackbeard prospect was made by the highest levels of management. The decisions to do with the Macondo well, however, were made by much lower levels of management. Hence BP’s senior management was caught totally off balance when the blowout occurred.

Safety Culture

The Blackbeard incident shows how a company culture can change. In the case of the Exxon, the Valdez event led to management instituting a safety culture that is among the best in industry.

A second lesson to be learned from this event is that the decision as to what to do rose to the highest levels of the ExxonMobil company. This in contrast to the BP culture at Macondo where key decisions were made by the first line of management onshore and senior management knew nothing of what was going on until it was too late.

Conclusions

Kodak Moment
Up until this point in the series I have outlined the history of how we got to where we are regarding the Age of Limits and I have provided an overview of some of the predicaments that we face. This is the first post in which I look at ways in which engineers and managers in the process industries can help address these predicaments.

With regard to the energy companies and the Age of Limits we can draw the following conclusions:

  • The burning of oil and gas creates billions of tons of carbon dioxide ever year.
  • This carbon dioxide is causing an inexorable increase in atmospheric temperature which in turn is creating many, many problems.
  • No company is secure in the face of change and, as Kodak learned, change can take place with bewildering speed. It took less than forty years for a company that was utterly dominant in its market to go from inventing the digital camera to bankruptcy caused by that invention.
  • Oil companies will have to adapt (Stein’s Law, “What cannot go on will stop.”)
  • Those companies that fail to do so this will experience their ‘Kodak Moment’
  • But the companies that adapt quickly and effectively to the change may prosper and flourish.

This all sounds rather negative and threatening but the lesson to be taken from the Valdez/Blackbeard sequence of events is that large companies can change their culture. And it need not be just one company. In future posts we will discuss the topic of behavior-based safety and show how a whole industry changed its approach to managing safety, and how successful that effort was.

So Lesson #1 is,

Large companies can change their culture in response to radical external events.

10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1

Rex Tillerson CEO of ExxonMobil

Rex Tillerson – CEO ExxonMobil

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

This is the tenth 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
  8. A Journey Part 4 — Inconvenient Truths
  9. A Journey Part 5 — Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard Part 1 (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.

Introduction

Engineers tend to view the world in terms of objective facts and calculations. They are comfortable with the view of the world outlined in The Mechanical World View. But, as discussed in Four Strands, the reality of the world that we live in is that most people react to discussions such as those posted here with emotion — usually a negative emotion such as denial, fear or anger.

Denial is not just an individual trait — it is a reaction sometimes exhibited by large organizations. To illustrate this point I would like to think through some of the comments made in a recent speech by Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, and hence one of the most powerful and influential individuals in the oil business. Before doing so I need to point out that, as a process safety and process risk professional (see my site at Sutton Technical Books), I have worked as a consultant and team member with many of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil. These companies have a total commitment to safety, with results to match. And ExxonMobil is a safety leader. I will illustrate this leadership, specifically involving Mr. Tillerson, in the next post when we discuss the Blackbeard (non) incident.

Given this commitment to safety, and given that these companies have a very good grasp of the concept of risk, it is a puzzle that they seem to be in such denial regarding global warming and other elements of the Age of Limits. After all, could they come to grips with the changes that are occurring they may be able to identify business opportunities that will take them into the next decades.

The Speech

The following statement is extracted from Mr. Tillerson’s speech. It is quoted in the May 27th edition of Bloomberg Business — a respected business journal. Mr. Tillerson said,

Climate models that seek to predict the outcome of rising temperatures “just aren’t that good,” Tillerson said, reiterating a position he has publicly advocated at least since his promotion to CEO in 2006. The company is wary of making efforts to reduce emissions that may not work or that will be deemed unnecessary if the modeling is flawed, Tillerson said.

“Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity. Those solutions will present themselves as the realities become clear,” he said. “I know that is a very unsatisfying answer for a lot of people, but it’s an answer that a scientist and an engineer would give you.’’

Let us unpack the above statement to see how such a large and important company is managing denial.

Climate Models

Mr. Tillerson states that the models just “aren’t that good” — a phrase that really should be quantified. Yet the very selfsame article cites another Bloomberg piece that contains the following quotation,

There is widespread scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change . . . 

The reality is that the models are good — scientific uncertainty will always exist. But if there is one group of people that are used to making decisions on limited and conflicting data it is oil company executives. Whenever they decide to drill a well; there is always a chance that they will hit a dry hole. In fact it is likely that the climate models are a good deal more accurate than many of the models that oil industry uses in its business. Moreover, having worked in process risk management for companies such as these I know how well they handle risk and ucertainty in other business areas — these are the waters in which they swim.

Dealing with Adversity

Intriguingly, the comment that “solutions will present themselves” aligns with one of the major tenets of this blog. In the year 1712 Thomas Newcomen invented his steam engine because the people of that time, just like ourselves now, were faced with a dilemma. Their dilemma was to find a replacement for the forests that had declined; our dilemma is to find a new way of living given that we are bumping into resource, environmental and financial limits.

But the solutions did not really “present themselves” in the manner that Mr. Tillerson would seem to indicate. They were identified and developed by motivated individuals who realized that, in the words of the Monte Python, And Now for Something Completely Different. Newcomen and his successors recognized that brand new solutions were needed — the old models were not working. In modern parlance they introduced “disruptive technology”.  Mr. Tillerson’s comment could be interpreted to mean, “solutions with present themselves to ExxonMobil”. This is a risky assumption.

Science and Engineering

In his statement, Mr. Tillerson appears to conflate science with engineering. But they are not the same. Scientists are not expected to “deal with adversity”, or with anything else for that matter. Their responsibility in this context is to develop models to do with resource depletion and climate change that accurately reflect the observed data and then to make sensible and defensible predictions. Engineers, on the other hand, are expected to take those models and develop technology that can address the problem at hand.

In fact the development of new technology is really a three-step process. The first step, as discussed in Peak Forests, is to develop an intellectual framework (in their day this was done by men such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton who created the ‘Mechanical World View’). The next step is to develop technology — in their case the steam engine. The third and final step is the development of explanatory science (such as a theory which explained why Newcomen’s engine could never lift water more than 32 feet).

We, in our day, seem to be still at the first step. Many writers, most of them on the Internet, are critiquing the way we run things now to the point where is all becomes rather repetitive and tedious. I am more interested in trying to figure out what I will call an Entropic World View that replaces the Mechanical World View might look like.

A Kodak Moment

Kodak-1

History books are littered with stories of companies that failed to adjust to new circumstances and eventually went out of business. Kodak is a well-known example — its failure to react quickly and thoroughly to digital technology led to its rather sudden demise.

In its early days the company the company had been innovative and, maybe more important, willing to sacrifice a currently profitable product line for a new technology. For example,

  • In 1900 they introduced the Box Brownie camera — “You push the button, we do the rest”.
  • Twice George Eastman bet the company on change — once when he moved out of plate photography to rolls of film, and later when he moved to color, even though the initial quality was not that great.
  • In 1975 a company employee invented the first digital camera. That’s when things started to go wrong. Rather than bet the company once again, management played a defensive strategy and eventually lost the game, going out of business in 2012.

Various business journals have analyzed the reasons for Kodak’s failure to adapt. They tend to boil down to just a few precepts.

  • Top management never fully understood how the world around them was changing.
  • Even when they did respond they did so half-heartedly, always trying to enhance the existing film business with digital rather than starting a brand new business.
  • They were not willing to dump the ecosystem of Kodak dealers that was central to their old business model.
  • Above all, management was never willing to gamble the company on new technology in the way that George Eastman had done.

It is useful to use the Kodak story as an analogy for what the oil companies are facing now, and there certainly are some parallels. There is, however, one big difference. Kodak was faced with a clear and present disruptive technology: digital photography. The oil companies are faced with a situation where there is no single technology to replace what they are doing now. Instead, they are looking at a situation where the old business model is starting to crack but there is no new technology waiting in the wings.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

My comments so far could be construed, with some justification, as being critical of ExxonMobil’s response to climate change — and by implication, most of the other large oil companies. There is nothing in Rex Tillerson’s speech to show that he is looking to transform ExxonMobil in the manner that George Eastman did on at least two occasions with Kodak. However, as already noted, oil company culture is probably more risk-oriented than that of other industries. Also, over the last twenty years or so, their culture has developed a profound understanding of safety management — and the results show it. This indicates to me that these companies have demonstrated a willingness not only to change culture, but to do so effectively. They have also placed the safety ethic above the profit ethic. All of which augurs some hope for the future.

More on this in the next post when we discuss the Blackbeard (non) incident.