Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Category Archives: Entropy

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

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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

7. A Journey Part 3 – A Predicament

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

Predicament

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

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

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

In this blog we consider two questions:

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

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

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey Part 1 — Twilight
  6. A Journey Part 2— Hubbert
  7. A Journey Part 3 — A Predicament (this one)

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

Authors and Publications

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

Deepwater Project

Petronas Towers

Petronas Towers

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

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

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

The Oil Drum

Oil Drum logo

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

ASPO Conference

Association for the Study of Peak Oil

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

The Archdruid Report

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

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

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

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

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

Resource Insights

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

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

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

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

World’s liquid fuel supply

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

Our Finite World

Gail Tverberg

Gail Tverberg

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

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

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

Peak Prosperity

Chris Martenson

Chris Martenson

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

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

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

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

Post Carbon Institute

Richard Heinberg

Richard Heinberg

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

5. A Journey Part 1 – Twilight

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #5. A Journey Part 1 – Twilight

Twilight in the Desert

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

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

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

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

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey, Part 1 (this one)

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

A Personal Journey

The previous posts in this series have introduced the concept of an Age of Limits and they have discussed the development of engineering as a discipline. In future posts we will discuss how engineering is likely to change in the face of the transition we are entering and how engineers can assist with that transition. Obviously this is a journey — no one knows all the answers, or even what the questions are. So I thought that I would talk a little bit about the start of my my own journey and share a few thoughts as to why I find the topic both interesting and important.

I cannot point to a single personal “ah ha” moment when “I got it” — a moment when it became clear to me that infinite growth on a finite plant won’t happen. My understanding has developed gradually, and in fits and starts. Like most engineers, I have confidence in technology and the general concept of “progress”. But that confidence was  shaken by the Fukushima-Daiichi catastrophe that occurred in the year 2010. After that event I recall reading a comment that, “It will take more energy to clean up the waste left by nuclear power plants than they generated in the entirety of their lifetimes”. I don’t know if this statement is literally true, but it is thought-provoking; in order to reap the short-term benefits of our actions, in this case the electricity from nuclear power plants, we leave enormous messes for our children and grandchildren to clean up.

Literature

University of Houston - Clear Lake

University of Houston – Clear Lake

About twenty years ago I decided to work on a Masters Degree in Literature at the University of Houston — Clear Lake. My reason for this decision was simply that it was something that I wanted to do. The degree offered no career benefit and I paid for the classes out of my own pocket. But the decision to pursue liberal arts studies was, I believe, a factor in the Age of Limits thinking that forms the theme of these blog posts.

My thesis was to do with societal changes caused by new technology. The theme was “Literature in the Age of the Internet”. I noted that, up to the year 1439 when Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable type printing press, text was malleable. The copying of written works was never perfect so the copies of a text would necessarily be different from the original text. But with the introduction of the printing press the concept of an “inerrant text” was introduced. Each copy of a book would be identical to the others made on the same press — errors and all. But the replacement of the letter press with electronic communications means that text is malleable once again. Person A can send an email to Person B, who then changes the original text before forwarding it to Person C. Inerrancy has disappeared. The lesson I take away from these transitions is that there is a strong interconnection between technology and social systems. Examples I have already discussed, or that I will dicuss in future posts include the need for the industrial steam engine, the horse manure crisis of the late 19th century and the abolition of slavery.

My hunch is that, if engineers are to be effective in this new world then they need to be more eclectic than they are now. Two examples illustrate this point. First, even a cursory reading of history shows that societies, nations and empires can and do collapse. There is no guarantee of a brighter and better future. The second example is to do with the power of story-telling, as discussed in the posts That would be telling and How to Read and Why.

Movable Type

Movable Type

When describing Newcomen’s development of a practical steam engine in Reverse Engineering and Peak Forests I noted that he actually combined many types of technology, including boiler design, gasketing for pistons and simple control systems (the operator injecting cold water into the cylinder twelve times a minute). Gutenberg exhibited the same versatility. He had to create a press (based on wine presses) that could apply high pressure to the pages, he had to develop the dies from various types of metal, including lead, antimony and tin. The letters in the press had to be able to stand up to heavy, repeated use. Finally, he had to develop an ink that was thick enough for this new invention.

My guess is that engineers of the future will have to display the same versatility and adaptability. A high degree of specialization will not be valued.

Ethanol as a Fuel

Corn to Ethanol

Corn to Ethanol

The next step in my Age of Limits journey was an article I read in one of the chemical engineering journals (probably Hydrocarbon Processing)Unfortunately I don’t remember the title or date of the article so I cannot give the appropriate credits. But it was probably published in the late 1980s.

The author, a young engineer, was describing the production of ethanol as a fuel from corn (maize). He described the technology of the process and then made a first-pass calculation at the amount of energy needed to make the ethanol. Clearly he was nonplussed to find that there was very little net energy or “energy profit” in the process. It took almost as much energy (supplied mostly by oil) to make the ethanol as the ethanol provided when burned as a fuel. What he had stumbled across is the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) or Net Energy — a concept that is well understood now and that is described in the post Nine Pounds of Gold.

The lesson he taught me was that with any resource it is not enough to ask whether it exists, it is not even enough to ask if the technology exists for extracting that resource. What matters is whether that resource can be extracted profitably. With energy the question is even simpler: does the product, whether it be oil from the ground or ethanol from a factory, delivery substantially more energy than was needed to create it in the first place? If the answer is “No” then the only way that the project can move forward is by being subsidized by the government.

I find that most articles in the media to do with natural resources run on the following lines,

  • We need X (coal, bauxite, oil, iron ore, whatever).
  • We know how to extract X from the earth.
  • So let’s do it.

The above should be rewritten as follows,

  • We need X (coal, bauxite, oil, iron ore, whatever).
  • We know how to extract X from the earth economically.
  • So let’s do it.

Twilight in the Desert

Twilight in the Desert

Twilight in the Desert

The next step in my journey was the discovery of Internet articles written by Matt Simmons (1943-2010). He was head of his own successful investment company, specializing in the oil business. He noted that many of the major oil producing nations did not reveal information to do with their production rates, reserves or decline rates. Or, if they do publish such information, its value is questionable, not least because it is never independently audited. So he spent many weeks in the library of the Society of Petroleum Engineers located in Richardson, Texas reading about 200 technical papers to do with oil product in Saudi Arabia. He came to the conclusion that the production of oil in the kingdom was at or near its peak and that there was little spare capacity.

He summarized his findings in the book Twilight in the Desert, published in the year 2005 — just ten years ago. At the time his findings were both surprising and shocking. The fact that what he said now sounds almost banal shows how much we have progressed in our understanding of the economic availability of finite resources. (Not long before his death in the year 2010 I had the opportunity of meeting Mr. Simmons at a presentation he gave to the Society of Petroleum Engineers. In the few moments that we were together I argued with some of his conclusions. I wish now that I had simply shaken his hand and said, “Mr. Simmons, thank you for the leadership and courage that you shown”.)

There are many videos such as this one showing Simmons giving presentations on the topic of Peak Oil. Since his death considerably more research has gone into understanding the complexities the topic of Peak Oil but it is probably fair to say that his broad conclusions are still valid. The world’s major fields are declining quite rapidly and new sources of oil are technically challenging and much more expensive.

Toward the end of his life Simmons’ credibility was hurt by some of the preposterous claims he made to do with the Macondo spill. And his predictions of $500 per barrel oil have not turned out to be even close to true (probably because he did not grasp the link between oil prices and the overall economy — if the price of oil rises too much the economy goes into recession leading to a fall in the price of oil). But he was a leader in raising awareness of the Peak Oil problem.

He also exhibited an attribute which is going to be important in the future of engineering: imagination. For example, he proposed the following to a Forbes reporter.

  1. Build the world’s biggest windfarm off the windy coast of Maine (where Simmons lived).
  2. Use the electricity generated to desalinate and de-ionize sea water.
  3. Use that water, plus electricity and air, to manufacture ammonia.
  4. Pipe the ammonia to shore and use it to power a new generation of cars.

Is such a project feasible? I haven’t a clue, but I like the style of thinking.

Conclusions

We will continue with a description of my journey in understanding the Age of Limits in the next post. But already a few conclusions can be drawn.

  • In the post Four Strands we noted that people can come to an understanding of the Age of Limits from various points of view, with resources, environment and finance being the most common. My background is mostly to do with Peak Oil.
  • Successful engineers in the future will probably avoid over-specialization; instead they will be adaptable and able to bring different engineering skills together.
  • It will be important to be eclectic and to have a good grasp of non-engineering skills such as literature and history.
  • Imaginative thinking will be very important.

We will continue this journey in the next post in this series.

4. Four Strands

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #4. Four Strands

Railroad Switching Yard

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

What will a post-oil society invent?

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

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

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

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands (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.

The Messy World of Real People

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon

In last week’s post I briefly described the development of the Mechanical World View. Men such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton created a model that still provides the mental framework for most of us. Their model was objective (Bacon), mathematical (Descartes) and provided predictable results (Newton). It also provided the intellectual basis for the Industrial Revolution which started in the early 18th century with the development of Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine (described in the post Peak Forests).

The Mechanical World View was enormously successful but it has one very important limit: it cannot effectively describe or predict human behavior whether people are considered as individuals or in groups. Disciplines such as economics and sociology have attempted to build Newtonian-style models that predict how people as individuals behave and how society functions. But these attempts have met with little success. (It is worth noting that Newton himself entertained some rather strange and irrational beliefs.)

Q: Why did God create economists?
A: In order to make weather forecasters look good.

The Four Strands

In this series of posts I try to think through how the discipline of engineering will change in response to the approaching Age of Limits. This means that engineers need to understand that they live of unpredictable human beings who often make foolish or magnificent decisions that make no sense in a Newtonian world.

With regard to the Age of Limits it is tempting for engineers, who tend to be rational and who will go where the numbers take them, to look just at the facts of the situation: resources are dwindling and the environment is being degraded more and more. Therefore we need to find a technical solution to solve these problems. End of discussion.

Not so fast — when discussing the Age of Limits we need to recognize that there are at least four strands to the conversation. The first two — resources and environment — are technical and can be modeled quite accurately. But the other two strands — finance and politics — have to be understood and handled quite differently, not least because they operate on different time scales.

Strand 1 — Resources

The first strand, Resource Limitations, is the easiest for engineers to understand. We extract resources such as oil, iron ore and bauxite from the earth. We then convert those resources to useful products such as gasoline, steel and aluminum. Those resources are finite and eventually become depleted. It is relatively simple to create a Mechanical World View of these resources: where they are, how we extract them and how we process them to make them into useful products. When a resource becomes “exhausted” we stop extracting it from that location. (By “exhausted” we do not mean that the resource disappears, just that it is no longer economic to keep on extracting it.)

Strand 2 — Environment

The second strand, Environmental Limitations, is also fairly easy for engineers to follow, although it is more complex than Resource Limitations. We can create Newtonian-style models to predict how the climate will change in response to increased CO2 concentrations, or how quickly coral reefs will dissolve as the oceans become more acidic. Admittedly, these models are very complex — the earth is a big place and there are many, many variables to consider. Still, we seem to have an understanding as to how the environment is being degraded.

Strand 3 — Finance

The third of the four strands is to do with Finance. Many people, including engineers, tend to follow the logic,

A resource exists; we can use it

They should say,

A resource exists; we can use it only if it makes economic sense.

For example there has been much discussion in the popular press in recent years about “Saudi America”. The basic idea is that the United States has enough oil in its shale and deepwater deposits that there will be no need to continue importing oil from other countries. The catch with many of these articles is that they look only at the amount of oil in the ground and that can be theoretically extracted. They do not consider how much it costs to do so. Let’s say that Saudi oil can currently be produced for $30 per barrel (the actual figures are, of course, highly proprietary). The corresponding cost for shale oil seems to be north of $80 (and rising due to the very fast depletion rates). For new deepwater formations a figure of $130 per barrel seems to be credible. Given these disparities the United States will never be “Saudi America”.

Moreover, the Saudi oil is onshore in relatively shallow wells. If something were to go awry they can quickly correct the problem. With deepwater such is not the case. We are currently recognizing the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon/Macondo catastrophe. Not only did eleven men die and the nation suffer its worst-ever oil spill, the financial losses were large enough to almost bankrupt BP — one of the largest oil companies in the world.

In recent years the supply of money available in developed economies has grown exponentially as a result of programs such as Quantitative Easing. There has not been a corresponding growth in economic activity or production. And consider the following,

Here’s an astonishing statistic; more than 30pc of all government debt in the eurozone – around €2 trillion of securities in total – is trading on a negative interest rate. (Warner)

Sooner or later the amount of money in circulation has to align with the products and services that can be purchased. How all this will shake out is anyone’s guess, but we cannot detach the world of money from the world of engineering.

Strand 4 — Politics

Many people judge issues not according to the facts (as Francis Bacon would have them do); instead they develop opinions based on their their built-in biases and preferences, thus creating the fourth strand: Politics.

The obvious example here is the politicization of the Global Warming/Climate Change issue, which, at least in the United States, seems to have divided straight down party lines. Given that scientific results always have some ambiguity or inconsistency it is always possible to cherry-pick information to support any point of view that you care to select. People are prejudiced in the full meaning of the word; they “pre-judge”. The normal response to such reactions is to produce reports and computer models that demonstrate that they are wrong. This approach is, to the say the least, likely to be highly counter-productive.

Politics also shows up in a more explicit form. Policies ranging from economic sanctions all the way to all-out war create some obvious dislocations to the supply of fuel and other resources.

Systems Thinking

Each of the above topics — Resources, Environment, Money and Politics — need to be discussed in much greater depth. But they also need to be discussed in the context of one another. For example,

  • The environment is warming because we are burning oil products such as gasoline and diesel. They create putting CO2 that traps solar energy.
  • A decline in oil production will result in lower emissions and so the global warming problem becomes less serious.
  • But — if oil is not available it will be replaced by coal, which creates much more CO2 per unit of energy created. So the global warming problem gets worse.

The above is a trivial example, but it illustrates how important it is not to view each of the four strands in isolation.

What is needed is systems thinking, and this is something that many engineers are good at. And there are, of course, many web sites that attempt to develop a systems way of thinking. They include:

INTJ

As I was wrapping up this post I stumbled across a  fascinating survey result at Tom Murphy’s Do the Math site. It is to do with the Briggs Myers system for categorizing different personalities. The following chart and quotation are taken from his post.

Myers-Briggs-Murphy-1

The result was pretty stunning. Of the 114 responses, site visitors were dominated by INTJ types (43 in number, or 38%), even though this group constitutes about 2–3% of the population. The website appears to be highly selective . . .  If accurate, the implication is that less than 8% of the entire human population is likely receptive to the cautionary message on Peak Prosperity (and by extension, Do the Math—the numbers from which suggest an even smaller number). That’s a small fraction of the population, and likely well short of a “critical mass” for preventive action. So we may be committed to crisis.

This result merits further discussion in future posts. Suffice to say that, if we are to develop a broad-based understanding as to where the engineering profession is going, then publishing analyses and graphs won’t do it — we need much more effective communication strategies.

Incidentally, this is how one site describes INTJs.

With a natural thirst for knowledge that shows itself early in life, INTJs are often given the title of “bookworm” as children. While this may be intended as an insult by their peers, they more than likely identify with it and are even proud of it, greatly enjoying their broad and deep body of knowledge. INTJs enjoy sharing what they know as well, confident in their mastery of their chosen subjects, but owing to their Intuitive (N) and Judging (J) traits, they prefer to design and execute a brilliant plan within their field rather than share opinions on “uninteresting” distractions like gossip.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” Harlan Ellison

I conclude that the most urgent task facing engineers and those that are concerned about our transition to the Age of Limits is to figure out to communicate with others. We do not need more studies or reports — we need to somehow engage people’s attention and to encourage honest discussions that are not pre-judiced. How this might be done we can discuss in future posts. One example has already been provided in That would be telling. We all think in terms of stories — so we should be telling stories, not writing reports (or blog pages). This is one of the many insights of John Michael Greer that I have found so useful; for example in his post The Stories of our Grandchildren.

3. The Mechanical World View

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

Head-Mechanical-1

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

What will a post-oil society invent?

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

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

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

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

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

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

From Wood to Coal

Early steam train hauling coal

Early steam train hauling coal

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

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

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

The Hubbert Curve

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

Hubbert Curve

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

Wood → Coal → Oil → ?

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

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

The Mechanical World View

Jacques Turgot

Jacques Turgot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Entropic World View

Drought-1

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

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

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

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

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

Engineering in an Age of Limits: Welcome

Hubbert Curve

The Hubbert Curve (1956)

Welcome to our blog Engineering in an Age of Limits. This blog is part of a group that are grouped under the The PSM Report. Posts to date include:

Background

The “limits” that we refer to fall into three broad categories:

  1. Resources — of which oil is the most obvious and most critical.
  2. Environmental — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere receives the most attention but there are many other environmental issues such as ocean acidification and soil depletion.
  3. Money — the most abstract, yet maybe the most urgent of the limits.

Engineers had much to do with the creation of the industrial revolution (and the eventual depletion of oil reserves). And, as we move into the Age of Limits engineers will have both an opportunity and a responsibility to help create a new society and economic structure. The posts here will discuss how this might be done.

Book

engineering-age-limitsWe are working on a book to do with Engineering in an Age of Limits.

 

 

 

Posts

The posts will generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. Explanations of Peak Oil basics such as the Hubbert Curve and ERoEI. These posts will be written for engineers, so they will not hold back on technical and mathematical concepts.
  2. Thoughts as to how society may change in the coming decades as oil resources deplete.
  3. The challenges and opportunities that engineers will face during those decades.

We have started a new series of posts that may become the basis of a book on the topic. The theme that threads through the posts is:

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

The current posts in this series 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 — No Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard — Part 1
  11. Denying Blackbeard — Part 2
  12. If wishes were horses . . .
  13. Renaissance Man and Climate Change

Older posts that discuss issues to do with the Age of Limits include the following:

Reference Material

Much excellent research on the topic of the Age of Limits has of course already been published, so this blog will include many references. As a starter, we have found the following sites to be invaluable: