Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Category Archives: Peak Oil

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

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

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

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.

8. A Journey Part 4 – Inconvenient Truths

Engineering in an Age of Limits
A Journey Part 4  Incovenient Truths

Inconvenient Truth

Inconvenient Truth

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

This is the eighth 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 blog series so far along with those planned for the near future 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 (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 last three posts have described the start of my personal journey into understanding our Age of Limits. They have mostly discussed the limits to do with energy resources: wood, coal and oil. But there are two other types of limit to be considered: environmental and economic (financial).

My own journey regarding understanding the Age of Limits has been mostly on the Resource Depletion road. But many others come to this topic through an understanding of changes in the environment, particularly climate change, a topic that we discuss in the remainder of this post.

Climate Change

Al Gore

Al Gore

For myself and many others the 2006 video An Inconvenient Truth featuring Vice President Al Gore was a major step in developing an understanding of climate change and the impact that it could have. Since then there have been any number of reports and studies full of complex charts, graphs and tables, all showing that the earth’s atmosphere is indeed getting warmer. There is no point in me trying to reproduce those here. However the following does seem to be a sensible summary as to what is going on.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas — it helps keep the planet warm. If it were not present in the atmosphere we would all freeze to death.
  • Since the start of the Industrial Revolution (Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine in 1712) we have steadily increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels — first coal and then oil and gas. The earth’s temperature has risen correspondingly.
  • This temperature increase is being exacerbated by increasing methane emissions (methane is a very potent greenhouse gas) caused by a positive feedback loop.
  • We are already approaching a 2°C temperature increase.
  • We are on track for 3°C by the year 2030, i.e., within the lifetimes of most people reading this blog.
  • If the temperature rises by 3°C bad things happen: sea levels rise substantially, crop yields decline and droughts will increase in severity and frequency.
  • If the temperature rises by 4°C then the consequences become truly scary. Some analysts say that we are headed toward human extinction. Although such projections are, in my judgment, an exaggeration it is hard to deny that we are moving into very difficult times.
  • So far our response to this looming crisis has been tepid, to say the least — CO2 levels continue to increase and very little top-down concerted action has been taken.

The above conclusions are is well supported by thorough research and climate modeling. So why is there so much controversy? I suggest that the fundamental issue is not do with the science involved but with human emotions and feelings. This is important because, if engineers are to help understand the transitions that we are undergoing then they need to understand that simply presenting hard data and calculations are not enough when it comes to changing people’s behavior. We need to understand psychology and sociology.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance

When someone is confronted with convincing information that conflicts with their beliefs then, if they do not change those beliefs, they will undergo what is known as cognitive dissonance.

Personal Experience

For many people the most obvious cognitive dissonance to do with climate change comes from  a perceived conflict between what they read about (mostly on the Internet) and their daily experiences. Someone may take the family to the beach for a vacation. When he gets there the ocean seems to be pretty much in the same place as it always has been — what happened to catastrophic sea rise? Or he may be a keen gardener and note that that last frost date seems to be about the same as it always has been. This person’s daily experiences do not align with what he is reading.

A Truly Inconvenient Truth

I have already noted that the publication of Al Gore’s video An Inconvenient Truth was a starting point for myself and many others in understanding what climate change was and the impact that it could have on all of us. Unfortunately Al Gore’s lifestyle does not match his message. He lives in a large air-conditioned mansion (and owns other properties), flies around the world in jet airplanes and eats a high meat diet. If he had really wanted to get his message across Gore would have moved to a small home without air conditioning, cut back on long distance travel (and then only by train) and eaten a mostly vegetarian diet. Then his message would have been much more convincing. (This comment is not partisan — there are many people across the political spectrum who fail to walk their talk.)

By living a life that is not in alignment with his stated message Gore, and the many people like him, are creating a dissonance in their listeners and supporters.

Harsh Reality

Some people may decide not to accept arguments to do with climate change (and other Age of Limits issues) because they recognize that doing so will force them to dramatically downsize their high consumption life style, and they prefer not to think about that. If their future is one of say not driving an automobile, growing their own food and living in a non air-conditioned house then that person can choose to deny that future by claiming loudlythat the climate really is not changing, or, if it is, the cause is not man-made so we need do nothing about it.

The California Snowpack

California Snowpack 2015

California Snowpack 2015

The “Seeing is Believing” response can work in the other direction. And, for many Americans, the drought in southern California is providing an unpleasant glimpse of the future and the reality of global warming. The following is from an April 2015 report published by the California Department of Water Resources.

Sierra Nevada Snowpack Is Virtually Gone; Water Content Now Is Only 5 Percent of Historic Average, Lowest Since 1950

SACRAMENTO – The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) found no snow whatsoever today during its manual survey for the media at 6,800 feet in the Sierra Nevada. This was the first time in 75 years of early-April measurements at the Phillips snow course that no snow was found there.

On a personal note I might add that I work with engineers and risk analysts in the State of California. They tend to take the long view to do with most problems, they understand the nature of risk — so they are the opposite of alarmist by nature. But the current water situation in their state really does worry them.

A view of the Jaguari dam station, part of the Cantareira reservoir, with record low water levels in Braganca Paulista, Sao Paulo state, in this February 20, 2014 file photo. This year saw the driest summer on record in Sao Paulo state, raising the specter of a water shortage in a country with the world's largest fresh-water reserves. REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker

Cantareira Reservoir, Brazil

It is probable that, in future years, we will see more and more situations such as that in California, i.e., increasing evidence that the climate is changing rapidly, and generally not for the better. For example, on October 24th 2014, Reuters reported from São Paulo, Brazil, “South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon . . .  [it] is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.” The dramatic reduction in rainfall is attributed to deforestation in the area.

With reference to the denial response, Paul Gilding, an Australian environmentalist states that “the lack of a serious Brazilian response reinforces to me that we’re not going to respond to the big global issues until they hit the economy. It’s hard to imagine a stronger example than a city of 20 million people running out of water. Yet despite the clear threat, the main response is ‘we hope it rains.’ Why such denial? Because the implications of acceptance are so significant, and we know in our hearts there’s no going back once you end denial. It would demand that the country face up to the urgency of reversing rather than slowing deforestation.”

It has even been suggested by many reporters that the lack of rain in the Middle East for the last four years is a root cause of the wars and violence in nations such as Syria.

Conclusions

One of the goals of this series of posts is to think through the role of engineers in response to the approaching Age of Limits. The emotional reaction to the evidence for global warming shows that a dispassionate presentation of the facts is insufficient; discussions have to address emotions such as anxiety and hope. As people are faced with evidence that these changes are taking place they will struggle more and more with cognitive dissonance — discomfort experienced by an individual who is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.

Engineers tend to be rational and data-driven — they will go where the numbers take them. Therefore they can contribute mightily to the discussions to do with environmental issues simply by collecting and presenting the facts in a calm and dispassionate manner. But it does not stop there — they have to understand that, for most people, the changes posed by the Age of Limits are frightening and so they will do what they can to suppress or ignore the message. And even if they do accept the scientific predictions to do with these issues they could easily ask, “What can one person do? Why bother?”

If engineers and technical professionals are to communicate with the general public they will have to be sensitive to these emotional responses.

 

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.

6. A Journey Part 2 – Hubbert

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #6. A Journey Part 2 – Hubbert

M. King Hubbert and Peak Oil

M. King Hubbert

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

This is the sixth 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 changeover. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests had been 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
  6. A Journey — 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.

A Journey — Part 1 described my the start of my personal journey into learning about and understanding the Age of Limits. I discussed the following:

  • My decision to to take a Masters Degree in literature. This exposure to different ways of thinking and to different types of technology highlighted the importance of an eclectic approach to the problems that we face.
  • The article I read about ethanol as a fuel. The article noted that what we now refer to as ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) of ethanol was low — so low that the use of ethanol really doesn’t seem to make much sense on strictly technical grounds. It is necessary that the resource provides more energy than is used to obtain it. Resource exploitation has to make economic sense as well as technical sense.
  • The posts written by Matt Simmons and his book Twilight in the Desert. They introduced me to the concept that oil is a finite resource and that we are using it up.

I continue my journey with an introduction to M. King Hubbert and his seminal work on the decline of oil reserves.

Like anyone who reads about Peak Oil issues very quickly runs into the name Dr. M. King Hubbert (1903-1989). And rightly so — his early insights into the fundamental problems associated with oil depletion provide the foundation of much of today’s thinking. (In one science fiction story set at a time about three hundred years from now his name is treated as a swear word; where we would say “by God!” the people in the story say, “By Hubbert!”) In the year 1979 Alfred North Whitehead said,

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

A similar comment can be made about Hubbert — so much of our current discussions to do with resource constraints has its roots in what he wrote over sixty years ago. Most current Peak Oil writings will eventually be considered as being a series of footnotes to Hubbert.

The Age of Happy Motoring

The Age of Happy Motoring

It is also important to understand the culture of the time in which he lived. Oil production was increasing and the Age of Happy Motoring was well underway. Nuclear power was going to be too cheap to meter and no one questioned whether infinite growth on a finite planet made sense. Hubbert was courageous.

The Hubbert Curve

Hubbert Curve

The Hubbert Curve

Born in the year 1903 he was at the peak of his powers in 1956. As a leading scientist employed by one of the world’s largest oil companies he was authoritative and credible. The four pages of citations in his paper confirm his commitment to thorough and professional research. He published many papers to do with oil reserves and the rate at which they decline. But his seminal work was Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels presented at an American Petroleum Institute (API) meeting in San Antonio, Texas in March 1956. It can be downloaded here.

His basic idea — which seems obvious to us sixty years later but which was far from obvious in his time — was that all oil reserves have a finite life and will eventually be depleted. Geologists in his day knew this about individual oil wells, but he scaled up the discussion to consider reserves in much larger regions, such as the States of Texas and Illinois. His insights resulted in the now famous Hubbert Curve. Although Hubbert considered just oil reserves in the United States the principles he used can be applied to any non-renewable resource or to a resource that is depleted more quickly than it can replace itself (such as the forests discussed in Peak Forests). For example Hubbert curves have been developed for coal and for fish stocks in the ocean.

The reason that his paper was so foundational was that it pulled together all the parameters of what is now known as Peak Oil. Key insights included the following:

  • He discussed the issue of fossil fuel production in a global context.
  • He recognized the finite nature of fossil fuel reserves.
  • He developed a generic (Hubbert) curve to show how production of fossil fuels peaks and then declines.
  • He understood the fact that continued exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue.
  • He had a grasp of the social implications of his research.

Analysis of the 1956 Paper

Because of its importance and because many of the issues that he raised are with us still it is worth reading Hubbert’s 1956 paper in detail and analyzing his findings and conclusions.

His paper is in three parts. The first part analyzes the fossil fuel industry of his time (the early 1950s) and provides forecasts as to likely production rates over the next half century. The second part of the paper is to do with the transition that he expected to see from fossil fuels to electricity generated by nuclear power plants. The third part of the paper, an assumption that society will respond to analyses such as his rationally, is implicit in the overall context of his analysis.

Part 1 — Fossil Fuel Reserves

In the first part Dr. Hubbert’s analysis of the fossil fuel industry was profound — the forecasts he made with regard to the future production of oil in the United States were accurate (he also predicted the timing of peak oil production world-wide almost exactly, although his forecasts as to the quantities of oil that would be produced were low, mostly because some major new oil prospects had not yet been discovered in the 1950s.) The following is a quotation from his paper.

The fossil fuels . . .  have all had their origin from plants and animals . . . during the last 500 million years.Therefore, as an essential part of our analysis, we can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of the fossil fuels will consist in the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during the period of our interest.

. . . world production of crude oil increased at a rate of 7 per cent per year, with the output doubling every 10 years.. . . How many periods of doubling can be sustained before the production rate would reach astronomical magnitudes? No finite resource can sustain for longer than a brief period such a rate of growth of production; therefore, although production rates tend initially to increase exponentially, physical limits prevent their continuing to do so. This rapid rate of growth for the production curves make them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained. 

The above statements lie at the heart of his thinking: reserves of fossil fuels are finite; they cannot be replaced except over many millions of years. Hubbert also drew a clear distinction between the three kinds of fossil fuel (solid, liquid and gaseous) but did not anticipate any issues to do with moving from one to another.

Part 2 — Nuclear Power

Long-Term Projection

Long-Term Projection

The very title of his paper – Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels – shows Hubbert’s fundamental optimism. He anticipated that society would make a smooth transition from fossil fuels to nuclear power and that economic growth could continue, as shown in the above sketch, which is taken from his paper.

Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than made possible by fossil fuels.

This prediction missed the mark. Although the nuclear power industry now constitutes an important part of the overall energy mix, the optimism that Dr. Hubbert showed regarding the transition from fossil to nuclear fuels has not occurred in the manner that he anticipated.

First, it turns out that different energy sources are not nearly as fungible as was thought in the 1950s. The world now has close to a billion vehicles (automobiles, trains, airplanes, trucks, ships) that run on fossil fuel. Although we see some attempts to introduce electric cars, the reality is that electricity from nuclear power plants is not a direct replacement for gasoline and other refined products, at least not on a realistic time scale.

The civilian nuclear power industry was just getting started in 1956 with promises of energy that “would be too cheap to meter”. In hindsight it is now evident that Hubbert was too optimistic. Although the nuclear power industry meets a large fraction of the world’s demand for electricity, it has not been the savior that Hubbert anticipated. Costs have been much higher than anticipated, accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima-Daiichi have shaken public confidence to do with the safety of the industry and issues to do with the disposal of radioactive waste remain unresolved.

Part 3 — Society’s Response

Throughout his paper lies an unspoken assumption that, when presented with the facts and analyses shown in papers such as his, then we, as a society, will take the appropriate actions. In 1956 there was sufficient time to make the transition from an oil-based society to one that derives most of its energy from nuclear power. We have since learned to be more cynical — people generally do not plan for the medium or long-term future. They look mostly to satisfy their own immediate needs and wishes.

But it does pose as a national problem of primary importance, the necessity . . . of gradually having to compensate for an increasing disparity between the nation’s demands for these fuels and its ability to produce them from naturally occurring . . . petroleum and gas.

We can now see that Hubbert was rather too hopeful, maybe a little naïve. It seems as if he thought that, by merely identify the problem, society would respond appropriately. That did not happen. No serious attempt was made in his day to address resource constraints — little has changed since then.

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.