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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 13: Renaissance Man and Climate Change

By: , Posted on: August 17, 2015

An Encyclical
An Encyclical

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

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

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

In this blog we consider two questions:

1) What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century; and

2) How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?

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

The Encyclical

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

The encyclical contains the following quotation:

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

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

This is not a timid document.


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

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

Implicit in this quotation are two disturbing issues.

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

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

Renaissance Man


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

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

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

-There is a distinction between “scientific knowledge” and “educational acquaintance”. With regard to climate science climate scientists possess the first; the rest of us — whether we are denier politicians or the Pope — fall into the second category.

-A person who possesses “educational acquaintance” with a topic can differentiate between sense and nonsense and has knowledge in a wide range of disciplines outside the area of immediate interest. Those disciplines include not just the sciences but what we now call the liberal arts such as philosophy, history, literature and art.

-Someone who is “educated” in the above sense is a Renaissance man or woman.

-This concept of “education” created the “Uni-” in “University” — a goal that has been pretty well abandoned now. It also defines the true meaning of the world liberal — someone who is liberated to think freely and form balanced conclusions. In the extraordinarily complex and confusing world in which we live now, a world which seems to have an infinity of specializations, there is a crying need for universalists — people who are educated, Renaissance men and women.


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

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

The Education Process

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

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

Select the Topic

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

Clear your Mind of Cant

Harold Bloom

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Form an Opinion

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


Pope Francis signing an encyclical

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

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

About the Author

ian sutton bio picIan Sutton is a chemical engineer with over 30 years of design and operating experience in the process industries. He provides services in all areas of process design, plant operations and process safety management — both onshore and offshore. He provides consulting services to senior management on the implementation, effectiveness and cost of process safety and risk management programs. His clients include companies in oil and gas production and refining, pipelines, chemicals, minerals processing, and food production.

You can follow along with Ian’s thoughts and musing on process safety at his personal blog, The PSM Report here.

He has published the following books with Elsevier:

Process Risk and Reliability Management, 2nd Edition
Plant Design and Operations
Offshore Safety Management, 2nd Edition

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