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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 14: Sister, Mother Earth

By: , Posted on: August 24, 2015

Francis of Assisi
Francis of Assisi

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

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

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

In this blog we consider two questions:

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

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

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

Laudato Si’

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


The following are the key points in the encyclical.

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

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

Style of Language

Apple Think Different

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

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

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

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


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

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

And in paragraph 229 we find the following,

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


Global Population

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

The encyclical does address this topic in paragraph 50.

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

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

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

The Good Old Days

In paragraph 102 Francis states,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brooks himself states,

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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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