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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 4: Four Strands

By: , Posted on: May 14, 2015


 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) Mechanical World View

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:

Our Finite World (Gail Tverberg);

Peak Prosperity (Chris Martenson); and

Do the Math (Tom Murphy).


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.


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.

Read more articles from Ian on Process Safety Management on SciTech Connect:

Engineering in an Age of Limits: Mechanical World View

Engineering in an Age of Limits: Reverse Engineering

Engineering in an Age of Limits: Peak Forests

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

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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