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Engineering in an Age of Limits, Pt. 8: Inconvenient Truths
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:
- What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century? and
- How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?
The posts in this blog series so far along with those planned for the near future are:
2) Peak Forests
4) Four Strands
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
About the Author
Ian 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:
Engineering brings science and technology out of the lab and into the real world. Often without thinking about it, we engage every day with technology that is the product of careful, precise design and execution by engineers in electronics, optics, and communications; embedded systems; automotive, aerospace, and marine; mechanical; and many other disciplines. For decades, Elsevier has maintained and grown extensive collections in these and other cutting-edge areas, like biomechanics and nanotechnology, through our trusted imprints: Newnes, Academic Press, and Woodhead Publishing. In addition, our powerful online platforms like Knovel and Engineering Village help streamline research and development processes for users around the world.