Posted by steve on February 19, 2008
World oil production per capita reached a peak in 1979. Net production is now plateau-ing, dashing all hopes of global economic expansion.
We’ve been chewing on this mess for some years, but with everyone’s vested interest in “business as usual”, (I’m not even going to give the name of the engineer who gave me this – he’s looking for a job), and disagreements about what to do, it may be getting too late unless engineers focus together.
First some background:
When reading about the engineers of the past, like Polhem (with the locks and watches), Stevenson (with the steam engine), John Ericsson (with the propeller) and the like, it’s stunning how they found solutions with scarce resources. The engineers of today have been tricked into the playfield of the economists, and have been seduced to partly abandon the enlightened path of the engineer. It’s a pity, since the heart and soul of a true engineer is all about finding solutions to technical problems, not economical problems. It’s not the engineers of the world who strive for infinite growth on a limited planet, it’s the economists who keep us ransom who do. Why not aim for a little engineering purity?
What’s important? And not?
Some things in life are important, while other things merely look important because they are means to reach the important stuff.
It’s important for me to live in a nice place and to have an interesting job, but it’s not important for me to commute by car. The commute is kind of a necessary evil because it’s difficult to find nice places to live close to workplaces. A recreational Sunday drive to take in the countryside could be important to keep my mood up though.
It’s important for me to have a decent indoor temperature, artificial light during the winter, ability to keep myself clean, to cook and to have a decent internet connection. It’s not one bit important to consume large amounts of energy to reach those goals.
If I want audiovisual entertainment, it’s the image on my retina and the sound reaching my eardrums that are important, not the size of the display or the output power of the PA rig. A Virtual Retinal Display and a pair of earplugs consuming a couple of milliwatts will get the same job done as a wide screen plasma display and speaker systems consuming hundreds of Watt. While consuming (significantly) less resources to manufacture.
With proper architecture and landscaping, I would live comfortably with wife and two kids on 80 sqm and take the bicycle to work and shop. I could cut my use of energy to 1/3 or less of what I consume today, with all the comfort intact. It’s just that those pesky economists and politicians have designed a system which can’t handle such savings.
Some people do get a kick out of living in a 400 sqm mansion, driving a posh new SUV and consume humongous amounts of energy in general, but those people are not target for this text. I simply leave them on their own to solve their own problems.
A modest proposal
Why not revert to being engineers? At least in our spare time? While on boss’ time, we still have to charge after growth, but in our spare time, we could be true engineers and chase efficiency and quality-of-life issues. I suggest that we start using the Not-My-Problem (NMP) field when encountering economical and social problems and just kick the problem back at the economists and politicians.
We designed a more efficient house, making some power generation unnecessary, causing unemployment, and the economists and politicians blame us – what to do? A powerful “NMP” should do. Unemployment is a political problem, not a technical. “What kind of lousy politician are you to come whimpering to us engineers with a political problem? Eh?”
Massive savings by reduced need for cars would cause car manufacturers and banks to go bankrupt. As proud engineers we say “NMP!!”. “What kind of lousy economist are you if you can’t design a system that can handle gains in efficiency and savings? Don’t come to me with your little problems – go away and design a resilient economic system instead.”
The road ahead
I would love to have an enlightened discussion with other engineers and scientists about what is possible from a scientific and engineering standpoint, effectively ignoring the crowd of economists and politicians. We gave them railroads, cheap clothes, cheap food, cars, radio, TV, hip replacements and the Internet, but they are never satisfied and want us to solve the problems they created by sloppy thinking about politics and economy. Now don’t come calling on us for electric cars when the real problem is lousy city planning!
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