This a guest post by Ian Sutton, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at this year’s ASPO-USA conference. The author of this essay has worked in the process industries, both onshore and offshore, for forty years. He has extensive experience in design, operations and risk management and is the author of numerous technical books. He is a professional engineer, registered in the State of Texas.
In early November I happened to be in the Washington DC area for various business meetings so I took the opportunity to attend this year’s ASPO-USA Conference (Friday and Saturday only). I first learned about the topic of Peak Oil from Matt Simmons’ book Twilight in the Desert and have since regularly read a variety of Internet sites on the same topic. The ASPO meeting provided an excellent opportunity to meet many of the authors that I had been following — people that I had known previously known only by repute. In general, I found that the papers, presentations and discussions repeated what has already been published on the Internet. It appears as if the Peak Oil community is having increasing difficulty coming up with new thoughts and insights. After all, there is only so much that one can say about the geological limitations of oil production. This is the reason, presumably, why so much of the discussion had to do with the social and economic impact of resource depletion.
As an engineer I was disappointed that there was not more discussion about the role of technology in the future world. There seems to be agreement that technology will not provide a silver bullet that can maintain business-as-usual, but there was little recognition that engineering and technology skills — properly deployed — could help mold the post-oil future. One of the sages that I follow most closely is John Michael Greer who maintains that “there is no brighter future”. But he has also stated: “. . . think of the way the peak oil debate was stuck for so long in a binary that insisted that the extremes of continued progress and sudden catastrophic collapse were the only possible shapes of the post-petroleum future.” In other words, a range of possible futures faces us and, I would argue, it is engineers who can help create a future that may be less dire than many fear, and the creation of that future will require both imagination and leadership — topics that were not high on the agenda at the ASPO meeting.
By repute the philosopher Georg Hegel developed the concept of an “Hegelian Synthesis”. The argument goes that a system is in an initial condition: the “Thesis”. In reaction to Thesis, an “Anti-Thesis” develops and replaces the Thesis. The Anti-Thesis itself then collapses and a “Synthesis” emerges that has its roots in both Thesis and Anti-Thesis, but is not identical to either. This concept is shown in Figure 1:
The example commonly used to illustrate this concept is that of late eighteenth century France. The Thesis was the aristocratic, monarchical system (l’Ancien Régime). It was replaced by its Anti-Thesis: the republican government (à la lanterne!). This system itself collapsed, to be replaced by the Synthesis: the Napoleonic Empire.
The same construct can be applied to Peak Oil, as shown in Figure 2:
Figure 2) Post-Industrial Synthesis
First we have the Thesis: the pre-industrial world. This is replaced by the Anti-Thesis: the industrial world in which we now find ourselves, and which is running into so many limitations. But the future world will not be a return to pre-industrial times. We have learned too much just to go back as if nothing had happened. And the future world will not be business-as-usual (our current Anti-Thesis). Instead, the future Synthesis will incorporate elements of both systems, but will not be the same as either.
It was the lack of discussion of the still unpredictable Synthesis that most concerned me about ASPO-USA 2011. We seemed to be unable to “think the unthinkable”. We have not grasped the words of J.B.S. Haldane, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
Jonathan Callahan, whom I met at the ASPO conference, notes than one example of a Synthesis was available to all the participants at the ASPO conference. Jonathan described how he “. . . spent three days cruising around town [Washington D.C.] on rental bikes from capitol bikeshare. This system combines old fashioned bicycle technology with modern high tech sensors and an iPhone app that lets you know which bike lots have bikes or spaces to park. It was an amazing example of the synthesis of old and new . . . and it actually got me where I wanted to go faster and much more pleasantly than the metro.” This example is an illustration, I would argue, of Greer’s eco-technic future.
None of the above states are inherently better or worse than any other. For a French aristocrat the Thesis was the best situation. For an industrial technologist living twenty years later the Synthesis probably presented the greatest opportunities. So it is with a post-Peak Oil future. The Synthesis that our society develops will be what it will be: for some it will represent a wonderful opportunity, for others it will represent bitter failure. But we can be sure that it will look like something that none of us can now envisage.
Why would engineers be the ones to lead the transition to a new Synthesis? Well, as I will discuss in the next essay, there are plenty of historical precedents for such leadership. When exposed to the fundamentals of Peak Oil, engineers very quickly “get it”. They may not have heard about the concept of EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), but rate concepts are part of their intellectual furniture. Similarly, they are fully trained in the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of entropy.
If this Hegelian synthesis is accepted as a path forward then the inevitable question becomes: “What does the Synthesis look like?” The answer is not known to us. It will require some “bright young thing” to give us vision and leadership, not because it is the “right thing to do” but because he or she wants to be seen as a leader and because he or she would like to become very wealthy in the process.
In a follow-on essay I will discuss what I perceived at the conference to be a lack of confidence in the American “can do” spirit and how engineers may be able to change this attitude somewhat.
A final thought concerning ASPO-USA 2011: at the beginning of this essay I noted that I was able to attend the conference because I was in town anyway. Immediately prior to the conference (the first Thursday, in fact) I gave a presentation to a group of chemical plant managers. Then, following the conference, I attended a two-day meeting on the topic of offshore safety at the Department of Interior. I work for a large engineering services company, and I will expense my trip costs in the normal way for the first and the third meetings. But with regard to ASPO I didn’t even bother to ask my management for permission to attend (which would allow me to expense the meeting). Why not? Why is it that Peak Oil is a forbidden topic, even though an engineering services company really ought to know about the topic so that it can structure and market its services appropriately?