Expert Insight?

Skills, Sustainability and the Energy Gap

We live at a time when we will soon see the peak in oil production, this being widely predicted by reliable and independent sources. After, then the expected outcomes range from economic meltdown to a rapid and orderly transition to nuclear and renewable sources. Unfortunately for the developed western economies a number of things will almost inevitably conspire to disadvantage us this century, amongst the most critical of which are:

• The demographic fact that the WWII bulge of children is now retiring.
• We have had over a century of ‘education for industrial and environmental decline’.
• That an ingenuity/innovation gap exists.

These factors have already led to the loss of most of our manufacturing base (now occurring in the US) and are now threatening our infrastructure.

Our propensity to educate for industrial and environmental decline for more than a century has led to the situation where there is an insufficient science and engineering base to maintain and extend the infrastructure built up over the 20th century. This is made more critical by the retirement of the post WWII generation, who build up the electrical infrastructure and the nuclear generation capacity.

This was recognised as long ago as 1868 when a Royal Commission said “we are bound to add that our evidence shows that our industrial classes have not even that basis of a sound general education on which alone technical education can rest…. Unless we remedy this want we shall gradually but surely find that that our superiority in wealth and energy will not save us from decline”

An OFSED report in 2005 had the following disturbing conclusion “Only 13% strongly agreed that school had prepared them to be creative, take risks and challenge ideas”.

We are now at the mercy, as a society, of not being able to support the quality of life that has been created for us by previous generations, having fallen into the mindset where the entire infrastructure will be mysteriously managed, maintained and developed by ‘them’.

‘Them’ is now foreign owned utilities, over which we have no control and little influence and whose preferred solutions are aimed at maximising their global bottom lines rather than what might be appropriate for individual communities.

Skills shortages are now endemic in the western economies across all sectors and many who possess the repository of knowledge and experience are semi-retired or going to retire soon. Output of petroleum engineers in Texas has practically dried up – aerospace skills are being rapidly lost etc. etc.

Post graduate skills are being acquired here and transferred abroad – power engineering labs in universities across the UK are laying empty or being replaced with banks of computers.

As this happens, the need for skills and ingenuity is increasing exponentially in a warming world, increasingly being starved of easily won energy and countries who have reserves of skills will not share them magnanimously.

Simultaneously, as the western infrastructures are decaying, others are rapidly building new. We have to seriously ask ourselves what we have to offer the world in this century and on past performance, an honest answer is not very reassuring.

This Century, assuming no doomsday, we will enter a more sustainable world, but the western democracies will probably have a far lower quality of life, even lower than a more equitable share of current resources would indicate.

by Derek Deighton, Coordinator, North West Engineering Institutions, Sustainability Joint Venture

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