The end of Democracy?

In light of the energy debacle caused by the entirely foreseeable result of the selling off of our utilities, readers might like to read my April 2005 piece below. It meshes with my 2007 letter in Professional Engineering Journal,  here.

DD

“Engineers are supposed to be mathematically literate but a simple understanding of compound interest is all that is needed to see that the current predictions of growth are the pipe dreams of economists.

    Take a chess board and put one unit on the first square, 2 on the second and 4 on the third and continue doubling up. The time to each doubling is 70 divided by the rate of growth i.e. 7%/annum is equal to 10 years.

    Add the squares together 1+2+4 = 7 i.e. the sum of all previous doublings is less than the value on the next square – 8

    Oil was first commercially exploited in 1859 and we are now at around 30 billion barrels/year and on the 32nd square. At the present rate of growth, ignoring aviation rates, we will need more oil in the next 20+ years than in the previous 150!

    Even if this amount of oil exists, finding, extracting and applying unknown technologies to turn the poor quality, heavy, and polluted crude we obtain into useable product is clearly not possible on this time scale.

    And that’s without the climate crisis and the fact that we need a fair amount of the remaining oil to create a low carbon economy.

    Now create a Google alert for ‘Oil Supply’ and watch the world unravel.”

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, 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.

  • Our democratic system.
  • The demographic fact that the WWII bulge of children is now retiring.
  • That UK has had over a century of ‘education for industrial and environmental decline’.
  • That an ingenuity/innovation gap exists.
  • The transition of control in the western companies from engineers to accountants and finally lawyers.
  • The continuing reductionist/compliance approach to organisational management.
  • Engineering contract optimism on cost and time.
  • The planning regime.

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

We are nearly 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.

Putting this together we now find ourselves in a critical national position with regard to the ‘energy gap’ just acknowledged by Professor Sir David King. The short political timeframe and the planning regime has led to the deferment of decisions on the mix of energy we need, leaving us at the mercy of foreign sources of energy and reliant on a number of aging nuclear power stations.

We have to make all professionals, especially teachers, aware of the critical need to encourage able students to take up science and engineering, that their own future security and comfort is dependent on it – not that it is just a good idea.

This is the essence of Education for Sustainable Development as it now applies to the UK (Europe and the US) and is central to the delivery of the new UK Sustainable Development Strategy.

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.

Derek Deighton

Coordinator, North West Engineering Institutions, Sustainability Joint Venture

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