Why industrial engineers are never asked about global warming?
* * *
“Ecologists are obviously behind the times; they cannot meet the challenges. They rightly stress the natural stake, but how about the technical challenge?” (Jacques Ellul)
* * *
Haven´t you asked yourself why industrial engineers are never asked to write articles on the press in regard to global warming?... Most of the experts consulted in the press are climate scientists, conservation biologists, ecologists, journalists, celebrities, political agents and in general individuals whose career is mostly restricted to academics, and yet you would hardly see any article signed by an industrial engineer? Why? Very simple…
Industrial engineers are the sector of professionals who actually build things and make them work. Their formation is initially academic at the university, but years later it goes well beyond academic jurisdiction and, contrarily to what occurs in scientific research, it takes many years for universities to intellectually catch up with the operative and technical developments taking place in this engineering domain. The same occurs with aeronautical engineering.
In general most people don´t like the aesthetics of a factory, of a pipeline, of an engine, of a chemical reactor and much less do they like the pollution they emit, but behind such architectures there is always an industrial engineer who is the first person concerned about reducing waste and pollution, maybe because of an urge for quality, or merely in order to reduce costs. But in any case, this sector of builders is well aware of the fact that there are thermodynamic laws that correlate heat, mechanical work and energy, and that there is no “free lunch”… This means that in any system there shall always be a fraction of energy that is irreversibly degraded in a given process, mostly in the form of heat but also in the form of residues. CO2 emission is a particular case of this process, and if one aims to reduce this greenhouse gas emission, then the capacity to transform energy and produce things at the same rate of efficiency becomes highly compromised.
Industrial engineers who work in the primary energy sector are trying by all means possible to cut CO2 emissions while aiming to keep up the same output, mostly through smart grids, hybrid systems, or resorting in some cases to renewable sources of energy when feasible. But ultimately, all industrial engineer who works in the primary energy sector finally gets to grips with the subtleties of the Jevon´s paradox (1), which basically entails that any local reduction of waste always correlates with more waste being produced outside such local system. The reason for the latter is based on thermodynamic laws, and as a corollary, it entails that the process enters into a vicious cycle or positive feedback (2) where it is then mandatory to extract more energy from the biosphere just in order to recycle the external waste, but then, in turn, this creation of external order correlates with problems of local chaos that demand again local efficiency measures. And again, and again… And the cycle can´t be stopped because there is no negative feedback in the entire system, and the financial systems are also forced to follow the cycles.
The latter is a hard pill to swallow for all climate activists who still naively think it is possible to cut global CO2 emission in the primary energy sector, and to live in a world with solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars everywhere. The press is highly catalyzing this utopian naiveté, which unfortunately betrays the best Western intellectual traditions, which in essence assume that if you want to have power over something you must deeply understand it first.
Every time I reach this point, people ask me: “Ok fine… But what would you do to solve the problem?...” I then often answer that this is not a problem, but rather the only technical solution available to provide material living conditions to about 7 billion individuals in the planet. Then I´m often asked: “So you then believe that the problem is about overpopulation?...” And at this point I then affirm that the earth will take care of the problem, one way or another, as it has always done. It is an extreme hubris to believe that human intelligence is more powerful than the mysterious forces of nature, but to stop believing such fatal misconception is probably the only problem we can actually solve by ourselves as humans.
*Miguel A. Fernandez is an industrial engineer specialized in chain supply logistics, process modeling/simulation, sustainable architecture, conservative/ethnographic projects and energy production consultancy.