I just attended an SPE workshop, "Oil and Gas Technology for a Net-Zero World – Defining Our Grand Challenges for the Next Decade." Of the 60 people in the audience, I knew 1/3, some very well. It makes sense, because I have been an SPE member for 40 years, and a Distinguished Member for 20 years. Last year, I received an SPE EOR/IOR Pioneer Award for my work at Shell and UC Berkeley on the thermal enhanced oil recovery processes that involved foams, and their upscaling to field operations. This was nice, because Shell recognized me as one of their best reservoir engineers, and in 1985 I received an internal Shell Recognition Award for the same work.
But I am not a mere oil & gas reservoir engineer. First and foremost, I am a chemical engineer and physicist, who has thought rigorously about the sustainability of human civilization, ecology and thermodynamics of industrial agriculture and large biofuel systems, as well as about the overall gross and net primary productivity of the planet Earth, the ecological trajectories of most countries around the world, and about climate change and alternative electrical power sources. You can check out my publications here. Since 2006, I have also been teaching a senior undergraduate/graduate course, E4: Earth, Environment, Energy and Economics, and wrote a 600-page book that goes with it (too be published soon).
My main difficulty in this post is how to keep it short enough for you to stay engaged, and yet capture the fantastic complexity of the dire situation we are in. Of course, I know fully well that you may see nothing dire about where you are with your lives.
Let me start from the weight of materials each American consumes per year.
|Click on this image from VisualCapitalist.com to see it in full resolution. Each American man, woman and child consumes 20,000 pounds per year of building materials and metals, in addition to an almost equal mass of natural gas, crude oil, coal and a smidgeon of uranium for desert. Let's assume boldly that an average American weighs 150 pounds. This means that we consume 266 times our weight as raw materials, including 133 times our weight as fossil fuels. In comparison, an average US person consumes 1500 pounds of food per year, or 10 times her weight. This food is produced mostly by the fantastically unsustainable US giga-agriculture (Tom Philpott is a great journalist I met in my prior life at UC Berkeley). Now you see that we devour natural resources as much as the slaves of the evil Sauron in Mordor.|
The fossil fuels we consume serve 80% of our giant needs for electricity and transportation. By now, most people have been convinced that we can continue our current life styles by replacing some or most of these fossil fuels with the renewable sunlight and wind that will power a new giant infrastructure of rebuildable solar PV arrays and wind turbines. With little recycling we will trash these giant devices every 2-30 years. As we argue in our recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, this replacement of fossil fuels is simply impossible at global scale. Then some people throw in the fabulously inefficient, ozone-layer killing "hydrogen economy" (see, e.g., Appendix D here) as another savior, and top it off with the unscalable carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), preferably the Direct Air Capture (DAC) of CO2, which is scientifically absurd. This is where most petroleum engineers are in their quest to seek new power sources that extend the status quo but will be more acceptable, they think, to public opinion. What they do not see is the Earth.
This giant turbine in Garten, Germany, collapsed due to mechanical stresses.
Given the rate at which we consume the Earth, it follows that we cause a great environmental damage and contribute richly to climate change. But most of us do not feel this way, and do not see anything wrong with what we do each day and night. Certainly most petroleum engineers don't think that our actions do permanent damage. In fact, most petroleum engineers seldom think about the delicate Earth's skin we inhabit and puncture. Why is this?
As Prof. Marder says, the simplest explanation is that there is big money in petroleum and the SPE workshop participants are well paid to do exactly what they do, and almost nobody can manage simultaneously to get paid and do what I have been doing for the last 20 years, and hope to continue doing for a while longer. Everyone (except me) understands there are limits to how far they can go in challenging catastrophic normality and return home with a secure paycheck. Put another way, the global fossil amoeba does not pay anyone in money to save us.
More generally, genetically, we are apes almost identical with the chimpanzee species Pan paniscus, or Bonobos. But over the last 3 million years we have diverged from our close cousins in small but crucial aspects. We lost most of body hair and much of muscle strength, and our children take roughly 16-18 years to mature. To compensate for this huge evolutionary disadvantage, we have developed a plastic brain that grows by 2/3 since childhood, and with parental help we grow a curious bulge behind our left eye. This bulge, the Broca area, is responsible for our ability to speak if nurtured to do so until the age of 12 years. If not, we can never learn to speak. Next to the Broca area, we develop a Wernicke area that interprets speech, and is close to the motor area that translates what we learn and understand into actions. This crucial divergence allowed us to accumulate knowledge and outcompete all other species in our ability to conquer every ecosystem we inhabit, now the entire planet. The 2001 movie "Planet of the Apes" portrays correctly what would happen to humans if our much stronger cousins learned to speak.
Genetically, we are the same old apes programmed to push against the limits of the ecosystems we inhabit and consume. In short, we are nature's fire. We are also short-lived biological vessels, programmed to propagate our genes into the future ad infinitum. Our genes don't change over epochs, but they mix as we mate. The most successful among us mate many times and propagate their genes above average.
Thus, we are programmed to burn or destroy everything we touch, grow in numbers without limits, and expand our ranges by displacing and annihilating most other species. To be so successful, we have developed a peculiar myopia. Most of us cannot see the more remote consequences of our immediate actions. This was fine 10-15 thousand years ago, when we could move elsewhere after each local environmental collapse we caused, but now we drive ourselves to extinction. The few who can see future are the modern Cassandras cursed by Nemesis to be never believed. I am one of these lonely Cassandras.
Over the last 3 million years we have been growing in small groups and dealt with simple systems. By today, though, we have created the super complex giant systems no one seems to comprehend. Ultimately, some of these systems are likely to exterminate us. We have also developed the most efficient ways of blasting our miscomprehensions to billions of other mostly clueless pans.
The Doomsday Clock was just reset to 90 seconds before midnight (the end of most current multicellular life on the planet). “This year, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moves the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward, largely (though not exclusively) because of the mounting dangers of the war in Ukraine. The Clock now stands at 90 seconds to midnight—the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.” (Source: Full Bulletin Statement) . Today’s version of the clock includes key global concerns: (1) climate change (2) bioterrorism (3) artificial intelligence and (4) damage inflicted by mis/disinformation. These elements fuse together as a potential cataclysmic event registered by the clock’s setting vis a vis a midnight hour imagery of the apocalypse.
One of the key reasons for resetting the Clock is misinformation: “Perhaps the deadliest pandemic ever to strike humanity is the plague of deliberate misinformation, mass delusion and unfounded beliefs which is engulfing twenty-first-century human society.” ( pg. 127 in Julian Cribb, "How To Fix A Broken Planet," Cambridge University Press, 2023.)Scientific American.
Now, engineers are trained to develop, use and improve technology, and this is what most of them do. Very few engineers are trained to understand dangers technology presents to humans, as Martin Heidegger warned us in 1954. In their myopic focus on technology, most engineers do not see the living planet which keeps them alive.
My last introductory point is about the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. In the corrected interpretation of this syndrome and of the famous D-K curve, the polled unskilled participants (students, most engineers or environmentalists outside of their narrow specialties, poorly educated people who do "research" on the internet, most Facebook and Twitter aficionados, etc.) didn’t think they were better than the skilled participants; they just thought they would have scored better [understood more] than they actually did. By contrast, the best half of the participants were more likely to underestimate their ability - a trend which gets more pronounced in the 4th quartile.
Too many participants of all conferences are on the left-hand side of the curve above; they think they know and understand much more than they actually do.
Now, we - the public - were presented with all key elements of this sprawling Greek tragedy, but by the Greek convention the actors on the stage (workshop participants, leaders, professors, governments, NGOs) didn't, and stumble toward the inevitable gory end:
Back to this tragically predicable SPE workshop. Everything I wrote is not meant to offend anyone, especially the speakers and panelists, who gave many technically outstanding talks. I merely wanted to discuss how this workshop, and many other similar conferences I attended before, routinely miss most of the salient points about our current physical condition, and where we must go from here in order not to collapse and not perish as human species taking down much of the planet with us.
In my mind, this workshop offered only narrow, murky technological recommendations, with an almost complete exclusion of the environmental actions that are terribly necessary. Again, as Upton Sinclair said a long time ago, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I know, now you expect me to give you "the solutions." Well, when you begin to see the living planet, write me. Until then, there will be NO solutions, whatever you think.
I'll give you two warnings though: (1) please do not think that breaking our current dependence on oil & gas will be easy or possible, yet their consumption must decrease, because (2) burning fossil fuels at today's rate is mass suicide. This is the tragic Faustian bargain of our time. Can humans rise up to this existential challenge?
P.S. (01/31/2023) A comment from my ex-student who is in the process of becoming a professor at a very prominent university in China:
Dear Professor Patzek,
It is great to see the update on your blog! I have been following your blog for quite a long time, but I don’t have the access to follow and comment on the website. I am sorry to hear that you had a painful 2022 and several infections of Covid last year. I can feel your deep concern about this world and your loneliness. Your arguments or proposals may not be well accepted by many people since those proposals are against their short-term interests. However, what you have done and are doing is quite meaningful and valuable. You have changed many people including me and made us more concerned about this world, about the future. I am glad that you can continue to write your blog and share your insights with us. I sincerely wish you good health and happiness in the new year! XXX [I removed his name]