Pat Baskett finds a New Zealand book on ‘transition engineering’ provides a clear image of our psychological failures around the ‘wicked problem’ of unsustainable energy

Professor Susan Krumdieck’s book Transition Engineering: Building a Sustainable Future is a technical instructional manual for engineers faced with how to adapt within our cities to meet the targets of 80 percent less fossil fuel. Not just the technical stuff, it’s also a strong imperative to do what we clearly must, to effect the inevitable downshift in energy use and in how we operate in the world.

The word transition, in the sense of Krumdieck’s title, is a term used first in the UK in 2006 to describe a movement called Transition Towns in which people formed communities to provide resilience in the face of the uncertain future of peak oil, climate change and economic upheaval. In New Zealand the network includes more than 60 initiatives around the country.

Transition engineering is defined as “the work of designing and carrying out change projects for industry and the public sector that meet COP21 targets while providing short- and long-term benefits.”

Krumdieck is a professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Canterbury where she taught Mechanical Engineering and researched Energy Transition for 20 years. She is about to leave to run an energy transition project on Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

Her book is rich with graphs, figures, diagrams and acronyms. FOE is “forward operating environment” and InTIME, her favourite, stands for the Interdisciplinary transition innovation, management and engineering approach.

Engineers will love it but if you’re not a technogeek, as I am not, don’t be put off. What I take from this book is the clearest image of our psychological failures – our lack of courage and our complacency with the present. That’s pretty depressing but there’s a section on how, on a personal level, to deal with what Krumdieck calls “the wicked problem” of unsustainable energy, equivalent to the five stages of grief.

Each of the eight chapters ends with a traditional story or legend with which Krumdieck brings us back down to this degraded earth and to what really matters. The book ends with the most powerful and perhaps the most poignantly personal story.

It’s the one we know of the Trojan horse and the subterfuge the Greeks used after their defeat by the Trojans. Their leader Agamemnon had his men build a huge wooden horse in which 30 warriors hid, and then sailed away, leaving one man behind who explained to the Trojans that the horse was an offering to the goddess Athena whose temple the Greeks had desecrated during the siege.

Delighted by the booty, the Trojans refused to listen to warnings that this could be a trap, so they dragged the structure into Troy and were defeated by Odysseus and the warriors inside.

In Krumdieck’s version, we see the tragic frustration of Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan King, Priam. She had been blessed by the god Apollo, who sought to win her favours by granting her the gift of foresight but also cursed as nobody would be able to believe what she was saying.

So the story gives us a few useful pointers about communicating, along with the wry comment that blessings can also be curses.

“But most important, delivering a warning, even when you have perfect knowledge, can be a problem. The problem can be that you don’t have the recognised authority and so the people you are trying to warn don’t listen … that you are using language that people can’t understand … that your warning goes against the beliefs of the people you are warning. Or the problem can be that you get upset and your warning is rejected.”

We could all learn, but it seems we haven’t. We’re still desperately trying to get the message through. But maybe there are yet more explanations as to why we’ve failed to heed myriad warnings and let things get so dire. Maybe it’s because we’ve let our greed run away as we clamber precariously higher in the apple tree once the low-hanging fruit are finished (see the end of chapter seven).

Maybe, like the seven blindfolded wise men and the elephant, too many of us failed to see the whole picture. Krumdieck tells this story at the end of chapter four. The failure of the men (it’s always men, she notes) to remove their blindfolds describes the situation of experts with their own limited understanding of one part of the system and their inability to see the whole picture. Thus we chase after renewable electricity hoping this will extend our comfortable lives. But what we don’t see is what the EROEI analysis tells us – energy return on energy invested – not all energy systems are created equal.

Our material comforts were created using a net energy return of 100.1, provided by oil and coal when they were in easy reach. Renewables can’t promise any more than a meagre 15, or less depending on which renewable. Don’t skip chapter four – understanding EROEI is crucial.

Krumdieck has a nice short history of economics and a chapter on Transition Economics: balancing costs and benefits. “Transition economics analyses costs and benefits based on real value. Real value is the same throughout time, regardless of the value of money.”

The story that ends chapter six is of The Emperor’s New Clothes and its lesson of the false focus on wealth and finery. But it’s not just the powerful and the people who go along with it. Krumdieck says this of her fellow professionals:

“…. if we technologists are participating in and profiting from that delusion of continuous growth and technological progress by providing new and more exciting energy solutions that aren’t really there, then we are really the bad guys in the story.”

Now switch forward 100 years to see what engineers, and others, will have achieved. Christchurch is her example and the city is, she assures us, working well without oil. “Electric trams and trains are in use, electric bikes are common … Much of the road area has been redeveloped into tramways, public spaces, food production and green space. Urban gardening is prevalent….”

Life goes on.

Slotted through the text in capitals are six “Transition Engineering Concepts” – Krumdieck aphorisms of which perhaps the most salutary is Concept 2: “a global average temperature rise is not a target; it is a failure limit.”

These words end the book: “Now get busy preventing what is preventable.”

The admonition is addressed to you and to me and to engineers – and to a Government which recently made the state of emergency we’re in official. Krumdieck reminds us of four actions the International Energy Association proposed governments carry out. That was in 2014.

1. Eliminate subsidies for fossil fuel production.

2. Focus on energy efficiency to stop and reverse demand growth.

3. Increase investments in low carbon shifts by a factor of four.

4. Increase CO2 prices and support for carbon sequestration.

In New Zealand we’re almost there on the first point. We pay no direct subsidies to oil industries and the last tax break for off-shore oil rigs is due to expire in 2024. Let’s hope emergency action will be taken to speed up points 2, 3 and 4.

Professor Krumdieck comments:

These are all “top-down” government policy recommendations that few people have any influence on. In the recent Convergence for Carbon Transition meeting of transition engineers across New Zealand (without flying) the sense that transitioneers – the people across disciplines working on transition engineering – are like “climate emergency first responders”. They proposed and voted on a few key “ground-up” actions to take forward:

1. All engineers and professionals should do “climate emergency training” like they currently do for safety training, first aid, fire safety and security.

2. New Zealand should have a Transition HQ and a Transition Lab where communities and companies can come for accurate information and where they can get help to work through their transition discovery processes.

3. Write a proposal to the Prime Minister to suggest appointment of a Transition Engineering Advisor so that cabinet ministers can get accurate information.

Transition Engineering: Building a sustainable Future, Susan Krumdieck (CRC Press, 2020)

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