Saudi Arabia is a desert, with oil under it. There’s nothing you can do with oil in a desert, so the Saudis sell it, for money. That makes them filthy-rich nomads who crave big cities, with palaces for them to live in, slums for foreign workers and lots of fountains, you know, like in Las Vegas. But there’s no water in a desert. Call in the engineers.
(In Vegas, another oxymoronic desert city, their engineers’ solution was to build one of the world’s biggest dams to create one of the world’s biggest reservoirs, which worked for a while but is now drying up and is likely to make Las Vegas uninhabitable. Soon.)
The answer for Saudi Arabia and several other oil-rich desert states around the Persian Gulf was desalinization. Sure, it takes a lot of money to build the plants ($24 billion in Saudi Arabia alone) and a lot of energy to run them, but that’s what oil is for, right? So you use the oil to pump and filter and boil the salt water, and you get tons of fresh water, along with tons of leftover, super-salty water. Worked great, for a while.
There was one nagging problem attending desalinization for which the engineers’ solution was perhaps not as elegant as some others. What to do with all that concentrated, super-salty brine? They say that for every problem there is a solution that is simple, obvious — and wrong. And thus with desalinization. They decided to simply, obviously, dump the brine back into the Gulf. About 70 million cubic meters every day.
Now the water in the Gulf is so salty, from all that concentrated brine being dumped into it, that it is more and more difficult, and will soon be impossible, to desalinate.
Nobody could have seen that coming.
In Miami Beach, among several other American cities along the Atlantic Coast, rising sea water is beginning to encroach with increasing frequency and depth on the city’s streets. They called the engineers.
Their answer: a $500 million project to raise some streets and install 80 super-high-capacity pumps to suck the water up before it could swamp the streets. And where do they pump all that water?
Back into the rising ocean. So far, it’s working. Hard to see what could go wrong.
For the oil industry in California, the question for the engineers was; what to do with billions of gallons of water after it has been used in fracking operations and is polluted with scores of toxic chemicals and may be radioactive. The engineers’ answers to questions of waste disposal, throughout much of the industrial revolution, has been “out of sight, out of mind.” Or, in other words, just pump the stuff into a hole in the ground. Problem solved.
The oil guys liked it. The state regulators liked it. And so three billion gallons of the poison were pumped into the ground — in some cases directly into freshwater aquifers, in a state suffering from an unprecedented drought, whose surface reservoirs were rapidly evaporating.
Eventually it dawned on someone that this might not be a great idea, and they started shutting the injection wells down.
This is why we are where we are, and why engineers and other technical experts are incapable of saving us. Ask an expert where to dispose of some poison, he’ll tell you. Come back and say what is the matter with you, putting that crap in our well, and the expert says; you didn’t ask me what would happen when we did it, you asked me if we could do it.
Engineers are not stupid, but their tricks are as stupid as the questions they are asked, or not asked. Can we desalinate water for the desert nations of Arabia? Sure. Will it despoil the Gulf for future generations? Better not ask that. Can we pump this seawater somewhere? Or this fracking water? Sure, but don’t ask any more questions.
Can we reverse global warming, Mr. Enginer? Yes? Great! Wait, why are you reaching for that hydrogen bomb, I have a few more questions…..
[PS — lest you think I exaggerate the problem, please come with me now back to 1958, to a time when the US Atomic Energy Commission was agitating to blow a new harbor for Alaska using nuclear warheads. Championed by Edward Teller (the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove in the movie), supported by Alaska’s government, Chamber of Commerce and churches (!) the project got perilously close to execution even though no one could think of a reason to have a harbor on the North Slope, in the ice-bound Arctic Ocean. It would be an excellent demonstration of the peaceful uses of nuclear bombs, the Strangeloves argued, because although serious radiation would girdle the globe, no one lived up there. Seriously. Google Project Chariot. ]