Stupid Engineer Tricks


Ask an engineer to reverse global warming, he’ll do it. Just don’t ask about thwe side effects. (Photo by Pixabay)

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. ]

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14 Responses to Stupid Engineer Tricks

  1. colinc says:

    Lunkwill: Do you…
    Deep Thought: Have an answer for you? Yes. But you’re not going to like it.

    Marvin: I’ve calculated your chance of survival, but I don’t think you’ll like it.

  2. Dagny says:

    Stupid engineer joke (and I graduated from an engineering college in the mid ’70’s – just saying):

    During the French revolution the mob was going to execute a lawyer, a doctor, and an engineer with a guillotine. The lawyer was first, they tied him down and raised the blade. When released, the blade got stuck a few millimeters from his neck. They had to release him alive. Then doctor was next, and the blade jammed again in the same place so the doc was spared too. When the engineer’s turn came, he said to the executioner “if you put a little grease right there …”

  3. Tom says:

    Oh it goes all the way to the top scientists, who can do absolutely top of the line research, but CAN’T make statements of logic regarding the research. For example, Michael Mann and a bunch of others, KNOW what’s coming, but in order to keep their research money flowing (and keep their jobs) they WON’T tell you that it’s game over in about a decade (or two at the outside), even though that’s exactly where all their research points.

    It’s not just the engineers and scientists – it’s everyone who needs to keep their high-paying jobs: stock brokers, bankers, the Fed,
    insurance agents, politicians, CEOs, news reporters, and so on. Everyone’s lying their asses off to keep the charade going for as long as possible. It’s the hard-wired stupidity of being human. We just can’t help killing the very planet that sustains us. We’re idiots having a great time, until we can’t.

    Keep up the great writing Mr. Lewis – I enjoy it immensely and look forward to anything you want to write about.

  4. So many many examples. New Orleans, building on barrier islands, storing nuclear waste. Just a list list of them would probably cause nightmares.

  5. Dennis Mitchell says:

    If we design everything to break down every two or so years we can sell sell sell!

  6. Jim W. says:

    Even the gallows humor solution you suggest engineers might propose for reversing global warming would likely only press the pause button as a nuclear winter wouldn’t last more that several years! I’ve come to believe that the three most depressing and terrifying words in the English language are IF ONLY WE…

  7. neil kearns says:

    Then there was that time we nuked the Van Allen belts, just to prove a point and trigger some cool lighting effects.

  8. Pete Willis says:

    Thanks again Tom, always look forward to your next installment! I’m an engineer but I also have a love of the earth and environment and did my permaculture course some years back. Some engineers, like many other professions, are blinded by the now or dazzled by technology, thinking they are a cure-all. I’ve always been a systems engineer having to think holistically which is why I find the concepts behind permaculture so interesting. It’s a little harder to get it right in practice especially when its only a hobby! Have a read up of aquaponics also, a fairly young idea in the scheme of things and very attractive for anywhere that is water stressed (a lot of places..check out Murray Hallam in Australia). A good idea in the midst of so many bad ones. Mostly illegal here in NZ unfortunately unless you’re very keen on eating goldfish (gag).

  9. Denis Frith says:

    Missing from this discussion is the simple fact that technology never has and never can create anything. It just uses available natural forces and natural resources to temporarily provide the goods and services society has become dependent on.

  10. geo says:

    Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination plant in the world. It’s electric-powered, and is hooked up to the Saudi grid, which is — mostly oil- and gas-fired —

    The Saudis are working on a solar-powered desalination plant:

    But they still don’t know what to do with all the brine… More complexity, more expense chasing after diminishing resources.

    Meanwhile, back in the oil patch, more fun is in store:

  11. geo says:

    Hey Tom,
    Speaking of dumb engineer tricks – here’s a juicy topic for a future post – the “Leaning Tower of San Francisco”:

    …along with this modern-day classic from China:

    …on the general topic of modern-infrastructure “malinvestment”…

  12. Mike Kay says:

    The tragedy here is one of throwing away one’s humanity for the illusory material abundance of industrial society.
    It happens everywhere, camouflaged under the slogan of progress, the siren song of massive wealth for the very few. It’s a great party for the jetsetters, as long as the energy holds out.
    It certainly doesn’t help that the abrahamic creeds teach a dead world worthy of all their abuses, together with a simpletons concept of what makes life significant.
    We’re about to get a lesson of just how out of touch this perspective really is, as if the killary circus isn’t enough for anyone with a couple brain cells to rub together.
    I really need a Darth Vader campaign poster, together we can rule the galaxy. After all, only fiction can shed light on the overwhelming tide of cognitive dissonance and insanity.

  13. colinc says:

    Okay, I think I’ve been more than patient! The following NEEDS to be straightened out, right here and right now! Note, it disheartens me GREATLY that _I_ have to point this out! (I’d add more to the previous sentence but I’m sure MOST (all?) of you would be “offended.” You probably still will be. Piss off, I DON’T care about YOU OR your misconstrued “feelings.”)

    Engineers are not stupid, but their tricks are as stupid as the questions they are asked, or not asked.

    I’m sorry (not really) but, in that one sentence, you’ve actually cited and EXHIBITED the UTTER DEFINITION of “stupidity.” WTF?!?!?! YOU, Mr. Lewis, not to mention the legions of “engineers” and other “authorities,” usually “seem” smarter than that!! To paraphrase, and correct, the most repeated line from “Forrest Gump,” stupid DOES as stupid IS!” That is to say, _IF_/_WHEN_ someone DOES something “stupid,” THAT is more than sufficient evidence that, indeed, THAT PERSON _IS_ fucking stupid!!! No ifs, ands, or buts about it, the proof is in the pudding. It’s a goddamned shame, to the ENTIRE fucking species, to NOT know that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, George Soros, Warren Buffet, Lloyd Blankfein, Donald Trump, any/every Clinton and Bush, etc. ad infinitum, and a host of other fuckwits ARE abjectly STUPID!!! Moreover, their ONLY “claim” to “intelligence” is their capacity to “play” the rest of humanity for even LESS “intelligence” and are, apparently, correct. Perhaps, more importantly, let’s NOT “forget” the legions of egregious, sycophantic morons who willingly, obligingly become subservient to the aforementioned and their ilk to “solve” the “problems” the aforementioned create, believing that they are of some “benefit” to someone other than their masters!! REALLY?!?!? WTF?!?!?! I think part(?) of the “problem” lies in the over-arching “push” for (/subservience to) “Politically Correct Speech,” as though that were some kind of “ideal.” It should be facilely apparent to anyone with more than a few functioning axons, dendrites and synapses that THAT ideal makes as much sense as some flea-bitten cur chasing its own tail!! Indeed, THAT is the highest metaphor to which the current state of “civilization” can be compared. As John Oliver recently alluded, “rock bottom” is so far “above” the Earth’s surface that it can no longer be discernible. This “condition” is NOT going to “end well.”