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A Stoic Guide for Climate Change and Sustainability Engineering

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Alan Rozich's picture
Director BioConversion Solutions

Providing quantitative sustainability insights using sound technical analyses with a management consulting approach to craft strategies that address the mega-trends that are occurring in the...

  • Member since 2017
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  • Jan 10, 2023
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Synopsis

In many pursuits and initiatives in life, there are different styles of leadership.

Some point you forward, while others point at you.

Sustainability and climate change projects are no different. Articulating basic principles is a vital component to any successful enterprise. Perhaps even more so with the sustainability and climate change space which seems to attract more hidden agendas than qualified practitioners resulting in confused messaging and uncertainty on proceeding constructively. Using stoic principles offers a unifying project development mantra that is incorporated into a formal FEED effort that disregards superfluous rationale tainted with egregious virtue signaling.

Introduction

In his iconic work, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (shown in the header) articulates his personal life journey. He notes that, despite his desire to be regarded as a philosopher, he concluded that “ the life of an Emperor mitigates against it.” He is frequently ranked as one of the top five emperors in the Roman Empire and his book continues to be a staple fixture for millions.

The utility of using a Stoic thought architecture for the basis of formulating governing principles is that it articulates a set of rules that can be universally applied as part of overall project development, engineering, and deployment efforts.

Sustainability projects are significantly more complicated than conventional environmental ones because there are additional elements that must be considered and factored into the overall project calculus. For example, large, centralized renewable energy systems, notably wind and solar, can be problematic with egregious land consumption. In the sustainability space, there is room for all technologies provided the applications are prudently engineered to mitigate unwanted ancillary complications.  

Background

It is essential to note that developing projects and systems is a rigorous undertaking. Consequently, there is no room for virtue signaling as it has no role in sustainability engineering projects that are deployed for mitigating anthropogenic climate change. The embedded messaging of virtue signaling tends to resemble scare tactics. That is, a narrative is framed that is tantamount to saying that everyone must

"Act right now with lots or money or you're all going to die."

Perhaps, this characterization is a bit of unfair hyperbole. Nevertheless, this modus operandi is not a sustainable path for building consensus or solving the interlinked problems of climate change, sustainability, and societal functionality which are all searingly real and palpable. Alternatively, it is worthy to consider the application of stoic principles as guiding dicta for postulating and implementing authentically sustainable solutions to meet society’s enormous challenges. Clearly state the problem and methodically articulate the rationale to obtain a solution which is sustainable, mitigates climate change, and is economically acceptable.

The goal of stoicism is to objectively and dispassionately distill the essence of the functionality of situations with the absence of hidden or irrelevant agendas. As Marcus Aurelius once said, "Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?" This counsel is compellingly relevant in the complicated arena that embraces climate change, sustainability, and societal functionality. Additionally, these principles can be readily integrated into planning and conceptual engineering efforts involving both specific sustainability projects as well as the development of strategic thinking on a macro scale.

Application of Stoic Principles for Engineering Sustainability Projects and Initiatives

Sustainability project development must utilize the elements of sustainability science and engineering as part of an organized, structured enterprise to deploy renewable energy and resource systems. These enterprise efforts also require these elements in order to forge a pathway for installing the various components of renewable resource systems at local, city, regional, and national levels. The key for success is to concomitantly harness accepted engineering protocols and associated established procedures that are used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries for guiding overall system design and engineering efforts for renewable resource systems.

Generally, project development is initiated with an approach that includes a formal FEED effort or Front-End Engineering Design that is performed at the completion of, or in parallel with, a concept and feasibility study phase where a number of options are assessed from an economic and safety perspective. During these efforts, applicable design and functionality requirements and constraints are articulated. Additionally, the project objectives and economics and other benefits are quantified. During this phase, the underlying assumptions and other cogent information are collected which largely set the design criteria. These criteria exert a huge influence on engineering decisions, project economics, and viability. Their accurate and careful elucidation is paramount.

The results of this engineering work is highly influenced by project assumptions. Thus, their objective elucidation is best achieved using principles largely based on key stoic essentials.

The Principles for Engineering Sustainability Projects and Initiatives

1.    Tell the Truth – There’s Less to Remember

This wording for this fundamental principle is a saying that is attributed to the Hawaiian people. Factually and accurately articulating and documenting ALL the key assumptions and rationale that go into project development, design, and financing is absolutely essential. This is particularly true and critically crucial with sustainability projects whose functionality often interlinks in unexpected ways with societal functionality and other elements. One's factual acumen and transparency are vital and robust documentation is essential with these projects.

2. The Object of Life is Not to Be on the Side of the Majority, But to Escape Finding Oneself in the Ranks of the Insane

This philosophical gem is from Marcus Aurelius. It suggests that we need to be mindful on not just embracing new technologies but in also considering different macro configurations for resource and emissions management.

Implementing sustainability and climate change solutions is a new frontier.

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Consequently, the current maxims for engineering systems that have guided human civilization and development are archaic and arguably a bit too narrowly focused. A new age requires a different way of thinking that compels us to consider a much wider range of assumptions, approaches, and solutions that warrant consideration or else we may find ourselves in “the ranks of the insane.” An analogous situation occurred when NASA was engineering the Apollo Moon missions where mission necessity propelled the team into uncharted waters that required a wider variety of approaches for consideration to address a multitude of novel and largely unanticipated challenges.

3.    Premeditatio Malorum

If you are unaware of a potential negative outcome, you cannot prepare for it in advance.

The origins of the premeditatio malorum exercise are more than two thousand years old. Given the complexity of the interactions between climate change, sustainability, and societal functionality, there is the potential for a multitude of inevitable setbacks and adverse outcomes that are lurking. The purpose of the exercise is imagining things that could go wrong in a variety of scenarios that can be contemplated and potentially forecast. Most sustainability engineering systems or designs will not be straightforward. One must mentally accept and embrace that reality and incorporate it into ones thinking throughout a project’s conceptual and operational phases. It’s virtually impossible to prepare for or prevent something that one is unaware of.  For example, Seneca noted that the unexpected setbacks are the most painful ones. Consequently, it behooves project designers to contemplate potential negative circumstances in advance for all phases of a project.

Visualizing potential negative outcomes is not being pessimistic. It is simply being proactive while maintaining a self-confident optimism.

4.   Sustainability Can Only Address Anthropogenic Climate Change

It is relatively simple. There are two kinds of climate change. There is anthropogenic climate change which is attributed to emissions resulting from human activity that cannot be assimilated by natural mechanisms and which then compromise the environment. There is also non-anthropogenic, or natural climate change which is driven by major planetary factors such as volcanic eruptions, solar energy variations, etc. whose impacts far exceed the ability of humans to influence. And although there are often gray areas, the key consideration is that the project purpose is primarily focused on only mitigating emissions that are attributed to human activities.

Attempting to force the application of technology solutions to also address non-anthropogenic climate change is both foolhardy and reckless.

5. Provide the Mass and Energy Balances and the Value Proposition

One of the greatest misconceptions is that sustainability and the economy are separate.

Sustainability project development must utilize the elements of sustainability science and engineering as part of an organized, structured enterprise to deploy renewable energy and resource systems. These enterprise efforts also require these elements in order to forge a pathway for installing the components of renewable resource systems at local, city, regional, and national levels. A structured approach that includes a formal FEED effort is absolutely essential to determine the concomitant sustainability and economic metrics of a proposed solution.

Consequently, the results of FEED efforts are keenly dependent on the judicious application of Principle 1, "Tell the Truth - There's Less to Remember."

Analysis of Sustainability Scenarios

As Marcus Aurelius remarked, we need to avoid being "in the ranks of the insane." The basic elegance of this thinking is that one avoid tunnel vision when it comes to elucidating and engineering solutions. One must attempt to be as unbiased as possible and open to unexpected and novel configurations whose functional elements meet the requisite expectations for a given project.

Solar, Wind, and the Green New Deal

The stark current reality is that both wind power and solar platforms are not performing as we were led to believe. Also consider situations like China's pledge to increase its middle class rapidly by 400 million people and the associated onerous increase in energy requirements that are required that basically make this goal an impossibility.

The landscape is further clouded by egregious greenwashing by the United Nations who blithely proclaim that Costa Rica is a “UN Champion of the Earth.”

The UN made this proclamation because of the country's prodigious utilization of hydroelectric, solar, and wind for energy production." However, this ignores that concomitant land area requirements of 6.3% of the country's land resulting in displacement of indigenous people and other problems.

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There is also the outlandish US Green New Deal championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. If implemented, it would require 26% of America’s land area. Virtue signaling has its downsides.

It is important to note that solar and wind are likely more effective in scenarios where centralized energy production is not the primary strategy.

For example, solar particularly is better suited for applications for individual homes and businesses.

Improved energy storage technologies will facilitate more of these applications and intense competition, while problematic for large solar companies, is favorable for consumers.

Premeditatio Malorum, Virtue Signaling, and Project Development

There are always two sides for large engineered systems. The upside and the downside. However, the modus operandi of the Climate Change lobby is that it is fatally stricken with a terminal case of virtue signaling. This reality leads to a mindset that implementation of renewable systems are a de facto "special case" that receive special consideration resulting in waiving stringent project criteria that would otherwise hold for other technologies.

Although they never explicitly state it, the Climate Change lobby's implicit messaging is that renewable systems, particularly solar and wind, are absolved and, therefore, immune from any scrutiny that may hinder or prevent installing these systems.

This state of affairs is unacceptable and, in the long term, catastrophic for sustainability initiatives and control of anthropogenic climate change.

Consequently, it is essential that engineering development efforts for sustainability systems incorporate the thinking of Premeditatio Malorum and completely dispense with Virtue Signaling.

Summary

Sustainability projects and the concomitant effort to manage anthropogenic climate change are significantly more complicated than conventional environmental ones because there are additional elements that must be considered and factored into the overall project calculus. There are already familiar project engineering protocols that incorporate structured FEED efforts. The functionality and output of these efforts is highly dependent on the input provided to these protocols and their mathematical models which include both process design conceptualization as well as the interlinked financial models. It behooves project developers to consider incorporating analytical cycles that channel the tenets of premeditatio malorum. Unexpected setbacks are the most painful ones and it is better to be over-prepared than being completely blindsided.

In addition to fiscal ramifications, multiple project disappointments will create an onerous, negative pall on renewable projects and their champions to the detriment of all sustainability practitioners and the environment.

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 10, 2023

If you are unaware of a potential negative outcome, you cannot prepare for it in advance.

This is the type of reminder that should be plastered on office walls across the sector!

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 11, 2023

Thanks very much for your very valid comments on the FEED process. 
One of the basic principles of FEED is to include all stakeholders in the process. 
I fear that the lack of participation of important stakeholders in the FEED is self-sabotaging some projects because of what I understand to be «virtue signaling», as you describe it. In some cases, the political pressure is so great, that any pretense of a proper FEED has been eliminated.

I do take some issue with the suggestion (perhaps inadvertent?)  that renewables projects are any more prone to «virtue signaling» than other projects. If anything, renewables projects may be less so, simply because, at least so far, they tend to be smaller and less complicated than, say, large offshore oil and gas developments, petrochemical or nuclear builds. On the other hand, the relative simplicity of renewables projects may result in critically minimizing and under resourcing the expertise and other essentials devoted to produce a proper FEED.  There is certainly a real danger that many small projects that lack a proper FEED become hazardous in many respects because of the accumulation of "virtue signaling" from the combined effect of many such projects.  The type of "virtue signaling" may be different. For example, had the development of the Permian basin been the subject of a proper FEED for all of the small projects (with honest, active participation of the Texas Railroad Commission), the resultant methane emissions may have been reduced. As it is, the objective of reducing ghg emissions by developing the gas assets to replace coal and its emissions, was completely sacrificed on the "virtue signaling" altars of energy independence, jobs, and greed, all based on a faulty business case. Another example:  Regarding NASA, as you suggest, the Apollo program was highly successful because of the NASA risk management approach.  But we must also remember that the Challenger and Columbia disasters would have been avoided if valid engineering concerns were not abandoned for never yet explained (political?) reasons. Both of these examples are replete with "virtue signaling".  But I find it easy to sympathize with the plight of small (in people terms, but large in area) communities that are faced with the intrusion of wind turbines, especially when there is no material benefit to the affected people.  Of course, it is not made easy when the objections are based on lies ("Wind mills cause cancer!")

While I would argue that there would have been no IRA if there had  not been a Green New Deal (as flawed as it was),  I think we may agree that some sort of FEED would improve, in general, the quality of Congressional bills! 

FEED can be a time consuming and somewhat messy process, especially in the all important follow-up phase. But it is an essential risk management tool. It is all too easy to put on «blinders» that prevent us from acknowledging what are, in retrospect, obvious risks that require time, expertise and money in order to be resolved effectively. I have been involved with FEEDs in which the very issue(s) that were defined as «off the table» beforehand caused major or fatal flaws to projects, resulting in massive wasted money and, worse, lack of lessons learned.
As you indicate, it is sometimes (often?) too easy to slip into the realm of «Virtue Signaling» as opposed to the  «premeditatio malorum» approach. Or, in other words, it is usually very difficult to fully adopt the correct approach. I suggest that complete objectivity is impossible. But a well organized and conducted FEED can get closer.

 

 

 

Alan Rozich's picture
Alan Rozich on Jan 11, 2023

Mark,

Thank you for your comments. I think we are pretty much on the same page.

I need to emphasize that renewables are more prone to virtue signaling than other technology architectures because of intrusive third parties such as climate activist zealots and other “stakeholders” (e.g., Hollywood elites) who willingly champion anything that they feel will address climate change. These people blithely ignore that there are other risks and sustainability issues that the specific technology solutions may have. For example, solar and wind are notorious for underperforming. These technologies also have significant challenges with sustainable land management but yet other suitable platforms rarely get considered. One wonders who is signing the process performance guarantees for solar and wind projects and who is ultimately being held accountable for egregious underperformance other than the investors that are left holding the bag. Projects should have some responsible party signing a process performance guarantee. Period. And, in the real world, there are consequences for non-performance.

Therefore, authentic FEED efforts are acutely needed, particularly those that scrub potential project downsides using thinking such as premeditatio malorum.  Sustainability and climate change initiatives are much more complicated than normal environmental initiatives. This is a very harsh reality that few acknowledge, even fewer that understand, and the complexity is much more pervasive than one would think or imagine. For example, just read AOC's  Green New Deal or the United Nations greenwashing of Costa Rica as a “UN Champion of the Earth.” These are prime examples of institutional virtue signaling devoid of credible science or engineering. And don’t forget the bevy of casual climate change “activist” elites that bellicosely pontificate their demands without understanding the long-term ramifications and potential damage to both the environment and to the economy which in the end, exacerbate global warming. Not to mention the scandalous propensity of projects that are replete with both dismal fiscal metrics and renewables production performance. Finally, we as a society and our children are left holding the bag.

Alan Rozich's picture
Thank Alan for the Post!
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