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Mansfield Dam

The Age of the Engineer is Over

Before anyone accuses me of being prejudiced against engineers, let it be known that I am a registered Civil Engineer, and quite enjoy being one.

However, that doesn’t mean that I’m oblivious to the end of the age of engineers. This is upon us now. You may ask me how I know, it’s the point where the large scale engineered projects such as dams, bridges, highrise structures, massive open cut mines, railways, highways, grade separated interchanges and many other built environment objects are becoming less sustainable, whether from cost of materials, future usage, or just the scale of construction and maintenance required.

Here’s a story about dams…

We’re Paying the Price Today for Decades of Relentless Dam Building | Water | AlterNet

Between 1950 and 1970, three new dam projects were started every single day in the world. Today, primarily in China, Turkey, Brazil, Japan and India, one new dam project begins daily with an average completion date of four years. Fifteen hundred dams are currently under construction worldwide…

It is only in blindness that ignorance can find engineering arrogance and feed the certainty of human expediency — that millions of dams can exist worldwide strangling the lubricant of life itself. It is true that dams have created a seemingly unlimited oasis in arid and semi-arid regions of the world and have produced unimaginable population centers in water-stressed locations, made possible food production on marginal arid lands, and provided cheap taxpayer subsidized water and artificial lakes aplenty for fishing, camping and boating.

It seems a good thing, yet, what isn’t accounted for is the short-term duration and ecological costs. It has created this artificial bonanza by short-circuiting the natural system of limitations much as the one time wonder of fossil fuels has short-circuited and driven the industrial revolution. The debts of temporary prosperity are all due and payable in the 21st century.

I’ve had arguments about the statement “temporary prosperity” with people before, and this is a contentious topic. It is meant to be! You are meant to read statements like this and challenge them, open your mind to the possibility that it could be for real and respond appropriately. Many people respond with comments like, “if it were real, the government would be doing something about it…” How do you know they aren’t? And even if they are not doing something about it, do you really trust that they’d tell you they aren’t?

China is running out of water – not just from an exploding economy and quality of life, but because the engineering behind every dam or water diversion has successfully exploited more resources than the environment can sustain.

All of this infrastructure around the world will need to be maintained to ensure a reasonable lifespan. As the long emergency following peak oil rolls around, many industries will fall into total chaos, along with the cities they support. Diverting ever more water to urbanized areas, where water is wasted in toilets and on ornamental lawns, or to irrigate crops that are not sustainable in arid areas makes very little sense except to an immediate economic analysis. As soon as the long-term is reviewed with a healthy does of risk-management, many of these projects should be immediately scrapped, in favour of projects that reduce our dependence on oil, and our wastefulness of water.

A solution?

I wanted to just end this post, but then realized how depressing and demoralizing that would be to some readers. Is there a solution out there? Should we just stop building these massive structures? Who should decide?

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that governments around the world are truly looking out for the individuals who live within their countries, in many cases, corporations have a greater say than any group of individuals, even qualified professionals.Communities must begin to manage themselves and their resources in a way that focuses on true sustainability – not banning plastic bags or reducing idling time, but finding long term viable alternatives to plastic bags, (and the consumerist culture that it represents), and driving cars at all, (as two small examples). Much of the content on UrbanWorkbench is focused on alternatives, some commercially drive, some back-to-the-land solutions.


Some Engineers will be useful when they learn to harness appropriate scales of technology to solve relevant problems. When I was in the Army, we designed small bridges with a scale-rule and timber span charts, then went and cut the trees down and started building. The learnt skills of risk management and estimating will be invaluable in the future, as will the ability to put a critical thinking mind to good use solving problems on a local scale. As the world slides into the long emergency, Engineers won’t be designing massive dams or bridges, or in most cases even roads. Instead a long term maintenance program of critical, sustainable community infrastructure and the management of community scale projects will be much more likely.

Here’s a great book about The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

3 thoughts on “The Age of the Engineer is Over

  1. What is the life span of concrete? How is this factored into large dams? I’m thinking about the Grand Coulee and other large western dams.

  2. I remember talking to a couple of Australian Engineers working in BC about six years ago who were there simply to determine the lifespan of the existing dams scattered across the province. Their outlook didn’t seem that good.

    Concrete structures could last indefinitely under the right conditions, and with regular maintenance. Concrete structures will always crack It all depends on inspections and maintenance, and as such, the usable lifespan could be as short as 50-100 years.

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