Environmentalists and "tree-huggers"

Wind Turbine. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

A few days ago I wrote about my experiences with Big Oil. Little did I know that I would manage to upset a friend who posted a comment, which I am reproducing here:

"Tree-hugers huh? Don't you think that is a little harsh? Idealists are idiots until their ideas take momentum, after that they are known as visionaries. Not before.

Alternative energy doesn't work? Hell, that's were we will agree to disagree (being a wind turbine engineer and all).
Oil is only the cheapest ECONOMIC source of energ: it is dirty, chemically dangerous, prone to explosion, and its biggest charge is to the enviroment it is IRREPARABLY destroying. Plus, it is not renewable.

I don't want to live as if I were the last generation to use the earth, and I don't even have kids like you do.

Anyway, as I said, this is a point were we will have to agree to disagree.
I have a TREMENDOUS respect for you, and it is only such respect that allows me to retort; I know you are a rational person who will not corner me to the ground just because I think differently about a subject.

In any case, the best of lucks in your new endevours. All the best to you and your family. ^__^


I also have Arc in the highest of regards and this comment provides a footing to talk about some ideas I have been juggling in my head.

First, the use of the words "tree-hugger" is not casual - it is deliberate. I am certainly not very diplomatic when I am dealing with prejudiced or dishonest people and I find a lot of those in the "green" movement.

Before going any further, I am all for preserving the environment, as much as it is possible to reconcile such preservation with the needed economic development for poor people/countries. I think all life is precious and while I cannot accept the killing of one more marine mammal, for instance, I also think the life of some members of a rather abundant species of two-legged land mammals is also important to preserve.

However, the tree-huggers I am refering to are people who use the banner of the green movement in order to further their perverse agendas, which seemingly do not include the well being of many of those two-legged land mammals. I do not really understand what those agendas may be, if they exist at all: it seems to me that many of these infamous characters are in the game only for personal gain.

And they are dishonest. I was outraged last year when a well known (in my country) catholic bishop called a press conference in order to present his findings after conducting some water analysis in the neighborhood of a gold mine. He accused the mining company of poisoning the river with "heavy metals". What heavy metals? Aluminum, magnesium and silicon... some of the most abundant materials in the Earth's crust.

So, I stand by my use of the word tree hugger. I am an environmentalist, an advocate of conservancy, not of poverty and famine for those who could use a good job in a gold mine - as long as the mine complies with good environmental practices. But the tree huggers will have none of that and they want all those jobs to go away.

As for renewable energy, I am all for developing renewable and alternate energy sources. However, I don't think they are all quite ready for prime time.

My good friend Arc says he is a wind turbine engineer. Nice job. I like wind turbines. They are one of the most mature technologies for renewable/alternate energy around. Unfortunately, they have two shortcomings:

1) Mostly, they are not good for providing base energy as the wind does not always blow the same when you need it and 2) They are not that reliable as yet.

I tried to indicate that alternate energy would come into its own sometime later this century. Wind power is a good example. There is already work underway to make wind turbines more reliable, going to direct drive and avoiding those pesky, difficult to maintain gearboxes. Yes, Big Oil will suffer at not being able to sell lubricants to the wind turbines anymore (with direct drive) but I, for one, aplaud the idea as the gearbox is the weakest link in a power system comprising wind turbines.

And, I have to say, wind power is also attacked by the green movement. Migrating birds are killed by the spinning blades and pressure differentials between one side of the turbine and the other kills bats. I sympathize with the birds and the bats but I also believe that good locations can be found for those needed wind farms where they will make the least damage to the flying fauna.

Not that all of them will be spared. But you have to give some to get some, right? Which, would bring me back to the gold mine...

So, friend Arc. we do not disagree at all. We are in violent agreement. But it is all a matter of balancing the pros and the cons and coming up with the best solution for all - marine mammals, flying fauna and those insipid two-legged land dwellers that tree-huggers don't seem to consider worthy of conservation.

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The end of an era (for me...)

This is me, about 20 years ago, a talk to customers. My bosses, in the background, watching...

Yesterday, after 20.6 years of working with Big Oil, my employment came to an end.

20.6 years is a lot. I always ask my kids if they remember seeing me working for another employer. Your personality becomes entangled with the company's and friends and family think of you when they see the company logo and viceversa... sometimes I think I have a star already engraved on my forehead!

I remember 20-something years when I was in need of a job and looked in many places... the story itself of how I began working with Big Oil is interesting. But in that time, with my youth ideals still fresh I used to think I would not work with the brewery or the distillery - I do not agree with the excess in drinking that these companies seem to promote. I didn't want to work for Big Tobacco either, even though they called... I think it is inmoral to help produce a product that causes disease and death. But Big Oil, even though twenty years ago did not have the greenest image did not look bad to me. Besides, I always sold lubricants, even then. No one seems to notice but, who can live without lubricants? (Even reproduction would be difficult...)

Anyway, Big Oil hired me at the toughest time in my life, recently married and with a child on the way. Watching shop windows full of baby clothes and stuff I could not buy. And, in time, it gave me enough to raise and educate my children, feed and clothe them, a good life - all these, things for which I am very grateful.

Besides, Big Oil gave me the opportunity to learn to manage a business with other people's money. I made mistakes that cost the company mone. They told me "don't do it again" and I moved on. I learned so many things... I don't think many people (certainly no more than 10) in Guatemala know so much about lubricants as I do. And I met many important poeple, some of which are now offering me employment... And I knew so many places, in Guatemala and elsewhere in the world, that I would have never visited if it were not for the job. All of which has enriched my life in a wonderful way.

I cannot neglect mentioning also the opportunity to work with so many talented colleagues and some extraordinary bosses ( I always think of Ralph when I think of good bosses). Many friends, many colleagues, many customers and acquaintances, relationships that I hope will be able to continue even though I am no longer with the company.

A great experience. I would not change those 20.6 years for anything. And I defend Big Oil. It is true that BP has messed with the industry's image with this big screw-up in the Gulf but the industry, generally speaking, is not irresponsible, in spite of how much the tree-huggers may crow.

And there is much to say about our dependence from oil. A few weeks ago, a local columnist was making an apology of alternative energy. Everything fine and dandy except it does not work. Yet. The cheapest source of energy available to us at the moment is oil and that will not change in the next 20 years. Maybe in 50.

In the meantime, all the best successes to my friends and colleagues working for Big Oil. And to Big Oil, as well, because success for the companies carries with it success for their employees.

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The Titanic chore of thinking critically

R.M.S. Titanic. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

This morning I was browsing through TLT magazine and I found a great column on Titanic which clearly illustrates one of the critical thinking processes involved in solving problems by attacking root causes.

If asked why Titanic sank, most people would say it was because it hit an iceberg. However, that was not the real cause of the sinking, as demonstrated by this interesting article. Titanic sank because of defective rivets.

How come? What do rivets have to do with large chunks of ice?

In order to find out what the real cause of an event is, you need to ask why over and over. That is a technique we use frequently at work when conducting investigations of loss incidents. For example, if an employee crashes the company car, we ask why? Maybe the guy hit the car in front when the other driver suddendly stopped. Why? Because he was not following at the right distance. Of course. Be more careful next time.

Most people would stop investigating at this stage. And conclude that in order not to crash you have to follow the car in front at a larger distance. However, that may not have been the root cause of the accident.

If we ask why a second time we might begin to find interesting things. For instance, if the second answer is "I didn't know I had to follow at such and such distance" we may begin inquiring into training. Other possible answers might lead to fatigue, poor eyesight, etc. In all those causes, the solution needed to prevent a repeat accident would be different - training, journey planning, eye testing, etc.

Going back to Titanic, I found most interesting that the old ship can still teach us new lessons. In this case, when asking why the ship sank after hitting the ice, the answer is that it developed a large leak that flooded too many watertight compartments. Going further into the why asking questions and combining this technique with recent research, it was found that rivets used in the bow and stern of the ship were not steel but iron and they were of substandard quality. It turns out that Harland & Wolff probably knew about the poor quality of the rivets but used them anyway - a typical case of "nothing bad has happened before so I keep on doing it". In the end it all came down to a case of trying to manage through difficult financial and logistical conditions.

That is what critical thinking leads to. In order to prevent a repeat disaster, ships had to be built with steel, not iron, rivets. Had rivets in the bow of the Titanic been steel, we might today have a Titanic museum.

So, it was not the route, the decision to turn the engines, etc. what sank the mighty ship. And the way through to that knowledge was pure critical thinking and root cause analysis.

More information on Titanic can be found here linked from the Harland & Wolff website

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The Skeptic

The child was restless... he was not naughty, just curious and inquisitve. Fascinated by the world around him, he constantly asked his father, who was a very wise man, he thought. Soon the father reached the limits of his wisdom while the child went on with his fantasies of space travel and life in distant worlds, all made possible by the incredible and continuous advancement of science.

An avid reader, he quickly went through the family library and went on to his school's library. The librarian, who was the typical grumpy old woman, scolded him. "You cannot take home a new book every day and return it the next morning and still have time to do your homework" she said. The boy, no longer a child, just looked at her perplexed and left, with a new book under his arm.

As an adolescent he was already disenchanted with religion and wanted nothing to do with it even while attending a catholic school. Still a believer, though...

The boy discovered music. And the Beatles. 10 years after the original beatlemania, he learned every single song the Beatles had performed and that way, he finally finished learning the english his school had failed to teach him.

Reading in english, he discovered Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Van Vogt and Herbert. The universe would never be the same and the world would never seem so large anymore. And the good doctor taught him many wonderful things while at the same time, engineering school taught him physics and quantum mechanics. And he marveled at how the world was such a strange and fascinating place.

When finishing university, the young man had a brief affair with religion. In the middle of it he married and had children. And the enthusiasm for religion quickly died as the obligations of tending to a growing family needs and a demanding job kept his mind busy with many things other than God.

And one day he realized he didn't think of God anymore. And nothing had happened. Through his efforts he was still successful and happy, with a loving wife and two wonderful children who fulfilled all his emotional needs.

The man finally gave himself permission not to believe. And he was happier than ever. Liberated. A true skeptic.

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Beware skeptics - don't be an ass


Unfortunately, the situation artfully illustrated by Scott Addams above happens all too often. I can be as obnoxious as that or more but, slowly and painfully, I have learned to avoid the awkward feeling of turning someone off as Dilbert is doing and keeping relationships at a diplomatic level.

One of the things many "new" skeptics do not realize is that it does not do any good to argue with a true believer or a faith motivated person. In the situation above, if Dilbert's date were, say, a UFO fanatic, Dilbert would have two options:

a) Stop considering any further dates with this person; after all, she will not change her ways and she will consider it a personal project to bring Dilbert into the UFO community; or,

b) Be non-committal and avoid the subject. While it may be difficult to maneuver around things that may be important to the other person, it can be done on a short term relationship or on a day-to-day basis with work colleagues and customers. Not recommended for close friends or spouses, though...

I had a situation like this the other day, albeit not on a date. I happened to casually discuss the subject of evolution vs creationism with a work colleague who attends a fundamentalist church. My intention was purely scientific: I wanted to find out what they thought at her church. She ran off on a long string of nonsense about evolution being "only a theory" and how monkeys are not becoming people. So I thanked her for enlightening me and left it at that without any comment on my side.

If I had starting arguing the case with her it would have been the end of a diplomatic relationship (no friendship with that lady, no way! I choose my friends) that has worked since I realized she attends that particular merchant of faith's church. And it would have gotten me nowhere as she would only have confirmed in her mind that I am headed straight for hell.

Which is not true, since there is no hell. But that is another story. Enjoy Dilbert!

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