Securing a better future - the link between
ideas and action
September 20, 2011
Mr Julian Segal
Managing Director & CEO, Caltex Australia
Chemeca 2011, Sydney
20 September 2011
I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you at an
occasion such as this. Bringing together engineers to talk about
areas of common interest is enormously beneficial to all of us and
I am delighted to have been invited to participate in this
I have chosen to discuss the link between ideas and action in
securing a better future.
To do so, however, our starting point must be to ask: what does a
better future looks like.
It was Aristotle who observed that happiness is something all
humans strive for, that it's the end to which all human activities
Aristotle also observed that happiness requires a contemplative
life, and that we should therefore try to understand what happiness
So what is happiness?
For one thing it requires pure reason, which is another point
Aristotle made, but there's a practical aspect to happiness as
To be happy you need basic, material things: food, clothing and
shelter. Pure reason alone will not suffice.
This theme has been picked up by countless thinkers over the
generations. Jeremy Bentham, an eighteenth-century English
philosopher, said one portion of happiness equals one portion of
Wealth is indeed an important ingredient in happiness. It means we
are better fed, sheltered and entertained, better protected against
disease and able to live to a much older age.
There are of course some who today still embrace the idea that life
in a less industrialised age was simpler, better, and somehow more
meaningful and fulfilling.
Paradoxically, I think it's fair to say that this view is largely
confined to the wealthy.
The implication that a simpler life is better is patently untrue.
There are two billion people today who have still not yet turned on
a light switch.
If you travel through much of the third world as I have done, I
would suggest that the hundreds of millions of people who live in
poverty want to be like those of us who do not.
People will point out that progress has come at a cost in pollution
and other negatives. The fact is that a modern car today emits less
pollution travelling at full speed than a car parked in 1970 did
from leaks, according to Matt Ridley in his book The Rational
A more important statistic though from Ridley is this: Today, one
hour of work buys you 300 days' worth of artificial reading
In 1800, one hour of work earned you only ten minutes of
The implications of this for education are enormous.
But consider this irony for a moment: those people who think times
were better in the past are not only wealthy but generally
How many of us could afford to be educated at that kind of
Very few. In the past 200 years there's been a staggering,
exponential increase in the number of people who have gained an
And what about health? Life expectancy in England in 1800 was less
than 40. How many people today who pine for what they believe was a
simpler, happier life would like to die at 40?
Today we have more choice than ever before in human history. We can
consume more music and more literature. In the past people barely
had enough food, and pretty bad food at that. There was no time for
entertainment, watching concerts, reading poetry.
And I believe there's another point to make when people talk about
a less industrialised age. Cruelty once characterised the old ways
There was cruelty as entertainment - think of the gladiators. There
was human sacrifice because of superstition, slavery to reduce the
cost of labour, genocide as a way of acquiring territory,
widespread use of the death penalty, as well as pogroms - which my
great grandparents actually experienced.
Happily for mankind, we not only have a far better life, but
because of technological advances, the trend towards a better life
Let's look at what's happened in just the past 50 years. Besides
living at least one third longer, a person will be less likely to
die in war, childbirth, murder, accidents, famine, or from TB,
heart disease and stroke. And all of this happened while the
population of the globe doubled.
If you look at the number of people today living in absolute
poverty the number has dropped by more than half in those 50 years.
The UN estimates poverty has reduced by more in the past 50 years
than in the previous 500.
So now that we have established that life is indeed better, the
next question to ask is why have things changed so much?
The factor that has made such a huge difference was the abundant
availability of cheap energy, especially coal.
Before that, manpower was the most important source of
The industrial revolution in Britain was largely fuelled by the
availability of coal.
By 1870, the burning of coal in Britain was generating as many
calories as would have been expended by 850 million
A huge proportion of the British economy was based on cotton, and
this industry wouldn't have survived without steam engines powered
Don Boudreaux, professor of economics at George Mason University,
once said industrial capitalism exterminated slavery.
I say it was coal. Why? The simple answer is, that it became
uneconomic to have slaves.
I repeat: abundant, cheap power is the basis for the way we live
today. We cannot afford to forget this.
There is another factor of critical importance when we look at why
people today are suffering and dying less.
Generally, our vastly improved life has happened in places on the
planet where there is better infrastructure.
This is no coincidence - it is purely a product of science having
been converted into reality by engineers.
It is engineers who master the art of the possible.
It is they who translate ideas into practices that unlock and
harness the secrets of the world we live in.
It is they, in essence, who get Mother Nature to reveal her secrets
and turn them to practical use.
I'm in the petrol business, and it provides a good example of the
complexity of the processes that engineers have mastered to convert
natural resources and science into reality.
Take a litre of petrol. For me to deliver it to a motorist, we must
first explore for crude in an inhospitable area. Then engineers
must sink wells and extract the crude. We must invest massively in
infrastructure to do so, arrange shipping and transport to bring
the crude to refineries that cost billions to construct. Then
engineers must process the raw materials in hazardous conditions at
high pressure and temperature, store the refined product, and
transport and deliver it to customers.
All this for a finished product that's offered at $1.40 a litre.
Astonishing when you think that at the same service station you are
paying over $2 for a bottle of water.
What's more, our expertise is literally the foundation upon which
civilisation is built.
And it has always been this way.
Imhotep in 2600 BC, known as "the one who comes in peace," was an
Egyptian polymath who served as chancellor to the pharaoh and high
priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis. He is widely considered to
be the first engineer in early human history, having designed
Egypt's famous step pyramid.
Engineers today are Imhotep's peers - we are the people, who
because of our specialised training and the way we've been trained
to think critically and analytically - build things that stand up
and that shape the future.
The question for us today is how are we going to continue to do
this in a world that is undergoing a profound shift in
There is no doubt that much in our world has changed. For one
thing, fossil fuels are seen as a problem instead of something that
And although it will be engineers who find solutions to the
problems of scarce resources, the energy conundrum and the fuels of
the future, their voices are not being heard enough in the current
Instead we hear from economists and investment bankers. But as we
saw in the GFC, financial engineering is not bound by the rules of
physics and does not always stand up.
To ensure engineers' voices are increasingly heard, as a first step
we must ensure we gain a much higher profile.
The absence of recognition of the vital role engineers will play in
finding solutions for the problems that confront us is something
that worries me.
Engineers must do more - much more - to engage in critical debates,
to gain widespread recognition and support for the work we must
still do to develop the sources of energy that will continue to be
the foundation on which our progress depends.
So we must stand up now, and add our voices to the current
Second, we must talk about what has been achieved. This means
engaging the media and the public to ensure the illuminating world
of engineering gets the exposure it deserves.
People will get excited if we show and explain properly what's
being done in our profession and the skills and creativity that
Third, we need to incentivise people to enter the profession. In my
view there are too few incentives for our best brains to become
Recognition and reward are key.
I believe corporations have a role to play, as does
There are certain services only government can provide. One is good
and equal education for everyone. In some quarters in Australia,
private education is seen to be better than public education. If
this is the case, I believe this is fundamentally wrong. Long-term
progress always starts with good school education.
So along with corporations and governments, schools too have a
responsibility to inspire and encourage new generations of boys and
more girls in particular, to move into engineering.
Finally as an industry we must look to how we reward engineering
innovation. People in our profession must be incentivised to create
More and more in the future, engineers will be working outside
traditional fields. This is already happening in medicine for
example. Progressive universities these days have engineers and
medical scientists working together. They have made a dramatic
contribution to the extension and improvement of human life.
So in conclusion, let us not forget that it is engineers who build
what is useful - and what makes us healthy and happy. The GFC came
about largely because good minds were put to purposes that were
We serve the greater good and must continue to do so.
Much is at stake, and the risks are real. The early Roman and Greek
civilisations had wonderful engineering, yet by the Middle Ages
people had forgotten how to build on a grand scale.
We must not allow that to happen again.
Engineers are the people who will secure a better future for
It's up to each and every one of us to ensure we are part of that