Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Seneca effect: why decline is faster than growth

"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Don't you stumble, sometimes, into something that seems to make a lot of sense but you can't say exactly why? For a long time, I had in mind the idea that when things start going bad, they tend to go bad fast. We might call this tendency the "Seneca effect" or the "Seneca cliff," from Lucius Anneaus Seneca who wrote that "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."

Could it be that the Seneca cliff is what we are facing, right now? If that is the case, then we are in trouble. With oil production peaking or set to peak soon, it is hard to think that we are going to see a gentle downward slope of the economy. Rather, we may see a decline so fast that we can only call it "collapse." The symptoms are all there, but how to prove that it is what is really in store for us? It is not enough to quote a Roman philosopher who lived two thousand years ago. We need to understand what factors might lead us to fall much faster than we have been growing so far. For that, we need to make a model and see how the various elements of the economic system may interact with each other to generate collapse.

I have been working on this idea for quite a while and now I think I can make such a model. This is what the rest of this post will be about. We'll see that a Seneca cliff may indeed be part of our future if we keep acting as we have been acting so far (and as we probably will). But let's go into the details.

Models of growth and decline

The paradigm of all models of growth and decline is the Hubbert model. Here is how it appeared for the first time, in a paper published by Marion King Hubbert in 1956 where he showed his prediction for crude oil production in the 48 US lower states.

If you are interested in this subject, you probably have seen this plot many times and you also know that it worked nicely as a prediction. Oil production in the US did peak when Hubbert had said it would, in 1970. The Hubbert model has been shown to be a good description of many historical cases of oil producing regions, as reported, for instance, by Adam Brandt in his 2007 paper "Testing Hubbert". It works not just for oil, also for other mineral resources and for slowly renewable biological resources, such as whales (Bardi 2007).

We can take the Hubbert model as a first step for the description of an economic system based on the exploitation of a non renewable resource. The idea underlying the model is that exploitation starts with the best, highest return resources. Then, depletion slowly forces the industry to move to lower return resources. Profits fall and the capability of the industry to invest in new extraction falls as a consequence. This slows down growth and, eventually, causes production to decline (Bardi et al. 2010). So, it is a very general model that could describe not just regional cases but whole civilizations. Most of the agrarian civilizations of the past were based on a depletable resource, fertile soil, as I discussed in a post of mine in 2009.

However, the Hubbert model does not generate the Seneca effect. Not only the production curve is normally assumed to be symmetric, but there are several historical cases where it is skewed backwards; something that we could call the "anti-Seneca" effect. The prevalence of these cases in oil production led Brandt (2007) to state that (p. 27) ".... there is simply no evidence in the historical data that rates of decline will be generally sharper than rates of increase. This should be taken as comforting news for those concerned about a quick decline in production causing additional disruption beyond that already anticipated for the transition from conventional oil to substitutes for conventional oil."

Fine, but there is a problem. The results reported by Brandt are all for regional cases and it couldn't be otherwise. But, in a regional case, when extraction costs go up, operators simply move to regions where costs are lower. What happens when there is no new region to move to? That is, what happens when you examine the worldwide trend? Do people simply give up extracting, as it is implicitly assumed in the Hubbert model, or do they try harder? And in the latter case, what happens?

Of course, we don't have historical data for the whole cycle of oil production, worldwide. But there exist models which are more sophisticated than the Hubbert model and which can tell us more about worldwide trends. One is the "World3" model used for "The Limits to Growth" study, first published in 1972. The model is based on assumptions not unlike those at the basis of the Hubbert model (see this post of mine comparing the two models), but it considers the world's economy as a whole. Here are the results of the "base case" scenario of the 2004 version.

Here, we clearly see that the curves for food production and industrial production are skewed forward. It is the Seneca effect; something that appears to be a general trend of these models. For an even clearer view of this trend, here is a graph taken from the front cover of the 2004 edition of "The Limits to growth"

Now, what creates the Seneca effect in a complex model such as "World3" but not in a simpler model as Hubbert's one? In order to understand this point, I'll try now to build simple ("mind sized") world models and see what parameters are the cause of the forward leaning curves. We'll see that the asymmetry is mainly caused by a factor that we may call "pollution."

Mind Sized World Modelling

"Mind Sized" is a term invented by Seymour Papert in his book "Mind Storms" (1980). The idea is that, in order to be convinced that a certain phenomenon is real, or that it may happen for real, you need to understand what makes it real. For this, a model must be simple enough that you can make sense of it within your mind. This was one of the problems with "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972; the model was so complex that people tended to disbelieve its results mostly because they didn't understand how the model worked, as I argue in my book on this subject (Bardi 2011). So, let's see if we can make mind sized world models, trying to explicit their relation with thermodynamics. This was the gist of a talk that I gave in Spain this year, "Entropy, peak oil and stoic philosophy".

For building these models, I'll use "system dynamics," the same method used for "The Limits to Growth" study. It is a method of simulation based on describing systems as composed as "stocks" linked to each other by "flows" controlled by "valves". The classic example of this kind of systems is that of a bathtub. The bathtub is the stock; you can fill it by means of a flow of water, or you can empty it letting water flow out of it. This is called "bathtub dynamics" and you can read a nice paper on this subject by Linda Sweeney and John Sterman. It shouldn't be necessary to say that a bathtub has to obey the laws of physics, but at times it is. You have to remember that mass must be conserved in order to understand how a bathtub fills or drains out. More in general, energy has to be conserved - this is the first law of thermodynamics. You have to remember also the second law of thermodynamics which says that in everything that happens spontaneously, entropy must increase. Ultimately, the fact that water flows away from the drain of a bathtub has to do with increasing the entropy of the universe.

So, let's try to make a simple, mind-sized model that describes how an economic system exploits a non-renewable resource. We start with a stock that we call "Resources". We assume that it is a stock of energy on the basis of the idea that energy can be transformed into other kinds of resources (say, metals) but not the reverse. The resource could be, for instance "crude oil", which is the main resource on which our civilization is based. Then, we have another box that we call "Capital" that represents energy stocked in forms that can be utilized. We could say that this stock is a section of the economy; say, "the oil industry" or that it represents a whole civilization. Then we draw the flows of energy from the resource stock to the capital stock and to dissipation as low temperature heat, as the second law of thermodynamics commands. Here is the model.

This is the same model that I showed in previous posts (e.g. here) but, here I turned it 90 degrees clockwise in order to emphasize the fact that energy goes "down" from higher thermodynamic potentials to lower thermodynamic potentials; just like what water does in a bathtub or in a fountain. Unlike the case of a fountain or a bathtub, however, here the flow is governed by feedback: resources are transformed into capital in proportion to the amount of both Resources and Capital. Note also that the resource partly decays without producing anything (Rate3). That's due to the inefficiency of the production process; think of oil spills or of natural gas vented and burned.

As you see, the production curve (Rate1 in the figure) is bell shaped and symmetric. This model, indeed, is equivalent to the Hubbert model (Bardi and Lavacchi 2009). The problem is that you can play as much as you like with the model, changing the values of the three constants, but the curves will not show the Seneca effect; that is, decay will not be faster than growth. So, are we missing something, here?

It seems that, indeed, we are missing an element that, instead, is present in the world models of "The Limits to Growth" study. What we are missing is pollution or, better said, the effects of pollution. In the simple model above, degraded energy is harmlessly dissipated to space; it has no effect on the other elements of the model. But we know that, in the real world, that is not true. Pollution has a cost: money and resources must be spent to fight it; be it water or air poisoning or effects such as global warming.

In order to simulate the effects of pollution we can define it as a third stock that drains energy from the capital stock in proportion to the size of both the capital and the pollution stocks. Note that, since there are several constants, I grouped with the name of "l" (from the term "loss") those which go directly from a stock to outer space (l1, l2, l3). I kept the letter "k" for the flows that go from one stock to another. Here is the model. I am showing you a sample output where I chose parameters which emphasize the Seneca effect.

The parameters for this  run are k1=0.03. k2=0.3, l1=0, l2=0.01, l3=0.015, Resources (t0)=1, Capital(t0) =0.001, Pollution(t0)=0.001

Here is the production curve, alone, from a different run.

So,the model can generate a "Seneca-like" production curve which clearly shows the "Seneca cliff". It goes up slowly, then it collapses quickly. As Seneca says, "the way to ruin is rapid."

Now, can we say in words what generates the Seneca cliff? Yes, we can. It goes like this: first, consider that the effect of pollution is to drain economic capital. Secondly, consider that the pollution stock grows by feeding on the economy stock - so it has to wait for the economy to have grown before it can grow itself. It is this delay that causes an increase in the rate of energy draining from the economy as the process goes on. Since the size of the economy stock determines the production rate, we see also that parameter going down rapidly after the peak. This is the essence of the Seneca effect.

Let's now go more in depth in the model. What is exactly this "pollution" that causes so much trouble? It is what the authors of "The Limits to Growth" called "persistent pollution" to show that it is something different from infrared radiation harmlessly disappearing into space. It is a very general concept that includes anything that is generated by capital and will drain resources from capital. The Fukushima disaster is a good example of pollution coming back to bite at the industry that produced it. It could be poisoning of the air or of water. It could be global warming and it could also be wars. Wars are great producers of pollution and a nuclear war would make the Seneca effect take place almost instantly.

Now that we understand how the model works, we can go back to to Brandt's study and explain why in the majority of historical cases of oil production the curves are symmetric or show "anti-Seneca" shapes. We said that the Seneca effect is generated by pollution; so, does this result mean that oil extraction produces no pollution? Not at all, of course. It only means that those who extract oil don't have to pay for the pollution they produce. To make a practical example, in the case of oil extraction from the 48 US lower states, persistent pollution has mainly taken the shape of CO2 and other greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere. This is a factor that has not yet bitten us back, but, eventually, someone will have to pay for the damage done in the form of global warming. When the bill comes - and it is coming - we may discover that it is more expensive than what we can afford to pay.

Would technological progress save us from the Seneca cliff? Well, not automatically. Actually, it could make the cliff steeper! One way to simulate technology is to assume that the constants in the model are not constant but vary as the cycle proceeds. For instance, an increasing value of the "k1" constant corresponds to technological improvements in the capability of exploiting the resource. That will increase the total amount produced at the end of the cycle, but will also generate a steeper fall after the peak, as I discussed in a paper of mine (Bardi 2005). A more interesting idea would be to tweak the model by a making the "k2" constant gradually smaller. That would simulate the development of technologies that lower the production of pollution. In other words, the model tells us that "clean production" is a good idea in the sense that it would tend to make the production cycle more symmetric.

You might try other ways to modify the model, for instance increasing its complexity by adding more stocks. How about a "bureaucracy" stock that accumulates and then dissipates energy? Well, it will act just as the "pollution" stock; perhaps we might say that bureaucracy is a form of pollution. Incidentally, anyway, with this added stock the model becomes more similar to Tainter's model that has that civilizations decline and collapse because of an increase in complexity that brings more problems than benefits. If you keep adding more elements to the model, in the end you get to something that may be similar to the "World3" model used in "The Limits to Growth" study. We saw earlier on that this model does generate forward skewed curves.

There are many ways to modify these models and the Seneca effect is not the only possible outcome. Fiddling with the constants you may also generate the opposite behavior; that is the "anti-Seneca" curve, with decline slower than growth. As you would expect, that happens using constants that minimize the accumulation of persistent pollution. But, in general, the Seneca effect is a "robust" feature of this kind of models and it comes up for a variety of assumptions. You ignore the Seneca cliff at your own risk. 

The Seneca effect in the real world

Do we have historical examples of the Seneca effect? Well, several, but not many for which we have quantitative data. The Roman civilization, for instance, took about seven centuries to peak and just about three centuries to fall, at least in its Western side (and Seneca himself may have perceived the Roman decline at his time). However, the data we have on such parameters as the Roman population are not good enough to see the effect in the form of a forward skewed curve.

We seem to have such data, instead, for the Mayan civilization. Here is an image taken from Dunning et al (1998).  The horizontal scale is very long: 10.000 years from the Pleistocene/holocene boundary.

In this case, pollution takes the shape of soil erosion that drains capital resources and generates population collapse. We should be careful with this interpretation, because some authors believe that the Mayan collapse was caused by climate change. But the world model developed here seems to be compatible with the historical data.

For something closer to us, here is a figure taken from Dmitry Orlov's paper "Peak oil is history". It shows Russian oil production.

The Soviet Union was a nearly closed economy before collapsing; a "mini-world" in itself. Notice how Russian oil production went down rapidly after the peak; a classic Seneca cliff. Note also how production picked up again afterwards. At some point, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an isolated economic system and it became part of the whole world's economic system. At that point, the simple model that we have been using does not work any longer; most likely because the capital stock received an influx of resources that came from a region outside the model.

Conclusion: a banquet of consequences

Very often, we fail to understand the delayed effects of our actions. John Sterman reminds us of this point in a talk on global warming quoting Robert Louis Stevenson as saying, "Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences." The models shown here tell us that the Seneca cliff is the result of delayed consequences.

As always, the future is something that we build with our actions and the models can only tell us what kind of actions will lead us, eventually, to a certain outcome. Used in this way, models can be extremely useful and can even be applied to systems which are much more modest than an entire civilization, for instance to a single company or to our personal relationships with other people. In all cases, the Seneca effect will be the result of trying hard to keep things running as usual. In that way, we may run out faster of the resource that keeps the system running: be it a physical resource or a reserve of goodwill. The way to avoid this outcome may be to let the system run the way it wants, without attempting to force it to go the way we want it to go. In other words we need to take things in life with some stoicism, as Seneca himself would probably have said.

Thinking of the worldwide situation and of the problems involved, global warming and resource depletion, what the models tell us is that the Seneca cliff may be the inevitable result of putting too much strain on already badly depleted natural resources. We should try, instead, to develop alternative stocks of resources such as renewable (or nuclear) energy. At the same time, we should avoid to exploit highly polluting and expensive resources such as tar sands, oil shales, deepwater oil, and, in general, applying the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy. All those strategies are recipes for doom. Unfortunately, these are also examples of exactly what we are doing.

I don't know what Seneca would say if he could see this planet-wide effort we are making in order to put into practice the idea that he expressed in his letter to his friend, Lucilius. I can only imagine that he would take it with some stoicism. Or, maybe, he would comment with what he said in his "De Providentia" "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes."

Thanks to Dmitry Orlov for having been the source of inspiration for this post with his article "Peak Oil is History".


Bardi, U., 2007, Energy prices and resource depletion: Lessons from the case of whaling in the nineteenth century” Bardi U. Energy Sources, part B- Economics Planning and Policy Volume: 2 Issue: 3  Pages: 297-304

Bardi, U.  and Lavacchi, A., 2009, "A Simple Interpretation of Hubbert’s Model of Resource Exploitation” Energies 2009, 2(3), 646-661; doi:10.3390/en20300646

Bardi, U. 2011 "The Limits to Growth Revisited", Springer,  ISBN 978-1-4419-9415-8

Bardi, U., Lavacchi, A., Yaxley L., 2011 “Modelling EROEI and net energy in the exploitation of non renewable resources” Ecological Modelling, In Press.

Brandt, A.R. (2007). Testing Hubbert. Energy Policy, 35(May):3074-3088. DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2006.11.004

Dunning, N., D. Rue, T. Beach, A. Covich, A. Traverse, 1998, "Human - Environment Interactions in a Tropical Watershed: the Paleoecology of Laguna Tamarindito, Guatemala," Journal of Field Archaeology 25 (1998):139-151.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Coal Dragon

Coal Train in Maryland. If you have four minutes or so, watch the creature coming out of the tunnel and pass in front of the camera, clanking. Count the number of wagons; you'll be surprised!

And then, think that CO2 in the atmosphere is now 392.4 ppm and growing.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Down with the cyborgs!

Mr. Carlo, citizen of the village of "Santa Brigida", in the hills North of Florence, returning from his daily pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the "Madonna del Sasso" (Our Lady of the Rock). Note that he has walked the path barefoot, holding his shoes in his hands. It is a completely different philosophy than the one that has that you should walk along forest trails wearing shoes that look like miniature battle tanks.

A few days ago, a friend showed me her new sunglasses. A wonder of high tech: the lenses would darken when sensing strong light. I wasn't so impressed, though. I was tempted to tell her something like, "What is wrong with the eyes you have? They are the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution just to cope with the sun of this planet! Are you a cyborg that you need artificial irises?"

I didn't say that, out of diplomatic skills; but these hi-tech glasses came back to my mind today, when I took a walk in the hills to the sanctuary of the "Madonna del Sasso" not far from where I live. There, I met Mr. Carlo, whom I had met many times before. He is a regular visitor to the sanctuary and you can often see him walking up or down the path that goes there. How old is he? I am not sure, but I think he is well in his 70s. Apparently, going up and down the hill does him some good, for he always seem to be in perfect physical shape.

This time, he told me that he had walked barefoot all the way. Well, I told myself, if Carlo can do that; I should try. So I tried. And here I am, walking the path barefoot. I almost arrived all the way to the top; then I was defeated by the gravel of the last stretch of the path. But I figure that, with a little exercise, that, too, could be done. I am going to try again.

It is a curious feeling that of walking barefoot on stones and pine needles; mainly, you have to pay attention to where you place your foot. You also need a different kind of gait - it seems that you need to take shorter steps than the usual. But, if you do that, walking barefoot on the trail is painless and you get this feeling that you are doing it right; that this is the way you are supposed to walk. It is, of course, a philosophy completely opposite to the one which suggests the use of those "trail shoes;" which often look like miniature battle tanks. Maybe we are all trying to become cyborgs? I don't know what is your impression; mine was that Carlo walking barefoot was a much more likely image of what the future will be than my friend with her hi-tech sunglasses.

I am not sure if this little experience of mine can add something to the ongoing trend of walking and running barefoot, but I thought you might find it interesting; perhaps even amusing. So I wrote it down just after getting back home. If you are curious about the sanctuary, here are a few pictures:

The sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, near Santa Brigida, Italy. Brigida is said to to have come from Scotland long ago and to have established her sanctuary in a grotto in the town that today takes her name. There has been a real historical St. Brigit of Kildare, who lived in Ireland during the 5th century AD. It is not reported that she ever traveled to Italy, so, her italian namesake must be someone else, perhaps coming from Ireland as well.

This is the view from the sanctuary of our lady of the rock, these places are usually built in areas where you have this kind of breathtaking view.

And this is the "Rock", or what is left of it, now visible only in the basement of the sanctuary building. It is here that the Virgin Mary appeared to sheperds, during the 15th century.

Curiously, this place is almost non-existing on the Internet, surely not in English. You may find it, however, at these coordinates

 43°51'42.54"N  11°22'59.72"E

Friday, August 19, 2011

Colin Campbell on embedded energy

Colin Campbell is the originator of the concept of "peak oil"(*) with the article that he wrote in 1998 in "Scientific American", together with Jean Laherrere. He is also the founder and honorary chairman of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). He lives in Ireland, in the village of Ballydehob with his wife, Bobbins. Last month, he wrote me a letter that contains several interesting observations on embedded energy and on people's life. With his permission, I am reprinting it - slightly edited - together with my answer.

On Embedded Energy
by Colin Campbell (07 July 2011)

I recall doing my thesis, mapping the geology of Connemara in the 1950s, when I stayed for a while with Jimmy and Bridie Mulroe up in the hills. Perhaps his father or grandfather had built the little cottage out of local stone, but Jimmy, his wife and daughter lived there without electricity or running water, relying on two cows, a few chickens and a potato patch, but they did use a little fossil energy from a peat bog up the hill to cook on an open fire.

Their use of energy was negligible but they laughed and smiled all day long. There was not much in the way of social services, and I remember another family I stayed with who had two old maiden aunts who they looked after and sat on either side of the fireplace. There was no television. In those days you were not supposed to get married unless you could support a family, and there were many old bachelors around.

In short, it was a sustainable society that could survive indefinitely on their local resources.

Now compare that with our house in Ballydehob sixty years later. I count about 80 panes of glass in the windows and pictures on the wall, as well as curtains, cupboards full of manufactured items, bookshelves, all of which contain embedded energy. There is also a fridge, microwave and stove using energy, and this computer is on most of the day as is Bobbins' TV as she watches tennis. We have a Renault Clio and use it to go shopping not to mention holidays. So not only do we have a lot of embedded energy in all these possessions but use a lot of electricity with a monthly bill of about 250 euros a month. I don't earn anything, but get various pensions related to my past overpaid career in the oil-bizz.

So we are not at all sustainable, having a lot of embedded energy in the household as well as consumption of oil for the car and gas from which Irish electricity is generated. (We do admittedly have a solar panel that allows an occasional shower when the sun shines, but itself probably has a lot of embedded energy in the panel, pump, piping and its transport to Ballydehob.)

Looking at a national situation such as Britain, one finds a devastating picture. Its oil supply is declining at about 5% a year and will be about gone by 2050. Its gas is declining at 7.5% a year and will be gone even sooner. There is a bit of coal left although the peak of production was in 1914. It has some nuclear power, but I just got a paper from Michael Dittmar in Switzerland showing that world uranium supplies cannot be maintained for long. You can see it at http://xxx.lanl.gov/pdf/1106.3617v1

But the country has a population of 62 million, and no doubt each household has a mass of embedded energy. Manufacturing simply embeds energy, and transport consumes it. So it would seem to suggest that by the end of the Century the country can support no more than a few million living in the style of Jimmy Mulroe of Connemara.

Then we come to money. Jimmy barely used it, but might have occasionally sold a few eggs or done some manual work for which he was paid. In short, in his case money was no more than to facilitate barter. But in Britain everyone receives wages or salaries (in some cases to grossly excessive levels). In addition there is the whole tax edifice, the deductions allowable against it being a form of subsidy. I can tell you of the chairman of a major oil company who paid himself £5 million a year, it was treated as an operating expense, deductible from taxable income, unknowingly paid for by someone else. But I doubt if this person smiled as often as did Jimmy.

Looking at oil, about 30% of the world supply comes from a few Middle East countries, where it costs say $20 a barrel to produce, and much less than that in terms of actual direct cost of feeding the oil workers. So when it is sold for, say, $100 a barrel that represents about 15 million dollars a day of unearned revenue. It in turn makes its way into the world financial system debasing it. Production in other countries is a bit more costly, although again the actual cost of feeding the workers is small.

This all strikes me as a grossly unsustainable situation. I think it confirms the view that when oil prices surged to $147 in 2008 it basically blew the fuse on the entire financial edifice. It was in other words grossly inflationary as at the end of the day money has to represent energy. Inflation soon gives way to deflation when people have less to spend.

Looked at another way: it was not so much that oil prices surged to 147 dollars but the dollar devalued by a corresponding amount, and the dollar devaluation then permeated the other currencies under the global system.

So in other words, this is the collapse of the world we have known. Ireland enjoyed a few years of artificial financial prosperity known as the Celtic Tiger, but has gone bankrupt now with 15% unemployed. It can't do much about it as it is locked into the euro and unable to adjust exchange rates. The EU and IMF are offering bale outs to repay the speculators at the expense of the ordinary people who are now condemned to poverty for years. But ironically it might be a blessing prompting a reversion to the sustainable life of Jimmy Mulroe. The situation in Greece seems even worse, but they may find a solution in default, which in turn may torpedo the euro. That would be no bad thing, prompting a reversion to local currencies and eventually returning to a system of barter avoiding all the financial manipulation.

The wider geopolitical situation is also fascinating. America is evidently also going bankrupt and can no longer afford wasting money on "defence". The country itself has not been remotely threatened since the Mexican-American war of 1836, but the military-industrial complex was highly profitable. Perhaps they need wars to justify it and engaged in them to somehow make money. But it looks as if that game is over. Iraq was a fiasco, killing millions of civilians but failing to get its oil. Afghanistan was an entirely pointless exercise as those poppy farmers were of no threat to anyone: but it was convenient to justify the imagery of world power and hence financial domination.

Then we have the strange attack on Libya by France and Britain. They can't really have cared if Gaddafi was putting down a revolution, the normal behaviour of governments. They don't bother with Syria or genocide in Rwanda. So what was special about Libya ? Guess what ? good old oil. Perhaps Gaddafi was planning to sell it to the Chinese rather than Britain and France. He was also proposing that Africa should revert to the gold standard, which might indirectly undermine the euro and the dollar.

But I digress, what I thought would be interesting to know is how much energy - and specifically oil-base energy - is embedded in a normal household. Every door knob and every pane of glass has embedded energy, which if there were no oil, would have taken many slaves to manufacture.

What do you think ?

best regards



Ugo Bardi's answer to Colin Campbell on embedded energy  (10 July 2011)

Well, Colin, what you wrote is, more or less, the core of the question. I am spending much of my time working on this subject: energy and how energy flows through our industrial system. You see, chemical energy is stored in crude oil and in other fossil fuels as the result of ancient geological processes mainly driven by solar energy as, of course, you know very well. Oil is a lot of embedded energy. Now, what is happening is that this energy collected long ago is being gradually dissipated; we extract oil, we burn it, and the final result is heat lost to space (and some nasty greenhouse gases that will give us lots of troubles in the near future).

But the process extracting oil and burning it is more complex than just dissipating thermal energy to interstellar space. That's not a single step process. Energy flows and it is embedded for a while in that thing we call "civilization". To make a long story short, chemical potentials are gradually dissipated in systems which are out of equilibrium - it is an effect of the second law of thermodynamics. The higher is the potential difference between source and sink, the faster the potential is dissipated, creating in the process some dissipative structures; "eddies" in the flow of matter and time. These eddies are where embedded energy is stored: civilization described from a thermodynamical viewpoint. The window panes of your house are such dissipative structures, just as your books, your house and yourself (and Bobbins as well!).

As we gradually run out of fossil fuels, we are reducing the chemical potentials out of which we can drive an energy flux. That means we have to adapt to dissipative structures that embed smaller amounts of energy. This is the problem we are facing with such highly energy embedding structures as cars, air conditioning equipment, refrigerators and McMansions. Some people may be able to gather for themselves a larger share of this embedded energy, just like the oil company chairman you mention, the one who makes £5 million per year. But, on the whole, we cannot trick thermodynamics. Eventually,  we'll have to go back to something more similar to the life of Irish farmers of 50 years ago, whose embedded energy was compatible with the available chemical potentials of that time.

Is it a sad destiny? Perhaps not, as you say in your message; life in a low energy flux, in the old times, may not have been so bad and perhaps people smiled more than they do nowadays. Last week, I was at a conference on energy and during the lunch pause I was sitting near a nice looking lady, not a scientist. In the conversation I said something like, "... and, in the end, a beautiful woman is nothing but a dissipative structure generated for a short time by a difference in chemical potentials...." As I was uttering these words, I told myself that it was not the right line to say. Actually, however, she laughed. She was impressed; go figure! So we may run out of oil and we'll have to adapt to a simpler life. But we won't run out of laughs and of nice looking ladies.



By the way, about the origin of the term "peak oil", Colin Campbell wrote to me that:

Dear Ugo

I think the origin of the term Peak Oil was when I started the ASPO Newsletter in January 2001. It arose from a meeting I had with Dr Welmer, Kehrer and Rimpel of the BGR in Hannover on Dec 14th 2000, following  a lecture I gave at Clausthal University on December 7th. The idea was to form a little association to address the issue, and the initial members expressing interest were
BGR ( German Government Institute, Hannover)
LBST (Ludvig Bukow Systemtechnik, Munich)
NPD (Norwegian Petroleum Institute, Stavanger)
RF (Rogaland Forskning, Stavanger)

It was nothing more than an informal group, but I thought I would try to bring it together by writing a little newsletter, which I sent out as an e-mail attachment to a few people. I searched for a title and fell upon The Association for the Study of Peak Oil  which had the happy acronym ASPO. ( better than ASOP).  The newsletter caught on and eventually had a large readership being reproduced on several websites.

You can see all the newsletters on the ASPO Ireland website.

Later, as you know, Kjell Aleklett took up the idea and organised a workshop in Uppsala, which formalised a little committee to arrange subsequent conferences.  They included the splendid one you organised in Pisa. The 10th is to be in Vienna next year and I look forward to seeing you there.

best regards


Sunday, August 14, 2011


The "base case" or "standard run" of the first edition (1972) of "The Limits to Growth". Note how the start of the decline of the industrial and agricultural world production occurred around the start of the second decade of the 21st century

What is most impressive in the recent world events is not so much that the authors of "The Limits to Growth" may have predicted with incredible accuracy in 1972 the start of the decline of the world's economic system, evidenced today by the financial crisis. After all, they presented several scenarios with different results. That the "base case" scenario, the one they deemed the most likely on the basis of the available data, may turn out to be right is impressive, yes, but it may have been also a bit of luck.

It is not even so impressive that "The Limits to Growth" was criticized, demonized and ridiculed in every possible way before being consigned to the dustbin of the wrong scientific theories. After all, in 1972 it was difficult to believe that it could be possible to foresee a crisis that was to occur 40 years in the future.

No, what is really impressive is that in the newspapers, in TV, or in the speeches of those who can take decisions, no one is asking what is happening and why.


See also my book on "Revisiting the Limits to Growth"

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Richard Heinberg and the limits to growth

A recent video, scripted and narrated by Richard Heinberg and based on his book "The End of Growth"

Heinberg's thesis is that the end of growth has started in 2008 and that the so called "recovery" is only a sleight of hand to mask, for a while, the unavoidable decline. Among many interesting considerations, the video contains a reference to the 1972 book "The Limits to Growth" (see it at minute 2.10) which is described as having been "attacked by mainstream economists using nasty rhetorical tricks."

It seems that we are seeing, finally, the gradual death of the old legend that has that "The Limits to Growth" was just a set of "wrong predictions" invented by a group of lunatic scientists. We are beginning to understand that the study never made the mistakes that critics attributed to it; it is only the result of those "nasty rhetorical tricks" played out in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, if the end of growth started in 2008, as Heinberg says, it is a stunning success for "The Limits to Growth" study and, in particular, for the "base case" scenario that generated the start of the decline of the industrial system within the first two decades of the 21st century. Exact "predictions" never were the objective of the study and the ongoing crisis may not necessarily be the end of the cycle that started with the industrial revolution, more than two centuries ago. Nevertheless, it is impressive that the authors of the study had understood, already in 1972, how a combination of resource depletion and accumulation of persistent pollution was going to slow down, and then reverse, the growth of the world's economy. It is, clearly, the phenomenon that we are seeing today and that Heinberg describes.

On this point, you may also see my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited".