Friday, September 19, 2014

The Limits to Growth described in narrative terms

"Standard run" from the 1972 edition of "The Limits to Growth"

In 1972, "The Limits to Growth" presented a set of scenarios for the future of humankind, which mostly involved decline and collapse of the world's economy. These scenarios were the result of solving a set of coupled differential equations and, for most people, the reasons for the predicted behavior of the economy remained obscure and imperscrutable. As a result, the results of the study were neither understood nor believed.

As I argued in a previous post, we tend to understand the world in narrative terms. We think in words, not in equations. And we tend to use words to arrange concepts as if they were actors playing on a stage. In the end, it is not a less legitimate way of modeling the world than using equations. So, I found in the blog of John Michael Greer  (the "Archdruid") an exceeding lucid and compact description of the reasons why civilizations tend to collapse. And here it is: no equations, no graphs, but it couldn't be clearer than this.

Dark Age America: the End of the Old Order

Excerpt from a post by John Michael Greer, from "The Archdruid Report"


The process that drives the collapse of civilizations has a surprisingly simple basis: the mismatch between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources that are available to meet those costs. Capital here is meant in the broadest sense of the word, and includes everything in which a civilization invests its wealth: buildings, roads, imperial expansion, urban infrastructure, information resources, trained personnel, or what have you. Capital of every kind has to be maintained, and as a civilization adds to its stock of capital, the costs of maintenance rise steadily, until the burden they place on the civilization’s available resources can’t be supported any longer.

The only way to resolve that conflict is to allow some of the capital to be converted to waste, so that its maintenance costs drop to zero and any useful resources locked up in the capital can be put to other uses. Human beings being what they are, the conversion of capital to waste generally isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; instead, kingdoms fall, cities get sacked, ruling elites are torn to pieces by howling mobs, and the like. If a civilization depends on renewable resources, each round of capital destruction is followed by a return to relative stability and the cycle begins all over again; the history of imperial China is a good example of how that works out in practice.
If a civilization depends on nonrenewable resources for essential functions, though, destroying some of its capital yields only a brief reprieve from the crisis of maintenance costs. Once the nonrenewable resource base tips over into depletion, there’s less and less available each year thereafter to meet the remaining maintenance costs, and the result is the stairstep pattern of decline and fall so familiar from history:  each crisis leads to a round of capital destruction, which leads to renewed stability, which gives way to crisis as the resource base drops further. Here again, human beings being what they are, this process isn’t carried out in a calm, rational manner; the difference here is simply that kingdoms keep falling, cities keep getting sacked, ruling elites are slaughtered one after another in ever more inventive and colorful ways, until finally contraction has proceeded far enough that the remaining capital can be supported on the available stock of renewable resources.

 See also "A theory of catabolic collapse" by J.M. Greer.


  1. Greer's language is colorful, but it is just a restatement of Joseph Tainter's work with lots of lurid adjectives decorating it.

    1. I won't call this description "lurid" - colorful, rather. And it is clearer than Tainter's description, the concept of "decreasing returns of complexity" is not so easy to understand,

    2. Tainter's book had almost the identical description as JMG's in later chapters. He specifically laid out the costs of maintenance of existing capital (I think he even named then "M") and showed how eventually these costs eat up all available resources, leading to collapse. I don't see anything original in the quoted section of JMG's post (or most of his posts), nor in my opinion is it any clearer than Tainter's original description. It is certainly more colorful, however. I'm not sure why JMG gets so much press in "peak oil" circles -- certainly not because of scientific credentials, correct scientific method, or even citing prior works. In my opinion he is mostly entertainment and seems to have discovered a formula for grabbing attention by latching onto polarizing debate topics where everyone is on either one end or the other and then positioning himself exactly in the center, where nobody else is, regardless of whether that center makes sense or not. E.g. with collapse, there is the catastrophic sudden collapse camp and the "everything will be fine" camp, so JMG grabs the empty center of the spectrum and propounds a hypothesis that we will collapse but it will take hundreds of years, and thus gets a lot of attention because it tells many people what they want to hear and is not competing with many other voices, but unfortunately not because his hypothesis is very credible, in my opinion.

  2. "destroying some of its capital yields only a brief reprieve from the crisis of maintenance costs."
    That summarizes the periode 2008-2014.
    And probably also the next decade.

  3. I found a couple of interesting recent comments at JMG's blog.
    One was from Ray Wharton setting out the case for levels of active participation within, as he puts it, "hierarchies". Capital accumulation and its investment appear to need participatory hierarchies.
    The other was from John Roth (comment 141), which suggests an alternative more appropriate modelling technique to accompany Greer's thesis - and suggests approaches similar to those used in some recent computer games.

    (I rather liked also the account - by 'Wadulisi' - of Inca 'taxation' and 'infrastructure maintenance' participatory customs.)


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  5. It makes sense that a new equilibrium point would stabilize society for a while but that might not happen all the time.

    Ugo, you know that most people get the idea of 'decimation' wrong. It is used to describe a great dieoff generally but the word comes from the fact that to discipline troops Roman commanders might order that one in every ten soldiers be killed at random.

    If mother nature is doing the decimating she might not stop at one in ten. She might take three even though one would have produced a new equilibrium point. And society unlike soldiers will not stand up to such discipline in any disciplined way.

    To get a slow ratcheting down to hunter gather numbers or whatever number we wind up at would take a very particular and improbable forcing function. I doubt mother nature would be so kind as to provide it. Odds I contend are against it and such a forcing function would be far from pleasant for the natural biology of man is to increase population.

    Expect clicks of the ratchet down combined with extreme chaos and death which could erase memory of all which came before. Dark ages.

  6. I've downloaded "A theory of catabolic collapse" by J.M. Greer.

    I think I shall have to digest it slowly and perhaps respond at my own blog but I returned here with a thought I had regarding the applicability of the catabolic collapse concept to our present circumstances in general. In terms of explaining what may happen to our civilization in terms of how other civilizations collapsed a point is sidestepped which I think needs to be developed more.

    Catabolic collapse suggest a nice stair step down to lower levels or organization is possible as resources deplete. This actually is a best case scenario because that is the path which maximizes cultural continuity and minimizes chaos. But I don't see it happening for the following reason.

    Technology has pushed us into a situation from which we cannot escape. Every civilization prior to the industrial revolution fundamentally was based on solar power. When a particular civilization ossified and was unable to switch to a new resource stream as their old way of collecting solar energy failed they collapsed. Then each time, a new way was found to harvest the same resource, solar energy.

    With abandonment of solar power in favor of fossil fuels as civilizations food supply civilization overpopulated way beyond any possible solar carrying capacity.

    As fossil fuels fail us we will be unable to switch to anything but a seneca cliff. History teaches much but it only rhymes and is never repeated. Our refinement of technology and the degree to which it depends on non-renewable resources is unprecedented in history. What you have written supports this position. When our civilization fails we run out of new copper. There will be no way left to extract it economically and that is only one example of many.

    Consider when all easy to get oil is gone and fracking, acid extraction, and other high tech means of exploiting non-traditional sources such as cooking tar sands is the only way to get oil. Then imagine a collapse and a reorganization. Weapons are put down and villages emerge. Will these villages be able to frack or cook tar sands? No they will not. The infrastructure to support those technologies is gone and can't ever come back. The infrastructure to do it required resources no longer available at the lower reorganized level.

    Order will not emerge from chaos because there will be nothing left to support an emergence. Low tech solar power will only supply perhaps a tenth of the current population and everything would depend on it. The problem is, that even that resource is unavailable as knowledge of how to grow crops has been lost.

    Everybody eats hamburgers.

  7. Back once again and have digested all of "A theory of catabolic collapse" by J.M. Greer. I took my time, took notes, and I believe I understand it. I wanna gold star.

    What I fear is most definitely covered by John. None of what I wrote is inconsistent with what he presents. What I wrote expands on what he wrote in that it covers the considerations of how our civilization fits into his model.

    John talks about substitution of inferior resources and the depletion of existing resources resulting in increased maintenance costs of capital. Concerning oil and our population of seven billion their are no substitutes. If our civilization collapses liquidation of all capital would be insufficient to cover the maintenance needs of the capital needed to substitute any alternative. Our civilization fits in Johns model but as an edge case of the worse kind of catabolic crisis. In his terms we are headed for a catabolic collapse caused by a depletion crisis. That is different from a catabolic cycle caused by a maintenance crisis.

    What John wrote is comprehensive in that it can be applied to historical examples as well as our own civilization. When applied to our own civilization however his theory says we are going to go into compete collapse if we don't clean up our act starting yesterday! It is that simple and that brutal. I'm not being funny by saying yesterday. I can't emphasize the URGENCY enough.

    We urgently need to make new living arrangements in a society who's capital can be maintained by a much lower maintenance costs. There will not be a second chance.

  8. To K-dog's thought that until now we have been solar powered. Also, there were very few of us (reading about Byzantium it is eye opening to see just how small the cities were and how small the armies were; Justinian re-took Rome in 535 with about 8,000 men), and there was always a competitive culture, probably less developed, that was ready to pick up the mantle and start the slow growth process yet again.

    That does not describe us.

    If we reach crisis, where we do not have the global resources (I am thinking this means both resources in the ground and in excess productivity from the economy available in the form of taxes or investments), the collapse means a fall from our technology-based civilization. As some point we could not afford to maintain the Internet, oil refineries, food production systems, and then eventually our nukes.

    This would not be a case of the Romans leaving Britain, and Saxons coming in and beginning the lengthy process of growing the capital base and the population over hundreds of years. This would be a case with a very small number of human huddling where nuclear fallout would not reach them, and a rebuilding of civilization that would take many thousands of years.

    Which of course would be fine, as there are billions of years of sunlight left on our planet.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)