Thursday, April 21, 2016

The world industrial system as bacteria in a Petri dish

by Jacopo Simonetta

In a previous post, I speculated that a thermodynamic system such our industrial economy is completely dependent from its “outside”. As it grows and incorporates this “outside”, it is obliged to store high entropy inside itself. Possibly, the epidemic diffusion of riots in the very heart of the global system is an indicator of this predicament. Here, I will try to discuss another aspect of the same topic: the fact that, apparently, we are unable to do anything to avoid global collapse despite our deep knowledge of Natural laws and our incredibly powerful technical means.

40 years after the publication of “Limits to Growth”, we discover that we have been just following the trajectory of the "base case scenario" of the book; business as usual, and with a disturbing accuracy level. In fact, in the intentions of the authors, the BAU scenario was not a forecast, but just one scenario among others, useful to analyse how the system works and changes. But the real world itself has turned this scenario among others into an authentic prophecy (image source)

How was this possible?

It could be that we have done nothing to change our policy and economy, but this is hard to believe. In the past 40 years, we have seen a number of major changes and all of them were completely unpredictable at the beginning of the Seventies. For instance, the partial collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China to the level of the second planetary power, the globalisation and financialization of the economy, the Internet, the Euro and so on. The Meadows and their staff could not have incorporated all this into their model, simply because they could not imagine anything like that. So we are forced to think that such epochal happenings have been marginal accidents in the evolution of the global socio-economic system.

To get a better understanding of this issue, I think it is best to start by considering World3 itself. In a post of some time ago, Ugo Bardi showed that, behind its complexity, World3 has a very basic thermodynamic architecture. It is a system that builds up and stocks information, with a positive retroaction to the inside flow. The larger the system is, the more it is able to extract low entropy from the wells and throw out entropy to the sinks.

In other words, the BAU scenario more or less describes the activity of bacteria inside a Petri box. First of all, it starts to exploit the very best resources (for instance: sugar) and so it grows. As it grows, it needs more resources and so it starts to digest everything available and, at the same time, it evolves as fast as possible in order to implement its efficiency in the exploitation of increasingly rare and poor resources. This until, at the end, it digests itself and dies.

Now the question is: how is it possible that with all our intelligence, science, and technology we act just like bacteria inside a Petri box? And what about our freedom of choice?

Regarding the first question, I suggest that, in 1970, at a global level, the socioeconomic system had already overshot the Earth's carrying capacity. My idea is that a system may have a certain degree of freedom, which declines exponentially as it reaches its limits. This means that, far from the limits, systems can change their trajectory and, the farther the limits, the more choices are possible. Bu, when the system impacts against its limits, simple and brutal physic changes become the only possible evolution and nothing can change that.

For example, a boy can choose his job. Sure, there are always severe limits depending on his geographical location, economic and social status, culture and so on. But the degrees of freedom are anyway more numerous than zero. For instance, he can choose to be a soldier, a taxi driver, or an employee. But, if a 50-year-old man loses his job, the only thing he can do is to slice his bread as thin as possible. If he was an employee, he will never have a taxi licence or he will never be enrolled as a military contractor in Libya.

I presume that my hypothesis is consistent with physics and also with historical data. Many, if not all, extinct civilisations have disappeared because of foreign invasions or collapsing in a typical “Seneca Cliff” trajectory. Many historians have investigated this astonishing phenomenon: Vico, Toynbee, Spengler, Tainter, to mention only the more prominent scholars. Each one of them proposed a different set of causes for the collapse of civilizations and all of them analyzed some important aspects of the process. Possibly, the effect of dissipative structures dynamics is the underlying physics of this historically recurrent event.

To me, this hypothesis is consistent with ancient wisdom too. Mythology and epic are full of examples in which the hero has the possibility to change an adverse fate, but only until he (or she) is far from the accomplishment of such a fate. To cite an example, Hector had three times the opportunity to put an end to the Trojan war, but each time he refused to do so because he was winning and wanted total victory. He was sure that the destruction of the Achaean fleet would mean the end of the hostilities, but we know the story went differently. He eventually understood his miscalculation, but by that time it was too late: Achilles was standing in front of him.

Possibly, at a socio-economical level we have a similar situation: as long we are growing, we can choose to halt the growth. But once the overshoot arrives, we can only follow the intrinsic thermodynamic path generated by the system. Usually, this means an extra growth dragged by system inertia, followed by a more or less troubled downsize. And that may be our unavoidable destiny.

The shape of a typical Secular Cycle, based on the work of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in Secular Cycles. ( ) Chart by Gail Tverberg


  1. Intersting idea. I thought philosophers who argue against free will never watched an infant play and only looked at themselves.

    1. Interesting point of view. In effect, in my life I observed plants, birds and insects much more than children.

  2. Jacopo, it's an interesting perspective. However, I'd like to present a counter-argument.

    You start with the idea that human society has made many unexpected, unpredictable changes. But despite it all, we have arrived where we are, and Meadows et al were able to successfully "predict" our current situation despite all the changes that have happened in the last 45 years. That's both insightful and true.

    Then you say,

    "So we are forced to think that such epochal happenings have been marginal accidents in the evolution of the global socio-economic system."

    You conclude with this thought: "[A]s long we are growing, we can choose to halt the growth. But once the overshoot arrives, we can only follow the intrinsic thermodynamic path generated by the system."

    In my view, despite their enormous apparent differences all structural changes in human affairs share a common attribute. They all serve to increase the efficiency and scale of the global system's resource conversion in service of human activity. this is obvious (to me at any rate) for such events as the rise of China, globalization, and the Internet. It's less obvious in the case of the collapse of the USSR, but even that can be viewed as part of the system's growth process. The destruction of a less-efficient component allowed the more efficient components to concentrate more of their efforts on their own growth by reducing the competitive distractions, as well as making the damaged component more willing to transfer its resources to the winners for their use.

    Rather than being marginal accidents, such structural changes are adaptive responses by the system, as it encounters emerging opportunities or growth blockages. This view of the operation of the overall system is highly simplified, but I think it describes the outcome pretty well.

    I believe that structural changes represent growth-enabling adaptations until a system component encounters limits to further growth, at which point it disintegrates (e.g. the collapse of the Akkadian, Egyptian, Indus Valley, Roman and Mayan empires.) The collapse of such empires represent failed evolutionary experiments as the system probes for organizations that facilitate growth.

    The common element of increasing efficiency and scale of resource conversion can be seen in the development of speech, agriculture, and writing; the emergence of hierarchic political systems; the shift to hydraulic (water) power and fossil fuels; the scaling up of long-distance communication from the telegraph to the internet; the abandonment of slavery as an organizing principle in high-output societies; the women's rights movement; even the control of fire half a million years ago served the same purpose.

    So my question is, did we really have more system-level choices long ago? My conclusion is that we did not. The path we have taken has meandered, but has always gone in the same general direction of using as many resources as we could, as efficiently as we could, in order to strengthen and expand the overall human system. The idea that at one time we had a wider variety of choices that have recently been pared away feels a bit like wishful thinking to me. In my opinion our choices have always been shaped by thermodynamic requirements. What has happened is that the human bacterial colony has finally arrived at the walls of the petri dish.

  3. Thank you Paul. Partially I agree with you. If 40 years ago USA would choose to stop his growth, simply the Urss would won the cold war.
    But in the nineties, Usa was the global winner and has had the opportunity to stop his own growth and, in the same time, prevent the economic growth inside other countries.
    Probably was already too late, but not as much as now.
    Anyway, this was unacceptable both for the right and the left, rich and poor, north and south. So now Achilles is standing in front of all of us.
    But possibly you are right. At the end, the thing that really happens is the only one that was possible.

  4. The world industrial system as bacteria in a dish

    First I would like to thank Ugo and Paul for their views of
    our human existence, both interpreting the predicament and
    assessing our chances of finding a way to unwind it.

    Both expect a civilization collapse and massive die off.

    I understand their arguments. The maximum power principle
    has been a good descriptor of winners in the birth, rise ,and death of
    civilizations. And I agree that the walls of the petty dish change the
    the parameters of MPP. There may not be any winners in this round.
    In fact I am not sure there will be a phoenix at all.

    Now past history shows only minimal influence
    of such a condition on a sapient behavior.
    However, that does not mean we should stop looking
    for such a brain upgrade process. It does not mean their
    is no process to push evolutionary cognitive development.


    PS. I am building a video to help understand the predicament
    and it too uses a dish of bacterial to help the viewer’s perception.
    I have not started the animation but I have the script
    and you are welcome to comment on it.

    The delivery date is June 26 in Washington DC.

  5. Within the sphere of their daily existence people are intelligent and easily able to respond to problems and solve them. Concerning the greater world beyond an individuals immediate horizon however humans for the most part are as ignorant as bacteria. The idea that as cheap fossil fuels go our ability to mine copper will completely vanish is beyond the comprehension of most people. Readers here, a tiny un-influential minority, are voices lost in an overwhelming din of media lies competing for attention and are easily ignored.

    When knowledge of something is poor propaganda easily influences because people want things explained and they prefer bad explanations to no explanation at all. Sad but true. It takes practice to be comfortable with ambiguity and multiple perspectives. To most ambiguity leads to nihilism, in a minority it builds character.

    We have a society that resists change because those who benefit from existing arrangements are also those who have the power to influence the future. Because existing arrangements completely benefit the powerful however they don't want any change at all.

    The idea that only collapse could have been in our future is a self fulfilling prophecy that tries to explain away the fact that western civilization and the capitalism it is founded on is the worst possible social structure to prepare for the future and the best possible social structure to exploit the present.

    Thinking it could not have been any other way is depressive and defeatist. I'm not advocating cornicopian hopium but thinking there is no hope and that our demise is inevitable is a point of view that is as flawed as the unrestrained hopium the powerful who benefit from existing arrangements push at us through the media they control every day.

    1. Sorry for the delate.
      "We have a society that resists change because those who benefit from existing arrangements are also those who have the power to influence the future."
      Sure, but I think there is more than that. World middle class have received big advantages in the near past. So, also if now is losing more and more, still hope to recover preserving the system. And poor class still hope to become rich, thanks to economic growth. So quite everybody (till now) want go on on this main road.

      "the capitalism it is founded on is the worst possible social structure to prepare for the future and the best possible social structure to exploit the present"
      I totally agree with you.

      Conversely, I don't think to have illusions can help us. i prefer to do what I presume is right because in right and not because I am waiting an advantage from this

  6. Fascinating essay + thought-provoking comments. Thanks to all!

  7. Hortense Michaud LalanneApril 25, 2016 at 7:46 AM
    Hortense Michaud Lalanne

  8. A bit late for this post, but I remember a commenter in the earlier days of The Oil Drum called Bob Shaw who always signed-off with the question: "Are humans smarter than yeast?" and the slogan "hug your bag of NPK today".

    1. And wheelbarrows. The emergence of technology is more of a cancerous event resulting from one renegade species that escaped an ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium. Humans = RNA in cells, but at a greater scale. Your office and home enclosures are technological cells.

  9. I would say that we see ourselves as outstanding above the rest of species, and maybe, as individuals it has some sense since we can behave out of built-in instincts. But as a whole, there is nothing like collective intelligence, or the like; thus, humankind behaves as any other species on the planet: we just expand as long as the environment provides for. If there is no predator to reduce the population, it rises until the depletion of resources acts as the control mechanism.
    If we look at all the studies on previous civilization collapses we may divide them between those that fell because of foreign invasions (predator model), and those falling because of resource depletion (bacteria on petri dish)



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)