Monday, March 19, 2018

The View from Les Houches: The Seneca Collapse

I gave a presentation focused on the Seneca Effect at the School of Physics in Les Houches this March. Here I show various concepts associated with overshoot and collapse with the help of "Amelie the Amoeba" (This picture was not taken in Les Houches, but in an earlier presentation in Florence).

Here are some commented slides from my presentation. First of all, the title:

And here is an image I often use in order to illustrate the plight of humankind, apparently engaged in the task of covering the whole planet Earth with a uniform layer of cement, transforming it into Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire of Asimov's series "Foundation"

I moved on to illustrate the "new paradigm" of resource exploitation: the idea that mineral resources never "run out", but simply become more and more expensive, until they become too expensive.

It is not a new idea, it goes back to Stanley Jevons in mid 19th century, but for some reason it is incredibly difficult to make it understandable to decision makers:

Then, I spoke about the Seneca effect, there is a lot to say about that, but let me just show to you one of the slides I showed during the talk: the Seneca Cliff does exist!

Fisheries are an especially good example of overexploitation (or perhaps a bad example, there is nothing good about destroying all the fish in the sea. And this leads to a rather sad observation:

I also showed how the Seneca Effect can be used for good purposes, that is to get rid of things we need to get rid of. This is an image from a paper that we (Sgouris Sgouridis, Denes Csala, and myself) published in 2016.

You see the Seneca cliff for the fossils, the violet part of the curve. It is what we want to happen and it would be possible to make it happen if we were willing to invest more, much more, in renewable energy. But, apparently, there is no such idea on the table, so the future doesn't look so good.

But never mind. We keep going and, eventually, we'll arrive somewhere. In the meantime:


  1. My feeling is that more and more clever people working in big business are aware we are slowly reaching the edge of a cliff. somewhere. conditions are together to ignite something pretty nasty: depleting water resources, overpopulation, decreasing agri yield, strong military forces, unrest and regional civil war, lack of willingness to reconsider core, depleting resources of oil, and very fast disruptive weather patterns..

  2. Chambaz's paper contained the information about the recent plummeting of EROEI of oil. It looks like oil at least will go as desired but Geoffrey Chia's energy cliff will accompany it.

  3. Une transition énergétique telle que vous la décrivez sera un gouffre financier et un gouffre pour nos dernières ressources. Ce qui a été créé grâce au pétrole disparaîtra avec lui.
    Une petite idée des coûts pour passer à l'éolien et au solaire:

    Jean-Luc Jourdain

  4. Vous pouvez me censurer mais vous savez que j'ai raison. La transition énergétique telle que vous la décrivez est une impossibilité économique et physique.

    Jean-Luc Jourdain

  5. Yes, it would very nice to see that Trump finally understands that coal and oil does not represent future sources of power.
    He wants to keep the companies and the jobs in the country, but he needs to understand once and for all that alternative energy is the future not the polluting fossil fuels.
    I would suggest him to read about the advantages of using alternative energy instead of fossil fuels, but I'm afraid that he will only say: Rubbish! because there is no oil or coal involved, so no money for him from his point of view.

  6. One factor often neglected which will contribute to the future disaster:

  7. According to economic-historian Carlota Perez we could well get into a new 'Golden Age' of economic expansion.

    Thinking especially on this section as relevant to the topic of Seneca curve:

    'Mass production could create many identical units at low cost. The ideal policy was thus to make energy and materials cheap and labor more expensive, thereby creating more mass-market consumers using cheap fuels and electricity. After World War II, governments in the industrialized world did just that, raising the cost of labor by supporting labor unions, establishing payroll taxes, and passing minimum-wage laws. Cheap raw materials and energy, in the form of fossil fuels, came from the developing world. Even though businesses chafed at high salaries, they benefited from the increases in productivity and in demand.

    Today, it’s energy and materials that are too expensive (or will become so if growth resumes strongly), and they need to be reduced to cut costs. Environmental threats reinforce this incentive. Thus businesses are redesigning products for smaller carbon footprints, fewer materials, and zero waste. Many products are also being turned into services — prerecorded music into streaming, for example.

    The mass production model was based on planned obsolescence, in which companies produced enormous quantities of shoddy goods. This created artificial demand in saturated markets by making people replace products that broke down or wore out. But if markets are growing around the world, as in a time of full global deployment, then companies could produce luxurious, expensive, top-tech, and durable goods that would last many years and be continually upgraded as technology evolved. There would be no more spare part inventories, only software to make them. And the new millions of people entering the middle class could be equipped with durable goods without materials becoming scarce and expensive, without harming the planet, and with increasing efficiency.'

    Long quotation, but still. What I see here is that your POV converges but with her having a more up-beat vision of the future as a new 'eco-friendly' economy would have to include everyone on Earth unlike the First-world consumers and Third-world suppliers of natural resources as in the past (though as a true Schumpeterian economist she's pointing out to the fact that all these new economic cycles have come after some phase of destruction as destruction itself is inherent in capitalism)



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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)