Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 7, 2011

ASPO-Italy 5: beyond peak oil

Toufic El Asmar, researcher at FAO and vice-president of ASPO-Italia, speaks at the 5th meeting of the association in Florence. Climate change and agriculture featured prominently in the discussion. 

Peak oil is behind us. That much seems to be clear from what was said at the 5th meeting of the Italian section of the Association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) held on Oct 28 in Florence, Italy. Already in the first talk of the meeting; the one given by Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club of Rome, the emphasis was not on oil, but on the financial problems that the world is facing. This point was also made by Nicole Foss of the blog "theautomaticearth" who spoke of the impending total collapse of the world's financial system.

Another point that was extensively debated at the meeting is how the peak is driving the oil industry to extract and process polluting and inefficient resources, and how this is causing a worsening of the climate change problem. That was the reason that had led ASPO-Italy to organize this meeting jointly with "Climalteranti," a group of Italian climate scientists. At least half of the talks at the meeting were specifically dedicated to climate change and the climate question was present in practically all discussions. Recent data indicate a big jump in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, confirming that this trend is ongoing.

Peak oil is also affecting agriculture, as reported by the vice-president of the association, Dr. Toufic El Asmar, who is also a researcher at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome. The problem is not yet on the radar of most people who deal with sustainability, but it is clear that it is enormous. Agriculture, as it is structured today, cannot survive without fossil fuels and the damage caused by climate change might be devastating,

Another point that was much discussed at ASPO-Italy 5 was the problem of communication. How to transform our models into policies? That turns out to be an extremely difficult problem. Not that we didn't work on it. Pietro Cambi, member of ASPO-Italy, estimated in his talk that about one person in three in Italy has been exposed at least once to the peak oil message during the past five years as a result of the work of ASPO and of related associations and people. It is a remarkable result considering that ASPO-Italy is an association of volunteers that operates on minuscule financial resources. Yet, the impact of our message is not appearing; not yet, at least.

For instance, the politicians of the Regional Tuscan Government did their best to steer clear of the ASPO-Italy meeting, despite the fact that it was held near the central building of the Tuscan Government and that it was a high level international meeting that saw the presence of several high level scientists. The only exception was Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Regional Councilor for the Green Party; evidently more enlightened than most. In Italy, as everywhere else, it seems that the magic word that solves all the problems remains "growth." Being seen in the company of Cassandras and catastrophists must be still considered as a good way to ruin one's political career.

In the end, it seems that peak oil has generated a strong reaction of the industrial, financial and political system. It has caused a movement to counter depletion by investing more resources in extraction, despite the increasing costs and the resulting environmental damage. Ian Johnson made this point clear in his talk. Years ago, when he was vice-president of the World Bank, they had estimated what the price of oil should be to make renewable energy competitive in the market. But, when that price level was reached, what happened was that oil companies abandoned all their programs in renewable energy to concentrate on new oil sources. No matter how dirty and expensive these resources may be, it is still possible to make a profit, provided that the industry doesn't have to pay for the costs of pollution. Which is, unfortunately, the case.

What we are seeing is a tremendous effort to maintain extraction levels at least constant, even at the cost of wrecking the world's economy and the planetary ecosystem as well. It seems to be a classic example of what I called the "Seneca Effect", that is the trading of some more years of near stability in exchange for a faster decline, later on. So, we are reacted to peak oil in the worst possible way.

The meeting was organized mainly by Luca Pardi, who is also the new president of ASPO-Italy. He replaces Ugo Bardi who has served as president for eight years. The meeting was co-organized with the Climalteranti group and sponsored by Mr. Mauro Romanelli, Tuscan Regional Councilor for the Green Party, who provided the prestigious "Sala delle feste" of "Palazzo Bastogi" in Florence, where the meeting took place. 


  1. It was a very interesting meeting, full of hints for futher study and even bittersweet fun.

    [The link to Nicole Foss' blog is wrong (it leads to a cybersquatting attempt full of ads) the right URL is]

  2. Whoops.... link corrected, thanks!

  3. Just a short question, could not figure this out myself, nor did anybody answer to this yet.
    How come that climate change and peak oil (and peak so on)are treated as two different issues.
    Climate change has had at least some public recognition for many years now.
    Peak oil hardly a few years, public recognition not at all.
    Yet, it's two sides of the same coin.

    Would it make any difference in public understanding of the problem if somebody, somehow, came up with a theory/ explanation that clearly shows the interdependence of the two sides of this same coin?
    And then, would we act different?
    In theory (for me) in this interconnected/ fast information world, it should be possible to ride down the dwindling resources ride, without overall and utter disaster. Of course this would need entirely different economy and understanding (And intelligent and empathic people).

  4. Nice summary, to what extend is peak oil being adressed (or simply talked about) in Italy main stream media ? Discussed in the assembly ?

    In France, still very rare to have it adressed "as such" (but happened a couple of times), even if it can be through different terms such as "need to get out of the oil age", stuff like that, but this morning very directly adressed by Rocard (ex minister under Mitterrand in particular), with also mentioning it will most probably lead to a major recession, at 4mn below (for those who understand french) :

  5. Good question, Bernhard, I'll try to make a post with my interpretation. Thanks for the suggestion!

  6. Well, peak oil was most in the background; It was not discuted directly. I think there is this general feeling that peak oil is a thing of the past. At least, that's the case in ASPO-Italy; but I think also in other countries and associations. The time when we were trying to alert people about peak oil arriving is past; it has arrived. We failed utterly, but at least we tried. Now, the interest is in the consequences - which, so far, seem to be worse than anything we had imagined.

    Discussions about peak oil in Italy? Total zero in the mainstream media. Italy will never know what hit her.

  7. Ugo, not sure about the position "let's forget about peak oil, we failed and it's behind us", not that I think it's that important to scrutinize the production curves and say it was 2006 or 2008, no not yet for all liquids, maybe already for all liquids, for sure done per capita, etc, but more that we are only at the very beginning of it, and things will be tremendously different when the story will be -3% or -5% per year. And more importantly, meanwhile in the US for instance, the car segment still with the biggest growth is the mid size SUV with something like 16mpg city 24 highway.
    The PO concept is much simpler than the AGW concept to understand, even if the message is in fact much tougher to convey, and we are also paying the tremendous deficit in communication between PO/ressource depletion and CO2/climate messages (and I'm not an AGW skeptic at all), but still think the PO message should be "hammered", that current crisis is primarily PO crisis even if we aren't even able to label it that way, prefering the labels "financial crisis", "subprime", "greek debt", "overall debt", etc
    After the first oil shocks the reactions were still more or less rational, like setting up the high volume based taxes on transport fuel in Europe for instance.
    Today we have the "mother of all oil shocks" and we almost don't talk about it (except for people tired of having talked about it for years), However rational policies would still need to be increasing volume taxes on fuel (with the intent to accelerate products and way of life changes more than states budget incomes), with strong redistribution in parallel, the "challenge" or solutions if any are still in the ability to change the "technical infrastructure"(in a very general sense), and not in any financial tricks ...

  8. Yves, thank you. Very strong arguments indeed. Somehow the public has to be woken up - now.

  9. Yes, Yves, you are right on all counts. The fact is, however, that I am saddened by seeing how difficult is to pass even very, very simple concepts with the public. Come on, depletion is obvious: there is some of the stuff underground, then we start taking it out, at some moment we run out of it. And yet it is still politically unacceptable even to mention that.

    To tell it very honestly, after eight years of work, I am really fed up. So much work for nothing. As we say here in Italy, "if you wash the head of the donkey, you are wasting a lot of soap".

    So, I am more and more interested not so much in the facts of peak oil or climate change, but in the problem of communication. It is a fascinating subject where I am learning a lot about the way the human mind works. Not that learning about that will change things, but it is always good to learn new things.

  10. For those of you who understand Italian, the proverb I cited reads, "A lavar la testa all'asino, si perde il ranno e il sapone"


  11. Nice proverb Ugo, and really fitting ! (cannot think of an equivalent in French)

    The strange thing with this PO concept, is that somehow it is so simple that sometimes explaining it you feel like insulting people, or somekind of Cassandra syndrome I guess ..

  12. Wow, just looked rapidly the summaries of world energy outlook 2011, worse than last year, almost everything regarding demand and its growth to 2035 (even growing cars per 1000 inhabitants in the US), almost nothing supply side, except slide 5 below :



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)