Sunday, July 31, 2016

Depletion is real, depletion is now, and if a jellyfish stings you, you know why.

My coworker, Ilaria Perissi (on the right in the picture), explaining the results of our works on fish depletion at the 34th conference of the System Dynamics society in Delft, Holland. We found that the same models that describe oil depletion can be applied to fish depletion, and that overexploitation is the main mechanism that leads to the decline of the world's fisheries. Should you want a copy of the paper, write me at ugo.bardi(thingything)

Just a few days ago, a friend of mine showed me three bright red stripes she had on her arm. It was the result of an unfortunate encounter with a jellyfish while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. Today, this kind of encounters have become a normal occurrence; it seems to be normal that, when you swim in the sea, you have to maintain a paranoid attitude all the time and keep looking in all directions to avoid a painful brush with one of these creatures. It makes you envy the Australians who, after all, have only sharks to worry about when they swim. (actually, they also have highly poisonous jellyfish, but sharks are more spectacular, as you can understand from some recent Hollywood movies).

And yet, this invasion of alien jellyfish was not normal just a few decades ago. Surely, it was not normal a century ago, when the coast of the Mediterranean sea was the home of many local fishermen who would make a living with their catch. But, today, what would they be bringing back home? At best, a boatload of jellyfish, but their nutritive properties are not the top. So, there has been a change, a big change in the fish population in the sea. And this change has a cause: it is overexploitation that depleted the fisheries. The sea has been nearly emptied of fish, and that has generated a booming jellyfish population and of other invertebrates, such as crabs and lobsters, whose numbers, once, were kept in check by the fish.

So, I could have told to my friend that the painful red stripes on her arm were the result of the human tendency of overexploiting natural resources: oil, fish, or whatever. Always, our tendency to maximize our immediate profit leads to destroying the resources that make us live. However, wherever people still manage to make a living out of something, mentioning the depletion of that something is normally a no-no; you just don't say that word in a civilized conversation. It is a long story that started when whalers swore that the fact that the couldn't catch so many whales anymore was because the whales "had become shy" (as you can read in Starbuck's "History of the American whale fishery," 1876). In modern times, mentioning depletion and overexploitation is often met with scorn, especially from economists who remain convinced that the market mechanisms can optimize all economic activities. For instance, Daniel Pauly and others published already in 1998 a paper titled "Fishing down Marine Food Webs" describing exactly the phenomenon that leads the sea to become depleted in fish and rich in invertebrates. But, as you may expect, this was defined as a myth. You feel like telling these people to take a good swim in the Mediterranean sea and experience by themselves the abundance of invertebrates, there.

Eventually, anything and everything can be debated, discussed, supported, or denied. But I think that myself and my coworkers gave a non-negligible contribution to understanding the overexploitation of marine fisheries. We could do that by applying to fishing the same system dynamic models that are used for peak oil. And we found that the models work. The cycle of growth and decline of many fisheries can be described by a simple model that assumes that the main factor that affects productivity is the abundance of the fish stock. And the model shows that the fish stock declines; fish is removed from the sea faster than the stock can be replenished by reproduction. Here are the data for the Japanese fishery that we presented in Delft.

So, depletion is real, depletion is now, and if a jellyfish stings you, you know why.

If you like to have a copy of the paper presented at the Delft conference, just write me at ugo.bardi(zingything) The full paper is at present under review. I have also to thank my coworkers Ilaria Perissi, Alessandro Lavacchi and Toufic El Asmar.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Abandoning a fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization?

In the 1950s, the Italian anthropologist Fosco Maraini (1912-2004) had a chance to witness the tremendous cultural shock that the Japanese society experienced the defeat of the 2nd world war. He described his experience in the book "Meeting with Japan", published in 1960. We may expect to go through something similar worldwide as we experience the cultural shock of having to abandon fossil fuels.

I am writing this post just after having gone through one of the usual exchanges in the comments of a blog. You know how it goes: it is based on the idea that "renewables will never be able to replace fossil fuels." The reasons are always the same: renewables are intermittent, renewables cannot provide liquid fuels, renewables cannot fly wide-body planes, renewables cannot do this, renewables cannot do that. And if we try to move to renewables, we'll go back to barbarism.

At the basis of this position, there is the total refusal to face any change, to abandon the business as usual (BAU) paradigm. Those who are used to BAU cannot imagine a different world. So, it is inconceivable for them that the supply of power may vary in time; it is inconceivable that they wouldn't be able to have their car parked in front of the entrance of their home, it is inconceivable that they wouldn't be able to buy cheap tickets for their deserved vacations in Hawaii.

Every time I read this kind of exchanges, I am reminded of the book of Fosco Maraini "Meeting with Japan", published in 1960. There, Maraini tells his experience in Japan before and after the second world war and of the tremendous cultural shock that the Japanese experienced with the defeat. In the book, we read of a Japan that's unusual for us, today: a shocked Japan, a poor Japan, a nation of people who were desperately trying to adapt to a world that had changed in ways they had never imagined as possible. But, no matter how they disliked the new world, they had no choice.

A paragraph of the book that has forever remained in my mind tells of a restaurant, somewhere in the Japanese countryside, that Maraini describes as (p 116 of the 1st edition):
.... one of those monstrous local taverns where all the styles of history seem to have been distilled into a final residue of hideousness. Sensitive and discriminating as the Japanese are when they move within the orbit of their own civilization, they become barbarians when they renounce their past and mimic foreign ways ... Renouncing a civilization means renouncing civilization.
 ... the bare concrete floor was plastered with congealed mud. When the Japanese abandon tatami, the straw mats on which they walk with bare feet, they are left with a psychological void. The floor, not being tatami, is merely an extension of the street: the street brought into the house.
And there we are: when we think of abandoning fossil fuels, we are left with a psychological void. Abandoning the fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization and a world not being powered by fossil fuels can only be the extension of the barbarian ages of the past. Barbarism brought into our world.

But no matter how much some of us dislike the new world we will be experiencing, we have no choice. I think we are in for quite some cultural shock!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Power is nothing without control: lessons from the failed coup in Turkey

In the recent coup in Turkey, we saw the armed forces splitting into two factions fighting each other. It is part of the general problem of controlling complex systems, especially social ones, where we can quickly discover that power is nothing without control. Here are some considerations of mine based on the similar plea that the ancient Romans faced. (image: an F16 flying over Ankara during the coup, from "the aviationist")

About two thousand years ago, the Romans had developed the most effective military apparatus seen before in history and, with it, they had created a vast empire. However, with the first century before our era, they found that they had a problem: their stupendous military power was going out of control. One of the warlords of that time, Julius Caesar, had staged a successful military coup in 49 BCE. Even before that, the Roman legions had started fighting each other, led by one or another warlord: Marius against Sulla, Caesar against Pompey, Octavianus against Anthony, and more. And when the warlords were not fighting each other, they were engaging their forces in reckless military adventures that were putting the Roman state at risk. For instance, in 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus led the army in a disastrous expedition against the Parthian empire  from which not even he came back alive. In short, the Romans were discovering that power is nothing without control.

The solution to the problem came from a man of exceptional military and political skills: Gaius Julius Octavianus. And it was a straightforward solution: the system had become unstable because it was too complex, it had to be drastically simplified by having only one warlord in command. So, Octavianus took the title of "emperor," that so far had meant just "commander," and added to it the title of "Augustus" (venerable) and that of "Caesar" to link it with the prestige of his predecessor. Most importantly, he started to link the imperial rule to religion. In time, the Roman Emperors were turned into semi-divine rulers, the porphyrogenites ("born in the purple"), people on whom the Roman Gods (and later on, the Christian God) had bestowed absolute power over their subjects. Rebellion against an emperor was not just a crime against the state, but a crime against God Himself.

Did it work? On the whole, yes. After Octavianus, the Roman Empire was turned into a remarkably resilient structure that was to last about half a millennium in the Western part of the empire, that was eventually doomed only by the collapse of its gold-based financial system. And Octavianus' idea of taking the title of "Caesar" was so successful that the Russian Emperors still called themselves "Czars," about two thousand years later. Not that Octavianus' idea stopped the rebellions completely and, in times of grave crisis, more than an individual at the same time would claim the title of Emperor of Rome. But, on the average, the Roman experience shows that a semi-divine (or even fully divine) ruler is a good way to keep the state together. As another example, we can think of Japan, where the military dictator of the country, the Shogun, though no divine ruler himself, ruled in the name of the divine emperor, the Tenno.

Now, move forward to our times and consider the recent events in Turkey, where we saw the Turkish army splitting in two and the local warlords fighting each other. Turkey is not an empire but it is (or perhaps was) part of the large empire that we call today "globalization." So, the struggle in Turkey was probably just a reflection of a deeper struggle within the empire, even though we'll probably never know the details of what exactly led to the coup. Outside Turkey, we are not yet seeing independent warlords fighting each other, but we are seeing that the Global Empire is engaging its military forces in reckless adventures that put the whole system at risk. The case of Iraq is just an example, to say nothing of the risk of a confrontation against a nuclear-armed state. For sure, the Global Empire has the most powerful military force ever developed in history, but all this power is nothing without control.

We seem to be facing the same problems that the Romans faced two thousand years ago: how to maintain control over a complex system that turns out to be unstable and prone to fighting against itself? The Romans solved the problem by drastically simplifying the system. Possibly, something similar can take place in the modern Global Empire, with the emperor in Washington becoming a divine ruler, taking up all the related trappings: crown, scepter, purple clothes, and the like. More than that, a divine ruler cannot be elected by the people: his power can only be the result of the divine will. We aren't yet seeing the Washington emperor claiming to be a divine being, but we may note how Mr. Erdogan played the religion card to gain the upper hand in the struggle in Turkey. Clearly, we are moving toward something new in the way the global empire is ruled, it is a slow and uncertain motion, but the general direction is clear. (*)

If there are similarities of our world with the ancient Roman one, we must also be careful to consider the differences. The complex system that we call "globalization" is much vaster than the Roman empire and it faces additional challenges. The Romans didn't have to face resource depletion, nor climate change, at least not in the same degree as we do, today. The Roman maritime transportation system kept working and supported the economic structure of the empire up to the very last decades of the existence of the Western Roman Empire. In the case of the Global Empire, the gigantic maritime transportation system that we call "containerization" is vulnerable to financial crisis, to a fuel supply crisis, and to sea level rise. A long-lasting interruption of the vital supply of goods carried by this system would rapidly kill the empire, no matter what the Global Emperor could order his armies to do. Then, a nervous warlord with nuclear weapons could bring the empire to an even faster end.

Overall, what we are seeing is all part of the behavior of complex systems, something that we still don't understand completely. We know that these systems are thermodynamical dissipative structures that evolve and change in order to maximize the dissipation rate. This is a phenomenon that goes on along an irregular path, sometimes taking the shape of the "Seneca Cliff", an abrupt and uncontrollable decline that often marks the end of those stupendous structures that we call "empires." Will we ever be able to overcome these cycles of boom and bust? So far, we haven't. At present, we are in full overshoot and it will be impossible to avoid some kind of collapse in the near future. We can only try to soften the blow, but the ongoing debate shows that the global elites really have no idea of what they are facing.

(*) Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, is probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times

On the loss of control that led to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, see also this post of mine:

Monday, July 18, 2016

The limits to society's attention span: peak oil ten years after the ASPO-6 meeting in Pisa

The concept of peak oil has gone through a peak, too, about ten years ago, approximately coincident with the sixth meeting of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO) in Pisa, Italy. Ten years later, peak oil has nearly completely disappeared from the attention of the media and of the public. Here are some reflections of mine on this subject, together with recollections of people who participated in the meeting in Pisa.

Ten years ago, only five years had passed from the 9/11 attacks. We were still reeling from discovering that the collapse of the Soviet Union didn't mean the "End of History", and that there would be no "peace dividend" for us. At that time, the concept of "peak oil" was new, interesting, and being explored by a group of smart people who were interested in the future of humankind. The Pisa meeting, in 2006, was a high point of this wave of interest.

In the ten years that followed, history moved forward at an incredible pace with wars, revolutions, financial crisis, and changes of all kinds. We saw oil prices spiking up to $150 per barrel in 2008, then crashing down, and then restarting the cycle. We saw the US production reborn from its ashes with the great "shale oil" revolution that should have lasted for centuries but that, right now, is collapsing. We saw the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we followed the story of the great oil field of Kashagan in the Caspian sea, once touted "the New Saudi Arabia" that still has to deliver its first barrel. We saw the collapse of oil producing regions such as Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela, all accompanied by political turmoil. And, more than all, we saw Climate Change moving from a side threat to a major challenge for civilization.

In this great turmoil, the peak for conventional oil seems to have appeared, more or less, when it had been originally predicted, around 2005-2008. But the old forecasts had not taken into account the dogged reaction of the industry and of the financial system, that pushed for producing combustible liquids from anything that could even remotely produce it. As a consequence, "peak liquids" has been postponed of about a decade, and it seems to be here, right now.

But, with all this turmoil ongoing, people simply forgot about peak oil, that receded beyond the event horizon, as if it had been sucked in by a black hole, leaving only a faint glow behind it. Nobody seems to be interested in peak oil any longer, as you can see from the results of Google Trends, shown at the beginning of this post. This peculiar blindness of our civilization appears not just for peak oil, look at how people have lost all their interest in Global Warming, just now that we see everything melting around us. It is a typical behavior of memes, as I already commented about one year ago.

So, as usual, we are moving into the future blindfolded, head first, and at full speed. What we will find there, is all to be seen.

In the following, you can read comments by some of the participants in the ASPO-6 conference in Pisa received in occasion of the 10th anniversary. If you were there and you wish to add your recollections, write them in the blog comments.

In the picture, the group of ASPO-Italy that organized the 5th conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas in Pisa, Italy, that started on July 18, 2006.

Colin Campbell

I have the best of memories of the Pisa Conference which was excellent in regards to both contents and location. It is true that ASPO seems to have passed its peak as there have not been any recent international conferences, although ASPO USA remains very active. I think it is now widely accepted that so called Regular Conventional Oil passed its peak in 2005. I think that the peak of all categories is imminent, if not already passed last year, but that will not be recognised for a few years down the other side. I will be 85 years of age next month and am certainly too old to do much more on this subject, although I do try to update my depletion model. The last version was for 2014 but for some reason I cannot at the moment access the EIA website to get updated production, consumption and reserves data for 2015 by country.

I assume you have seen my last book Campbell's Atlas of Oil and Gas Depletion which was published by Springer in 2013. They chose this very presumptive title and charged a lot for it, but I think sales have declined steeply. I was thinking of trying to produce a short book comprising no more than updated versions of the country tables and graphs in the book and have proposed same to Springer. If they should agree I would have to find someone to come and update all these spreadsheets or even better design some kind of computerised model that integrated them all. If one of your students were to be interested in such a project, he or she could come to Ballydehob for about six months to do it, assuming some money can be found to cover the cost.

Regarding the wider picture, I think the world does enter the Second Half of the Oil Age, when this critical supply of cheap energy that fuelled the First Half declines from natural depletion, leading to general economic contraction and falling population. The transition will no doubt be a time of great tension as indeed already witnessed by massive immigration pressures, being especially felt by Italy. These subjects are being covered by the new quarterly journal The Oil Age : Understanding the Past and Forecasting the Future which is edited by Roger Bentley.


Dennis Meadows

I do remember the Pisa meeting, though mainly because it was my first visit to Pisa and meet you, more than for anything I learned about peak oil. I was already well informed and convinced about peak oil. And I did not need more professional contacts in the field. So the meeting was interesting to me, but not especially influential for me. It was well run, and I appreciated that you created the chance for me to run a STRATAGEM session.

It is unfortunate that peak oil has suffered the same fate as all other limits. Between those who are ideologically opposed, those who profit from the current system, and those who just don't think about it, the issue has essentially disappeared.

The pretext is low gas prices in the US and the (short) burst of production from shale. But if that pretext had not appeared, some other one would have been found. This world is simply not equipped to do the sort of short-term sacrifice and long-term planning required for an adequate preparation for the end of an era of cheap energy. Add to that the fact that the future without cheap energy will definitely be much less fun for the rich than the present one, and you have a guarantee of denial.

What lies ahead? I would guess that another profound financial crisis is coming. It will depress energy demand enormously. And it will attract all the attention, just as the pain receives the attention of someone with cancer. They treat the pain, not the cancer, perhaps even becoming addicted to pain killers, without ever understanding the true nature of the problem. And in every time of crisis control of the political system drifts towards simplistic authoritarians. You had Berlusconi; we are likely to get Trump.

I read John Michael Greer's books as they come out. They stimulate me to think about that future without abundant oil. I expect that will be evident by 2030.

EROI is a key concept that could bring clarity to the situation. But it will not be pursued, because it just brings bad news. Politicians only like good news stories.


Pedro Prieto

I remember from the Conference the carps in San Rossore, good weather, Denis Meadows signing to my colleague Daniel a first edition of the Limits of Growth, some interesting talks, as usual in all the ASPO meetings, the surprising disappearance of Ali Samsam Bakthiari, Robert Hopkins in his probably last intervention out of the transition town where I suppose he lives since then, some high expectations on the KiteGen from Alessandro, that I am afraid have not yet materialized, a set of electric motorbikes, and me driving one of them.

Sad that ASPO web page is fading if not completely disappeared now. I am not so sure that we can say yet in ASPO, as George W. Bush said on the air carrier: "Mission Accomplished" on the end of military activities in Iraq in 2003.


Robert Hirsch

I remember the conference very positively. Yes, a great deal has happened since the conference. Some comments in italics:

— How did you find your experience in Pisa? Very positive. It is a beautiful city and the arrangements were fine. Most of the conference was worthwhile but, as always, some of the presentations were of little value.  

— What has changed during the past ten years in your worldview? The drop in oil prices took the wind out of “peak oil” to the point where it is not now given much credence. That’s extremely unfortunate in my opinion, because the problem has not gone away. It seems likely that OPEC spare capacity will be gone within the next year or two, and oil prices will escalate. Thereafter, some production will come back on line but large scale bounce-back is generally a slow process, as you know. It is likely that the onset of the decline in world oil production will occur within a matter of years, but then again, most who have forecast that date have been proven wrong in the past! 

— How do you think that the peak oil idea has evolved and changed the world? See above. Also, the concept has lost popular credibility. That likely won’t change until oil prices escalate dramatically, likely a few years from now. 

All the best, Bob


Charlie Hall

My response would be similar to Bob's -- I found it wonderful! I remember the big tent (which worked very well), the thrilling speakers like Colin and Jean and Ugo and Rui and Chris Screbowski, the wonderful new friends and the urgency of the topic. I was not alone or crazy (well...). And the Italian food!! [I looked for my presentation (probably something on EROI (yawn) but could not find it on my present computer. I probably could if anyone cares.] Not to mention Pisa itself. I had no idea the tower was so beautiful, leaning or not. My wife and I then visited the Carerra Marble mines (with lots of old pictures of pre fossil fuel mining) and then Lucca, where Puccini was born (and his duck hunting retreat on the big Lake to the North). I broke the rules and touched the piano on which (I think) Madama Butterfly was written! 

To tell you the truth I liked the one in Lisbon even better, for it was my introduction to ASPO. Dick Lawrence insisted that I go, and it was this meeting (and Pisa) that pulled me out of my doldrums as an ecologist and back to my real interest in energy, which was a very good thing for me and my career. Upon arrival I overheard someone saying that Jean Laherrere and Colin Campbell were headed for such and such a bar for lunch, so I hustled there like an ambitious grad student to meet my new heroes and buy them a beer. I also had a terrific time meeting Bobbins Campbell, Jane Screbowski and others. Gosh what fun and laughs!! Cork was great too, for there I met Pedro Prieto, who has been a great colleague. 

So I guess my main message is: THANK YOU ASPO EUROPE!!! for bringing me back to my real interest, energy, helping me to meet many super people, and resurrecting my (quite good in retrospect, I think) work of the 1970s and 1980s which I had abandoned for seeming lack of interest/funding. My guess is that Peak oil and related topics will be back with a vengeance, and all but we will be caught with their pants down. There are now three studies Mohr (attached) Maggio and Cacciola 2012 and Jean's own analysis on ASPO France which all show a peak in ALL fossil fuels perhaps as soon as 2025. Well its like Gustav Mahler said in 1910 or so: I wish I could conduct my symphonies 50 years from now! (Leonard Bernstein got famous by resurrecting Mahler). So everybody hang on to your power points, your notes and so on. Whatever is left of civilization in 50 years will be pouring over your notes as we pour over Darwin's and Newton's. Its that fundamental!!!! 

Congratulations to everyone on this list for your pioneering work! Meanwhile let me put in a plug for Ugo and my (as editors with economist Gael Girard ) new Journal from Springer "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality". Please send us your best work!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age - part I

  Note: this post by Louis Arnoux is qualitatively correct in identifying the diminishing energy return of extraction as an important factor affecting the world's economy. However, the analysis of the "Hill's Group" report on which Arnoux bases his conclusions has shown serious flaws in the treatment, as discussed in this post (Feb 26 2017)


Guest post by Louis Arnoux

This three-part post was inspired by Ugo’s recent post concerning Will Renewables Ever ReplaceFossils? and recent discussions within Ugo’s discussion group on how is it that “Economists still don't get it”?  It integrates also numerous discussion and exchanges I have had with colleagues and business partners over the last three years.


Since at least the end of 2014 there has been increasing confusions about oil prices, whether so-called “Peak Oil” has already happened, or will happen in the future and when, matters of EROI (or EROEI) values for current energy sources and for alternatives, climate change and the phantasmatic 2oC warming limit, and concerning the feasibility of shifting rapidly to renewables or sustainable sources of energy supply.  Overall, it matters a great deal whether a reasonable time horizon to act is say 50 years, i.e. in the main the troubles that we are contemplating are taking place way past 2050, or if we are already in deep trouble and the timeframe to try and extricate ourselves is some 10 years. Answering this kind of question requires paying close attention to system boundary definitions and scrutinising all matters taken for granted.

It took over 50 years for climatologists to be heard and for politicians to reach the Paris Agreement re climate change (CC) at the close of the COP21, late last year.  As you no doubt can gather from the title, I am of the view that we do not have 50 years to agonise about oil.  In the three sections of this post I will first briefly take stock of where we are oil wise; I will then consider how this situation calls upon us to do our utter best to extricate ourselves from the current prevailing confusion and think straight about our predicament; and in the third part I will offer a few considerations concerning the near term, the next ten years – how to approach it, what cannot work and what may work, and the urgency to act, without delay.

Part 1 – Alice looking down the end of the barrel

In his recent post, Ugo contrasted the views of the Doomstead Diner's readers  with that of energy experts regarding the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels within a reasonable timeframe.  In my view, the Doomstead’s guests had a much better sense of the situation than the “experts” in Ugo’s survey.  To be blunt, along current prevailing lines we are not going to make it.  I am not just referring here to “business-as-usual” (BAU) parties holding for dear life onto fossil fuels and nukes.  I also include all current efforts at implementing alternatives and combating CC.  Here is why.   

The energy cost of system replacement

What a great number of energy technology specialists miss are the challenges of whole system replacement – moving from fossil-based to 100% sustainable over a given period of time.  Of course, the prior question concerns the necessity or otherwise of whole system replacement.  For those of us who have already concluded that this is an urgent necessity, if only due to CC, no need to discuss this matter here.  For those who maybe are not yet clear on this point, hopefully, the matter will become a lot clearer a few paragraphs down.

So coming back for now to whole system replacement, the first challenge most remain blind to is the huge energy cost of whole system replacement in terms of both the 1st principle of thermodynamics (i.e. how much net energy is required to develop and deploy a whole alternative system, while the old one has to be kept going and be progressively replaced) and also concerning the 2nd principle (i.e. the waste heat involved in the whole system substitution process).  The implied issues are to figure out first how much total fossil primary energy is required by such a shift, in addition to what is required for ongoing BAU business and until such a time when any sustainable alternative has managed to become self-sustaining, and second to ascertain where this additional fossil energy may come from. 

The end of the Oil Age is now

If we had a whole century ahead of us to transition, it would be comparatively easy.  Unfortunately, we no longer have that leisure since the second key challenge is the remaining timeframe for whole system replacement.  What most people miss is that the rapid end of the Oil Age began in 2012 and will be over within some 10 years.  To the best of my knowledge, the most advanced material in this matter is the thermodynamic analysis of the oil industry taken as a whole system (OI) produced by The Hill's Group (THG) over the last two years or so ( 

THG are seasoned US oil industry engineers led by B.W. Hill.  I find its analysis elegant and rock hard.  For example, one of its outputs concerns oil prices.  Over a 56 year time period, its correlation factor with historical data is 0.995.  In consequence, they began to warn in 2013 about the oil price crash that began late 2014 (see:  In what follows I rely on THG’s report and my own work.

Three figures summarise the situation we are in rather well, in my view.

Figure 1 – End Game

For purely thermodynamic reasons net energy delivered to the globalised industrial world (GIW) per barrel by the oil industry (OI) is rapidly trending to zero.  By net energy we mean here what the OI delivers to the GIW, essentially in the form of transport fuels, after the energy used by the OI for exploration, production, transport, refining and end products delivery have been deducted. 
However, things break down well before reaching “ground zero”; i.e. within 10 years the OI as we know it will have disintegrated. Actually, a number of analysts from entities like Deloitte or Chatham House, reading financial tealeaves, are progressively reaching the same kind of conclusions.[1]

The Oil Age is finishing now, not in a slow, smooth, long slide down from “Peak Oil”, but in a rapid fizzling out of net energy.  This is now combining with things like climate change and the global debt issues to generate what I call a “Perfect Storm” big enough to bring the GIW to its knees.

In an Alice world

At present, under the prevailing paradigm, there is no known way to exit from the Perfect Storm within the emerging time constraint (available time has shrunk by one order of magnitude, from 100 to 10 years).  This is where I think that Doomstead Diner's readers are guessing right.  Many readers are no doubt familiar with the so-called “Red Queen” effect illustrated in Figure 2 – to have to run fast to stay put, and even faster to be able to move forward.  The OI is fully caught in it.

Figure 2 – Stuck on a one track to nowhere

The top part of Figure 2 highlights that, due to declining net energy per barrel, the OI has to keep running faster and faster (i.e. pumping oil) to keep supplying the GIW with the net energy it requires.  What most people miss is that due to that same rapid decline of net energy/barrel towards nil, the OI can't keep “running” for much more than a few years – e.g. B.W. Hill considers that within 10 years the number of petrol stations in the US will have shrunk by 75%…  

What people also neglect, depicted in the bottom part of Figure 2, is what I call the inverse Red Queen effect (1/RQ).  Building an alternative whole system takes energy that to a large extent initially has to come from the present fossil-fuelled system.  If the shift takes place too rapidly, the net energy drain literally kills the existing BAU system.[2] The shorter the transition time the harder is the 1/RQ.  

I estimate the limit growth rate for the alternative whole system at 7% growth per year.  
In other words, current growth rates for solar and wind, well above 20% and in some cases over 60%, are not viable globally.  However, the kind of growth rates, in the order of 35%, that are required for a very short transition under the Perfect Storm time frame are even less viable – if “we” stick to the prevailing paradigm, that is.  As the last part of Figure 2 suggests, there is a way out by focusing on current huge energy waste, but presently this is the road not taken.

On the way to Olduvai

In my view, given that nearly everything within the GIW requires transport and that said transport is still about 94% dependent on oil-derived fuels, the rapid fizzling out of net energy from oil must be considered as the defining event of the 21st century – it governs the operation of all other energy sources, as well as that of the entire GIW.  In this respect, the critical parameter to consider is not that absolute amount of oil mined (as even “peakoilers” do), such as Million barrels produced per year, but net energy from oil per head of global population, since when this gets too close to nil we must expect complete social breakdown, globally. 

The overall picture, as depicted ion Figure 3, is that of the “Mother of all Senecas” (to use Ugo’s expression).   It presents net energy from oil per head of global population.[3]  The Olduvai Gorge as a backdrop is a wink to Dr. Richard Duncan’s scenario (he used barrels of oil equivalent which was a mistake) and to stress the dire consequences if we do reach the “bottom of the Gorge” – a kind of “postmodern hunter-gatherer” fate.

Oil has been in use for thousands of year, in limited fashion at locations where it seeped naturally or where small well could be dug out by hand.  Oil sands began to be mined industrially in 1745 at Merkwiller-Pechelbronn in north east France (the birthplace of Schlumberger).  From such very modest beginnings to a peak in the early 1970s, the climb took over 220 years.  The fall back to nil will have taken about 50 years.

The amazing economic growth in the three post WWII decades was actually fuelled by a 321% growth in net energy/head.  The peak of 18GJ/head in around 1973, was actually in the order of some 40GJ/head for those who actually has access to oil at the time, i.e. the industrialised fraction of the global population.

Figure 3 – The “Mother of all Senecas”

In 2012 the OI began to use more energy per barrel in its own processes (from oil exploration to transport fuel deliveries at the petrol stations) than what it delivers net to the GIW.  We are now down below 4GJ/head and dropping fast.

This is what is now actually driving the oil prices: since 2014, through millions of trade transactions (functioning as the “invisible hand” of the markets), the reality is progressively filtering that the GIW can only afford oil prices in proportion to the amount of GDP growth that can be generated by a rapidly shrinking net energy delivered per barrel, which is no longer much.  Soon it will be nil. So oil prices are actually on a downtrend towards nil. 

To cope, the OI has been cannibalising itself since 2012.  This trend is accelerating but cannot continue for very long.  Even mainstream analysts have begun to recognise that the OI is no longer replenishing its reserves.  We have entered fire-sale times (as shown by the recent announcements by Saudi Arabia (whose main field, Ghawar, is probably over 90% depleted) to sell part of Aramco and make a rapid shift out of a near 100% dependence on oil and towards “solar”.

Given what Figure 1 to 3 depict, it should be obvious that resuming growth along BAU lines is no longer doable, that addressing CC as envisaged at the COP21 in Paris last year is not doable either, and that incurring ever more debt that can never be reimbursed is no longer a solution, not even short-term.  

Time to “pull up” and this requires a paradigm change capable of avoiding both the RQ and 1/RQ constraints.  After some 45 years of research, my colleagues and I think this is still doable.  Short of this, no, we are not going to make it, in terms of replacing fossil resources with renewable ones within the remaining timeframe, or in terms of the GIW’s survival.

Part 2 – Enquiring into the appropriateness of the question

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at:

[1] See for example, Stevens, Paul, 2016, International Oil Companies: The Death of the Old Business Model, Energy, Research Paper, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House; England, John W., 2016, Short of capital? Risk of underinvestment in oil and gas is amplified by competing cash priorities, Deloitte Center for Energy Solutions, Deloitte LLP.  The Bank of England recently commented: “The embattled crude oil and natural gas industry worldwide has slashed capital spending to a point below the minimum required levels to replace reserves — replacement of proved reserves in the past constituted about 80 percent of the industry’s spending; however, the industry has slashed its capital spending by a total of about 50 percent in 2015 and 2016. According to Deloitte’s new study {referred to above], this underinvestment will quickly deplete the future availability of reserves and production.”

[2] This effect is also referred to as “cannibalising”.  See for example, J. M. Pearce, 2009, Optimising Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies to Suppress Energy Cannibalism, 2nd Climate Change Technology Conference, May 12-15, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  However, in the oil industry and more generally the mining industry, cannibalism usually refers to what companies do when there are reaching the end of exploitable reserves and cut down on maintenance, sell assets at a discount or acquires some from companies gone bankrupt, in order to try and survive a bit longer.  Presently there is much asset disposal going on in the Shale Oil and Gas patches, ditto among majors, Lukoil, BP, Shell, Chevron, etc….  Between spending cuts and assets disposal amounts involved are in the $1 to $2 trillions.

[3] This graph is based on THG’s net energy data, BP oil production data and UN demographic data.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Would Robin Hood help us fight climate change?

Today, a lot of the world's monetary wealth is in the hands of a tiny group of super-rich people; the virtual equivalent of Scrooge McDuck's money bin. What would happen if this money were stolen by the Beagle Boys or redistributed in some way? Would it change something in terms of climate change and resource depletion? 

Two posts recently published on "Cassandra's Legacy" discuss the possible consequences of a redistribution of the world's wealth on greenhouse gas emissions. The first, by Jacopo Simonetta, argues that a more egalitarian distribution, that he calls "Operation Robin Hood," would raise emissions and worsen the climate change problem. The other, by Diego Mantilla, argues the opposite.

Both Simonetta and Mantilla start by analyzing the correlation between carbon emissions and monetary wealth. The data available clearly indicate that there exist a proportionality between the two parameters. And, of course, as long as that proportionality holds, there follows that, no matter how we redistribute the monetary wealth, nothing changes, which is Mantilla's main point. He then cites the example of Cuba as a relatively egalitarian but low-impact country.

However, the correlation wealth-emissions is lost when we go to the extreme end of the curve, that of the super-rich; who emit proportionally less than the poor. For instance, Bill Gates' net worth is presently estimated as around 80 billion USD; but it is unlikely that he emits one million times more CO2 than a middle-class westerner whose net worth is, say, around 80 thousand USD. So, Simonetta argues that taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor would raise emissions and worsen the climate change problem.

Given their initial assumptions, both Mantilla and Simonetta may be right. But the problem is a different one and it lies in the fact that money is a purely virtual entity, while resources are real ones. Today, the fossil fuel industry that produces something of the order of 90 billion barrels per day of combustible liquids, and more fuels in the form of coal and gas. Why should a redistribution of the world's monetary wealth change these productive levels? The oil industry doesn't care about who buys oil and even the hypothetical disappearance of the category of the super-rich would simply mean that there would be fewer personal jets and more small cars. But, from the viewpoint of emissions and of resource depletion, nothing would change.

That's true, however, only as a first approximation because the economic system would change and adapt to a redistribution of wealth. For instance, Simonetta makes the point that "Operation Robin Hood would produce a sensible reduction in mortality, and probably an increment in natality too, among low wage people. So a sharp population increase, at least for one or two generations." This is perfectly possible if, say, the mansions of the super-rich were to be turned into hospitals for the poor.

But it may also be true that a redistribution of wealth would lead a large number of people to go through the "demographic transition". That is, for instance, turning the mansions of the super-rich into public schools would lead to a large number of better-educated women who, then, would tend to have fewer children. And that would reduce emissions.

In the end, a substantial redistribution of the world's wealth in more egalitarian terms would probably have little effect in the short term, but it might have unpredictable ones in the long term. What we can say for sure is that the world is evolving in the opposite direction to the one that Robin Hood would favor: the rich are becoming richer, and the poor poorer. At the same time, we keep emitting greenhouse gases at the highest rates ever observed in history. Are these two trends correlated? Difficult to say, but perhaps moving to a renewable-powered world would be the best way to get a less unbalanced wealth distribution.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Equality and Sustainability: can we have both?

Guest post by Diego Mantilla

Recently, in this blog, Jacopo Simonetta raised a very important question: Would a fairer distribution of income worldwide diminish the damage humans are doing to the earth? His answer, that it would not and would actually make matters much worse, intrigued me. So, I decided to look at the best available data.

Simonetta specifically looked at the question of whether a fairer distribution of income would reduce global CO2 emissions. In 2015, Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty (henceforth C-P) wrote a paper and posted online a related dataset that dealt with the global distribution of household consumption and CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent = CO2 and other greenhouse gases) emissions in 2013. The data are not perfect, but they are the best that exist. The C-P dataset captures the Household Final Consumption Expenditures (HFCE) values provided by the World Bank, using the distribution of income in Branko Milanovic's dataset (for the bottom 99 percent) and in the World Wealth and Income Database (for the top 1 percent). (Income is not the same as consumption, and C-P assume that the distribution of income is the same as that of consumption. Also, they assume that the same distribution of income that existed in 2008 also existed in 2013. Like I said, the dataset is not perfect).

The C-P dataset includes 94 countries, which cover 87.2 percent of the earth's population, about 6.2 billion people, who are responsible for 88.1 percent of global CO2e emissions. Generally speaking, C-P divide each country in “11 synthetic individual observations (one for each of the bottom nine deciles, one for fractile P90-99, and one for the top 1%).”

The following chart shows consumption per capita and CO2e emissions per capita in 2013 from the C-P dataset.

Figure 1. Consumption and CO2e emissions per capita by world consumption percentile in 2013. (Some percentiles are missing due to the fact that the country quantiles vary in size and sometimes extend beyond a given global percentile.) (Source: own elaboration from data of Chancel and Piketty (2015).)

The top 1 percent on the consumption scale spend an average $135,000 (2014 PPP dollars) and emit an average 72 tCO2e per person per year. The threshold for belonging to the top percentile is $54,000. Their consumption is equal to 18 percent of all the money spent by households around the world. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that consumption equals income. If one were to take all the income of the top 1 percent and distribute it among the 99 percent, each person in the 99 percent would get about $1,400.

C-P assume a CO2e emissions to consumption spending elasticity of 0.9. A 10 percent increase in consumption means a 9 percent increase in CO2e emissions. This is a broad generalization, and C-P have a range of elasticities, but they chose that one because it is the median value of the estimates. Using that elasticity in the C-P dataset, if each person in the bottom 99 percent got $1,400 and those in the top 1 percent were left with nothing, global CO2e emissions would increase by 9 percent.

But, of course, the top 1 percent are only part of the problem. About 22 percent of the world's population lives with a consumption level above the global mean of about $8,000 per year. Let's assume that everyone had a level of consumption equal to the mean. Going back to the C-P dataset, if one averages the CO2e emissions of everyone within a consumption bracket ranging from $7,700 to $8,300, one gets an average emission of 6.15 tCO2e per person per year. If everyone had that kind of emission, global CO2e emissions would be practically the same they are today, but, needless to say, that would improve the lot of more than three-quarters of the world's population.

In short, a perfect distribution of income would have a negligible effect on global CO2e emissions.

There remains the question: At what level of consumption would CO2e emissions be reduced dramatically and would this level be compatible with a decent existence?

Cuba offers an interesting example. Moran et al. (2008) looked at the UN's Human Development Index (HDI) and the Ecological Footprint of 93 countries for 2003, and worked on the assumption “that an HDI of no less than 0.8 and a per capita Ecological Footprint less than the globally available biocapacity per person [one planet earth] represent minimum requirements for sustainable development that is globally replicable.” Their survey showed that only one country met both of those requirements, Cuba.

Cuba also has the second lowest fertility rate of the Americas, 1.61 births per woman. Only Canada's is lower. This means that a low-consumption society can be compatible with no population growth. The average Cuban eats 3,277 calories a day. Cubans have a life expectancy at birth of 79.4 years. This is above the United States and only 1.5 years below Germany. And Cuba's mean years of schooling are above Finland's. And only Monaco and Qatar have more doctors per capita than Cuba. Clearly, a level of consumption compatible with the finite planet that we have does not have to equal penury and destitution for everyone. I'm not saying life in Cuba is easy for everyone. It isn't, but at some point in the near future, those who live in the developed world and in the rich enclaves of the developing world are going to be faced with a choice between a Cuban lifestyle and, to quote Noam Chomsky, the destruction of “the prospects for decent existence, and much of life.”

I wanted to find out if the findings of Moran and colleagues were still true today, but I made one change. The HDI is built using three dimensions: life expectancy, education, and per capita income. This has always bothered me. A long, healthy life and an educated population are no doubt hallmarks of human development. But, is driving a Lexus a sign of human development? I think not. Therefore, I used the UN's data to build an index that looks only at life expectancy and education, which I'm calling the truncated human development index (THDI). (The calculation of the HDI is explained here. The THDI follows the same procedure used from 2010 onward, but it only takes the geometric mean of the first two variables.) In the following chart, I plot the THDI versus the Ecological Footprint, measured in the number of planet earths the inhabitants of a given country consume, using the most recent data.

Figure 2. THDI and Ecological Footprint of 176 countries. The red dot represents Cuba. (The THDI corresponds to 2014, the Ecological Footprint to 2012.) (Source: own elaboration from data of the UN and Global Footprint Network.)

There are only two countries in the vicinity of one earth that have a THDI higher than 0.8, Georgia and Cuba, the red dot. Of the two, Cuba has the highest THDI. It's interesting that Cuba has practically the same THDI as Chile, but Chile uses 2.5 earths. And it has practically the same THDI as Lithuania, but Lithuania uses 3.4 earths. Furthermore, Cuba uses as many earths as Papua New Guinea, but Papua New Guineans have an average of 4 years of schooling, Cubans 11.5. This is just to show the possibilities that exist for an egalitarian, sustainable society. As of late, inequality in Cuba has been on the rise. However, according to the World Bank, CO2 emissions per capita in Cuba are not substantially different today than they were in 1986, when Cuba's Gini coefficient was very low, 0.22 (Mesa-Lago 2005, page 184). In any case, I'm not advocating that we copy the Cuban model completely. I'm not defending Cuba's crackdown on individual liberties, freedom of speech among them. All I'm saying is Cuba is an interesting example of the possibilities that an egalitarian society offers. I, for one, would like to live in a society that is even more egalitarian than Cuba. It seems to me that there is no reason in principle why humans cannot build a society that is more egalitarian than Cuba and just as sustainable, especially when the alternatives are dire.

Cuba is not in the C-P dataset. It is hard to estimate the level of consumption of Cubans in dollars, because the statistics the Cuban government publishes are not comparable with those of the rest of the world, but last year the UN published a GNI per capita number for Cuba for 2014 that seems to be solid and comparable to other countries, 2011 PPP $7,301. That number is not directly comparable to the C-P data, because C-P looked at household consumption. Assuming that the share of GNI for household consumption published by Cuba's National Statistics Office is correct, one can estimate household consumption per capita in Cuba to be at around 2011 PPP $3,900. It's hard to translate that to 2014 dollars, because I don't trust the PPP conversion factor published by the World Bank, but let's assume that the consumption of the average Cuban is around 2014 PPP $4,000.

Going back to the C-P data, one can find that the average CO2e emission for a consumption bracket ranging from $3,700 to $4,300 is 3.14 tCO2e per person per year. If everyone in the world had that level of emissions, global CO2e emissions would be cut by half. And in a social system similar, but not identical, to Cuba's, no one would starve or be unschooled, and the lot of 61 percent of the world's population would improve.

To recap, an equal level of consumption for everyone around the world at the level of today's Cuba offers the possibility of substantially lowering human impact on the biosphere while at the same time maintaining a rather decent standard of living for all.

According to the Global Carbon Project, in 2014, “the ocean and land carbon sinks respectively removed 27% and 37% of total CO2 (fossil fuel and land use change), leaving 36% of emissions in the atmosphere.” If CO2 emissions were cut by half, all of them would be removed by the earth's sinks, and there would be no net addition of CO2 to the atmosphere.

It is worth pointing out that global mean consumption will reach the level of today's Cuba eventually. The question is will that happen before humans increase the global temperature to dangerous levels. Cubans today consume 6 barrels of oil equivalent per person per year of fossil fuels, which is what Laherrère (2015, page 20) forecasts humans will consume around 2075, after the peaks of oil, natural gas, and coal production. But, by that time, according to Laherrère's forecast (2015, page 22), humans would have emitted about 2,000 GtCO2 since 2015, 800 GtCO2 more than the maximum Rogelj et al. (2016) estimate we can emit to have a good chance of avoiding the 2 °C threshold. (Laherrère is skeptical about anthropogenic climate change, but I'm not endorsing his conclusions, just looking at his data.)

Diego Mantilla is an independent researcher interested in the collapse of complex societies and social inequality. He has a bachelor's degree in computer networking from Strayer University and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He currently lives in Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Brexit: a subversive in Brussels

The man from Gazprom: Ugo Bardi's speech at the hearing "EU Energy Security Strategy under the conditions of the Internal Energy Market" at the European Parliament, in Brussels, on Nov 5, 2014. 

I already described this experience of mine at the EU parliament in Brussels, in 2014 but, f you have 12 minutes, you may like watch this clip with my full speech. You can notice how I had noted the start of the collapse of the oil price. I couldn't imagine, at that time, that prices would tumble to less than $40 per barrel, but I had correctly identified the troubles that would befall on the shale oil and the shale gas industry. Nor I could exactly predict when shale oil production would peak in the US (it did in mid 2015). But I warned the parliament not to put too much trust in these overhyped new sources of energy.

Not shown in the clip is the reaction of the audience. After I had stopped speaking, someone from the public took up the microphone, saying, "I completely disagree with what you said." Then, he rose up and he left the hall. Later on, they told me that he was a member of the UKIP. During the debate, someone raised the old canard that the US had attained "energy independence" by means of shale oil and that they were becoming a net energy exporter, but I had no possibility to answer back. The whole hearing had been carefully engineered to give the impression that Europe would soon receive plentiful supplies of oil and gas from the booming shale industry in the USA. No need to bow down to the evil threats of Putin and his minions. Some days after that the meeting was over, I was told that in the halls of the European parliament people were saying that I was paid by Gazprom. 

So, you see? It is not just the Britons. There has to be reason for this:


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)