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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

You cannot have a war economy if there is no war. My 4th presentation of "The Seneca Effect" in Paris

Above, at the Momentum Institute in Paris on Friday 13th, 2017. Ugo Bardi is on the left of the photo, Yves Cochet (president of the institute) is at the center, with the white shirt. 

The presentation at the Institut Momentum on Oct 13th was the fourth of a series of presentation related to my book "The Seneca Effect" that I gave in Paris last week. This one was probably the least formal one of the series. I gave some explanation of how system dynamics models can produce the asymmetric "Seneca Curve," but I concentrated on a section of the book, the one dealing with the extermination of whales during the 19th century. It is a theme related to the concept of Anthropocene: the human relation with the ecosystem.

The point that I try to stress in these presentations is that most people, including decision-makers, just don't have the concept of "overshoot", that is the tendency of consuming more resources than the system can produce, forcing it to crash down after some time. It is something that I described also in a previous talk.

The problem, here, is that not having the concept of overshoot, people happy go along the Seneca trajectory, thinking that the more resources they can extract from the system, the better things are for them. They don't realize that the more they go up, the faster they'll have to crash down. I surmised that we have a cultural problem: it is a relatively new concept that will have to penetrate culture. That will take time and it is not obvious that it will ever happen.

The comments that I received were varied and interesting. One point that found myself in agreement is that the concept of "Anthropocene" is really too narrow when it is intended as something that started with nuclear energy or with fossil fuels. The Anthropocene, really, started with the late Pleistocene, more than 10,000 years ago, when humans started having a major impact on the ecosystem causing, among many other effects, the extinction of the megafauna of those times.

From here, the discussion moved on how (and if) these concepts could move into the general consciousness of humankind. Here, Yves Cochet made a series of interesting observations. The one I think best summarizes the whole discussion is that "you cannot have a war economy if there is no war". As a former politician, Cochet understands the problem very well.

This is another way to state what I said before: as long as people move along the rising side of the Seneca curve, they enjoy the ride won't care about what's in store for them on the other side, the collapsing one. And that explains why all our efforts to alert people in advance failed, from the times of "The Limits to Growth" to peak oil and climate change. Those people who engaged into the attempt were marginalized as (to use Cochet's definition) "Totemic Circles". And this is the way the human mind works and it seems we have to accept it and enjoy life.

(about enjoying life, here is a picture of me, in Paris, drinking beer in Montmartre with the physicist Jacques Treiner)


  1. My analysis of the hippies and the transformational student movement ended the same way. The foreboding that young people felt at the end of the 60s was very real. They had a very public forum to make themselves heard. But the majority of Westerners didn't care as long as things were going well in their own lives.

    On that note, if we're all going to drown in plastic in less than a decade, I should get in as much fish and beer as I can right now.

  2. Comment erased by mistake. Reposting

    Ivan Lukic has left a new comment on your post "You cannot have a war economy if there is no war. ...":

    For those of us who are unable to participate in Paris events it is nice to have a glimpse by looking at the photos.

    Indeed, very unpleasant surprises from Mother Nature are in the store.

    When somebody complained about inability of humans to deal with future natural limits to growth in the local Serbian forum I gave this explanation. Humans are by nature opportunistic animal. For many thousands of years they lived from day to day without any guarantee of survival. Their only concern was how to survive till the next day. This state of affairs lasted for much too long. Human brain is programmed for opportunism (maximization of utility) not for contemplation of the future. Such program is impossible to erase. But at the same time program is also emergency exit for Nature. When the humans make too much damage to Nature, the Nature will erase them together with their opportunistic program. The safety mechanism (in the form of self-destruction) is part of the program.

    1. I like Danny Brower and Ajit Varki's proposition that what you call "opportunism" is denial of reality, evolved by mutation along with extended theory of mind 100-150,000 years ago, giving our ancestors the decisive advantage over our hominid relative and power to conquer the world, develop religion and civilization, technology and the "natural" predisposition to extinguish ourselves.


  3. Cheers, Prof. Bardi!

    Glad to see it is not all gloom and doom. Beer and bread made Enkidu ,the Wild Man, happy......

  4. As a small child, I insisted in pulling the hairs out of a goat at the zoo.

    I was warned not to, (although not of the likely outcome) but it was irresistible, and seemed such great fun, with no conceivable downside.

    Then,the goat took matters in hand (hoof),and butted me to the ground.

    I have never forgotten that lesson, but I suppose that societies which do something analogous to Nature just get erased, and no one is left to remember and act on the lesson.

  5. Good to know why the things are the way they are:

  6. the reference back the area of our hunter gatherer forebears is very apt

    their lives were as focussed on the acquisition of energy resources as ours are.

    the basic difference is that while we construct millions of jobs around the business of energy getting and consumption, they just killed, and ate--a direct conversion that was convenient but which could not support a civilised infrastructure.

    they took what they needed from passing herds---there was always another antelope to be killed for more meat-energy when required.
    they lived well, and it's on record that they were on average 6'' taller than us.

    unfortunately our brains haven't developed since then, we regard our energy resources in the same way as they regarded theirs, that there would always be more.

    this is why warnings about peak oil etc will never be heeded.---we still have hunter-gatherer brains that tell us there will always be more energy to harvest when we go to get it---ie---through fuel pumps and supermarket shelves.

    in prehistoric times, there were times when the energy stores in animal herds failed to show up. when that happened, people died. There can be little doubt that our forebears did what we are doing now... offering prayers, listening to the promises of misguided leaders, warring with other tribes to steal their energy resources

    our future really is that precarious---it will be a mirror of our past

  7. Thing is, as soon as homo un-sapieans acquire enough excess calories---either by increasing their hunting or fishing technical abilities, by having the women grow crops, or by capturing slaves they soon grow bored and start wars. When other species fight to the death its invariably about territory or females, but homo testosteroneus seems to be the one species that does it for fun.

    At least there is a good chance that the Orange Tweeter and Little Rocket Man are both mentally unstable enough that they will help solve the problem of population overshoot.

  8. Hi Dr Bardi,

    A number of years ago, I read an excellent article of yours entitled "The Universal Mining Machine". I came across that article again recently, just by chance while browsing around on the web.

    Upon reading your article again, it got me thinking. I decided to write my own article which explores that topic and takes it in new directions.

    I am not an expert about mining or chemistry (I have a math/econ background). Please let me know if you think I got anything wrong. I think it is possible to untangle the problem with several people looking at it.

    Best wishes,
    -Tom S

  9. Oops, I forgot to include the link to the article. Silly me. Here:

    Best wishes,
    -Tom S

    1. Tom, you make an interesting point, but you don't really quantify it. You are right that if we were to use a "Bardi Machine" (thanks!) we would use it "in parallel" to produce all the elements at once, and that would considerably reduce the cost. Then, you correctly apply it to elements such as copper, nickel, lithium, and rare earths. Theoretically, it would not be impossible to produce them from crustal rock for a non-astronomical expenditure of energy.

      But that doesn't hold for very rare elements: think of indium: less than one part per BILLION in the crust. It is true that we don't need so much of it, but for each kg of indium produced by the Bardi machine we would have a million ton of glass. Not very practical, I'd say.

      Then, another point that I mention both in the book and in the article, is that - as in all industrial processes - there is an input and an output. The latter is referred to as "pollution". Now, think of the effect of these giant lumbering Bardi machines, crushing rock everywhere and spewing sand all over. Not a small problem!

      However, I think your attitude is correct. I disagree with the truly doomerish idea that we are condemned to go back to Middle Ages, or even to hunting and gathering. We are not doomed, we will be able to continue mining in the future, but we'll have to drastically limit the number of elements that we use. Use little, use wisely, recycle ferociously, this is the essence of the circular economy that we can learn from the way the ecosystem does it.

    2. I grant your point. Some kinds of recycling will be needed.

      I updated my article. I added a paragraph about recycling to the conclusion. I also re-worded the few opening paragraphs which were clumsily written before.

      "But that doesn't hold for very rare elements: think of indium: less than one part per BILLION in the crust."

      Even with indium, it appears that careful recycling could allow us to sustain its usage indefinitely. Bardi's machines would output ~7 tonnes of indium per year, without additional energy expenditure, as a side-effect of obtaining the more common elements. At present, the world uses something like 166 tonnes of indium per year, but most of that is for new devices and not from recycled material. Stringent recycling (99% or greater) could reduce the amount of _new_ indium required per year to a few tonnes, which is below the amount that Bardi's machines would provide without increasing our energy expenditure.

      The recycling could be accomplished by just peeling off the thin outer layer from your smart phone screen, then throwing it into the Bardi machine.

      As for pollution. The limited usage of Bardi's machines (as I described in the article) would not cause more pollution than now.

      -Tom S

  10. Dear Ugo,
    for me it is crystal clear that these concepts will not move into "the general consciousness of humankind". The reason is that despite our selfconsiousness and intelligence (?) as individuals, we are animals. Thus, our behaviour as a living species is not different from any other. The result is that in absence of a predator or limiting factor, we will grow till the point we will deplete the substrate that allows our living (pretty much like wine bacteria, or any other!)

  11. This blog is full thought provoking posts.

    A point about the whaling industry. Although it is a very useful precedent, I still struggle to use it to grasp the more complex situation with fossil fuels. With FF like oil I imagine we have more of an onion peel situation. Every layer of the oil reserve is depleted following a whaling/Hubbert curve, but beneath it is yet another massive layer of lower grade oil. In other words, every new layer changes basic variables like cost and EROEI, so collectively all the layers can't be simplified as one big Hubbert curve.

    This vexing feedback loop with the economy that we are now starting too experience, with each new lower grade layer we tap into slowing us down makes it harder to understand. I guess that is why we are starting to see we will wheeze to a halt long before we run out of oil.

    1. It is more like a wedding cake. You start with the cherry on top, and you go down, layer by layer. In the end, you have only cardboard

    2. Yes, the cake starts with a cherry, and at each layer a bit more sawdust is added to the mix! At some stage no matter how much you eat it just doesn't work anymore. Unless you are a termite. Maybe we should all become termites.

      I would love to see a chart showing the different grades of fossil fuels and their estimated quantities. In my mind I imagine this could be shown like a population pyramid. I have a suspicion that the shape of this pyramid would reveal some clues about out future.

    3. You can find a graph that may interest you here:

    4. Thanks (belatedly) for the link Ugo, looking at it now... very good.

  12. You have a 2013 post that says US natural gas peaked at ~25,000,000 MCF/month in end 2012.

    Here are the actual data for 2013 on (EIA, gross withdrawals, MMCF, US natgas, same exact time series and source you used):

    2013 (JAN-DEC):

    2,512,031 2,269,907 2,504,000 2,446,307 2,488,677 2,385,386 2,512,441 2,495,089 2,414,405 2,513,172 2,455,169 2,525,967

    2014 (JAN-DEC)

    2,580,019 2,356,978 2,623,914 2,583,873 2,633,253 2,560,033 2,629,156 2,644,937 2,625,503 2,735,719 2,661,917 2,770,080

    2015 (JAN-DEC)

    2,790,052 2,520,509 2,827,524 2,758,730 2,790,849 2,660,158 2,756,222 2,744,748 2,721,449 2,806,078 2,726,220 2,812,110

    2016 (JAN-DEC)

    2,828,428 2,656,151 2,828,024 2,680,613 2,786,681 2,636,140 2,730,488 2,725,751 2,630,104 2,718,264 2,672,624 2,742,243

    2017 (JAN-JUL)

    2,733,281 2,509,192 2,780,292 2,684,332 2,772,441 2,682,083 2,750,157

    The time series is way above your Gaussian, averaging 2.46, 2.61, 2.74, 2.72, and 2.70 for the years from 2013 to 2017 partial.

    Small technical nit: you should adjust to production per day. (There is a reason why February always has less production.)

    Larger technical nit: You are way overfitting a curve to put that maximum in there, that you did in 2013. Step aside from politics or beliefs. What if this was a degenerate semiconductor (like ITO) and you were evaluating the maximum conductivity versus temperature. I have actually done this and the equipment can be quite noisy. I would never have called a maximum based on that time series, just looking at the data. Ask yourself seriously, if someone just handed you that data and asked you to fit it, could you justify more than two paramaters (level and slope)?

    Content point: Natural gas has some dynamics similar to electricity in that it is hard to store (not as hard, but much harder than oil). It is also very variable in demand (there is a seasonal cycle, but in addition there are large differences for colder, milder winters). This is very well known in the industry. It affects pricing and then affects production. It is not at all strange to have a slower production year after a mild winter, when storage is more full than expected in spring. This is why production was slower (than trend) in 2012 and 2013 and higher in 2014 than trend and again slower than trend last couple years. You can actually see this very clearly by just looking at price or heating degree days for North America.

    You have to beware of this sort of noise (more than month to month chatter, year to year noise). The overall trend is up just like the overall global temp trend is up. Don't hoot over temporary declines in gas production or in global temp. The trend for both is up.

    1. I think you refer to this one, right?

      The data I have, updated to Aug 2016, seem to confirm that the US natural gas production has peaked. You can find the graphs here:

      But, of course, it is still too early to say with certainty. That's why I put a question mark in the title of my 2013 post. We do what we can, but predictions remain difficult, especially when dealing with the future.

    2. 2016 had a very warm winter at the beginning. This meant less demand and lower prices. That depressed production. See discussion here:

      2018 is projected to be a new record for gas production. US will become a net exporter as new LNG trains come online. This will support prices at ~$3, which will lead to higher production than in 2016 or 2017. (see Table 1, about halfway through, page 26 of the pdf, Dry Natural Gas Production towards top of the table)

    3. Everything has a reason, sure, but production is not increasing anymore.

    4. So if we have a year (or two) with no temperature increase, does this mean global warming is bunk? No. You have a function with a long term trend. But there are extraneous factors capable of causing a year or two to be off trend.

      For natural gas, the simplest thing is to look at price. If price is up and production is dropping, than that means supply is challenged to serve the market. It can't keep up. If prices are low, storage is full, than that means demand was low. That means low demand caused low production.

      This can be expressed mathematically. We live in a multifactorial world. Crowing about lower production last year or two is like assuming the maximum that you did in 2012. It is overfitting the data. (Please tell me you would not do this with temperature-resistance data on an electronic material, with a noisy instrument!)



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)