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

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Could Donald Trump be the Last World Emperor? States and Empires After the End of the Fossil Age

Empires are short-lived structures created and kept together by the availability of mineral resources, fossil fuels in our times. They tend to decline and fall with the decline of the resources that created them, and that's the destiny of the current World Empire: the American one. Will new empires be possible with the gradual disappearance of the abundant mineral resources of the past? Maybe not, and Donald Trump could be the last world emperor in history.

A warlord named Sargon of Akkad was perhaps the first man in history to rule a true empire, around mid 2nd millennium BC in Mesopotamia. Before him, humans had been warring against each other for millennia, but the largest social structures they had developed were no larger than city-states. Gradually, new forms of social aggregation emerged: kingdoms and empires, structures kept together by a central government that, normally, involves a larger than life male figure, emperor or king, who runs the state machine using a combination of force, prestige, and gifts.

Sargon's Empire went through the normal destiny of the empires that came after it: glory and plunder at the beginning, then struggle, destruction and, finally, collapse. Nothing unusual for a cycle that would span millennia of human history. Taagenpera shows how empires come and go (image source)

The rise and fall of empires looks like a chemical reaction, flaring and then subsidizing, as a reaction running out of reactants -- then restarting when new reactants have accumulated. For empires, the reactants might have been mineral resources -- it may well be that Sargon's empire was the result of silver having become a standard medium of exchange in Mesopotamia. With silver, Sargon could pay his soldiers. With his soldiers, he could rob more silver. And, with more silver, he could pay even more soldiers -- and there you go: the road for glory and murder is open.

The Romans built up their stupendous empire using the gold and the silver of their mines in Spain. When the mines were exhausted, so was the Roman Empire, but it left such a deep impression that for more than a millennium people tried to rebuild it. Charlemagne built his Holy Roman Empire during the 9th century AD by means of newly discovered silver mines in Eastern Europe. Later on, during the 16th century, Charles V rekindled Charlemagne's idea with his empire on which the sun never sets, built on the gold coming from the Americas. But these empires, too, went through a cycle of growth and decline, in parallel with that of the resources which had created them.

The 20th century was the age of fossil empires. The British used coal to create the biggest and the most powerful empire ever built -- it faded away with the gradual decline of its coal production. Another ancient empire, Austria-Hungary, the last remnant of the concept of a European Empire, went to pieces during WWI, the only European state which didn't survive it. The attempt of Italy to re-create the Roman Empire in 1936 with the conquest of Ethiopia had the only effect of generating the shortest-lived empire in the history of the world, just five years. At least, the short saga of the Italian Empire could demonstrate that no empire can exist for long without abundant mineral resources available. With the end of WWII, only two large empires remained: the Soviet and the American one. Both were based on fossil fuels and, in particular, on the abundant crude oil they could produce. For a while, the Soviet Empire challenged the worldwide supremacy of the American Empire - but it had to give up and fold over when its oil resources became too expensive to extract and it was impossible to use them to fuel its military apparatus.

Today, the sole heir of some four and a half millennia of empire building is the American Empire, a stupendous structure that dominates the world's oceans and a large part of the world's land. But, as for older empires, the American one will last only as long as will be able to produce the resources that created it: fossil fuels. And the end can't be too far away: conventional oil production has been declining for decades in the US territory, while the production from shales can only postpone the unavoidable. It may well be that the mighty American Empire will soon follow the path of its predecessors. If this is the case, the collapse will be fast and brutal, the kind of collapse that we call sometimes "Seneca Cliff."

The whole political debate in the US reflects this situation. The Dems (or the Left) have come to embrace the Imperialist viewpoint, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. The Reps (or the Right) are no enemies of the Empire, but many of them favor retrenching within the US national borders. There is a certain logic in these positions: the political base of the Dems is in the impoverished remnants of the middle class and, for them, the only hope of survival is the economic expansion that could come from plundering foreign countries. The Reps, instead, represent the elites and, for them, the easiest way of maintaining their dominance is to plunder the American middle class.

Donald Trump represents well the view of the elites. He seems to understand (or, at least, to sense) in which direction the wind is blowing and what he is doing, apart from the exaggerated boasting, is to try to turn the parasitic imperial economy of the United States into a self-standing national economy. Not an easy task and Trump may well fail in what he is trying to do. But history never fails: empires have always gone through a cycle of growth and collapse, it is just a question of time.

So, the American Empire is destined to go, but what will come after the fall? Most likely, we'll see a situation resembling that of the fall of the Roman Empire, when there were no resources to build another large empire and Europe moved back into an age of independent cities and statelets. Nowadays, many people seem to think that the disappearance of fossil fuels would bring a return of the Middle Ages. It might happen: large organizations need a lot of energy to run and, in addition, our civilization will be badly hit by global warming. The result may be the fragmentation of the current political entities, returning to nation-states or even back to city-states. There will not be another World Empire and Donald Trump could be, if not the last emperor, the last who ruled an empire as large as the current American one.

The return to Middle Ages could be avoided, at least in part, if humankind were to invest some of the remaining resources into building an energy infrastructure based on renewable energy, but, right now, it seems that these resources will be squandered in a new series of resource wars. And so it goes, it is the great cycle of history that moves onward. Humans struggle, fight, and quarrel, but the best efforts of mice and men come to naught when they try to keep things as they are and they have been. The only unchanging thing in history is that things always change.


  1. Making predictions is difficult, especially if they're about the future. It does seem that 'collapse' is baked into our future. What that may turn out to look like is the realm of apocalyptic fiction, and there seems to be plenty of possible scenarios available to keep the imaginations piqued. The most important factor may be the speed with which this decline occurs. Will it be as long and drawn out as the centuries it seemed to take the Roman Empire to fall? Or, will it be the decades it appears to have taken the Eastern Islanders? My own bias has me thinking that given the significant way that much of humanity has come to depend on the complex systems powered by our energy fuels (and lost the ability to feed themselves in the process), it will be as electrical engineer Richard Duncan has suggested: "Although all primary sources of energy are important, the Olduvai theory identifies electricity as the quintessential end-use energy of Industrial Civilization...[A]ccording to the Olduvai schematic, world energy production per capita will decrease...[then] there will be a rash of permanent electrical blackouts worldwide. Consequently the vital...functions--communication, computation, and control--will be lost...Mother Nature then solves for us the (apparently) insuperable problem of the Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons, which the human race seems either incapable or unwilling to solve for itself. Governments have lost respect. World organizations are ineffective. Neo-tribalism is rampant. The population is over [seven] billion and counting. Global warming and emerging diseases are headlines. The reliability of the electrical power networks is failing. And the instant the power goes out, you are back in the Dark Ages." [World Energy Production, Population Growth, and the Road to Olduvai Gorge; 2001]

  2. One of your best articles yet (out of many good and thought-provoking ones).

  3. Seems to me that the biggest current problem we have is that the global financial / banking system is bust/broke/bankrupt. Current global debt is about 240 trillion dollars, more than three times global GDP. I fear that one day all banks will be working fine, and as all banks are interlinked, the next they won't, and that will be it. Game over.
    Hope for the best, prepare the worst. You could do worse than have a couple of weeks spare food and water in reserve.

  4. Anony - How can they run out of something that comes from nothing? The only thing that ends that paradigm is when there is no energy and/or matter left to purchase with their magical moneys. That or when everyone understands that it was all a ruse to begin with. My bet is on people finally finding out.

    1. We can never run out of money, but we can run out of faith in money. When we do, we will have lost the one tool that is essential to the operation of the global economy. The energy and matter may still be available, but without the market to manage it through all the extraction, conversion and distribution processes it will remain unused.

      In theory a governmental command could take the place of money and facilitate the exchange of goods and services, but that would take a globalized government in a globalized economy, something we don't have and are increasingly unlikely to get.

      Anonymous is right. One day the banks won't work and money will become unavailable. The next day people will begin to starve.

  5. Short, sweet and to the point. Yes, definitely one of your best!

  6. while the dangers brilliantly set out here are real enough, perhaps our biggest danger lies in denial.

    With the Roman empire, there came a point beyond which the empire went into contraction, but that point in time can only be seen in retrospect. Romans no doubt had leaders who promised the '' Roman Dream' would soon return for everyone
    Virtually everyone would have agreed with that, save for the doomsayers like me who would have been shouted down

    Nobody was aware that UK coal peaked in 1914, and in doing so began the slide of the empire into oblivion. If N sea oil hadnt been found in the 70s/80s, then the uk would have been a bankrupt 3rd world nation by now--still with delusions of empire.
    When the Romans left Britain in 410CE, no doubt there were promises : "We'll be back!"---but of course they never came back, and their wonderful cities fell apart here. Then Britain devolved into feuding states

    the same thing is happening in USA. Their oil peaked in 1970, they too would have collapsed had it not been for a few oilwars, and oilshales production which has staved off the inevitable.

    Trump asserts that oil will go on for 00s of years, the mindless masses believe that for the simple reason they have nothing else to believe in.

    My universal law makes it clear that the USA cannot survive as a cherent whole:

    >>>>If a nation does not produce sufficient indigenous energy from within its own borders to satisfy the needs and aspirations of its people,

    it must beg buy borrow or steal it from somewhere/one else, or sink back to the median level that the available energy supply will support<<<<<<

    so the usa will break up through denial wars, each region pretending to have the answer to catatrophic breakup, primarily it would seem somehow based on prayer and guns. ---which will eventually devolve into the horrors of theocratic dictatorships.

    the cracks are already visible along geographic, cultural and ethnic lines, together with an unawareness of the reality is closing in on them, no doubt in the same way as the last Roman emperors were unaware too, whipped the mobs up into a frenzy of denial.

    The endgame is already playing out:

  7. Has it occurred to anyone that Sargon of Akkad, Charlemagne, Charles V, et al, didn't have nuclear weapons?

    1. Of course! The American Empire (and the world) will not end with a whimper, but with a bang.

      More dramatic than just a bang really. I have heard that the sound of a nuclear detonation is like "the gates of Hell being slammed shut", very loud and ominous. Of course most people will never hear it. They won't be far enough away from ground zero.

      It seems kind of fitting that the same source of energy that enables all life on earth will be the one to end almost all human presence here. Maybe there is a God after all.

  8. There is NO alternatives to energy!

    So called "renewable" energy is when high tech devices are used to convert natural LOW DENSITY energy, sun, wind & falling water into electricity but these high tech, inefficient devices, are tightly tied to OIL & without oil, they like our SUV's, computers & most of us would not even exist!

    When we can no longer maintain our high tech "renewable" devices, that will be the end of our electricity & the grid if it hasn't already failed before then.
    OIL is a high density, fossil RESOURCE not just a "fuel" & it's essential for us & our current high energy, high consumption civilization.

    The USA will collapse like all other empires before it. What will survive if anything will consist of tribes & small towns living a very low energy form of existence, no cars, no electricity, no trains, planes or FF powered ships, everything will be made by hand, most will be walking & our population will be about 500 million, world wide if that.

    Climate heating could cause the extinction of most life on earth including us, the cause of this ongoing 6th "great" extinction where 150 to 200 species go extinct each day!

    Better get out & watch the birds, they too are in decline & many will go extinct as we have killed off too many of the INSECTS they need to survive!

    1. What will survive if anything will consist of tribes & small towns living a very low energy form of existence, no cars, no electricity, no trains, planes or FF powered ships, everything will be made by hand, most will be walking & our population will be about 500 million, world wide if that.

      Exactly! I often wonder why so few people are preparing for that world, a world which might arrive far sooner than we expect. Indeed, we should all prepare as if it will appear tomorrow.

  9. As several have already pointed out, our capacity to self-delude, both individually and collectively, is likely the biggest barrier to making rational preparations for our likely more localized lives among a myriad of post-empire societies. Interesting times these are.

  10. Real conservatives grow vegetables. Here's how.

  11. >Austria-Hungary, [...] went to pieces during WWI, the only state which didn't survive it

    Hem, am I missing something? How about Russia and the Ottoman empire? How come Austria-Hungary is the only state that did not survive WWI?

    1. Well, DiSc, Russia still existed after WWI, but you are right that I should have said "European State", because the Ottoman Empire disappeared just as the Austro-Hungarian one. Let me correct......

  12. I'm puzzled by comments and analyses that state something to the effect "it all comes down to this one singular resource," meaning electricity, money, faith in money, precious metals, fossil fuels, renewable energy, etc. Each plays its role in a complex matrix of resources that allows societies and empires to function -- for a while. Human ingenuity, labor, and willpower are also required, though they're not typically regarded as resources. Perhaps the failure of one resource triggers the nonlinear cascade failure of others until the power to persist as large social structures itself fails. Then things become granular (not medieval) or just outright perish. Isn't that what the graph of empires coming and going shows?



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)