Monday, January 14, 2019

What Happened in 2015 that Changed the World? "Peak Cement" may Signal the Turning Point of Civilization

"Peak Cement" may have taken place in 2015, stopping the exponentially growing curve that would have led us to turn the Earth into a bowling ball, similar to the fictional planet Trantor, Galactic capital in Isaac Asimov's series "Foundation" (image source).

When giving an example of an exponentially growing production curve, I used to cite cement production. Look at the data up to 2013: a beautiful growing curve with a doubling time of -- very roughly -- 10 years. Then, if we assume that the current concrete covered area in the world is about 2%  (an average of the data by Schneider et al., 2009 and the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, 2004) then we would get to Trantor -- bowling ball planet -- in some 50 years.

Of course that wasn't possible, but it was still a surprise to discover how abrupt the change has been: here are the most recent data (the value for 2018 is still an estimate from

Impressive, right? Steve Rocco, smart as usual, had already noticed this trend in 2017, but now it is clearer. It looks like a peak, it has the shape of a peak, it gives the impression of a peak. Most likely it is a peak -- actually, it could be the start of an irreversible decline in the global cement production.

Now, what caused the decline? If you look at the disaggregated data, it is clear that the slowdown was mainly created by China, but not just by China. Several countries in the world are going down in terms of cement production -- in Italy, the decline started in 2010.

My impression -- that I share with the one proposed by Rocco -- is that this is not a blip in the curve, nor a special case among the various mineral commodities produced nowadays. It is a symptom of a general problem: it may be the clearest manifestation of the concept of "peak civilization" that the 1972 "Limits to Growth" study had placed for some moment during the 1st or 2nd decades of the 21st century.

Peak Cement is not alone another major peak was detected by Antonio Turiel for diesel fuel in 2015.

And, of course, we know that another major commodity went through a global peak in 2014: coal. (data from


So, are we really facing "peak civilization"? It is hard to say. On a time scale of a few years, many things could change and, in any case, you don't expect peaking to take place at the same time for all mineral commodities, everywhere. A strong indication that the whole world system is peaking would come from the behavior of the global GDP. Rocco had proposed that also the GDP had peaked in 2015, but the data available at present are insufficient to prove that.

In any case, it has been said that we would see the great peak "in the rear mirror"and this may well be what we are seeing. Whatever is happening it will be clearer in the future but, if it is really "the peak", expect the Seneca cliff to open up in front of us in the coming years. And maybe it won't be such a bad thing(*): did we really want to turn the Earth into a bowling ball?

(*) Antonio Turiel lists in a post of his (in Spanish) all the advantages ensuing from a societal collapse: reducing emissions, less pollution, a saner society and more)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Future as Seen by the Doomers. It Will be the Seneca Rebound!

Recently, RE (Reverse Engineer) of the famed "Doomsday Diner" carried out an opinion poll among the people frequenting some of the most doomeristic/catastrophistic/millennialistic sites of the Web (including Ugo Bardi's blog, Cassandra's Legacy).

Refreshingly, a majority of the members of this group of hard-liners are in favor of renewable energy! Only 36% of the group think that renewable energy is useless, while 57% think it will power a sustainable technological civilization.

So, maybe you are one of those people who feel it is their duty to pester the discussions on this subject with your favorite statement that goes as "renewable energy plants are built using energy coming from fossil fuels, therefore will never be anything but fossil fuel extenders." Then, know that not only you are wrong, you also understood nothing of the concept of EROI, and, finally, you are also a minority even among the minority of the millennialists of the Web.

Yes, the transition will not be easy, but renewable energy is the future of humankind. It is the Seneca Rebound, baby!

Monday, January 7, 2019

"Energy Dominance," what does it mean? Decoding a Fashionable Slogan

"Now, I know for a fact that American energy dominance is within our grasp as a nation.” Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (source)

"All Warfare is Based on Deception" Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Over nearly a half-century, since the time of Richard Nixon, American presidents have proclaimed the need for "energy independence" for the US, without ever succeeding in attaining it. During the past few years, it has become fashionable to say that the US has, in fact, become energy independent, even though it is not true. And, doubling down on this concept, there came the idea of "energy dominance," introduced by the Trump administration in June 2017.  It is now used at all levels in the press and in the political debate.

No doubt, the US has good reasons to be bullish on oil production. Of the three major world producers, it is the only one growing: it has overtaken Saudi Arabia and it seems to be poised to overtake Russia in a few years. (graphic source).

This rebound in the US production after the decline that started in the early 1970s is nearly miraculous. And the miracle as a name: shale oil. A great success, sure, but, if you think about it, the whole story looks weird: the US is trying to gain this "dominance" by means of resources which, once burned, will be forever gone. It is like people competing at who is burning their own house faster. What sense does it make?

Art Berman keeps telling us that shale oil is an expensive resource that could be produced at a profit only for market conditions that are unrealistic to expect. So far, much more money has been poured into shale oil production than it has returned from the sales of shale oil. "Energy dominance" seems to be just an elaborate way to lose money and resources. Again, what sense does that make?

But there is a logic in the term "energy dominance." It has to do with the way slogans are used in politics: a slogan is not just a compact way of expressing a certain political concept, it is often a coded message that hides much more than it says. So, we know that "bringing democracy" to a foreign country means to bomb it to smithereens. "Make America great again" means subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. "The Indispensable Country" means, "The American Empire." And more.

There is nothing wrong in using coded slogans: you only have to know how to decode them. So, "energy dominance" has to be decoded and turned into "military dominance." Then, things start making sense.

One quick note before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist: I am reasonably sure that there is no "control room" in a dark basement of the Pentagon or of the White House deciding long-term economic and military objectives. The decision mechanism of modern states is collective and networked. It is akin to that of anthills: there is nobody in charge, plenty of people push in different directions and, eventually, the giant structure may start moving in a certain direction.

So, the fact that so much money has been directed toward the exploitation of shale oil and gas doesn't mean that someone at the top decided that it was the thing to be done. It is simply, that investors tend to direct their financial resources where they think they'll have returns, and that may well be the result of a collective hallucination. Investing in shale oil is, basically, a Ponzi scheme but if Ponzi schemes exist there is a reason for them to exist. Even if investing in something doesn't generate overall profits, it moves money, benefits contractors, raises the GDP, and the more money is invested the more expectations of profits grow. And so it goes until the bubble bursts, but that may take time.

But there is more than that in this story: it is the military side. We all know that wars are won by the side that can pour more resources into the fight. It was in this way that the first and the second world war were won: the allies could produce more energy in the form of oil, coal, and gas. And, with these energy sources, they could produce more stuff: planes, tanks, cannons, bombs, bullets, and more stuff that was thrown at the Germans until they gave up. Matthieu Auzeannau gives us plenty of examples of this mechanism in his book "Oil, Power, and War." The Germans were always lacking enough oil to power their military machine and that's why they were doomed from the beginning.

For the military, the lesson of the past world wars is that wars are won by the side which has the largest oil supply. And they remember it. So, if you want to attain military dominance, energy independence is not enough, you need to attain energy dominance.

Everything makes sense also in view of some recent results on the statistical patterns of wars. Wars, it seems, are correlated to the thermodynamic phenomenon of entropy dissipation in complex systems. The more energy there is to dissipate, the faster it is dissipated. And if this dissipation is really fast, it may take the shape of a war -- war is the fastest way to destroy (dissipate) accumulated resources. But, in order to dissipate resources, you need to accumulate them first, and that's the role of shale oil in the current situation.

Which means that shale oil is not a natural resource, it is a military resource. As such, it doesn't matter if it brings a profit or not for the investors. What matters is how it can be used to maintain and expand that gigantic social and economic structure that we call "Globalization" (another slogan that can be decoded as "the global empire").

As long as the production of shale oil increases, we face the risk of a new, major world war. We can only hope that the shale bubble bursts by itself first. One more good reason why a Seneca Collapse of oil production would be good for all of us.

Friday, January 4, 2019

How do you Stop the Arms Race? By Starting a New War, for Instance

Do you see a ghostly Seneca Cliff in this graph? (source)

There is a good rule that you should always be careful when extrapolating your data, especially over the long term. And there is an even better rule saying that you should never, never extrapolate an exponential growth. The uncertainty in the data of an exponentially growing curve increases exponentially, too, and that makes your extrapolation meaningless very soon.

But, in the figure above, they extrapolated an exponentially growing curve for the military expenses of the US and China over more than 30 years!  The origin of that curve above seems to be the RAND Corporation. I couldn't find the original source, but it has been reproduced in the blog of the Wall Street Journal and on Zero Hedge

It looks like someone seriously proposed this extrapolation. But consider a few numbers: according to the chart, by 2050 the US would spend more than 20% of its present GdP for the military! (it is now about 3%). It might be possible if the US GdP were to increase in proportion. But, from the graph, they assume a growth of nearly a factor of 5 (from ca. 600 billion dollars, today, to 2.9 trillion in little more than 30 years. It means that the GdP should double at least twice in 30 years, that is, the US economy should grow at the rate of 6% (twice the current rate!) every year for the next 30 years. Otherwise, the US government would bankrupt itself even faster than it is doing now. 

Now, you might want to dismiss this graph as one of the many silly forecasts that are part of the everyday chat on how this or that sector of the economy is going to grow -- and therefore everyone should invest on it. But, there is something in this idea that military expenses are going to rise in the future. It has to do with a typical enhancing feedback effect. One side raises its military expenses and causes the other side to do the same. And that's the feedback that creates a ladder on which both contenders climb without knowing how to step down. Another parallel effect is the financial mechanism. Large investments in military expenses create a powerful lobby representing the military-industrial complex. A powerful lobby successfully pushes for higher investments and that, in turn, creates an even more powerful lobby. It is all part of what we call "arms race."

Here is another example of an arms race: how military expenses grew in the years before the 1st World War. (from Our World in Data -- see also this link)

The impression is that, by 1913, nobody knew how to stop the race and that the only "solution" that could be found to block the ever-increasing costs was to start a war -- which they did.

The similarity of the current situation with that of the years leading to WWI has been noted more than once. So, are we going to see a new world war in the near future? We cannot say: history doesn't really repeat itself, although it does rhyme. It might not be necessary to start a new world war to stop the exponential growth of military expenses, but the data are not encouraging. A new war could really be near. And, a nuclear war could generate a Seneca Collapse so drastic and disastrous that it could really be the "war ending all wars" -- as WWI should have been -- at least those not fought with clubs and stone axes only.


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)