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

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Return of the Black Death? The Coronavirus as an Agent of Population Collapse

Always plan for the worst-case hypothesis!  

The four horsemen of the apocalypse by Albrecht Durer (1498): famine, plague, war, and death itself. For sure, the ancients understood that collapses come from a combination of several different factors. It is the essence of what I call the "Seneca Effect." Today, if the coronavirus remains isolated as a threat to human life, it won't cause a population decline. But if the other horsemen intervene, then things could change for the worse.

The data about the coronavirus epidemic are starting to look scary. Yes, the Chinese government has taken draconian measures. And it is also true that the spreading of the infection in China is slowing down. So, if nothing unexpected happens, it is likely that the epidemy will be contained. But, as we all know, the real world always has ways to surprise us. So, let's drop for a while the "likely" adjective and ask the uncomfortable question: what is the worst that can happen? Could we see a serious collapse of the world's population?  

As usual, if we want to understand the future, we need first to understand the past. So, let's look at some data for the greatest pandemics of the past, those that swept Europe during the Middle Ages and afterward:

European Population in history (from Langer, W. L. The Black Death. Sci. Am. 210, 114–121 (1964))

These data are somewhat uncertain, but there is a general agreement that the great plague of the 14th century (correctly termed "Black Death") wiped out about 40% of the European population, some say more than that. As worst cases go, this is surely one.

Could a new plague do the same to us? Why not? If it happened in the past, it could happen again. But, of course, it can happen only if similar conditions will occur. If we examine the case of the European plagues in detail, we see that they never struck at random times, they struck already troubled populations. Viruses and bacteria are opportunistic creatures that tend to expand when they find a weak target.

In the case of the 14th century Black Death, it hit Europe after the failure of the attempt to expand to the East with the crusades. Europe found itself overpopulated, in the midst of a social and cultural crisis, and with no way out. The result was a series of famines, internecine wars, and social and political turmoil that opened the door for the plague to strike. Something similar happened with the second main plague burst of the 17th century. It arrived after the 30-years war had destroyed the very fabric of European society, creating poverty, famines, and the displacement of entire populations.

The rule that pandemics come with famines holds also for the last (so far) great world pandemic: the Spanish flu of 1918-1920. It was associated with the extensive famines generated by the first world war. Unlike the case of the Black Death, though, the Spanish flu struck against a background of economic expansion and population growth. By all means, it was a disaster: it may have killed about 1-2% of the world population of the time (that is 20-50 million victims out of a population of about 2 billion). But it barely caused a dent in the population growth curves of the 20th century. Other modern epidemics, AIDS, Ebola, SARS, etc., either do not exist in the West or, as in the case of AIDS, are expanding only in poor countries suffering from lack of food and poor health care systems (again, so far).

Conversely, famines can cause extensive depopulation even when not associated with plagues. A good example is the Irish famine of 1848. It wiped out about half of the Irish population in a few years, but it was not associated with a specific human disease. Sometimes, you don't even need famines to cause depopulation: social and economic stress is enough. A good example in modern times is that of Ukraine, where the population started declining in the early 1990s and it is still declining after the loss of some 20% of the total. There were no epidemics nor famines involved: the Ukrainians died as the result of a combination of poor quality food, lack of health care facilities, bad government, depression, heavy drugs, alcohol, and more.

  Ukrainian population – data from the World Bank

There is a general rule, here: disasters never come alone (when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions). It is because when a complex system is in overshoot, it is fragile: it is sensible to even minor perturbations from the outside. These perturbations tend to generate a cascade of failures that brings the whole system down. It is the essence of what I call the "Seneca Effect" stating that growth is slow, but decline is rapid.  

Coming back to the coronavirus of today, we can conclude that it won't cause great disasters as long as it remains alone in attacking humankind. The world is not seeing large wars and it is not suffering from major famines. So, even if the virus were to spread outside China, maybe it could kill 1% of the current population. That would be a terrible disaster, of course, but it wouldn't change the growth trajectory of the world population, just like the Spanish flu didn't.

Yes, but, as I said at the beginning, reality has plenty of ways to surprise you. Maybe you don't need major famines or wars for a population to be weakened enough to be a good target for a viral attack. 

Think of pollution: in large part, it is a modern phenomenon. At the time of the Spanish flu, people were hungry, but not carrying in their bodies the amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, chemicals, microplastics, and other weird stuff we all have nowadays. And they didn't live in a hot world with 410 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as we do. To say nothing about the rapid decline of the health care services, the poor quality of the average diet, the spread of alcohol and heavy drugs, the health effects of depression, the damage done by bad governments, and don't forget the risk of being shot. 

As a result, the population of many Western countries seems to have started to move along the same trajectory that the Ukrainian population started to follow 30 years ago. Life expectancy has been declining in the West starting with 2014.

Life expectancy in selected Western countries. Data from World Bank

In addition to the already weakened population, there is another factor that may favor the plague horseman: the economic crisis that's being created by the fear of the virus. Don't forget that if nearly 8 billion people can survive in the world today, it is because they can purchase food and have it delivered to them by means of that stupendous commercial system that we call "globalization" and its container ships crisscrossing the oceans. But if people stop moving and goods stop being transported, then food will stop being shipped to the places where it is needed. As a result, one more of the four horsemen, famine, will start galloping. And the third horseman, war, may decide to start galloping too, taking with him the last one, death. Then, yes, we could see a new Black Death.

Don't forget that this is a scenario: a story that we are telling to each other. It is up to us to make sure that it remains a story and it doesn't become reality. The future is never predictable, we can only be prepared for it.

A comment by Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning-Druger

"And here you are, Mr. Bardi. I knew you would have arrived to this: I figure that you and your friends of the Club of Rome must be very happy, now. Isn't the coronavirus exactly what you always wanted? From the very beginning, the Club of Rome has been working at planning the extermination of most of humankind. And now the flag of the enemies of humankind has been taken by the little monster called Greta Thunberg. But we know who you are and we know what you are doing. If your plan ever becomes reality, we'll know who are the criminals behind it."


  1. to the invisible micro biotic world, the gargantuan ever growing human macro scale biomass is just an untapped resource to grow into and be exploited. we are viewed with envious 'eyes' from the micro cosmos below. the more the human biomass meat balloon grows and builds protective shields and walls around themselves against the microbial enemy, the greater is their desire to invade. be patient, my dear invisible single celled friends for the vast tasty meat bubble of human flesh will soon be available to you. and the world will rejoice in our deflation and will be able to breathe again. the only thing stopping the inevitable mindless future invasion and orgy of consumption is our own present invasion and mindless orgy of consumption. the short term windfall of technology and stability was gifted to us by the free energy surplus of fossil fuel detritus we have glutted and feasted upon without heed of future consequences, at least as much as any microbe would. all we have done is delay the inevitable day of rekoning. every vaccine and antibiotic we create to avoid the harsh but necessary ongoing assimilation back into the biosphere system just builds up pressure over time. our energy detritus walls will inevitably entropy and crumble away, leaving the bloated body within to attack. such walls are a mixed blessing. they seem fine as long as they hold

  2. The question for Humanity is will be Caretakers of the finite Planet Earth - or Exploiters?

    Will we voluntarily limit breeding - allowing room for other living entities - or will we take it all. Is Soylent Green the future?

    Is Endless War, Aggression, and Destruction an answer - or the problem?

    It seems that only when Humanity reaches resource limits - that those questions will be answered.

    Are we Homo Sapiens? NO!

    We are Human Collosus!

    "Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse
    by William Catton

    (Excerpt from Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change)
    Unrecognized Preview

    The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature's dwindling legacy of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the outcomes their actions would incur".

  3. Abstract:

    Ukraine has experienced a long-term decline in life expectancy since the late 1960s. While spectacular improvement in longevity has been observed in Western countries, the trend in Ukraine has been accompanied by increasing or stagnating mortality. Although many studies indicate that alcohol is one of the leading contributors to low life expectancy in Eastern Europe, little is known about its impact on premature mortality in Ukraine. The aim of this study is to estimate alcohol-attributable deaths at working ages (20-64) in Ukraine. We investigate the contribution of alcohol to adult mortality between 1980 and 2007 using a new method for estimating alcohol-attributable fractions by causes of death. We also assess the public health burden of alcohol in terms of length of life losses. We find that in 2007 alcohol-related deaths constituted 40% and 22% of all deaths among adult men and women, respectively. The results also indicate that alcohol-related deaths at working ages account for approximately one-third of the male and one-fifth of the female life expectancy difference between Ukraine and western countries. Alcohol is an important public health threat in Ukraine and should be addressed by relevant measures.

    * Nataliia Levchuk Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

    These people are living Doom! Alcohol is only one part of the problems there. Alcohol deaths in Ukraine this year will likely exceed those killed by Corona is my opinion.


  5. Today's Bento Box Brunch with a Side of Coronavirus.


  6. Chinese (and Russians) know exactly who and when brought the epidemics to Wuhan. It was three member MI6 agent team that landed in Wuhan on January 16 (flight CZ674) They returned on January 20 (flight BA27). This was bio-terrorist attack. The virus itself was created in famous UK laboratory in Salisbury.

    With such events we always must ask the question "cui bono"? In this case West benefits from problems in China. West wants to stop fast economic growth of China.

    More useful info here:

  7. This coronavirus will not itself kill enough people to dent let alone reverse the 80 million annual population growth. If it breaks out as a global pandemic (as still seems likely) it might kill 10, 20 maybe 40 million worldwide before vaccines are developed and natuaral immunity begins to control it.

    However, the disruption and chaos that will result as nations try and fail to control its spread will severely disrupt out just in time economy and debt based fiat money systems. People could well end up starving as the food lies rotting in the fields and store houses as already is beginning to happen in China, with tens of millions in military controlled cerfiews imposed in a attempt to control the virus. The treatment could well kill more people than the disease.

    1. Quite likely indeed. Often humanity´s response to a certain problem creates a bigger problem. There is such a risk also with some of the proposed actionas against climate change (geo-engineering etc.)

  8. First off Mr. Bardi, I am so sorry to see the comments from your "personal troll".
    The last one is truly sinister.
    That said, thank you for trying to point out that any one threat to civilization as we know it interacts with everything else, often in unpredictable ways. Failing crops due to climate change create migrations...perhaps country A damming a river that impacts country B who sends in their military. Country A's supporter mobilizes troops, ships etc...Country B's sponsor does same. Nukes get Y enters in...Nuclear winter?.Anyway, everything is connected, and any action never has an ending.
    We should have paid more attention to all the Greek warnings of Hubris.

    1. Yes, a little sinister. But if you search the Web, you'll find plenty of comments like that one. The Club of Rome has been accused to planning exterminations already long ago. Lyndon Larouche wrote that in his 1983 book "There are no limits to growth"

  9. Since 1972 I agreed with the Club of Rome that our present path is unsustainable and the chances of survival of civilisation are small, mankind obviously being unable to change its trajectory. Some years ago together with some friends we came to the conclusion that one of our few chances would be a sharp (>50 percent) decline of the population by infective disease. This is not so farfetched, since increasing antibiotic resistance could give rise to supervirulent supergerms. I do not think however that coronavirus with its estimated case fatality rate of ca. 2,5 percents (mainly among the old and previously sick) will give us this chance. Now if thats good luck or bad luck I leave everyone to decide for himself.

  10. I see from the Club of Rome - and truly agree:

    "The global financial system is currently at the service of an outdated economic paradigm. It acts as a means of wealth accumulation for a narrow elite, whilst disregarding the negative externalities of environmental damage and social inequalities. A new, sustainable finance system will be a core pillar of a new economy which serves both humanity and the planet. The monetisation of all transactions will need to be re-visited to enhance the equitable distribution of wealth and ensure broader well-being of all peoples. This means putting conscious effort and science into moving away from finance as a value system benefiting the few to accelerating a move toward real economy wealth creation for the many".

    That is one part of the problem with Humanity - but there exists another curious aspect of Humanity - and that is:

    "While the genetic similarity between human and ape strengthened Darwin's theory, a significant, unexplained discrepancy remained. While great apes all have 48 chromosomes (24 pairs), humans have only 46 (23 pairs). If humans and apes shared a common ancestor, shouldn't both have the same number of chromosomes in their cells?

    The phases through which chromosomes replicate, divide, shuffle, and recombine are imperfect, as DNA is subject to random mutations. Mutations do not always produce harmful outcomes. In fact, many mutations are thought to be neutral, and some even give rise to beneficial traits. To corroborate Darwin's theory, scientists would need to find a valid explanation for why a chromosome pair is missing in humans that is present in apes.

    In 2005, a peer-reviewed scientific journal published results of the tests. It turns out that chromosome 2, which is unique to the human lineage of evolution, emerged as a result of the head-to-head fusion of two ancestral chromosomes that remain separate in other primates. Three genetic indicators provide strong, if not conclusive, evidence of fusion".

    Humanity itself appears to be an unnatural species born via genetic engineering. Going out on a limb - Humanity was created by Gods - but was created as not quite Gods. We were able to create Industrial Civilization but not able to maintain it once the finite resources of Planet Earth confronted our limited understanding and knowledge to a limited technology which presented limits to growth.

    I must agree with Lukas - "Since 1972 I agreed with the Club of Rome that our present path is unsustainable and the chances of survival of civilization are small, mankind obviously being unable to change its trajectory".

    Perhaps then we can conclude that Humanity existed for a short time to transform the Planet to prepare for the next species to arise - we are but a stepping stone - it is evident in our genes.

  11. This virus is created using gene editing to infect population in targeted country. It is not intended to solve the problem of global population growth. The global population growth can be and only will be solved by reaching natural limits to growth.

    1. IN other words: Natural limits to growth will be achieved by Overshoot and Collapse.

      2020 = 20/20.

      "In the great calendar - the Age of Pisces is turning to that of Aquarius.

      When astrologers speak about the Age of Aquarius they are describing a phenomenon that refers to the earth’s movement backward (or in “retrograde” motion) into the sign of Aquarius. As you know, there are 11 other signs of the zodiac — the earth will retrograde in each one. It will take the earth 25,868 years to visit all 12 signs. If you divide 25,868 by 12 signs, you will get roughly 2,100 years to a particular “age”".

      Aquarius is the Water Bearer - and Water washes away all sins.

      During the Golden Age - described by Plato - it would seem that water levels were lower and that a technology which allowed massive megalithic structures to be built - was present.

      Industrial Civilization - and it's technology - will be but a transient pulse as per Richard Duncan:

      Since the Coronavirus is bringing China to a standstill - and possibly a revolution - affecting world-wide supply chains - a domino effect may occur. Limits to growth have already been exceeded. We are merely waiting for the consequences to appear.

    2. In some way you are right. Those who released virus as a weapon against China are not fully aware of the consequences. They are willing to sacrifice some private companies dependent on China manufacturing. They think that they can survive loss of some private businesses for the sake of strategic advantage.

      I am not sweet person by nature. If I were Chinese I would retaliate with terrifying cruelty. May be they are more gentle.

      In the end it seems that higher intellectual capacity does not serve human race well. It seems that particular mutation is self-destructive in nature. My late father was big fan of Italian TV sitcom "La Piovra" (The Octopus). For the English speaking readers of this blog it would suffice to say that the main character, police inspector Corrado Cattani, is fighting Italian mafia. But he is not only fighting bad guys. He also has to fight invisible net of interests connecting mafia with authorities, so other policemen are not really helping him. When I asked my father why he likes the sitcom so much he said: "Because the real life is just like that." And I replied to him: "No, the real life is even worse."

    3. Folks, please avoid theorizing about things we know little about. For a good assessment of what we know/don't know, take a look at this post by Amarynth on the Saker's blog.

  12. The number of infections reported is leveling off. China has the virus under control. Hope a vaccine is available in the next 6 months.
    Note: the step in reported infections on Feb 13 is due to a change in the way infections are reported.

    1. Yes, reasonably it could be contained. Reasonably....

  13. From the Saker article: "China is attacking her own people to reduce population" - what a nonsense! Few years ago China canceled it's long term "one child" policy because they calculated that for the growth they are pursuing they need more children. There is no way they want to reduce population. Population is their greatest economic strength.

  14. There is no point that Chinese would develop virus to attack Westerners. The market for the Chinese products is in the West. Why would they kill the consumers of their products, those who are the source of their income? All circumstantial evidence points to the West as the criminal.

    You see, Westerners are for free market only as long as they dominate in the free market. As soon as their domination faces strong competition, they are not only against free market, they want to kill the competition.

  15. Regarding that 410 ppm CO2

    East Africa is in the midst of a crisis that sounds like something out of the Book of Exodus: A plague of locusts is spreading across the region, threatening the food supply of tens of millions. City-sized swarms of the dreaded pests are wreaking havoc as they descend on crops and pasturelands, devouring everything in a matter of hours. The scale of the locust outbreak, which now affects seven East African countries, is like nothing in recent memory.
    The insects behind the mayhem are desert locusts, which, despite their name, thrive following periods of heavy rainfall that trigger blooms of vegetation across their normally arid habitats in Africa and the Middle East. Experts say a prolonged bout of exceptionally wet weather, including several rare cyclones that struck eastern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula over the last 18 months, are the primary culprit. The recent storminess, in turn, is related to the the Indian Ocean Dipole, an ocean temperature gradient that was recently extremely pronounced, something that’s also been linked to the devastating bushfires in eastern Australia.
    "The hyperactive cyclone season that brought heavy rain to the Arabian Peninsula was driven by a strong positive phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole–the same pattern that stoked record drought in Australia,” says Bob Henson, a meteorologist at Weather Underground.

    Recent research suggests this pattern could become more common in a warming world.

    1. If only there was some way of harvesting and preserving all these locusts for food. Maybe huge nets to capture them and then large solar drying facilities to preserve them?

  16. Nice work Ugo, well reasoned. Here in NZ we feel very smug and secure. I'm about to jump on to a long haul jet. Smugness zero.

    Nice to have a personal troll. Your enlightenment matched by his darkness. Yin and yang. Still it keeps the world in balance. I have enjoyed your work for years. Thank you.




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)