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

Friday, March 27, 2020

What Can Collapsologists Learn From the Coronavirus Disaster?

------------------  This time, it is for real!  --------------------

Guest post by Herbert Krill
March 23, 2020

These are interesting times for collapsologists and for anyone interested in collapse. For many years, we all studied the past, historic collapses like the Fall of Ancient Rome, and speculated about future collapses. We studied Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, read the Blogs of Dmitry Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, re-read "The Limits to Growth" and "Overshoot", enjoyed "The Long Descent" and so on ... But now, something that could end in collapse is really here. There is a very fast decline of things as we speak, a "cliff" just as Seneca and Ugo Bardi and others have described.
Is the Coronavirus disaster our collapse? Is that "it"?

It might not "the Big One". But it's a big, fat Black Swan. And big enough to learn a lot from it.  Like one learns from a quake, even if it's not the Big One.

What is it that we have learned so far?

All the big systems need redundancy

Next time we will have to be better prepared. All this "slowdown", this trying to "flatten the curve" that's happening now (and disturbing the economy and the people themselves, although there are also positive sides to it, see below) could have been mitigated if a better health infrastructure would have been in place. The thing is, you have to build redundancy into the system, some overcapacity.

If you have capacity, then you don't have to slow down things so much. Think of fire-fighting. Fires are quick, they need to be attacked quickly. You have to have overcapacity. Fire engines sitting around idly, seemingly uselessly, until the call comes. Firefighters being bored, playing cards (or, rather, playing their smartphones). But no-one will say, "We don't need so many of them if they don't actually work." At some point, they will be needed, in a flash.

And that goes for the health care system as well. There should have been many more hospital beds available (even if empty most of the time), more respirators, protective suits, and so forth. If you don't have that infrastructure, you will have to build it quickly, like you do in a war.  It was funny to see those pictures of dozens of caterpillars digging the foundations of emergency hospitals in China, but a week later, those hospitals were actually ready. America did that sort of thing in World War II, regular factories were converted into producing arms, planes, ships, at an incredible rate. But for that to happen you need leadership. There was a Franklin D. Roosevelt then, not a Trump.

And the rest of the infrastructure?

For collapsologists, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the infrastructure holds together. Here in California, the Internet works (thank God), electricity flows, the mailperson makes his or her rounds, and amazon deliveries are still happening, albeit a bit delayed already. Even though there are lines in front of the supermarkets (people spaced two meters apart), there are not real food shortages. But will it stay that way?

The other day, I was reassured by reading an article in the L.A. Times about electricity distribution in  California. "Say what you will about the utility industry – they’re pretty good about contingency planning," Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid for most of the state, was quoted. The big electric grids, though sometimes weak, are systems that have always planned for disaster. They might be more vulnerable by a computer virus than a biological one.

But still, things can get stressed way too much. What if an earthquake decides to strike us right now? For example, a major rupture of the Hayward Fault, running through Oakland and Berkeley, about 10 km from where I live, is way overdue. Kamala Harris, California senator and recently a presidential candidate, worried aloud about this. It's not just a fantasy. Just a couple of days ago, there was a mid-size earthquake outside Zagreb. People running out on the street and congregating, instead of staying inside, as per official Coronavirus mitigation strategy.

A cure worse than the disease?

Isn't the current cure what's causing the "slow collapse"? That's probably what President Trump and his people think. They don't want the economy fall to pieces. "The U.S. was not built to be shut down," he said today.  He wants to get things running soon again. But what's more important, the economy or the people? Or are they one and the same?

It's a big, bold and perhaps desperate experiment, all this shutting down of everything, of "non-essential businesses", of more activities day by day, including most transportation and especially flying. There is certainly a danger that the whole economic edifice, or house of cards, depending on your point of view, could yet fall down. So interesting to watch this in real time! But just let's not be caught underneath the rubble.

Gail Tverberg (students of collapsology will know her) wrote recently on her blog: "Human beings cannot stop eating and breathing for a month. They cannot have sleep apnea for an hour at a time, and function afterward. Economies cannot stop functioning for a month and afterward resume operations at their previous level. Too many people will have lost their jobs; too many businesses will have failed in the meantime."

There is already talk of "cascading effects" in the mainstream press. And today, on Bloomberg, the word "domino effect": "Real estate investor Tom Barrack said the U.S. commercial-mortgage market is on the brink of collapse and predicted a domino effect of catastrophic economic consequences if ...". This is classical collapsology.

The psychological impact

You cannot tell people just to stay at home, not to do anything, for a long time. It's bad for their mental health. Many will become slightly unhinged. The "Guardian" just had an article about domestic violence increasing, in China in February and now in the U.S. as well: "A domestic violence hotline in Portland, Oregon, says calls doubled last week." And "The New Yorker" came out with this story: "How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Toll".

The "shelter in place" policy actually exacerbates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. You were lucky if you had booked a suite with a balcony on the "Diamond Princess" cruise ship when you had to wait out fourteen days of quarantine, instead of an interior room without any windows at all. The same goes for small apartments in a crowded city.

Stay-at-home and creative types like writers can cope with this, but most people are dependent on going out, having a drink at a bar, going to the movies, be part of a crowd. It's bad for the average guy, for the working classes, to be cooped up like that.

Positive sides, unintended

If you are not too stressed out, it's a time for reflection. Cherishing nature, family, or even thinking of death, it's good for you. Strangely enough, most churches are closed, as well. It will be a most unusual Easter this year.

Less greenhouse gases getting released, the air becomes clean again, for example in China. Time slows down, becomes available again. It's a period of deceleration. And by and by it starts to resemble a "World Made by Hand", the title of a novel by James Howard Kunstler, in which the post-collapse world was not a bad one indeed.

And despite of the new etiquette of "social distancing" (a brand-new expression, only ten days old or so) there is more face-to-face friendliness. And people are more in touch with each other via telephone, email, Facebook and such.

Just a dress rehearsal?

It's a big moment in history and therefore exciting. There is a "global feeling". Awaiting the coming days, weeks, and months. I communicate with my friends in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic as much as I can. Everyone does this now. When will we see each other again? We are united in isolation. And it's a global unity against an unseen, common enemy.

But perhaps this is just a fire drill, a dress rehearsal. The real thing, a much worse pandemic, might come later. A more contagious, and/or more deadly virus could emerge. Peter Daszak, a well-known "disease ecologist", thinks the current crisis will prove to be manageable, noting that the mortality rate of Covid-19 isn’t as great as SARS and the spread isn’t rampant. "I’m not hiding in my bunker right now," he told the "Wall Street Journal" at the beginning of the month. "We’re going to get hit by a much bigger one sometime in the next 10 years." Really?

So we collapsologists may get our "Big One" after all. We may even die from it.
Up to now, we were more or less theoreticians. Now it gets far more real. We were Cassandras, collapse aficionados, we kind of enjoyed our post-apocalyptic visions.

But who would have thought that we would really experience something like this?
Now we should stop speculating and start analyzing this event, the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 or whatever it will be called. Create a framework, set rules, detect mechanisms, make Collapsology a real science.

Herbert Krill is an Austrian documentary filmmaker currently working in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2012, he directed "American Collapse", a 45-minute documentary for the German-language Public TV network 3SAT.


  1. My Reply:

    “All the big systems need redundancy“

    At what cost? And how will it be implemented? The catastrophic outcomes which began with the Younger Dyras Comet/Asteroid impact which occurred approx 12,800 years ago would have not been changed.

    Dr. Paul Laviolette has his own theory on what happened to end the „Golden Age“

    „One principal area of research that the Starburst Foundation is involved with is the investigation of Galactic superwaves, intense cosmic ray particle barrages that travel to us from the center of our Galaxy and that can last for periods of up to several thousand years. Astronomical and geological evidence indicates that the last major superwave impacted our solar system around 12,000 to 16,000 years ago and produced abrupt changes of the Earth's climate. It is estimated that approximately one or two superwaves strong enough to trigger an ice age are presently on their way to us from their birth place 23,000 light years away. There is a finite chance that one such event could arrive within the next few decades“.

    „And the rest of the infrastructure“?

    The organized systems which have been built since the Industrial Revolution have all been built at the lowest cost without concern for long term viability. Most depend upon finite resources for power and are subject to rapid detoriation and requiring every increasing maintenance or replacement over the short term – these costs have become unaffordable.

    „A cure worse than the disease?“

    Fiat currency – and the distortions it produces in the economy will not solve anything – it just pushes the (ultimate) solution of collapse in an unsustainable condition from the present to the future. Eat, drink, and be merry – for we all die tomorrow. Humanity had a choice – and they chose to take it all – run up debt – live like Kings – ruin and despoil Nature – overcome natural limits with new technologies (which produced dilemmas) and now the debt is coming due. Sucks to be Human.

    „The psychological impact“

    We‘re all crazy now. I don‘t need Farmers because I have A Supermarket. Food just magically appears – and if I get hungry enough – I‘ll eat my computer chips.

    „Positive sides, unintended „

    The great dieoff – if this is what it is – will leave the productive and young with less overhead. Assuming they can maintain Industrial Civilization – which I believe they can‘t. Once the lights go out – they can‘t survive. And the Universe does not care – not one bit.

    „Just a dress rehearsal“?

    Perhaps – as the great Universal Calendar is changing from the Age of Pisces to that of Aquarius – and the Water Bearer will wash away all Sins – although it may not be kind to Humanity.

    „Make Collapsology a real science“.

    Collapsology might be re-defined as Universal Change – brought on about by forces Humans cannot understand.

  2. Please stop calling pandemics black swans! On the contrary pandemics are white swans: while the specifics are contingent, the fact of a pandemic is highly predictable. We even had several false starts in the past few years only: H5N1, H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika etc. Such lazy thinking reflects poorly on you.

    1. And the far east did so, they prepared and hardly shut down. Just an example but much better can be done. If kids would learn C++ instead of latin and greek at school, we would have a much more competent government and could put up a much more effective scientific response to this kind of emergencies. If instead we have to wait for Boris Johnson and the Donald to learn the minimally needed math the virus gingerly grows exponentially to a level of painful consequences.

    2. Yes, not black swans ... I think they are called 'grey rhinos'. Obvious, probable, but you may still not see them until they are on top of you.

  3. What this does is puts the Limits to Growth BusinessAsUsual off the table. Maybe we will move on to something that could work.I'm from America and this is my first comment on this blog, though a long time reader.

  4. Many things that should have been learned 30 years ago, at minimum. There still is more to learn of course, but to paraphrase The Captian in "Cool Hand Luke", "Some people you just can't reach. What we have here is a Failure to Communicate".

    HK's article now Cross-Posted on the Doomstead Diner, with Coming Attractions for our Sunday Brunch offering.


  5. The real risk issue is loss of actual economic activity. The loss of things made cannot be repaired like financial contagions. No amount of intervention will fix this. Activity and potential for activity is gone. This means that we dropped to a new systematic level in a frog boil or rapid freeze. In science we can liken this economic situation to a phase change and bifurcation. This was likely the first step with more to come as the consequences propagate. So, the infection was organic and systematic. The world order of things is being up ended as well and the virus has not even made its rounds. It likely is going to surface in the developing world and southern Hemisphere as winter begins. What many hoped is a temporary economic contagion will likely be a multiyear cascading risk factor. I could be wrong, I hope. Back in 08 I was wrong. In 05 I began to follow the inconsistencies of the bubble economy then and peak oil. The crisis came and went. I was left in the wake of having invested myself in a collapse position that never materialized. I am now more subdued to any collapse rhetoric becuase of this but I feel this time is likely different mainly becuase what happened in 08 was never cleaned up. Now there is the damage done by the virus along with what was never cleaned up previously. This multi-level contagion is probably more than the current world order can handle at least in regards to the old status quo of 6 months ago.

    My biggest concern now for a stabilized human system is food production. This all happened so quick people forget just how difficult it is to grow and make food for 7BIL people plus how dangerous populations become after missing 9 meals. We have a lot of food in the system. There has been mainly logistic disruptions with for example restaurant food and retail. Food is there but food stocks are being reduced as the vital northern Hemisphere food production year kicks off. Planting windows are approaching. We are an industrial agriculture civilization that has global monocultures with vast global systems of transport and capital services in a process much like global JIT manufacturing. There is labor needed to produce food. Many big farms are run by an older population at risk to the virus. The good side of food production at the basic viral level is farms are in rural setting which should be spared some of the worst virus damage still the need of all the other aspects to food production have been hit hard. This on top of several hard years of weather and recently trade conflicts.

  6. As a young Civil Engineer, more than 50 years ago, I realised that if I fixed "this" problem here, it only created problems here, here and here. And to fix those problems? Well they each produced three more problems, so nine in total. In other words an R0 of 3. But who should I tell??

    There was no one to tell because I soon realised there was no-one in charge. So what is in charge? Human stupidity, hubris, fear, ignorance, greed etc etc plus my old friend entropy.

    Mr Krill seems to live, like so many folk, in a world of oughtness. From his perspective there is somthing "wrong" and it "ought" to be like "this".

    On the other hand TSE is very,very unusual as they live in a world of isness. He/she sees the world as it is. I realised that "the Universe does not care – not one bit" over 40 years ago. With an R0 of 3 my slide-rule said that the worlds problems would start to overwhelm all of humanity during the first decades of the new century. Not bad for a new graduate circa 1970 eh?

    People think that there must be someone in charge partly because they have been told there is and partly because the implications of human nature running the show are just to terrifying for most people to deal with. ROFL

  7. The meaning of the Corona virus epidemic in Italy.

    Early Warning Signals: preparatory events that happen before a huge catastrophe

    Clone Events: Those events resemble one or more events that will happen in the future.
    A "clone event" can be at least a fact (or a distribution of events scattered over time) that have a direct causal link between them or they are events that have an indirect connection (a long-term megatrend and / or a context situation that remains unchanged for a long time). This distribution of clone events, it appears in the long run, because megatrendes lead human history.

    Punic Wars Models expects:
    phase 1: sea war in the mediterranean area, between Carthaginians and Europeans (sea battle like land battles) and etnic genocide in the Yellow Buffer Zones (Malta, Crete, Cyprus, Greek Islands)

    phase 2: land invasion of Greece and italian penisula with urban warfare and etnic genocides, then explosion ot the epidemic of "elephant virus" (terms for imaging bacteriological chemical weapon esclation)

    phase 3: bombing with nuclear tactic warhead of infected areas and also bombing and destruction of Carthago area (Nord Est Africa along the Mediterranean area)

    The XXI century exude of Early Warning Signals and Clone Events.

    2011 Odissey Dawn: Carthago area bombing (without nuclear weapons) -> Clone Event
    2015 Summer European Crisis in the Greek area -> Clone Event
    2015 Fall : terrorist attacks in Europe (urban warfire in Europe) -> Clone Event
    2020 violent Virus Epidemic of Covid19 in Italy -> Clone Event
    2020/mars/3 scuffles and clashes for military greek forces and migrants in the greek islands and borders

    As you can see, for the moment there are in the long run strong evidents of a negative time arrow for the clone events.
    Instead Early Warning Signals are following a positive time arrow.

    I suggest this playlist, Strategic Planning playlist, and Early Warning Signals HOW TO: methods and smart skills about how to extract important stuffs from the noise or the fog of war

    Have a nice day

  8. The financial system fell last Fall, a direct result from papering over 2008. Peak Oil gave us the desperate money losing Fracking Oil, which always needed a functioning financial system to paper over its loses ( it is a terrible 5 to 1 EROI, but even worse money loser ). Peak Fracking Oil was about the same time the derivatives started failing. Everyone is focusing on Beer Virus, which is just the pin that popped the other bubbles ( or, if you wear a tinfoil hate, the excuse covering the real reason for the collapse ). And as much as I dislike Trump, surely you don't think any President can "lead us out of a crisis" without the resources to do so. FDR was a rabid communist, worse than Trumps lackluster performance, but he still had the worlds oil producer ( real oil, not Fake Fuel Fracking ) and the worlds biggest industrial economy, as well as the world's bread basket. Trump has none of these things to work with.


    1. Great insight:

      "The financial system fell last Fall, a direct result from papering over 2008".

      What is that financial system and how does it support Humanity?

      What are the underpinnings which support that financial system?

      Is that type of financial system sustainable?

      Is Agriculture pitted against Business and then pitted against Lenders/Bankers?

  9. Watched: Pierre Wack - Strategic Planing: Discipline for an Art

    I would consider it planning for "BAU light" - which I still see as unsustainable.

    Instead - I see a more dystopian future - as envisioned by Dr. Richard Duncan:

    World Energy Production, Population Growth,And the Road to the Olduvai Gorge

    Richard C. Duncan Institute on Energy and Man As published in Population and Environment, May-June 2001, v. 22, n.

    The Olduvai theory is defined by the ratio of world energy production and population. It states that the life expectancy of Industrial Civilization is less than or equal to 100 years: 1930-2030. After more than a century of strong growth — energy production per capita peaked in 1979. The Olduvai theory explains the 1979 peak and the subsequent decline. Moreover, it says that energy production per capita will fall to its 1930 value by 2030, thus giving Industrial Civilization a lifetime of less than or equal to 100 years. This analysis predicts that the collapse will be strongly correlated with an 'epidemic' of permanent blackouts of high-voltage electric power networks — worldwide.

    Future Reality has to be made upon assumptions - as noted by Dr. William Catton in Overshoot:

    "CIRCUMSTANCE: The Age of Exuberance is over, population has already overshot carrying capacity, and prodigal Homo sapiens has drawn down the world's savings deposits.

    CONSEQUENCE: All forms of human organization and behavior that are based on the assumption of limitlessness must change to forms that accord with finite limits".

    The Bell Curve for all Earth Planetary life systems is now in play. Aboriginal Tribes who live in harmony with Nature have the greatest chance for survival - but then again - I believe that the Universe teems with life - extinction of Humanity is just that - the Universe will continue on.

  10. @ TSE March 28, 2020 at 9:15 AM
    Sorry I don't think so, because world is made by countries, and nations are in different situations and many places of Earth.

    .I°st world countries usually have strong military power, high public debts, low rates of economic growth because of satured markets, flat demographic growth until 2050

    .II°nd world nations have a rising military power, low public debts, high rate of growth because markets are not satured, moderate demographic growth until 2050

    .III°rd world countries have a poor military power, low public debts, high potential ratio of economic growth because of not satured markets, massive demographic growth until 2050.

    In few words, international relations will trasform themself into a zero sum game: a dying nation will allow another country for surviving.

    Punic Wars II in the Mediterranean area are unavoidable, because of 1)african demographic bomb, 2)climate change damages, and 3)for hundreds of may others reasons caused by the two entagled unsolved problems.

    WWIII in Siberia is probable, but for the moment is not unavoidable.

    .Most part of the I°st world will survive at the collapsing, because of their strong military power.
    .Probably italian people will not survive at XXI century.

    .Most part of II°nd countries will collapse: only few of them, probably the stongest, they will survive after massive damages.

    .All nations of III°rd world will collapse, because of their weak military forces.

    That's all, so lets wait and see...

    Have nice day!

    1. And what supports that strong military power?

      When the food which supplies the Urban Centers runs out - what then?

      No one to man the electrical generation stations - which in turn man the Water and sewage treatment plants.

      Who is going to mine resources and maintain the diesel powered equipment which provides the inputs to the electrical and chemical plants?

      Who is going to farm the fields which produce the food which sustains all of those underpin Industrial Civilization?

      So - War is the answer? I disagree.The dilemma of Human overshoot can only be overcome by Technocracy - and wars must be ended - nuclear weapons discarded - and Humans must learn to live within their natural bounds.

    2. @ TSE March 28, 2020 at 7:24 PM
      As I said, world is made by nations, limits to growth did not provide solutions for nations.

      I think limits to growth it is a good scientific paper, it is right on forecasting a collapsing before 2070.

      On one hand you can easy see a lot of Early Warning Signals & Clone Events, they are emerging in the world of this first decades of XXI century: limits to growth is right!.

      On the other hand, limits to growth's forecast is too generic, and it does not specify which and how nations will collapse.

      Nations are in different situations, and countries are in many different places of the Earth.

      If you are interested, on my topic, please take a look on my blog

      It's written in italian, for italian people but Google translators run quite well in english!

      In the Mediterranean area war is the unavoidable effect, because of 1)african demographic bomb, 2)climate change damages, and 3)for hundreds of many others reasons caused by the two entagled unsolved problems.

      WWIII in Siberia war is probable, but at the moment war is not inevitable (that's a good news)

      Have a nice day!

    3. I well remember going down to Salerno with my Italian friends. I remember the many African Immigrants trying to sell goods at Salerno - Due to the failed WWII attempt of Italy's fiasco to secure Empire there.

      As for Italy cannot cannot continue to live on Public Debt - I agree.

      Rome starved - when the Barbarians cut off the shipments of corn from Africa to Rome.

      I must disagree with you that Rome - or Italy will last until 2070. The oil is depleting and Italy has no indigenous resources. You depend upon African resources to power your Industrial Civilization.

    4. @ TSE March 29, 2020 at 4:51 AM
      Ya!, oil resources lacking in the italian peninsula, is one of the many reasons, that feeds the civil war in the italian penisula with North people vs South people

  11. 15 the Jan , my HR manager sends me an e mail asking when are my plans for the summer vacation .Today 30th March I am standing in line outside my food store hoping that the shelves are not emptied out by the time my chance comes . 260 years of industrial civilisation unraveled in 10 weeks . A perfect ^ Seneca Cliff^ . Thank you Dr Bardi for educating us , at least I am not going crazy .

  12. At least one thing has happened that scientists tried to communicate for at least the last 50 years:

    Exponential growth now scares the sh*t out of the people




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)