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

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

Is the epidemic going to cause civilization to collapse? It may happen for good reasons

This is a version of the article that I published on the English version of "Al Arabiya" On March 26, 2020. It is not the same text I published there -- but I kept the wonderful illustration by Steven Castelluccia. It perfectly conveys the concept of "Seneca Cliff"

Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy?

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy. These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline.

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy. The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century. Even with very optimistic assumptions on the availability of natural resources and of new technologies the calculations show that the collapse could at best be postponed, but not avoided. Many later studies confirmed these results: collapse turns out to be a typical feature of systems in overshoot, a phenomenon called sometimes the “Seneca Cliff” from a sentence of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

The base case scenario calculated in the 1972 version of "The Limits to Growth" 

The coronavirus, in itself, is a minor perturbation, but the system is poised for collapse and the epidemics may trigger it. We already saw how the world’s economy is fragile: it nearly collapsed in 2008 under the relatively small perturbation of the crash of the subprime mortgage market. At that time, it was possible to contain the damage but, today, the fragility of the system has not improved and the coronavirus may be a stronger perturbation. The collapse of entire sectors of the economy, such as the tourism industry (more than 10% of the world’s gross product), is already ongoing and it may be impossible to stop it from spreading to other sectors.

So, what exactly is it going to happen to us? Since we started with mentioning a camel, we may also mention a famous statement by Shaykh Rāshid that we can summarize as, "My father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son will ride a camel." Might that sentence have been truly prophetic?

Indeed, the coming crisis might turn out to be so bad to push us back to the Middle Ages. But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse. Consider that, in the mid-14th century, the “black death” killed perhaps 40% of the population of Europe but, a century later, Europeans were discovering America and starting their attempt of conquering the world. It may be that the black death was instrumental in this rebound: the temporary reduction of the European population had freed the resources necessary for a new leap forward.

Could we see a similar rebound of our society in the future? Why not? After all, the coronavirus could be doing us a favor by forcing us to abandon the obsolete and polluting fossil fuels we use today. The current low market prices are the result of the contraction of the demand and are likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the oil industry. That will leave space for new and more efficient technologies. Today, solar energy has become so cheap that it is possible to think of a society fully based on renewable energy. It won’t be easy, but recent studies show that it can be done.

That doesn’t mean that the near term collapse can be avoided. The transition to a new energy infrastructure will require enormous investments, impossible to find in a moment of economic contraction we expect for the near future. But, in the long run, the transition is unavoidable and there is hope for a "Seneca rebound" toward a new society based on clean and renewable energy, no more plagued by the threats of depletion and climate change. It will take time, but we can heal the poor camel’s back.


  1. "But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse."

    Is that really true though?

    The Justinian Plague essentially killed the Byzantine Empire. Yes, it rebounded but that was four centuries later, so hardly a "robust rebound" and never to the same level.

    And whatever diseases ravaged the New World in the 16th century certainly were not accompanied by any "rebound" for the local population.

    Even the Black Death itself is not so clear cut -- people have argued, and with some fairly convincing arguments, that the damage of the 14th century was much more serious than commonly acknowledged. The 100 years immediately after it are a wasteland intellectually, and were full of wars, peasant revolts and chaos. And yes, the Renaissance produced marvelous art in the latter half of the 15th century, but scientifically and philosophically there is essentially nothing between the 12th and 13th century scholastics and Copernicus and the Scientific revolution does not really begin until the 17th century. That's a very long period.

    Conquering other territories is not necessarily a sign of flourishing, often that's more out of desperation than because one is in a very comfortable position.

    1. I think my argument stands. The plagues appeared in Roman times when the Empire was already on its way to collapse. The rebound was that period we call "Middle Ages" -- certainly, it took time, but at those times things were moving slowly.

    2. Very good points, Georgi.

      Talking about a rebound is far too glib, in the context of a fragile industrial civilization which can only live on very extended and complex supply-chains and delicate financial arrangements(that's what wind turbines, etc, are) ; when, even for a solidly-based agrarian one it was very slow and very painful.

  2. Perhaps this is just a controlled experiment to verify that the economy can indeed operate at a lower fuel-consumption level?

    1. It would mean that there are traces of intelligence in the command centers of the world. But there is no evidence of such a thing existing there.

    2. GOVERNMENT = Offices of Profit and Trust - Central Banks which issue fiat money - retirements and benefits which allow retirees to live (often) luxurious lives for long times, and thanks to "modern medicine" eat up precious resources to simply keep a non productive body alive at a cost which exceeded their contribution - at the expense of the young and productive.

  3. I see a main difference between Black Plague and Covid-19. The first one killed a lot of people without disrupting the agrarian basis of the economy, may be the opposite. Covid will kill an insignificant percentage of us, but have disrupted the very base of our economy. I presume that in the following years we will see much more death because misery and vionence than we will see because virus.

    1. The most wise and intelligent post here: the true agrarian base of civilisation has mostly gone and can not be recovered at all readily; we may summarize this as:

      'Cutting away the supports as we climbed up the ladder.'

      Nothing to support us as we climb down, still less to serve as the foundation for a phoney'Renewable' 'Clean and Green' (TM) techno-civilisation in rebound.

      Wind turbines, solar panels, etc, do NOT meet the criteria so as to be defined as 'renewable.

      Far better to face this hard truth than delude ourselves.

      This is mere marketing-speak and wishful-thinking.


  4. Interesting post, and I agree in large part.
    But I think the main point is misunderstood, for the italian situation.

    Covid19 is a big problem for all nations with an unsustainable pubblic debt: Italy is one of those nations.

    On one hand, Covid19 can really is the trigger event, for an italian pubblic debt default or hair cut. Covid19 can also really is the trigger event for an Italexit.

    On the other hand, we can imagine many other events, that they would have caused an italian default/haircut on the pubblic debt or the Italexit, simply because italian pubblic debt is unsustainable.

  5. There are several historical novelties, including...

    1) Present population overshoot is globally immense on a scale that dwarfs that of previous centuries by many orders of magnitude. Its collapse presents staggering challenges to survivors, both via competition and from unburied masses.

    2) As J. Simonetta points out, the agrarian base of world food production is technologically, materially and economically dependent, and fragile. We can no longer can fall back on 'peasant' farmers' skills and resources... they will take generations to reacquire.

    3) Many of the precursors for industrial civilization have been extracted out of reach of a lower tech future. We no longer have the relatively low hanging fruit to sustain a renaissance.

    4) Nuclear power plants are salted around the N hemisphere. Without continuous, correct maintenance (in my opinion impossible in Collapse conditions), most if not all and their on-site spent waste stores will go LOCA (Loss Of Coolant Accident). I believe this will severely diminish survivors' chances.

    I believe that we're in fully uncharted territory.

    Ugo, are you taking such points into account? If so, I'd be interested to hear your take on how our descendants might work around them.

    1. Great points.

      #4 is especially troubling - Authorities can't even decide on where to store the waste.

      According to Utopians - we'll go on to mine and inhabit other Planets/Asteroids, etc.

      In other Dimensions/Worlds this might be possible.

      I've been enjoying too much Whiskey - so I'll share this with you - is it real or imagination?

      The UWM Fusion Technology Institute DOES exist.

      Which brings into question - In the search for meaning - are there levels of existence? Can we see and yet be blind?

    2. My primary focus on the unfolding collapse is 1) The warming attributed to the loss of the aerosol masking effect and 2) The uncontrolled meltdown of the worlds 450+ nuclear plants and worse still 1200 spent fuel pool fires.
      I believe that habitat was collapsing without the attendant ionising radiation;

    3. Good choice to be in the Southern Hemisphere -

      And as bizarre as it sounds -

      ow-background steel is any steel produced prior to the detonation of the first nuclear bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. With the Trinity test and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and then subsequent nuclear weapons testing during the early years of the Cold War, background radiation levels increased across the world.[1] Modern steel is contaminated with radionuclides because its production uses atmospheric air. Low-background steel is so-called because it does not suffer from such nuclear contamination. This steel is used in devices that require the highest sensitivity for detecting radionuclides.

      The primary source of low-background steel is ships that were constructed before the Trinity test, most famously the scuttled German World War I warships in Scapa Flow.[2]

    4. And so Humanity on Planet Earth will collapse.

      The ever expanding Universe does not care - not one bit.

      Perhaps we should not have been plating with nuclear weapons - or adopted Industrial Civilization. Mankind has to know their limitations - and now those limitations are being imposed.

      Who knows? I could be wrong - and BAU will return tomorrow.

  6. Please consider also, atmospheric aerosol reductions, immediate northern hemisphere unprecedented heatwaves, possible ice free arctic ocean event, permafrost carbon release, equatorial cloud stack degradation, imminent 200mm sea level rise, unprecedented hurricanes, dual crop failure and dead oceans, all additional to genuine economic collapse and "disrobing" of the naked fiat money system. If there remains any psychologically and physically healthy people after witnessing suffering on this scale, perhaps they will rebound in time.

  7. The projections of the limit to growth study calculate peak population at ca. 2030. Obviously death rates in the study are calculated to rise very fast in the decade before. Nobody really talkes about this, not even in the "collapse" community.

    As I said before, its not pathogens that are the reason for pandemic outbreaks but the way our society organizes itself. The limits to growth could well be seen as the main reason for the corona outbreak. As more and more people live in overcrowded cities in an deteriorating environment, ever more extreme industrialized methods in agriculture are used to feed them while animals and humans are living on top of each other, creating the perfect ecosystem for lethal pathogens to evolve.

    Corona is no bacteria, bu all this time we abuse antibiotics and pay no heed to the way superbugs are created by the terrible production and living conditions in india and china.

    This outbreak should therefore be no surprise to us here in the colapse community. I therefore dont know if I like the "straw and camel" analogy. I expect piles of straw loaded on the camels back in the future. The most probable are: food and water shortages, wars, environmental catastrophes and epidemics.

    1972 the club of rome tried to warn humanity of an an asteroide to hit us in 50 years if we do not act. We didnt, so here is the asteroide.

    1. Humans devolved into:

      "Detritivores, are heterotrophs that obtain nutrients by consuming detritus".

      Myself included - but that is just a feature of Industrial Civilization and Materialism. Baby Boomers are the worst offenders - and the virus affects them the most.

      There are 2 different viewpoints concerning the Universe - it is expanding - or5 it is collapsing -

      Maxwell vs. Heaviside:

      “Maxwell’s” vector equations taught in university are actually Heaviside’s truncated equations, and are only a simplified version of what Maxwell originally wrote.

      Materialism vs Spirituality.

      Simply going to "Church" does not equal being Spiritual.

      Is the virus the curse - or the cure?

    2. In short, as this is just another catastrophic but expected incident and the frequency of such catastrophic incidents will only increase. Any rebound will be predated by just the next such incident in the chain of events leading to the collapse of the system that caused these events.

      If "rebound" is the development of a postgrowth (and therefore postcapitalist) system, then I am with you. But that is better described as a revolution.

    3. @TSE dont know what to think of your reply other than that it confirms the Whiskey intake you speak of above.

      Cure or curse? Most things can be both.

    4. Open your mind a little bit further -

      "Ayahuasca — also known as the tea, the vine, and la purga — is a brew made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub along with the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, though other plants and ingredients can be added as well (1Trusted Source).

      This drink was used for spiritual and religious purposes by ancient Amazonian tribes and is still used as a sacred beverage by some religious communities in Brazil and North America, including the Santo Daime.

      Traditionally, a shaman or curandero — an experienced healer who leads Ayahuasca ceremonies — prepares the brew by boiling torn leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in water".

      Those who "discovered" Ayahuasca were primitive people with no Industrial Civilization.

      Cure or curse - ah yes - revolution - moving in a circle. In the great age - we are once again moving towards another age - Governments must be recognizing this - otherwise "Lockdowns" and increased deaths would not be upon us.

      But then again - I could be wrong - BAU will return tomorrow.

      Watching the end of the World as I knew it - well... is a mind-blowing experience and I need a little help. But outcomes are difficult to predict - and my mind is open to review all possibilities.

      Enjoy the lockdowns - death - destruction - and yes - the Circle of Life:

  8. "But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse."

    The cost for the productive to maintain the non-productive is enormous. Sounds awful - but it is true. The Boomers need to 'dieoff".

    The cost to sustain- or attempt to sustain - those who are susceptible to mortality from Corona virus is - awful - for those who must bear the cost.

    The Baby Boom Generation wants to live forever - as indeed the privately owned Central Banks - who lend fiat money at interest - and push future costs into the present - at interest - to satisfy unrealistic and unhealthy demand - promote endless "Exuberance": "The quality of being full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness; ebullience".

    I note how cheap oil is now in America:

    Wholesale Gasoline Hits 12 Cents A Gallon In Midwest

    Gasoline is too cheap to produce - but the sheer quantities produced have to go somewhere - Consumers can't burn it up fast enough - Producers are going deep into debt as they sell at a loss - Retailers are used as Storage facilities..... what could possibly go wrong?

    Collapse was built into Industrial Civilization - but the Phoenix always arises from the ashes. Humans and their activities might vanish into the distance - like the Dinosaurs - but the Universe will still continue.

    1. I think baby boomers are a distortion in the demographic curve but the cost curve is likely (presently) more distorted by the long tail of pre-boomers.The pre-war generation is resolutely living on in greater numbers and holds a big proportion of capital, expenses and fundamental resources eg shelter and energy.

    2. I can not let that stand. Hw can demographics be the problem if all we ahve is just an issue of unfair distribution? I am disgusted by this notion that we cannot afford our old ones.

      As Stephane Hessel wirites in his famous essay "Engagez-Vous !" ("Get Involved!"):
      "Some dare to say to us that the State cannot afford the expenses of these measures for citizens any more. But how can there be today a lack of money to support and extend these conquests while the production of wealth has been considerably augmented since the Liberation period when Europe was in ruins? On the contrary, the problem is the power of money, so much opposed by the Resistance, and of the big, boldfaced, selfish man, with his own servants in the highest spheres of the State.

      Banks, since privatized again, have proved to be concerned foremost for their dividends and for the very high salaries of their leaders, not the general interest. The disparity between the poorest and the richest has never been so great, and amassing money, competition, so encouraged."

      The reason many are poor is that some are rich! The reason many dont have enough is some have too much! When will we finally get that in our thick heads?

    3. Stephane Hessel source:

      @TSE: "The cost for the productive to maintain the non-productive is enormous. "

      Please why can we afford to finance the wealth accumulation of the unproductive rich with ca. 50% of our global GDP, but can not afford ca. 10-15% for the elderly? Please explain that, you seem smart.

    4. Baby Boomers is an US thing, so just one more thing especially to americans: there is a simple thing that can be learned from this health crisis: Donald Trump does rather let thousands of americans die than give away his (or any other rich persons) wealth.

      Therefore from here where I live it seems that the USA is objectively threatend much more by its own president than by terrorism.

  9. Nature likes cycles, for example the cycle of life and of atmospheric gases and of nutrients. I guess we are at the peak of a human population cycle. In billions of years from now, our solar system will be consumed in our sun's death throes. But perhaps the debris will be swept up in the birth of another star and be recycled in another solar system. However the universe's continual loss of entropy seems to indicate a one way arrow. What will happen at the end of the arrow? Is our universe just one of many?

  10. Professor , I disagree with you . The reason is that all rebounds came in a period when there was an increasing availability of nett surplus energy . We have now entered into an era of ^energy starvation ^ .EROEI is terrible . Nett energy available to society is not there . If we are just able to retain society at lower levels of nett energy availability would be a miracle . Sorry , but this time there is no rebound ,only a continuous decline , the speed is something we will find out shortly .

  11. Equilibrium will be difficult to establish.

    1. I guess there are going to be a lot of oscillations. I'm hopeful that globally, we will rally round and keep them damped.


  12. A copy of my post in response to a comment that there will be a rebound to a comment on Peak oil barrel .
    ^ Specifically, that the US economy will never return to pre Corona levels is an extreme and unlikely future. Good for drama and discussion, but not really something I would plan on financially.^
    Disagree . First the economy will never return to pre Corona levels ,you can take that to the bank . Second the system does not work at 50-60-70% capacity and that is what our current economic setup is ,a big system composed of smaller subsystems . An analogy would be the human body which is a complete system composed of smaller subsystems ,the digestive system,the nervous system,the circulatory system etc . All must work in synchronisation for the body to function .It is not possible that a system say ,the renal system or the pulmonary system is not working and you will be able to report to work . You may be alive with the failure of a subsystem but definitely you are ^functionally^ dead . The virus has knocked out a lot of subsystems in our way of living or you may say lifestyle . The financial system is just an example ,as it is kept alive with an overdose of money printing ,just like you can keep a ^functionally^ dead alive with doses of antibiotics. This time what has happened is a Synchronised System Failure with too many subsytems going kaput and there will be no recovery from this .Get ready for what JHK termed ^ The Long Emergency ^ . The golden rule for the way our current system is structured has an Achilles heel that is ^ The end of growth is the beginning of collapse ^ . Understand the fine line ^the end ^ even ^ zero growth ^ will lead to collapse leave alone negative growth where, we are today .

    1. Economy is an abstract idea. What matters is life.

    2. Agree with you . There is no wealth but life .

    3. Many good thoughts there -

      Define life - and how many of us who live dependent upon Farmers who produce the large quantities of food those of us who live in Industrial Civilization continue to survive.

      " Understand the fine line ^the end ^ even ^ zero growth ^ will lead to collapse leave alone negative growth where, we are today" .

      The current system we live under was - not intentionally - but nonetheless - set for collapse because it pushed future demand to the present. It created deficits which future generations had to somehow overcome and use technology or magic to overcome. M. King Hubbert explained this long ago - when the (cheap) oil becomes depleted - Industrial Civilization can only continue with "Magic".

      As for life - life is intrinsic to the Universe - without life the Universe wouldn't exist.

      Technocracy calls for a steady state - but in a Universe which is either - 1. Expanding OR 2. Collapsing - change is always present. As Ages change - so does time - and style.

      And if "What matters is life". Which lives matter? Human - Animal - Insect? Life is always fragile and dependent upon many intricacies - To a Human - viruses are an enemy to be combated against with vaccines - lockdowns - and ventilators. Even Coronavirus has a "life" and is just trying to survive -

      There must be acceptable losses - and a steady state is unlikely - long ago I realized this when I did a paper concerning the constantly oscillating populations between Snowshoe Hares and Lynx populations.

    4. If only economists had commenced with the precept that the definition of economic success is the smallest possible ratio of measured monetary activity against the measured abundance of life(supported). How different the world would look and feel! How different would our prospects be?

  13. art.wordpress@gmail.comApril 18, 2020 at 4:19 PM

    Hello Ugo
    Just glad to see you posting again. Hope you and yours are well. Yes I expect a rebound - several rebounds actually - with some nasty patches between them. But I don't expect BAU to last very long now. I know we can do better, but will we?

  14. Just imagine if we had a real pandemic that had an Ebola kill rate and a COVID infection profile. I say this because COVID is pretty timid but it still has rattled the global system to the point we now have to worry about if the global economy can properly reboot. I feel a reboot will happen but this is uncharted waters so nobody really knows. Am I being wishful about a reboot? The Virus curve and wave is a different animal from the economic one which might stretch on for years. Personally, I am hoping the pandemic induces a recession that cleans the system up some. Maybe some good policy will come out of it and possibly a leaner economic system with shorter more regional value chains. Yet, with these types of events there is going to be inevitable destructive change from abandonment and dysfunction. A destabilized financial system will further drop good productive investment potential. I see a drop in an aggregate level of global activity meaning this pandemic event could be a step down or better a departure from a peak. We might now be in post peak globalism. There may never be the riches that we experienced in the last few years. Let’s hope less of the destructive side as well.

  15. "The global system"

    Please define that term for me.



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)