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

Monday, April 27, 2020

Collapse: the way we imagined it, and the way it was.

Even those of us who could see some kind of collapse coming (the "collapsniks") were taken by surprise by the form it took. But, as always, for everything that happens there has to be a reason for it to happen. Above: the Seneca Curve.

Collapses happen, it is a rule of life, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago when he said that "ruin is rapid" (festinantur in damnum). Yet, another rule of collapses is that they always take you by surprise. I think even Seneca himself was surprised when he received a message from his former pupil, Emperor Nero, ordering him to commit suicide.

So, even the most hardened collapsniks were surprised by the onrush of the coronavirus epidemic. I had been thinking about the collapse that the models predicted but, honestly, I hadn't imagined it would take this form. Surely, I had in mind that some unexpected shock would have unbalanced society enough to cause it to take the fast way down, but I imagined it mostly in the form of a war. When the Iranian general Soleimani was assassinated by US drones in January, I thought "This is it." It wasn't. Nobody could have imagined what would have happened just a couple of months afterward.
Yet, for everything that happens, there is a reason for it to happen. And there is a reason also for the coronavirus. I noted in my book (Before Collapse) that epidemics hit stressed societies after that they have reached their physical limits. The main example I discuss is that of the "Black Death" that struck Europe in the mid-14th century. It came after the great economic expansion that had led Europeans to try to expand Eastward with the crusades. But, after some initial successes, the crusades turned out to be an expensive failure. So, the Europeans found themselves stuck in a small and overpopulated peninsula of Eurasia, which they had thoroughly deforested. Famines were unavoidable, and then there came the black death. The final result was a loss of some 40% of the population -- not pretty, but it had to be.

In our case, we surely are badly in overshoot, but we didn't see major famines preceding the epidemic. On the contrary (again, a subject discussed in my book) the stupendous military-economic system we call "globalization" made it possible to bring food just about everywhere in the world, preventing famine to occur and allowing an extravagant expansion of the human population. Of course, some people are still undernourished but the world remained famine-free for nearly half a century, a remarkable success. But things are never what they look like: behind this apparent abundance, the seeds for disaster were growing.

Unlike the case of Medieval Europe, in the modern globalized world the weakening factor was not famines, but pollution. It is hard to evaluate exactly how much human health is damaged by the various forms of pollutions that besiege us nowadays. We are continuously exposed to heavy metals, carcinogenic substances, microplastics, reactive gases, and much more, and we add to it an unhealthy diet based on over-processed food grown by means of all sorts of chemicals unknown before in the natural world. That may keep us alive, but it is not good for our health. And the obesity epidemics in the West may be a consequence of this situation.

Just like in ancient collapses, a weakened population tends to decline. In our case, so far the decline was taking mostly the shape of decreasing natality. Not surprisingly, it is happening in the most polluted regions of the world. The rich West is also highly polluted and most Western populations have been going down: mortality increases, natality decreases. The decline is masked by immigration from areas of the world not yet so badly ravaged by pollution, but it is there.

At this point, would you be surprised if an opportunistic virus were to strike a weakened, geriatric population? Not at all, and you wouldn't be surprised that the coronavirus struck first the most heavily polluted areas of the world: Central China and the Padana Valley in Italy. What's surprising, actually, is that the epidemic is so mild. The mortality rates are projected by IHME as less than 0.1% in most Western countries. These could be optimistic projections, but surely the COVID-19 is nothing like the old black death! Outside geriatric and industrialized countries, the damage seems to be extremely limited.

What's surprising, instead, is the reaction of most governments that, arguably, did much more damage to people than the virus itself. I was saying at the beginning that I expected a war to trigger the collapse of the Western Empire. In a sense, it is what happened. The Western Governments saw the virus as an enemy and they started a war against it using the kind of war they know best: a hybrid war based on shock and awe and economic sanctions. By shutting down their economies, Western Governments waged a war against their own citizens, especially against the poor, as always the most vulnerable when something goes wrong.

So, what are we going to see? If the coronavirus was unable to substantially reduce the human population and the consumption of resources, the lockdown may well succeed at that. If it doesn't, don't worry! The ecosystem is going to solve the overshoot problem for us, one way or another. We may not be able to predict the details, but not the final outcome. For sure, we won't stop viruses with such silly ideas as wearing face masks and living in Plexiglas cages.

It is the great cycle of life  -- it is the way the universe works. It already happened and it will happen again. And so, I leave you with a modern interpretation of the Medieval Theme of the "Danse Macabre" or "Totentanz" by the Italian singer Angelo Branduardi. Sometimes, death seems to be winning the battle, but it never does. What would Death do without life?

I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and I am so cruel, so strong and harsh
that your walls won’t stop me.

I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and in front of my scythe you’ll have to bow your head
and walk to the gloomy Death’s pace. 

You are the guest of honor at the dance we are playing for you,
put your scythe down and dance round and round
a round of dancing and then one more,
and you’ll be no longer the lady of time.


  1. While it is true that pandemics do break out now and again, it is only poor planning by governments that caused such a mess in the early stages.
    Very telling is the aspect of PPE shortages.
    Of course the politics of the matter is that the ruling governments will use the blame game instead of being frank with the electorate.
    I do feel for the generation who are starting their lives now as the depression will lesson their outcomes for perhaps upward of 8 to 10 years.
    I hope i am wrong.

  2. Surely, the relevant number is the IFR, infection fatality rate, which is much higher than 0.1%, probably nearer to 1.0 %. But the worst thing about this virus is perhaps its transmissibility, coupled with the seriousness of the disease it brings to large portions of the affected, even though it's not lethal for most people. Sweden tries to avoid lockdowns, but their economy suffers nonetheless, as people self isolate and strict measures gets implemented eventually. All they have to show for their strategy is a lot of unnecessary deaths.

    1. I think IFR is going to be far higher than 1%. Agree with your approach.

  3. It is interesting that states and provinces have gone their own way, somewhat independently of their national governments. In a more serious disaster would nations fracture?

  4. I am happy that you came to see the point that an outbreak is not an exogenous force but very much a result of a pathogen's hosts behaviour.

    I think this dichotomy is quite telling. The assumption (the Germ Theory of disease by Robert Koch), that pathogens are the sole reason for outbreaks is very mechanistic and reductionistic. It is an easy answer to a problem that could otherwise put into question our way of living.

    This issue has been a conflict between Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur that has been dicided in favour of Robert Koch and the result is so arbitrary that it can well be called political. Pasteur always said to look at the host, not the pathogene to understand an outbreak, but reductionist thinking was always favoured by those in power who seek easy answers to apply them to their politics. (since antiquity )

    The very presumptions of political economy, the "scientific base" of our neoliberal capitalism, are reductionist and mechanistic. We still live in a world ruled by those who follow the concept of taylorism that sees humans as cogs in a machine.

    This way of thinking inevitably leads to "solutionism". For every problem there is a technology that solves it. This solution will come out of "the market" as the powers of supply and demand, the invisible hand, will provide it.

    Climate change, resource crisis and the corona outbreak have in common that they are a category of problems where only profound changes in behaviour can provide a real solution. While a techological solution (vaccine) can be found, it will come too late for many and it willl not solve the underlying cause of the problem. The vaccine might kill this virus, but millions of others are waiting to cross over on the human host.

    Capitalism can not solve this crisis, it can not prepare for this crisis and we should learn from this experience when facing the climate crisis and the ressource crisis. Capitalism is short sighted and solutionist and fails to take any social concept into account. Solutions to the problems we face can only be found in spite of capitalism.

    Astonishingly I just recognized that for me capitalism is personified by Donald Trump (without the orange hair). It is totally without empathy and remorse, it is a very special kind of stupid, it is extremely selfish, It tends to discriminate minorities and the poor and it is only interested in itself and the rich.

    In the end it does not care a bit about people and the planet and would gladly sacrifice thousands to further the enrichment of the rich.

    1. Trump has always been the perfectly timely avatar spawned by the neolib mindset. Like something that crawled out of a vat somewhere, rather than an actual sentient being. In practice, as you note, the personification of small-minded selfishness and greed, and completely pathologically short-sighted.

    2. How many times has Trump declared bankruptcy? Due to unsound money?

      "Yep, Donald Trump's companies have declared bankruptcy...more than four times"

    3. You just described the "Baby Boomers" to a T.

      "The very presumptions of political economy, the "scientific base" of our neoliberal capitalism, are reductionist and mechanistic. We still live in a world ruled by those who follow the concept of taylorism that sees humans as cogs in a machine".

      As for "taylorism" which could be redefined as Technocracy - I disagree.

      Taylorism - "the principles or practice of scientific management".

      The Universe is still created, ruled, and expanding by guiding principles.

      We just disagree about those principles.\

      Debt money without a Jubilee - is the major problem.

      Add to that Overshoot at every level - and an ELE is required to balance the books.

  5. I have been afraid that what governments will do to combat climate change will be more damaging than climatre change itself. The corona crisis seems to corraborate that assumption.

    1. The problem with our current policies is, that all leaders and parliaments try to restore the state of the world before the crisis and never consider that this state is what let to the crisis in the first place.

      This is why the actions of our governments tend to be that damaging. The extreme influence of moneyed interest groups, that have already been happy with the previous status quo, also leads to policies that even acerbates the problems that led to the problems we face today.

      As with 9.11 the crisis is used to push through laws that further the exploitation of the people and the planet and increase the power of the government.

      So as with every crisis, problems will only get worse. Its a vicious circle that has been mentioned in this blog repeatedly and described in systems theory in length by Donella Meadows and others. ( )

      We never try to analyse what led to the crisis and then solve it. All the underlying issues that led to 911 have been getting worse, all the underlying issues thet let to the financial crisis in 2007 have been gettin worse, all the underlying problems thet led to the corona outbreak will probably get worse.

      This is what spiraling to collapse looks like I am afraid.

    2. "So as with every crisis, problems will only get worse. Its a vicious circle that has been mentioned in this blog repeatedly and described in systems theory in length by Donella Meadows and others. (”

      Thanks for the reference. I am a green prepper and my life as a green prepper is described in I have always been attracted to systems thought because for me it encompasses a complete view of life from the outside looking in. I am Korowiczian ( in my system upbringing. This reference on Donella Meadows is an excellent addition to my studies. I am also slowly reading Ugo’s new book which is very enjoyable with valuable systems explanations. I say slowly because good material needs to be like food, eaten slowly and enjoyed. System thought is necessary for proper wisdom of knowledge to use and not to use. In this respect is represents a tool of degrowth. My green prepping is about degrowth in a world of growth.

  6. I have worried the same, Gunnar.

  7. This article mixes reality, fiction and sophistry to match reality with the author's ideas ^^.
    Keep calm Ugo the general collapse due to the absence of good EROI or biological extinction has not yet begun.
    The Chinese virus kills old and sick people, which is sad for them... but just in the normal order of life.
    The Chinese virus was just a good opportunity to create a crack in the financial market and to justify new legislation and greater control by most governments.
    Moreover, the dramatic economic situation was caused by the irrational decision to lock people up in their homes.
    The sars-cov-2, which has not caused more deaths than a good year's flu, will not change the average mortality of the year 2020 even for Italy, but the consequences of confinement may.
    We shall see...
    PS: How many more EU humiliations will you endure before you decide to get out of this anti-democratic techno-machine? :)

    1. Totally untrue statement about flu comparison. Look at actual counts on the same basis to make comparison. CV19 is 1 to 2 orders magnitude greater. New York deaths from CV19 are at a sustained rate more than all other causes of death combined. View this result in the context of massive behavioural change which on balance , no matter how badly implemented , have dramatically reduced the course of the pandemic which otherwise would have occured.

    2. 1) CV19 is 1 to 2 orders of magnitude higher: false in general, the difference depends strongly on the year.
      There are an estimated 231,315 "official" coronavirus deaths in the world today.
      In this figure, for my country, a significant number of deaths attributed to the Chinese virus are not directly attributable to it, but to other diseases that the elderly already have (diabetes, heart disease, obesity, diseases linked to sedentary lifestyles, etc.).
      In 1958 the Asian flu caused about 1,100,000 deaths worldwide and the 1969 Hong Kong flu caused about 1,000,000 deaths in a world where the human population was "only" 3 billion (in 1960) and 3.7 billion (in 1970) respectively and where the median age of the world population was much lower than today.
      At the time there was no confinement and the media at the time hardly spoke about the epidemic, the news was elsewhere ...

      2) Concerning mortality, we note that the countries with the worst mortality per million inhabitants are those that have implemented total confinement (Spain, Italy, France, Belgium ...). However, there is nothing exceptional about this mortality and it will not significantly alter the annual mortality of these countries, which was respectively of the order of 425,000, 650,000, 615,000 and 120,000) deaths. For my country the order of magnitude is clearly within the norm for the number of annual deaths due to respiratory diseases.
      On the other hand, countries that practice mass testing of populations, the wearing of masks and quarantine of only those who test positive have much better results. (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan ...).

      3) I maintain that the consequences of the economic crisis caused by the action of total containment of the population of many governments will be much more deadly than the simple Chinese virus, whose average mortality in the world today is less than 0.01%.
      On the other hand, in the coming months, the number of deaths caused by the various fatal diseases detected late because of containment, suicides related to the stress of loss of income and the tipping of millions of people into poverty and misery will result in many more deaths.
      If the goal was to limit the number of deaths, the game was clearly not worth the candle. But the new world order had to move its pawns - the game is accelerating.
      I'm betting on a surprising 2020.

    3. 1) I was referring to current counts of mortality recorded on the same basis. Flu mortality based on an ascribed count and is a very different number and should not be used as a comparison. (American deaths as currently counted for this pandemic are already approx. 6 times normal flu deaths counted on similar basis). You are the first i have heard asserting that the count is significantly overstated.
      2)it remains to be seen whether crude mortality will be significantly increased for 2020, and in which countries. From what I have seen it looks very likely in many countries. If mass testing was impossible in the early stages that was obiously not a possibility.
      3) Your assesment of economic damage and eventual mortality may turn out to be correct. The infection mortality rate of .01% is ludicrous in my opinion and I cant see any numerical assumptions which justify it. 3% is plausible. Without any containment measures, resulting in rapid contagion to most of the population, the resulting combined mortalities would have been far worse than you describe, even if measures were botched and restictions to internal spaces is seen in hindsight as an error. Infection,acute morbidity and 3% IFR would have resulted in unimaginable short term collapse.

    4. "You are the first I have heard asserting that the count is significantly overstated." -> Obviously I'm not a journalist ^^ just someone who read statistics, most of old people patient who died during the epidemic where counted as covid19 dead but where of natural death because of their others terminal illnesses. In France it's at least 15%.

      "it remains to be seen whether crude mortality will be significantly increased for 2020, and in which countries..." -> For France it is all seen, we are already behind the number of deaths in 2018 at the same period, if excess mortality there is it will not be because of the coronavirus.

      "normal flu deaths" does not mean anything there are flu and coronavirus each year but globally for France the number of deaths by respiratory infection is around 42,000 per year (increasing due to the ageing of the population). Some years it is influenza which is responsible for more deaths than other years it is coronaviruses. The same phenomenon is observed in each temperate country.
      On the other hand, death records are held by far by the flu in the years 1958 and 1969, as I mentioned in my previous answer.

      "If mass testing was impossible in the early stages that was obiously not a possibility." -> Mass containment remains by far the worst strategy, whatever the stage of the epidemic. keeping people locked up in cramped quarters for long periods of time is the best thing for contaminating everyone.

      "Your assesment of economic damage and eventual mortality may turn out to be correct. The infection mortality rate of .01% is ludicrous in my opinion and I cant see any numerical assumptions which justify it." -> Actually, it's even lower. I've rounded up to the next highest. The official number for now is 33.7 deaths per million inhabitants, which brings the global death rate to 0.00337%, graciously rounded up to 0.01%.
      See the global table at this address :
      Your 3% are just ridiculously catastrophic.

      "Infection,acute morbidity and 3% IFR would have resulted in unimaginable short term collapse."->
      Here again you are exaggeratedly catastrophic, but I can't blame you, it's often the case on this site. In my country even if it doesn't show up in the official figures since we don't have a massive test for the population almost the whole population has had the virus. One of the mistake you make in your reasoning is that you assume a linear mortality rate in the population which is very far from reality in the case of respiratory infections. Indeed those who have a really high mortality rate are people > 75 years old AND in poor health beforehand. Apart from this group of people, the covid19 mortality rate is ridiculously low and almost nil for healthy people under 50 years of age.
      Consequently, in countries which no longer have the industry necessary to produce tests and masks in large quantities and which have not seen the epidemic arrive (France, Spain Italy...) A rational and intelligent measure could have been to strongly RECOMMEND and not to oblige people in poor health and/or over 70 years of age (to take a safety margin) to stay at home as much as possible and to avoid contact with the outside world as much as possible.

      Remember what Benjamin said. "A people willing to sacrifice a little freedom for a little security deserves neither, and ends up losing both."

      Just to keep the order of magnitude in mind, every "normal" day on earth is 160,000 people die. Currently the overestimated death figures per covid19 are 262,376 deaths in just over 120 days.

  8. Industrial civilisation in europe is old and pollution is not the sole cause of fertility decrease. It is like an old body, it is somewhat simplistic to say this or that caused the death.
    To sustain itself industrial civilisation, in a red queen picture (you need to run faster to stay at the same level of affluence), puts more and more pressure on its member, especially the new generation: they need to massively study longer period to get bad unsteady position, they need to invest a growing amount of money to get smaller appartment, they need to invest more and more to raise their children; especially education.
    And the result is that the stress level is so high that they usually cannot even plan on having kids until it is to late.

    Pollution is just the final kick: it is very likely that it plays a role after 35.

    I think that the boomer generation just killed the next in its dream of endless industrial progress and it is very ironical that the covid targets them and that many young people are making huge efforts to save once again the boomers by confinig themselves, dropping school, social relation, love and all the thing life is about.

    Tough times indeed and no one knows what is going to be next also we know Nature has had enough by now.

  9. "Western Governments waged a war against their own citizens, especially against the poor, as always the most vulnerable when something goes wrong." I dont see it this way, a generalized (and inflammatory) statement, not obviously true about any country I am aware of and certainly not fair with respect to some.

  10. Seems a face mask is a pretty good start at stopping this virus. That's probably why the nurses wear them.

  11. You start with: "Collapses happen, it is a rule of life, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago when he said that "ruin is rapid" (festinantur in damnum). Yet, another rule of collapses is that they always take you by surprise."
    This made me think of Clément Rosset, and what he says about the Real always sneaking upon us unsuspecting humans. The book is short and seems to be available in english.
    "In The Real and Its Double, Clément Rosset takes on the question of the Real and humanity’s natural ability to sidestep and bypass it. The key to this type of evasion, Rosset suggests, is a certain form of oracular thinking that lies buried in the origins of Western metaphysics and psychology." Retreived at ""

    1. I don't doubt you - but it is always higher level Thinkers - supported by a lower level Rural Farming Class who want to steer the narrative.

      It will work - till it doesn't

      Rough Truth:

    2. Not sure if I fully understand your thinking here, but perhaps I can go a little bit further myself. (I am not a philosopher, and not a translator either, so what follows is my interpretation of the original text in french.)
      The Double (the reality that should have been, because it is the one that we were expecting) shields us from the Real (the reality that is here, but which we would like to ignore).
      The reality (the beginning of the collapse, if this is it) has surprised us, because we were expecting something (perhaps a war, like suggested in the blog post), but not this way (who imagined that a simple virus could put the western civilization on it's knees).
      And if this is to be the beginning of the end, yes, there will be thinkers telling us that this cannot be the end (the Real), because this is not the way it was supposed (the Double) to come.
      So if this is what you meant by "It will work - till it doesn't", then yes, it will work for a while, but there is no escaping the reality; sooner or later it will catch us up.

  12. Great song! What a celebration of Life!

    Great Question:

    "Sometimes, death seems to be winning the battle, but it never does. What would Death do without life"?

    Eat, drink, and be merry - for tomorrow we die.

    Thanks - UGO - stay Safe and Healthy.

  13. Seeing "collapse" in all economic recessions is confirmation bias. Exactly the same output reduction would be observable in the (of course not existing, hypothetical) world of endless resources, because this output reduction is literally mandated by law.

    "Decreasing natality"? What?
    Should I understand this "demographic transition is caused by pollution" part as a joke? Surely claim that it was healthier to have children in XIX century London or modern Ghana is not serious? That is, like, contrary to all research about the subject. Conspiracy-theory level.

    If anything, we worry about the coronavirus only because we are filthy rich and unaccustomed to old people mysteriously dying at 60, and half of the children dying before the age of 5, something normal and expected in 1850. Also, it's illegal to send your children to labor in coal mine.



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)