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

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The End of an Age: The Great Failure of Catastrophism

Colin Campbell, the founder of the association for the study of peak oil and gas (ASPO) explaining the essence of oil depletion.

The considerations below originate from a post by Michael Krieger where he describes how he is so dismayed by the reaction of the public to the current epidemic that he is closing his blog to rethink the whole matter over. You can read of similar feelings in a post by Rob Slane of the "Blogmire" and of Chris Smaje on "Resilience." Many others are dismayed at how badly the Covid-19 crisis was managed: a threat that was real but by all measures not so terrible as it was described. Nevertheless, it generated an overreaction, more division than unity, political sectarianism, counterproductive behaviors, and it ultimately led people to accept to be bullied and mistreated by their governments and even to be happy about that.

The "peak oil movement" was started by a group of retired geologists around the end of the 1990s. You could call us "catastrophists," but catastrophe was not what we were aiming for. We were not revolutionaries, we never thought to storm the Bastille, to give power to the people, or to create a proletarian paradise. We were scientists, we just wanted society to get rid of fossil fuels as soon as possible, although we did think that the final result would have been a more just and peaceful society. 

But how to reach this goal? Of course, we understood that humankind is a vague term and that people tend to seek for their personal well-being, rather than that of their fellow human beings. But we saw no reason why the people in power shouldn't have listened to our message. After all, it was in their best interest to keep the economy alive. So, the plan was to diffuse the message of resource depletion as a scientific message, not a political one. We did our best to produce models, to make studies, to convene meetings, to publish scientific papers. The very fact that our main talking point was a bell-shaped graph meant that we were speaking to the tip of the social pyramid. We knew (or at least we should have known) that most people cannot understand a Cartesian graph. There is a reason, after all, why in Excel the default graphical representation of data is a bar chart.

It was an utter failure. We might have expected it, but we were much better as scientists than as politicians. We thought we could speak to "the ear of the prince" as Niccolò Machiavelli had tried to do, centuries ago. He discovered, as we did, that the prince doesn't want counsel, he only wants obedience. The prince operates according to a time-tested strategy that goes as "scare them, then force them to obey." The commoners operate on an equally time-tested strategy that goes as "be scared and obey," or, at least, "pretend to be scared and pretend to obey."

So, what happened is that some threats were just ignored: peak oil, resource depletion, and now climate change. Instead, other threats were amplified beyond recognition and some elites used them as a chance to reinforce their power on other elites or on the commoners. That was the case of the recent coronavirus epidemic.

As a combination of overreaction and non-reaction, we are now facing the downward slope that I had termed the "Seneca Cliff," the start of a probably irreversible descent, at least for several decades. No wonder that many of us are dismayed. But how is it that the human society either overreacts or doesn't react to external perturbations? Compare with the behavior of a system such as a forest. It is a system in many ways as complex as the human economy (quite possibly, more complex) but it tends to reach and maintain a certain level of stability. Forests manage and conserve their resources, maintaining an incredibly complex diversity. And when a fire starts, the forest waits for it to burn out, and then it patiently re-colonizes the burned area. It is the way natural systems work -- today we tend to define with the term of holobionts. 

Why can't human systems behave in that way? Clearly, we have a lot to learn, especially on how natural holobionts evolved and attained their stability. Perhaps we are moving in that direction in any case. It is a question of natural selection, those entities which are unstable tend to disappear in favor of the more stable ones. Maybe human society naturally evolves in this direction, even though it will involve a lot of suffering and it will take a lot of time before we arrive there. Perhaps, we could think of some kind of "directed evolution," with the human intelligence used to turn society into a societal holobiont. But that's exactly what the catastrophists, peakers and the others, failed to attain -- evidently it is not easy. Whatever we do, in any case, we keep marching toward the future. And so, onward, fellow holobionts!


  1. We have known about the threat of a new respiratory virus ever since the 1918 pandemic. A scary analogy for climate change.
    Human society is driven by the urge for status and power. I wonder if ancient shamans incited their tribes to stone to death the first humans to discover how to smelt tin and lead.

  2. Our Western Civilisation is a product of fossil fuels;

    The call for getting rid of fossil fuels is in fact a call for looting fossil fuels reserves - from the powerless 3rd world nations including Russia and China.

    This is not something new but the status-quo since Churchill invaded Iraq for resources in 1914, slavery-ruled Nigeria for palm oil earlier, etc...

    Confusing basic Physics with orchestrated-Catastrophism - is social Darwinism.

    Iraq is known a hot country since Sumer in the antiquity.

    To find the US today looking like another chaos-ridden Iraq is not a climate-caused, but an issue of future availability of excess Energy or the lack of it.

    The News come that Portugal has closed a coal power plant 2 years ahead of an original plan. The replacement is another coal powered plant built in Morocco.

    However, after reading few more sources, it appears the plant has not been actually closed in Portugal at all, but it will keep running along the newly built in Morocco - fake news, social Darwinism!

    Catastrophism is a cover up over the fact - demand for Energy by humans will never ever go down. Finite, one-off fossil fuels are priceless!

    Hubert and his Peak have been allowed all the publicity the media has given them since the 1970s (ironically the same time the confusing Limits of Growth was published!) - for a reason:

    Hubert never recognised there must be a very little collapsing right-hand side to his curve on the contrary to what he has hypothesised - owing to wear and tear internal to matter - the natural phenomena the Western Civilisation's science is determined not to acknowledge.

    And here why we see an extreme Energy-intensive society, like the US, goes straight into a low Energy-intensive style of Iraq - in 2020 rather than 2100!


    The US:


    Hubert curve after being adjusted to wear and tear internal to matter:

  3. "But how is it that the human society either overreacts or doesn't react to external perturbations? Compare with the behavior of a system such as a forest. It is a system in many ways as complex as the human economy (quite possibly, more complex) but it tends to reach and maintain a certain level of stability."

    A forest is a system in many ways as complex as the human economy? Please! The human economy (I assume that in your cultural solipsism, you are regarding the Western corporate globalized economy as the "human" economy) is not nearly as complex as a forest system. The difference is so great, that they are hardly comparable. Admittedly, the human economy is very complicated, but is otherwise rather simple. A forest and the human economy can be reasonably compared in terms of which might be more complicated. But a forest is much more complex than complicated, and the human economy is much more complicated than complex (the point being that humans have great difficulty in dealing with complexity, while complicated is rather easy -- you just take it piece by piece or subsystem by subsystem). The forest is resilient because it is more complex than complicated. The human economy is fragile because it is more complicated than complex.

    1. Forests are self-replicating, but human economy is a house of cards. Some forests are reaching their limits in the face of increased heat, drought, fires and pests, and are dying.

  4. I know is not exactly on the same topic but this what the BBC publishes today:
    Fertility rate: 'Jaw-dropping' global crash in children being born

    They are still asking the wrong questions:
    Who pays tax in a massively aged world? Who pays for healthcare for the elderly? Who looks after the elderly? Will people still be able to retire from work?
    but what matters is the decrease.
    The most pathetic of all questions is:
    "If you can't [find a solution] then eventually the species disappears, but that's a few centuries away."
    Right now the world is upside down, p.-

    1. The big problem with our Western Civilisation has become - playing chess with itself thinking nobody is aware of what is going on;

      Well-sequenced, decades-long, cascaded Catastrophism, like this new one now from the BBC - are becoming increasingly nonsense and waste of time.

      We can calculate how many hours at work a piece of technology will last continually before it naturally reaches the end of its useful life and ceases work - without maintenance and overhauling - < 60000 hours.

      We cannot calculate that for Life, though, as we cannot fathom what colossal energies were expended in designing and activating Life.

      Extensional threats to Life forcing it to re-produce faster and faster.

      This can be seen in Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen - no matter how these nations were under atrocities all past decade and still - they grew and grew in size.

      Baby boomers after WWII - were another demonstration of the same phenomena.

      Therefore, one can safely expect that from now on, the population in the US will start to grow up, too, having Life there is becoming increasingly threatened by hardship and unrest.

      The colossal mistake by our Western Civilisation, that started with the steam engine, has been putting fossil fuels in the hands of Life, trading the fuels on the basis of supply and demand, not on the basis they are finite.

      Economics needed more and more humans to extract and consume all fossil fuels reserves - to depletion - as quickly as possible - playing chess with itself.

      That has now been done - and fossil fuels are behind.

      Life stays around and will re-organise!

    2. This is inevitable. The current world population is not sustainable. It's good that it is happening this way, because otherwise nature would choose a much harsher path.

    3. Speaking on behalf of Nature has become now another form of speaking on behalf of God?

      In the Middle East, people know God dies when humans professionally speak on his behalf .

      And in the Middle East, when one says 'Nature chooses a much harsher path', people understand pistols and Kalashnikovs are charged, ready to shoot - not in the hand of Nature, but rather on its behalf.

      All the tens of millions died in the course of WWII, nature has created more of them in the following 9 months - after the Berlin fall.

      Nature cannot be so schizophrenic, of course. Humans can.

  5. Considering the balance in a forest ecosystem I find it took a long time to develop.

    On Ascension Island which only rose from the sea a million years ago almost all plants are introduced and things are not in balance.


    "I don't think we'll ever get to the point we could call Green Mountain a fully functioning ecosystem, at least not in the short term - that would take thousands of years," says Weber.

    "At the moment it's a completely unmanaged mess of invasive species - one after another rises to dominance, others die back, those species crowd the footpaths, reducing the value of the mountain for walkers."

    So why can't human systems behave like an ecosystem? Because we don't have a million years of planet left, or even a hundred years, the way things are going.. No time in which to evolve into a balanced system.

    Human civilization is like the Green Mountain attempt at an ecosystem on Ascension Island. Too much too fast and fueled by a high performance gas guzzling engine called capitalism, humans rose to dominance. Now humans must die back. Capitalism is without conscience and technology is too consumptive to give humanity enough time to learn a better way.

    Only a deliberate path forward would work and that is not what humans do. Sad to say.

    1. Let fossil fuels go out and humans' ecosystem would return back - perfect.

      No knowledge produced during the fossil fuels age, including the article mentioned above, should be considered sound and true until re-verified after the fossil fuels age is well over and behind.

      Fossil fuels have empowered in humans social-Darwinism tremendously strong, more than anything else, right after the moment our Western Civilisation realised - the Limits of Physics and what humans cannot do, ever - manufacturing Energy!

      7.5 billion humans are unable to understand what's going-on right now, yet alone being able to know what will happen few decades in the future.

      Humans have lived on Earth before fossil fuels and they will live on Earth after them.

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    1. Deleted because of typos. Please accept my heartfelt apologies. Thank you very much.

    2. REPOST:


      It is completely true and a sign of the very bad state of affairs that the current socio-economic system, as one of many symptoms of a failing civilization, produces senseless suffering on a mass scale and harm and misery wherever one dares to look. It is deeply pathological and a testament to the psycho-dynamics in play between the parasite class (that being the dark-triad personality types) in power (bankers, politicians, CEOs etc...) and their authoritarian minions (voters, cops, shareholders) who give them the power and means to cause the damage and havoc they relentlessly and ruthlessly do.

      If one has the time it would most likely be very worthwhile to read the posts and comments of the following user:

      He is on the autism-spectrum, (as am I) and maybe just because of that he possesses a quite remarkable and compared to most other people on reddit, unique ability of connecting the dots. Some of his shorter posts might read themselves like the ramblings of a madman (but really only if he has consumed a little bit too much ethanol), but in the larger scheme they are not, it is the longer ones to look for. His insights are remarkable and his logic is flawlessly consistent throughout all of his writings, coherent and congruent as it can be. If one doesn't already suffer from depression one can quite easily get depressed from reading his posts once the full gravitas of the associated realizations start to sink in.

      According to the famous quote from Leonardo Da Vinci

      There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.

      u/AArgot is one of those who sees through the pathological delusions making up everyday life for the majority of people, I would be positioned somewhere between the first and second category as someone who sees if shown, but clearly not that well-read (at least at the moment) as he might be, but at least to me the flawlessness of his logic, his conclusions, his insights are as clear as they can be, they are, at least by me, perceived as fundamentally true and a sound and astute approximation of reality, more so than many other mostly social/societal constructs mistaken for reality by a programmed, propagandized so called society.



    Furthermore I would like to mention that I'm not in a position to offer any advice about how to help to shape a better society (which in my mind is a deeply flawed artificial construct by mostly bourgeois scum anyway) or to care for the weakest in a way that would actually help them, except for the recommendation to really read some 200+ posts of u/AArgot to develop an actual understanding of the real current issues that are plaguing this species and therefore also this planet. That way it will very easily be recognizable that any efforts to actually change the adults in this so called society are completely futile.
    The scope and severity of the outright evil caused by the dark-triad types and their functionally psychopathic abettors and enablers (who do not care the least bit and who cannot be argued with; they are empty shells devoid of anything that would make them human, just their looks remain human like) together with their authoritarian minions are truly disastrous. The system is intentionally set up in a way which makes a peaceful transition of the order of things impossible, thus necessitating the need of a different kind of change.

    The gravitas of the issues plaguing this world has already crushed countless selfless, empathic individuals, therefore it is of utmost importance to effectively shield oneself from the ever growing Weltschmerz by paying close attention of what is wrong and how to mitigate the issues if possible, but to not exclusively stare into the abyss all the time because as the saying goes, if one dares to stare into it too much, it will stare back with an absolutely merciless gaze that is fully capable of engulfing oneself, leading to bitterness, depression and even despair (looking at you, my fellow ecologists).
    If one is fortunate enough to be around some nice people, one might care about them as well, but besides that, some safe spaces to escape to from the collective insanity plaguing this world come quite handy, areas of interest that aren't anthropocentric, like mathematics, the natural sciences, botany, geology and first and foremost the universe, the night sky. The natural state of things, as determined by the laws of physics, has always been and will always be what constitutes objective reality and therefore peace.


  8. Aquinius,your^ There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.^ . So true . Let me try to improve on it ^People desire to believe what they desire to be true .^ . I have been trying to educate my associates on depletion etc for over 15 years and this quote is the nutshell of my experience .

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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)