Excerpts from "Peak Civilization: The Fall of the Roman Empire"

This is an abridged version of a 10,000+ word post which can be read on Oil Drum Europe. We hope many will take the time to read the long version. Hopefully, these excerpts will give the flavor of the full story.--Gail.

A silver mask that had belonged to a Roman cavalryman of imperial times. It was found on the site of the battle of Teutoburg, fought in September 9 a.d. This year, 2009, marks the 2000th anniversary of the battle that led to the annihilation of three Roman legions and changed forever the history of Europe. It was a tremendous shock for the Romans, who saw their mighty army destroyed by uncivilized barbarians. It was not yet the peak of the Roman Empire, but it was a first hint that something was deeply wrong with it.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all thank you for being here. This afternoon I'll try to say something about a subject that I am sure you are all interested in: the decline and the fall of the Roman Empire. It is something that has been discussed over and over; it is because we think that our civilization may follow the same destiny as the Roman one: decline and fall. So, the Roman Empire offers us some kind of a model. We can say it is the paradigm of collapsing societies. And, yet, we don't seem to be able to find an agreement on what caused the collapse of the Roman Empire.

The collapse seen from the inside.

But what does Namatianus think of all this? Well, he sees the collapse all around him, but he can't understand it. For him, the reasons of the fall of Rome are totally incomprehensible. He can only interpret what is going on as a temporary setback. Rome had hard times before but the Romans always rebounded and eventually triumphed over their enemies. It has always been like this, Rome will become powerful and rich again.

There would be much more to say on this matter, but I think it is enough to say that. . . the Romans did not really understand what was happening to their Empire, except in terms of military setbacks that they always saw as temporary. They always seemed to think that these setbacks could be redressed by increasing the size of the army and building more fortifications. Also, it gives us an idea of what it is like living a collapse "from the inside". Most people just don't see it happening--it is like being a fish: you don't see the water.

The situation seems to be the same with us: talking about the collapse of our civilization is reserved to a small bunch of catastrophists; you know them; ASPO members, or members of The Oil Drum - that kind of people. Incidentally, we can't rule out that at some moment at the time of the Roman Empire there was something like a "Roman ASPO", maybe "ASPE," the "association for the study of peak empire". If it ever existed, it left no trace. That may also happen with our ASPO; actually it is very likely, but let's go on.

What destroyed the Roman Empire?

This is a transcription of an interview that Tainter gave in the film "Blind Spot" (2008)

In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that they faced was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. Invest very high amounts in solving problems that don't yield a net positive return, but instead simply allowed them to maintain what they already got. This decreases the net benefit of being a complex society.

Here is how Tainter describes his view in graphical form; in his book.

So, you see that Tainter has one thing very clear: complexity gives a benefit, but it is also a cost. This cost is related to energy, as he makes clear in his book. And in emphasizing complexity, Tainter gives us a good definition of what we intend for collapse. Very often people have been discussing the collapse of ancient societies without specifying what they meant for "collapse". For a while, there has been a school of thought that maintained that the Roman Empire had never really "collapsed". It had simply transformed itself into something else. But if you take collapse defined as "a rapid reduction of complexity" then you have a good definition and that's surely what happened to the Roman Empire.

Consider the story that Roman Empire collapse because the Romans used to drink wine in lead goblets; and so they died of lead poisoning. That has some truth: there is evidence of lead poisoning in ancient Roman skeletons; there are descriptions of lead poisoning in ancient Roman texts. Surely it was a problem, probably even a serious one. But you can't see this story of lead poisoning in isolation; otherwise you neglect everything else: the Roman Empire was not just people drinking wine in lead goblets. Think of a historian of the future who describes the fall of the American Empire as the result of Americans eating hamburgers. That would have some truth and for sure the kind of food that most Americans eat today is - well - we know that it is doing a lot of damage to the Americans in general. But you wouldn't say that hamburgers can be the cause of the fall of the American Empire. There is much more to that.

The same kind of reasoning holds for other "causes" that have been singled out for the fall of Rome. Think, for instance, of climatic change. Also here, there is evidence that the fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by droughts. That may surely have been a problem for the Romans. But, again, we might fall in the same mistake of a future historian who might attribute the fall of the American Empire - say - to the hurricane Katrina.(I have nothing special against the American Empire, it is just that it is the current empire)

The point that Tainter makes, quite correctly, in his book is that it is hard to see the fall of such a complex thing as an empire as due to a single cause. A complex entity should fall in a complex manner, and I think it is correct.

Dynamic Models of Collapse

As we know, "The Limits to Growth" was not about the fall of the Roman Empire. The authors tried to describe our contemporary world, but the model they used is very general and perhaps we can apply it also to the Roman Empire. So, first of all, we need to understand how the model works. Let me show you a simplified graphic representation of the model:

So, Myrtveit's image shows us the major elements of the world model - the model of The Limits to Growth" - and their relationships. You see population, agriculture, natural resources, pollution and capital· Five main elements of the model; each one is rather intuitive to understand. What is important is the feedback relationship that exists among these elements. Perhaps the most important feedback loop is the one between capital and natural resources. Here is how the authors of "The Limits to Growth" have described this relationship:

The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resources available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs.

People are very good at optimizing exploitation. The problem is that they exaggerate and take out of the system more than what the system can replace. And that is the reason of the curve. First you go up because you are so good at exploiting the resource; then you go down because you have exploited it too much. In the middle, there has to be a peak--it is "peak-resource". In the case of crude oil, people speak of "peak oil". In the case of a whole civilization, we may speak of "peak civilization". And, as we said before, peak civilization also corresponds to "peak complexity", in the sense that Tainter described.

The dynamic fall of the Roman Empire

Now we know that we should expect to see these bell curves in the behavior of a complex civilization or an empire. So, we can try to give a look to the Roman Empire in this perspective and see if it agrees with an interpretation based on system dynamics. So, first of all, let me propose a simplified model based on the same scheme that Magne Myrtveit proposed for our world as described in "The Limits to Growth".

We know that the Roman Empire was based mainly on two kinds of resources: military and agricultural. I put the image of a legionnaire for "capital resources" because legions can be seen as the capital of the Roman Empire; military capital. This capital, legions, would be built on a natural resource that was mainly gold. The legions didn't mine gold, they took it from the people who had mined it (or had stolen it from somebody else).

This feedback between military capital and gold is a point that is very well described by Tainter in his book. You can read how military adventures played a fundamental role in the growth of the empire, and earlier on of the Roman Republic. There was a clear case of positive feedback. The Empire would defeat a nearby kingdom, rob it of gold and take part of the population as slaves. Gold could be used to pay for more legions and go on conquering more lands. Positive feedback: the more legions you have, the more gold you can rob; the more gold you have, the more legions you can create. And so on...

Then, there was agriculture. Surely it was an important economic activity of the Roman Empire, as you can read, again, in Tainter's book. Agriculture is also subjected to positive and negative feedbacks as you can see in the scheme. With good agriculture, the population increases. With more population, you can have more farmers. In the case of the Roman Empire, as population grows, you can have also more legions which will bring back home slaves which can be put to work in the fields. But agriculture has also a negative feedback, and that is erosion.

You can see erosion in the scheme listed as "pollution". It affects agriculture negatively. It reduces population and sets everything backwards: negative feedback, again. The more you try to force agriculture to support a large populations (including the legions) the more strain you put on the fertile soil. Fertile soil is a non renewable resource; it takes centuries to reform the fertile soil, after that it has been lost. So, erosion destroys agriculture, population falls, you have a smaller number of legions and, in the end, you are invaded by barbarians. This is another negative feedback loop that is related to the fall of the Roman Empire.

First of all, if the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been a case of overexploitation of resources, we should expect to see bell curves for industrial and agricultural production, for population, and for other parameters. As I said, the historical data are scant, but we have archaeological data. So, let me show a plot that summarizes several industrial and agricultural indicators, together with a graph that shows how the extension of the Empire varied in time. It is taken from In search of Roman economic growth, di W. Scheidel, 2007" The other graph is taken from Tainter's book.

Especially the upper graph is impressive. There has been a "peak-empire", at least in terms of production and agriculture, somewhere around mid 1st century. Afterward, there was a clear decline - it was not just a political change. It was also a real reduction in complexity as Tainter defines collapse. The Roman Empire really collapsed in mid 3rd century. It had a sort of "Hubbert peak" at that time.

The other parameter shown in the figure, the extension of the empire, also shows an approximately bell shaped curve. The Empire continued to exist as a political entity even after it had been reduced to an empty shell in economic terms. If we think that the extension of the empire is proportional to the "capital" accumulated, then this relationship makes sense if we think of the dynamic model that we saw before. Capital, as we saw, should peak after production. This is a bit stretched as an interpretation, I admit. But at least we see also here a bell shaped curve.

Military expenses were not the only cause of the fall. With erosion gnawing at agricultural yields and mine productivity going down, we should not be surprised if the empire collapsed. It simply couldn't do otherwise. So, you see that the collapse of the Roman Empire was a complex phenomenon where different negative factors reinforced each other. It was a cascade of negative feedbacks, not a single one, that brought down the empire. And this shows how closely related to the Romans we are. Surely there are differences: our society is more of a mining society and less of a military based society. We don't use slaves but, rather, machines. We also have plenty of gadgets that the Romans didn't have. But, in the end, the interactions of the various elements of our economy are not that much different. What brought down the Romans, and eventually will bring us down, is the overexploitation of the resources. If the Romans could have found a way to use their resources, agriculture for instance, in ways that didn't destroy them, erosion in this case, their society could have lasted for a longer time. But they never found an equilibrium point - they went down always using a bit too much of what they had.

Avoiding Collapse

So, our Druid had seen the future and was describing it to Emperor Aurelius. He had seen the solution of the problems of Empire: Middle Ages. It was where the Empire was going and where it could not avoid going. What the Druid was proposing was to go there in a controlled way. Ease the transition, don't fight it! If you know where you are going, you can travel in style and comfort. If you don't, well, it will be a rough ride.

We may imagine a hypothetical "driven transition" in which the government of the Roman Empire at the time of Marcus Aurelius would have done exactly that: abandon the walls, reduce the number of legions and transform them into city militias, reduce bureaucracy and Imperial expenses, delocalize authority, reduce the strain on agriculture: reforest the land. The transition would not have been traumatic and would have involved a lower loss of complexity: books, skills, works of art and much more could have been saved and passed to future generations.

All that is, of course, pure fantasy. Even for a Roman Emperor, disbanding the legions couldn't be easy. After all, the name "Emperor" comes from the Latin word "imperator" that simply means "commander". The Roman Emperor was a military commander and the way to be Emperor was to please the legions that the Emperor commanded. A Roman Emperor who threatened to disband the legions wouldn't have been very popular and, most likely, he was to be a short lived Emperor. So, Emperors couldn't have done much even if they had understood system dynamics. In practice, they spent most of their time trying to reinforce the army by having as many legions as they could. Emperors, and the whole Roman world, fought as hard as they could to keep the status quo ante , to keep things as they had always been. After the 3rd century crisis, Emperor Diocletian resurrected the Empire transforming it into something that reminds us of the Soviet Union at the time of Breznev. An oppressive dictatorship that included a suffocating bureaucracy, heavy taxes for the citizens, and a heavy military apparatus. It was such a burden for the Empire that it destroyed it utterly in little more than a century.

Our Druids may be better than those of the times of the Roman Empire, at least they have digital computers. But our leaders are no better apt at understanding complex system than the military commanders who ruled the Roman Empire. Even our leaders were better, they would face the same problems: there are no structures that can gently lead society to where it is going. We have only structures that are there to keep society where it is - no matter how difficult and uncomfortable it is to be there. It is exactly what Tainter says: we react to problems by building structure that are more and more complex and that, in the end, produce a negative return. That's why societies collapse.

So, all our efforts are to keep the status quo ante. For this reason we are so desperately looking for something that can replace crude oil and leave everything else the same. It has to be something that is liquid, that burns and, if possible, even smells bad. Drill more, drill deeper, boil tar sands, make biofuels even if people will starve. We do everything we can to keep things as they are.

And, yet, we are going where the laws of physics are taking us. A world with less crude oil, or with no crude oil at all, cannot be the same world we are used to, but it doesn't need to be the Middle Ages again. If we manage to deploy new sources of energy, renewable or nuclear - fast enough to replace crude oil and the other fossil fuels, we can imagine that the transition would not involve a big loss of complexity, perhaps none at all. More likely, a reduced flux of energy and natural resources in the economic system will entail the kind of collapse described in the simulations of "The Limits to Growth." We can't avoid going where the laws of physics are taking us.

Conclusion: Showdown at Teutoburg

Two thousand years ago, three Roman legions were annihilated in the woods of Teutoburg by a coalition of tribes of the region that the Romans called "Germania". Today, after so many years, the woods of the region are quiet and peaceful places, as you can see in this picture:

Civilizations and empires, in the end, are just ripples in the ocean of time. They come and go, leaving little except carved stones proclaiming their eternal greatness. But, from the human viewpoint, Empires are vast and long standing and, for some of us, worth fighting for or against. But those who fought in Teutoburg couldn't change the course of history, nor can we. All that we can say - today as at the time of the battle of Teutoburg - is that we are going towards a future world that we can only dimly perceive. If we could see clearly where we are going, maybe we wouldn't like to go there; but we are going anyway. In the end, perhaps it was Emperor Marcus Aurelius who had seen the future most clearly and understood that it is not for us to change it.

Nature which governs the whole will soon change all things which thou seest, and out of their substance will make other things, and again other things from the substance of them, in order that the world may be ever new.

Marcus Aurelius Verus - "Meditations" ca. 167 A.D.

The full post can be found here: "Peak Civilization": The Fall of the Roman Empire.

"But what does Namatianus think of all this? Well, he sees the collapse all around him, but he can't understand it. For him, the reasons of the fall of Rome are totally incomprehensible. He can only interpret what is going on as a temporary setback. Rome had hard times before but the Romans always rebounded and eventually triumphed over their enemies. It has always been like this, Rome will become powerful and rich again."

This is a very nice passage. Really rings true today as people are talking about economic recovery, and the business cycle....

But the claim further on that there were no Romans that saw serious clouds on the horizon, that were kind of ancient TODers, is a bit off. Many historians, orators, philosophers...bemoaned the decline in morals and predicted that this would lead to the end of Rome. Their analysis may not have been perfect, but they were predictors of doom.

Yes, dhoboi, the documents that arrived to us from Roman times are many and there is a little bit of everything; including predictions of doom. Just think of John's Apocalypse - if he wasn't a catastrophist, who ever was? But predictions of doom were always (for what I know) seen in a religious and/or moral sense (as you correctly note). There never was a vision like that of TOD or ASPO, "look, there are reasons for the decline, and if we act on the causes of decline there won't be a collapse". No, it was always a question "Be more like our ancestors and everything will go back as it was at the time of our ancestors". Or so I see it, so much to say on this matter....

"Be more like our ancestors and everything will go back as it was at the time of our ancestors"

Hmmm...that sounds an awful lot like the strident live-in-the-past stance of some of our American doomers...but in our time, living in the past might imply short lifespans, abundant misery and disease, and other such things of the past.

Hmmm...organic, high yield farming methods are completely about "living in the past" since most of these techniques were unknown and untested. These techniques would lead to more yield and better nutrition. How does that lead to "short lifespans, abundant misery and disease...."? Life spans are reducing for the first time in decades in the US right now. And there is already plenty of misery and disease. Perhaps you vision of modernity is not turning out to be as rosy as you imply?

(Oh, and many apologies if this was all too "strident" for you ;-)

By the way, I do think the comparison is apt in this: just as the deeper reasons for the fall of Rome were systemic and could probably not have been solved by changes in individuals' morals or behavior, we too need to look at radically changing basic structures rather than merely lifestyles.

It is a bit ironic to obsess about the fall of Rome which took centuries, when the US empire looks as though it is sputtering after a few decades. We should be so lucky to be as doomed as the Romans!

Better farming and better food and thus better heatth...etc...

This is a theme that I have been expressing about the rural outback where I have lived and farmed since the last 80s.

What worried that Roman citizen who left Rome?

Did anyone see the reality of the collapse?

Here is what I have seen and worries me greatly yet has almost no traction at all in the current view of our country/nation/empire/whatever.

There are many forms of animal and insect life I no longer see. It has been disappearing since I first brought my farm, by auction, and this farm was once owned by my kinfolk.

At that time is was incredibly lush and full of wildlife. So much so that it was like a paradise to me. I walked the woods, drank from it, watched and marveled at it.

Now as I have stated in many posts on TOD...things are no longer the same.

No more lightening bugs to speak of. Used to be myriads of them.
No more grasshoppers. As I mowed hay there would be thousands swarming before my haybine.
Very few birds,a few redbirds,no bluejays,purple martins gone, woodpeckers -a few,their are other varieties who used to put holes in my log house. Never seen any more.

Bees are almost all gone.
No more dung bettles.
Can't fish anymore due to the Asian Carp. Ate all the food the other fish need.

I could list more and more. Like the oak trees-a few left. Pecan trees all cut down. A very few black walnuts left. No more Linden--the last one I knew of fell over a few years back.

The trees all over the USA are diseased and dying en masse.

The list is very long. No one seems to understand this huge change in the environment.

The coons sense this and produce a lot of offspring. I see those small dead bodies as roadkill where is was once odd to see a raccoon dead on the roadside. The deer are birthing at huge rates. The possums likewise.

I think nature sense a demise and orders in some fashion such that animals try to breed far larger numbers in response,,like nut and fruit trees try to do but the fruit tress are dead here..and whats left after a huge crop last year....bore NOTHING this year. Nothing.

There are huge changes taking place. I do not tour the rest of the country but what I do go thru I sense the same events.

There is a vast change occurring in nature. I think that like the onset of the Fall of Rome might be the same paradigm happening in my country...unseen by many yet right out there visible for those who see it daily and live with it.

Our country is dying. Our economy is dying. Our planet is dying.

We are doing nothing. Those who fought back in the 60s for this very thing are dead or grown old but they were absolutely correct in their predictions and trials. Trials of communal living and returning to the land. They lost it. It might have been taken from them. I know many despised them. Mother Earth News turned into advertisements for the New Age Yuppies. I still have the old ones. It was as I said it was cause them old magazines state it clearly.

Airdale-the FoxFire series is insightful as to what life was even before the 60s..written back then..it covered two worlds apart but trying to come back together...we moved on from that...on to ruin and chaos and we now can see the endings coming before us for our lack of concern for the earth we live on.

PS. A very excellent essay and I went to Europe TOD and read and still reading the full version. My sincere thanks to the author. 'preciate ya'


I was going to post this as a separate item on the regular DB but your post is a good lead in:

Was the Woodstock Generation the Last Hope for the US to Transition to a Sustainable Society?

I've been watching the 40th anniversary edition of the movie Woodstock. My wife and I almost went but I couldn't get off from work. Anyway...I look back at those times and the people we knew and the books I bought then that are still on my bookshelves and wonder why society threw away what, in retrospect, looks like it's last chance. And, this throwing away also involved those who were part of it all.

For example, I was on the board of our local food co-op. The members were no longer happy getting one food truck a month. No, they wanted a STORE open like a regular business. So, it was done and the co-op died within a year since there was no longer any personal involvement required.

Most of the communes in the area burned out and most of the hippies went middle class thanks to growing dope.

Society had its chance but it's too late now. Society is going to crash and burn.

Well, I have to get out to irrigate and pick blue berries or I'd write more,


Good comment. The 60's were the last time I had a view that things could possibly get better (and a very brief time in 1989 in Europe). After the 70's arrived, things started getting darker, and by the time of the 80's and Reagan, it was clear that this game was going to end with a crash.
It seemed we all moved to the shallow end of the pool, and opened a casino.
Most americans grew up inside a casino, and haven't been outside the doors yet.
A few are outside, and screams are traveling in the air.

After the 70's arrived, things started getting darker,
Unless you were one of the millions who no longer died of lung cancer, or heart attacks, or were no longer drafted to Vietnam, or were one of the millions of blacks who no longer had to sit at the back of the bus or use inferior toilets. Don't forget the half of the population that started to have equal job opportunities or could make decisions about when or if they wanted to have children and how many.
Yes I guess that for a few of my generation things started getting darker, but for me and most of us baby boomers, the 1970's and 1980's were much better than the 1950's and 1960's. If you lived in India or China its no contest, the 00's has been the best decade ever!
If you liked trekking, air travel was actually affordable for most people(from wealthy countries) in the 1970's, rather than a luxury for only the rich and business travelers. I think that the only thing the next generation is really going to miss that we had will be cheap airfares, they are probably going to be gone for good.

cheap airfares, they are probably going to be gone for good.

I wonder. I have the impression that prop planes are twice as efficient as jets. I really can't see oil going over $150 for any sustained period, given that there are good substitutes for oil that are less expensive (electric freight trains, EVs, etc). If prop planes are twice as efficient, that's the equivalent of $2.50 per gallon jet fuel today - I think the airlines can live with that.

Anyone have good info on prop plane efficiency?


I've been contemplating these things for some time, also.

You might recall a book called "Seven Tomorrows" that came out right around 1980 or so; I think that Paul Hawkin was one of the authors. It was a set of seven future scenarios. There was the technocopian "The Official Future", and three progressively worse scenarios - "The Center Holds" (Dick Cheney's dreams come true), "Chronic Breakdown" (pretty much where we are at right now), and "The Beginnings of Sorrow" (the opening chapters of the doomer die-off collapse). Interestingly, however, there were three other scenarios that were also increasingly more "pessimistic" from an economic perspective, but more "optimistic" and "green" from an environmental and social perspective: "Mature Calm" (maybe what we would have gotten if America had gone green and everything had gone right), "Apocalyptic Transformation" (what might have happened if everything had not gone right, and if the evangelical revival and the green movement had cross-fertilized), and "Living Within Our Means" (what many of us hope for as the best realistic "good" outcome at this point).

My theory is that in 1979/80, the US was poised to start down the "Mature Calm" track. If Carter had somehow managed to be re-elected, and if the Boomers had managed to remain green rather than being co-opted by and selling out to corporate America, then we probably would have gone quite a ways down that track. I think that we still would have ended up in "Living Within Our Means", but we would have been better positioned to do so.

Instead, we got the Reagan years, and the forceful effort to reset the US on "The Official Future" track. It "worked" for a few years, but was hopelessly unsustainable. Thus, we ended up sliding into "The Center Holds", and the whole nightmare that the previous 8 years have been. That wasn't sustainable either, so now we've slid into "Chronic Breakdown", which is just getting underway. You haven't seen anything yet; "recovery" is definitely NOT what our future holds, just things continuing to get worse and worse in a multiplicity of ways. Eventually, "The Beginnings of Sorrow" is what we have to look forward to, and then?

There is still a chance that we can change our future fate. However, at this point it is not just a matter of a few policy changes being made in Washington and individuals making a few lifestyle changes; we are much too far gone for that. Nothing less than a sweeping cultural revolution will effect the kind of drastic changes that are needed to move us back over to the "Living Within Our Means" scenario (which is the only halfway attractive scenario that is still possible for us at this point). That "sweeping cultural revolution" sounds very much like that "Apocalyptic Transformation" scenario, and so it is. It was always unlikely that scenario would play out anything like it was written; the authors admitted as much in the book. However, something like it always was a possibility, and still is. That is one "black swan" event that might still be out there, and might just have the possibility to actually turn things around in a good way.

Unlikely? Yes, but not impossible. I do find some hope in the fact that all those people who read the Whole Earth Catalog or Mother Earth News or were more or less "green" in their thoughts and attitudes three decades ago still have those thoughts and attitudes burried deep within their minds. There is still something there that can be dredged out and built upon. Maybe the Boomer generation can yet have their "swan song" - a "black swan song", perhaps?


FWIW, my WEC's sit just to the left of my computer. As to the future, with the exception of a few of us who made the transition decades ago like my wife and I, the boomers are just as tied to the system as anyone else. They can't change because they have no alternative; they are too old to do the physical work necessary and, further, will never make the psychological adaptations necessary.

And, realistically, would younger people actually listen to a bunch of old farts when it was these people who drove the system into the ground? Even in my case where I've "been doing it" for almost half my life now and have some credibility, I'm 70. Although I can say what has worked for me and even provide a framework of what might be done, no one is going to listen.

In essence, society has reached a point of no return. I hate to be pessimistic about this since so much of my life has been really good. But, I can't see any way around some kind of societal collapse. This will certainly be a black swan.



Of late I have been starting to hope for a more gradual meltdown that a rapid one. It seems from where I sit that its already happening that way.

Regular men around here are way way out of work. They are taking on temporary jobs that will get a little food on the table. Like sanding cabinets for a few bucks. One of my relatives.

Others are just leaning on welfare more and more and now I see cell phones disappearing. Girls coming into the tobacco shop where I sometimes go are coming in just to ask to use the landline telephone.

Amazing. Lots of these starting to play out. I think there will at this point be ZERO chances of this reversing itself.

But finally a total collapse? Yes I really see nothing to stop it or even slow it down. Its moving and happening now in my area.


Hi Pal,

You know,if there is any chance of staving off collapse, huge sections of society have to come forward and admit their "sins" and pay "penance." This includes not only finance but also politicians, the folks who refied even though they knew they couldn't afford it, etc., etc. and it ain't going to happen. Period.

We have gone past the point of no return and nothing is going to bring back what has been lost...the truth/reality.


First - very good presentation Ugo, I read the original through.

I have said before that there are forces much larger than us at work here, and this is exactly the kind of thing I meant. I am equivalent to a Roman citizen along the way, regardless of what I may understand about what is happening. It just happens to be my lifetime, so I will live it the best I can.

The world is changing. There are plants and animals and insects all around me that were not here just a few decades ago, and many that are no longer here. I cannot get rid of the Japanese knotweed, the autumn olive that invades all my woods, the wineberrys (that I love), the stinkbugs, the orange ladybugs, giant Asian hornets, etc. The ashes are all dying, and soon will be gone.

The climate is only beginning what will eventually be very radical changes, altering coast lines and entirely changing the characteristics of probably most every area. Human kind neither can nor will do much of anything to address these issues - this is how the world is now - it will not change back. This is my world.

Into this reality I send two children (10 and 15) that I love and must raise - that endeavor will never end as long as they and I live. I don't give a fig about the present geopolitical entities, my focus is elsewhere - let the empire collapse, why should I fret? Someone will make a new flag one day, and I won't care about that either. I will adapt as best I can, because I have to - and hopefully I will be a benefit to the community around me in the process.

But I do believe that even though we will go through a period of chaos and tragedy and hard work that will last longer than my lifetime and those of my children, there will still be moments of happiness, and the possibility for meaning in life. What more should one hope for?

We are not the first to see changes such as this - it's a cycle that has gone on for all of human civilization. The difference is that this time we found the power of fossil fuels, and used it. We never had such power before, nor will we ever have it again, but the effects of having used it will not fade out entirely for the rest of human existence. Still, I must live the rest of my short life with whatever those effects are.

Twilight, may I wish you a new dawn! As a father of a 14 year old I share your sentiments.
Well put!

How is this for strange.

Here in W.Ky. we usually have very hot weather in July. Almost always in the 90s. Even hot when you get up and also very humid.

But this July has been quite different. For the last two weeks it has been in the 70s..with an occassional trek to the low 80s.

In the morning my porch thermometer reads 60 and sometimes 55 degrees.

When I ride my motorcycle I have to sometimes wear a jacket or get chilled.

Yesterday it rained all day and all night for a full 4 inches. Then again today in the 70s.

This is very very damned odd. I cannot ever remember a July with these kind of temperatures. Not in the middle of July. During the whole month so far I remember only two very hot days. Only 2.

There are Zero fleas on my dogs. Very very few ticks. In fact they sleep in my bed and I usually find only one sometimes that gets on me.

Usually a dog here without 'Frontline' applied will have a lot of ticks and fleas. In their ears particularily. This year and last year there were almost none. The lack of fleas is really weird.

They run in the nearby woods constantly. They run in the tall pasture grass that is 4 ft high in places. I have put no Frontline on them.


It's been a cool and wet year in the northeast too. But I think we are in a transition period, combined of course with the normal variations of weather - we shall have to wait and see what "normal weather" is now. Although it make take several lifetimes for that to be apparent.

Volcanic eruptions that send ash and sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere normally disrupt weather. Here are a couple of suspects, although there are others:

Russian eruption triggers volcanic sunsets
Maryland Weather
A tremendous eruption by Russia's Sarychev volcano, in the Kuril Islands, on June 12 is causing strange and beautiful violet and lavender sunsets around the northern hemisphere this week. The astronauits aboard the International Space Station shot some...Tags: Space Programs, NASA, Maryland

Alaska's Mount Redoubt Volcano Erupts 3 Times, Sending Smoke Plumes 50,000 Feet High
Staff Writer
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Alaska's Mount Redoubt volcano has begun erupting. Geologists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory say the volcano erupted three times late Sunday and early Monday, with the largest eruption sending a plume of smoke some 50,000...

those hippies became venture capitalists.


We're making things a lot harder for ourselves - and especially for future generations - than they have to be. All you describe is symptomatic of what happens when a society like ours tries too hard and for too long to sustain the unsustainable, to try to keep its hold on what cannot be retained.

We don't all need to exactly become Amish. We all do need to seriously go about becoming quite a bit more like them, though. Simplified lives in a simplified economy. That's our future, and we'd best accept it, embrace it and get on with it.

I read a great book (recommended here on TOD) called Into the Cool: Energy Flow Thermodynamics and Life. The purpose of life, according to the authors, is to reduce gradients.

The energy of oil is a gradient, of course. There are lots of other gradients, which just means a difference in some way between somewhere and somwhere else. A piece of wood feasted on by pillbugs, or a bush of blackberries feasted on by people.

There are so many hundreds and thousands of gradients when you think about it. The way huge cities differ from rural areas. The way G-8 countries look different from India or Pakistan or Ghana. Possibly our human life is now going to reduce that gradient and make the G-8 look more like "less developed" countries. While China and India, having more producers, will have more money and look more G-8......(I mean they`ll get highways and more cars etc.)

But the saddest gradient I can think of is the difference between our life-bearing planet and the barren ones in our solar system. Are we somehow trying unconsciously to emulate Mars or Venus and produce a planet where nothing can live?? It`s bleak to think so, but this conclusion seems inescapable sometimes...

And the formation of a great civilization or a powerful empire, also seems like it produces a gradient between this empire and surrounding less advanced settlements. Finally the difference, the gradient, is too prounouced, too grotesque, to awkward, to let nature let it pass. The gradient is slowly or swiftly reduced----a sand castle felled by its own towering height.


You are right in that the only hope that a society like the US has for salvaging much of anything and preserving it is if we get serious about managed decline. That probably won't happen, but one can always hope. Individual efforts by themselves won't change what is happening on a large scale. On the other hand, if you know that the present level of complexity is unsustainable, that the society and economy MUST decline, then there is definitely something to be said for getting ahead of the curve and proceeding to simplify one's life earlier rather than later. I predict that individuals and households that struggle to preserve the old, energy-intensive, expensive, highly complex ways of life, or the appearance thereof, are going to have very hard time of it. Those who give up struggling against the inevitable, get ahead of the curve, downsize and simplify, and embrace a poorer lifestyle, are likely to find the going a lot easier.

finance articles will oil peak soon? Maybe not. For oil to peak there must be a

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Humankind, through the written ages, has unearthed secrets of our modern past and written a story called history. I say a story, because it seems that we are unable to embody, and fully embrace the same lessons that repeatedly come out of these stories. Now, like before, we seem paralyzed, myopic and numb (the majority of humanity). The escalating threat of global warming, and all it entails, peak oil, peak water, peak wallmarts-still seems like a story to most. Perhaps the accelerated complexity of the last oil and debt soaked 50 years is hard to comprehend for most people..................?????? A kind of sensors/neural overlosd.

We continue to have longer term aspirations hijacked by short term gratification. I honestly feel that we have moved too far, too fast, for too long. As we reflect on the first lunar landing, for me our state of being can be summed up with "One small step for man, another foot in the grave" (Sorry Neil and Buzz, nothing personal-great job if you really did go). All we can do is do the best thing with what we have got.

Ugo, PaulS, dohboi:

It should be noted that the middle ages were not exactly a return to the way things were before the Roman Empire got started. People didn't go back to making boats exactly the way they had previously, for example. There had been some cultural evolution, and while some was lost, some was preserved and carried forward. The tragedy was that less would have been lost and more preserved if people - especially people at the top - had been wise enough to accept the inevitable and to let go of what they could not retain in any case.

Good point, WNCO.

And to extend one of my earlier points:

For the US or even modern Europe to look back on the Roman Empire to see what went wrong and what to avoid

is kind of like

A twenty-something who has been abusing drugs and alcohol an overeating for years looking at his late grandfather who lived to be 98 to see what he did wrong that he died so early.

No empire will last for ever. And anyway, are empires a good idea?

Yes, absolutely. As Marcus Aurelius said, Nature is always remade anew

Ugo Bardi

Fascinating contribution!

Two considerations.

Retrenchment is essential. But the choices would be rather tricky. Pulling back on our imperial holdings (if you'll allow the term) will have costs that are hard to estimate in advance.

Historically, bigger has tended to mean more secure. Or course, with an outright collapse, we'll be much less secure. How do we live safely in a world in which we are no longer top dog? We in the US have not given that question much thought in recent times.

But a much bigger problem is that the nation operates largely out of habit - habit formed from what worked in the past. Exteriminating the indigenous peoples was a big success. Our national hysteria about issues like abortion and homosexuality and our notions about the gods are just habit that extends back millenia to times when associated controls over human behavior mattered to community survival.

The contributions of thoughtful people has little to do with the nation's course through history. It is very hard to stop ourselves from doing what we tend to do. Our invasion of Iraq is an example of such powerful tendencies. To the neocons who surrounded Pres. Bush, it must have seemed like a good gamble promising a strong foothold right in the middle of the world's biggest fossil fuel stash. Spending a few hundred billion on a war might have helped us keep our mitts securely on the multi-trillion dollar oil and gas spigots. (China's cash horde wouldn't buy much oil if our "friends" refuse to sell to her.)

A good understanding of how we got where we are is very difficult to attain. If a few individuals attain such an understanding what are their chances of making their views widely understood in this nation of descendants of half-witted religious fanatics who settled New England and long ago set the national culture? I too am rather pessimistic. Too many people in the US are not in a receptive mode.

Thank you, gasogynist. I see that you, too, play the game of analogies. Bush sending the troops to Iraq is analogous, in my mind, to Trajan invading Parthia (same area, actually). Just as Teutoburg for the Roman Empire was the equivalent of Vietnam for the American Empire. It is a lot of fun, maybe not everybody agrees on the analogies chosen, but, why not? One's mental models are built of what we can find. We just need to be flexible - it is a good exercise (somebody said) to drop at least one of your pet theories every morning.

Ugo Bardi

Well, sir, it's very hard to say just what's going on. In trying to make sense of things in a very complex domain, one guesses and revises one's guesses as best one can.

It has been my take for a long while that our world is made up of competing tribes - tribes competing one another to death.

Tribal (national) strength tends to associate with economic and military size. Hence, the powerful impulse toward growth and conquest (more soldiers, more workers), which exhibits itself in mindless, age-old habit of thought and action.

An individual nation can't get out of this trap by itself. It can only maneuver. (Go for the top dog slot? Cultivate alliances? Take the Switzerland approach?)

Ultmately, solving the resources problem (or the population explosion problem) depends on the ability of the world at large to solve the security problem that underlies this international economic and military competition.

Likely the global situation will soon become so dire that the nations of the world will collectively resort to extreme measures to stop our rush toward global catastrophe.

Another likely outcome, to my mind, is that elites of some assortment of developed countries will deem unfeasible the possibility of international cooperation of such unprecendented scale and will engineer a depopulation of humankind, perhaps employing a disease pandemic.

Thanks for your reply.

Here is just one example of an American city in the throes of collapse and probably not many of the residents really have an understanding as to what is really happening other than the fact that times are tough.


Perhaps they don't know all the details, but many in Detroit are taking things into their own hands and are way ahead of much of the rest of the country in areas like urban farming. The rest of us could learn much from seeing how some in this city, that imploded long before the PO, found ways to survive and thrive.


Good Suff!

My girl friend's daughters live in Michigan (can't remember which town right now)and one of them lives across the street from an urban farm where they raise chickens and goats. The entire state of Michigan may indeed be ahead of the curve. However even they are still hoping for a return to BAU. Though not as bad as these folks in West Point GA.


Yeah, GA is a trip and a half. Lived there for ten years. Had troubling deciding if sprawling Atlanta or the Jesus-Saves rest of the state was more bonkers.

Well it will be interesting to see what happens to Atlanta now that they won't be able to use water from Lake Lanier any longer. As a Florida resident I'm hoping it doesn't turn into an all out war over water (I've heard they have their missiles aimed at Tallahasse) ;-)

I suggest the citizens of Atlanta rent an old copy of Dune and play it on big screens in the public parks.

There was "urban farming" amongst the ruins of the Roman Forum, too. History doesn't repeat, but it definitely does rhyme. (Mark Twain)

I don't think the objective reasons for the Roman Empire to expand beyond the Rhine were very strong as Germany was filled with savages and no gold.

The only reason they got that far was an ambitious politican named Julius Caesar conquered Gaul(more ferocious than Germany) to raise money to cover his political campaign debts. He ended up conquering southern Britain too but gave it back(it was later re-conquered by Germanicus's son Claudius of I Claudius fame).

OTH, there was another politician with debts who was inspired by Caesar, Marcus Licinius Crassius who tried to conquer the Parthians(a Turkic dynasty in Persia) and he was captured and killed in the plains of Mesopotamia(Turkey) along with a couple of legions at Carrhae.

Had Crassus suceeded, the Romans might have conquered wealthy India and eventually established a world empire.

The Romans never really defeated the Persians until Heraclius, who was congratulated on his victory by the emissary of the conqueror of Arabia, Mohammmed who promptly invited the Emperor to convert to his new religion of Islam.

But Germany?

A bunch of miserable swamps.

Yes, there is a line of thought that tries to describe parallel histories. What if the Romans had won at Carrhae? What if they had won at Teutoburg? It is fascinating to think that they could have conquered Germany and from there they could have arrived to Moscow (which wasn't there, of course) as Napoleon and Hitler would try to do much later. Or, from the south, they might have arrived to India, as Alexander the Great had done.

It is a lot of fun, but, personally, I tend to see military victories and defeats as minor episodes. Defeats can always be redressed and victories easily bring nothing useful. On these two specific battles, Teutoburg and Carrhae, think that Germanicus did defeat the Germans a few years after Teutoburg, and still couldn't conquer Germany. And Trajan did defeat the Parthians more than a century after Carrhae. But he couldn't conquer Persia. So, I think things go....

By the way, there would have been an interesting consequence of the Romans conquering Germany: the German language would not exist today, and probably not even English. Maybe TOD would be written in Latin!

The Germans used to provide a lot of auxilary troops for the Romans. Arminius who lead the Germans at the battle had been a Cavalry commander himself for them. Maybe the reason for crossing the Rhine was just to keep the Germans in line and let them know whos boss? The Germans might not of had much to steal but they themselves were the resource which suplimented the Legions.

And of course it was a Germanic tribe, the Goths, that gave the Roman empire its coup-de-grace.

Afghanistan would in some ways be a good modern comparison of an empire going after an area with limited resources but which still poses and existential threat (though it does not provide the US with many soldiers much less commanders).

In the Teutoberg forest Arminius got lucky. The Romans best general Tiberius was busy putting down a rebellion in Macedonia. The Roman forces were commanded by a the provincial govern er who wasn't a military man at all, with predictable results. The Roman's failure to rectify this doomed the Empire in the long term.
At Carrhae I think the main object was to gain domination of Mesopotamia and Armenia. Charging on to the the Iranian Plateau would have been as stupid for Crassius as it would have been for G W Bush and the neocons. Crassius also was not really a military man, being a property developer who had gained political influence and bought his command. Interestingly Trajan did conquer Mesopotamia(present day Iraq) 100 years later but Hadrian abandoned it and withdrew to the Euphrates.

For sure Arminius got lucky and Quinctilius Varus was a hack. But there was no reason to attack Germany or some godforsaken place like Scotland. It cost lives and there was no profit in it whatsoever.

The Roman state ran on money and grew quickest when the gobbled up rich countries like Cathage, Greece and Egypt. Logically India was the closest place with money in it. Historically, Persia has always been the gateway to India.

As far as Crassus's motive, I am sure it was money and glory. Crassus actually was in the property protection/arson business.

When the lot was cast, Syria fell to Crassus, and the Spains to Pompey.

Now the lot fell out to the satisfaction of everybody. For most of the people wished Pompey to be not far away from the city; Pompey, who was passionately fond of his wife, intended to spend most of his time there; and as for Crassus, as soon as the lot fell out, he showed his joy that he regarded no piece of good fortune in his whole life as more radiant than the one which had now come to him. Among strangers and in public he could scarcely hold his peace, while to his intimates he made many empty and youthful boasts which ill became his years and his disposition, for he had been anything but boastful or bombastic before this.
But now, being altogether exalted and out of his senses, he would not consider Syria nor even Parthia as the boundaries of his success, but thought to make the campaigns of Lucullus against Tigranes and those of Pompey against Mithridates seem mere child's play, and flew on the wings of his hopes as far as Bactria and India and the Outer Sea.

And yet in the decree which was passed regarding his mission there was no mention of a Parthian war. But everybody knew that Crassus was all eagerness for this, and Caesar wrote to him from Gaul approving of his project, and inciting him on to the war. And when Ateius, one of the tribunes of the people, threatened to oppose his leaving the city, and a large party arose which was displeased that anyone should go out to wage war on men who had done the state no wrong, but were in treaty relations with it, then Crassus, in fear, begged Pompey to come to his aid and to join in escorting him out of the city.

Plutarch-Parallel Lives

Good post. Germany was important mainly for security reasons, which as you said may not have weighed as heavily as money on the Romans. Perhaps the security need only became apparent later when raids across the Rhine became an increasing thorn in their side.
Interestingly some posters have talked about Rome being affected by a shortage of wood. If this was true Germany's forests would have been useful. About capturing richer territory Trajan captured wealthy Mesopotamia but Hadrian abandoned it. Never been able to understand that.

In ancient societies that I studied, for example the Roman Empire, the great problem that they faced was when they would have to incur very high costs just to maintain the status quo. Invest very high amounts in solving problems that don't yield a net positive return, but instead simply allowed them to maintain what they already got. This decreases the net benefit of being a complex society.

--- Tainter

A bit like mortgaging the Country to bail out the banks.

I wonder what historians will make of the empty shell that is the US Empire, held together by credit and propaganda. Like a home-owner with a 100% mortgage, it gives the illusion of wealth, of having solid assets and standing within the community. Even though the reality is that the home is owned by the Chinese or some off-shore hedge fund and the appearance of prosperity is just a fake façade.

It would seem that by Tainter's definition, the US Empire is well advanced in its collapse, along with the rest of Western civilisation. Like the Red Queen we're having to run ever faster to stay in the same place due to financial collapse and climate change, but it takes energy to keep running, which is where energy depletion comes in.

Burgundy, I couldn't say that better

...it takes energy to keep running, which is where energy depletion comes in.

The majority of young people at the colleges are oblivious to collapse. They're far too busy going about with I-phones, MP-3 players in sleek cars (in most cases purchased by affluent parents)buying lattes at drive-throughs while texting on well maintained asphalt roads living in suburban splendor. Try and tell them that this is about to fade and they'll look at you like people often do at the poor unfortunates who walk about with cardboard handwritten signs proclaiming: The End is Nigh. They believe with every fibre of their being that things will only get better and better and better...

Case in point: A middle aged professor at a college in San Diego designed and taught the Environmental Science Course. He believed that presenting the real science might influence young people to change things if they could see see where all of this is going. During the first semester he was advised by his superiors to tone it down! Students had gone home and complained to their parents that they were depressed by all of the doomerish data.

Don't get me wrong. I love posts like this but I have reached the conclusion that until the infrastructure that supports our complex societies actually frays and begins to come apart the status-quo will continue. Many have asserted that doomers long for collapse. A read one post by a gentleman who said that doomerish prophecy was a result of "lifestyle envy". That's a new one...what happened to penis envy?

Never-the-less many thanks to Ugo Bardi for an enlightening and thoroughly entertaining post.


Try and tell them that this is about to fade and they'll look at you like people often do at the poor unfortunates who walk about with cardboard handwritten signs proclaiming: The End is Nigh. They believe with every fibre of their being that things will only get better and better and better...

I guess it would depend on where in the tapestry they are at the moment and if the their particular set of fibers is already unraveling or not. I have little sympathy for the arrogant attitude and deliberate ignorance of the spoiled rotten offspring of the wealthy.

American Museum, Jean Shin, Unraveling


I teach college students, and, though some are certainly ditto heads (I prefer the term "Limbaughtomites"), many others are quite aware that things are not going well and are willing to make sacrifices to help avert the worst. I have taught about PO and GW (Kunstler, Heinberg, Diamond, McKibben...). A year ago the students voted to increase their student fees to pay for wind power.

Many of these student are far ahead of most of their profs and administration on these issues.

That's certainly encouraging but I bet if you tell the same people that we need to reduce the human population of the earth by 300,000 people per day "and we need to start right now" they might think that you're insane. Instead human populations continue to increase by almost 300,000 per day and there's hardly a peep about it.

Face it. Even if we could afford to give everyone an electric car and build solar and wind farms from sea to shining sea without addressing population overshoot in some meaningful way it's all for nothing.

Is that doomerish? You better believe it but guess what? Several years ago a prestigious university did a comparative study of people who were clinically depressed and compared their grasp of reality to those who were considered "optimistic". The results showed that the depressed subjects were far more "in tune" with reality.

That being said Natural Selection would almost certainly select for those who are more optimistic. Therefore the doomers will no doubt be the first to go extinct.

Best wishes for a less cheerful world :-( ...the anti-happy-face. There's a tee-shirt that's guaranteed Not to sell.

Here's another one: Imagine a well written book with the following title:

Let Me Relieve You of the Burden of Your Personal Optimism or How To Embrace Collapse and Enjoy the Ride Down.

I don't think even I'd buy it.

Joe ;-)

On the other hand, Less is More just might have a chance of catching on. . .

That classic book "Voluntary Simplicity" by Duane Elgin is worth a second look. I remember reading it back in the 1980's right after reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". I love the notes from the book jacket that seem even more relevant today:
"..what this nation needs is not so much a change of policy as a change of mind, and that individual citizens, acting on their own, can do more to solve our energy and inflation crisis than can any national administration."

Great choices. Be sure to update Elgin with Merkel's "Radical Simplicity."

On depression, it occurs to me that giddy ebullient cheeriness in the face of loss our planet is rather obscene and arguably mentally deranged. I don't mope about all the time, but I find it harder and harder to explain and rationalize my happy moods; I tend to pause and wonder what is wrong with me at such times--probably random brain chemistry and possibly anti-depressants in the water system.

Newsroom / FDA Approves Depressant Drug For The Annoyingly Cheerful

Excellent video!

Regarding Despondex,

Every blow-dried,edge of their seat, look you in the eye, newcaster should have this drug forced down their throats before each camera take.

We might get some REAL news then.

There 'fetchingly' eye contact and endless smirking,smiling faces need to be wiped off the planet.

And perhaps we could have a law that bans 'laugh tracks' as well for those sitcoms and reality shows that have invaded everyones lives.

I forgot advertising people with all those 'happy shiny faces'.


I think of modern "news" the same way I do professional wrestling. Seriously though, there's never been an invasion easier to turn back. Just turn it off.

"Is that doomerish? You better believe it but guess what? Several years ago a prestigious university did a comparative study of people who were clinically depressed and compared their grasp of reality to those who were considered "optimistic". The results showed that the depressed subjects were far more "in tune" with reality."

I've heard of this test before. Have you got a link?

Who, may I ask, determined what reality was???
Subjective beyond science..that's for sure.

My own answer from back in 1987:

Believe it or not I actually took the time and read your paper and I agree.

Though whether that prestigious university applied those principles remains unclear!

Reality is the stuff that can hurt you whether you believe in it or not.

Pithy. I guess Peak Oil falls under the category of reality as you define it.
The thing is that I don't think that we worriers are any smarter than the crowd. I just think that for whatever reason, the seeking of truth is most important.......at least to me anyway.
I guess that is the hallmark of science.

I like good questions, believing in absolute Truths that can't be questioned doesn't work for me.

So I don't consider myself so much a worrier, just a perpetual quester for little truths that I can work with until something more useful comes along.

The peak resource model is useful, even if it does get a bit depressing at times.

"Reality is the stuff that can hurt you whether you believe in it or not."
But that's not what all the intellectually superior professors will tell you. They all (with few exceptions) insist there's no such thing as reality or truth. So we'd better believe they are telling the truth there and so not believe them.
I discusssed this nonsense on pages 40-41 of my book http://www.lulu.com/content/140930.

I prefer the term "kleptocracy". Between that and Literary Critique, who needs more?

Many retards including myself (IQ~180 and four theories published) do not understand big words such as kelpotcracy but do instantly understand my dumbo neologisms such as criminalocracy. I rest my case.

You're probably smarter than me, but mixing Germanic and Latin roots feels wrong anyway.

Perhaps a few weeks spent studying the speech and writing patterns of academia would get your theories a better view? If people have to struggle with neologisms that run contrary to traditional usage it puts up a mental roadblock to accepting whatever content may be contained therein, however good it may be.

Otherwise it becomes too much like the stereotype of the English/American tourist in a foreign country talking progressively slower and louder to try to get the native language speaker to understand English.

You know how the tourist ends up looking in that case, eh?

I appreciate your point as having at least some validity. But!... (Probably another faux pas there.)
Both Prof HJ Eysenck and Prof David Horrobin (both founding editors of journals) said that I "write well" (and I have surely improved since). My own reckoning is that if some person is genuinely interested in knowing what they are pretending to be expert in, they will cope with some non-standard terminologies and even some far worse presentational gaffes than I have ever committed. But the majority of academics (and other writers) are actually more interested in pretending that my works are not worthwhile, due to not wishing to have their own luminance dimmed by the comparison, plus wishing to not have to bother to read and understand my things.

I should add that (1) neologisms are necessary for the effective presentation of new ideas; and (2) that book like most of my writing was designed for an audience with even more rudimentary vocabulary than my own, for a general audience rather than academic.

That being said Natural Selection would almost certainly select for those who are more optimistic. Therefore the doomers will no doubt be the first to go extinct.

I disagree (not least why haven't they already gone extinct?). There sure is natural selection for optimism (mainly by superficial women who are suckers for guys with positive vibes). But natural selection for unrealism is obviously also constantly at work. And even more so in a noah's ark situation where all the mockers of wise doomsters end up in a corner too tight for survival. The big question is how many can survive both the pre- and post- collapse natural selection regimes.

I am realistic about out situation. I believe PEAK OIL is merely a symptom of growth; Growth in population, and resource use. I'm not upset about re-localization or our inevitable decline. I think the happy ones with their heads in the sand will be more likely to die. They won’t know what hit them. They are going to be in a rage. They will want to look for scapegoats, and seek revenge. All the rest of us need to do, is keep out of their way. Maybe easier said then done, and some of us will die too, but..., we will have better odds. I'm relaxed about depletion and Peak..., there’s nothing I can do about past mistakes. There's nothing I can do about inevitable decline. I'm just going to be Zen about it. I'll I need is food, shelter and companionship. I'm not material, everything else is gravy.


Isn't it obvious why the doomerish cry for collapse?

The reason is to 'save what remains'. If all is destroyed then there is no future whatsoever.

If we continue to eliminate the forests and the blights and diseases we have let loose continue then without that stored energy in the timber we will have aboslutely NOTHING to survive on. And the animal life will disappear with it.

Already we have done a huge number of the oceans lifeforms and we are destroying the rivers and streams and lakes as well.

The wildlife is dying before our very eyes.

That is why I think doomerish thoughts. The only means of life continuing afterwards.

Airdale-as I sense it, most cornucopians have fled TOD. Hard to find them beating their drums anymore as in the not too distant past

...as I sense it, most cornucopians have fled TOD.

good riddance!


<< removed >>

While I am no cornucopian, I will say it saddens me to see thoughtful debate degenerate into group think as different perspectives flee. I often FEEL like a cornucopian on this site even though, in real life, I am seen as a radical, ridiculous "the-end-is-nigh"er. Yes, maybe the world is too rosey-eyed, but I would be careful saying that one is thankful that a certain group has left the table. What, then, is the point of TOD. To exclude and chase away?

Well Andrew,

I for one tried to substitute the word "reality" before but it never took off. Oh some used it but it seems to be too argumentative.

Like as in "What is reality?" or "What is truth?"

So saying DOOMER gets you traction somewhat and everyone then knows what your about.

But I am a doomer trying to become sustainable. Hows that?

Will cornucopians make and carry out real plans? Nah. They just haven't been taking their 'Despondex'. Like the ad said..they sit on their butts and eat junk food.

Check the ad on You Tube if you think I am kidding.


I understand that doomerish mentality, and I certainly have no sympathy with continuing technocopian optimism (or folly, to put it more acurately). Nevertheless, I continue to cling to that (maybe vain) hope that just possibly, we might even yet be able to shift into managed decline mode before it is too late.

WNC--In which case what do you think of the arguments put forward in http://energyark.blogspot.com/2009/07/will-there-be-abrupt-collapse.html?
And bear in mind that Hirsh reckoned that "before it is too late" was 20yrs, or at least 10yrs, before peak, which we now see as having been 2005.

What do I think?

1) I think that both the cliff and the slide are over-simplified and rather naive models. What actually happens is likely to be much more messy than that, and will not match up with most people's preconceptions. I suspect that what will actually happen will suggest a staircase or saw teeth more than anything, but even those words are misleading, for they suggest a much greater degree of regularity than we are likely to experience. When I am talking about decline as the scenario I continue to hope for, don't think of kids having fun as they go down a playground slide; think of that old cartoon character that bounces all the way down a staircase on its rear end, going "Ouch! Ooo! Ouch! Ouch! Ooo! Ooo! Ouch! Ouch!" etc. I'm just hopeful that there isn't a dark pit at the base of the staircase.

2) As for complexity, I think that the best way to grasp what Tainter is implying by thinking in terms of supply chains. Simple societies tend to have very short supply chains for almost everything, complex societies tend to have long, complex supply chains for almost everything. The trouble with long, complex supply chains is that they can become very vulnerable to disruption, and then that in turn can disrupt a whole bunch of other supply chains. Cascading failure. That doesn't mean that the minute that a society has reached the point of too much complexity, everything fall apart and it collapses back to the paleolithic. It does mean that once it is discovered that the supply chains have become too vulnerable and require investing too much resources to keep them up and running, then a society starts shortening and simplifying its supply chains.

3) As for your comments wrt Toynbee, civilizations, history and all that: Some good points. However, I must say that while there are some lessons to be learned from history, considerable caution is required. I am highly sceptical of any grand theories of history that superimpose patterns - and especially cyclical patterns - upon what are not and cannot possibly be exactly the same events and circumstances. We humans are very good at pattern recognition, but we also have a tendency to fool ourselves into thinking that patterns exist where they do not. The truth of the matter is that history is a chaotic sequence of unique events. We are not Rome, and for that matter nothing else ever has been or ever will be Rome except Rome. Thus, while we can seek for and find some interesting comparisons, these must always be tempered by the knowledge that the contrasts are even more extensive. Mark Twain was right that history might rhyme, but never repeats.

4) Nevertheless, your comments about the tendency of societies to become sabotaged by dominant but decadent power elites is well taken, and we certainly see obvious evidence of this in our own situation. And it is true that we cannot expect them to suddenly change their nature and start exercising effective and competent leadership to help our society down the necessary path of managed decline. That simply won't happen. If we are to have such leadership, it will have to come from someone different: from the people of high virtue, intelligence, tallent, creativity, and competence that have for the most part been sidelined by the present power elite. This latter group will somehow have to supplant and sideline the power elite. I do not know how this will happen, nor do I advocate any particular scenario whereby it might happen. I do note that stranger things have happened in the past, so we should not rule out the possibility that this might actually happen, one way or another.

5) IMHO, hyperinflation must eventually happen. That is one thing I do think is inevitable. We have piled up more debts than could be serviced even by an economy that continued to plug along at what have recently been "normal" growth rates of around 2% or so. There is no possible way that a stagnant or declining economy can carry them. Hyperinflation, sooner or later, is a very safe bet. That does not mean the total collapse of the economy or society in and of itself. Life will go on, but life very likely will NOT be BETTER. There will be a dear price to be paid for that coming episode of hyperinflation. there always is, one way or another.

6) Yes, we are likely to see what could be called "chronic breakdown" resulting in more and more things no longer working or no longer being available, and this impacting more and more people in more and more ways. There may come a time when a tipping point is reached and a social convulsion or revolution is triggered. However, do not underestimate the tendency and ability of people to just continue bearing with ever-worsening conditions, day after day. Things could just continue getting worse and worse for a very long time, without society hitting a breaking point.

In reply to your numbered paragraphs:
1) I didn't mention the slide or cliff, nor the staircase either. Rather than such vague disembodied concepts I prefer more embodied causality reasonings such as: hairdressers can no longer afford to fly >> airlines can no longer populate so many flights >> they can't employ so many people >>[etc]>> critical point where only 12% of population has a job anymore >> etc.

3)/4) In drawing lessons from history, I agree we require caution. That's why I only draw the lesson that our leaders will not be of any use, but instead a problem. Plus supplanting the elite I expect will be more a case of new leaders preparing survival communities, energyarks in my terminology, while the dinosaur leaders just carry on commanding their Titanics. The rise of Christianity as a heretic subculture is an approximate case in point.

5) Hyperinflation, perhaps but how soon? If other collapse mechanisms have already closed down the show then it becomes academic.

6)"do not underestimate the tendency and ability of people to just continue bearing with ever-worsening conditions"
But I think you'll find another lesson of history is that many people have lost their lives from over-estimating that rather than underestimating it!

I know you didn't mention slide or cliff, but I thought I had best explain my premises up front. What I describe is not what most people here on TOD believe.

Your scenario of the old dinosaurs simply dying away, and a different crop of power elites taking their place, is of course possible. We could probably spin off quite a few other scenarios as well. What will actually happen will likely end up being quite a surprise for everyone.

I suspect that things will drag on long enough for the hyperinflation episode to actually happen. I just doubt that things are going to fall off a cliff all that quickly.

The way I see it, the charts say that I've got a life expectancy of maybe a little over twenty years, if I'm lucky, and that is assuming BAU. I don't assume BAU, so I have already accepted the reality that my days are numbered no matter what I do. I just don't worry all that much about trying to save my hide, because ultimately I can't. I'm more interested in using the limited time I have left to do what I can to nudge things in a better direction. I probably won't make any difference, but why not at least try?

From your blog; "there are no alternative fuels for transportation which are sufficiently scaleable to offset this decline within the next few years (for either technical or social/political/economic reasons)."
Like the Hirsch report( 2005) you seem to be totally dismissing electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

You also seem to be discounting gasoline rationing as an effective response to a rapid decline in oil availability, until EV's can totally replace ICE vehicles.

Here is a happier future by someone living it now:

Neil, Good question though I didn't find that link very enlightening about any technical details of how the happier future was being enabled. More to the point, what one person can do today is not necessarily what millions can do tomorrow.

I did add social/political/economic to the technical objections.
My reckoning is as follows.

A substantial substitution of electrification of motoring would require a huge investment in the vehicles and in the charging systems and the electric supply thereto. One might imagine this could be done if the government set out a warlike crisis plan. But (1) it won't; and (2) even if it did, the US etc economy is already broke, not really in any position to indulge in such a whopping investment operation.

Furthermore such a changeover would entail huge disruption and changes of lifestyles and workstyles which have been designed around instant cheap mobility without having to faff about with recharging or range or limited speed. Plus a huge amount of retraining in the different tech.

Gasoline rationing, again is possible but how much disruption and further economic downsizing is it going to cause? How much political friction?

Such challenges might be able to be successfully tackled by a society that was not already real-world bankrupt and where there was not the situation that, as I put it:
"Governments of scientifically-illiterate congenital incompetents will take charge of tackling the following daunting problems in the difficult context of constant shrinkage disputes and while being incapable of admitting or planning for the reality of population overshoot anyway."

Archaeology... I want to reach for a pistol and place it at the back of the head of archaeological academia.

I apologize in advance for my poor use and poverty of language

I take these Roman collapse arguments with a very large pinch of salt. Especially graphs deduced from statistical analysis of archaeological data. I do not dismiss Tainter's arguments out of hand but the validity of the supposed Hubbert like graphs and "what not" are often premised on some pretty loose analysis of what is in hindsight badly collated data.

The archaeological evidence of Roman London (londinium) is a case in point. The current model is that Londinium expanded in size to a peak population in the early 2nd cent then declined. This of course fits this peak empire model we see here. The evidence for this population profile is myriad but mainly taken from pottery data. The economic and cultural artifact assemblage mostly represented by pottery in London shows a distinct concentration in the early part of the city's life with a peak circa 120AD followed by a dramatic decline with a long tail extending in the late 4th cent.


this pottery vs time profile has been reinforced over the last 60 years with every site excavated in Roman London and seems to be a slam dunk for those advocates of peak late 1st early 2nd cent Roman London (and forms part of the wider roman empire argument)

Naysayers tried to argue that the later Roman assemblage had been truncated out the archaeological record by the action of later eras.. the closest in phase being the extensive pitting activity in the medieval era... since broadly speaking the assemblage is arranged in chronological strata (simplification) the later romman assemblage is more vulnerable to truncation by physical activity from above.

however Marsden and West did a study of residual roman pottery in medieval pits. The thinking was that if the latter roman assemblage was removed by later activity the Roman pottery profile of this residual Roman pottery in medieval layers would show a opposite or different shape to the un-truncated Roman profile....

well it doesn't. The Roman profile is preserved in the later Medieval features. This seemingly confirms without a shadow of doubt that the Roman assemblage is some sort of genuine parallel analogue of Roman demographic and economic activity.

case closed. and has been for 60 years (and some)


all of this has two big assumptions

1) the first of which is a genuine general failing of archaeology in general. the assumption is that the entirety of activity above ground is always represented by what is left below ground in proportion across time. IE if we find a decline in pottery density over time it represents a decline in pottery use above ground.... this is the "know unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" point that "what's his face" made in that book The Black Swan. the problem is we are not aware or even looking for what it is that is missing from the data set.

2) the second is more specific to the case study of Roman London in that the idea the Roman assemblage has to be an un-truncated distribution because we can not find any post roman process that could have truncated it.. this assumption is quite stupid in hindsight and should have been scrutinized a lot earlier especially given some of anomalous evidence. Virtually nobody bar one dismissed and forgotten observer in 1933 realised that the assemblage may have been truncated by the Romans themselves!

The data left by the Romans was modified by themselves.. any civilisation will modify its physical remains with in the time period of its on existence.

In the case of Roman London (and no doubt other centers of Roman civilisation) it is now coming to light that the Romans MUST HAVE done this extensively.

to be keep a long story short the Romans changed the way they disposed of roman pottery detritus in the latter roman period and therefore it does not show up in the archaeological record

One of the salient facts of many london sites is the domination of the Roman pottery assemblage by material in backfilled Roman quarries. My first thought was that since these quarries are concentrated in the first part of Roman London’s history do they represent a special case of disposal of Roman sherd detritus. Roman quarry activity declines at about the same time as the pottery assemblage appears to decline furthermore since quarry activity is a one time deal the ability to keep quarrying will be limited by spatial and geological limits rather than disposal practices. If the Romans had built the city from stone rather than clay and timber buildings from the outset would they have dug large pits for rubbish disposal? What we do know is in the latter Roman period when more stone buildings are being constructed there is a cessation of intensive quarry activity and the pottery assemblage is not concentrated as often for disposal. Could it be the early pre 160AD Roman pottery assemblage only survived in the record because the opportunity to dispose of it was presented by the existence of open areas peppered with large quarry pits that required backfilling? The problem with this argument is that it is circular in nature. The decline in pottery and quarries may be due to a genuine decline in activity rather a change in activity. How do you resolve such a circle?

what we did was divide the roman assemblage on a few test sites into two components. casual and mass disposal... casual disposal represents small quantities of potery scatter left kicking around and mass disposal represents the deliberate disposal of waste material.. the idea being casual disposal should still mirror mass disposal of the period. The results were sobering.

There is nearly twice as much casual pottery in the last 150 yrs of roman occupation as in the first 150 years. This is diametrical opposed to the current view of Roman economic activity. But it is not just the amount of material that is the problem it’s the realisation that almost all the late material in the profile is not actually the result of deliberate disposal activities. There is no large assemblages of late pottery concentrated in dumps or features It was hard to find any mass disposal mechanism for late roman pottery and the casual assemblage grew in time. that is to say that the part of the assemblage that didn't make it to the bin and was left kicking around pavements and backyards grows while the location or mechanism for waste disposal disappears!... what is worse we can calculate the rate the casual pottery assemblage is being created and its pretty absurd to suggest that the latter roman waste disposal mechanism is the wide scatter of potery sherds at the rate of one sherd per hectere every 2-3 days.

if you are arguing that the roman pottery vs time distribution is a genuine representation of declining roman economic activity you have to assume the mass disposal mechanism is in the record for us to see.

even more enlightening During the assessment stage of analysis was terracing activity observed that could be responsible for the removal of late 2nd cent stratigraphy thus a reason for why late 2nd century material was absent on some sites. We had a look for a possible destination of this missing strat and the first port of call we thought of (as did many other observers) is the Roman waterfronts which require large backfilling deposits. Since the dating evidence for these truncation events is they took place in the 3rd cent an investigation of the residual assemblages in waterfronts may throw up a mismatch between the dendrochronological dates of the late waterfronts and the material behind them. Basically we were hoping that 3rd century waterfronts had residual mid-late 2nd century pottery. It was on reflection a rather naive notion from the look and learn book of archaeological deductive reasoning. The pottery assemblages in the roman waterfront are pretty tight to the dendrochronolgical dating evidence and there is no obvious smoking gun. But this investigation again raises a very serious problem concerning the pottery profile

 The notion that waterfront dump pottery is contemporary with the waterfront is rather problematic when we view the nature of the later Roman assemblage as a whole. The largest concentrations of later Roman pottery of the 3rd century are in the waterfronts deposits they are pretty much the only concentrations of 3rd century pottery deliberately disposed of on mass.   Yet they must have been generated in a short period with in the time frame of the waterfront construction. How long does a waterfront take to construct. Canvassing opinion from peers returned estimates unanimously of less than a year. Even if we say that pottery wastage was stockpiled for a year because the waterfronts were going to be a known opportunity for waste disposal we are still left with a major headache. Where is the large assemblage of pottery for the year after or the year before? It doesn’t appear in the record yet we know when a waterfront is built one suddenly appears! The implication is that this waste assemblage is constantly being created but not surviving in the sequence because it is disposed of outside the city. Even more telling is the amount of pottery in waterfront deposits increases in time. The early waterfronts have little pottery in them compared to the later. In other words we again have a similar process to compare like casual disposal across time and the later waterfronts produce more pottery than the earlier despite they must have taken roughly equivalent times to build per unit length. The more this issue is investigated the more the roof starts to fall in on the house of cards we have built for ourselves

the answer is the romans probably threw there rubbish into the river... its not rocket science.

I could go on but I'm starting to Rant..and I'm off to watch the tour de france on tv..there is a lot more to this but the failing has been the constant generalizing from specific example school of thought and is in part a systemic failing of how archaeology is managed...

Basically the Roman city got big and remained big

from our perspective the worrying thing that all doomers are going to love is the decline was probably VERY rapid and there was in fact large amounts of economic activity prior to collapse..... this is a tentative as we are in the early stages of re-writing the story.



I miss a bit the analisis of transportation. The extension of the roman empire was always bound to the limits of the Mediterranean Sea. Yes, they sailed the Atlantic and the Red Sea, too but the core "highway" was the Mediterranean. Wood in those days was the only resource for the construction of ships. Still nowadays one can see the ecological strain in form of a deforestated coast. "Peak Wood" probably was an other problem that put, together with the fixed extension of the waterways, limitations on transportation and therefore on the growth of the empire.

Boris, interesting reasoning. I suspect Roman Britannia was a bit analogous to Bushan Iraq/Afghanistan/Pakistan. Britannia would have been important for its tin (for military metalwork) and salt (for staying alive and paying salaries). And for its uniquely peculiar climate. On the other hand there would be the constantly draining costs of keeping the Pict/Celt barbarians at bay, analogous to the Taliban and al-Q. And the bother of that channel. The Londinium powers would try to maintain their case for as long as possible, and meanwhile the Rome capital city would be reluctant to admit defeat prematurely. So they would have held out with undue optimism till the difficulties from Germania etc forced the withdrawal. Does that sound credible? As for a gun to archeological academia--more like a gun to academia in general, not least the professional charlatans who pretend my theories of autism, dementia, manic-depressive, etc do not exist, along with the depublished The g Factor by Chris Brand, and the cure of autism by chelation (see web videos). Add to that the Hiv>Aids hoax via which thousands of "researchers" suck the taxpayer. (And now please get back to misruling contemporary Londinium!)

Does that sound credible?

well it sounds credible. But that's not really the question your asking.

There is some evidence Britain provided wheat to the Rhine garrisons but to be honest these sort of ideas of parallels to modern colonisation/globalisation is something I am very wary of.

there must be some sort of periphery effect... it appears the outside edges of the empire fell over first.. but Britannia appears to more integral to the history in a political sense than say the NW frontier..

upstart emperors and what not.... when US presidents come from soldiers recruited in the ME?

I suppose Obama is a descendant of African slaves.. but that's a stretch

you can make these parallels but for me its enjoyable dinner table talk most of the time

trying to define history in energy return or economic return processes based on the evidence we have is a real ask.

the basic thrust of return vs investment arguments strikes a chord in most of us here reading this blog... perhaps we should look at the profit margin that is required to sustain a system.

one aspect of the present economic crisis is the idea its not so much the contraction in the economy rather than some systemic failure brought about by its inability to grow....

is the same true of the roman economy?

if anything roman Londinium(and other urban centers) appear to have entered long sustained steady states.. which I'm guessing is an unfashionable view . And makes their collapse even more mysterious.

Intuitively I suspect systems become very stressed long before resource shortages actually become chronic.

but that is just a guess

Intuitively I suspect systems become very stressed long before resource shortages actually become chronic.

Which would be due to the social breakdown process described by Toynbee and causally explained by myself, with ref to my comment further down and links therein.

If future archeologists dig our garbage heaps they might conclude that the Swedish economy peaked in the early 1990:s(from memory) due to declining garbage volmes, but the real change were recycling and garbage incineration.

this is exactly the sort of reasoning that has now entered the debate on Londinium...

if we applied the same arguments deduced from evidence volumes made for 2nd cent decline on later eras we would conclude the city of London shrunk in the 18th cent

I don't see any parallels between the transition phase of the Roman Empire and what is going on today. Obviously technological progress has changed the world a lot in the last 2000 years. We have better communication via the internet, and hence more transparency in ideas. We have super computers which can solve our complex problems in the blink of an eye, and our thought processes are based on scientific progress not the backward thinking (status quo/ages of men) of the Greeks etc. If only people would accept the hope offered by new technologies like the electric car, hydrogen, wind power, and the great wisdom of our political elite. There is no such thing as resource limits, only revolutions in their usage. The truth is that doomers are in reality suffering from the politics of envy, they react more along the lines of 'if I cannot have that lifestyle, than nobody else should', and invent phantom arguments to justify their so called reasoning. This type of thinking is dangerous and should be neutralized.

We have Obama, we have hope, and now it is time for doomers to change.


"We have Obama, we have hope, and now it is time for doomers to change."

We may have different clowns in office, but the circus remains the same. As for the 'politics of envy', I find there is very little in this society I desire to possess. Mcmansions, Interstate highways, suburban sprawl, a media and image driven culture that confuses real political debate with 24 hour a day media freak & shriek shows. For all of President Obama's campaign rhetoric about Hope and Change, I have little of the former, and see none of the latter. In fact, Mr Obama has predicated his politics and policy on keeping things going just as they always have. Please explain to me just how much different things are under President Obama than they were under George Bush?
Our country is still waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a military that gets pretty much whatever it wants, a public transportation system that's sick joke and millions of fellow citizens unemployed and increasingly without health insurance. Just, exactly, how should those facts be dismissed, or should I say "neutralized"? Tell you what, Prof; You can wait for that pie in the sky all you want. Me, I gonna grow some vegetables, and try to make something of a community out of what's left of our so called culture.

Pete Deer

Ha ha ha ... ha!

Satire right?

We have Obama and now we have gone the whole course. Now we can fade out....and exit stage left.

Stick around Prof Baldwin? Stick around and we might have front row seats.

Ok..so the net will save us? Wow. By Twitter? TeenbopperChatRooms? Facebook? MySpace? Who is delusional and who is not? Who is destroying and who is not?

Airdale-"Neutralizing"? Sounds threatening. "Dangerous"? Really? To who?
"Envy"??? I think not.

There is no such thing as resource limits, only revolutions in their usage.

Where are you coming from??? Then why has depletion inexorably overtaken technology in US and other oil producing areas? How much energy can USA procure in 10-20 years without imports, paid for with debt and a fiat currency? Cheap energy has subsidized the belief that there is no such thing as resource limits.

The truth is that doomers are in reality suffering from the politics of envy, they react more along the lines of 'if I cannot have that lifestyle, than nobody else should', and invent phantom arguments to justify their so called reasoning.

I don't like the 'doomer'/'cornucopian' labels much - but if pressed, I would consider myself a 'doomer', as I see no way we avoid social collapse in the next decade +/-. You might be correct about about SOME doomers, but your comment is way off base as a generality - personally my lifestyle is awesome - capitalism has been great for me, my family and friends, and if it weren't for taking lots of other species down via wide boundary extractive impacts, I would MUCH rather that the cornucopians be correct and the doomers be completely wrong about resource limits. Of course I am worried that any new scalable energy tech will be accompanied by larger non-energy inputs and further extend our cognitive/health limits. In any case, the situation now is that we are passed social limits to growth and the debt orgy will create social collapse before hard resource limits will be reached (though they are clearly related.

This type of thinking is dangerous and should be neutralized.

Wow. Insightful as to your agenda. I think infinite resource thinking is dangerous as well but prefer to spend time working on a website where civil discussion eventually converges on the truth. 'Neutralization' never even entered my mind. (one reason I had hope you weren't really a professor)

We have Obama, we have hope, and now it is time for doomers to change.

Obama is not to blame for what is happening - this situation was brewing long before he even decided to run for president. But what does 'hope' give you? Hope is an adaptive placebo that may or may not be accompanied by reality. (*note - yesterday a report came out on genetic evidence for placebo).

In any case, despite our disagreement, the problem is to marshall our resources and keep stability intact between various social groups (yours included) during energy descent. I will happily say I was wrong and you were right if we can still have this peaceful online debate 10 years hence.

Nate, I think that was a sarcastic comment!

After re-reading it I think you are right- it just seems so similar to some emails I get that I didn't realize it...

Nice to know I need non-native English speakers to point out sarcasm to me...;-)


I will happily say I was wrong and you were right if we can still have this peaceful online debate 10 years hence.

Hoping for a systemwide crash back to pre-petroleum lifestyles in the next ten years is about a far off reality as anyone can get. It's tempting to bet you a bar of gold on it.

Who said I was hoping or anything about pre-petroleum ??
In any case, it's not something I would bet on, because there are many possiblities - it's not a binary (collapse or no collapse) situation.

Len--Rather than speculating about hypothetical bets, how about you put forward your thoughts on the collapse causalities suggested at http://energyark.blogspot.com/2009/07/will-there-be-abrupt-collapse.html.

Obviously technological progress has changed the world a lot in the last 2000 years. We have better communication via the internet, and hence more transparency in ideas. We have super computers which can solve our complex problems in the blink of an eye, and our thought processes are based on scientific progress not the backward thinking (status quo/ages of men) of the Greeks etc. If only people would accept the hope offered by new technologies like the electric car, hydrogen, wind power, and the great wisdom of our political elite.

profbaldwin, do you moonlight for The Onion?

Or this is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans. Studies also suggest that not many Americans are technologically literate.


I spent 30 years as a chemical and mechanical engineer working in manufacturing. I have a good understanding of fossil fuel combustion in boilers, steam and electricity and turning raw materials into products. I also have an appreciation of resource depletion and lower net energy/ EROEI. Eventually, perhaps in a generation at most, the embedded energy in the capital equipment required to capture low grade energy and mineral resources will turn growth negative.

Being a student of the science timeline I only see a few unexploited or underexploited scientific discoveries. The most promising one is nuclear energy.

Implementation of scientific discovery is the driver of the economy. The most important scientific discoveries, like heat engines (thermodynamics), chemistry and electromagnetic force have been extensively utilized to the point of saturation and asymptotic approach to thermodynamic limits.

The peak growth rate of the U.S. economy occurred from the 1890’s to around 1910, which coincided with mass production of steel, paper, chemical fertilizers and other basic materials and the beginnings of the telephone network and electrification, including the sophisticated electric street railways (a.k.a. streetcars). Factories also switched to electricity after 1910. However, output per man hour was probably greater during 1930’s due to agricultural mechanization and continued electrification, but the efficiency became so great that there was a large surplus of labor.

Today we are paying the price for better public health, such as the elimination of cholera, diphtheria whooping cough, typhoid, etc., and better medicine that led to longer life spans. This is probably the reason healthcare is now about 16% of the economy. Also, the dependent to worker ratio is increasing and will eventually become unsupportable.

This is probably the reason healthcare is now about 16% of the economy.

That's ridiculous. The only problem with healthcare in the US is wasted resources in a system which is deliberately set up to waste those resources in order to increase the net incomes of the insurance companies and hospital owners. Canada for example gets better outcomes by EVERY measure with only 9% of a smaller per-capita GDP, and no, useful critical care procedures are NOT rationed despite what your lying neo-con talking head media idiost are telling you now on your propaganda channels. Hip replacements, cosmetic surgery, that stuff IS rationed, but not critical-care procedures. US voters need to buy a clue.

There is plenty of waste and greed in the US healthcare system, and also in the legal system that permits huge lawsuits that drive up the cost of malpractice insurance. If the government wants to do something they should take over malpractice and any lawsuits should be against the US government, with the looser paying legal fees.

It would be interesting to see an engineering type analysis of healthcare costs. The real costs of many commodities declined by over 80% during the 20th Century, but health care went up! For all we hear about the miracles of technology, why don’t they lower health care costs? Healthcare cost destroys the myth of high technology/computer/internet era being a new era.

We have Obama, we have hope, and now it is time for doomers to change.

Y'all posting in a troll thread.

I recall the id 'mididoctors' from some long time back.

I don't recall him/her into satire or sarcasm to much but I could be wrong.

I can take the Obama sentence as being sarcasm but the rest comes over to me as serious.

If sarcasm then he played it far far too close and lost the audience.

Airdale-or just trolling for the pure hell of it and creating total archeological trashtalk. Why then would a poster do such?

Nice catch bmcnett.

We have super computers which can solve our complex problems in the blink of an eye

Obviously you have never studied computer science.

Most of our problems are not solvable by computation: they are either in the class of NP-complete or require people to act against what they perceive to be their interests and/or desires.

I'm one of the optimists around here, and I can see that things are going pear-shaped.

...hope offered by new technologies like the electric car, hydrogen, wind power, and the great wisdom of our political elite.

Up until the last 5 words you had me going there.

It's sad when satire/irony is not noticed due to it being so much like the drivel spouted by economists, Republicans and coal CEO's.

I live in hope and plan in despair.

A Nice essay.

Carol Quigley, Will Durand and Peter Turchin have also made some interesting comments on the rise and fall of empires.
Peter Turchin is anentymologist who has made some interesting quantatative views on the rise and fall and rise and fall of civilisations. His books include "Historical Dynamics", "war and peace and war" and "secular Cycles" http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/people/turchin/SEC.htm

Basically civilisations go through a 7 stage cycle (combining with quigley)

Age of Conflict,
Universal Empire,

During mixture and gestation you create group solidariyu(asabiya) and create the mechanism of expansion which include both economic, social and religious aspects.

Using the mechanisms of expansion the civilisation expands until it reaches its malthusian limits which leads to an age of conflict.

During the age of conflict the elites wage war between themselves. This is when you see the real dramatic population drops as the system is destroyed to meet the wants of the few.

Then a civilisation can either renew itself, or go onto the final phase or enter the universal empire. there is no new mechanism of expansion, but whose boss has been decided. The mechanism of expansin ossifies and then eventually consumes all free surplus. which leads onto

Decay where the elite turn to hedonism. Birthrates fall. Religions become otherworldy. elites withdraw from social reponsibility. The elites outsource population growth to non core groups who are apparently easier to handle. leading to
Invasion and collapse.

Turchin shows why monogamous societies tend to go through cycles of about 250 years, in a malthusian situation, because it takes that time for elites to go through their cycle of collapse, growth, overproduction, war and collapse.

As peak oil begins to hit the question then becomes how will our elites react. Will they become long visioned people seeking the best for the world or like matt Taibbi vision of our elites sucking the last drop of life to support an unsustainable lifestyle

"our elites sucking the last drop of life to support an unsustainable lifestyle"

That one seems to be what they/we have mostly chosen.

I was going to mention this book too. Very interesting stuff - and I think his argument about group solidarity is very, very, very important.

Early on in the civilization's history the main impediment to a better quality of life is deemed to be EXTERNAL to the members of the society - a bad environment, foreign enemies, you name it. This external pressure creates a group solidarity that allows the society members to cooperate more effectively with one another and thus allows them to become better organized... and more effective at accomplishing group goals. Thus, they overcome external factors limiting their growth/expansion and, VERY IMPORTANT, everyone benefits.

But, the key is that at some point the cost-benefit calculus of cooperation and solidarity changes. The key impediment to individual advancement is NO LONGER external to the group but INTERNAL to the society. People quit cooperating. They stop worrying about the 'public good' and only about themselves and their competition with other members of their society. Thus, the society loses the social solidarity that was so key in its earlier success and infighting for power and position begins to spiral out of control. Sometimes it leads to civil war and revolution, other times it just weakens it enough to allow external enemies to destroy it.

Understanding when and why that switch in the cost-benefit calculation of cooperation occurs is very important.

I think not. You are all approaching the subject through the word "empire", which is no longer valid and needs to be stamped out worldwide. The "us against them" regional empires of history should be recognized as obsolete in this world. Everyone on this earth needs to recognize that we are all in this together and we will all sink or float together. Once all nation-states have died out and genuinely democratic world government with world equality prevails, then we'll again have a chance. Trying to blame current problems or future collapse on lack of petroleum energy is a myopic, misanthropic attitude. Greater support of truely international / worldwide government is the only future. Trying our best to share our good fortune with everyone on earth equally is where we need to be working, NOT huddling up in a corner with a tinfoil hat, a stack of MRE and dried soup packets and an AK47 praying to some ethereal gods for a collapse of civilization.

Not everyone is as enlightened as you..............or even capable of being so enlightened.
At the risk of sounding arrogant. "we are surrounded by freakin idiots".
To be prepared for a worst case scenario that no one wants to see is just prudent.
Oh and by the way don't go with an AK...........7.62x39mm will be the first ammo banned. Ha.

Hoekomsa and Prodigal--These points about civilisational stages and the internal social changes are very in line with the ideas Arnold Toynbee and my own development thereof; more details in my post further down and links therefrom (152nd comment here at the time). My 1987 article in particular explains the causality of that switch from cooperation to competition. It exactly accompanies a switch from supremacy of genius mentality to supremacy of authoritarian mentality. (Authoritarians lack competence and creativity and are obsessed with status advancement (degrees, professorships etc) while geniuses are preoccupied instead with solving society's problems, to the extent of forgetting their own self-interests.)

I vaguely recall recently reading somewhere that conditions for plebes at the fringes of the empire improved after the empire proper collapsed because of the reduced tax burden.

Collapse can also redistribute wealth as the elite lose power and control. As the systems put in place by the elite to accumulate wealth and maintain it begin to fail, the plebs find they can participate in the economy on a more equal footing.

re: Burgundy

Please can you give a working historical example of this occurring and been successful ? My own evidence would be for the complete opposite. Higher taxes occur during transition periods, these don't benefit the lower income groups.

The question is whether central authority has the ability to see imposed taxes are actually collected.

As the society begins to collapse the central government loses its ability to make its writ heeded on the fringes of the empire - too few troops, tax collectors, or enough revenue to keep those expensive arms of administration going out in the boondocks. Over time the soldier/policeman/government official visit the fringe less and less until they stop coming altogether.

But, closer in to the center of the society.... yeah, the state will rape you harder and harder until the very end.

The Romans taxed the country side to the limits as a desperate bid to stave off collapse. The peasantry were quite happy to be rid of the Roman state at the end.

In my studies of Latin in school, I never read any reference I can recall which might have backed up your claim. Can you provide a reference?

In the dark ages, the efficient and low-cost provision of order and good govenrment of the roman empire was replaced by a mix of feudal lords and clergy who had to tax to the very limits available to maintain sufficient armed forces to defend against just neighboring principalities which were always prepared to exploit with force any evidence of weakness. Under roman government, those sorts of issues were simply settled by decisions of the governors. I'm not claiming it woul be ideal currently, simply that your statement doesn't hold.

I am in trouble in finding a specific reference right now, but I am sure that after a certain moment, I would have preferred to live as the subject of a local barbarian ruler, rather than to be a Roman citizen and have to pay the taxes needed to sustain a remote imperial court, in Rome or in Byzantium, (and their armies)

IIRC it comes from Gibbon's "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire". Where basically taxation became so onerous on land owners and farmers that they simply abandoned the land and left. Seemingly many where happier under barbarian rule than under Rome.

It sticks in my mind because I basically did the same and left the failing remains of the British empire. Once the sun never set on the British empire and now it can hardly support a few thousand combat troops in Afghanistan. I didn't want my family to be there when it finally disintegrates, when the Union brakes and 51 million people crammed together on the habitable parts of the island finally foresee their impoverished future (I wouldn't be surprised if most of the population of England was actually crammed into 300x50 mile strip of land). Those that can't move will bare the brunt of taxation or other forms of expropriation as the State tries to survive collapse.

I'm not currently in any position to usefully leave the UK anyway. But I envisage the much most likely way forward will be a massive die-off (90%-100%) within the next few years, due to the catastrophic over-dependency on the corporate lifesupport system and catastrophic loss of traditional skills and infrastructure. After a year or so of die-off, those/any who survive will have more grand houses and premium grand pianos than they can actually make use of (especially as they'll be struggling to just survive for some years on). At least we don't have hurricanes or Siberian winters here. Anyway, my bet is on www.energyark.net in one form or another.

profbaldwin, an example that immediately comes to mind is the 14th Century and the collapse of the Medieval feudal system following the Black Death. The elite lost their grip on the peasantry and had to start paying them the market rate for their labour.

Regarding taxes, if the elite can successfully levy taxes, then they haven't lost their grip on power. My comment was really concerning collapse where the elite lose their grip on power and therefore cannot enforce a system of inequality that makes them wealthy.

Inequality is cyclical and rises to a zenith at which point the system maintaining it fails, the following collapse re-establishes some form of equality. Then the whole process starts again as the next lot of elite find some new method of re-establishing inequality which increases their power and wealth. And so on....

Burg--Surely that's a dumb example to answer the esteemed Prof Baldwin's post with. The Black Death resulted in higher resources per capita, the exact opposite of what we face now.

As for the inequality cycle, I agree. Wealth persistently tends to accumulate towards a few. But wealth in almost all respects is not a real thing but merely the mental notions of "ownership" and "value". When the proportion of people who find it useful to recognise the validity of those things falls too low, then inevitably the "wealthy's" "wealth" gets revealed for the fiction it really is. Interesting times ahead (said this very unwealthy commenter....).

Unfortunately, I have no source, but I have read the same thing, and in addition, there was an active effort by the establishment of the time to keep it a secret that Empire was not in the best interest of those at the fringes.

I think I've read similar, and I seem to recall this theme popping up in a few texts about Roman Britain. Anyone else have similar experiences?


My insight on the problems facing the Roman Empire come mainly from The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar. Regardless of Caesar’s political and financial motivations, Rome had previously been invaded by barbarians and consequently lived in fear.

The reason for the barbarian aggressions against neighbors was often to get more “fertile soil” and in one instances Caesar mentions the aggressors “burned their crops and “burned their houses” before their migration.

Caesar also mentions fallowing of land and crop rotation as agricultural practices, but it is clear in hindsight that the soils were exhausted after millennia of cultivation. The barbarians were starving and desperate.

Much of the expansion of the Empire was to preempt another invasion of Rome. The Empire was finally overrun when the Rhine River froze in the early 400’s and the barbarians crossed en mass.

The Romans were able to contribute a sophisticated road system, public administration and a few other benefits, but also collected taxes from the territories. Unfortunately the benefits of Roman rule did not solve the population and resources issues.

Much of the expansion of the Empire was to preempt another invasion of Rome. The Empire was finally overrun when the Rhine River froze in the early 400’s and the barbarians crossed en mass.


The primary reason for the collapse of the West( the East tottled on for another 1000 years) was
the really awful incompetent statesmanship and endless coup d'etats.

The collapse of Rome happened 50 years after the sack of Rome(410 AD) to the Alaric, who was both a Roman general (of auxilliaries)and the leader of the Christian Visigoth German tribe. Only a year before the really big heathen germanic horde of Radagaisus was smashed at the battle of Florence.
After the sack of Rome(410 AD) the Visigoths and the Romans joined forces to resist the barbarian Huns and the combined army managed to defeat Attila the Hun at Chalons in 451 AD.

The real problem was when the Christian semi-barbaric Germanic tribe of Vandals
conquered North Africa, the grainery of Rome and filled the Mediteranean Sea with pirates(always a great danger). The reason the Vandals entered the Empire was to seek refuge from the Huns, settling first in Spain(409 AD) and then North Africa in 429 AD. North Africa/Carthage was quite a good base of operations as it was self sufficent.

The old Vandal king Geiseric did everything he could to grind down Rome and in 455 his pirate fleet sacked the city even as the Romans murdered each other in the struggle for power.

The primary reason for the collapse of the West( the East tottled on for another 1000 years) was the really awful incompetent statesmanship and endless coup d'etats.

Yup - the Empire rotted away from within long before it fell to the barbarians. More Roman soldiers were killed by Romans than the barbarians.

Well, we've already been well underway with the "really awful incompetent statesmanship" for several decades, now, so I guess we've still got the "endless coup d'etats" to look forward to.

It'll make things more interesting!

I believe that the benefits of Roman law and administratiion far outwieghed the costs for most of the history of the empire.The Romans couild be pretty heavyhanded,but they were good at
maintaining order.

You could travel,conduct business,and live in reasonable safety in Roman territory.

But resource depletion almost undoubtedly played a very serious role in the decline.I have a book around here somewhere titled something like Wood" or "A History of Wood" that goes deeply into the use and depletion of tomber in historical societies.

My own informal study of agricultural history (in the preinternet days)leads me to believe that soil depletion and erosion were also highly significant factors. At a time when net yields were low and shipping was a truly expensive undertaking,the horse shoe nail analogy might very well have come into play and been the ultimate reason for the loss of a given battle,or the abandonment of a particular area.

Wood was the primary fuel in those days.

And they had to haul it with draft animals.

Another possibility is that large societies may naturally evolve in to several smaller ones in the same sense that a few early arriving finches evolved into the dozen(?) Darwin found in the islands.

Unless you had serious pressing business elsewhere,you would seldom have traveled very far from home in those days.

If you were a Roman citizen stationed far from home ,you would have taken a local wife as a matter of necessity,unless you were a high offocial.

Your children could easily have reached adulthood thinking of themselves as Romans for the first generation ,maybe for two generations.

After that they would have been Romans in name only,like the modern day descendents of the Spanish who overran Mexico and points south.

It's pretty hard to maintain your loyalty to a place you have never seen.

From a novel (Louis LAmour?)paraphrased when someone threatened an earlyAmerican frontiersman with the authority of the king of England:

The king is far away and knows but little or nothing of what goes on here.But you and I are here and we can solve our problem quickly and without help.No one I know has ever seen a king,or a governor.Do you want to fight,or shall we enjoy this fine venison together?

My family has for all intents and purposes forgotten where we came from less than two centuries ago and barely realize that Ireland and Scotland exist.

If decreasing complexity is used to define collapse we are already on the road. High profile examples include the "retirement" of the Concorde supersonic passenger aircraft. The Concorde was the fastest and arguably the most complex commercial aircraft ever built, it is now history. Further, there is no hypersonic replacement in the works.

More recently NASA unveiled their plans for returning to the Moon. The approach is nothing more than recycled Apollo technology from the sixties. Instead of landing returning astronauts on a runway, they will be unceremoniously dropped into the ocean. Certainly, no way to treat returning heroes. It turns out that the Space Shuttle was too complex to fly safely or economically, it too will be retired without a replacement. Also, when you look at the new NASA hardware for retuning to the moon, it looks suspiciously like its Apollo predecessor. Is this all we have to show for technological innovation for the last forty years?

True, this is only a few examples from high-tech areas; however, if we look closely I think we will find lots more.

If you protest that we simply chose not to fund it, why was that? Because it was too costly? Why too costly? The unbelievable level of complexity.

At least in so far as space exploration goes, we are simply repeating our past accomplishments, but at a much greater cost. Further, the International Space Station doesn't have funding much past 2012 or 2015. It seems that NASA has plans to "deorbit" the station if funding isn't forthcoming. Do you see a pattern here?

Why would anyone think that a country whose most powerful institution is Goldman Sachs would be a future leader in technological advancement?

I recently read an article about the deterioration of the satellite grid and the accompanying erosion in the efficiency of the GPS system. Bu-bu-but Wait! I was told all that was too valuable and useful to lose.

I also chuckle grimly when colleagues in the MI-complex bloviate regarding the alleged "permanence" of the GPS satellite system.

Grag, it is exactly the point I wanted to make!

And then there is the 787 debacle.......

Greg C:

You are certainly right on target. Similar examples could be found almost anywhere you look. They are going to become more common, more pervasive, more noticeable, and more serious as well, with each passing day.

Call it "catabolic collapse", or "chronic breakdown", or economic decline, we are right in the midst of it, and it is unfolding before our eyes.

Or maybe these things are just stupid? We've been there and done that. It's no longer a matter or national pride to go to space. It's wasteful.

Technology all regressing? What about the internet? What about alt-energy tecnology? What about fracture drilling for gas? Medical science? Kindles and I-phones?

Pointing to NASA seems like cherry picking.

You are correct in stating that future techno growth will revolve around toys like I-phones as opposed to space travel. As for Medical Science, it is a bit of a misnomer-many of the causes of human mortality are well known yet cannot be countered as big money is involved-have your blood tested for contaminants (you will discover that you are a walking garbage dump).

The space shuttle is immensely complex but it is also a failed design that has been on constant political life support. It should have been scrapped long ago and the best you can do with it is to salvage the best parts of its production infrastructure and technical systems and use them as buildig blocks for a new launcer or two. Nasa tried to do that but have yet again failed with Ares-I and Ares-V being non optimal designs that wastes resources, they should have done something like DIRECT witch is an engineer grass root effort of designing a smaller Ares-V.

I think it is hard to judge if we only are seing calcification of governmnet bueraucracies or if it indeed is an unraveling of the ability to maintain complex (space) systems. One set of data that point in the other direction is the success of the private space launcher Space-X who design their own rockets and systems. I find it plausible that they could replace Nasa as the regular launcher of astronauts to low earth orbit and they can lauch satellites for a cost that rivals the Russinas.

I dont find it scary if giant bueraucracies crash and disappear as long as the technological skills are preserved and used to solve problems.

As Paul_the_Engineer pointed out, the final collapse of the Roman Empire was caused by the invasion across the frozen Rhine.

I think a good case can be made that this invasion was successful because the elite had managed to get themselves exempted from any military responsibility, and also from any taxes. In the later years of the Empire the military leaders, and even the emperors themselves, starting with Maximinus Thrax in 235 AD, were "barbarians". These were mercenaries who had been hired (or whose ancestors had been hired) by the Roman state to fight other barbarians. The money to pay for this came from taxes on the non-elite -- small farmers, tradesmen, merchants and poor people generally -- who did not have the family connections to evade both service and taxes.

I don't think Teutoberg has any real significance for the decline of the Empire. After all, Rome was sacked by Brennus in 387 BC: did that lead to the defeat at Teutoberg four centuries later in the same way Teutoberg is proclaimed as a precursor of Romulus Augustus being forced out by Oadacer in 476 AD? Or does the defeat of England by the Netherlands in the Raid on the Medway in 1667 mark the beginning of the end for the British Empire, which essentially unravelled three centuries later, from 1947 to 1965?

Today we face many problems, and I agree that the level of complexity in our civilization is a major one. But the fall of the Roman Empire had other causes.

What the Druid was proposing was to go there in a controlled way. Ease the transition, don't fight it! If you know where you are going, you can travel in style and comfort. If you don't, well, it will be a rough ride.

In other words, "managed decline". Get ahead of the curve and give up the marginal complexity that is costing too much and has become counterproductive, in order to preserve the most beneficial and essential core layers of complexity; otherwise, we will certainly lose it all. Just like the fabled monkey trap, the key to escaping the trap is to let go of the banana.

Just like fruit trees, societies and economies also benefit from judicious pruning. Pruning reduces the complexity of the tree, and enables it to direct its limited resources efficiently toward the most important thing: producing fruit. Our society and economy is badly in need of a very drastic pruning. We cannot sustain it all, but if we do the pruning sooner rather than later, we might preserve some of the most important things.

An irony: economic contractions actually serve as natural pruning episodes for an economy. They get rid of those entities that have followed the complexity curve too far into counterproductive territory. An example are things like credit-default swaps and various other exotic, incomprehensible financial instruments. The entities that developed and thrived on this excessive complexity got in over their head, and justly deserved to die. KEEPING THE BIG FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS ALIVE WAS EXACTLY THE WRONG THING TO DO!!!!! Just like the Roman emperors, who keep increasing the military burden on their collapsing empire, our own government fails to learn the lessons of history and ends up doing exactly the wrong thing - like monkeys who just can't let go of the banana.

The US needs to withdraw and repatriate its military, downsize considerably, and regroup. We really need to do this now, before we are forced to do it later.

As for energy, we need to give up this idea of sustaining the unsustainable. We are going to have to get by with less energy per capita, and soon. Yes, an increasing percentage of that is going to have to be based upon renewables; that will be a lot easier to accomplish if the target is 25% of what we are consuming now, on a per capita basis. Anything more than that is unrealistic. Reducing our energy consumption by that amount implies a considerable simplification of our economy, our society, and our lives. It means that most people who might have been routinely traveling by air, to give just one example, will now be staying put and not traveling anywhere. I could cite dozens of other examples, but we have been discussing this extensively for years and most readers already know of what I speak.

I don't know if the US will ever get itself on the managed decline track, or if our necessary socio-economic simplification will be forced upon us by circumstances, just as the transition to the middle ages was the inevitable solution forced upon the Romans. The implications for those of us at the individual level, though, should be obvious: we must simplify our lives, and start giving up the complexity to which we have become accustomed.

I have been saying that the 21st century is going to be one continuous exercise in giving up things. It really is.

Well said, WNC; I add that it was Jay Forrester who noted first (I believe) that the normal choice for most people is for solutions that worsen the problem.


Well-said! Especially the part about reigning in, recalling, and downsizing the military.

However, I fear that any serious attempt to do that will result in some kind of coup...the Complex is way too used to power and privilege paid with our unlimited check book.

We have, in essence, become the World's largest banana republic. The coup has happened...but there were no fatigue-clad me in the streets with guns...it was and is much more subtle and sophisticated than that, abetted by complacent, naive, selfish, and ignorant American citizens.

Far too many people still believe in American Exceptionalism and our Manifest Destiny, with techno-cornucopian breakthroughs to save us and maintain and increase BAU.

Where will we build the Encyclopedia Foundation and who is our Hari Seldon? Where will our Terminus be? I find it hard to believe that no one (government? Private billionaire?) hasn't already built a cache somewhere to preserve knowledge to 'reboot' civilization...there is the Svalbard seed vault..."We cannot have a mine-shaft gap!" Where is the Soylent Corporation Oceanographic Survey Report? Until we discover a government report, the 'Death of the oceans' series from Mother Jones will do nicely...


The Roman Empire collapsed in the West in the 4th Century, but it didn't collapse in the East at that time. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that it was flourishing under much the same political system that often gets blamed the decline. Moralizing explanations for the Fall of Rome often ignore this inconvenient fact.

Didn't the Eastern Empire pay the barbarians to go sack the West?

The East was always richer than the West and so had more breathing room DESPITE their political system. It was the combination of fewer resources AND an awful political system that did in the West...

In fact the Eastern Empire conquered the Gothic Kingdom of Italy in 540 under Justinian.
But the place was a mess and there was no money there, so they ended up handing it over to the really barbaric Lombards, except the cities of Naples and Rome.

The eastern capital, Contantinople, built on the Bosporus was always more geographically sustainable than Rome, which built in a swamp, which is why Constantine located his new capital 'Nova Roma'(its official name) where he did in 340 AD.

Unless you believe an angel told him to.


Thanks for the post.

I would have to add, though, that I think one needs to differentiate between the environmental/geophysical aspects of investments into and deterioration of Roman complexity and the socio/political factors.

For instance, the Republic was transformed into the Empire more to due to changing socio-political factors (rise of generals and other 'self-made' men over the older aristocratic families) than a change in physical circumstances per se. Likewise, the fall of the Empire... was it due more to changing geo-physical circumstances or the collapse of Roman social institutions and norms and subsequent bouts of civil war as Roman elites quit working to make the pie bigger and to slice off as big a piece of it as they could for themselves? By the time Rome finally was sacked (410) and the last Western emperor was deposed (476) more Roman soldiers had been killed by other Romans than by Barbarians.

It's useful to put this stuff into a context - which is why whenever I think of this stuff I always go back to Diamond's book on the subject. The great benefit of his book, I think, is that in the end the geo-physical factors at work in the collapse of every civilization/society he examines are not the real problem - the real problem was each society's inability to understand and deal with resource depletion due to inflexible cultural norms and intra-societal competition and infighting. Ultimately, the practices that were leading to the destruction of their respective societies continued because, in the end, those practices benefited some powerful group within the society whose members were using those practices to compete with one another for power, position, and status. Absent that infighting Rome, for example, may have survived the barbarian invasions.

So, I think Tainter's work needs to be unpacked because in the end his story is just about applying a declining marginal rate of substitution to complexity at the societal level as opposed to individual indifference curves.... which is really rather uninteresting. What does he mean by complexity? Are there different components? How do they interact? Which have a greater impact on how sustainable a society is? Can innovation - technological or sociological - reduce the costs of complexity? How do the sources of decline/collapse interact and how do they influence one another?

I am getting frustrated at the repeated use of Roman collapse analogs and models

First of all, if the decline and fall of the Roman Empire has been a case of overexploitation of resources, we should expect to see bell curves for industrial and agricultural production, for population, and for other parameters. As I said, the historical data are scant, but we have archaeological data. So, let me show a plot that summarizes several industrial and agricultural indicators, together with a graph that shows how the extension of the Empire varied in time. It is taken from In search of Roman economic growth, di W. Scheidel, 2007" The other graph is taken from Tainter's book.

Well there is your problem what is the integrity of the data... since most of it is a deduction based on window sampling a already truncated distribution of what Roman civilisation biased to leave in the ground....

I quite simply wouldn't believe a model of Roman demographic history I hadn't just made up myself...

basically I am calling BS on the whole idea not because it is or may not be true but because I think we are sitting on a massive unknown when it comes to modeling what went on back in them there days.

this has become especially prevalent over the last few years as our understanding of the archaeological record has increased to a point were we can start to distinguish whether reductions in the level of a certain data type truly represents a above ground parallel change.

I guess this is what happens when the discussion strays into one's field of expertise

basically I am calling BS on the whole idea not because it is or may not be true but because I think we are sitting on a massive unknown when it comes to modeling what went on back in them there days.

Bingo. What he said!

I read the longer version at TOD Europe ( as did the Mr Mididoctors I see) and I found it a very compelling way to present these concepts; so compelling that it might even command the attention of a politician.
I also noticed that Mr Bardi said “but we can go directly to the mother of all theories based on feedback: the study called "The Limits to Growth" that appeared for the first time in 1972.
As we know, "The Limits to Growth" was not about the fall of the Roman Empire. The authors tried to describe our contemporary world, but the model they used is very general and perhaps we can apply it also to the Roman Empire.” And he did.
So, to argue and become exercised about the spread and depth of broken pottery takes some of the glimmer off the larger thrust of Mr Bardi's work.

I think the problem is that source material of note is limited to a narrow view presented by a small peer group.

And unfortunately are reliant again on a small group for the interpretation of the raw data, which much too the embarrassment of the archaeological discipline appear to have got many things COMPLETELY wrong.

Both Tainter and Mr Bardi may well have (or not?) a good general argument but its always a good idea to be right on it when it comes to the facts and figures.

A lot of the archaeological data needs reviewing at a pretty fundamental level and considering the scale of such a review looks to be a task that may not be truly rinsed through the system for a generation.

take for example peak roman population arguments... which if you trace back tend to be sourced from historical documents concerning grain imports to the city of Rome.

now this documentary evidence is very strong IMO but it hardly ever really presented or understood as part of a larger whole. some estimates of Roman population put the Urban sector at less than 4% of the whole yet peak population for the entire empire is often deduced from it.

a little digging will reveal that there is a surprising small number of good studies with an enormous range of estimates for population.

there are enormously detail publications on models of Romano-British economy extrapolated on the supposed economic data from Londinium.. they are in hindsight ridiculously presumptuous.

The work and effort that has gone into these publications and studies over the last 30 years has lead us up the wrong path.

I simply don't believe we can tell you when or even IF roman population peaked.

I can tell you the abandonment of urban centers occurred quickly compared to a peak model based around a 2nd cent date.. but how much more is again difficult to say. (the discrimination in dating ranges towards the end of the Roman era widen compare to earlier Roman periods... this actually might support a loss of complexity argument)

an example of contradictory evidence

taken in isolation there is absolutely no evidence what so ever for a drop in Roman population as seen in the cemetery data of Roman London up until the point the Romans abandoned using the cemeteries.. a piece of evidence increasingly ignored over the decades up until the about 2000 when a wider detailed study of the cemetery data made it almost impossible to ignore.

this inconvenient evidence said the completely opposite story to the previous 2nd cent decline model.... contradictory evidence..

the bodies show no decline the economic assemblage supposedly does.

9 years later we are still struggling because it has become apparent our actual site specific methodology is too small a study to understand objects as large as a Roman city or even the events that took place on the part we are investigating without understanding the whole..

there is no money and little will

to be honest (as it is conducted) Archaeology on average is a pretty soft science poorly executed in many instances...

when it takes a dumbass like me?

The problem with archaeology is in the tendency of people to try to get more of a story out of any given find than is really there to be seen. This makes it hard to set aside biases and see just exactly what is there.

At least modern practice involves a boring process of documenting everything to a degree hopefully sufficient to allow for later analysis by people with different biases or more information.

The problem with archaeology is in the tendency of people to try to get more of a story out of any given find than is really there to be seen. This makes it hard to set aside biases and see just exactly what is there.

I agree its the point I am making

At least modern practice involves a boring process of documenting everything to a degree hopefully sufficient to allow for later analysis by people with different biases or more information.

if only

As with so many things, it is the ideal that people are trained to strive for.

If there are failings it is because we are only human.

It is somewhat surprising that we don't have better
population records of the Roman Empire after all a citizen census was required for taxation--under Caracalla(212 AD) all free males became citizens in an effort to increase the tax base. But it appears there was 50-70 million inhabitants of the Roman Empire.

During the Emperor Marcus's reign there was a huge outbreak of (probably) smallpox that weakened the government greatly.


A big problem in the last century of the empire was that people were opting out of the Roman lifestyle completely and joined the Church.

If you joined the Church you didn't have to perform required public service, military or governmental. Laws were passed to prevent women entering convents until they were over 40 as this was reducing the population. Money collected by the churches were not taxed and tax money went to build churches. Christians provided welfare to the poor which also increased their numbers.

None of these reasons indicate that resource depleting was a predominate reason for the decline.

Other great empires like China seemed to be limited to 50 or so million people, so I think that there are resource limits but the depletion argument is hard to prove for ancient civilizations, IMO.

equally surprising

we have no direct evidence of any change in the rate bodies are going into the ground for these plague events.

cemetery data here in UK and Londinium especially doesn't show the plague at all.. which may be some genuine effect of island isolation or more likely the plague was simply too insignificant an effect to show up in he data despite being perceived as a big thing at the time.

uncharacteristic Roman era mass burials suggesting plague have been found but the overall impact when looked as part of the whole appears to be far less than some suggest

If the graves are undated it may be difficult to tell, unless there's some other means to differentiate between the plague case of 'three decades worth of dying happening in one decade' and the non-plague case of 'three decades worth of dying happening in three decades' millenia after the fact.

these dating issues are taken into consideration. there is no smoking gun or substantial anomalous group of un-datable graves

even if we have missed the mass graves and are only picking up normal burials it is odd that some reduction in population has not produced a drop in the rate people go into the ground?

we simply have no evidence for it?

Forgive my piggybacking in the comments, but several comments have questioned why we should see any similarity between Rome, its collapse, and our present circumstances. Below are several graphics I presented at the 2005 Mediterranean Studies Association conference, suggesting that Rome maintained its size and centralized-complexity in part by subsidizing centralization through transportation choices. As I see it, the rising cost of energy and transportation infrastructure pose a similar threat to the complexity of our centralized structures. Links to two papers explaining the topic for those interested [All Roads Lead to Rome] [Central Place Theory].

Rather than display the (relatively large) images, here are links:

Growth & Import Replacement

Import Replacement

Transport Subsidies to Centralization

Centralizaztion Through Transport Subsidy in Roman Britain

Jeff -

I find myself more in the camp of those posters who are skeptical that there our present circumstances have all that much in common with the reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire. While there are many parallels, there are just as many major dissimilarities.

Of all the reasons historians have given for the collapse of the Roman Empire, an overly complex transportation and communication system must surely rank pretty low compared to some of the other more prominent reasons.

And as more than one poster observed, when the neighborhood in and around Rome went to hell, the powers that be moved operations to Constantinople and muddled on for about another thousand years. That sort of argues against an inherent fatal flaw.

One of the reasons that Rome became an empire in the first place was that they got a jump on their rivals in developing organized warfare and the bureaucracy needed to maintain a well-ordered standing military. As the so-called barbarians started to i) get the hang of disciplined organized warfare, and ii) began forming anti-Rome alliances among each other, the mighty Roman legions began having a tougher and tougher time of it on the fringes of the Empire. They were no longer invincible. Add to that a few centuries of internal corruption, economic problems, and political intrigue, and it's a wonder the Rome Empire lasted as long as it did. Inertia, I suppose.

I also doubt that the collapse of the Roman Empire was such a terrible tragedy for all Roman subjects. An impoverished, overtaxed farmer in the Roman countryside was probably no more impoverished or overtaxed after the collapse of the Empire as he was before. I think this is where the comparison with Rome really breaks down. Unlike the above Roman farmer, the working class in the US WILL see his lot in life become much much worse should things continue on their apparent downward spiral.

As to complexity, it is well to keep in mind that complexity should not automatically be equated with instability or vulnerability. There are many highly-stable, robust complex system, just as there are many unstable, fragile simple systems. The wisdom is in knowing where complexity is an advantage and where it becomes a disadvantage. Problems generally arise where things become highly complex for no good reason. But where I do agree with you, is that our transportation networks will probably revert to a more (but not totally) localized configuration as more and more difficulties with energy supply are encountered.

I posted this over the DB thread. I guess the question I am asking is will a farmer in Kenya, who buys a small efficient diesel tractor, be able to effectively outbid, in a contest for diesel fuel, a soon to be be FWO (Formerly Well Off) suburbanite in the US who bought a large Powerstroke four wheel drive diesel pickup to navigate the wilds of outer suburban areas?

Rethinking Consumption Patterns

An operating assumption that I had was that as oil became more expensive, wealthier countries would tend to outbid poorer countries for oil, and we have certainly read case histories of individuals in developing countries being negatively impacted by higher oil prices.

However, what is interesting is that while US oil consumption, based on EIA data, in 2008 was at the same level as its 1999 consumption rate, 19.5 mbpd (after rising and hitting a plateau of about 20.7 mbpd in this time period, before declining to the 2008 rate), many developing countries have shown steady increases in consumption even as oil prices steadily increased. And some posters commented on this over the past couple of years.

For example, here is what the EIA shows for consumption in Kenya:

Matt Simmons was in Kenya in 2005, and he was surprised at the level of motorized road traffic, at a local gasoline price at the equivalent of about $5 per gallon. I wonder if developing countries will tend, in effect, to outbid developed countries for declining oil exports, as the discretionary spending portions of economies in developed countries continue to contract.

One of the reasons that I started rethinking consumption patterns was that I have not been able to find a single example of an exporter, at least one that exported a few hundred thousand barrels per day at peak, that did not show a net export decline rate that was in excess of their production decline rate (or rate of increase in production in the case of China).

The closer one's life is tied to real physical work (plowing a field, moving water from well to home), the more likely one appreciates and values the potential energy embodied in a gallon of petroleum fuel. The mediating factor is the mechanism for turning fuel into work- the tractor in your example. How available will they be to the poor?

US oil prices increased at about +20%/year from 1998 to 2008 (average annual, i.e., $14 to $100). US oil consumption in 2008 was the same as 1999. Although we are talking about low volumes, Kenya's oil consumption increased at +4.1%/year from 1999 to 2008. I've only made a cursory check so far, but this pattern seems to hold true for a lot of developing countries.

Makes sense to me. In Kenya fuel is used because it's necessary; this isn't always the case in the US and Europe.

In the soon-to-be-Formerly-Well-Off world, there was (and is still) a lot of "fat" in consumption patterns. Behaviour can be modified quite easily to reduce consumption. I imagine the order of preference is something like:-

1. Trip combination - pick up the kids from school and take them directly to sports practice/ballet lessons, rather than home first. Or stop off at the shops with the kids rather than taking them home, then going back to the shops.

2. Forgoing optional trips. "Staycations", renting a DVD rather than driving into town to watch a movie.

3. Using smaller vehicles.

4. Ride sharing with friends and neighbors.

5. Using -- the horror! ;-) -- public transport to get to work.

The Kenyan farmer doesn't use fuel for any of these activities, but only to increase or sustain income, so her demand is "stronger" than that of the American suburbanite.

(A Kenyan farmer replacing an ox/water buffalo (or whatever) with a small tractor has more land for growing cash crops: the land that was used for forage for the animal.)

Edit: I should have checked the Drumbeat July 22 comments, I guess - but as it turns out, my comment is a reasonable paraphrase of the responses there.

Your chart is an artifact of abundance, not a sign of open competition.

If the credit market were to disappear and the oil market remain, then the Kenyan could outbid the Hummer driver. But the oil market depends upon credit. You can't have one without the other.

Access to credit is power. The politically connected Hummer driver will be able to pay with promises and outbid the Kenyan. When the power structure blows up, the Hummer driver will be walking, but so will the Kenyan. If the Hummer driver isn't politically connected, then it will be an Iowa farmer who is subsidized and drives the price of grain down below what the Kenyan needs. If the U.S. collapses before the oil market, then it will be Chinese/E.U. consumers sucking away the Kenyan oil. Remember, nobody in power really cares about the Kenyan farmer's production.

We have stretched our resources and system complexity to the point that it is unimaginable that Colonel Drake could produce diesel for the Kenyan without a functioning credit market. The tractor will become a stranded asset. He would be better off with a team of horses and a few AK-47s for his homeboys.

Maybe we should frame this discussion in terms of the world economy collapsing rather than simply the American Empire. The threats that peak oil/soil/metals pose to the US are hardly unique to America. Any collapse in the US would almost certainly see simultaneous collapses in the EU, China, Japan, and most of the industrialized world.

Good. Starting to catch on.

So does this mean, that Britain is significantly less complex now, than it was 100 some years ago, when it was the world's biggest Empire?

I'd say that the British Empire simply merged into the American Empire. There was no loss of complexity, overall.

Yes - it became the economics empire - it was a merger not a collapse.

Nate -

I would hardly describe the relationship between the US and the British Empire in the post-WWI era as a 'merger'. For one thing, the US did not inherit any of Great Britain's former colonies.

Quite simply, The British Empire was falling apart, largely due to Great Britain having nearly bankrupted itself as a result of WW I. The US was more than willing to displace Great Britain in the role of one of the world's major powers and in fact took no small pleasure in seeing Great Britain so humbled.

Just because the US and Great Britain speak the same language and share many cultural values doesn't automatically imply that our national interests were always the same. It may come as a surprise that as late as the beginning of the 20th Century and up close to WW I, in the minds of US military planners it was not inconceivable that there could be a naval conflict between the US and Great Britain. Two sore points were i) British meddling regarding some issues in South America (Monroe Doctrine stuff), and ii) Great Britain's alliance with Japan (we can thank the Brits for developing Japan's navy). Both were contrary to US interests.

So, all was not as lovey-dovey between the US and Great Britain as a lot of people assume. Of course, WW II sealed Great Britain's fate and resulted in it becoming a permanent second-rate power.

Well, Empires change with time; the British empire started with a complex system of feedbacks that started with coal. Coal was used to make weapons that were used to conquer far away lands that were used to make plantations that were used to produce sugar that was used to increase the British population that was used to mine more coal that was used to make more weapons.... etcetera, etcetera

With oil, there was no more need of plantations because you didn't need such a big labor force. It could be replaced by fertilizers and agricultural machinery. So, there was no more so much need of directly controlling foreign lands with a military force. It doesn't matter much whether you call this kind of empire "British" or "American". It is a natural evolution of its structure. I think future historians will speak of the "Western Empire" which evolved with the evolution of its resource base. Until it had a resource base....

Ugo Bardi -

Well yes, the Brits did use coal to make iron and steel to make weapons, but so did every other major European country. So that in and of itself did not convey an inherent advantage to Great Britain.

Where Great Britain did have clear dominance from early on was in the area of naval power. After getting the best of Spain, France, and The Netherlands, Great Britain pretty much had control of the seas to herself ('Britannia rules the waves'). Hence the ability to acquire and maintain overseas colonies. Note though, that for the vast size of the British Empire, and with the exception of Gibraltar, it did not control one square meter of continental European soil. This is one notable difference between it and the Roman Empire.

However, during the time that the British Empire became firmly established (say late 1700s and early 1800s) ships were made of entirely wood, not steel. So coal played virtually no role as far as that goes (other than in making iron for the cannons). During that time, and up through WWI, Great Britain had the world's largest and most efficient ship-building industry. They could crank out more ships faster and cheaper than anyone else (but the US was rapidly catching up, as was Germany and Japan).

Initially, the attractiveness of having colonies was that they i) provided a source of cheap raw materials, ii) provided a captive market for one's domestic manufacturing industry, and iii) conveyed glory and prestige to the rulers. However, as time when on and the colonies got more sophisticated in stirring up anti-colonial resistance, colonies rapidly became a liability rather than an asset, as more and more military resources had to be expended in both putting down insurrections and protecting the colonies from covetous rival nations.

I guess that today what colonialism we do have is more in the form of economic colonialism rather than actually physically occupying some Third World country. And even that is becoming more and more difficult. (Look at all the trouble the international oil companies are having in places like Nigeria.)

While it's amusing to imagine one is a citizen of the only "Great" country, in reality, Great Britain is an island next to Ireland. Meanwhile the United Kingdom (capital London) was certainly ahead of the rest of Europe in terms of industrialisation generally and military in particular, though the Prussians and Austrians were soon (and permanently) well ahead in respect of pianoforte technology.

An obvious reason for the rise to pre-eminence of the UK is that it has not been significantly invaded since 1066 (and before that a thousand years earlier). This enabled a much more stable, creative, sort of community. Add to that the factor of the historic border of a civilisation, indicated by Hadrian's Wall.

It's thought that Birmingham in particular became "the workshop of the world" because its marketplace was originally ill-connected with anywhere else and so it had to try harder, compensate by making better, more valued things, and so was already something of a manufacturing centre several centuries before Watt et al arrived. Large amounts of coal and ore were arduously carted along the unmetalled Dudley Road from the Black Country for centuries till the canals were built to speed things up and "the rest is history".

Don't forget the huge amount of taxes the colonies gather for the british crown. Indian subcontinent, afterall, had 25% of world's GDP in middle ages.

When collapse came the british were more reasonable than most of the empires. They let go the colonies, especially india (the "most precious jewel in the british crown"), the far east, canada and australia. They could have continue the empire for a few more decades but that would eventually result in the british isles over run by their enemies. So they settled down on a smaller but manageable and stable country instead of a collapsing empire. Only other example that come in mind is turkish empire which after world war I let go the arab lands.

As one 19th century indian poet said, the core power of western empires was steam(engines) and lightening (electricity), both built on fossil fuels. Indeed it was I think obvious in atleast the minds of elites of former free colonies that the rise of western empires (spanish, british, russian, dutch, french and american) is not a REAL threat since the power was built on unsustainable fossil fuels which have to dry up one day, unlike the threat of roman empire which indeed had a sustainable base, purely organic farming supporting troops and industry. One reason the world collapsed so easily to western empires of middle ages than to rome, persia, turkey and china.

It might be the reason that arabs never had a real war with israel, the simply don't want to mess up with an overly charged foe, like you don't want to fight a wrestler under asteroids even if you are a wrestler yourself. You would wait for the inevitable drowsiness storing and gaining power for a final blow.

Wisdom--Agree but the point about the Brit empire that gets overlooked is how the UK came to be able to build that empire in the first place, when so many other countries have coastlines they could launch their own navies from.
By the way, I've heard that the British occupation of India over several centuries has so devastated the native population that there are now only 1 billion Indians left.
PS: "a wrestler under asteroids"--You mean steriods; Asteroids are things whizzing through space, which we are all under!

You are assuming that when fossil fuels are gone, the playing field between Israel/Western powers and Arabs/people you root for (mostly your co-religionists) will be level.

Look at the following data for each country:
1. Total population/arable land
2. Total population/available fresh water
3. Total population/domestic production of energy from all sources
4. Population growth rate
5. Presence of good Universities, R&D institutions and industries with skilled manpower
6. Whether majority of people resolve disputes in a court of law or resort to street violence
7. Whether everyone has freedom of speech and expression or they have a population that supports blasphemy laws and has a tendency to resort to gratuitous violence every time religious sentiments are hurt.
8. Whether the culture is flexible enough to change with the times or they have a population that believes in religious absolutism and immutable divine revelations.

I think you will arrive at the conclusion that the Arabs and the people you root for will suffer much more than Israel and the Western powers when the fossil fuels are gone (not going to happen overnight). If anything, the balance of power will shift more in Israel/Western world/China's favor.

One of the reasons that I started rethinking consumption patterns was that I have not been able to find a single example of an exporter, at least one that exported a few hundred thousand barrels per day at peak, that did not show a net export decline rate that was in excess of their production decline rate (or rate of increase in production in the case of China). ....
I agree here. We are peaking out of oil, and soon there will be none left.
good finance articles
One day we will learn, but not now.

I think the collapse comes when the ordinary citizen prefers the 'barbarians' to their ruling elites. This has been happening in Western countries since WW2 and Vietnam. You can't trust those who continually lie and steal ... eventually something has to give.

I'm living in Ravenna where remnants of rome and post-rome are all around which tends to tilt
my non-fiction reading towards roman history and collapse. An interesting anecdote in "before france and germany..."
by Patrick geary was a writer in Burgundy didn't notice that rome had collapsed. Roads were still built, taxes
collected while the new burgundian overlords learned latin.

I wonder what post collapse here and now would look like, I'd suspect that because everything is so interconnected
pockets of empire that don't notice the collapse will be few and far between. Maybe just limited to islands of light
around nuclear power plants and hydroelectric dams.

great article and thanks for the link to TOD europe.

Mr. Bardi,
Fascinating story, and very well told. My compliments.
Sad detail: We know how the Druids ended, they were massacred.

As I say in the long version of my post, it is hard to be a Druid - (then as now)

Never despair, the Archdruid is thriving...
In a comment on his yesterday's blogpost, and thinking of your dynamic model, I stated:

A system [western industrialism] that develops on a tear for three centuries, feeding on an abundance of available resources, overcoming major catastrophes, like world wars, on the fly, can hardly be called a 'mega-bubble'. To me, it seems more like a very successful parasite.
If the West had stayed its true parasitic course, and not squandered its treasures all over the world, engendering an unprecedented increase of the global population, and, consequently, an environmental collapse, western 'industrialism' could've survived the 21st century without serious trouble, it seems, as populations in the developed world stopped growing.

Which brings me to a somewhat disturbing insight:
If only the West had preserved its mentality of colonial, 19th century robber barons, and apartheid e.g. had been self-evident, and NGOs non-existent, chances are the world had been less densely populated, and the American Empire had now held a much stronger position, and commanded more resources.
To rule and maintain an empire requires a mentality that befits a ruler. When the mentality of a ruling nation shifts to an humanitarian world-view, empire will be on the wane.

Maybe this is an element your dynamic model of collapsing societies is still lacking, a psychological and/or a social dimension.

The decline already started some time ago. The complexity of the US has reached a point where the infrastructure already existing cannot be maintained due to our debt load. The last vestige of dominance is our defense, which has only maintained its status quo from ever greater amounts of borrowing. However, the most advanced fighter plane ever developed, the F-22, just had its contract pulled due to rising debt. That may be the tipping point of our peak defense, from which it becomes a history repeating version of the three Roman legions in Germania two thousand years ago.

At the same time all commodities are becoming more expensive as we compete with Chindia (China & India). Oil is post peak and will surely rise to much higher prices in the years ahead, which will exponentially compound our financial predicament.

It's a done deal. We are headed the way of the Roman Empire, and the only question is, which of the following will be occur as a result:

A. Will the US pull down the world economy with it, resulting in no replacement of our empire?

B. Or, will China replace us as the next great empire?

C. Or, will the arctic/siberian permafrost release massive amounts of methane and co2, causing such widespread destructive climate change, that no country can keep up with the cost of maintaining infrastructure and fall into rapid decline?

D. Or, will China and the US face off militarily for the worlds remaining oil reserves?

E. Or, some combination?

It's our decline, but it's also our future, so you make the call >>>

Most of the posts here have concluded that the collapse has already begun, already underway etc, for the US. The question of whether the doomers are deluded or the cornucopians will only be settled with time.

Are the doomers also in the same camp as the cornucopians, in that they equate wealth, empire, progress, or what ever it is that we had but are soon not going to have with the same markers- mcmansions, constant motion, endless travel,pointless activity...

Those things might stop, but unless there is a breakdown in the capacity to keep order, we can still survive. We just need to see industrial civilisation as an aberration, not the only way forward. A detour we took, oh well it did not work out, let us try something else.
Afterall, the citizens of China and India and many others make do with 1/10 th or less energy use, resource use, have no need for such bizzare defence spending.
After a few years of zero or negative growth, it will take a lot more than fox news, and tv commercials to convince people that the only way to happiness to work 40 hrs to 60 hrs a week with minimal vacation, then add to your stress with mortgages and student loans.If there is no pot and no rainbow, a huge behavious change can be expected - not all desirable or predictable of course.

Europe has already shown that people will respond to shorter workweeks, longer vacations. Indians are less than 1/2 a generation away from joint family households with a strong caste/clan/ safety net. The power structure is the huge impediment, but a little controlled demolition, auto - retail collapse -media collapse- defense collapse health insurance/pharma collapse should do it.
The banks will have to be kept in check with priority lending rules - 20% to job creating agriculture, 20% to renewable energy / small retail or some such arrangement.

Shorter Work Weeks! I want that. But my family is still stuck in 'BAU World'.


we can still survive. We just need to see industrial civilisation as an aberration,

"Just"? Do you have a clue how to survive without the industrial corporate system? Do most people? I'm not sure I do and I'm a lot more clued up than most.

I see a lot of people referring to the American Empire as if the rest of the world was separate.
It has been quite some time now since there has been a meaningfully distinct American Empire. The
entire industrial economy is a single integrated polity now, and has been for 15-20 years (yes, a generation or two ago, there was a distinct American Empire). There are always going to be localized variations, but this is a single global empire now. America still sits on the top of the pecking order of potentates inside this Empire of the Machine, but she certainly is not separate from it. The whole Empire of the Machine is embarking on its decline, not just the American Empire.
As the payoff for further complexity recedes, watch the localization of power re-emerge in a messy, likely violent manner.

Unlike the Roman Empire, there is no part of the globe that isn't wrapped up in this same overshoot, no place
to flee to or from which a new empire will emerge.

btw, an example of a deliberate reduction in complexity to avoid an involuntary reduction in complexity might be seen in
the Byzantine Empire's dismantling of the big, heavy Roman provincial administration in the 50 years or so from Maurice
to Heraclius. The lighter weight, lower complexity organization finalized by Heraclius (the Theme system) was one
which could be supported by the resources available, and was the foundation of a strong and prosperous empire for
the next several centuries (of course over time a new bureacracy and internal rot came to monopolize resources and
exhausted the empire once more). It took them a while to figure this out, though. In the 5th and 6th centuries they
were equally unable to understand the negative return on investment in further complexity- stripping the remaining
empire bare and bleeding the people to the point of rebellion in order to support enormous expeditions to reconquer
and 'recivilize' the west. They did succeed at great cost to restore the Imperium to africa, spain, and italy, but
it was a money pit without comparison, bankrupted the empire, and in the end those provinces, reconquered at such tremendous expense, were abandoned by their own garrissons without a fight.

Byzantine writers after the 7th century often regard the lost western provinces with an attitude acknowledging
that while theoretically they belong as part of the empire, in practice they simply aren't worth the effort to rule.

Study W. Scheidel's "peak economic" graphic in relation to the Roman Warm Period driven by solar-warming of the earth as modelled by Rhodes Fairbridge's solar inertial motion theory of climate change, and you will find remarkable cause and effect results. Then run the model for this and the century just passed to get the big picture. Finally, over-lay "peak oil" forecasts and the picture becomes crystal clear -----> The Peak Warming/Peak Oil scenario, which is both the most likely and the worst case, no one is discussing or planning for.

China as a country collapsed several times, long periods of anarchy, warring states and no national unity.
but (perhaps because majority Han culture was so much stronger as well as more numerous than that all neighboring peoples) the core civilization did not collapse, were revived each time. whether that was a good thing, is another matter.

for another broad perspective on these issues including fall of Rome, read Thomas Homer-Dixon's book, The Upside of Down

(Unfortunately I've been occupied with other things and so only got here at comment 150.)
The post (and all the following 150 comments) is very much muddled by failing to take into account the perspective given by Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History. Till you've got that on board you won't even understand the basics, like as if I was trying to design a nuke power station from my grammar school physics.

Point is that empires are not civilisations. As Toynbee explained, universal states (empires) are something that arise in the bodies of civilisations that have already broken down. The Roman Empire was the universal state of the Hellenic civilisation, which was already rather broken by the time it executed Socrates for asking reasonable questions and launched an idiotic invasion, the Sicilian Expedition, which resulted in the loss of the entire Athenian army and navy, and shortly thereafter its democracy.

Toynbee explained that the breakdown of a civilisation normally results from the founding creative elite, inspiring with its charm, being displaced by a mimetic, bureaucratic authoritarian, dominant elite, imposing its rule by force. I have previously developed Toynbee's understanding, in terms of natural selection, whereby the geniuses solve all the key problems and thereby makes themselves redundant and so the talentless authoritarian fascists take over. Do I really need to point out that all the world's governments are currently utterly useless incompetents while all the real talents are sidelined by their Hyper-Lysenkoism? The Nobel prize selections are just as much a farce in certain sciences as they are in the political spheres.

As you said, Marcus Aurelius "could (in theory) have" masterminded some transition movement. He didn't for exactly the same reason that the current "leaders" are pigheadedly standing up for b.a.u. in so many ways---because he was already in a broken-down society. This is manifested not least in the highly authoritarian, brutalist character of Roman rule. You will notice how J Christ gave this famous cunning answer to the Pharisees' trick question: "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's". The reason for his answer being ingenious was that anyone challenging imperial authority in the Roman Empire would have been executed in short order (there are other instances of that principle in the Gospels, though it is never stated explicity because it was like the common air and daylight to them). No free speech.

So, the essential introductory reading is Arnold Toynbee A study of history, abridgement in 2 vols of the original 10 whopper volumes. At least the opening chapter plus the "Argument" sections at end of each vol. Plus my natural-selection enhancement of Toynbee at http://www.energyark.net/decadenc.htm, also discussed in http://energyark.blogspot.com/2009/07/will-there-be-abrupt-collapse.html .

The key lesson is that the central problem is the corruptness and incompetence of the controlling rulers. And so any hope of preventing an untidy collapse will be in vain unless that central problem of the scum rising to the top in inverted meritocracy can be overcome. I designed a project to achieve exactly that, as laid out in http://www.lulu.com/content/140930 (free download, but feel free to buy the printed). But that project got clobbered by a horrendous harassment conspiracy (www.2020housing.co.uk) and on surviving/emerging from that it now looks too late to stave off an unplanned energy collapse anyway so the RDP project would be an exercise in Titanic-torpedoing anyway.

Ugo, I read the whole post on Oil Drum Europe. Mostly I agree. I urge anyone who disagrees to read Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies.
Where I disagree is treating gold as a resource like oil and food. Gold is by and large not used as a resource but used as a promise to pay, ie money. Paper and gold have very little difference as money except that the volume of gold in the world is less than the potential volume of paper (or digital money). But gold's value as money is in buying things, but how much of any things it can buy can change just as it does for money, ie its value can inflate or deflate. Gold and paper money are worthless if there is nothing to buy. Those stranded in the Andes in the story and movie "Alive" could at least garner a bit of heat from their paper money. Gold was worthless. What they needed was energy in the form of food (which they finally got by eating the frozen flesh of those who died in the crash) Oil and food have the same energy value no matter what, although their price may change. Rome I believe raided as much or more for food. What gold they got was only good if the areas not under their domination had food to trade and were willing to trade. But the land captured grew food for soldiers and horses and emperors. Unfortunately for many these days they think that buying gold will protect them from the crash. Perhaps it will for a bit. But personally if I have extra food to sell or trade after the crash I would far rather have an axe or hoe than gold which is a soft metal and not very useful.

Oxidated ,

I bet you would still sparkle with a good buffing!This is ENTIRELY OFF TOPIC but anyway:

Anyone who is ever stranded by a plane crash ,storm ,etc,in the boonies can build a satisfactory stove from a metal container filled with soil or leaves by pouring gasoline on the contents.Kerosene too,which is close enough to jet fuel.Engine oil will burn too but it is difficult to get it started-unless you pour it on a cotton rag.

A pint of gasoline mixed with two inches of dry soil in the bottom of a bucket will burn quietly for up to half an hour.

WW2 troops did this frequently.

So do farmers and construction workers if in locations where they can do it w/o being fined or getting fired.

Dangerous,yes,but safer than freezing probably.

farmermac that is good information but do watch the film. We are talking about being stranded high in the Andes. If the movie was accurate there were no leaves or dry soil just ice and snow. The plane was broken in 1/2 so perhaps the part with any jet fuel left from that kind of accident was in the half that wasn't where they were. However the event may have been as much a way of saying our money is worth nothing anymore....and of course it could have been an invention of the moviemaker. However the eating of the bodies of the other humans who died in the crash (which was the only food available to them) did alow them to survive and eventually one of the passengers walked to get rescue. Without the food calories in those frozen dead bodies they would not have survived and no cash money or gold would have provided the food energy needed to keep their own body temps above freezing.

There was no fuel left and not a scrap of vegetation of any kind. The only things they could burn were what they had, the contents of part of the plane. They had a small amount of food in the beginning, quite a lot of it was alcohol and candy. They rationed it all....it ran out...(from the book.)

Oxidatedgem, you are right, in principle, gold is - in itself - worhtless. It is a "resource" once there is a general agreement that it can be transformed into something that has value. Even oil, sometimes, is so stupidly wasted that you wonder why people give so much value to it. Do you really need a SUV to take your child to school? But people consider SUVs valuable and they pay money for the oil needed to run them.

Apart from this, the point is - I think - that all resource are ultimately valued in the energy they can provide. Gold could produce energy in the Roman system - indirectly -. You could exchange gold (and silver) for soldiers; and soldiers provided the energy needed to get more gold. It worked as long as people believed in it - it is like our paper money; it works as long as people believe in it.

A good story about this subject is Kipling's "The King's Ankus". There you have Mowgli who places no value in gold and who sees with great surprise people killing each other for a golden "ankus" that he finds totally useless. But, as long as people believe that something is worth killing for, they'll kill for real!

Gold is hardly worthless. It is highly reflective and easily formed even with relatively primitive tools.

It would make for a rather expensive solar cooker, but you can cook with it.

Gold is not worthless, just worth very little when you are trying to survive. Iron, now that is something. The impact iron made on the world was huge. Gold not much different for the aztecs over the romans. Some small uses today. But those who have physical gold should note the potential use for a solar cooker. Cups and bowls too can be made of gold. But note, there is a stone age, a bronze age an iron age but no gold age. That pretty much puts its real worth in context.

@ oxidatedgem
I wonder, if it could be your alias, which betrays a bias on the subject of gold.
Gold is, and has been forever, spanning the ages of stone, bronze, iron, and beyond.

lagedargent, so what. The ages were named for those advances that mattered. Gold doesn't matter, it is just one option for money but not the only option. Stone weapons and tools moved humans forward, as did bronze and then iron. Being able to hold a sharp edge is a trait that gold does not have. Seen any gold scythes, axes, hoes, etc. What marks the ages is that which moved humanity forward in terms of being able to dominate the environs.

Ugo, I understand how gold was used. But think about it this way, if there was no gold would there be no way to buy anything, pay soldiers etc? However if there was no oil would we have farmed the world and grown to over 6 billion people. And as to the ultimate energy source of humans, food, if there was no food would there be any people. Anything can substitute for gold, paper, cowrie shells, coins of any other metal. Nothing substitutes for food. And although oil has been used for foolish things, and wasted, without oil and natural gas there wouldn't be so many people alive today. It mines our fertilizers and is used (natural gas) as feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer. It allowed us to mechanize agriculture, transport food all over the world, etc. We don't need it but our civilization as presently composed needs it or some equivalent high ERoEI replacement. OTOH if the aliens from the planet Nibru overnight snitched all our gold or did so at the time of the Romans, it would change who had wealth, it would disorient, but humans would quickly adjust - the Romans would revalue the coins they had of other metals and everyone would go on trading. And we would do little different as our currency is not backed by gold anyway. The fact that we could drop the gold standard with little fanfare in fact shows that the gold was only important at that time in history as a brake on the money supply.

But think about it this way, if there was no gold would there be no way to buy anything, pay soldiers etc?

Grain storage recripts on stamped and burnt clay would be an ok currency. A little easy to forge but very scalable to keep the currency supply in line with the available resource.

An empire, country or even a city or village is not roads, factories, farms and houses. It is the trust people have in each other to become a coherent mass to achieve common goals. The key is gain sharing. Once the powerful become too powerful and too selfish to think themselves above the law, to stop contributing in common good through paying taxes, community services and military services the trust is gone. The weak justifiably start thinking themselves as mere beasts of burden, draft animals to drag the huge loads of wasteful and unjustified life styles of the elites. The coherence is lost. Whenever a chance comes the weak becomes allies with the enemies of empire and give easy back doors and corridors for the military, economic and idealistic invasion. When an outsider is not present or is not willing to mess up with empire, the weaks on the least loose efficiency and start ignoring the maintenance, the result is lost of output and unreplaced accumulated depreciation of infrastructure that exponentially increase the speed of collapse. Once things are visibly getting out of hand of the elite they first press the weaks further by taxing-to-death but even that not safe the empire. The next stage is a war between elites who already have developed hatred for each other in their greed of acquiring resources now blame each other for the cause of collapse each posing itself the most loyal to the empire. Even in this condition the empire continue to drag on because the constituents of empire, the people, both weak and strong have vested interests in empire, the strong ones obviously find the only way of continuing their life styles in the existence of empire and the weaks propagandized by the elite the "barbarism" of outsiders and due to fear-of-unseen keeps their heads down. This not continue forever, at some point in time an outsider becomes both strong and brave enough to invade the empire, first at outskirts/borders/battlefields of empire, then at established colonies and finally at the core country and the capital. The weaks generally either welcome the invaders or remains nuetral, the strongs do fight and do their best in saving the empire but its too late. The empire finally falls. After that one of the two things can happen, the invaders might not feel it desirable to rule the empire go back to their strongholds and the empire or the individual provinces of empire might have a chance to rebuild on the ashes with a significant lower level of complexity and injustice but even if the empire do get a chance it would eventually collapse by a new invasion a few decades or centuries later. The second thing that might happen is that the invaders make their own empire on the ashes of the fallen empire. That empire too would at some point face the same collapse.

Lets take a few examples. British empire was made when due to improvements in judicial system in early 18th century lead to an increased level of justice and gain sharing. The british gets a very loyal public that work and fight for the empire. Once the elites gets too strong and too rich, especially the govt servants sent to colonies like india, the injustice increase. The wwi was a major blow to the british empire which though unlike wwii win it on its own and collapse former enemies/threats such as turkish empire, russian empire and austria-hungary empire become very weak. The british empire did got a chance to correct its errors after wwi, to redistribute wealth and increase gain sharing but it lost its chance. When the second blow came in wwii in Battle of England the empire could hold no more. The russians in the eastern front and to some extent americans in norway invasion saved the british isles from falling into outsiders' hands but the real chance for the empire was long gone. The british were wise to let go the colonies and settle on a much smaller population, territory, wealth, power and resources.

The turkish empire was built on the basis of tribal justice and equality and the life styles of the first emperors was not that high of those in the middle (Sulaiman the magnificient) and later (Abdul Hameed) ages. The first attempts of introducing high levels of injustice was blowed by the outsiders' invasion in mid 16th century when tamerlane invaded from east and imprisoned Sulaiman the magnificient in a cage even when the Sulaiman had already conquered the heart of europe in france and italy and had "tied his horse where the pope lives". The turkish empire collapsed but the persians after tamerlane had no interest in ruling the provinces of former empire so the empire got a second chance. The empire got its former glory and power very very soon and continue to exist for almost 4 more centuries. The final blow came in the wwi.

The point is, we should not just see the history of rise and decline of empires on basis of resource depletion. Classic (pre christ) empires like Akkad, Egyptian, Babylon, Chinese and Indian were built on very sustainable resource base, especially the agricultural practise was very sustainable, the mineral resources also continue on to exist to be taken out later in middle ages and modern ages by almost similar technology. The only true reason for collapse of empires, countries and city-states that is sufficient enough to explain the rise and collapse of ALL empires is injustice.

Wisdom--I think when you say justice/injustice this is very close to the concepts of Arnold Toynbee and myself. The dominant minority of a decadent society is characterised among other things by corruption, immorality and as you mention, injustice. (E.g my own case as victim of callous liar judges in the UK: www.2020housing.co.uk.) So I think you have identified a significant part of the right analysis there (and more to the point than the Tainter thesis though that also has some validity).

Hey Bardi
Our man Marcus Aurelius was just spouting the standard observation based philosophy of the ancient world.
He was one of the old guard nothing futuristic about your quote given at the end of the article.
See this quote from Nietzche I posted on my blog:
For the Greeks the sexual symbol was therefore the venerable symbol par excellence,the real profundity in the whole of ancient piety.
Every single element in the act of procreation,
of pregnancy, and of birth aroused the highest and
most solemn feelings.
In the doctrine of the mysteries,
pain is pronounced holy: the pangs of the woman
giving birth hallow all pain; all becoming and growing
-all that guarantees a future-involves pain.
That there may be the eternal joy of creating, that the will to life may eternally affirm itself, the agony of the
woman giving birth must also be there eternally.
All this is meant by the word Dionysus: I know no
higher symbolism than this Greek symbolism of the
Dionysian festivals.
Here the most profound instinct of life, that directed toward the future of life, the eternity
of life, is experienced religiously-and the way to life, procreation, as the holy way.

The end of empire was implicitly recognised by the entire belief system and the iconography of empire.

For example the corner stone of Roman myth - Romulus and Remus came from nothing to found Rome.

I imagine the elite maintained the sang froid of the old philosophy.
Being enlightened they realised that for them concentrating wealth even when you can see the inevitable outcome has been proven to be a winning strategy in the long run and results in a comfortable life.

My perspective is that warfare has its own logic look at the longevity and wide distribution of Genghis Khans DNA a good return on investment.

More efficient forms of warfare allow quick conquest of others concentrated resources i.e. women.

Look at other DNA profiles, the Welsh – only the Y chromosome is Welsh.

Look at any modern ethnic cleansing action Bosnia, Sudan – all the men are killed.

You seem to have missed the prime directive as the cause of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

The Y chromosome drives us to warfare.

Typically if your family have not the basic surplus of resources to buy a bride or get you a marketable education the only option is to sell your labour as a soldier gambling on gaining a greater share of resources.

Either directly or by “service guaranteeing citizenship”

All your exposition about gold is just plop ;¬)

Once you have conquered territory and your soldiers have married locals there can be no retreat - you can not settle them on lands already occupied and to not fight often results in male genocide.

Here is some hard evidence


I don't agree with this article. Here's why.

Gibbon gives the following reasons for the Decline and Fall.

- advent of Christianity in the leadership replacing Roman religion
- moral decline
- reduction in the ethic of public service
- rise of Islam
- barbarian invasions

Here's some of mine.

- long relatively indefensible eastern border on the Rhine/Danube rivers
- 'Rauberwirtschaft/plunder economy' approach to economics
- 'Crisis of the Third century', poor leadership, debasement of currency, inflation
- Rise of plebian class in living in the city of Rome who contribute nothing economically and require imported grain to feed them.
- Running a trade deficit, exporting very little importing many goods from the east, eg silk for imperial purple paid for with silver

Don't forget the Eastern/Byzantine Empire could have lasted until today if it was not for the Turks!

The comparisons with the decline of Britain and the rest of the western world today are still compelling though.

- Rise of plebian class in living in the city of Rome who contribute nothing economically and require imported grain to feed them.

This is really not correct in my view.
First of all only 12.5% of the population of Rome were ever registered for the corn dole.

The Roman corn dole was a daily allotment of 4 small loaves of bread. There were also occasional disbursements of wine and cooking oil on special occasions such as the elevation of an emperor or a triumph(march thru Rome of victorious legion). They also had once a year allotment of pork from a large wild pig-hunt in Tuscany.

Earlier under the republic there were lots of special occasions because elections were held every six months and political campaigners bought votes with food and big shows.

These 'gifts' were not the corn dole but were given to the public at large.

The number of plebs(tribal Romans by birth didn't really increase). The big increases were huge numbers of unemployed freed slaves who filled the streets, which was the product of a slave culture.

Old Romans like Cato the Elder thought old slaves could be killed but over time slave-abuse became
unacceptable. If a slave killed his master all slaves in the household would be killed, slaves could be tortured, etc.


It is attractive for conservatives to lay the decline at the feet of a lazy proletariat but Rome was a society of rigid social classes and there was only a modest amount of social mobility(always decried by roman conservatives of the day).

So really I would say that the slave culture itself
undermined the empire.

I also disagree with this article but for entirely different reasons. I just finished reading Peter Heather's "The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians". His premise is that the migration of the Goths and Vandals which resulted from the plundering of the Huns on the Hungarian planes resulted in the fall of the empire. Unlike previous threats to the Empire, this forced migration of an entire populace could not be addressed by Roman military power. He additionally makes the argument that the threat of the Persians in the east and the divide in power between east and west meant that Rome could not bring its combined resources to bear on this new challenge. Another way to look at this would be that the exodus of the Goths was a "black swan" event that Rome was not prepared to address politically or militarily.

Heather makes one interesting point though that there was a technology revolution in agriculture production in northern Europe that occurred during the late Roman empire as slash-and-burn agriculture transitioned to plowed fields using iron plows. His argument is that the northern boundary of the Empire was established based upon the ability of the conquered lands to provide tax revenues.

Heather also argues that one needs to consider that the early empire through the first century had power concentrated in Rome. All the benefits of Roman rule flowed back to Rome where they directly benefitted the people in Rome. However, in the late Roman empire, the culture of Rome had been transplanted to cities throughout Europe which were equally Roman...laws, culture, language, trade. Consequently, the economic benefit of the empire would need to be dispersed as well. The apparent decline in Rome itself needs to consider this re-allocation of resources.

The Goths were hardly a Black Swan threat.
They had annihilated the Emperor Valens and his Legions at Adrianople in 378 AD. After that these semi-barbarians were incorporated into the Roman army
as 'foederati'. In many cases, the Emperors, such as Gratian, preferred barbarian guards over the Roman Praetorians(and the Praetorians betrayed him).


You have to understand how dependent the legions were on their barbarian allies--for example the Franks loyally protected the northern Rhine up until they were released from their oath of loyalty by Honorius.

Procopius mentions a story (which Gibbon disbelieved) where, on hearing the news that Rome had "perished"(410AD), Honorius was initially shocked; thinking the news was in reference to a favorite chicken he had named "Roma", he recalled in disbelief that the bird was just recently feeding out of his hand. It was then explained to him that the Rome in question was the city.


Sligthtly OT but this is an interesting find!

Archaeologists find graveyard of sunken Roman ships


Gambin said the wrecks revealed a pattern of trade in the empire: at first Rome exported its produce to its expanding provinces, but gradually it began to import from them more and more of the things it once produced.

Sounds almost like a certain modern "empire" that I'm familiar with...