The Seneca Effect: Why Decline Is Faster Than Growth

"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."

Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Original article

Don't you stumble, sometimes, into something that seems to make a lot of sense but you can't say exactly why? For a long time, I had in mind the idea that when things start going bad, they tend to go bad fast. We might call this tendency the "Seneca effect" or the "Seneca cliff," from Lucius Anneaus Seneca who wrote that "increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid."

Could it be that the Seneca cliff is what we are facing, right now? If that is the case, then we are in trouble. With oil production peaking or set to peak soon, it is hard to think that we are going to see a gentle downward slope of the economy. Rather, we may see a decline so fast that we can only call it "collapse." The symptoms are all there, but how to prove that it is what is really in store for us? It is not enough to quote a Roman philosopher who lived two thousand years ago. We need to understand what factors might lead us to fall much faster than we have been growing so far. For that, we need to make a model and see how the various elements of the economic system may interact with each other to generate collapse.

I have been working on this idea for quite a while and now I think I can make such a model. This is what the rest of this post will be about. We'll see that a Seneca cliff may indeed be part of our future if we keep acting as we have been acting so far (and as we probably will). But let's go into the details.

Models of growth and decline

The paradigm of all models of growth and decline is the Hubbert model. Here is how it appeared for the first time, in a paper published by Marion King Hubbert in 1956 where he showed his prediction for crude oil production in the 48 US lower states.

If you are interested in this subject, you probably have seen this plot many times and you also know that it worked nicely as a prediction. Oil production in the US did peak when Hubbert had said it would, in 1970. The Hubbert model has been shown to be a good description of many historical cases of oil producing regions, as reported, for instance, by Adam Brandt in his 2007 paper "Testing Hubbert". It works not just for oil, also for other mineral resources and for slowly renewable biological resources, such as whales (Bardi 2007).

We can take the Hubbert model as a first step for the description of an economic system based on the exploitation of a non renewable resource. The idea underlying the model is that exploitation starts with the best, highest return resources. Then, depletion slowly forces the industry to move to lower return resources. Profits fall and the capability of the industry to invest in new extraction falls as a consequence. This slows down growth and, eventually, causes production to decline (Bardi et al. 2010). So, it is a very general model that could describe not just regional cases but whole civilizations. Most of the agrarian civilizations of the past were based on a depletable resource, fertile soil, as I discussed in a post of mine in 2009.

However, the Hubbert model does not generate the Seneca effect. Not only the production curve is normally assumed to be symmetric, but there are several historical cases where it is skewed backwards; something that we could call the "anti-Seneca" effect. The prevalence of these cases in oil production led Brandt (2007) to state that (p. 27) ".... there is simply no evidence in the historical data that rates of decline will be generally sharper than rates of increase. This should be taken as comforting news for those concerned about a quick decline in production causing additional disruption beyond that already anticipated for the transition from conventional oil to substitutes for conventional oil."

Fine, but there is a problem. The results reported by Brandt are all for regional cases and it c ouldn't be otherwise. But, in a regional case, when extraction costs go up, operators simply move to regions where costs are lower. What happens when there is no new region to move to? That is, what happens when you examine the worldwide trend? Do people simply give up extracting, as it is implicitly assumed in the Hubbert model, or do they try harder? And in the latter case, what happens?

Of course, we don't have historical data for the whole cycle of oil production, worldwide. But there exist models which are more sophisticated than the Hubbert model and which can tell us more about worldwide trends. One is the "World3" model used for "The Limits to Growth" study, first published in 1972. The model is based on assumptions not unlike those at the basis of the Hubbert model (see this post of mine comparing the two models), but it considers the world's economy as a whole. Here are the results of the "base case" scenario of the 2004 version.

Here, we clearly see that the curves for food production and industrial production are skewed forward. It is the Seneca effect; something that appears to be a general trend of these models. For an even clearer view of this trend, here is a graph taken from the front cover of the 2004 edition of "The Limits to growth"

Now, what is that creates the Seneca effect in a complex model such as "World3" but not in a simpler model as Hubbert's one? In order to understand this point, I'll try now to build simple ("mind sized") world models and see what parameters are the cause of the forward leaning curves. We'll see that the asymmetry is mainly caused by a factor that we may call "pollution."

Mind Sized World Modelling

"Mind Sized" is a term invented by Seymour Papert in his book "Mind Storms" (1980). The idea is that, in order to be convinced that a certain phenomenon is real, or that it may happen for real, you need to understand what makes it real. For this, a model must be simple enough that you can make sense of it within your mind. This was one of the problems with "The Limits to Growth" study of 1972; the model was so complex that people tended to disbelieve its results mostly because they didn't understand how the model worked, as I argue in my book on this subject (Bardi 2011). So, let's see if we can make mind sized world models, trying to explicit their relation with thermodynamics. This was the gist of a talk that I gave in Spain this year, "Entropy, peak oil and stoic philosophy".

For building these models, I'll use "system dynamics," the same method used for "The Limits to Growth" study. It is a method of simulation based on describing systems as composed as "stocks" linked to each other by "flows" controlled by "valves". The classic example of this kind of systems is that of a bathtub. The bathtub is the stock; you can fill it by means of a flow of water, or you can empty it letting water flow out of it. This is called "bathtub dynamics" and you can read a nice paper on this subject by Linda Sweeney and John Sterman. It shouldn't be necessary to say that a bathtub has to obey the laws of physics, but at times it is. You have to remember that mass must be conserved in order to understand how a bathtub fills or drains out. More in general, energy has to be conserved - this is the first law of thermodynamics. You have to remember also the second law of thermodynamics which says that in everything that happens spontaneously, entropy must increase. Ultimately, the fact that water flows away from the drain of a bathtub has to do with increasing the entropy of the universe.

So, let's try to make a simple, mind-sized model that describes how an economic system exploits a non-renewable resource. We start with a stock that we call "Resources". We assume that it is a stock of energy on the basis of the idea that energy can be transformed into other kinds of resources (say, metals) but not the reverse. The resource could be, for instance "crude oil", which is the main resource on which our civilization is based. Then, we have another box that we call "Capital" that represents energy stocked in forms that can be utilized. We could say that this stock is a section of the economy; say, "the oil industry" or that it represents a whole civilization. Then we draw the flows of energy from the resource stock to the capital stock and to dissipation as low temperature heat, as the second law of thermodynamics commands. Here is the model.

This is the same model that I showed in previous posts (e.g. here) but, here I turned it of 90 degrees clockwise in order to emphasize the fact that energy goes "down" from higher thermodynamic potentials to lower thermodynamic potentials; just like what water does in a bathtub or in a fountain. Unlike the case of a fountain or a bathtub, however, here the flow is governed by feedback: resources are transformed into capital in proportion to the amount of both Resources and Capital. Note also that the resource partly decays without producing anything (Rate3). That's due to the inefficiency of the production process; think of oil spills or of natural gas vented and burned.

As you see, the production curve (Rate1 in the figure) is bell shaped and symmetric. This model, indeed, is equivalent to the Hubbert model (Bardi and Lavacchi 2009). The problem is that you can play as much as you like with the model, changing the values of the three constants, but the curves will not show the Seneca effect; that is, decay will not be faster than growth. So, are we missing something, here?

It seems that, indeed, we are missing an element that, instead, is present in the world models of "The Limits to Growth" study. What we are missing is pollution or, better said, the effects of pollution. In the simple model above, degraded energy is harmlessly dissipated to space; it has no effect on the other elements of the model. But we know that, in the real world, that is not true. Pollution has a cost: money and resources must be spent to fight it; be it water or air poisoning or effects such as global warming.

In order to simulate the effects of pollution we can define it as a third stock that drains energy from the capital stock in proportion to the size of both the capital and the pollution stocks. Note that, since there are several constants, I grouped with the name of "l" (from the term "loss") those which go directly from a stock to outer space (l1, l2, l3). I kept the letter "k" for the flows that go from one stock to another. Here is the model. I am showing you a sample output where I chose parameters which emphasize the Seneca effect.

The parameters for this  run are k1=0.03. k2=0.3, l1=0, l2=0.01, l3=0.015, Resources (t0)=1, Capital(t0) =0.001, Pollution(t0)=0.001

Here is the production curve, alone, from a different run.

So,the model can generate a "Seneca-like" production curve which clearly shows the "Seneca cliff". It goes up slowly, then it collapses quickly. As Seneca says, "the way to ruin is rapid."

Now, can we say in words what is that generates the Seneca cliff? Yes, we can. It goes like this: first, consider that the effect of pollution is to drain economic capital. Secondly, consider that the pollution stock grows by feeding on the economy stock - so it has to wait for the economy to have grown before it can grow itself. It is this delay that causes an increase in the rate of energy draining from the economy as the process goes on. Since the size of the economy stock determines the production rate, we see also that parameter going down rapidly after the peak. This is the essence of the Seneca effect.

Let's now go more in depth in the model. What is exactly this "pollution" that causes so much trouble? It is what the authors of "The Limits to Growth" called "persistent pollution" to show that it is something different from infrared radiation harmlessly disappearing into space. It is a very general concept that includes anything that is generated by capital and will drain resources from capital. The Fukushima disaster is a good example of pollution coming back to bite at the industry that produced it. It could be poisoning of the air or of water. It could be global warming and it could also be wars. Wars are great producers of pollution and a nuclear war would make the Seneca effect take place almost instantly.

Now that we understand how the model works, we can go back to to Brandt's study and explain why in the majority of historical cases of oil production the curves are symmetric or show "anti-Seneca" shapes. We said that the Seneca effect is generated by pollution; so, does this result mean that oil extraction produces no pollution? Not at all, of course. It only means that those who extract oil don't have to pay for the pollution they produce. To make a practical example, in the case of oil extraction from the 48 US lower states, persistent pollution has mainly taken the shape of CO2 and other greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere. This is a factor that has not yet bitten us back, but, eventually, someone will have to pay for the damage done in the form of global warming. When the bill comes - and it is coming - we may discover that it is more expensive than what we can afford to pay.

Would technological progress save us from the Seneca cliff? Well, not automatically. Actually, it could make the cliff steeper! One way to simulate technology is to assume that the constants in the model are not constant but vary as the cycle proceeds. For instance, an increasing value of the "k1" constant corresponds to technological improvements in the capability of exploiting the resource. That will increase the total amount produced at the end of the cycle, but will also generate a steeper fall after the peak, as I discussed in a paper of mine (Bardi 2005). A more interesting idea would be to tweak the model by a making the "k2" constant gradually smaller. That would simulate the development of technologies that lower the production of pollution. In other words, the model tells us that "clean production" is a good idea in the sense that it would tend to make the production cycle more symmetric.

You might try other ways to modify the model, for instance increasing its complexity by adding more stocks. How about a "bureaucracy" stock that accumulates and then dissipates energy? Well, it will act just as the "pollution" stock; perhaps we might say that bureaucracy is a form of pollution. Incidentally, anyway, with this added stock the model becomes more similar to Tainter's model that has that civilizations decline and collapse because of an increase in complexity that brings more problems than benefits. If you keep adding more elements to the model, in the end you get to something that may be similar to the "World3" model used in "The Limits to Growth" study. We saw earlier on that this model does generate forward skewed curves.

There are many ways to modify these models and the Seneca effect is not the only possible outcome. Fiddling with the constants you may also generate the opposite behavior; that is the "anti-Seneca" curve, with decline slower than growth. As you would expect, that happens using constants that minimize the accumulation of persistent pollution. But, in general, the Seneca effect is a "robust" feature of this kind of models and it comes up for a variety of assumptions. You ignore the Seneca cliff at your own risk. 

The Seneca effect in the real world

Do we have historical examples of the Seneca effect? Well, several, but not many for which we have quantitative data. The Roman civilization, for instance, took about seven centuries to peak and just about three centuries to fall, at least in its Western side (and Seneca himself may have perceived the Roman decline at his time). However, the data we have on such parameters as the Roman population are not good enough to see the effect in the form of a forward skewed curve.

We seem to have such data, instead, for the Mayan civilization. Here is an image taken from Dunning et al (1998).  The horizontal scale is very long: 10.000 years from the Pleistocene/holocene boundary.

In this case, pollution takes the shape of soil erosion that drains capital resources and generates population collapse. We should be careful with this interpretation, because some other authors believe that the Mayan collapse was caused by climate change. But the world model developed here seems to be compatible with the historical data.

For something closer to us, here is a figure taken from Dmitry Orlov's paper "Peak oil is history". It shows Russian oil production.

The Soviet Union was a nearly closed economy before collapsing; a "mini-world" in itself. Notice how Russian oil production went down rapidly after the peak; a classic Seneca cliff. Note also how production picked up again afterwards. At some point, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an isolated economic system and it became part of the whole world's economic system. At that point, the simple model that we have been using does not work any longer; most likely because the capital stock received an influx of resources that came from a region outside the model.

Conclusion: a banquet of consequences

Very often, we fail to understand the delayed effects of our actions. John Sterman reminds us of this point in a talk on global warming quoting Robert Louis Stevenson as saying, "Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences." The models shown here tell us that the Seneca cliff is the result of delayed consequences.

As always, the future is something that we build with our actions and the models can only tell us what kind of actions will lead us, eventually, to a certain outcome. Used in this way, models can be extremely useful and can even be applied to systems which are much more modest than an entire civilization, for instance to a single company or to our personal relationships with other people. In all cases, the Seneca effect will be the result of trying hard to keep things running as usual. In that way, we may run out faster of the resource that keeps the system running: be it a physical resource or a reserve of goodwill. The way to avoid this outcome may be to let the system run the way it wants, without attempting to force it to go the way we want it to go. In other words we need to take things in life with some stoicism, as Seneca himself would probably have said.

Thinking of the worldwide situation and of the problems involved, global warming and resource depletion, what the models tell us is that the Seneca cliff may be the inevitable result of putting too much strain on already badly depleted natural resources. We should try, instead, to develop alternative stocks of resources such as renewable (or nuclear) energy. At the same time, we should avoid to exploit highly polluting and expensive resources such as tar sands, oil shales, deepwater oil, and, in general, applying the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy. All those strategies are recipes for doom. Unfortunately, these are also examples of exactly what we are doing.

I don't know what Seneca would say if he could see this planet-wide effort we are making in order to put into practice the idea that he expressed in his letter to his friend, Lucilius. I can only imagine that he would take it with some stoicism. Or, maybe, he would comment with what he said in his "De Providentia" "Let Nature deal with matter, which is her own, as she pleases; let us be cheerful and brave in the face of everything, reflecting that it is nothing of our own that perishes."

Thanks to Dmitry Orlov for having been the source of inspiration for this post with his article "Peak Oil is History".


Bardi, U., 2007, Energy prices and resource depletion: Lessons from the case of whaling in the nineteenth century” Bardi U. Energy Sources, part B- Economics Planning and Policy Volume: 2 Issue: 3  Pages: 297-304

Bardi, U.  and Lavacchi, A., 2009, "A Simple Interpretation of Hubbert’s Model of Resource Exploitation” Energies 2009, 2(3), 646-661; doi:10.3390/en20300646

Bardi, U. 2011 "The Limits to Growth Revisited", Springer,  ISBN 978-1-4419-9415-8

Bardi, U., Lavacchi, A., Yaxley L., 2011 “Modelling EROEI and net energy in the exploitation of non renewable resources” Ecological Modelling, In Press.

Brandt, A.R. (2007). Testing Hubbert. Energy Policy, 35(May):3074-3088. DOI: 10.1016/j.enpol.2006.11.004

Dunning, N., D. Rue, T. Beach, A. Covich, A. Traverse, 1998, "Human - Environment Interactions in a Tropical Watershed: the Paleoecology of Laguna Tamarindito, Guatemala," Journal of Field Archaeology 25 (1998):139-151.

It's rather apparent with all the efforts being employed to get more oil, such as tar sands, deep offshore, horizontal drilling (super straws), etc. that every possible contingent effort is being employed simply to remain on a plateau of oil production (since 05). In spite of these efforts, Brent continues to be in triple digits per barrel. Essentially the Seneca Cliff is being pushed out in front of us and in so doing its edge crisply sharpened and angled into a sharks fin. The question regarding descent isn't if, but when and how fast and hard will we fall?

The article ignores or discounts the effect of non-conventional oil technology (oil sands, enhanced oil recovery) as well as the effects of economics (higher prices result redrilling of old oil fields and the dragging out of oil field production in a long tail).

In reality, the amount of non-conventional oil in the world considerably exceeds the amount of conventional oil, and in the long term most oil production will be non-conventional. I can cite the example of my own country, Canada, where conventional oil production peaked during the 1970's and most of the oil production is non-conventional, with current total production now considerably exceeding the 1970's conventional peak.

Canadian Oil Production 1960 to 2020
(millions of barrels per day)

The net effect will be to negate the "Seneca effect" and the result will be a more symmetric bell-shaped curve, if not an "anti-Seneca effect" resulting in a long, fat tail to the production decline curve - a positively-skewed bell-shaped curve.

And as we have discussed, the average rate of increase in Canadian net oil exports from 2005 to 2010 was 50,000 bpd per year, for a five year total increase of 250,000 bpd. Over the same time frame Venezuela's net oil exports dropped by 600,000 bpd (BP).

But in any case, when are you guys going to break free of the WTI curse and start shipping oil to the West and/or East Coasts?

Of course, Canada can't ramp up oil production as fast as Venezuela can fall off a cliff.

Exports to the West and East Coast of Canada are in the works. The hangup is pipeline approvals. There seems to be some enthusiasm developing for expediting them.

US refiners are currently providing a $1.5 billion incentive* per month to ship Canadian oil elsewhere. I don't think that this short term grab for profits is going to end well for US refiners, and it could ultimately do long term damage to the US as we lose a reliable source of imported oil.

*2 mbpd X $25/barrel X 30 days/month = $1.5 billion per month

Rocky - And I would like to express my thanks to our Canadian cousins for any effort to ship that oil east/west so they can stop dumping their cheap production into our country and detroying the value of oue west Texas oil. Thus both countries can share the financial benefit of a more equitable distribution of the resources. This will, of course, eventually means higher prices for the consumers. But this is how it should be: they are our prey...always have been....always will be. LONG LIVE THE FIGHTERS! (from "Dune", of course) LOL

One clarification, based on Undertow's work. The lower WTI price really isn't benefitting consumers. Refiners are simply pocketing the spread between WTI and coastal prices as higher refining profits.

BTW, I assume that you guys have production in geographic areas where you get both WTI type prices and Louisiana Sweet type prices. What was the approximate wellhead price that you received for the two grades for July? Also, where is the dividing line? I have heard that basically everything west of Port Arthur, in Texas/New Mexico, is WTI. It seems odd to me that South Texas producers close to the refineries around Corpus would be getting WTI prices, when the spot delivered import price for light/sweet is around $115.

We won't mention that if we exploit all these low EROEI, dirty sources of oil, we will guarantee that the planet will be cooked. WMG has admitted that he has skin in that game, so I don't really expect him to do anything but promote it and paint big happy faces on that disgusting desecration.

Many prominent citizens, including leading climate scientists, are have been protesting against and going to jail to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

It's time for everyone to decide which side they're on.

I suspect that the Canadians would be perfectly happy to build a pipeline to their West Coast.

So you think that there is no moral imperative to avoid doing evil if there is a possibility that someone else will do the same evil anyway?

"If I don't do it, somebody else will" is a kind of ethic, I guess, but more associated with sociopaths than responsible citizens of the world.

I'm glad that somebody else understands this. I can't believe that attitude that shows up all the time, "Why should I straighten up my act? Somebody else will just do the bad things so why should I stop?" No wonder we have such problems!

I have changed and am changing my lifestyle because it's the right thing to do, not because somebody else is doing it. I'm doing it even if the rest of the idiots aren't.

That morality would dictate that if you came across a drunk woman passed out in the bushes, you might as well rape her, since someone else will probably come along and do the same thing anyway.

Sorry if this offends, but the actual morality we are talking about here is much more serious than even rape--it is rape of the planet--which is essentially rape of our children.

aug and doh, thanks for the posts.

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."--John Kenneth Galbraith.

I didn't do it, it was THE INVISIBLE HAND.

There is one more level of "reasoning" folks exhibit: They cite news articles that suggest that the planet has already crossed its climate "tipping points" and therefore, it doesn't make any sense to try to reverse / stop anything. "We know we're going to fall off the cliff, we might as well do it full throttle!"

I also found RMG's wishful thinking following a similar pattern (citing graphs and reasoning - "it happened in the past, therefore it will continue its trend into the future").

To my horror, all I can do is watch the Boreal be destroyed at such an alarming rate while someone worries about their "retirement benefits".

I wish for a systemic collapse.

I wish for a systemic collapse.

That seems to be the motivation between a lot of the doomsters and their doom theories. They can't live with the concept of a slow, painful decline and desperately wish for a big crash.

In reality, geology will save the world from a Seneca cliff collapse in oil production. You really cannot produce oil fields in a Seneca-like fashion because oil fields (the majority of them) just don't work that way. Toward the end of their lives they taper off gradually and seem to last a lot longer than the producers had intended. The big oil companies sell them off to the small companies, and then the small companies sell them off to the mom-and-pop operations. Most of the world's really big oil fields will still be producing dribs and drabs of oil 100 years from now.

The Canadian production curve which I posted is really the anti-Seneca of all anti-Seneca curves. That is a result of deliberate policy. Canadian governments have regulated the oil industry with the intention of turning the typical bell-shaped oil production curve into one with a very, very long tail. Canada is still going to be a major oil producer 100 years from now.

You really cannot produce oil fields in a Seneca-like fashion because oil fields (the majority of them) just don't work that way

Yes, but the interplay of peak oil, ELM and debt crisis will lead to Seneca-like drops in oil imports for several nations.

Canada is still going to be a major oil producer 100 years from now.

Not if emission of CO2 is punishable by death under international law, they wont. And trust me, when climate change have increased temeratures some 5 degrees, they will have such a law.

The big oil companies sell them off to the small companies, and then the small companies sell them off to the mom-and-pop operations

Yeh in Oklahoma, Texas, and southern Alberta maybe, but how about deep water GOM and Brazil, the Alaska North Slope and the North Sea? More and more of our production is coming from operations like these and they will shut down suddenly well before full field depletion because of the shipping difficulty. Those type fields will forever be beyond the reach of the Mom and Pop organization.

Maybe a Seneca Cliff will desribe the first third to half of the production drop after the 'sustained peak' or plateau or whatever you choose to call what oil producition appears to be hovering at right now. But like you I do not feel oil production will completely fall off the cliff--as long as we avoid the ultimate nuclear Seneca Cliff.

Quite frankly I hope Canada is a major oil producer a century from now--that would mean many things had managed to go right for humanity and the bottleneck we look to be aimed at is at worst gently tapered. Of course I had to call my loyal little dog away from a cow and calf moose in the middle of this reply and and am watching woodpeckers come right back to my feeders the first day they have been restocked after being dry for a fortnight. I might not have so optimistic a bent if I were sitting in a browned out, hundred degree Phoenix or LA concrete and asphalt swelter.

When it comes to making an energy transition, such as occurred from wood to coal, indeed it does come down to "I might as well do it because if I don't someone else will". When it is a matter of survival, using a new advantageous tool or technique or energy source, actually it is very simple. We don't just say, "the smoke is bad, so let's stop---O.K.". There were some laws passed in England against using coal in 1300 but these laws did not last. Coal was just too attractive. Once a person is born, they are hungry, cold, tired, desperate...they will use what they can get,

If you see a tree full of ripe apples, you know birds, worms, squirrels or people will get these apples. It is the Second Law at work. They will not last. If you see a mine full of coals or a well full of oil, it is the same thing. They will not last either. Someone will use them if they can.

All Americans need to do to stop Keystone is stop driving. With no demand, there will be no oil shipped.

Right and wrong has nothing to do with it. If the Keystone XL isn't built then the Canadians will build a pipeline west or east, or there will be some other pipeline to get that oil to the coast where it can get full market price. The economics are there to support one of these pipelines. While I agree with the sentiment in protesting the Keystone XL, I think it's misplaced. Even if the protesters are successful in preventing the Keystone from being built, it's only going to be a temporary victory before the next pipeline is proposed. The real objective is closing down the oil sands development.

While I agree that putting any more CO2 into the atmosphere at this point is evil, I don't think it's going to change the outcome one bit. Those who use fossil fuels have more power than those who do not. If the Canadians don't tap the oil sands, they will taken over by a country that will. If you don't agree with me, google 'the carter doctrine'.

Evil is banal.

So is goodness or heroism:

"We may now entertain the notion that most people who become perpetrators of evil deeds are directly comparable to those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds, alike in being just ordinary, average people. the banality of evil shares much with the banality of heroism. Neither attribute is the direct consequence of unique dispositional tendencies; there are no special inner attributes of either pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both conditions emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving particular individuals across a decisional line from inaction to action. There is a decisive decisional moment when a person is caught up in a vector of forces that emanate from a behavioral context. Those forces combine to increase the probability of one's acting to harm others or acting to help others. Their decision may or may not be consciously planned or mindfully taken. Rather, strong situational forces most often impulsively drive the person to action. Among the situational action vectors are: group pressures and group identity, the diffusion of resposibility for the action, a temporal focus on the immediate moment without concern for consequences stemming from the act in the future, presence of social models, and commitment to an ideology."--The Lucifer Effect, Phillip Zimbardo

Right and wrong has everything to do with it. All these actions are moral as well as economic. Might makes right? The dollar decides? I am helpless and inconsequential, so I cannot affect change? Shall I profit from the banality of evil? It's BAU, can't stop it, don't try.

Right and wrong has everything to do with it. All these actions are moral as well as economic.

You misunderstand. What I should have said is that right or wrong, it makes no difference, the oil sands extraction will continue. The oil sands projects are run by corporations, and corporations are immoral. Their prime directive, by law, is to make money for their share holders. Unless laws are passed to prevent the oil sands from being extracted they will do whatever is in their power to maximize profits. Losing $25 a barrel because their product is landlocked will not be tolerated for long.

All Americans need to do to stop Keystone is stop driving. With no demand, there will be no oil shipped.

Pretty much sums it up right there. We can debates the good and evil of the oil sands till we're blue in the face. Unless you're taking cars off the road, you're not making one bit of difference. Unless you've got a better idea?

You misunderstand.

Not really. To say corporations are immoral is a mute point. Corporations are amoral. They are legal constructs. Subject to societal oversight. They were created to be your servant, not your master. Laws can be changed. Charters can be revoked.

The moral argument is: BAU us eco-suicide. Whether or not eco-suicide is profitable is best left to neo-liberal economists.

To argue economic inevitability is fatalism. It has been decided. I have no say in the matter.

Unless you're taking cars off the road...

Same argument used by drug cartels and pushers. If you didn't need it so badly I wouldn't have to destroy society to give you your fix. The devil made me do it.

What you fail to understand is the point of the protests. The strategy is to save the planet. The operation is to bring awarness to the destructive nature of consuming mass quatities of fossil fuels. The tactic is to raise awareness by getting arrested. A moral argument.

Civil rights in the US was moved forward with "outside agitators" getting arrested at lunch counters. Ghandi began ending colonialism by protesting the tax on salt. Apartheid in South Africa was ended by a moral arguement. People protested the war in Vietnam because it was immoral. It is what powerless people have. The moral high ground.

Bring attention to the pipeline. Bring attention to the extraction process. Bring attention to BAU being the cause.

Unless you've got a better idea?

Sure. Non-violent protest based on a moral argument. You got a better idea?

Reduce the addiction.

That is where my efforts go.

Best Hopes for Addressing Root Causes,


Right and wrong has nothing to do with it. If the Keystone XL isn't built then the Canadians will build a pipeline west or east, or there will be some other pipeline to get that oil to the coast where it can get full market price.

It does however buy us time, it also makes it clear that some people don't want the pipeline and therefore oil. At the moment too many people are going along with oil because they haven't seen any alternative to not going along with it. They really think a McMansion is a status symbol, rather than an embarrassment.

At the moment too many people are going along with oil because they haven't seen any alternative to not going along with it.

Please elaborate. What alternative is there?

All vehicles that don't use oil.

If a pipeline is constructed to the west coast of Canada, then what is to prevent the synthetic crude from being loaded into a tanker ship destined for refineries in San Francisco?

The problem with the morality argument is that you still fail to halt the emission of fossil carbon into the atmosphere.

That's a "there's no such thing as the long run" fallacy.

If you show leadership, eventually people will follow.

So i'm curious, you guys. Why is it you must shut down the Oil Sands in Canada but not the heavy oil fields in California?

The pipline is on the table right now. The maximum amount of political pressure can be brought with the fewest resources. One man (the president with a veto) can stop it. He will need an energized base to get re-elected. What is not to understand? What are you willing to get arrested for?

I saw more coverage of these anti-Keystone protesters lately. Amazing how easily people can get suckered into propaganda. Stop and think for just a second. The oil has already been produced. The oil will be refined and burned either way. It makes no difference (in relation to CO2 production) whether the oil is refined in Oklahoma or China.

The only question is whether a monopoly of refiners will be able to keep the current lock on the market for oil sands production, or whether that production will reach a free/world market. Who would you guess is ultimately behind all these protests over any pipleline which would break the current monopoly taking it to Cushing?

Rockman, I feel really bad about dumping all that Canadian oil in your West Texas market. I really do since it's affecting my retirement and health plans by not making as much money for me as I need to support me in the style to which I want to become accustomed.

I tried to talk them out of it, but they wouldn't listen to me. Next time we'll try to do better and ship it to China or someplace where it won't affect your prices. Just ours.

Understood Rocky. Hope your tears didn't drip onto your key board and cause damage.

Have you noticed when I go out my way to tease our "prey" or my "Yankee cousins" I don't get much splash back. I hope it's from an unyielding sign of respect I've generated from the TODsters. But I suspect it may just them ignoring me.

I just have to try harder I suppose. I can be really irritating when put my mind to it. Just ask my wife. Or either of my two ex's.

If we assume no above-ground factors throw uss all intocaos and mayhem, we can make a very simple model of below ground declines. Some sources will decline very fast, say offshore deep water. Other will decline slower, onshore conventional, and others will decline even slower, even rise for a while, say onshore unconventional.

The trend day X will be determined by the biggest mover that day. So if we are in a period with (to pick from above) offshore deepwater freefall, noother movements will offset that, and in total we will see a steep decline. Now, when that source is gone the declines will be dominated by something else.

Hence, we can expect a fast decline for a while somewhere down the line,followed by a very slow decline that takes centuries to unfold.

That was only a crude model to show my thinking, someone who sit on a lot of data could draw the graphs.

But I worry little about this. The big issue will be above ground factors,and most importantly of those declines in exports. Those of us wholives in one of those 197 countries without oilof their own will feel that.

To get that product you have to rob the economy elsewhere, which I think makes the claim difficult. You'd have to model the increase in capital outlay for unconventional and determine the pollution factors on the backside.

But unconventional oil is a stop-gap and not a cure for this disease. Hard to imagine Canada supplying much net oil growth per capita as conventional sources around the world wind down.

From my reading Canada will in the end offset declines in Mexico.

As I said, non-conventional oil accounts for most of Canadian oil production. Conventional production is down to very low levels and will continue to decline, but the conventional production will continue for a few more centuries.

It's not going to solve all the problems of the rest of the world, but it will generate jobs and pay taxes for a lot of Canadians.

Sorry I missed this one, but I'll jump in up top. This first thread, all about "unconventional oil", paying taxes, jobs, etc., really misses the point. Forcing oil (liquid fuel) production, whether conventional, NG liquids, biofuels, whatever, blows bubbles and forces consumption of arguably more necessary resources. Current levels of liquid fuels production enables depletion of every other finite and limited resource. Further, it enables the mother of all unsustainable progressions: population growth. Just askin': What happend to the big picture here?

I'm pretty much in agreement with Ugo's post. When it rains, it pours. Oil cuts both ways. Better pack your parachutes.

Actually, current and increasing levels of liquids fuel production enables the only non-starvation-and-war based path to population stabilization and shrinkage there is. If it goes down, the risk is high that the fertility rates will go up again.

From my reading Canada will in the end offset declines in Mexico.

Given the volume from Cantrell and the decline rate of that field and how the cashflow from that field keeps the government propped up - the decline of the #1 field may bring collapse for the whole output.

Mexico's government revenues is around $233 billion, and GDP is around $1 trillion, nominally. The Cantarell rate is around 0.5 Mbpd, which is around $18 billion/year at a price of $100/barrel. Not very much.

Alright Rocky, but even if Canada has incredible amounts of non-conventional, the flow rates are less than crude, the energy needed to extract is greater, the cost to extract is greater and as much as Canadians would like to think that tar sands will save them from post peak oil, the economic reality is we'll probably all be in the same sinking ship. Once the world economy has tanked, squeezing non-conventional will probably not be cost effective.

So I think your idea of a positively-skewed bell-shaped curve on the back side is at best, fantasy.

get more oil, such as tar sands, deep offshore, horizontal drilling (super straws), etc. that every possible contingent effort is being employed simply to remain on a plateau of oil production (since 05).

But as pointed out by the more 'economically minded' voices on TOD and other places - the fall off may be due to economic reasons.

(and the pandemic backers point out if there is a collapse of population, that too may collapse demand. Same goes for a "nice" global war.)

But as pointed out by the more 'economically minded' voices on TOD and other places - the fall off may be due to economic reasons.

True. My point was every effort was being made just to remain on a plateau, but that's no guarantee of remaining there, as economic factors will most likely play a role in the fall off.

Seneca background video: (3 parts)

He believed people are too optimistic. Things going wrong should be expected, prepared for and accepted.

Also, note that the Limits to Growth diagram is on actual industrial production. Convert that diagram to industrial production per capita and the result is not nice!

Ugo, thanks for this interesting posting.
I think it depends mainly on "timing" if there will be a rapid decline or a smooth transition:
If mankind will find and apply solution for the challenges of peak oil, climate change etc. then a smooth transition to a post-fossil world is possible. But if we are too late then we will eventually get to a point where we cannot stop the unsteerable wagon from rushing down the spiral.
For example the British were lucky that they had coal at hand when they had cut down all the trees on their island, so they could continue with their industrial growth. Otherwise they would have soon declined again to oblivion.

The timing issue is also described in the less-known second Hirsch "report": Mitigation of maximum world oil production: Shortage scenarios - Energy Policy Volume 36, Issue 2, February 2008, Pages 881-889

From the abstract:

Examination of a number of future world oil production forecasts showed multi-year rollover/roll-down periods, which represent pseudoplateaus. Consideration of resource nationalism posits an Oil Exporter Withholding Scenario, which could potentially overwhelm all other considerations. Three scenarios for mitigation planning resulted from this analysis: (1) A Best Case, where maximum world oil production is followed by a multi-year plateau before the onset of a monatomic decline rate of 2–5% per year; (2) A Middling Case, where world oil production reaches a maximum, after which it drops into a long-term, 2–5% monotonic annual decline; and finally (3) A Worst Case, where the sharp peak of the Middling Case is degraded by oil exporter withholding, leading to world oil shortages growing potentially more rapidly than 2–5% per year, creating the most dire world economic impacts.

In a nutshell he thinks: A plateau period might give us some time to avoid a collaps. Whereas we wouldn't have this chance in case of a sharp peak.

On the whole, yes, but note the shape of the Seneca peak: there is a plateau at the top. Then, it goes down quickly. The plateau we are seeing is just of a few years over a time scale of more than a century. So, it may be just the moment before the rollercoaster starts going down!

We probably are at the point where we cannot effectively stop the downward spiral. The plateau will last few more years, but it will end sooner or later and the descent will then be accelerating with passing time.
The current civilization is stagnating and I´m afraid that it´s the best it can do. There is no impetus that would send us forward. Renewables are not enough or they are rather too little too late.
Technology does not provide the solutions, only postpones the consequences.
When thinking about our problems, I often recall the following words of Q about the Borg from Q Who Star Trek episode:

"You can't outrun them, you can't destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually you will weaken. Your reserves will be gone. They are relentless!"

Our reserves are not yet gone, but the systems are weakening.

The thing that worries me wich I have been thinking about lately is that we have many "slow declines" happening at once. Population growth, climate change, oil decline, economic contraction, etc. Each of those happen slowly, but when they occur at the same time, the burden of all those combined slow faliures adds up to one big collapse.

Jedi Welder said

... all those combined slow failures adds up to one big collapse.

I think most thinking people have already come to this conclusion and are planning their lives accordingly. In my case this has amounted to:

  1. Having only one child and advising him to have none (he's 30 now);
  2. Learning all I can about permaculture and growing my own food;
  3. Buying some rural land in an area not likely to be devastated by climate change (ie not Texas);
  4. Taking early retirement;
  5. Buying essential tools, clothing and various things (eg bikes and ancillary equipment) to last the rest of my life (and my wife's life);
  6. Investing in precious metals (300% gain in last few years); etc

BTW, this is yet another excellent article by Ugo Bardi, one of the most thoughtful modern commentators.

Some points to your list:

1: He is ok with beeing "allowed" one child. If we have a one child policy,each generation is 50% less than the last one. That is probably the best balance between a fast depopulation and having enough young to take care of the old.

6: Invest in metals but DO NOT MARRY THEM. Sell when the time is right. Goldbugs will be so sorry in a bunch of years.

You're right about gold bugs, that valuation is way out of proportion, an original speculative bubble. Compare gold to silver, platinum, diamonds, etc.

Written by Jedi Welder:
Population growth, climate change, oil decline, economic contraction....

I expect them to happen simultaneously because they are all related to overpopulation.

Thanks for providing this interesting article. It seems that you need to simplify enough to see obvious consequences from very complex systems, such as world economical system is.

Should not be too pessimistic, I think there can be some improvements expected in the areas of resource consumption (going into renewables) and also the amount of pollution might get lower. Unfortunately, these excersises are happening only in specific vestern countries and in minimal scale if compared to overall world economy.

How I assume the collapse will happen is that it will not happen everywhere in the world simultaneously, although the economical system is highly integrated. There are nations and regions who own plenty of resources to exploit (such as Russia and Brazil) on the other hand some places are already now taking hit from pollution and lack of resources (Somalia, Bangladesh to name few).
The outcome will most probably be that locally there are actions taken (in order to survive), which are also globally harmfull (such as deforestation).

It is very difficult to see how the world resource usage or pollution could be centrally managed, which would be only way to avoid "stupid" locally made decisions.

Welcome to the fray, janne.

I agree that much more could be done with renewables, but note that we are starting from pretty far back--wind only makes up something like one percent of world energy sources, and solar is far behind that. Even doubling every year, a very tall order, would require ten years for solar to contribute significantly to the pie.

The main place for improvement is drastically shrinking the pie.

If the US reduces energy consumption by half, about matching most developed countries in Europe, it would bring the point when renewables become significant proportionally that much closer. Halve that again, down to the level of prosperous Latin American countries like Brazil and Costa Rica, and we really start having a chance of supplying ourselves with renewables and can make the transition with domestic fossil fuels. Keep in mind that these and other countries with much, much lower per capita energy usage, regularly show higher levels of life satisfaction in various studies.

Any other path spells disaster, but pretty much no major voice is calling for these kinds of changes.

I certainly agree that the collapse will play out different ways in different localities. Don't assume, though, that the west is the only place that is doing important work toward sustainable living--in fact the west historically has been by far the global leader the most un-sustainable lifestyles ever seen, lifestyles being mimicked now by more and more of the world's elites, with disastrous consequences for all.

wind only makes up something like one percent of world energy sources, and solar is far behind that. Even doubling every year, a very tall order, would require ten years for solar to contribute significantly to the pie.

Wind was 2.5% of world electricity production in 2010. At the typical 30% yearly growth, it'll reach 10% in 2015, 20% in 2018, 40% in 2020 and 100% in 2024.

Solar electricity seems to stand at some 0.4%, and if it would double each year as you said, in ten years it would stand at 400% of today's global electricity.

The issue isn't really getting renewable power, but transforming them to liquids. But I think we can bridge with conservation, CTL and NG long enough to develop synthetic fuels and electrified transport. I even think it will be quite effortless to do so. The invisible hand will take care of it for us.

The main place for improvement is drastically shrinking the pie.

Economics will decide, but I think ramping the alternatives is the way it is going to play out.

``Wind was 2.5% of world electricity production in 2010."

and electric energy was 16% (roughly) of the total mix ..

thus indeed a tiny contribution!

even with your impossible growth numbers

just look at saturation effects in growth in Germany

Halve that again, down to the level of prosperous Latin American countries like Brazil and Costa Rica,

Do you think, DB, that maybe, just maybe, the climate in Brazil and Costa Rica might influence how much energy they use. After all, they do not have zero degree weather in the Tropics. And, if you have never notice, they have screened windows that are open pretty much all the time, dress very lightly, relying on wind and fans for cooling. Except tourists, of course.

Also, a canoe powered by paddles is not only easier on energy, but it does not pollute as much as a cigarette boat!

Our problems are multifaceted, and in some cases seemingly incapable of resolution. The are, as Greer says, predicaments.

I think you are dreaming if you think Americans will even consider changing unless the situation becomes so urgent as to sweep all other discussion aside. Until then, we will go on with BAU, followed by recessions and depressions at least, collapse being a strong possibility.

Just my opinion, though. Keep on hoping. And do what you know is the right thing, even if you are alone. Maybe by example, if sufficient numbers change we can influence the rest.

Still, I don't know what the folks in Minnesota and Canada will do during winters... you may be able to shut down activities and survive tropical heat*, but shutting down at minus 30 is certain death.


*Caveat: certain forecasts show temps rising above survivability in extreme climate change, thus making some parts of the tropics incapable of sustaining life.

Should not be too pessimistic, I think there can be some improvements expected in the areas of resource consumption (going into renewables) and also the amount of pollution might get lower. Unfortunately, these excersises are happening only in specific vestern countries and in minimal scale if compared to overall world economy

You are right, a lot of improvements can be made if only people were told the truth and allowed to make adjustments locally. Unfortunately our politicians are loathe to give up power and insist on managing the world from their control rooms. Until that changes there is no hope.

Our gigantic sovereign states are a relic of the industrial age that will be unable to respond to the coming changes, managing such an obscene amount of complexity is next to impossible yet our governments think they can pull it off.

"You are right, a lot of improvements can be made if only people were told the truth and allowed to make adjustments locally"

The fault in your logic is that you apply the same standards to many - I have experienced much different. There is a class of people who recognize energy use = money, and thus attempt to conserve. A further smaller class that conserves because of conscience. Then there is the larger masses that because of wealth, or entitlements, consider energy a "right" and use/abuse it as they see fit. For the wealthy-energy is "cheap". For those receiving assistance, energy is "cheap". Seen it in the ghetto. The landlord tries to control energy costs - places a plastic shield, lockable over the thermostat - the tenants place ice on top. Go into a ghetto gas station - WOW! - the temp is 50 degrees, while the heat outside is over 90 degrees.
Everyone has a window air conditioner - it is "necessary" - LOL and it continues on.

In reality - the general, and at large population does not care about energy conservation. They care about their comfort - and will demand others pay for it. People on T.O.D. with knowledge and a conscience are rare indeed. Let us let those less reponsive/knowledgeable/inquisitive pass from us.

A message consisting of a set of ten guidelines or principles is engraved on the Georgia Guidestones in eight different languages, one language on each face of the four large upright stones. Moving clockwise around the structure from due north, these languages are: English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, and Russian.
1.Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
2.Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
3.Unite humanity with a living new language.
4.Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
5.Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
6.Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
7.Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
8.Balance personal rights with social duties.
9.Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
10.Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature

Should add "Stop making costly asses of yourselves by passing and enforcing nanny laws designed to keep the unfit from harming themselves."

Covered by 7)


Seneca effect is a consequence of an increase in production efficiency and a simultaneous increase in extraction difficulty. Production efficiency is a power law function of the capital (ex: Cobb-Douglas), while extraction cost will increase exponentially at some point. Then you end up with a Pareto-Malthus resources extraction model.

Seneca effect is a consequence of an increase in production efficiency and a simultaneous increase in extraction difficulty.

Very well described, and in that description it's easy to see the progression is towards a cliff, almost like the crest of a wave that will subsequently fall. The increase in efficiency accelerates the top of the wave forward, while the increasing extraction difficulty puts the brakes on the lower part of the wave, causing a crest, a graphed shark fin shape.

"Very well described, and in that description it's easy to see the progression is towards a cliff, almost like the crest of a wave that will subsequently fall. The increase in efficiency accelerates the top of the wave forward, while the increasing extraction difficulty puts the brakes on the lower part of the wave, causing a crest, a graphed shark fin shape."

That is what scares me the most - because even as a "prepper" - I realize how much ancient knowledge I have lost to become a modern man. To provide an example" firewoood in the NorthWest corner of Wisconsin. Yes - the house was heated via an outdoor fireplace - built on high technology - dependent upon water pressure- dependent upon an electrically operated well, dependent upon an electrically operated blower. Wood was delivered off of a semi-trailer, unloaded via a crane mounted upon the trailer. They stacked the logs in a nice pile - which I then cut into manageable logs with a gas -powered chainsaw. I did split the logs with a hand operated axe - and stacked them by hand - but imagine if it was without machines. First: I have no idea/knowledge of the tools required to take down a tree without a gas chainsaw - much less maintenance/construction of such machines. How to get the quantity of logs to my place? No knowledge of horses/skids/harnesses.... not even having access... How to cut the logs into pieces - without a chainsaw - no idea. If the Ax handle breaks - no idea....Of course - no electricity - no water circulation - no blower - what then?

If I even had all the tools - how would I manage to sharpen/maintain/replace them.

I have provided the above for thought, from actual experience. It does lead me to believe that in any situation where power, electric/petroleum fuel was absent for a period of time - I might not want to be present any longer.

I grew up in (cold!!) Northern Canada with no electricity, gas or other fossil fuels available. We cut trees with a swedesaw and an axe. Skidded them to a road with a horse. Sledged them to the farm with horse-drawn sleigh. Bucked with the swedesaw, split with an axe. Takes about three man-months work to provide a family with heating and cooking counting a man-month as a current working month, eg. 21 x 8 hour days (of course we worked 12 to 14 hour days 30 days per month, and I was doing a mans work by age ten to twelve, so it only took us perhaps 5% to 10% of available time.) Dad could, with the proper tools, precisely sharpen and set the saw teeth so it could run in green wood. Use a hand set and files. I know the theory but never learned how. I could probably figure it out. I can replace an axehandle very quickly, and could make one from ash with a drawknife fast too.

We bought a chainsaw the first year they were developed. (actually a gas-powered reciprocating Wright even before that)

Survival in the abscence of fossil fuel powered tools and machines is possible-I can remember talking to the old folks about thier lives growing up without any such tools excepting kerosene lighting.

In principle, there is nothing to it-you just work half a day every day-12 hours day after day with no days off. ;-)

My Dad bought the first chainsaw ever seen in our nieghborhood.My maternal great grandfather bought the first tractor.

Those of us who are young enough, tough enough, and lucky enough to be well situated personally and geographically will be able to make it ok, insofar as food and shalter and clothing are concerned-the old skills can be relearned and or reinvented fast, given that some libraries and scads of fine tools will be left orphaned for the taking.

For instance, a single old truck contains enough metal in the leaf springs alone to fashion a good number of tools-this metal already being preformed into nearly the final shape needed for machetes, hoes, crowbars, and spear points, etc.

If there were to be an outright collapse during my lifetime, I would gather as much powerline cable as possible-to use in building fences-such a cable wrapped around a tree and strung tight to the next tree, etc, would outlast several generations of men and hold any sort of cow or horse within a pasture..

A lot of well built structures such as masonry buildings will stand well enough for at least a hundred years to provide adequate if not comfortable shelter from the weather.I don't know for sure, but I expect such materials as fiberglass insulation to last almost forever-there would be tons of it readily available for the salvaging of it.

When necessity demands it, you will find that you can solve rather intractable looking problems easily with a little thinking and a lot of sweat.

Three generations will be long enough to recover the old skills or discover new ones.

Ugo, thank you for yet another very interesting article.


I posted two replies in the drumbeat section yesterday and some weeks ago about the potential run-away effect of a sovereign debt crisis in Europe. They both got cancelled . Why ? I know it's a energy website but the financial world which is a distorded mirror of our real world will be the key on how the future will play out.
The debt and derivative structure woven into the economy is so unbalanced that a drop in confidence will likely topple it very quickly. Way more quickly that we actually run out of energy .....

German military perspective

Drawing from Feasta's excellent "Tipping Point" (March 2010), the Bundeswehr analysts point out how an economic tipping point could lead to runaway effects:
"In the medium term, the global economic system and all market-oriented economies would collapse.
1. Economic entities would realise the prolonged contraction and would have to act on the assumption that the global economy would continue to shrink for a long time.
2. Tipping point: In an economy shrinking over an indefinite period, savings would not be invested because companies would not be making any profit. For an indefinite period, companies would no longer be in a position to pay borrowing costs or to distribute profits to investors. The banking system, stock exchanges and financial markets could collapse altogether.
3. Financial markets are the backbone of global economy and an integral component of modern societies. All other subsystems have developed hand in hand with the economic system. A disintegration can therefore not be analysed based on today’s system. A completely new system state would materialise" (p. 58 of new translation).

Few systems in our world respond faster than financial markets, nor with greater oscillation/volatility, so it is easy to imagine how some runaway effects could quickly be set in motion. The Bundeswehr authors place a heavy emphasis on human factors like awareness and expectation, and what the likely human responses to those perceptions would be.

By the way, a complete English translation is now available from Bundeswehr, so perhaps our media will finally examine and report on this unique, credible study.

Thanks for the link to Bundeswehr doc

... a so-called “tipping point” is exceeded where linear developments become chaotic ... For example, if the global economy shrinks for an indeterminate period of time, a chain reaction that might destabilise the global economic system is imaginable. Depending on point in time and the level of dependence of the affected society, such a peak-oil-induced, economic tipping point might have such severe systemic implications that only a few general statements as to economic, political, and social developments beyond the tipping point can be made.


Some "What If" Scenarios for Global Net Exports (GNE)

2005 & 2010 Production (P), Consumption (C) and Global Net Export (GNE) numbers for top 33 net oil exporters in 2005 (BP + Minor EIA data, total petroleum liquids, mbpd):

P - C = GNE

2005: 62.2 - 16.8 = 45.4

2010: 61.9 - 19.2 = 42.7 (GNE decline rate of 1.2%/year for 2005 to 2010)

Assuming 2005 to 2010 rate of increase in consumption & a 2%/year production decline rate, in 2015 we would see:

2015: 56 - 22 = 34 (projected GNE decline rate of 4.6%/year for 2010 to 2015)

Available Net Exports (GNE less Chindia's net imports) fell from about 40 mbpd in 2005 to about 35 mbpd in 2010, i.e., down about one mbpd per year from 2005 to 2010.

Assuming 2005 to 2010 rate of increase in Chindia's net imports*, and assuming GNE of about 34 mbpd in 2015, in 2015 we would see ANE of about 23 mbpd, down 2.4 mbpd per year from 2010 to 2015, a projected five year decline rate (2010 to 2015) of about 8.4%/year.

*Chindia's net imports in 2005 were 5.1 mbpd, in 2010 7.5. At this rate of increase they would be at 11 mbpd in 2015.

We had a great thread on a very similar subject two years ago by David Murphy:
The Net Hubbert Curve: What Does It Mean?

In this article the Shark Fin curve was discussed. It looks remarkably like the Seneca Cliff.

Shark Fin

Ron P.

Yep, the same curve is calculated from the model in my 2011 paper cited in the post. The model gives similar results as this qualitative interpretation; the difference is that net energy goes actually negative. Society keeps going by using accumulated resources even at negative energy returns. This is just what the model says, but it makes sense to me.

Yes but I would think the Seneca cliff would include the entire big picture rather than just declining EROI. That is as the exporting nations realize they are exporting their future life support they will start hoarding. Not completely stop exporting but just exporting a much smaller percentage of their possible production. As the Saudi King once stated: Keeping it in the ground for future generations.

Then as the economies of the world slip into chaos there will be far more disruption from civil wars and resource wars. So we will have the declining EROI cliff, or shark fin cliff, superimposed on top of the cliff caused by other factors.

Things could get very nasty very fast.

Ron P.

Aren't many of the MENA exporting countries in the impossible situation of: 1) not being able to reduce exports because they need it to feed their populations, but 2) not being able to maintain exports because they are past peak?

I don't know how or why a country with far more people than arable land would decide to voluntarily stop exporting about the only source of the money that is keeping people fed--though they should be able to see by now that they are rapidly approaching the day when there will be no more oil to export whatever they may wish.

Which country would be most likely to withhold oil in such a way. And if they did, how long would it be till they were invaded or overthrown, a la Libya?

I wrote: Not completely stop exporting but just exporting a much smaller percentage of their possible production. As the Saudi King once stated: Keeping it in the ground for future generations.

You replied: I don't know how or why a country with far more people than arable land would decide to voluntarily stop exporting about the only source of the money that is keeping people fed--

Sigh. Anyway what I wrote was not just idle speculation:
Saudi King Abdullah drops quiet bombshell; U.S. media sleep through it

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah said he had ordered some new oil discoveries left untapped to preserve oil wealth in the world's top exporter for future generations…

"When there were some new finds, I told them, 'no, leave it in the ground, with grace from god, our children need it'," King Abdullah said...

And if the price of gets extremely high, they can likely cut production quite drastically with very little effect on revenue. Also, many countries, Russia for instance, does not entirely depend on oil revenues and could very easily cut production and exports without drastic effects.

Ron P.

Sorry, I should learn not to try to speed read your very carefully written epistles.

And thanks for that link, but many here will doubtless be suspicious that any such claims are only a cover to conceal that they are bumping up against peak.

Russia does seem to be in the catbird seat now, especially if they don't have too many more devastating droughts/heatwaves/fires as they did last year. Eventually, though, those will likely become permanent features there and elsewhere.

Saw a CBC interview with a top-dog in Quatar, said the same thing "We know we gotta get off the oil economy very soon".

Egypt is a case study of this. The exported all the way through the Export Land Model and is now importing. Ops, there goes the bread subsidies. Revolts. Would that flight ticket be for just out of the country or back again, mister Mubarak?

They keep (trying) to export their nat gas.

I did some math for this back in February, in Oil Exports, Popular Unrest and Population Appeasement.

Even including their huge immigrant worker populations, in 2009 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE earned an average of about $13,500 per capita per annum from oil exports. By contrast, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain earned about 280 times less, or an average of $48 per capita per annum.

Libya was at $8,400 per capita per annum, so obviously the now-deposed Gadhafi hasn't been as smart as the Saudi, Kuwaiti and UAE royals on the population appeasement front. He had the money to do it, but likely kept it all for himself and his close circle of family and cronies.

Returning to Seneca's original quote, it seems only to reinforce the view that the "upslope" of this graph only reflects the tendency of humans(in general)to approach things with an over-exaggerated sense of optimism and confidence, then should things "not go well", jump headlong into Panic (despite Douglas Adams advice not to...).

This tendency towards unbridled optimism seems to be "wired" into the young (the majority at least). I tend to believe that such optimism is actually quite useful, as it (in most cases at least) tends to allow them to avoid a "short leap from a tall bridge"...

I wish to take exception to the author's statement that people should develop nuclear energy resources in order to avoid a sharp cliff-like drop in economic well-being.

Nuclear energy generates plenty of expensive and dangerous waste. Fukushima is an extreme example. How can countries with few resources left stretch out what little they have left if they have to spend money on keeping the radioactive waste safe ? As nuclear power plants age, they need more care and maintenance, and eventually they need to be shut down. Then the land they were on can hardly be used the way it used to be---to develop solar resources such as through photosynthesis----because of all the cement everywhere. Some of it may be highly radioactive!

There are two kinds of energy flow regimes: solar and fossil-fuel based. They are intertwined in our economy, but nuclear belongs to the fossil-fuel based side and nuclear energy will die with oil production. Parking lots filled with cars, bulldozers, trucks, will see these at nuclear power plants. They need oil.

The way to avoid a sharp cliff is to make the transition to solar energy, especially photosynthesis based, as fast as possible. Where I live, in Japan, there is abandoned cement everywhere you look. Empty offices, shops, buildings...all must be taken away as soon as possible to make places to grow food. This year rice became so expensive that the rice auction market returned (after 72 years). That means that demand outstripped supply.

We are returning to a solar-based economy, sliding towards it unwillingly, even though we don't know it and are unwilling to believe it.

It is easy to put scenarios together---already analysts at banks are saying Japan's government debt market will be the first to crack. So Japan imports 40% of its food----then it will basically have no wherewithal to buy food. Because of all the cement, there will be no good places to grow it either. It is possible to imagine rapid starvation here, due to cluelessness about what is happening.

My impression is that people would much rather die quickly with their status intact, in white collars and suits than mess up their clothes with soil and die off a little more slowly from being thin, rugged and overworked physically. How did Seneca die, by the way?

I said "or nuclear" because it is correct to say that nuclear taps a stock of energy other than the fossil stock. In this sense, it would stave of the cliff for a while, providing that we do much better than we did so far in controlling it. Something very unlikely, in my modest opinion..... And I am sure that you know how Seneca died. Those were much quieter times, though, even a monster tyrant such as Emperor Nero could only do a modest damage in comparison to what a modern head of state can do.

I said "or nuclear" because it is correct to say that nuclear taps a stock of energy other than the fossil stock.

Yet oil/coal is from photons. Higher order biological processes need photons to exist. From my deleted profile shows how much land surface needs to provide 100%.

In this sense, it would stave of the cliff for a while

So your pitch is "Here is a really nasty failure mode process" while admitting that failure is what will happen with the idea that there is a cliff (and cliff-falling-off-modes lead to failure) - don't you find the pitch "build more fission" when there is a cliff and history shows falling off of a cliff leads to failure is a GOOD plan rather dangerous?

Well, let me try to explain what I wanted to say - it is not easy; because the nuclear subject is so much emotionally and politically charged. What I am saying is that IF we were able to manage nuclear energy in such a way to avoid its main negative effects, THEN it might stave off the cliff for a while - not forever because in any case even the nuclear resources are limited; but for a while, yes, it would give us some breathing space to produce energy without producing CO2. Being what we are, though, I believe that if we were to make a big effort to move into nuclear again, we would badly mismanage it; and there are plenty of ways to mismanage nuclear energy with effects much worse than what we saw in Fukushima. My opinion is that nuclear is just too difficult for us as human being; not technically - we can make nuclear plants - but socially - we can't manage nuclear plants. A colleague of mine told me once that human beings trying to use nuclear energy are just like ants trying to use matches. It is not the right scale; ants are not made to manage fire. I think we are just not smart enough - socially - to manage nuclear. We don't have the right decisional mechanisms. That doesn't mean we wont try and - most likely - suffer the destiny of ants trying to use matches.

This said, I just wanted to illustrate how my model works. If you switch from one resource stock to another, the model changes and you don't necessarily have the Seneca cliff where you would have it if you keep using the old stock. But I also said that the most abrupt Seneca cliff I can imagine is the one that would come from a mismanagement of our nuclear potential - a nuclear war is the easiest way, but there are other ways.

There is a lot of thorium in the world it would take a long time to deplete it >6000 years. Yes today's reactor designs are unsafe using high pressure high temperature water. We need to deign reactor that have no high pressure usage and that fail safe with passive cooling in case of a lose of power. It is know how to do this and China is building a prototype now. It also produces less waste and the waste is shorter lived.

Ugo wrote:

"My opinion is that nuclear is just too difficult for us as human being; not technically - we can make nuclear plants - but socially - we can't manage nuclear plants. A colleague of mine told me once that human beings trying to use nuclear energy are just like ants trying to use matches. It is not the right scale; ants are not made to manage fire. I think we are just not smart enough - socially - to manage nuclear. We don't have the right decisional mechanisms. That doesn't mean we wont try and - most likely - suffer the destiny of ants trying to use matches."

Fission's problem is the hazardousness of the fuel and the reaction products. The situation created is that the containment system cannot be allowed to fail. Anything fails sooner or later. One could imagine Ugo's ants working together to manipulate the match from the far end, but there is no "far end" regarding fission materials.

The safety of Fusion is completely different. Here, a different tale of ants applies. Fusion systems can be built in the middle of the anthill, because the anthill will never need to be abandoned, even if all the stuff inside the Fusion system got outside: that is the definition of a worst case that actually is the worst case.

The challenge for us ants is that the systems that will realize Fusion's potential will be very big. We ants have built even larger things in the past, but do we still have the ability to bring such doable, big projects to the fore? Can we ants get our act together and do this? When the descent down the Seneca curve gets rolling, marshaling resources is likely to get harder rather than easier, despite the heightened awareness of the bottom rushing up at us.

The technology and the roadblocks in our ant colony are described in the lead-off Letter in Physics Today for October 2010, "Heavy-ion fusion in the US". The editors of Physics Today put this Letter in the prominent position that they did because they recognized its importance to the study by the National Academy of Sciences on the prospects for power production by inertially confined fusion that was then about to begin and is still underway. The deafening silence met by the Letter is a telling sign of the how the ants with their hands on the levers are handling this matter ... which is merely the future of the human race.

Will the Laws of Murphy, Parkinson, and Peter trump those of Physics?

What I am saying is that IF we were able to manage nuclear energy in such a way to avoid its main negative effects, THEN it might stave off the cliff for a while

But Man is a flawed creature and thusly so is the works of Man.

Something as simple as sleeping security guards at a Fission plant can't be addressed until months later when the complaint left the formal channels and was posted to youtube. At that point "oh, look, turns out there is a problem".

but socially - we can't manage nuclear plants.

Exactly. I've not seen the pro-nuke pushers address this flaw in the Man-Machine-fission Ménage à trois.

"A colleague of mine told me once that human beings trying to use nuclear energy are just like ants trying to use matches."

Seems like we did even worse with the stores of fossil fuel.

Unfortunately do despair not lead to a good situation.

But Humans CAN do something about the CO2 from fossil fuels - biochar.

The rest of the ills from having access to concentrated energy from Fossil Fuels will require much more effort to identify and then fix the problems.

"My impression is that people would much rather die quickly with their status intact, in white collars and suits than mess up their clothes with soil and die off a little more slowly from being thin, rugged and overworked physically. "

Or they will become armed and fight for the status .... maybe there will be government supplied suicide pills

I don't know why everyone always wants to divide energy into two groups. It seems like an over simplification. By the way isn't solar energy technically nuclear power. I mean the sun is a giant fusion reactor.

Furthermore, solar energy is hang-drying clothes lines, home gardens, sun tea and many other low tech things. Not just PV. The old ways my grandmother used to exploit to produce value and wealth for her family. We shun it today with zoning laws and community codes, but that day will return when we use the sun again.

We are using the sun right now. If we weren't we would all be dead. Jokes aside you are probably right. In the future we will probably rely more on things like cloth lines and other lowtech ways of doing things.

Renewables just need better technology and more time. Wave, Wind, Solar, and Geothermal energy are all entirely renewable. Sooner or later, the coporatocracy that runs the world will out of resources to exploit.

Yes, clearly if we were making complete energy computations, the sun would most probably still be by far our first source of direct energy : solar energy used to grow plants, heat for human or animal bodies, light during the day, is never counted in current energy computations, even though it is energy used.

But of course, saying that doesn't change much about our current problem ...

But would be nice for the sake of the argument to have broad figures ...

Geothermal energy has MASSIVE potential...MASSIVE.

But except in places where it readily makes sense (like iceland for instance) , it also has very serious issues (pipes corrosion and the like), to be run in a profitable manner.

Frozen – Yes….a MASSIVE resource. Unfortunately will remain only POTENTIAL for a long time. I’ve studied many potential projects for over 30 years. I once worked for the company that owned The Geysers Geothermal Field in N. CA. Often they didn’t work not so much for technical but economic reasons. A while back I saw a report with a geothermal system that could have a massive and doable future. But very low tech and relatively cheap. Shallow (a couple of hundred feet) wells that recirculated slightly warm water from depth and ran it thru heat exchangers at the surface. That energy was going to be used for supplemental heating for a new nursing home being built in Georgia. Not the big flash of a handful of big geothermal steam plants but the potential of millions projects that could save trillions of BTU’s.

The largest geothermal potential may be to use a working fluid other than water to generate electricity (in practice for about 15 years). The best working fluid depends on the temperature of the heat source and cooling water.

This one uses R134a as the working fluid with 250 F water

The geology

Best Hopes for Low Temperature Geothermal,


Thank you for saying so---and to defend (to the poster further above) my original assertion that "there are two kinds of energy regimes"---I can explain further.

Dams (water flows), wind, PVC, tides, green plants (wood, sugar, rice, etc.)= SUN

oil, gas, coal, nuclear (needs oil to mine for uranium too as well as bulldozers to build the nuclear power plants)= FOSSIL FUEL

Only one energy regime can last. Only one regime has staying power. Only one regime will not fail us.The one from the sun.

If people understand this, then they can prepare better for the slope, in effect, make the slope more gentle, by going over as much as possible and as fast as possible to the SUN side.

That is one interpretation of fossil fuel. Something that has been buried a very long time, a stable well of potential energy.

From a scientific point of view, fossil fuels are simply stored solar (electromagnetic radiant) energy. Stored for millions of years.

Nuclear (and geothermal) energy come from a much older source. They are the glowing ashes of supernova, from before the birth of the planet.

Tidal energy is solar and lunar gravitational energy.

Sorry to be a pedant.


And fusion, if they ever get it to work economically, is residual energy left over from the big bang.

By the way isn't solar energy technically nuclear power.

Binder, true, but I don't think too many people would consider solar power as nuclear energy.

That is true not many people would. I think that is because people get to hung up on words like renewable, nuclear and FF. What is really important is way of life and quality of life. I think the question people should be asking themselves is given current state of world we live in and the current state of technology what ways of life are possible and from those different possible ways of life people should choose the one that offers the best quality of life. Of course when making this decision people should take sustainability into account as well.

People aren't like that (and you aren't either)

Maybe not. So should we not even try? Should we just give up and accept that we're heading towards what looks like some very unpleasant times?

I don't know, and there are many people...

Only chance for me would be a very clear message from governments on PO, and then major directly redistributed taxes on fossile fuels, as defined in (2) below :

But won't happen most probably..

"Of course when making this decision people should take sustainability into account as well." Posted by Binder

Sustainability needs to be at the top of the list, not merely "taken into account." This makes it sound like an afterthought, but if whatever we attempt to devise is indeed "unsustainable" that means that it can't last, so what's the point?

If the "people making this decision" allow too many other agendas to be piggybacked onto the main goal, it is all likely to be unsuccessful.

Antoinetta III

Ultimately nothing is "sustainable". Entropy rules everything. Some things will last for decades, others for hundreds of years, still others for millions. But nothing lasts forever. Not even the Sun.

By the way isn't solar energy technically nuclear power.

By that argument, so is oil. It is organic compounds that have been bried at just the right depth, that heat derived from radiative decay has thermally processed into oil. And of course those organic compounds contain stored solar=nuclear energy. A more useful distinction, nuclear energy is those energy technologies whose immediate energy source derives from either concentrated radioactive material and/or artifically enhanced nuclear reactions (fission). The significant difference regards the environment, utilizing solar via say PV, does not alter the flux of ionizing radiation within our planets bio-sphere, while the "nuclear" technologies can directly affect it.

There are only two kinds of energy, nuclear and tidal (gravity). Obviously, various solar forms of nuclear power are safer because so far, humans have only been able to make fission nuclear power work, and have been rather cavalier about placing the power plants and storing the high-level waste from fission. I might remind those solar advocates that prolonged exposure to the sun is far from safe, as the radiation causes cataracts and skin cancer to those exposed without the benefits of modern UV-polarizing glasses and UV-blocking lotions. In a less complex world, getting treatment for the sun's long-term effects may become difficult, so expect more blindness and cancer deaths unless the average life expectancy also drops (probable). Thinning and eventually losing the protective ozone layer of course makes the sun's UV exposure even more intense.

Hi pi. Good to hear from you. Hope you and yours are reasonably well.

Please keep us posted as time and energy allows on the unfolding events in Japan. It strikes me that it is the first modern fully industrialized country that is going over the edge, and it would be good to know both what people are doing in the logistical sense--economically, agriculturally, in terms of energy, housing, food... but also how they are coping emotionally and culturally with changed circumstances, worldview, expectations, self-identity...

In the mean time,

I would like to say something optimistic! Let me try hard!

I can just say that it is possible to get around without a car here. So if there is very little oil available one day, people will be walking around pretty easily.

People remember the sun economy here and they revere it in a vague and vestigial way.

But to redevelop solar-based pathways for energy collection---ah, that is difficult from the 15th floor of a government office building. The economy was structured on oil so it cannot "see" anything else.

So I am not optimistic except in a non-material way. I mean that this process of slow collapse is educational. Maybe we can say "character-building". Bracing. Ahh, yes....

A friend who stayed in the Ibaraki area (who has a seven year old son) looks really haunted...she came to visit me here recently.

Sorry to comment here uninvited, but I have a pretty different impression of this place. I live in a quite rural area in Japan, where the sun-based energy flows are alive and well (the last week or so has been rice harvesting time, granted all with oil-fueled machinery).

I feel like Japan has some huge things going for it. Sure it imports half it's food. But half the people here are going to be dead in a few decades anyway. There is general fretting about the decline in population, but what better response can you have to declining resources?

The biggest thing though is I can't really see people killing each other over things like lack of food here. Not the way you can imagine it in other places.

So yeah the collapse is slow / educational, but also first here, and while it's not like anyone here is aware of any of the decline talked about so often on this site, they're in the forefront, the experimental group, having mined out all their coal a good 80 years ago, peaked in population and economy before anyone else, and... well, other nations may be able to either learn from Japan's mistakes or try to copy what they've done right.

Well, I used to live about halfway between Fukushima and Tokyo.....
I still have many friends there.
It was quite overbuilt, very polluted...
The government tried hard to make it possible to build even more.
Huge malls and giant condominiums arrived.
Then the earthquake and meltdown. I was very lucky to have the ability to leave.

Quite bad memories for me!

I have learned a lot living here, yes, no doubt. But I guess I have learned it "the hard way".

I like the place I am now much better...but there are still huge daunting problems. You are right that there are a lot of elderly everywhere and they will be exiting at some point....Leaving behind all the cement they worked so hard to encrust on the earth here.

But I am glad that many politicians have turned their backs on nuclear power now. That is great.


Seneca bled to death on the orders of Nero.


Ick!---I had vaguely heard something awful happened to him. Now I am sorry I asked the question.

Like the christians of the time, he experienced how the current administration did not allow anyone to question BAU. Wonder if that would ever happen again?

It doesn't?


I was ironic?

Specifically, oil at a high enough price and low enough energy return breaks just-in-time supply chains worldwide. I'm pretty sure that this will be our first ratchet down and yes, it will happen suddenly. The first oil producing country that decides to hoard oil for domestic consumption (civilian and military), will take a large proportion of the world's oil off the market suddenly. If more than one country does so at the same time, the supply chain could fall very rapidly thereafter.

Sudden supply shocks will the first domino. First they break supply chains, and then the economy. International commerce will probably never recover to previous levels.

As I have come to understand supply chains, we are using China as a petrochemical source for many industries including processed foods, fertilizers, electronics, paints and other consumer items. These feedstocks from China can make lower end items that can be assembled in say Japan or Germany. So the question will be how well China can export fertilizer and other essential petrochemical stocks. It seems the world is using China to do the lower level petrochemical stuff -- is it a greenwashing? Yep. We are shifting this pollution to Asia. So would Seneca's cliff appear first in China? Well if that is true then the entire industrial base would collapse in a single shot. If China collapses, industrial production is essentially toast.

The first oil producing country that decides to hoard oil for domestic consumption...

Such hoarding would be grim for the world economy, but I wonder how likely it is on a wide scale? Many of the current oil exporting countries are economic and/or political basket cases, so I’d question if they have the capacity reduce their revenue to any great extent by hoarding

Russia, the world's second largest exporter, could very easily reduce exports without dramatically affecting their economy. Saudi, as I posted above, could very easily reduce production without adverse effects. Remember we are not talking about stopping exports here, we are only talking about reducing them.

You talk about basket cases. Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are hardly basket cases. If oil prices go up, they could very easily reduce exports without adversely affecting oil revenues.

Bottom line, hording is a very real possibility. In fact is is an almost lead pipe cinch that when peak oil hits, many exporting nations will reduce their exports out of fear that they will themselves will become victims of oil availability. They have it, they will keep it for themselves and screw the rest of the world.

Ron P.

Hoarding is contrary to observation. When a country reaches the peak, there is a flurry of drilling activity desperately trying to get the production up along with debt to fund the exploration. As the price of crude oil collapsed on the falling edge of the oil price shock of 2008, Russia refused to join OPEC and cut production even slightly leaving all the burden on OPEC. Russia chose money over reduction in production.

According to the Energy Export Databrowser Russia is currently exporting ~7 Mb/d of crude oil. If Russia suddenly hoarded half and exported 3.5 Mb/d, the price of crude oil would skyrocket. There would be a flight of foreign capital from Russia causing the Ruble to devalue crashing the Russian economy like what happened when they invaded Georgia in August 2008. The high price of crude oil would send oil importing nations into recession/depression causing demand and price to plunge. In late 2008 or early 2009 the price dropped to ~$32 / barrel. At such a level Russia's revenue would collapse to a fraction of what it was when they exported 7 Mb/d. Oil exporting countries will only restrict production during periods of weak demand with the intent of carefully regulating the price like OPEC did in 2008 and 2009.

There will be regional peaks in oil exporting countries followed by desperate attempts to keep production up and then rationing in the domestic market to extend the oil profits as much as possible. Eventually their domestic demand will not be met subjecting them to the pain. If they do anything else, then they will collapse sooner. Power comes from money, not from untapped resources.

Metal et al – “The first oil producing country that decides to hoard oil for domestic consumption...”. Just a reminder: this isn’t a theoretical proposition. It was first done by major oil producing country over 50 years ago. During the early 50’s the USA dominated global oil production. And it was Texas, via our Rail Road Commission’s “proration system” that restricted how much oil Texas operators could produce on a monthly basis. BTW this law is still in effect but proration has been set at 100% since the early 70’s. With this policy the TRRC was able to keep oil prices high while preserving our depleting resources for our own domestic consumption.

I believe this what some here are referring to as “hoarding”…a rather unfair judgmental choice of words IMHO. I don’t see anyone referring to the USA as a hoarder even though today we continue to utilize 100% of the 3rd largest oil producer on the planet for our domestic consumption. In fact, not only are we monopolizing our resources but we continue to use our financial strength to acquire oil resources from other countries thus denying their populations the consumption of their own resources.

And do I even need to mention the over 700 million bbls of oil in the SPR we are hoarding…eh…I meaning preserving "for our children". But what about "the children" of the exporting countres? At moments like this I’m drawn back to childhood debate responses…like the pot calling the kettle black. Or “Oh yeah…your mother too!” LOL

I believe this what some here are referring to as “hoarding”…a rather unfair judgmental choice of words IMHO.

Perhaps but it was not meant to be derogatory, just something that nations do. Or should do anyway. Perhaps "husband" would be a better word.

Were we a rational society, a virtue of which we have rarely
been accused, we would husband our oil and gas resources.
- M. King Hubbert

Ron P.

Yes, "hoarding" is a rather emotive work, so that is probably what it would be called in the countries on the losing end.

Re "Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are hardly basket cases" - well I did say economic or political . That's not a list of countries I consider shining examples of the future of the human race (add Russia to that list). However, I take your and ROCKMAN's point; provided they can control their immediate greed and wean themselves off some oil exports then "hoarding" is on the cards.

Which leads to another point. Instead of Peak Oil being recognized for what it is, our political masters could have a field day putting off the inevitable by blaming what presumably will be higher oil prices on the "nasty" hording nations, a wonderful excuse for yet more of nothing (or BAU as we say on TOD)

How does the saying go? I prudently save, you stock up, he hoards.

The people making the export decision are few and can be threatened. They can also leave and retire to their Swiss home when the local population revolts so they do not have to make the choice that it good for the bulk of locals. Russia can defend itself all others will have to play along or die.

"We should try, instead, to develop alternative stocks of resources such as renewable (or nuclear) energy. At the same time, we should avoid to exploit highly polluting and expensive resources such as tar sands, oil shales, deepwater oil, and, in general, applying the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy. All those strategies are recipes for doom. Unfortunately, these are also examples of exactly what we are doing."

odd sentence

develop nuclear, but stay away from bad pollutors like tar sand...


japan comes to mind

oh well

maybe we should powerdown voluntarily

Hi, Ugo -- good article. You might be interested in Out of Gas: A Systems Perspective on Potential Petroleum-Fuel Depletion I did for Pegasus Communications back in 2003 ( It exhibits much the same behavior as your model.

What I discovered in later experimentation is that the shape of the fall-off is rather sensitive to the shape of the nonlinearity in the model. So anyone working on a softer landing might look both at ways to replace petroleum resources and at ways to modify the effective shape of that function.

Thanks, Bill. I'll look at your model as soon as I have a moment. I received several notes by people who had developed models similar to mine. It seems that what I did was, mostly, to give a name to something that was already well known!

Ugo, the Seneca effect sounds an awful lot like Jack Alpert's "death sprial". As resources, mainly food, become more scarce the rich divert more of those dwindling resources to protecting their own resources. Nobody ever said the downside had to be a smooth transition. And my gut tells me that things will go south very, very quickly.

This kind of gut feeling is shared by many, many people, apparently!

Aye, and it is a bad feeling leading to depressed activity.

I wonder what Seneca was referring to? He built a lifetime on rhetoric and education, both taking time and effort to perfect, and finally he was ordered to commit suicide. That's an abrupt end and definitely a Seneca Effect. If he was referring to the end of his civilization, well, the decline of Rome can be debated for ever but I would not say it took three hundred years to collapse, more like a hundred if you take it from the lost battle of Adrianople to the formal end of the empire in the west. I don't include the eastern empire because I consider it another polity. I really don't believe that the late Romans believed their civilization would come to the relatively abrupt end that it did, or even end at all; like us they were very complacent and believed in themselves utterly, and like us they saw no alternative - and they were also contemptuous of those different from themselves: big mistake.

Plagues, like the Black Death, certainly have a Seneca ring. If our current civilization, dependent on fossil fuels, has taken roughly four hundred years to develop; from the first ordinance in England to burn coal rather than wood to save trees in the early seventeenth century (and this may be stretching it a bit I know), I wouldn't expect the chaos and reversals resulting from our inability to sustain our current way of life, based on fossil energy resources, to take more than the next twenty years or so to complete - so that's pretty Seneca too - if it happens as I think it might. But I am just guessing here.

"I wonder what Seneca was referring to? "
Having read Ugo's rendering of the quotation from Seneca's letter, it strikes me as obviously true that building things of value is slow and their destruction can happen in the blinking of an eye.
I remember reading a book about daily life in ancient Rome, by which the authors meant the time when Seneca lived there. Then the bulk of the population lived in tenements that were four to six stories high, and were (because of lack of modern building codes) subject to collapse. There were many of these sturctures and the authors estimated several collapsed every day. These were large structures. It surely took more than a week to build one of them. Slow build. Fast destruction. Also fire consumes a forest much more quickly than a forest grows. I think Seneca was thinking mainly about things that happen where he and the people whom he is advising are both powerless to effect either the growth or the collapse. In modern parlance, "Shit happens."
Also, read the Wikipedia biography of Seneca the Younger. It is peppered with editorial notations that the language is vague and could be improved. But I think the author of the biography is indicating that we actually know very little about this man and should not fill in the gaps in our knowledge with pure invention. I personnally hope that the vagueness in the wording is preserved as a matter of intellectual honesty.

Good points. It is good to keep in mind that the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire lasted quite a while, and, in spite of rotating dynasties, the complex bureaucracy that kept Egypt and China running lasted millennia.

But we are like an Egypt that loses the Nile, or a China that loses its Yangtse and Huangho. FFs are the life blood of the modern economy, and we have to walk away from them because:

a) they are running out anyway and in the mean time are taking more and more energy input to get the energy out;

b) they cause devastating local and regional harms and are due to cause ever more as we go into the ever more risky stuff; and

c) and most damningly, their effluents are causing the planet to swing out of the 'goldilocks' comfort zone that humans (and most other life currently on the planet) evolved in.

It is (c), AGW, that really has the likelihood of taking on a 'live of its own' hurtling us toward a hellish unlivable world in a remarkably short time. Paleo-climatologists now have found numerous cases of the climate shifting suddenly, in decades or less, from one state to another very different one. Most PO'ers that think CC is always slow so we don't have to worry about it are not up to speed on this research.

Multiple feedback, some already kicking in, and some of enormous power, and all feeding back on themselves and each other, can/will turn our relatively small initial forcing into a runaway train--our pebble (relatively speaking) becoming an avalanche...and we all live at the bottom and on the sides of the hill with no where to run.

The Roman Empire was peaking at the time of Seneca. It had not yet started to decline, but I think the writing was on the wall and that Seneca himself perceived it.

I'm not so sure about that. No empire lasts forever but the moment when irreversible decline sets in can only be known with hindsight. Rome needed to keep pedalling to maintain revenue, which meant conquering new lands and using their wealth to feed its treasury. Unfortunately the world outside the rich Mediterranean had little to offer and became a drain on revenue, much like Africa was to Britain. Dacia was probably the last territory to be conquered that brought huge wealth, and Dacia was incorporated after Seneca lived. Pessimism is another matter of course and can colour many things, including approaches to energy and PO. I am a pessimist!

Seneca had studied Greek Stoic philosophy, which was developed starting 3 centuries before he lived. The thought he expressed in the letter may not have been original with him. Maybe he had read something in the Greek and was translating to his Latin speaking relative. Pessimism is something else than stoicism.

Constantinople was called Byzantion in Seneca's time and had not yet fallen to the Romans. I think it fell early in the 2nd century CE, but can't quickly find clear statement on the web. The Roman Empire was very much still growing in Seneca's time. Constantinople remained the capital of eastern Rome until it was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. Collapse of Constantinople was very sudden and very final, but surely not forseen by Seneca.

I think the quotation is not at all about collapse in the Grand Sweep of History, but rather a simple observation about collapse of buildings, fall of cities to a besieging army, crops ruined by a rainstorm, etc. We can put our own interpretation on the words. They certainly hold a special significance to us, after it has been suggested by Ugo, but what significance they held for Seneca is open to speculation. And really, if you don't see their truth in our time from your own observation of today then you have a very different world view than I have. Or are you trying to pick apart Ugo's blog by questioning the meaning of the words? Think of it as a literary reference not to be taken literally but to set the scene for the following discussion.

I was taking none of it literally. That is my whole point. Sudden collapse is the point here and I was merely responding to using the empire as an illustration of collapse. I disagreed that it took three hundred years and would, as I stated, prefer to call it more like one hundred years. This might be called a quick decline and follow the Seneca curve. And I am the pessimist by the way; I don't confuse stoicism with pessimism, although I do believe there are overlaps.

As for Byzantium it was conquered for Rome in 64BC and I reiterate that I did not include the eastern - Byzantine - empire in my observation. The eastern Roman empire can either be called a great success as it maintained the fiction of Roman polity for a thousand years, or it might be seen as the slowest dying of all empires and therefore the antithesis of the Seneca idea.

"Collapse of Constantinople was very sudden and very final"

On the contrary. The Byzantine Empire waxed and waned over many centuries, but its road to eventual destruction was via the Crusades, during which it suffered blow after blow over a period of about 250 years. In fact, at then end of the Crusades it was virtually a partitioned rump state. It began to get back on its feet somewhat by the time the Turks arrived, but just was too weak to resist.

I strongly recommend the 3-volume history (or the shorter 1-volume version!) "Byzantium" written by John Julius Norwich, a fascinating history wonderfully written. It was a great shame that this Christian/Roman/Greek civilisation was lost so thoroughly, and that we in the West have almost completely forgotten about it. The Crusades represented an awful "Civil War" within the European sphere.

This morning on CNBC Rick Santelli gave a little history on the productivity numbers which have fallen three quarters/I previously had months/ straight.The only other times this has happen is 73-74 and in 79 and from my old memory all were energy spikes. I'm sure someone has a better measure against these number which to expand.

I think our civilization has a greater possibility of quick panic than any other civilization before. It all depends on how fast information travel amongst the various structures that compose it. At the core we have a financial infrastrucutre where 80 % of the transaction are executed within milliseconds. On those transcations and their equilibrium depends our entire hierrachy of what valuable and not . On the fringe of this infrastructure we have the fact that most of the people in the west own a smartphone or watch information continously trough a media outlet. So if a truly negative information which destroy the precarious equilibrium appears, it will then spread very quickly to the fringe affecting everyone in the system ...

Yes agree on that, another thing is that more and more some key systems rely on just a few guys having the knowledge to run them (at least in IT), and all this is very poorly documented, and it is in fact getting worse over time with ever increasing complexity, a good set up for a domino effect ...

I am the sole surviving IT employee at my organisation. We used to be 7. I hold together a disparate system of servers and desktops and websites that is essential to every job here, jerry-built together over a decade. Everything is bespoke, no two systems have the same OS and patch level. When I take a week off the other 30-odd employees cross their fingers and pray that nothing major goes down.

Wow, and is there a plan for at least another guy for backup and knowledge transfer or is it seen as "normal situation" ? Do you still do some modifications/"improvments" ?
The organisation I work for is much bigger (a telco), but there are so many f#àking systems it's truly amazing, many outsourced here and there with so many layers of specifications or whatever between users and developers, and in the end plenty of key systems with one or two guys able to modify/repair them. Not to mention that we keep on adding some while saying we should reduce ...

True story: I know of a situation in the corporate finance department of a large hospital where the sole surviving IT person with the requisite level of knowledge to keep the whole system up and running actually died of a heart attack while on the job... They had a hell of a time and enormous expense for hiring outside expertise to come in and figure out what that one guy knew... They could have hired help, given the poor guy a thorough physical and given him a raise and a vacation and it probably would have been a lot cheaper! That's what you get when bean counters get to run organizations that depend on systems which they do not understand, nor do they get why those systems are so important.

I used to contract in to cover people. Winging it doesn't even start to cover it. Organisations really have no idea of the financial value of such people. Companies should at least take out 'key man' insurance cover to pay for what it would take in an emergency. Having another trained person is a must. Oh, the companies used to whinge about how much they had to pay me, IMHO it was nowhere near enough.


It all depends on how fast information travel amongst the various structures that compose it

Except information flow is controlled. Or even faked.

Twitter shutdowns, things like BART blocking cell phones, historical things like "Remember the Maine" "The Lusitania did not carry weapons/ammunition" "Gulf of Tomkin" "Lavion Affair" Deletions of posts on web forums.

So if a truly negative information which destroy the precarious equilibrium appears, it will then spread very quickly to the fringe affecting everyone in the system

Not if the control of information is applied. Like the 80% of the transaction are executed within milliseconds shows there is not a viable 'hand of the market' - there is not an effective open information system.

This was a great post until the end:

We should try, instead, to develop alternative stocks of resources such as renewable (or nuclear) energy. At the same time, we should avoid to exploit highly polluting and expensive resources such as tar sands, oil shales, deepwater oil, and, in general, applying the "drill, baby, drill" philosophy.

Good lord, man! Nuclear!?! You just want to move the pollution problem from fossil fuels to something even more dangerous!? The entire post up to that point was a warning about the consequences of pollution!

Every nuclear plant needs to be shut down before the collapse occurs, or we may not be able to shut them all down when we need to. Loss of capital virtually guarantees that we will be unable to properly manage these plants at some point after we hit that Seneca cliff.


Maybe the term "Parasitic Losses" would be more apt than pollution. In this model anything that chokes the flow from the resource is "pollution". So bureaucracy can be just as much a detrimental effect as conventional ideas of pollution as CO2 emissions and industrial waste or even soil erosion or over-fishing.

Nuclear would fit within an idea initial low parasitic loss, the decommissioning is a problem though. I can imagine a time when all our energy needs to be diverted to safely decommission the ageing fleet of reactors.

unlikely , the scenario will be that will be plenty of "serfs" or "dole people" to manually dig and move all that radio active stuff to a "safer" place, away from anything the local "king" decides is his. think feudal ......


"I can imagine a time when all our energy needs to be diverted to safely decommission the ageing fleet of reactors."

Personnally I cannot, in that case that would be chaos for sometimes already, and the energy left would for sure be used to heat houses or cook food and not to decommission reactors, reactors that would be left doing whatever they "want" ...

On the other hand I cannot imagine keeping a somehow modern society without nuclear

OK, for the literal minded amongst us, I know it's an absurd extrapolation to suggest all our energy production would go to decommissioning. The point was intended to show that in Ugo's model, the long time lag of the cost of the pollution from nuclear power allows the downslope to be less severe. It's just another type of kicking the can down the road.

-- note to self....remember that on TOD, irony means a bit like iron ---

The model described seems rather too linear to me. In the real world things are often more digital and this creates the Sencea effect.

For example we build parts in our factory, there is about 20 subcomponents. Ramping up production is slow, 20 suppliers have to ramp up their production, people have to be trained, problems solved etc. On the downside however if even one of these components is missing production stops immediately.

In the larger world if one input becomes unavailable (food, rare earth metals etc) then production of many other things also becomes immediately impossible in a cascade of failures. How does this model capture this behavior?

An excellent article that I forwarded to a modeler friend of mine (from Milano).

Upon reflection, a non-complex system (hunting whales, cutting down forests, expanding cultivated fields in virgin land) should show some rough symmetry between rise and decline. If you will, a one dimensional problem.

However, complexity in just two dimensions means that growth is constrained to the most limiting factor, even if both factors interact. So a two dimensional system grows much like a one dimensional "system".

However, in a two dimensional system, if the two dimensions are equally sized and interact equally, the decline should decline at x^2. If one dimension dominates, the decline is somewhere between the symmetric decline and x^2.

Real world systems, such as the Soviet Union decline, are mufti-variate and decline is x^Y and looks much like a complete collapse "off a cliff".

The severity of the Seneca Effect may be directly related to the complexity of the system.

Thanks for Your Efforts,


Excellent points Alan. But I would go one step further. I made the point a few days ago: just look at one portion of the model: Hubbert. Hubbert’s curve is not a single function. The global flow of max oil flow potential at any point in time is a function the decline of existing fields and the gains from new discoveries. And to a large degree these two factors are independent. Had I the data I could generate a fairly accurate decline curve of all EXISITNG global production. Many folks have offered models of future oil discoveries. A much more difficult task to predict what you’ll find before you find it. But even many of those efforts, however accurate or not, offer just future volumes of new discoveries…not their timing nor their production rates as they come on. Consider the many billions of bbls of oil discovered in DW Brazil. Lots of oil for sure…in the ground. But have you seen a credible forecast of Bz oil production rate for the next 40 years? I haven’t.

So the future shape of the Hubbert curve would be the composite of the decline curve and the discovery curve. And even as it would be so difficult to generate that composite curve it wouldn't really tell the future story accurately IMHO. Let’s say by some great magic we can predict the future oil POTENTIAL global production curve between 2025 and 2040...what would that tell us about the availability of oil to the US economy? Perhaps the KSA has the capability to produce 10 million bopd in 2030. But how much will they be exporting…50%....10%? And at what price? And let’s say it’s 50%: how much will be exported to the US…80%...20%?

Granted no matter how difficult it might be to predict the right side of the Hubbert curve with great accuracy, how important is that physical relationship compared to the very complex and wholly unpredictable (IMHO) of the above ground factors? Having an adequate air supply in a sub is very important if someone is chocking you to death.

I think that there is one prediction that one can make about the "above ground factors" during the decline phase that you claim are "unpredictable".

To wit - The "above ground factors" will be more active and chaotic in the decline phase than during the growth phase.

Outside of TOD and fellow travelers, growth is not just seen as desirable but absolutely essential. Our economic and social systems, and our psychology, are all well adapted to growth.

These systems dysfunction, and interact in their dysfunction, when growth turns to shrinkage.

Personally, I see the Tea Party as a dysfunctional response to a lack of growth. Their dysfunction breeds additional dysfunctionality. And this dysfunctionality increases the rate of decline due to "above ground factors".

Best Hopes for Creating Efficient, Durable, Stable Subsystems,


I don't post much anymore because... well, I think the chance of us dealing with Peak Oil is about as likely as a socialist party candidate becoming president of the United States. So I'm following Princes advice and am partying like it's 1999, spending everything I have on buying my daughters the very best education money can buy, and letting them travel as much as they like, on my platinum card. Easy come, easy go.

Seneca's cliff, or something like it, is refered to in an amazingly well-argued, detailed, and thorough report by the German Bundeswehr's Future Analysis Department, which is a military think tank. It's about peak oil, which they calculate occured in 2010. It's like the Hirsh Report but pulls no punches.

One of the central arguments is that for complex reasons the fall in economic activity will probably be far, far, steeper, and not mirror the Hubble bell curve. That's the Seneca bit.

The German report, which one can find on the web in full and through Der Spiegel, is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly it's the best military report so far, as far as we know, as it fearlessly confronts the enromous economic, political, social, and security challenges we face. It almost reads like science fiction, or a doomsday report. It's the military going public with the bad news, regardless. It's also interesting that the military has 'leaked' the report in an attempt to give it a life of its own and put pressure on the politicians to begin getting the public ready for what's just around the corner. That is waking them from their induced slumber.

The report also puts the Nato attack on Libya in a proper perspective.

But people are strong and resiliant...I see a Seneca's cliff of maybe money, economic activity (trade), banking transactions, airline travel, advertising, retail space rented, plastic packaging generated, miles driven, etc and other things that are more on the surface.

But that will mean that the world is throwing off or casting off its oil-induced capitalist, commercial mantle. There will be a great deal of desperation if such a thing occurred. The desperation would find a focus on producing food and on getting the government to procure it, even just a little. All of that commercial activity that was knocked out by the financial cataclysm would leave a lot of oil for governments to play around with.....and they would start focusing on food production. I think population might decline more slowly than we think. If this sort ofthing happens in different places at different times, it could be slow.

I live in southern Tasmania, I can tell you whale hunting and tree cutting don't stop slowly.
It takes time to gear up, import machinery etc. There were several thousand people involved in hunting and tree cutting. Cockle creek had six pubs. Now it does not exist.
Whale hunting stopped because of a sudden fallen in whales. You harpoon a baby whale drag it to where you want the adults to go and then kill the adults. Easy. For 10's of years you get 1000's of whale. One or two years you you get 100's next you get about none.

Trees go just as quickly, they good ones take hundreds of years to grow. A generation or two to cut down.


After reading all the comments from people about the seneca cliff, it is not easy to form an opinion of what is likely to happen. Lots of talk of feedback loops "above ground factors" and the like, yet no realistically possible examples.

So here is one..

Given that Westexas is correct in the ANE or close to it, then a country like Australia will run into big problems very quickly in a few short years. Australia produces just over 300,000 b/d (falling) and imports ~600,000 b/d. Of those imports ~178,000 b/d are diesel fuel. These figures from this source....

If/when Australia's imports are suddenly stopped/greatly reduced the effect will reverberate around the world. The diesel here is used for agriculture, mining and heavy transport in the main. The curtailment of wheat, coal and uranium exports will have massive implications for the importing countries of those commodities. Countries in the middle east import a lot of wheat from Australia. If the price there suddenly skyrockets, how stable will those 'still stable' remain.

Assumptions are made by many that the price mechanism will continue to allocate oil, yet it is becoming abundantly clear that the bigger stick has a lot of sway. Countries like Australia have small sticks, yet missing out on the oil will have massive effects. Examples of slow collapse are very hard to find (I haven't found any), yet examples of fast collapse or the seneca cliff are very easy to find.

I'm hoping Australia's massive commitment to LNG will mitigate this. By next decade the plan is that Australia will rival Qatar as an exporter of LNG. Should the Woodside, Shell, and other LNG projects succeed, Austalia may in fact be in a relatively good position.

The point about the seneca cliff and my post is that what is used now is diesel, the equipment to run things now is what is important. Massive LNG production will not happen if there is a sudden drop in diesel supplies.

Westexas has ANE dropping from ~35 mbpd down to ~23 mbpd from 2010 to 2015. That does not give us "By next decade the plan". Given a nice gentle BAU approach then the long term plans will probably happen, the seneca cliff implies that those plans may not reach fruition.

re: "Massive LNG production will not happen if there is a sudden drop in diesel supplies." For the current plans not to come to fruition due to diesel supply alone the Seneca Cliff would need to be almost vertical, and total, (and pretty soon) otherwise any remaining resource would be poured into completion of the LNG projects. Yes, that is definitely a possibility, but I'm just more optimist that that.

That still leaves the question of what happens when LNG production declines, but being the eternal optimist I hope the message of the inevitable and permanent decline of world resources will of got through by then. Otherwise we face the mother of all Seneca Cliffs.


If the LNG sector gets all the fuel they need when there is a crunch, then who misses out? Is it going to be the farmers? or perhaps other miners? Heavy transport cannot miss out because that is needed to move the materials to build the LNG plants.

While being optimistic is nice, it does little in helping to understand and prepare for what is about to hit us. A sudden fuel crisis will inevitably have the politicians bring in fuel rationing, with motorists feeling the pinch. Yet that will save petrol, not diesel. Rationing diesel means some miss out, while price rises and delays kick in.

The Seneca cliff will happen because people do not understand the immediacy of the problem and the multiple feedback loops of constrained fuel supplies.

Really, I'm quite confident of completion of several major LNG projects such as Pluto (Woodside) and Gladstone (Santos, Petronas, Shell) because they are under development and will be completed with a few years. Personally I do not believe we'll be hit by a Senaca Cliff senario due to PO within that timeframe. If you think the SWHTF earlier, then yes, you are right on (would be very nasty indeed, since we would be totally unprepared)

Just so I don't sound like I'm being a total optimist, I'll give you an example of a 'feedback loop' that paints a darker picture for Australia. The way Woodside (and others I think but I can't recall the details) funded, or where able to get approval, for these hugely expensive projects was to forward sell much of next decade's LNG supply to China. So while at first glance Australia's dependence on imported fossil fuels may seem to be highly mitigated, the reality could be a significant proportion of LNG production will actually be exported, while we could suffer domestic fuel shortages.

National economies are so interwtined now I don't see how anyone can divine with certainty what will happen when resource shortages start to hit (oil will probably be the first, but not the last, shortage we will face). I don't think it's gonna be pretty, but I don't know if we will inevitably face a Senaca cliff.

EDIT: since I mention particular projects I should declare I've got a small share holding of Woodside, and a larger holding of a small spec oil and gas explorer that could do well if a Queensland LNG facility is built (both stocks doing crap now, but hey, ever the optimist)

Australia is a major energy exporter. It will ALWAYS be able to out-compete other diesel importers for the remaining world supply of diesel exports.

Australia will not collapse unless the collapse is global. Here in the UK, on the other hand...

I would fully agree with you if price was the only criteria for obtaining fuel.

However I feel this is a false assumption. In a world of declining oil production other factors will come into play besides price.

Strictly speaking, I outlined some scenarios. Note that there are three key variables for what I define as ANE (Global Net Exports less Chindia's combined net oil imports):

The rate of change in production for the top 33 oil exporting countries;

The rate of change in consumption for the top 33 oil exporting countries;

The rate of change in Chindia's net oil imports.

If we see a 2%/year production decline rate from 2010 to 2015, and if internal consumption continues to increase at the current rate and if Chindia's net oil imports increase at their current rate, then ANE would be down to around 23 mbpd, versus 35 mbpd in 2010 and versus 40 mbpd in 2005. Basically, the volumetric ANE decline rate would accelerate from an average rate of one mbpd per year, 2005 to 2010, to about 2.4 mbpd per year, 2010 to 2015.

Thanks Jeffrey, I really wish your numbers were totally incorrect, however the realist in me knows that you are right. They are scary numbers that have many just turning a blind eye to them. I cannot see any fault in them other than you may be to optimistic. Sudden "above ground factors" like what is happening in Libya could easily accelerate the decline and are far more likely as ANE decline.

I believe you work on GNE and ANE are close to a best case scenario. It really is the business as usual case, yet people do not want to believe it.

I think that there is a certain level of denial, even among Peak Oilers, regarding "Net Export Math." I frequently get qualitative objections to what is basically a quantitative argument. My usual response is, show me some counterexamples, to-wit, find an example of an oil exporting country, showing a sustained production decline, with a meaningful level of consumption, that has cut that consumption sufficiently so that the net export decline rate is the same as, or less than, the production decline rate.

Note that 20 of the 33 top net oil exporters in 2005 showed lower production in 2010, versus 2005.

Given an ongoing production decline rate in an oil exporting country, unless the country's rate of change in consumption falls at the same rate as, or at a rate faster than, the rate of decline in production, the resulting net export decline rate will exceed the production decline rate and the net export decline rate will accelerate with time.

I am not sure how long India will keep growing. More and more news are comming out about how they are struggling with their electric grid. If you don't grow electric supply, you don't grow the economy. Also it apears lots of the growth in the economy has been on the credit card. Such a development is not sustainable. My guess is China will outrun India vary fast in the grouth run ahead of now.

As Yogi reportedly said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." But the recent numbers do indicate some deceleration in India. India's 2002 to 2010 rate of increase in net imports was 5.4%/year, but in 2010 they showed only a very slight increase in net imports over 2009, partly because of an increase in production. China's 2002 to 2010 rate of increase in net imports was 12%/year, with a year over year rate of increase of 12.5%/year from 2009 to 2010. "Chindia's" overall 2002 to 2010 rate of increase in net imports was 9.4%/year from 2002 to 2010.

After reading this post and the BBC article below, I think I saw a potential Seneca cliff in the "projected number of functioning LEO orbiting satellites":

Space Junk at Tipping Point, Says Report

Some computer models show the amount of orbital rubbish "has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures," the research council said in a statement on Thursday.


The situation is critical, said Mr Kessler, a retired Nasa scientist, because colliding debris creates even more of the junk.

"We've lost control of the environment," he said.

"We've lost control of the environment," he said.

Of course, we never had control of the space environment. What is happening is that it is becoming painfully obvious that we never really had control and that all planned activity based on the supposition on control is now at risk.

Look for calls to develop spider web type sticky strands that work in space. Yah, right!

I wish I could remember the Science Fiction story I read maybe a couple decades ago. Seems that we earthlings had lost the ability for space travel because of so much space junk that any additional flights got hit and destroyed. Some alien race came along and offered, for a huge fee, to clean out all the space junk so we could again have access to space flight.

Thanks for a brilliant article. Unfortunately, some readers missed your point. Comments like "Your model is too simple, it doesn't include (whatever)." and "Your model is too complicated. You made a mistake, which I don't have time to identify.". But keep up the good work. This isn't your first attempt, and I'm sure it won't be your last.

One more substantive comment. Malthus and Verhulst models were models of stocks and flows, but of one stock only, namely people. Subsequent authors cast their models in terms of differential equations, but historically there is a remarkable uniformity to how we model nature. What changes over time is the number of stocks and the number of flows, which always seems to increase. Trying to keep the model simple enough for the reader to understand is, I think, a useful innovation. But something is still needed to reach the whole audience.


Thanks, geek. The point I was trying to make has to do exactly with this point: after having studied the whole story of "The Limits to Growth" I was surprised to see how many people had criticized the study without understanding it. Entire academic papers had been written by people who didn't have the smallest idea of what they were talking about. And they were world-renown economists!

So, I think there is a strong need for mind sized models but, also, the other point which maybe I should have stressed more in my post is that the models must also be based on thermodynamics. This is a point that the authors of "The Limits to Growth" failed to mention with sufficient strength - although they did say it. So, I hope that this approach moves something, even though, I am afraid, it won't so much!

Great article, great discussion. Since most people don't know that much about the less salacious parts of ancient Roman history, how about changing the name, Seneca Effect, to one more well-known in popular culture: the Wiley Coyote Effect? You know, he runs off a cliff and his legs keep churning as if he could keep running?

Wiley Coyote was mentioned in an earlier version of the post; I deleted it to make the post shorter but - yes - you have a good point. The Seneca effect starts when the Coyote suddenly discovers that he is walking on thin air!

Excellent article. I've been passing it around.

I do wish the system dynamics math were a bit clearer. The y-axis values appear mixed up. I tried to replicate the second chart, and succeeded only after applying multipliers to each of the stocks and rates. It would have been nice to provide the small amount of additional information, for those like me who want to replicate these damn things.

This is good stuff.

One of my areas of interest :-) is rail - intercity and urban.

I noted that many economic functions would decline, at varying rates, as oil declined and economic dysfunctions spread.

However, what if an economic function - two subsets of transportation - expanded and dramatically increased efficiency (with virtually no oil use) in the midst of an overall economic decline ?

My thought is that the remaining economic activity would reform around the more efficient, oil free technologies and the last half, 2/3rds or 1/3rd of the Seneca decline would be aborted and converted into either a much more moderate decline or even a steady state economy.

Any thoughts ?


H.T. Odum would be quite pleased with your simple storage components/flows/dissipation-to-entropy model. He was a great proponent of simple models to enhance understanding of very complex systems. In reviewing your numerous articles on TOD, I think that I perceive the hand of H.T.Odum in your understanding of energy-materials systems. Were you at one time one of his graduate students?

Having been such, on a regular basis I see on TOD the reverberations of projections that Odum made time and again almost 40 years ago. Keep up the good work Professor Bardi.