The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Climate Change and Resource Depletion. Which Way to Ruin is Faster?

What could bring down the industrial civilization? Would it be global warming (fire) or resource depletion (ice)? At present, it may well be that depletion is hitting us faster. But, in the long run, global warming may hit us much harder. Maybe the fall of our civilization will be Fire AND ice.
The years after World War 2 saw perhaps the fastest expansion and the greatest prosperity in the history of humankind. Yet, it was becoming clear that it was exactly this burst of prosperity and expansion that was creating the conditions for its own collapse. How long could humankind continue growing an economy based on limited natural resources? How long could the human population keep increasing?

Not everyone agreed that this was a problem, and the mainstream idea seemed to be that technological progress could maintain the human expansion forever. But, for those who were concerned about this matter, the discussion soon split into two main lines: one focused on depletion, the other on pollution. Over the years, the "depletionists" concentrated on fossil fuels, the main source of energy that keeps civilization moving. Initially, the disappearance of fossil fuels was seen simply as a necessary step in the progression toward nuclear energy. But the waning of the nuclear idea generated the idea that the lack of fossil energy would eventually bring down civilization. The collapse was often seen as the result of "peak oil," the point in time when oil production couldn't be increased anymore. It was estimated to occur at some moment during the first 2-3 decades of the 21st century.

On the other side, the focus was initially on pollutants such as smog, heavy metals, carcinogenic substances, and others. Pollution was generally seen as a solvable problem and, indeed, good progress was done in abating it in many fields. But the emerging idea of global warming soon started to be seen by "climatists" as an existential threat to humankind or even to the whole planetary ecosystem. The time scale of climate change was never defined in terms of momentous events but as a gradual temperature rise that could play out over a century or more. Some climatists spoke of "tipping points," e.g., the "methane explosion," that could have brought rapid ruin to humankind. But it was impossible to estimate the time scale of these events, and the majority of climatists tended to regard those who expressed these views as scare-mongering catastrophists.

Climatists and depletionists were looking at the same scene, just from two different viewpoints. But human beings notoriously have difficulties in changing their views. Their minds seem to become easily fixed on a single problem, and they tend to play the game of "my problem is bigger than yours." Ours is an age of "either-or" positions (you are either with us or against us, as G.W. Bush famously said). So, climatists and depletionists found it hard to work together and, often, they became bitter enemies of each other. It was a dispute that reminded the struggles of the Medieval Christian Church between heretics and orthodoxes (with the orthodoxes defined only after the debate had ended, sometimes with the members of the other side burned at the stake)
Depletionists were often geologists who had no training in climate physics. Sometimes they would scoff at the idea of climate change as the delusion of a group of pseudo-scientists who played with models that were unrelated to the real world. More often, they would not attack climate science directly but argued that the depletion of fossil fuels would solve all climate problems: no oil, no emissions. Then, no emissions, no climate change. 
On their side, climatists were often specialists in atmospheric physics. They were heavily focused on climate models while tending to rely on industrial estimates for the available fossil resources as external parameters in their calculations. They tended to see these resources as abundant and believe that curbing emissions to avoid a climate disaster would make depletion irrelevant. 

It was a clash that could not be solved by discussions among people who were speaking different scientific, and even political languages. Peak oil had its moment of popularity during the first decade of the 21st century, then it faded out of the debate. Climate change, instead, kept making inroads in the global memesphere, despite the dogged resistance of several lobbies and political sectors. By the end of the 2nd decade of the century, it was dominating the debate, and it had nearly completely silenced the opinion that peak oil was a threat worth of attention. 

The reasons for the tilt of the debate to favor climatists may have been more than one, but overall it may well be that it was because it is much easier to worry about a problem that is more distant in time. Politicians could comfortably claim that they were doing something useful while proposing that the airlines could run their planes on biofuels or that cars could be run on "blue hydrogen."  Peak oil may have arrived, probably as early as 2008 for conventional oil, but in the great cacophony of the media, it went unmentioned and invisible to the eyes of the public and of the decision-makers.  
All along the debate, it was almost always impossible to propose a compromise that took into account both problems, depletion and warming. But, already in 1972, the study titled "The Limits to Growth" tackled the problem in a holistic way (image by Magne Myrtveit). The computer model used in the calculation didn't share the limitations of the human mind and could simply compute the results of the interactions of the various factors. At that time, the importance of climate change was not yet clear, but the "pollution" parameter was later recognized as representing the effects of greenhouse emissions. 
The results of the "base case" scenario computed in "The Limits to Growth" study (see the figure below) indicated a probable collapse of the industrial civilization for some moment in the second decade of the 21st century. It was intended to be the illustration of a trend rather than a prediction, but it may have turned out to have been remarkably prophetic. 

But what was the cause of the collapse? Depletion or pollution? The answer was "both," but the model showed that the peaking of the production of natural resources coincided with the start of the decline of the industrial system. Pollution (climate change) arrived later, and its effect was mainly to make the decline steeper, generating a typical "Seneca Cliff." 
This result made a lot of sense: pollution is a consequence of resource exploitation and you would expect it to arrive after that depletion has played out its cycle of growth. Yet, it was also possible to create scenarios using the "Limits" model where pollution had such negative effects to become the main driver of the collapse. As usual, the future can be imagined but not predicted. In 1972 it was way too early to presume to be able to predict what was supposed to happen 50 years later.

But things kept moving and in 2009, Dave Holmgren systematized and arranged the collapse question in a semi-quantitative quadrant that indicated several possible futures that depended on the interplay of depletion and warming. Holmgren didn't take a specific position on what was the most immediate threat, but his diagram provided guidelines to assess just that.

And here we are: in 2021 Holmgren's scenarios were reviewed by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) in a series of three posts on "The Seneca Effect" (one, two, three). He arrived at the conclusion that -- just like in the "base case" scenario of The Limits to Growth --  depletion is arriving faster and hitting us harder.  According to RN, the reaction to the 2020 pandemic is mostly an effect of the economic system being on the verge of collapse because of depletion, even though the public has not realized that yet. 
Like other depletionists, RN is skeptical about the existence of human-caused climate change. Apart from that, though, his position makes sense. Right now, it is difficult to find a sector of the economy so badly damaged by global warming that it might cause the system to collapse. So, the crash of 2020 may be attributed to the constraints generated by the gradually increasing costs of the exploitation of natural resources for a growing economy and an increasing population. 

A civilization based on conspicuous consumption cannot keep going for long when there is little left that can be consumed. Hence, we are seeing a series of correlated changes: less traveling (especially by plane), the collapse of the tourism industry, the contraction of the entertainment industry, less commuting, and the reduction or the disappearance of other wasteful activities that we can't afford anymore. All that is officially just temporary and things are supposed to return soon to "normal," that is to the best of worlds. But we may reasonably doubt that. Instead, we may well be seeing the start of the Seneca Cliff that "The Limits to Growth" had already seen in its scenarios of 1972.

Does all that mean that climate change is not a problem anymore? Not at all. Surely, the economic crash of 2020 is reducing the human impact on climate, but as I noted more than once complex systems always kick back (a quote by John Gall). We still have to receive a kick from Earth's climate that may be much worse than anything we received so far (*)
What we are doing to the ecosystem might turn out to be just a moderate perturbation, with the system kicking back to its original state in a few millennia -- or maybe even just in a few centuries. In this case, some forms of human civilization could survive the change. Or the ecosystem may kick us up all the way to the Eocene, with a temperature of 12 C higher than it is now. That won't necessarily mean the extinction of the human species, but it would not be unlikely.

And here we are, laughing at the pitiful attempts of the so-called "decision-makers" to stop the tsunami with teaspoons. We are both spectators and actors of the grandest spectacle in the history of the world: the end of the mightiest civilization that ever existed. No matter how our future will be playing out, remember that the destiny of soap bubbles is just of shining gloriously in the sun for a short while. Universes may be little more than a shower of soap bubbles in the sun, just on a grander scale. As we fade out, there will be new universes and we may even be able to create a few ourselves. Humans may have done a lot of damage to the ecosystem, but surely they never lacked fantasy!

(*) In 2012 I wrote a post on "Cassandra's Legacy" titled "Confessions of a Peak Oiler" that some people interpreted as if I had reneged the peak oil movement. But it was not that (otherwise I would have titled it "Confessions of a FORMER peak oiler.") I just made the point that the climate threat was bigger than the depletion threat, not that it didn't exist. 


  1. ["The reasons for the tilt of the debate to favor climatists may have been more than one, but overall it may well be that it was because it is much easier to worry about a problem that is more distant in time."]

    The reason for the tilt favoring "climatists" can be explained by the need for the politicians to hide the fact that they were appallingly ignorant on energy issues and therefore incompetent leaders -- all of them -- from the first oil shock of the 70's up until now.
    Since mitigating climate requires constricting energy consumption, they are obviously trying to constrict it through ever increasing regulation by simultaneously pretending it to be *solely* for environmental reasons.
    They might get away with it ... but just for a little while.
    As inflation further erodes purchasing power, the second oil shock will finally dispel that notion in short order once gas stations are being "strategically closed" following a bout of odd supply issues for some fringe stations ...

    The world is full of dumbasses; but eventually the internet will have spread enough of the truth to attain "critical mass". (I think we are much closer to that 'singularity' than most people believe)

    In my opinion, it's the final nail in the coffin of the idea that true democracy was ever achieved in the West.
    Since the problem with a political machinery purported to operate on "freedom" and "democracy" is that the only way you could grant value to the vote of the ignorant was to [allegedly] allow freedom of information, and government mandated minimal education.
    (always was a shaky foundation if you ask me --- and by shaky I mean s t u p i d)

    Of course, in real life; politicians' scientific illiteracy and just plain corruption by the capitalists vested interests, aided by propaganda, a gullible public, astonishingly dumb and\or incompetent media (truth be told); energy consumption has been a very easy drug to binge on.

  2. Excellent post, Ugo! Over the last few months I've found myself increasingly aligning with the "tipping point catastrophists".

    You may have already seen this on r/collapse, but, in case not, I recommend this post and the hot-linked references...

  3. "It was Orwell’s great lesson writ large. If you can disappear a thing in language, you can make people stop thinking it, and it simply...vanishes.

    This is Why We Should Stop Calling it Climate Change"
    - umair haque

    This chameleon, cheap literature can go forever.

    Haque and alike are now dropping 'Climate Change' in a stroke of a pen.

    This ongoing trauma embedded in the language is so vicious, people in the Middle East embrace for the worse - a new geopolitical map:

    Watch it here (grey vs blue), where the oil-rich region of Iraq and its neighbours is now expected to be divided into two fighting camps, one guided by Iran, the other by Israel(?).

    Similar to Haque's, here's a presenter twisting the language a bit more, inspiring - there will be nuclear weapons involved in the looming conflict over Iraq.

    Of course Erasing Iraq (on Amazon) can be done, once, twice or more.

    However, when done for Energy resources, the situation becomes another Haque's acrobat:

    One cannot tell from it if the objective is controlling Energy resources or burning Energy for the sake of 'Technology' - a sacrifice.

    Anyway, this Haque's style of Language, Literature and War has become the trademark of our Western Civilisation.

    Haque will run one day out of fossil fuels and goes silent - and thank god.

    "Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  4. Perhaps the reason for the tilt favoring "climatists" is the the cavalcade of record smashing wildfires, floods, droughts, precipitation events, hurricanes, rapid melting of the cryosphere, sea level rise, heatwaves etc. You know, the stuff those studying the climate predicted was going to happen decades ago with the only significant error being faster than expected.

    I've lived in Vancouver since 1976 & have never experienced a heat wave like we just had - not even close.

    Sudden deaths recorded during B.C.'s heat wave up to 719, coroners say

    " The highest temperatures in B.C. this week were recorded in Lytton, a village about 260 kilometres northeast of Vancouver that broke Canada's all-time heat record at 46.9 C one day before being wiped out by a fire that witnesses said engulfed the community in under 20 minutes.

    The record-breaking heat, and the devastation left by Wednesday's fire, have left many British Columbians thinking about the ongoing impacts of climate change.

    Climate experts have warned that more extreme weather – the kind that can leave tinder-dry conditions and elevate the fire danger across the province – is almost certainly in B.C.'s future."

    I marvel at the quite climate denial & apathy in Canada. In 2017 BC had it's worst wildfire season on record, but we blew that AGW Jacked wildfire season out of the water the very next year (2018). Back to back record smashing wildfire seasons & a deadly record smashing heatwave - all within 5 years. It'll be no surprise if 2021 rewrites the wildfire record book again. We're rich & one of the best at fighting wildfires (experience), but our fire fighting experts have already said they've seen the fires behave in strange ways (bad) they've not seen before. Unprecedented heatwaves & wildfire were predicted & now it's happening & costing us dearly in people & treasure. What more evidence is needed? Forget about carbon schemes & emission cuts. Protect the people NOW! We have no provincial or federal plan. We're all spectators & just deal with the damage after the fact. Hell our typical wildfire & hot summer months have barely begun. With these hotter temps drying out our vast forests even further we could be in for one Hell of a summer.

    The only noticeable resource depletion in these parts was a shortage of toilet paper & Lysol for the first 2 months of Covid.

    1. Yes and no. Mostly, the public cannot make the connection between fires and global warming. The press and politicians much prefer to blame "arsonists." If you look at the data, you see that a clear increase in wildfires can be seen in some regions, in others it is weak, and in some it is a decrease. Overall, it is clear that higher temperatures do mean a higher chance of fire, but it is not seen as an existential threat in the short term.


      just some notes- but keep in mind our short reference frames for natural experiences, and more people have built expensive stuff in the way of natural events.

  5. There's a big difference though: resources may potentially be replaced (who knows, even nuclear energy will be fashionable once more, given the alternatives), but climate change may be irreversible, or at least for a long enough while.

    1. In this case, there are two different meanings of "reversibility" -- resources can be replaced, it is not the same as returning to a world with abundant mineral resources -- that's truly irreversible. Climate change, instead, could be reversed. It probably will reverse itself, given enough time.

    2. Chances are that we will become eventually the 2.0 fossil fuel. As for the reversibility of the climate change, I agree, it's just that the 'enough time' may take longer than the capability of the human species to survive.

  6. The reason politicians like to talk about climate change is because they don't have to do anything. The Paris Agreement basically outlines what many countries were planning on doing anyway. Every country decided for itself what it would do and when it would do it, which lines up with depletion in some cases. For example, China wants to see net carbon emissions by 2030, but what it really wants is energy independence, which it doesn't have now. It imports coal from Australia, and it has few oil reserves. It's better for them to exploit their rare-earth resources to build renewable energy, but that illustrates how preventing climate change may make depletion accelerate, since those rare-earths probably won't last long.

  7. Don't forget that the war is also one way to ruin. Usually, "when going gets tough" peoples, states, civilizations or individuals tend to blame others for it's own shortcomings. It is well known in criminology that 90% of crimes are caused by greed. It's in the human nature to try to take what others have and to justify it with some kind of excuse or political propaganda, blaming others using false narratives. So, before any one of the main causes of collapse, depletion of climate change, kicks first, there is a chance that the clash between civilizations will lead us to ruin. Depletion or climate change can accelerate the clash.

    1. That's true. We have until saturday 10 to see if the NATO exercise in the Black Sea will start WWIII. Hopefully not, but.....

    2. **Non-Contact Warfare was the name of Russian General Vladimir Slipchenko’s military textbook. Within this text, he explains how EMPs are the greatest revolution in military affairs in history. According to Slipchenko, the possession of an EMP renders an enemy’s armies, navies, and air forces completely obsolete, and it’s hard to argue with him there.

      If you can’t get your missile defense systems online, if your tanks won’t run, if your planes have all just fallen out of the sky, you’re kind of screwed, aren’t you?

      The flagship journal of the Russian General Staff, Military Thought, further echoes this concept. An article within the journal titled “Weak Points of the US Concept of Network-Centric Warfare” specifically points out the use of an EMP as a possible means of defeating the US.

      Aside from the concern that comes from foreign military journals, specifically hatching battle plans against your country, Russia now possesses what is known as a “Super-EMP.” A weapon of drastically increased pulse amplitude capable of disabling spacecraft, radar sites, ICBMs, energy supply systems, military command systems, and economies as well.

      And to top things off, it’s designed as a first-strike weapon—just food for thought. As of 2017, the US had no Super EMPs (that the public was aware of).

      May be the collective West will have more luck with Vladimir Putin, but I would punish provocateurs with terrifying cruelty.

    3. Correct. Anyone who has a cursory understanding of how complex systems work can understand how the "Network-centric warfare" idea is extremely dangerous, at least in some of the forms it is described. Then, maybe, there are subtler ways to make it work that are not shown to the public. But a characteristic of warfare is that there would be no wars if both parties were not convinced that they could win. And at least 50% of them are wrong!

    4. Ugo,

      Your comment reminded me of Bert Brecht's poem (from Kalendergeschichten):

      Mein Bruder war ein Flieger

      Mein Bruder war ein Flieger
      Eines Tages bekam er eine Kart
      Er hat seine Kiste eingepackt
      Und südwärts ging die Fahrt.

      Mein Bruder ist ein Eroberer
      Unserm Volke fehlt's an Raum
      Und Grund und Boden zu kriegen, ist
      Bei uns alter Traum.

      Der Raum, den mein Bruder eroberte
      Liegt im Guadarramamassiv
      Er ist lang einen Meter achtzig
      Und einen Meter fünfzig tief.

      (My brother was an aviator

      My brother was an aviator
      One day, he received a card
      Promptly he packed his bags
      and southwards the journey went.

      My brother is a conqueror
      Our people is running out of space
      and to win over lands and ground is
      an old dream of ours.

      The land that my brother conquered
      is up on the Guadarrama Mountains
      It is roughly six feet long
      five feet deep into the ground.)

      Obviously US deep state movers and shakers don't read German poetry. They should read it and learn something about dangerous adventures they are leading their countrymen into.

      Great Italian anti-war canzona by Iva Zanicchi:

      Great, great(!) Italian canzona by Fabrizio De Andre:

    5. Generals can be writers of science fiction, these fantasies of tech warfare I regard as such. The reports of Russian super weapons are in the same class as Reagan’s Star Wars, grandiose PR to put a scare in one’s rivals.

      Now for reality, Bagram air base was vacated in the middle of the night last week, not as dramatic as helicopters in Saigon, but it makes clear the way things are going, the Imperial Legions are quietly packing up and going home. Three years after Soviet forces left Afghanistan the USSR had ceased to exist, now the clock is running, when such withdrawals start, they quickly turn into an avalanche, the question is when will there be stabilization, how far will the crash go?

      As for Russia, Putin simply doesn’t have the power of Stalin, or even Nicolas the second, if he did he would have smashed the Chechens like an eggshell, not hired Ramzan Kadyrov as a vassal foederati giving Vlad his own Isaurians.

      I think that it’s going to become clear over the next few years that the long term trends are no longer globalization and centralization, they have reversed and are now localization and decentralization, just like they turned in similar way during Saint Augustine lifetime.

    6. Too bad that Fabrizio de André never sang in English. He is a monument to sublime poetry.

    7. Zanicchi's song is a little cheaper and less subtle. But very effective.

    8. If you want to hear another truly moving Italian song, try this one

      Sung by some truly handsome Italian ladies, it is about the "brigands" who fought against the Northern invaders in the 1860. It says "we are born men, but we die as brigands, but our land must not be touched"

  8. Sir,
    May I ask, why is climate change seen as a threat? The climate, we learned in college (for geology, in fact), changes all the time. It is this very instability that makes living on Earth so exciting. It is also inexorable; Dr Lovelock even noted that we would find ourselves in the position of being forced to maintain the planetary system should we interfere to the point that the feedback loops fail...
    Why is this a threat? why do I hear so much nonsense about 'fighting climate change' and nothing whatsoever about 'adapting to changes that will happen whether we are here or not'?
    It's things like this that make thoughtful people wonder what is really going on.

    1. And this, I think, perfectly explains my point. Most people just don't get it.

    2. Or a shill. The US military has 60k of them I hear.

  9. Hello Ugo. Very good post. I guess someone needs to explain where the curves in the LTG illustration come from since it doesn't seem like many people ever read the book. Two other curves that need some elaboration...the births and deaths projected...and rising fast.
    The approaching 'Peak deaths' is probably forcasted based on mortality for my generation (boomers), but that big upward slope of births isn't intuitive.

    1. Well, that would take a full book! About the mortality curve, anyway, it was one of the most criticized and -- indeed -- weakest points of the model as it was in 1972. The problem was that it assumed a simple linear relation of the birthrate with the economic output. But it could not be: one thing is when people are poor but the economy is growing, so they see a bright future for their children. Another is when they are just as poor, but the economy is contracting, so they see no perspectives for their children. They adjust the birthrate accordingly.

  10. Congratulations on the update to LTG. LOL. I couldn't find my copy, did a quick search and your book came up in the first page.

  11. Sir,
    "in 2020 Holmgren's scenarios were reviewed by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) in a series of three posts on "The Seneca Effect" (one, two, three)."

    The links for one, two, three do not appear to work, and the archive on the right side is missing years 2019 and 2020? I'd love to read those links.
    Anyway, really appreciate your blog, and another great post as usual.

    1. Ooops.... sorry. Now it is fixed. And thanks. (It was 2021)

  12. Hi Ugo. You write that Holmgren was agnostic as to which one of his scenarios was most likely.

    I thought I should point out that David Holmgren took a position in December 2013, saying that we have entered his "Brown Tech" scenario (high climate change, slow resource depletion):

    In this, I think his conclusions differ from yours and RN's.

    I tend to agree with him. Climate change is already hitting hard and fast and yet our material consumption continues to increase. Indeed, if you count the Coronavirus pandemic as a manifestation of a negative feedback from human encroachment into natural spaces, then that just supports the "pollutionist" perspective even more.

    1. Could be. I said that Holmgren was agnostic on the basis of what he wrote in 2009. He may well have taken a different position in 2013. Personally, I think that Climate Change is not yet creating serious damage to the economy as a whole. Surely, there are spectacular events, but limited in extent,

    2. Hello Ugo and the community. I know this is an older post, but I have been trying to put a number on the costs of climate change. Even just increased floods and wildfires clean up costs seem to be a secret here in the USA, although I am finding enough bits and pieces to be pretty sure that the analysis exists, and just isn't publicly available. Along with mudslides, crop failures, grid failures and so on I'm not sure the economic damage is all that limited anymore.

      Does anyone know of a good starting place ?

  13. This resonates with the Omega Institute's idea of a "a global polycrisis".

  14. Hi Professor

    I stumbled on this video of Prof.Wadhams:

    As far as I can understand him the arctic sea ice puts a lid on the circumpolar sea, reflecting some of the solar energy and at the same time cooling the sea similarly as the ice cube keeps my beloved Cinzano bianco to near zero degrees - as long as this ice cube exists.

    Now Wadhams says that the arctic sea ice will be gone soon and then the heating effect of the sun doubles and the temperature of the arctic sea will go up rather quickly, since as Wadhams says the sea is not very deep there (100m).

    This and the thawing permafrost will liberate CO2 and methane and this could lead to a runaway situation with temperature rise and climate anomalies in the temperate zones, which leaves us only years (Comes to mind this summer in Switzerland with continuous rain and all the vegetables and apples rotting in the garden). I think this scenario is rather plausible and to me more probable than all the IPCC projections for 2100.

    Up to now one could hear such pessimistic scenarios mostly from people on the fringe. But Wadhams seems a really orthodox scientist and very convincing.

    As physicians we are trained to navigate any situation looking at the most probable and at the same time for the worst possibilities. My simple brain concludes that with climate these two possibilities probably fall together, the worst seems to me most probable. Will probably get us into trouble before resource depletion.

    What do you think?

    All best

    Lukas Fierz

    P.S. At the same time trouble with raw materials looms, in Basel the Roche company wants to build new big research buildings and they complain about significant difficulties to find the raw materials from wood to isolation materials. I have heard similar informations from the US.

  15. I worked for 30 years on Vancouver Islands Coastal Rainforest in both reforestation and inspecting logging and road building. One trend I've really noticed is a constantly rising freezing level resulting in ever thinner snowpacks. Rivers are running much lower in summers and early fall. Late fall we have had numerous atmospheric rivers accelerating landslides and erosion. The overall trend for Pacific Salmon numbers is down.

    Thirty yearsn ago reforestation was a no brainer. Survival of planted trees was 95%. After 2017 we have had multiple planting failures with over 90% mortality.