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."

Monday, November 15, 2021

Limitarians and Cornucopians: what Surprises from Technological Progress?


Resource depletion, ecosystem disruption, population growth, and technological change are interacting with each other in a tsunami of changes that always take us by surprise. The surprises that technological progress may be bringing are among the most unpredictable drivers of change. Yet, it is not impossible to reason about how our society could be transformed by some disruptive technological innovations. Here, Luca Pardi discusses the most recent report by "RethinkX," a group of remarkably sharp and creative people. They are hard to define as "pessimists" or "optimists," but they surely understand that change is unavoidable. 

by Luca Pardi

The debate among limitarians (Robeyns, 2017) and cornucopians is periodically morphing into that among doomsters and optimist-utopians. The limitarians have a generally gloomy view about the future availability of resources while the cornucopians tend to believe that shortages, always possible for many reasons in the short run, were proved not to be a problem in the past, so will not be in the future, at least in the long run. Doomsters-limitarians are also pessimistic about the environmental crisis and its paradigmatic representation: the climate change predicament. Optimists retort that the problem is amplified by anti-capitalistic ideological views and that a combination of technology and local and global policies will draw us, as has always been the case in history, out of dire straits. And the debate goes on forever!

There is a Think Tank named RethinkX that tries to be above or, better, ahead of this ideological deadlock. They are both: doomsters and optimists with a strong slant toward technological disruptive innovations. In a crescendo of techno-optimistic hypes they reach a climax in their last document Rethinking Humanity where they envisage that:

The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. [page 5]

This amazing statement summarizes and amplifies the outcomes of their previous documents about food, energy, and mobility. According to RethinkX each of the main five producing sectors of our global civilization: food and energy production, materials extraction, mobility, and communication/information, will witness a jump of at least one order of magnitude in efficiency, thanks to a combination of Schumpeterian (disruptive) innovation and cultural change within local communities. All of this in the span of time between now and 2035. Pretty good!

And here it comes the doomsters side.

The intervening decade will be turbulent, destabilized both by technology disruptions that upend the foundations of the global economy and by system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, and social unrest that could lead to dramatic tipping points for humanity including mass migrations and even war. In the face of each new crisis we will be tempted to look backward rather than forward, to mistake ideology and dogma for reason and wisdom, to turn on each other instead of trusting one another. If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history. If we do not, we will join the ranks of every other failed civilization for future historians to puzzle over. Our children will either thank us for bringing them an Age of Freedom, or curse us for condemning them to another dark age. The choice is ours. [page 6]

A new dark age is not ruled out, the apparently tragic outcome of an unrealized transition, should press us to act now. And “us” is not a general “us” it is exactly us, you that are reading this post as well as me writing it and those who generally in the last few decades showed to be concerned about the destiny of humanity and civilization. Incumbent leading classes are not included in the “us” they are simply unable to help much:

Dark ages do not occur for lack of sunshine, but for lack of leadership. The established centers of power, the U.S., Europe, or China, handicapped by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, interests, and institutions, are unlikely to lead. In a globally competitive world, smaller, hungrier, more adaptable communities, cities, or states such as Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle are more likely to develop a winning Organizing System.[page 6]

They do not say that there will be salvation, but that we have the technical means and the human resources, to get there. It is a question of finding the social and political means.

The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it. Taking technology away from humans would be like removing fangs from lions or stings from wasps. We have been like this since before we were Homo sapiens. Five million years ago Homo habilis was already doing things our chimpanzee cousins ​​can't. Humans must follow their path to the end because it is theirs. Fortunately, the path is not unique and our intelligence must apply to understand which paths appear to be less traumatic. The bad news is that nobody will come to save us from outside leading the cavalry, we are alone.

Is this actually bad news?


Robeyns, I., 2017. Wellbeing, freedom and social justice: the capability approach re-examined. OpenBook Publishers, Cambridge, UK.


Luca Pardi is a senior researcher in chemistry at the Italian Research Council (CNR), former president of the Italian section of the association for the study of peak oil (ASPO). He is the author of the recent book "Picco per Capre" dedicated to peak oil


  1. It would be a great post if they did not mention "Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle" as potential winners. What? Are they serious?
    In terms of intelligence and autonomy I can see nothing there, only a frightening dystopian future. Instead I have heard that Detroit was trying interesting new things. That kind of city that has already collapsed (at least partially) may be our source of inspiration for the near future.

  2. Qué magnífica idea convocar en un espacio de ese tipo a gentes discrepantes pero educadas en la cultura científica. Un foro parecido de "científicos sociales" sería altamente improbable.

    Probablemente parte de la solución pasará por la relocalización, la descentralización, la simplificación; pero si usamos la tecnología para hacer lo mismo que hasta ahora, llegaremos al mismo sitio en que estamos.

    ¿La tecnología no tiene un costo, energético principalmente? Si la disponibilidad de energía va a ser decreciente, la disponibilidad de conocimientos, bienes y servicios también va a serlo. Toda salida que no tenga eso en cuenta para orientar las soluciones va a fracasar. Y hay que decirlo con claridad.

    Creo que los cornucopianos ya están suficientemente desacreditados por los científicos. El último IPCC ( grupo III ) , e incluso la Agencia Internacional de la Energía ( ¡ OCDE ! ) muestran bien claro los escenarios que nos esperan. Lo único que pueden hacer, y hacen, algunos científicos disidentes es lo que hicieron antes con el tabaco, los asbestos, los glifosatos, y ahora con el cambio climático: retrasar cambios culturales tan profundos como necesarios. Algunos evidentemente por interés, otros por orgullo ( a los humanos nos cuesta mucho reconocer que estamos equivocados ); pero nadie sabe mejor que los científicos que "el dato mata el relato". También el relato de la "eficiencia". Claro que si esa eficiencia es "disruptiva"... ( modo ironía on ). Nada que objetar a lo del cambio cultural, pero no entiendo bien lo de limitarlo a las comunidades locales, ni que siquiera se sugiera el sentido de los mismos.

    1. Nada que objetar, salvo alguna duda sobre la naturaleza y dirección de esos cambios.

  3. Local Variations in Systems Life Support ability are becoming more visible. There are many Paths for different Us. Technical Colleges in my area made a fast shift in Cirriculum from Information Technology to Manufacturing. This is good. As long Supply Chains become less reliable, systems are adapting here to reduce dependency. I don't know how well other areas are adapting but a change to local Ability to provide life support needs appears underway here. The gap between the "haves" and "have nots" is likely to be determined more by Local Environmental Differences than Political Planning.

  4. I was trying to understand what is Rethink. His co-founder Tony Seba looks like a perfect villain for any conspiracy theorist : "He has been a keynote speaker at hundreds of global events and organizations including Google, the European Commission, Davos, COP21, CLSA, J.P. Morgan, Nomura, National Governors Association, Conference on World Affairs, the Global Leaders Forum, Intersolar and China EV100" (from
    Seriously, the more I read this post, the less I understand what happened to you Ugo. This "think tank" is obviously one of the many facades for the Davos people's Great Reset, isn't it?

    1. I think you don't have sufficient data to prove your conclusion

    2. I liked your blog better when you were a Pinker and Musk fan. Seba™ is going to save us now? What is next bitcoin?

    3. You are right, but that does not prove I am wrong either. I have read the last part of their book "Rethinking Humanity". Megacities, lab grown food, genetics, AI and blockchain everywhere. Is it different from the "4th Industrial Revolution"? Other words, same ideas.
      But who am I to know such things? There are deep games being played and I am not playing them. But let me tell something to those people: I am not and will not be a synthetic human in an artificial world. We are connected to the Nature and you know it. This is why I am so surprised to read this on your blog. A not even disguised promotion for a dystopian future.

    4. Yes, these are exactly the same ideas as those promoted by the Great Reset people, who are using the 'terrible terrible' Pandemic (TM) to bring it about.

      Inhuman, deluded, mendacious.

  5. LOL @ Seattle being the city of the future. Have you been there lately? I was born there, and it has become a soulless shithole. There's graffiti everywhere, homeless encampments, drug addicts, massive wealth inequality--it's Exhibit A for the neoliberal tech dystopia. California has similar problems. If the future is being won in these places, God help us all.

    1. I live here. What you write is not true. Seattle is no more souless than it ever was, which I admit is very souless. But the situation has not worsened at all.

      Comparing Seattle, a city of millionaires and billionaires and thousands of retired Boeing workers, all with full retirement boatloads of cash, to Kensington Philadelphia because Seattle has 1 homeless encampment is dishonest. You write with a broad brush of propaganda. Distorting facts for an emotional response. In Seattle the truth is nuanced.


  6. Hello,

    Tecno-narcissistic cornucopians are everywhere. ReThinkX looks like another rehash. "Singularity University" anyone?

    I browsed through their report on "Food and Agriculture", since that is the domain I know best. 50+ pages and one photo of a green plant. Lots of stainless steel and industry and graphs. One photo of a grain field. No farmer.
    Their faith in synthetic food is staggering: "This means that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher quality and cost less than half as much to produce as the animal-derived products they replace."

    All currently available processed foodstuffs that I know of are less healthy and more expensive than cooking with real ingredients. Why would the "disruption" happen now and make everything amazing? What about the profit motive and conflicts of interests between producer and eater?

    I see this more as a religious fan-text in the Worship of Progress, a bit like the fairy-tales about the "Three Wise Men" and all the Saints that embellish the Catholic Church. Fan-fiction. Using a lot of "scientific-language" to sound "evidence-based".

    It is not the first, not the last of these "innovation initiative" think tanks. Probably funded by tax money. (or tax-deductible gifts, which is the same thing)

    Maybe I need to hone my literary skills and set up my own "Distruption Think Tank" and collect a bloated salary? What about "DeepTechX: Next-Generation Digital-Twin Blockchain-enabled Synergy-solutions" and publish glossy reports?
    (Maybe I am just a bit jealous that they did it first? ;)

    What do you think, Ugo?


    1. Goran, so true. Here in NZ our bright young vegans go on endlessly about going veggo and replacing our meat and dairy production with beans or similar.

      What these well meaning idealists dont do is research reality. NZ soil is poor, we do however have a long growing season for grass which is a blessing. Humans are not good at eating grass, I'd love the vegans to try it. Grass works well for sheep and cows, very well. Meat, delicious.

      Reality does not stand ignorance. She has teeth.

  7. Which one of these is out of place?
    Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle

    Israel which is an apartheid and colonial actor on territory of the Palestinians which it is unlawfully occupying. The others are basically in a state of peace. Israel is in a state of war and is a religion-based state which discriminates factually and legally against non-Jews.

  8. "The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it."

    No, people can grasping meta-technology but it must be taught.

    "The debate among limitarians (Robeyns, 2017) and cornucopians is".

    There is no debate. This is not a matter of opinion except among those who live in magical thinking.

    I find the article a bit shallow. Like the author is a doom newbie who is still going through automatic reactions to hearing the bad news for the first time.

  9. Tony Seba touted concentrated solar power as the future of solar and therefore the future of energy in 2009. I wouldn't put much credence in his techno-utopia forecasts.

    Solar power can run a civilization and solar power can be easily stored until needed, but both of those circumstances depend on wood, something that is likely to be the prime energy source before mid-century.

    1. 'We' have 16 years?

      'Global peak oil production may have already happened in October of 2018 ( Table 1). It is likely the decline rate will be 6%, increasing exponentially by +0.015% a year (see post “Giant oil field decline rates and peak oil”). So, after 16 years remaining oil production will be just 10% of what it was at the peak.'

  10. I agree with some of what k-dog says above. I'm not clear what he means that people can grasp meta-technology, if taught. But that magical thinking is involved here, yes.

    I see a claim for new technology able to create needed things from subatomic particles, without present energy sources, but nothing more than that. Some evidence to back up this remarkable claim is needed for me to take it seriously. This definitely looks like magical thinking to me. The way I'm understanding the claim, it defies the laws of physics to do this. Looks like someone's imagination is working overtime.

    And this goes back to the previous point that I've made here, that we have counted imaginary things as real in getting to the current situation, and this was not, is not, scientific thinking. It is belief that things are possible, before they have been demonstrated. Imaginary things aren't evidence, and science works on evidence. I don't think there is any debate about this. If people aren't concerned with thinking scientifically, and many clearly aren't, well, I'd say we are running a de facto giant scientific experiment on what works, and betting our lives on the outcome.

    I'd also question the claim that ways around limits have continually been found in history. Many of the serious problems we have are the same kind of problems that have been involved with the collapse of past civilizations. Soil damage with erosion, depletion, and salting, deforestation,exhaustion of mines,inability to maintain infrastructure, and internal and external conflicts about who gets to exploit and use resources to grow as if there were no limits... All old problems that are still with us, have never been solved.

    1. These insoluble problems appear to have been solved in the past by two different approaches that William Catton describes in Overshoot: the takeover method (move into a different area via migration or military expansion) or the drawdown method (depend upon non-renewable and finite resources that have been laid down millennia ago). Both of these 'solutions', however, have reached their limits and instead of being able to rely upon our 'savings' we have to rely upon our 'income' which doesn't come close to be able to sustain so many of us.

    2. I agree strongly with this thread.
      Starting to feel like fish in a barrel...

  11. I am just finishing up rereading William Catton's Overshoot and so much of what he argues is reflected in this RethinkX perspective, which I would argue is so much more 'cornucopian' in flavour than 'doomster'.

    One of the things I'm coming to better appreciate as I reread Overshoot is Catton's idea that the Age of Exuberance (a time created by human expansion in almost all its forms and mostly facilitated by our extraction of fossil fuels) has so infiltrated our thinking that we tend to view the world through almost exclusive economic and political lenses. We have come to think of ourselves as completely removed from nature: we sit above and beyond our natural environment with the ability to both control and predict it; primarily due to our 'ingenuity' and 'technological prowess'.

    This non-ecological worldview is still very much entrenched in our thinking and comes through quite clearly in this 'innovative technological disruptions can save us' scenario. No where in most mainstream analyses, including this one, is the idea of resource depletion or diminishing returns on investments raised. It's all about economics, politics, technology, etc.. Ecological considerations, especially that we've overshot our natural carrying capacity, are missing in action.

  12. Ugo, I hope you at least got paid good money for this propaganda.
    Make sure you get a subscription model - every time you kiss Schwab's ass you get $100 dollars.
    Maybe they will invite you to Davos?
    Just make sure to renounce your apostasy and accept the religion of progress into your heart.

    1. Thank you for these kind words, Nomadic Beer. You can be sure that I gave full and appropriate consideration to your opinion.

    2. Very unfair, Nomadic.

      The propagandists are easy to identify these days, and our host is clearly not one.

      We shouldn't lose sight of tolerance - which is just what they want.

    3. That is an unjust denunciation of of our host, Ugo Bardi. He posted this so the readers could see the sort of delusions still running around and emprisoning us.

      To me it looks like some sort of bizarre Christian heretical piece with Progress as Salvation, complete with descriptions of the delights of Heaven and the pangs of Hellfire presented as cornucopianism and limitarianism respectively. And of course the call to follow the religious leaders dutifully and repent of false beliefs.

  13. An enlightened person might welcome a Dark Age (but what would that mean in our context?) as providing a long respite for damaged ecosystems, surely?

    The connotations of 'Dark Age' need not be negative at all.

  14. Dark Ages occur not for lack of leadership, but due to over-shoot and the over-complexity that invariably leads to it.

    And we certainly do not need the 'global leaders' (hello, WEF!) being presented to us at this present time!

  15. The most disruptive technology right now is mRNA vaccines. The technology is either a wild success or a dismal failure depending on who you ask.

  16. The paragraph from Rethinking Humanity is so fantastic and utopian that it raises the question of whether they still teach the power of Entropy at the University level...

  17. ["The fact that technology is always a source of new problems is a useless truth and useless is to complain about it. Taking technology away from humans would be like removing fangs from lions or stings from wasps. We have been like this since before we were Homo sapiens. Five million years ago Homo habilis was already doing things our chimpanzee cousins ​​can't. Humans must follow their path to the end because it is theirs. Fortunately, the path is not unique and our intelligence must apply to understand which paths appear to be less traumatic. The bad news is that nobody will come to save us from outside leading the cavalry, we are alone."]

    I agree with that statement by and large ... ... but I also have to consider RethinkX has the following words written in their "Joint declaration" :
    ["The Global 100% RE Strategy Group, comprised of experts on wholesale energy transitions, states unequivocally that the transition to a 100% clean renewable energy system is not only possible, but can happen much faster than conventional wisdom believes. A 100% renewable electricity supply is possible by 2030, and with substantial social and political will around the world, 100% renewable energy is also technically and economically feasible across the whole energy system by 2035."]

    ... which I find so stupidly absurd.
    I remember vaguely having stumbled upon that "Think Thank" a while ago ... and vaguely remember having my brain classify them as hopium fed educated people that suddenly just so happen to have caught a whiff of "Collapsology" and immediately realized their worldview was either the result of an overzealous indoctrination program ... or the result of somehow being in the position of having to sell a half-baked Grand Vision to clueless fuckin' bankers and ignorant billionaires for them to adhere to so they can pretend they saw it coming ...and everything is manageable(!), no sweat ...
    But it's also true that the 'political economy' will be the inescapable 'technical detail' we'll have to deal with if any semblance of "order and harmony" is to be maintained ...

    The [M]achine is here to stay; in one form or another anyway ...

  18. FWIW. I am having trouble separating the
    serious and the sarcastic replys to this post.