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, February 28, 2022

Back to Reality: We are All Children of Oil


Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), speaks in Pisa in 2006. Officially, the Powers that Be (PTB) ignored the ASPO message, but it could be that they understood it all too well. That would explain many things about the current situation. For two years, we thought that all our problems were caused by a microscopic, peduncled critter. Now, we are back to reality: we are all children of oil, and we cannot survive without it.

A few days ago, I found by chance on my shelves some documents from the 2006 conference of ASPO (the association for the study of peak oil) that I and others organized in Pisa, in Tuscany. The conference had a certain global resonance: it was sponsored by the Tuscan government, hundreds of people from all over the world came to attend, and the international media commented on it. It was part of a wave of interest on peak oil and its consequences. Just as another example, see the leaflet on the right that I also found rummaging among old documents. It announces a meeting to be held in the Tuscan countryside in 2004, titled, "The Party is Over", and subtitled "How to exit from the petroleum-based economy"

Today, it looks as if these things are a hundred years old. How was it that there was an age in which you could express this kind of subversive thoughts in public and be given some space in the media? And how could we delude ourselves into thinking that we could have convinced that nebulous entity called "humanity" that we were running out of our natural resources, crude oil in the first place? Even more subversive, that we should reduce consumption and move to renewable sources before it was too late?

At the time, we didn't know exactly how much time we had before troubles were to start, but our estimates were correct in terms of orders of magnitude. In the early 2000s, Colin Campbell proposed that the peak of "conventional" oil production would come around 2012. It probably did, but the peak was masked by the production of non-conventional resources. "Shale oil" bought us another decade of growth, although at a modest rate and at a high cost. So, we had more than 20 years to prepare from when, in 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Lahérrere had first flagged the problem with an article published on "Scientific American." But, as we should have expected, nothing serious was done.

On the contrary, the entity called "humanity" showed the maturity and wisdom of someone in the grip of convulsions and possessed by demonic forces. We have seen 20 years of a roller coaster in the desperate search for an enemy to destroy and turn the clock back, to when things were good. The enemy has been singled out as Osama, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, and many others, destroyed only to be replaced by the new monster of the year. 

For two years, then, the monster was not a human being, but a microscopic peduncled creature that nicely played its role of bugaboo, until it was officially vaporized by the microscopic equivalent of carpet bombing. Now, it is over, and a new, more conventional monster is advancing: the soulless Vladimir Putin. Chances are that he will not be the last monster in the demonization chain.

Every time we seemed to have destroyed our arch-enemy, it came back in another form, bigger and uglier than before. And each time, in the fight against the monster on duty, we lost something of our wisdom, our freedom, our humanity. 

We never realized that what we were fighting was not a monster, but a reflection of ourselves in the desperate search for a way to continue a way of life that some of our leaders defined as "not up for negotiations." But when you deal with Nature, everything is up for negotiations. And Nature always wins the game. 

Peak oil never reached the level of the official monster of the day, but it was worrisome enough that it deserved the standard demonization treatment. It could not be bombed and there was no vaccine against it. But we marginalized it, ridiculed it, and made it disappear from view as if we had bombed it to smithereens. Yet, it is returning, even though not mentioned, during the current crisis. 

We are 8 billion on this planet, all children of crude oil. Without crude oil and other fossil fuels, most of us simply wouldn't exist. And without crude oil, we cannot continue to exist. As a monster, peak oil is much scarier than any of the bugaboos that the mainstream media have been proposing to us. Gas and coal are in the same group.

We should have known what to expect. It was all written already in 1972 in the study titled "The Limits to Growth." To be sure, the authors never mentioned wars for resources in their discussion. But just by taking a look at the curves for the most likely scenarios, it wasn't difficult to imagine that the global collapse was not going to be a friendly party. 

With the world's economic system expected to crash at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century, we should have expected the race to grab what was left would get uglier and uglier. It is happening. 

Is it the story of a failure? Maybe, but in a strangely twisted way. Thinking about what's happening right now in the world, I have a strong impression that our leaders didn't ignore our message. Not at all. Already in 2001, it was said that George Bush Jr. had decided to invade Iraq because he had read some material produced by ASPO and was worried about peak oil. It is probably just a legend, but the so-called "Carter Doctrine" of 1980 already recognized that the US couldn't survive without the oil resources of the Middle East. Our leaders are not smarter than us, but not stupid, either. 

So, it may well be that the PTBs perfectly understand the situation and that they are maneuvering to place themselves in a position to gain from the coming (actually ongoing) collapse. After all, the game that the elites know best is putting the commoners one against the other. It is the game being played right now. Like the Russian Roulette, it is one of those games you won't necessarily survive. 


  1. Our Western Civilisation thought fossil fuels will always be transportable between continents and regions - vastly far away...

    They are not - when the total energy put into transporting fossil fuels exceeds the energy transported...

    Our Western Civilisation should not turn on children, women, unarmed men and our beautiful cities - punishing them with war and depopulation - as if they are responsible for making up the laws of Physics.

    Instead, the West should be brave, responsible and honest enough to admit the age of fossil fuels is over - peacefully and humanely.

    The Limits of Growth has miserably failed to call for the end of the illusion that hypnotised the West, since James Watt - continued and boosted with Einstein's - too cheap to meter atomic Energy.

    The West is paranoid - the age of fossil fuels is over - turning that paranoia to a hugely destructive energy...

    The West should calm down - and let humans understand that the 300-years long illusion is over...

    The fossil fuels age is behind - let humans face their future - no different from how they made it from the antiquity to the fossil fuels age...

    Enough for humans now they know and understand what they've never realised before:

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


  2. I found in this blog some interesting food for thought even if I seem to read a modern Nostradamus even if less cryptic. Never anyone who foresees beautiful things, only misfortunes. And when one gets there, what changes? Prepare to survive like in some post-apocalyptic films? Come on, a nice rapid nuclear that instantly vaporises this useless and dangerous species of ours and then everything will start again, perhaps, for the better.

    1. You know, Anonymous, lots of people say that I am excessively optimistic. The small world of catastrophists doesn't normally allow glimmers of hope. And yet, I think that there is hope at the end of the tunnel in which we are now. BTW, with your considerations on nuclear war, you can be named a honorary member of the Great Catastrophistic Lodge!

    2. I have also been considered a "tecno optimist" because I don't think we actually need anywhere near as much fossil energy as we use (or waste).
      Business is a game where you waste whatever is cheap (air,water,fuel) in order to conserve whatever is expensive (skilled labor,rare materials,costly equipment).
      Those rules can change very quickly...

    3. @Art Deco
      I agree in principle on the attenuating factor of waste... however:

      The human governance algorithm would need to resolve two puzzles:

      #1 . The Primordial Civilizational Moral Hazard of Unjustified Political Power Distribution of the Land Rent Blackmail Mechanism ... once that is dealt with... a pretty thick veil will have fallen. Still, ...not a walk in the park.

      #2. The orderly coordination of capacity loss. Nothing short of an engineered nominal productivity choke to mutate the system into a tech and knowledge preservation apparatus. That's where the cluster***k will probably happen.
      Very unpleasant; international ramifications, not all can be saved ...

      Nevertheless, despite the profound nature of such change, it would still not shield us from the overshoot timer which would not take any pause to marvel at our sudden desperate attempt at self-correction.
      And then things like Ukraine happen ...

      But yes, we do waste a lot; and we do plow disgusting amounts of resources into producing really stupid s**t ... so there would definitely be [some] room to maneuver [wiggle ?] during the coming contortion ... in principle ...

    4. I don't know much about real governments, but I am not usually very impressed by the representatives who seem to spend their time either bashing each other on TV talk shows or raising money from their richest constituents, but in the states that seems to be their jobs according to the two political parties that control who gets on the ballot.

      I'm not sure what you are referring to with the land/rent/blackmail system but it might be something that could be sorted by an estate or death tax if there was any political will for such a thing.

      I was really thinking overconsumption more than just "waste". I am pretty sure that I have thrown out more coffee makers, vacuum cleaners, tvs, and computers that couldn't be repaired than my parents would have ever bought. And with the switch to Amazon and home delivery, every piece of crap comes on a container ship burning the dirtiest fuel all the way from China, packed in ridiculous amounts of one way packaging, and then ends up in a landfill very soon after it arrives.
      Resources wasted and pollutants emitted at every step along the way, in a never ending spiral.
      Certainly it didn't have to be that way, and could have been stopped decades ago with probably a better standard of living.

      And a what consumers see is a small fraction of the waste of any large corporation.
      Anyway, those things are well known and it's rather too late to fuss about them now.
      If the object was to consume as much as possible as fast as possible, we did a pretty good job of that, and now need to clean up the mess left behind. Sorry about the long reply.

  3. I’d be more concerned with Peak Calories than with Peak Oil.

  4. No, thank you, I am not a catastrophist, my consideration simply meant that a quick and painless death is definitely preferable to a slow agony.
    I am by nature a pessimistic optimist and it is not an oxymoron.

  5. Let's stop claiming to dominate nature and the world; let's stop making possession a superior end. Let's put our cherished deviancies, such as the manufacture of desire and its bulimic satisfaction, back in their place. Humanity's progress must be situated on the side of being rather than of having.

    ...and for our so called leaders;

    Let us dream: A politician takes the side of talking to us about the world as it is, as it risks becoming; he or she forecasts not sweat and tears, but difficult tomorrows; she or he proposes that we talk about it, as responsible citizens, and allows us to perceive robust paths along which to advance, with a smile, towards the era of less ... A less that will consequently take on the character of better.

    Robert Lion, France, circa 2007

  6. Dear Ugo,
    A little story I heard from Colin Campbell.
    Colin lives in a small village in West Cork, Ireland. I met him twice and he kindly gave a presentation on peak oil to a group I was involved in sometime around 2010.
    One day a man dressed like an agent knocked on Mr Campbell door and said his boss wanted to talk to him and he was waiting in a local bar. Colin said fine and went down to the bar where another agent was standing at the entrance to the bar. He went in, a man was sitting at a table and he went over and introduced himself. This man was from the US government and wanted Colin to go to the Pentagon to work on the oil question. Colin refused as he was retired.
    This was in early 2000s, they all knew about the problem.Mr. Campbell was very well connected in the UK and he knew he message got to the very highest levels, to no avail really.
    I, as part of a group in my own small way went to EU and tried to raise the hugh issue of peak oil. EU officials told us tech would save us. Fuel from algae, I left Brussels knowing we were probably screwed. This was in 2011.
    As recent events show us when resources start running, sadly wars are the outcome.

    1. Yes, Colin told me the same story, although not the detail about how the man was dressed. I think at that time the governments wanted to know what was going to happen. And I think they understood that very well, and they have been preparing for what was in store.

      BTW, you didn't sign the comment, but we probably know each other.

    2. ["And I think they understood that very well, and they have been preparing for what was in store."]

      Thanks to my amazing deductive reasoning power, I have extrapolated that warning the population is not part of an adequate "preparation" as of March 3th 2022.

      I can't wait for that surprise party when the day finally comes to make the grand announcement !

      Surely, they're not counting on a Bright Green transition to seamlessly take place while insisting that our loss of purchasing power is an imaginary construct ?
      Surely not.
      Because, democracies require well informed populations for optimal deliberations; especially on serious governance issues ... right ?
      Since freedom of the press is a given , truth must necessarily emerge at some point; you'd just imagine it arriving in a more timely manner if you ask me.

      I wonder what their idea of 'timely manner' is ?
      Does their "communicating it in due time" share any similarities in method to the way Homer Simpsons was taught the mechanics of sexual intercourse ?

  7. When Jimmy Carter told Americans to turn down their thermostats and put on sweaters, he was ridiculed.

    I started fighting with my "normal" middle/upper class family around 2006, when I was teaching environmental law and objected to my mother's plan for her 80th birthday cruise...circling around in a "cruise boat" polluting the Caribbean to stop and shop in little duty free stores...not one redeeming feature with her 8 children and 10 grandchildren...all of whom she took on graduation cruises, as well as back and forth from Palm Springs to LA for weekends, and trips to "Vegas." Recently there have been destination weddings, other events. I'll let you imagine the rest. When 5% of the population of the globe feels entitled to 25% of the energy use, and will listen to no matter of conservation or decency at all, you are in no man's land, where we find ourselves today. The values are infantile and deadly, and utterly unacknowledged. And, almost all of this changed post WWII...prior to that I can analyze most of my family in the past as having been economical and simple and modest...not necessarily uneducated, but not as self centered and unthinking as they are now....It's not just the leaders, it's the people. And they are going to pay dearly and soon for their foolishness. In my mother's mind, anyone who was in the way of "cheap" for her was the what if we bombed them. The grandmas are just as bad or worse than the big Ford truck owners.

    The US decided on nuclear war with the Dark Winter exercise in 2001, which Biden mentioned in his last debate with Trump. If 48% of the US public could be convinced of evil doings, it would justify a nuclear first strike. We are there now....the public is nutcase in both the EU and the US. They have been promised the spoils of Russia. Christine

    1. Well said Christine. I have seen the same things and reached similar conclusions. After the destination wedding one had to endure the justification for society not going all in on solar and electric transport, "it would hurt the poor" Though I am not sure what spoils from Russia have been promised .

  8. I often wonder what we fear to lose, our post enlightenment culture or the gizmos science and energy gave us? I learned about the high Medieval and Renaissance culture years ago at University. At the time we had no internet, no cell phones, no computers, just books and face to face learning. The gulf between then, 45 years ago and today seems larger than between 1976 and 1350. In an intellectual sense Im not sure we are any better off.

  9. Spiritually I have returned to fundamental Platonism which provides healthy objectivity and subjectivity in these times of epochal change.

  10. I live in Wisconsin USA, which would be virtually uninhabitable half the year if not for modern fossil fuel technology. This makes me nervous. I have been "touring" the English countryside and villages on YouTube. Love the stone work, nature, and overall charm. Moderate climate. Seems sustainable.

  11. The Protestant Reformation is the dramatic marking point for the turn to unsustainable living in the West, however the seeds for this where planted already a 1000 years ago with the Nominalists and Aquinas' turn from Plato toward Aristotle, from transcendence to dominance over nature.

  12. Abiotic Theory holds at least until science explains the abundant hydrocarbons on Titan.

  13. "the game that the elites know best is putting the commoners one against the other. It is the game being played right now."
    This is perfectly true. This is why I do not expect the Ukrainian situation to be solved soon. On the contrary. The French President has warned us: "the war will last and have lasting consequences". Does he know something? Did Putin tell him something we ignore when they met? Did they agree on anything?
    The interest of having a war that lasts is to make more victims, and in a more targeted way than with a nuclear weapon. This also serves the interests of Macron who will soon be able to announce that he is "suspending" the elections indefinitely.
    We will soon see the brutal face of power even in our "democracies" where we think we are well protected. Well, we have seen it already, but not yet in its entirety.
    The worse thing is that people, when scared, will ask for it.

    To come back to the denial of peak oil, the best informed journalists here in France talk about it with a deadline of 2030, as if in the next decade we would still be able to increase our consumption of fossil fuels.
    When I asked one of them, who is very well known, why he gave such a far deadline, he answered that he agreed that the deadline was shorter and that the subject was "well documented and followed at the highest level".
    He never told me why his official speech was out of step with what he actually knew.

  14. Prior to the 19th Century the Chinese followed a perfectly sustainable and eco-friendly way of life for centuries if not millennia. It was the Western world -- perhaps more specifically the English-speaking part of it -- that compelled China to switch to the modern way of life, which we now realize is going to lead us all to a very sorry state of affairs.

    Please don't tell me the Chinese chose by themselves to adopt the modern way of life. The very notion of leaving their traditional culture and way of life behind in exchange for a way of life professed by foreign barbarians would have struck the premodern Chinese as ludicrous. Why then did the Chinese adopt the modern way of life? Because if they didn't it would have been easy for the Western intruders to continue to trample on them, that's why. As for those who would enumerate to me all the failings of premodern Chinese civilization, my reply is: is the modern way of life a better alternative? It is one thing to practice foot-binding for women, to have no democracy etc, but a different level of bad altogether to bring about the sixth great mass extinction and the impending collapse of all human civilization.

    During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Chinese had to endure untold psychological (and often physical) agony as they adjusted to the Brave New World of the modern industrial West. Are they now going to have to endure yet another jolly good round of psychological (and physical) agony as they realize that this new way of life they adopted is now going to fail them? And that this is the bitter fruit of their earlier sacrifices?

    Such is the sorry state of affairs to which the West has led us all.

  15. Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect... Mark Twain

    There is nothing for Russia to gain. Russia has more fossil fuels in the ground than anyone else.

    Putin seems willing to destroy the Russian economy over hurt pride and paranoid fears. A ex US president calls it "genius". Could one imagine Dwight Eisenhower praising Leonid Brezshnev for invading Czechoslovakia in 1968?

    Switzerland froze Russian financial assets, setting aside a  tradition of neutrality. Germany  sent military equipment to the Ukraine, changing their constitution to do so.

    Russia appears to have lost more soldiers in a week than the USA did in 20 years in Afghanistan.

    Something is very very wrong here.

    The USA has engineered regime change over oil before 
    as our host mentioned.. Osama, Saddam, Assad, Qaddafi, etc.

    I sound like my paranoid uncle worrying about Jewish bankers.

    1. Andrei Bezrukov recently mention on Russian TV that Russia may choose autarky.

  16. Hello Ugo,
    Indeed, a game of only losers. It is a tragic spectacle of death that is filling our screens this week.
    A diversion, so that we don't notice that our savings are slowly evaporating and available resources are shrinking.
    It always feels good to blame a monster. Then we can feel like "good people".

    The only winners are the merchants of machine guns and drones. They are laughing until the last bullet has flown past.

    I suspect that we will see ECB starting "European Freedom Purchase Programme" with free money to all military equipment producers, and our currency further lose value.

    I suspect that the next monster will be one within. Maybe the retirees, like you suggested some months back? Maybe those who are not woke enough? Maybe those who refuse vaccines? Probably a group that has money to take, but little power, like highly-mortgaged people as in 2009?

    Let's see. The forever-war continues.


  17. So, it may well be that the PTBs perfectly understand the situation and that they are maneuvering to place themselves in a position to gain from the coming (actually ongoing) collapse... It is the game being played right now. Like the Russian Roulette, it is one of those games you won't necessarily survive.

    Prof. Bardi -- you’ve been mentioning exterminations on this iteration of your blog. Are you familiar with the concept of “The Jackpot” that sci-fi author William Gibson came up with in his novel “The Peripheral”? It is a combination of epidemics, wars, famines and other catastrophes that eliminates 80% of the human population during the remainder of the 21st Century. Forms the basis for the events of the novel, although Gibson does not spell out the blow-by-blow of how it happens. He doesn’t imagine it as being specifically engineered by malefactors at the World Economic Forum or any similar group; more that The Powers That Be allow bad trends to perpetuate so they can get rid of excess humanity. It’s fiction, of course, and the novel is set sometime in the 22nd Century, but I’d say we’re in a “Jackpot” scenario right now.

    Gibson is a visionary, and he’s come up with a lot of fascinating concepts. One of his books in the early 1990s was set in cyberspace while the Internet was only starting to sprout. I think he’s given credit for coining the word “cyberspace.” I don’t like him as an author, because his characters (especially the females) are too rational and cyborg-like. Gibson doesn’t do emotions well. And he does not seem to deeply grok resource limitations, especially Peak Oil. All his novels are set in techno-centric circumstances. Gibson does not envision the precepts you set out in this blog post. He’s got some good ideas, but like many (probably a majority) of people today, Gibson hasn’t wrapped his head around the idea that civilisation can go BACKWARDS in its technological basis. He’s worth a read, but I reckon you have a clearer view of the future than this science fiction writer who’s vastly better known than you are. Not that Gibson doesn’t deserve the fame, but you should be more widely acknowledged too. You’re too depressing (rightly so) for that to happen, though, like that Greek prophetess of fable. Just don’t go necking yourself like she did!

  18. Too late we discover that our lives must would been much more simple and bucholic.

  19. In the USA Bill Gates owns more farmland than any other individual, Ted Turner owns the most range land, and John Malone (rich from Liberty Media) owns most forest land. We are entering the period of new feudalism.

  20. Kamil Galeev has written a wonderful thread on the Russian predicament. In short, previously oil could be exploited from cheap places. The current exploitation in the Artic makes Russian oil some of the most expensive in the world to process as they not only require extensive capital investments but the oil itself is of worse quality (higher levels of sulphur which must be refined etc). Russia no longer have any cheap oil of good quality left and are dependent on Western machinery to extract and refine the oil in some of the most inhospitable terrains in the world:

  21. Hi Ugo,
    some time ago we exchanged e-mails on the hills group report. You didn't believe in it, i was convinced it had a correct core. Yes, it was filled with errors, but i eliminated them, corrected the formulas, and compared the conclusions of the HG report with current car production numbers. I finalized my conclusions in a book:
    Its written in german.