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, June 13, 2022

Bye-bye, university! How to leave research and be perfectly happy

 Imagine a university campus seen from a drone. Zoom down to one of the buildings. There, imagine a human figure running out of it, screaming while holding his head with his hands. Imagine him running and running, dashing out of the campus gate, and then disappearing in the fog, still running at full speed and screaming. That was me, leaving the University of Florence forever. 

I still had some time before mandatory retirement, but I couldn't take it anymore. The Covid regulations were the killing blow to an institution that had already become a monstrosity. And I left my university this March, after 40 years of employment. 

To explain why I quit my job, I should tell you how it is to work at a mid-level university. Of course, the definition of "mid-level" depends on the parameters you use, but the University of Florence is normally ranked somewhere within the first 500 universities worldwide. This is not so bad considering that there are tens of thousands of institutions in the world that label themselves as "universities." But it is nothing to be enthusiastic about. 

Is it a bad thing to work at a mid-level university? Not necessarily. I have experience working in top-level ones (just to name one, I was a post-doc at Berkeley) and I know that in a higher-level university I could have had a higher salary, more support, and more chances to attract financing. But also more stress, more pressure, and more control. 

So, I don't envy the life of the colleagues who have been running the rat race. The way scientific research is organized nowadays implies discouraging interdisciplinary and innovative research. Actually, not just discouraging -- the whole system aims at carpet bombing with napalm everything and everyone who tries to do something new. If you work in a top-level university, you are supposed to perform. And performing means acting strictly according to the rules. But, in a mid-level university, you are not so heavily pressured, and that gives you a chance to explore new ideas and move to new fields. 

To be clear, this is not a hymn to mediocrity. Being in a mid-level university does not mean you can't do top-level work. By all means, you can, and you should. True, you don't have the same kind of financial support you can have at the top scientific watering holes. From the periphery of the Global Empire, you just can't access the old boy networks that manage scientific funds. But you can compensate with creativity and flexibility. As an example, the Chemistry Department of the University of Florence, where I was working, scores consistently as the best department of chemistry in Italy, and it is at the top level worldwide in several fields. It has done so well, I think, because researchers were left mostly free to organize their work and to pursue the lines they thought were most rewarding. 

So, what led me to run away screaming from a structure that I considered not so bad? In one word: bureaucracy. It has been a slow trend but, year after year, bureaucrats had been penetrating more and more into the organization of research. They were the administrators, but also colleagues who gradually transmogrified themselves from researchers into paper-shufflers. As a result, we were asked to list our "products" (the name that bureaucrats give to scientific papers), to declare our bibliometric indices, and to fill out plenty of forms reporting on our performance. Also, bureaucrats saw the university as a cash cow and they made sure to take a larger and larger toll on the university budget. The number of administrative employees kept increasing and the salary of a top bureaucrat became higher than that of a senior faculty member. Eventually, the administrative director could fire the rector (not officially, but it happened in Florence). All that is not just a problem with the University of Florence, it is the same in all the universities of the world. 

The final nail in the coffin was the pandemic. It gave bureaucrats the possibility of scoring an epochal victory on faculty members. Truly, it was not just a victory, it was the complete annihilation of the enemy. Before the pandemic, the university was still a relatively open institution, where I was free to go anywhere on our campus and to receive anyone in my room. I could invite anyone to give a talk, from Italy or abroad. I could invite researchers from anywhere to work in my group. My students could visit me at any time, and the door of my office was always open. 

All that was vaporized by the regulations: a garden of delights for bureaucrats. The new rules were typically not based on verifiable data, but they were always strict, detailed, and rigid. Social distancing, face masks, sanitizing everything, even delicate and expensive instruments that didn't benefit from being sprayed with solvents. If I wanted to receive someone in my office, I had to ask permission from the director of the department at least 24 hours in advance, and explain who was the person I wanted to meet, why I wanted to meet him/her, and for how long. To enter our department, we were tested, sanitized, masked, QR-ed, and our body temperature measured. You see in the picture one of the infernal machines that appeared at the entrances of all the university buildings. It was correctly referred to as a "totem" -- an offering to evil deities. And no more socializing with your colleagues and students. No more than two persons per room, eating or drinking on the premises was strictly forbidden. Even the coffee machines in the corridors disappeared. (recently, they reappeared, but the surrounding conviviality didn't return: you have to keep at a certain distance, stay in line, follow the arrows painted on the floor). 

But that was nothing in comparison to what happened to teaching. For most people, a chemistry class is like a session with a dentist: you don't expect it to be pleasant, and you want it to be over as soon as possible. Yet, before the pandemic, lessons could be interactive, lively, and -- as much as possible -- interesting. You dealt with real human beings sitting in front of you, and you could discuss matters even not strictly related to the subject of your class. I had my students doing hands-on experiments, playing operational games, I had them learn how to make fire with a flint and once I had them sing a piece of polyphonic music. Maybe it was not chemistry, but they enjoyed that. 

All that disappeared in a whooshing sound with the pandemic. Suddenly, the students were turned from human beings into stamp-size images on a screen. And that was when they agreed to show their faces, you couldn't force them to. You had no idea if they were listening to you or playing games, or watching movies on their screens (If they were there at all). Even worse was the "mixed" mode that appeared in 2021. A few masked students could reserve seats in the classroom, and each occupied seat was spaced from the next one by two unoccupied ones (a rule surely based on solid data). The majority of the students would remain in remote mode, and you had exactly zero interaction with them -- you had no idea of who was listening to you if any did. A colleague of mine in another Italian university was suspended for six months from teaching as a punishment for having told her students on a hot day that they could lower their masks if they wanted. 

What was most shocking is how my colleagues took this bureaucratic storm. No protests, no questions, no discussions. I mean, we are supposed to be scientists: someone could have asked questions about the rules: what proof do you have that washing one's hands with solvents has any useful effect? On which basis were we forbidden to touch a piece of paper previously handed by a student? What proof do you have that staying at 1 meter from each other prevents infection? 

But no rule was criticized, no matter how quixotic. Administrators, and even many faculty members, were enthusiastic about the new rules. As in the Milgram experiment, they were given a chance to abuse their colleagues by taking formal or informal roles of guardians of the heavenly palace, and they took it gleefully. Before the pandemic, the lady at the reception desk was always smiling and kind. Afterward, she became something like a prison guard, even though she wasn't wearing a uniform. I can tell you that I have been a guest researcher at the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the guards at the entrance were more friendly. 

I don't remember what exactly was the last straw, but at some moment I found myself packing. Books, papers, pictures, equipment, and various stuff accumulated in forty years. Of my books, I donated some 350 of them to our library. The librarians were moderately happy to receive that gift, but they (and I) are perfectly aware that our students are becoming unable to understand English, so most of these books will just collect dust until they will be consumed in some fire at the end of our civilization. But so is life. In the picture, you can see me in the inner caverns of the library, with the books I laboriously carried there. 

And now what? Initially, I was a little afraid. Mandatory retirement in Europe is a terrible experience for the people who are forced to retire while still active and perfectly able to do their job. But, in my case, I have to thank the small peduncled creature that made me hate my job. I can tell you that I am not feeling anything like the "retirement shock" that killed some of my colleagues. No kidding: they fell sick and died shortly after retiring. And they were in perfect health before. 

So, right now, I am in perfect shape, and perfectly happy. It is over with boring classes, filling forms, attending meetings, be part of committees, and more useless ways to spend one's time. God, you really love me!!! I can spend all my time doing the things I love to do. Like spending an inordinate amount of time writing posts on the "Seneca Effect" blog. But not just that. Science can be a lot of fun when you are not pressured by review committees and funding agencies (see below). And I am also working on some weird things I won't tell you anything about. 

Hard times seem to be coming, but we have to accept what the universe has prepared for us. And so, the future is waiting for us. Who knows what expects us once we'll be there?


Fun with science

Science used to be something done just for the sake of learning new things, and I think it can still be done in this spirit. Check our paper (with Ilaria Perissi) on the "6th law of stupidity" and you'll see what I mean. Of course, the reviewers were horrified by a paper that was not boring. But, eventually, we overcame their criticism with good arguments and persistence. We (with Ilaria and others) also published a paper on dragonology (not exactly the science of dragons, but the dragons of science). 
Another paper written with Ilaria was inspired by Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" novel. We described how the cycle of whaling of 19th century is an example of the overexploitation of natural resources. It is a dynamical cycle that we simulated using a boardgame for educational purposes. The paper is under review, for the time being, you can take a look at an earlier version called the "Oil Game."  

We are now (again, with Ilaria) world-renown experts on mousetraps as related to nuclear explosions (the paper is on Arxiv, we have a full paper under review). In the picture, you see a mouse I captured recently. Don't worry, the little fella was not mistreated. It was released, alive and well, in a place where I am sure it can find food. 

You think all this is not serious science? Well, if you want serious science, here is serious science, at least in terms of words full of sound and fury: "The Role of Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) in Complex Adaptive Systems" (Perissi, Lavacchi, and Bardi). Serious stuff, but it was fun to study this subject, even though we wrote the paper in a rather boring form, full of mathematical formulas. 

By the way, if you dabble with EROI-related things, you know that the "Hubbert Curve" is the result of the declining EROI of oil extraction. And you may have asked yourself (but never dared to ask) what is the value of the EROI at "peak oil"? Well, you won't find that datum anywhere, but we (again, I and Ilaria) know! The paper is being prepared, and the mystery will be revealed soon. And there is more in the pipeline, including a long paper on the concept of "social holobionts" -- halfway through it, right now. Onward, fellow holobionts!

Ah.... I forgot: I also edited and published a new book! "Limits and Beyond


  1. Sorry to hear that you had to part ways with the University. You are not alone ... my wife also retired b/c of zoom classes, not bureaucracy... and many others too.
    So you have my condolences or congratulations, whichever is appropriate.

    1. Thanks, anonymous. But congratulations are much preferable to condolences!!

  2. Dear Ugo Bardi,

    A fascinating and moving testimony on an essential building block of Western civilisation falling...

    I found this line truly terrifying:

    "A colleague of mine in another Italian university was suspended without pay for one year for having told her students on a hot day that they could lower their masks if they wanted."

    Milgram experience indeed! Who would have thought such cruel absurdity even possible two years ago?

    A question, if I may: why is the English level of Italian students falling? (I would have thought they had more means to access the language, and more access and exposure to media to English media of all sorts?).

    Best of luck for your continued independant research!

    1. Yes, it looks like the university is a good observation point to watch the spectacle of the collapse of our civilization. About the students not being able to use English anymore, I am not sure. I have no quantitative data, it is an impression of mine. But many colleagues share the same impression. I think it is mostly part of the overall decline of the quality of our students. Note that they are not becoming stupid, not at all. They are just less and less interested in the things that the university proposes to them. As I say in the post, their attitude seems to be more and more that of a visit to a dentist. You know that you have to, but you don't enjoy the experience and you hope it will be as short as possible.

    2. About my colleague, she told me that it was in July, it was very hot in her university in Southern Italy. So, she told her students that they could lower their masks if they wanted. Suddenly, the rector stormed in, interrupted the lesson, then he requested to the "disciplinary committee" to suspend her for one year of unpaid leave. The disciplinary committee, in a show of mercy and benevolence, limited the sanction to 6 months, leaving to her a minimum allowance.

  3. Good luck with your future work. I look forward to reading more of your posts - particularly those that draw analogies between the end of the Roman Empire, Augustine of Hippo, and our world now.

    My son and daughter-in-law both teach at Universities in the U.S. They are equally frustrated about the rise of bureaucracy. I wonder if we might see a decline in traditional higher-level education, followed by a return to the Renaissance concept of University, with its multi-discipline education and its focus on the letters 'Uni-'. The late Harold Bloom of Yale University posed the question for our times, "Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?"

  4. Thank you for writing/editing the book 'Limits and Beyond'. I have reviewed the book through Chapter 8. A summary of the reviews is provided at

    1. Thank you, Ian. I'll comment on your evaluation in an upcoming post

  5. Congratulations on your retirement. May the learning continue.

    Increasing bureacracy = increased complexity ≅ collapse.


  6. Just a note, the links to the other blog posts at the end are wrong, and link to the blogger control panel of whoever clicks them. I think you copied them as a link to the source inside your blogger account, instead of the public url that people can see. Well, not sure if that makes much sense, but i really want to read that paper on dragonology!

  7. My father was a univesity professor (Uppsala) and I remember from my childhood (1960s-early 1970s) that he complained a lot about the bureaucracy and growth of administrative staff.

  8. Welcome in the club dragon pensioners .

  9. I retired in January. For pretty much the same reasons that you outlined (rough sanded to fit a slightly different reality).

    I suppose that I retired in two phases. I have spent about twenty-five years in research (immunology/molecular biology) when 2007 happened and I said "f%^$ it and went to work as a mid-level bureaucrat in a government entity.

    Quitting from research in 2007 was easy, working in private sector research becomes a demoralizing exercise after a while because the whole game is not really research, but product development and marketing for whatever suite of technologies your company has available. It was a strange form of prostitution, and I got tired of being a whore.
    Fast forward fifteen years and the arrival of COVID to a bureaucracy supposedly dedicated to the care of patients (Veterans Administration Hospitals). COVID allowed (and is continuing to allow) the administration to push away patients with serious health issues in order to protect their suite of technologies (MD's, etc).

    The administration was in its glory. Someone had handed them the hammer to fully take over the algorithm of patient care due to "standards from above" to be executed in an arbitrary manner. It also allowed then a more complete control over personnel that they obviously relished.

    Nope, I ran away again. There was no way that anything I said or did would mean anything. The upper bureaucrats, with their loyalties totally focus up the status tree above them had no intention of listening to what others felt. They were following orders from above with a carte blanche to shove it down the throats of the staff.

    So I am getting used to having more time on my hands than I can currently fill with activities. I make less money. I see fewer people. I write more. I worry less. There is a lot less anger now that I am not reminded every day, several times a day, that my concept of justice is not shared by the soulless beings that occupy administration.

    Wouldn't change a thing.

    Now if I could figure out the nature of consciousness.

  10. The 2018 book by David Graeber 'Bullshit Jobs' documents the modern rise in pointless work. There's been a move from 'real' working-class jobs where people do something that tends to be socially useful to middle-class jobs where they often do not, e.g. four tiers of 'middle and senior management'.

    It sounds as if universities were one of the last institutions to come under the influence of 'managerial feudalism', as he calls it.

  11. Thank you for the post Ugo. This resonates strongly with my current circumstances, especially your thoughts on retirement.

    I am in the early middle part of my career and walked out on a job for the first time 2 months ago, with not much thought given to putting myself under another employer's yoke just yet. I have this opportunity now, that might not be present in the future, to dedicate myself to the development of intuitions - and to put them into the world.

    It's not always easy to stand alone like this, and to bet that I can meet the test I have placed before myself, but I must thank God or the fates that I am able & willing to try. You and the many others of the present stepping out of line, to explore dark corners, and light beacons for the rest of us - it gives me courage that I can do the same.

  12. I hope you will keep going her Ugo, I came to you from Reddit years ago and stay for the insight. Dave Graeber who is mentioned in another comment also has a good book and critique on bureaucracy, "The Utopia of Rules"

  13. I got out after a short stint of post-doc work. The covid bureaucratic response sounds horrifying. It is strange living through a period of history when institutions have lost the capacity to think. One thing I would love to ask- do you think the students themselves are also falling out of love with the idea of university? I shifted to teaching high-school for a while, and the mood among the younger generations seems to be shifting. If students no longer choose to go to university, maybe the bureaucrats will make education mandatory up to age 30 instead to maintain their parasitic structures.

  14. Buenaventura in your new endeavours, from California, USA.

  15. Congratulations on your retirement.

    I've been wondering what all the professionals, scientists and engineers who don't want to put up with the BS will do in the years ahead. Now, I have a glimpse: scientific papers on dragons :)

  16. Thank you for your good mood and your spirit Ugo. May Gaia continue to infuse you with the enthusiasm that keeps you going, for a long time to come!

  17. Thank you for an enlightening article, even if it is saddening. The pendulum is swinging to the extreme at the moment on this issue, away from consciousness in our civilisation & towards ignorance. As you say though, this trend has been going on for a long time - I started my involvement in the university sector 30 years ago & stayed in different guises for about a decade. I then left already demoralised when quite young because I saw no hope of improvement. Academia had already been corrupted by neoliberalism so that creativity was being phased out by the accountants measuring 'cost-benefit analysis'. Laboratories/departments consisted of a powerful head who brokered grant money in political horse-trading with the administrators on behalf of those doing the actual work. Those at the top took most of the credit, pay & privileges, while most eventually left when they realised that they didn't know a benefactor who would be their patron so they could survive.

    On moving to the private sector, I found I only prostituted my integrity differently, creativity was still tightly controlled, only this time for profit by the petty tyrant who ran the company. In my case, actual science was limited to the minimum necessary to drive up the share price so those at the top could benefit before the house of cards collapsed. Financial security was illusory & cynicism grew like a cancer, the last straw was my finding that most of my intelligent colleagues mindlessly obeyed the edicts of the pandemic drama, despite us being uniquely positioned to understand the flaws in what we were being told.

    Touching on your mention of psychological experimentation, the most frightening thing for me was the realisation of how fragile our society is, if people can be so easily conditioned to obey unquestioningly. Looking back on horrific instances in history where it was difficult to understand how nominally decent, normal people acted so badly, I find it hard to have much faith in humanity. Everyone can be good until they are tested, but increase the pressure & it doesn't take much to reveal that mentally we are still just naked apes.

    Diasporan Nomad

  18. Ugo, I congratulate you on your choice. I have survived all this due to an extremely lucky combination of events. I was teaching online, admin asked me to take on an heavy course online, and I agreed on condition that I could teach from abroad. I have not set foot in there since 2020. You could look at one of the things I have collaborated on here (sorry for typos and broken links, it was put up yesterday)

    1. You mean you were teaching in Russia from abroad, or the reverse?

    2. Insegnavo dalla Russia in America. Sono diventato un esperto di VPN naturalmente.

  19. Ugo, I beat you to the punch. I taught engineering at San José State (including a course called "Cybernation and Man" -- the impact of technology on humanity) for 3 academic years from 1965 to 1968 to avoid the draft. Then I bailed when I reached 26 (the age beyond which the army determined it was too difficult to turn an adult back into an infant, to march in step as a member of an "infantry").

    Twenty years later I was on a beach in Baja with a buddy of mine from those days, and he asked me why I didn't keep teaching, as he knew I loved teaching. I came up with one word. Bureaucracy.

    That was in 1968! Four years later that same friend joined me to work with 28 students over a summer to build their own homes on campus at UC Davis. There the bureaucracy was nervous. I got a contract after I had been working on the project for over a month. I got a building permit a month later, after the construction was about 20% complete. The students finished the interiors of their homes in the fall while living in them, and back at school.

    The students and my team are having our 50th anniversary gathering this fall. Last night on my birthday, I got a call from one of the students and a text greeting from another. For once, community triumphed over bureaucracy. See it at

  20. It looks like many people had/are having the same experience I had. Well, the world is small. Let's enjoy life!

  21. I am sad, that so smart person is leaving university. It's a huge loss but probably it is the correct move. The universities really changed in the two last years, and they are not a place for wisdom and open discussion anymore.

    If you look for some other place to be, can I suggest SubStack? I recently found many incredible thinkers to express their opinion there. Specially, from higher education background. For example, this article really well summarizes most of my experience in last two years -, and you are not only one, who noticed some weird behavior in academia - dying academia

    Feel free to comment and open discuss this issues there. I feel really refreshed in space, where it is allowed to talk about our problems.

    Also, you mention that you will donate your books. Do you have some list of what kind of books you gathered? I would love to get some ideas of what to read =) And also can you expand more, why do Italian students losing ability to understand English? Is that due to some change in education, or why is this trend more observable?

    1. Thanks for the (underserved) praise, Martin. I noticed that there is plenty of good stuff on substack and I added the two sites you mention to my feeder -- interesting material. But I am not sure that it would be worth for me to move on substack. Do you think there would be good reasons for doing that? This blog is doing reasonably well on Google blogger, with an average of about 1500 contacts per day -- some posts are more successful than others, with a few thousand visualizations.

      About the books -- I choose the book to give to the library on the basis of an evaluation of whether I would have needed them in the future. Many were collector's items: chemistry and physics books from 50 to 100 years old. Nice things, but the space I have at home is limited. Others were books in my former research fields, surface chemistry, crystallography, catalysis, materials, and the like. What I took back home were books dealing with resources, systems, depletion, that kind of fields.

      Finally, about the students, I answered in another comment. The students are not getting dumber. They are simply less and less interested in what the university tries to teach them. As I say in the post, they see their classes as sessions with a dentist. Necessary, but hopefully brief.

    2. I think it could be a great tool for you. There are several advantages and I can list a few of them here. First, it's more flexible than Google blogger in simplicity and editor options. Also, you can publish or republish some of your articles and when you create a new post, it's automatically sent to all your subscribers, so they are notified of any new post in an e-mail box.

      Besides that, there is possibility to subscribe as paid subscriber and support your favorite writer financially. As a last thing, I can mention possibility to subscribe to other writers for free and see in your Inbox new posts, give them likes and also comment on articles in bigger threads.

      It's for sure worth give a try =) I really liked it.

  22. Greetings Prof Bardi, As a former tenured prof I am familiar with the politics of the academe... But alas, now you are truly free. Couple that with your skills and the not so insignificant circle of colleagues you have and now even greater things are possible!

    I have to say with respect to the recent past, the surgical masks, anti-social distancing and general hyperbole from CDC and WHO have astonished this engineer! I suppose what has disturbed me to the core is the universal rejection of scientific methods and the squelching of any rigorous debate in the universities. Meh, I now fully understand how co-opted the entire process has become. Perhaps the real agenda is somehow aligned with conservation of resources and responsible societal behavior. All of this seems like an obtuse way to achieve a result if indeed it was/is.

    I'm glad I'm out, but I do miss the students. I wish you many more years and great success in affecting change. Consider retirement to simply be Chapter Two.


  23. Enjoy "retirement" Ugo. Its now your time where you can choose to give to worthy recipients as opposed to giving to the unappreciative. In your case that non creative group administrators.

  24. Ugo, congratulations on your retirement. May we now be permitted to call you Professor Emeritus?

    I am now going to change everybody's life. How? I'll tell you. Once you have seen the face of the Screamer in the above painting as a Labrador dog, it is impossible to unsee it.

  25. Congratulations Ugo!

    Good move. I second the recommendation about Graeber's "Utopia of Rules".
    I hope you will keep meeting young people who dare to challenge your acquired wisdoms, not only your avid fans here on the blog. :)

    In many European countries, higher education has exploded. Rise of bureaucrats, more students, more rules, more temporary funding based on old-boys-network-brownie-points, less time and resources for real research.

    In some countries, there has also been an ongoing merger-trend to combine more and more institutions into megastructures to feed an endless army of administrators.

    Graeber suggested in another book (Bullshit Jobs) that the middle class (who is currently in power) is creating structures that generate lots of cozy office jobs with good salary for their higher-educated-children. Maybe the bloat of administrators is a side-effect of having more young people pushed through college, with no other real skills?
    Of course, since they add no value, they will sooner or later disappear or destroy their organization. In the industrial world, many organizations keep growing until they die. It was also described in the analysis of the Office of Colonial Affairs in the UK, which kept growing until there were no colonies left...

    Based on that, I suspect that our universities will keep growing and keep pretending to generate skilled intellectuals until the Seneca cliff of our currency evaporates the office work salaries... What do you think?
    In Russia in 1996, I met professors who were driving cabs in the evenings to put food on the table. I guess you had similar experiences there. When will the academic staff start to guide tourists in Florence to keep paying the rent?

    Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience from the trenches!


    1. This is a good observation on Graeber's part. In France we have a particular system parallel to the universities, the classes préparatoires, which lead to the Grandes Ecoles. This hyper-selective system has the sole purpose of separating students coming from wealthy cities from others. After 2 years there is no more social mix and the richest go to the best schools (Polytechnique, Centrale, Mines) with the best resources. The paradox is that on the basis of a scientific education these students will reach administrative positions in the civil service or in large companies without any relation to the content of their education. It is a real parasitic system while the universities, overcrowded with poor students, are left to decay. The parasitic class reproduces efficiently but will soon experience the end of the era of plenty and will cannibalize itself. I can't wait to see the outcome.

  26. "And you may have asked yourself (but never dared to ask) what is the value of the EROI at "peak oil"?"

    EROI is smoke and mirrors....

    EROEI is the real deal:

    The energy invested, measured in barrels of crude oil, say, is always millions of times more than the barrel extracted.

    And that is when a newly drilled oil well comes gushing - creating lakes of crude around the well (actually, that what has happened in Baba Gurger in Iraq, 1927, and many others).

    Not when water injected, gas injected, magical liquids injected to force the oil out

    Coal didn't take over wood - only after 60 years from its mass production in America.

    But that didn't stop the relentless deforestation of America to date.

    When oil started its mass extraction in Pennsylvania, wood and coal were produced like no tomorrow - just to produce hundreds of barrels of Pennsylvania oil a day.

    Only after 60+ years, Ghawar has come in 1937 online - and that's is after Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, American, Canadian, Romanian and S. American oils were produced in millions and millions of tonnes per annum.

    No matter how Ghawar has been massive and productive, all what it has produced was a subproduct of what energy has come before it.

    Ghawar will dry out before Iraq, Iran, Azeribidjan's oil - like Alaska and North Sea oils?

    Whatever oil fields have come last - they will disappear first:

    This is simply a testimony on there was never something like flying-carpet positive EROEI - as our Western Civilisation has claimed all the last 120+ years.

    "No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores"


  27. Congratulations, Ugo!
    I have been reading Drucker lately, and have been impressed by his clear understanding, already by the 1940's, of the organization as a social institution, whether that organization be a private corporation, a university, a primary or secondary school, a government agency, or a non-profit. He speaks a lot about the problems of bureaucracy and ossification, not only in Concept of the Corporation (1946) but also in his other work.

    While Drucker was clearly a genius, for me, the greatest book on this subject is Zamyatin's We. I am wondering if you have read We - I am thinking you have - and if that has influenced your view of things. Zamyatin was one of the first Soviet dissidents, but his story goes far beyond an indictment of the closed-mindedness and bureaucritization of the Bolsheviks once they were in power. For me, this book, which Ursula Le Guin called the greatest work of science fiction ever writtern, was a lighting bold of clarity about how industrialization does not only transform the living and non-living elements of the world into things "useful" for humans, it shapes us as much or more, turning us all, as you say, into postage-stamp sized boxes in a computer.

    Along the lines of Rousseau's "Afin donc que le pacte social ne soit pas un vain formulaire, il renferme tacitement cet engagement qui seul peut donner de la force aux autres, que quiconque refusera dʼobéir à la volonté générale y sera contraint par tout le corps: ce qui ne signifie autre chose, sinon quʼon le forcera dʼêtre libre..." they who cannot make themselves useful to the general will of society will be constrained by society, and will be forced to be useful.

    Not that you would need any book in order to realize how stifling to creativity, individuality, and orginal thought modern organizations can be in most - but maybe not all - cases. I know you are good at observing for yourself and I think many of us have had experiences of being fettered by what Kesey called "the machine."

    1. I remember having read "We" years ago. But the dystopic novel that comes mostly to my mind is Robert Silverberg's "The World Inside." Clearly inspired by Huxley's Brave new world, probably also by "We", it had a specific quirk: in the story, people had complete sexual freedom, but they had traded it in exchange for loosing all the other forms of freedom. Doesn't it make you think of something? BTW, Silverberg's novel was published in 1971

  28. Thanks for these observations, which apply also to other fields: In classical music there is a strict, permanent and all-embracing control preventing any innovation, as described by Prof.Leech-Wilkinson:

    And as a member of Swiss parliament I saw the same principles applied to public administration as exemplified in the public servants game: A dozen public servants sit in a circle the center of which is a loaded gun. The first who moves will be shot.


    Lukas Fierz

  29. I am so sorry. Your description of what took you away from the university is sad beyond words. But it seems like you have landed on your feet.

    I retired just a little bit early about 5 years ago. My colleagues still working described what they were going through during 2020 and 2021, and it made me grateful that I pulled the plug early and had at least a couple of years to enjoy unfettered access to the world before The Bureaucracy started locking down life.

    Enjoy your blog immensely, hope you'll continue to hang in there!

  30. Congratulations Ugo. I have decided to retire in 2023. I also think it is
    time to move on, though I will probably apply for emeritus status for at
    least 3 years.

    Fifty years ago I thought our institutions extremely well designed. Today I
    realize that our institutions: educational, political, judicial, economic,
    etc. have not incorporated much of what has been learned in the last 50
    years. For example relative to Covid 19 what would clear the air would be
    copyleft. Health care is a need. Intellectual property rights should not be
    a motivation to satisfy human needs. They are neither necessary, nor
    efficient for that purpose. All intellectual property in the health care
    industry should be covered by copyleft licenses. Note that copyleft
    licenses didn't make their appearance until the 1980s.

    A succession of improbable events has led me to look at my life quite
    differently. Forty years ago I thought of my life in an individualistic
    fashion. Today I see my life as part of a continuum of my family endeavors
    over many generations.

    I have become interested in design, of all manner of things. I have been
    lucky in that I have spent much of my life in buildings that have been
    designed with care. In particular since 2019 I have had an office in this
    building: I have
    far more confidence in the building than in its administrators!

    As you have noted, the period we live in is quite similar to that of 100
    years ago when coal production was peaking. I would like to point out that
    100 years ago, some thinkers, such as my grandfather
    (, took advantage of the period to rethink
    many things: aesthetics, architecture, social structure, politics, etc.
    Similarly, I think now is a time in which we should be giving serious
    thought to redesign our institutions, in particular many of our institutions
    were not robustly designed with respect to economic stagflation and

    After my retirement I plan to go to work for my daughter who does
    permaculture design and teaching. There is a great deal of hope among those
    of us who have embraced principles of permaculture. This year is The
    Schindler House centennial. What will be honored as seminal design in the
    next 100 years? My guess is something like the Kailash Ecovillage in
    Portland, Oregon:

    I recommend Andrew George on The Epic of Gilgamesh (in case you hadn't seen

  31. Same situation here! After 38 years at a large, prestigious university in the U.S., I called it quits, literally overnight. And while I was on the staff/administration side, the reasons were identical to yours. I am so glad I discovered your blog just now, and grateful to you for your wisdom and insight.

  32. Dr. Bardi, so glad to have found your blog, great read. I immediately looked at the EROEI paper you listed here. Was wondering whether you were aware of the Kalnay et al. work, who developed the Human and Nature Dynamics Model, HANDY?
    Kalnay et al., Ecological Economics 101, 90-102, 2014
    She gave a talk at Texas A&M in 2015 ... suffice it to say, the work was and is widely ignored ...
    - Gunnar

    1. Thanks, Gunnar. About the HANDY model, I commented on it on my old blog, at

    2. Thanks, I thought I probably missed it somewhere.
      Very cool stuff! Hope to pick your brain again sometime in the future, planning to read the 50-yr anniversary book from the Club of Rome next.