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."

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Colin Campbell (1931-2022). A tribute to the father of the "Peak Oil" concept


Colin Campbell died at 91, on Nov 13th, 2020, in his home, in Ballydehob, Ireland. He loved to illustrate the concept of peak oil using beer. No fancy theories, no ideology: beer is a real thing that you can't create out of thin air. And after you have drunk it, there is no more of it! 

I met Colin Campbell for the first time in Italy, in 2003, when I invited him to give a talk at the University of Florence. That day, it was clear that Colin was bringing us an important message. He knew that our world, our proud civilization, and our (perhaps) great achievements, were all based on the availability of cheap oil. No oil, no energy. No energy, no civilization. 

Not everyone who listened to him understood his message, but some of us did. It was just two years after that the Twin Towers in New York had fallen in flames. It was an event that screamed for an explanation, but that could not be understood in the framework of the world that was presented to us by the official media. It was on that day that a small group of Italian scientists and researchers collected in my office to meet Colin after his talk. An electrifying experience: we all had the impression that a veil was being lifted, that we could see what was behind the propaganda curtain, that we could finally perceive the machinery that kept the world moving. A new reality was being revealed to us. 

Colin was not an academic scientist. He was primarily an "oil man," people who have practical, no-nonsense views, and can't be easily swayed by ideologies or fashionable trends. People hardened by experience, used to setting realistic goals and attaining them. Colin was not a man who could be easily intimidated or browbeaten. 

As a former oil man, Colin had access to data that for most of us are too expensive to buy, or simply unavailable. Together with his longtime friend and coworker, Jean Laherrere, they revisited an old model that Marion King Hubbert had proposed in 1956, they revamped it with new data, and they published their results in a 1998 article in "Scientific American" titled "The End of Cheap Oil." The model was simple, and the data still uncertain, but the study went straight at its target and arrived at a clear conclusion: the oil resources of the world were becoming more and more expensive, and economic growth was going to be a thing of the past in a non-remote future. The consequences were unknown, but potentially disastrous. Later, I called the descent ahead the "Seneca Cliff,"

Colin was moving along a path parallel to the one created, some 30 years before, by the authors of "The Limits to Growth" and their sponsors, the Club of Rome. Colin was a big fan of the "Limits" study, actually one of those people who brought the study back to the attention of the public in the 2000s. Sharp-minded as usual, Colin could recognize ideas that were grounded in the real world. He would never have bought the vague arguments that had been deployed against the study, such as that resources are "created" by human intelligence. No, resources are something real, something physical, something that you can weigh and measure. They do not come for free: you must pay for what you extract, and the cost may be more than what you can afford to pay. This is the essence of the idea of gradual depletion that leads to the "bell-shaped" curve. It was the basis of the "Limits to Growth" study and the basis of the "Peak Oil" theory. Below, you can see the main result of the 1998 study.

In the early 2000s, Colin went on to establish the "association for the study of peak oil and gas" (ASPO). It was a group of scientists, intellectuals, and simple citizens who had understood a simple concept: the future was not going to be what we were told to expect. It was an attempt to alert governments and everyone about the dangers ahead. 

Rethinking about that story, today, it is amazing how Colin succeeded, alone and only with his own resources, in creating an organization that arrived to have some effect on the global debate. High-rank politicians heard the message, although often reacted by criticizing it. For a while, ASPO was also a watering hole for all sorts of subversives, including the arch-conspiracy theorist Michael Ruppert, whom I personally met in Vienna at one of the ASPO meetings. I am reasonably certain that ASPO was infiltrated by the CIA, I have no proof, of course, but I would be surprised if they hadn't probed ASPO to see what we were up to. Evidently, they decided that we were harmless (they were correct) and they left us in peace.

ASPO went through a cycle of popularity that lasted about 10 years. For a while, it looked like we could influence the world, that the people who had the power to do something would listen to our message and intervene. In 2005, Colin Campbell proposed his "Oil Protocol" (also called the "Rimini Protocol") that would have put a limit on the extraction rate of hydrocarbons worldwide. That raised much interest in the mid-2000s. But that didn't last for long. 

The trajectory of ASPO went along a similar path as that of the Club of Rome and its "Limits to Growth" study. In both cases, a group of intellectuals tried to alert the world rulers about the finiteness of the material resources on which the economy was based, and that something had to be done to avoid the "overconsumption trap" that would necessarily lead to a crash. In both cases, the message was rejected and demonized, then ignored. 

In 2008, ASPO's predictions seemed to have been borne out when oil prices shot up to levels never seen before. Was it "peak oil" arriving? It probably was, at least for what it had to do with "conventional" oil, but the consequences were unexpected. The powers that be reacted aggressively to the crisis, pumping gigantic amounts of money and resources into the exploitation of new oil and gas resources in the US. It was the start of the age of "fracking." From 2010 onward, a huge amount of oil started flowing out of the "tight oil" wells, reversing the declining trend that had started 40 years before. For many, it was the delivery from a nightmare. Some spoke of a "new era of abundance" that might have lasted for centuries, if not forever. 

None of the geologists in ASPO, or outside ASPO, had predicted this development. Cornucopians and catastrophists, alike, judged that the revenues from shale oil could not justify the costs of extraction. They couldn't believe that the oil industry would embark on such an expensive and uncertain adventure. Indeed, fracking didn't bring profits: it was mostly a political decision, meant to keep the current elites in power. In this sense, it worked very well, although nobody can say for how long. 

Fracking was the death knell for ASPO. After 2010, the public rapidly lost interest in peak oil, Perhaps it was unavoidable. People easily forget unsettling truths, much preferring comfortable lies. And that's what happened. ASPO never officially died, but it declined to a much lower level of activity than it had shown at the beginning. Colin Campbell retired in his home in Southern Ireland, and his last comment on peak oil was published in "Cassandra's Legacy" in 2018.

Rethinking today about Colin's legacy, we can see that he was not always right in his assessments. One of the limits of his approach was that it was focused only on oil and gas. His models were sometimes oversimplified, and, at times, he would be too quick in disparaging new technologies that could change the picture. Perhaps his main limit was to have overemphasized the importance of the peak date as a turning point for humankind and to have believed that it could be determined by models. I know that he understood that the peak was just one point in a smooth curve, and he said that several times in public statements. But many people misunderstood the meaning of "peak oil" and saw it as equivalent to "running out" of oil. For some, it was the equivalent of the religious concept of apocalypse, and that led to accusations against ASPO of being a millenarian cult of some kind. 

It should go without saying that Colin's ideas were as far from millenarism as they could possibly have been. His approach was good, data-based science, and he was fond of quoting Keynes saying, "when I have new data, I change my mind, what do you do, sir?" (actually, Samuelson said that). Colin's capability of dispassionately analyzing data led him to avoid the mistakes that other members of ASPO made, such as putting all their hopes on nuclear energy or refusing to accept climate science as a valid scientific field.  

So, even though right now the concept of "peak oil" seems to be out of fashion, good ideas are like souls. They move from one generation to another, being reborn as new incarnations if they are good. Campbell's ideas have that power, right now they are nearly forgotten, but waiting to reappear in a suitable body, like the spirit of the Dalai Lama. We, humans, forget things so easily, especially important things. But one day we'll understand Campbell's main message that what we get from the Earth may seem to be free, but it must be repaid, sooner or later. And the debt recovery agency employed by Gaia is ruthless and cannot be bribed using money. 

From the time when I first met Colin, that day in 2003, I considered him my mentor as I moved into a field of research, resource depletion, that was wholly new to me. It was in large part with his help, which he was always happy to provide, that I succeeded in carving for myself a niche in this new and fascinating field. Over the years, I came to know Colin and his wife Bobbins well. He was not the kind of man who cared for his public image, nor he was used to boasting about his accomplishments, but I can tell you one thing: he truly was a good person. He was at the highest level of the empathy scale, as my friend Chuck Pezeshky defines it. 

Colin cared for people. For his family, his friends, his coworkers, and also for humankind as a whole -- otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did with ASPO. He understood how resources, and crude oil in particular, are at the basis of much of the oppression and suffering of humankind, and he tried to do what he could to free people from this immense burden. Today, we can see him as one of the great minds of the past decades who tried to alert humankind of the dangers ahead, such as Aurelio Peccei, Donella Meadows, Rachel Carson, Herman Daly, and many others. They were not heard, but their memory will not be forgotten.  

May Colin rest in peace in the arms of that Earth that he studied so much as a geologist. 


  1. May he rest in peace. A true gentleman. I have a file of one of his presentations on my computer. We met twice in 2010 or 11. I will have to check. People do not seem to be able to grasp the simplest of concepts. He made it almost too simple, though as you say he believed in the honest accounting method of profit and loss. He could not conceive of the scale of money printing we followed after 08. Who could. He believed we could return to a simpler time, the one he grew up in. I do not see that happening now. It was a honour to have met him.

  2. Thank you for providing us with this news. His passing is a loss to all of us.

  3. Shooting the bearer of bad news is as old as humanity itself; when I explain things like this to my own friends and family [so a supposedly friendly audience] reactions are invariably highly negative. They range from ''don't worry, tech will save us like it always has in human history'', (magical thinking) through ''you have too much free time to despair'' up to even ''are you depressed?'' followed by urging me to get medication. Rather than accept even the possibility of bad news, even people who should love you will do an awful lot to make you conform by parroting the socially acceptable, majoritarian views of the day.

    So actually, he was lucky to live in our time because the establishment didn't torture him to recant his views and also he got out in time to not experience the fruits of our collective stupidity, so good for him !

  4. So sad to hear of his death. Thank you Ugo for this post. I never met Colin but his Atlas of Oil and Gas Depletion is in my library. Incredibly, the depletion story as told by Tainter, Heinberg, Tverberg, Berman, Limits authors and many more folks all over the world have been suppressed and replaced by ridiculous economic theory and what now appears to be a growing disregard for democratic processes the world over in a vain attempt to manufacture a growing GDP maintain control. One can imagine there are those who have concluded they have what they need to weather the storm and who cares about the rest... good luck with that! Tools like digital fiat currency connected to travel passports and "health" won't survive the chaos of billions of voices who one day come to understand the impact of these decisions. The masses may never understand the truth, but we all understand pain. But why? Why cloak reality - instead of hosting a truthful discourse that leads towards solutions that must ultimately involve decentralization and retraction? Is it too late to do anything? Why is that? was it the failure of governments to actually do what they were supposed to do? Was it greed and hubris among those fortunate enough to find them selves in a protected class? Cannot governments recognize a physics problem when they see one? LOL... indeed, this is just the beginning of the great show. The magnus opus of political double speak and technocratic babble has just begun. I have my popcorn ready and a comfortable chair.

    We are fortunate for the bravery and honesty of people like Colin Campbell. God Speed Mr Campbell.

  5. Thank you, Ugo, for this wonderful piece. Post peak oil is upon us, cloaked in "bad Russians!" Tim Watkins of Consciousness of Sheep does I think a great job of carrying the torch (and Tverberg, and others, as other commenters have mentioned)

  6. He was spot on about conventional crude peaking. I don't think anyone thought shale would last more than 5 years. Here we are red lining a little over a decade later. With 60% depletion rates, all but ensuring a seneca cliff from shale into terminal decline conventional. War will help facilitate decline. We'll find out sooner than later. Now opening a beer for you Colin.

    -Jeff Hendricks

  7. Two days ago, the local super market has replaced the paper-printed price labels with elegant e-ink type two-colours miniaturised screens that update prices wirelessly.

    Could this technology exist at the time of the Great Pyramid? No

    When the steam engine invented? No. When that tank invented? No. The Airplane? No, The moon landing? No. The dial-up Internet modem commercialised? No. iPhone? No....

    Only two days ago...

    Therefore, the energy required to build a single electronic price-tag out of trillions of other price-tags is greater than constructing the Pyramid, steam engines, tanks, airplanes and the Internet...

    And therefore, Ghawar has been a sub product of all energies came before it, Alaska oil is a sub product of Ghawar and all the energies came before it....

    William Jevons, Rudolf Clausius, Max Plank, M. King Hubert and the great Colin J. Campbell needed to go one extra mile....

    It is not the glass of beer that goes empty - but rather the energies prior to it are diminishing - for good, and here what humans need to worry about - not Peak Oil...

    Worrying about their cities, town, structures, systems and humans built and born during the fossil age from primitive man, from themselves - self-destroying them like all finite fossil resources - to the ground - thinking fossil resources can be better distributed to a plan....

    "No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can produce sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.
    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".


  8. I was at a talk by Colin Campbell in Dublin in 2000. The data was very interesting but man, his method of presentation was boring, he just sat beside the slide machin, gave the data ,but did nothing to connect with the audience. I thought ah, some Brit who cant be bothered to make an effort for the Irish. So Ugo's tribute is a bit of an eye opener for me. And he lived in Ireland> Never knew that. RIP.

  9. Putting a price on emissions and sending proceeds to the public is a sound environmental and economic strategy. Carbon Dividends.

    Carbon dividends incentivize less use of carbon. Carbon offsets and carbon dividends are two different animals.

    Carbon offsets are a shell game to keep the surrounding no change game going. Mass media will talk about carbon offsets, but not carbon dividends. Carbon dividends require democracy and they promote equity. Our modern world won't have that.

  10. Ah, Ugo, you are getting it all wrong... AGAIN!
    Oil is not a finite resource, mankind will frack his way out of limited resources by injecting heavy drilling muds and get oil through solid rock marble or limestone, and why not, even by harvesting cornucopia asteroids in space if we decide to do so!
    You see, problem solved!
    (I hope this time the sarcasm hue did get passed along in the wording).

  11. I became aware of ecological economist Herman Daly, who also died recently (late October), in 1981 from a curiosity foray, at the University of Texas Co-Op bookstore basement, exploring required readings being assigned by various profs in various departments. Half serendipitously, I chanced upon the classroom syllabus selections of economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, then visiting for a semester or full year from Vanderbilt University. That led to a Daly book on the bookstore shelves, and a purchase of it and one or two others, producing a gradual growing familiarity with the theses of Daly and Georgescu-Roegen, leading then indirectly to awareness of, pretty early on, M. King Hubbert. However, while I knew that Hubbert had correctly forecast the first U.S. (48-state) oil peak, I didn't have any clue as to what would happen on oil at the world level, until I came across the 1998 article in Scientific American by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, for thom I also have great respect. Over the next several years, I got further educated, and ended up at the first three annual meetings of ASPO-USA, 2005-2007 (Denver, Boston, Houston). Yet, two dozen years removed from the Scientific American piece, and particularly given the arrival of fracking, the subject still hasn't made an impact with the general public, nor even with its pols and talking heads, nor with most mainstream enviros. I get the impression that the issue may be that their literacy, and esteem for the same and their modes of conceptualization, is not sufficiently matched by adequate numeracy. My strong suspicion, then, is that such an asleep-at-the-wheel stance on the part of the citizenry will yield a bad outcome, although I'm 73 and may not be around to judge how accurate that suspicion nor how the outcome exactly will manifest itself.

  12. Willing or unwilling we all become, someday, food for thought. Thank you Ugo for your remembrance.
    Does coyote contemplate peak roadrunner in his extravagant use of Acme Corporation? Yet falling off a cliff is his expertise and he never learns.