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."
Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts
Showing posts with label climate change. Show all posts

Thursday, July 29, 2021

We are not in the Holocene Anymore: A World Without Permanent Ice.

The post below is reproduced from my blog "The Proud Holobionts," but I think the subject is compatible with the vision of the "Seneca Effect" blog. Indeed, everything is related on this planet and the concept of "holobiont" can be seen as strictly connected to the concept of "Seneca Cliff." Complex systems, both virtual and real, are networks that can be almost always seen as holobionts in their structure. A collapse, then, is when the network undergoes a chain of link breaking in a process known as the "Griffith fracture mechanism" in engineering (you see that everything is correlated!)
This post is also part of the material that myself and Chuck Pezeshki are assembling for a new book that will be titled (provisionally) "Holobiont: the new Science of Collaboration," where we plan to explore how new concepts in biology and network science can combine to give us the key to managing highly complex system: human societies, large and small. And the overarching concept that links all this is one: empathy.



When the Ice Will be Gone: The Greatest Change Seen on Earth in 30 Million Years.

From: "The Proud Holobionts," July 27, 2021


An image from the 2006 movie "The Meltdown," the second of the "Ice Ages" series. These movies attempted to present a picture of Earth during the Pleistocene. Of course, they were not supposed to be paleontology lessons, but they did show the megafauna of the time (mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and others) and the persistent ice, as you see in the figure. The plot of "The Meltdown" was based on a real event: the breakdown of the ice dam that kept the Lake Agassiz bonded inside the great glaciers of the Laurentide, in the North American continent. When the dam broke, some 15,000 years ago, the lake flowed into the sea in a giant flood that changed Earth's climate for more than a thousand years. So, the concept of ice ages as related to climate change is penetrating the human memesphere. It is strange that it is happening just when the human activity is pushing the ecosystem back to a pre-glacial period. If it happens, it will be the greatest change seen on Earth in 30 million years. And we won't be in the Holocene anymore.


We all know that there is permanent ice at Earth's poles: it forms glaciers and it covers huge areas of the sea. But is it there by chance, or is it functional in some way to Earth's ecosphere? 

Perhaps the first to ask this question was James Lovelock, the proposer (together with Lynn Margulis) of the concept of "Gaia" -- the name for the great holobiont that regulates the planetary ecosystem. Lovelock has always been a creative person and in his book "Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth" (1979) he reversed the conventional view of ice as a negative entity. Instead, he proposed that the permanent ice at the poles was part of the planetary homeostasis, actually optimizing the functioning of the ecosphere. 

Lovelock was perhaps influenced by the idea that the efficiency of a thermal engine is directly proportional to the temperature differences that a circulating fluid encounters. It may make sense: permanent ice creates large temperature difference between the poles and the equator and, as a consequence, winds and ocean currents are stronger, and the "pumps" that bring nutrients everywhere sustain more life. Unfortunately, this idea is probably wrong, but Lovelock has the merit to have opened the lid on a set of deep questions on the role of permanent ice in the ecosystem. What do we know about this matter?

It took some time for our ancestors to realize that permanent ice existed in large amounts in the high latitude regions. The first who saw the ice sheet of Greenland was probably Eric the Red, the Norwegian adventurer, when he traveled there around the year 1000. But he had no way to know the true extent of the inland ice, and he didn't report about them.

The first report I could find on Greenland's ice sheet is the 1820 "History Of Greenland", a translation of an earlier report (1757) in German by David Crantz, where you can find descriptions of the ice-covered inland mountains. By the early 20th century, the maps clearly showed Greenland as fully ice-covered. About Antarctica, by the end of the 19th century, it was known that it was also fully covered with a thick ice sheet. 

Earlier on, in the mid 19th century, Louis Agassiz had proposed a truly revolutionary idea: that of the ice age. According to Agassiz, in ancient times, much of Northern Europe and North America were covered with thick ice sheets. Gradually, it became clear that there had not been just one ice age, but several, coming and going in cycles. In 1930, Milutin Milankovich proposed that these cycles were linked to periodic variations in the insulation of the Northern Hemisphere, in turn caused by cycles in Earth's motion. For nearly a million years, Earth was a sort of giant pendulum in terms of the extent of the ice sheet. 

The 2006 movie "An inconvenient truth" was the first time when these discoveries were presented to the general public. Here we see Al Gore showing the temperature data of the past half million years.

An even more radical idea about ice ages appeared in 1992, when Joseph Kirkschvink proposed the concept of "Snowball Earth." The idea is that Earth was fully covered by ice at some moment around 700-600 million years ago, the period appropriately called "Cryogenian."

This super-ice age is still controversial: it will never be possible to prove that every square kilometer of the planet was under ice and there is some evidence that it was not the case. But, surely, we are dealing with a cooling phase much heavier than anything seen during relatively recent geological times.

While more ice ages were discovered, it was also clear that Earth had been ice-free for most of its long existence. Our times, with permanent ice at the poles, are rather exceptional. Let's take a look at the temperatures of the past 65 million years (the "Cenozoic"). See this remarkable image (click to see it in high resolution)

At the beginning of the Cenozoic, Earth was still reeling after the great disaster of the end of the Mesozoic, the one that led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs (by the way, almost certainly not caused by an asteroidal impact). But, from 50 million years ago onward, the trend has been constant: cooling. 

The Earth is now some 12 degrees centigrade colder than it was during the "warmhouse" of the Eocene. It was still ice-free up to about 35 million years ago but, gradually, permanent ice started accumulating, first in the Southern hemisphere, then in the Northern one. During the Cenozoic, Earth never was so cold as it is now.

The reasons for the gradual cooling are being debated, but the simplest explanation is that it is due to the decline of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. That, in turn, may be caused to a slowdown of the outgassing of carbon from Earth's interior. Maybe Earth is just becoming a little older and colder, and so less active in terms of volcanoes and similar phenomena. There are other explanations, including the collision of India with Central Asia and the rise of the Himalaya that caused a drawdown of CO2 generated by the erosion of silicates. But it is a hugely complicated story and let's not go into the details.

Let's go back to our times. Probably you heard how, just a few decades ago, those silly scientists were predicting that we would go back to an ice age. That's an exaggeration -- there never was such a claim in the scientific literature. But it is true that the idea of a new ice age was floating in the memesphere, and for good reasons: if the Earth had seen ice ages in the past, why not a new one? Look at these data:

These are temperatures and CO2 concentrations from the Vostok ice cores, in Antarctica (you may have seen these data in Al Gore's movie). They describe the glacial cycles of the past 400,000 years. Without going into the details of what causes the cycles (solar irradiation cycles trigger them, but do not cause them), you may note how low we went in both temperatures and CO2 concentrations at the coldest moments of the past ice ages. The latest ice age was especially cold and associated with very low CO2 concentrations. 

Was Earth poised to slide down to another "snowball" condition? It cannot be excluded. What we know for sure is that during the past million years, the Earth tethered close to the snowball catastrophe every 100,000 years or so. What saved it from sliding all the way into an icy death?

There are several factors that may have stopped the ice from expanding all the way to the equator. For one thing, the sun irradiation is today about 7% larger than it was at the time of the last snowball episode, during the Cryogenian. But that may not enough as an explanation. Another factor is that the cold and the low CO2 concentrations may have led to a weakening -- or even to a stop -- of the biological pump in the oceans and of the biotic pump on land. Both these pumps cycle water and nutrients, keeping the biosphere alive and well. Their near disappearance may have caused a general loss of activity of the biosphere and, hence, the loss of one of the mechanisms that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. So, CO2 concentrations increased as a result of the continuing geological emissions, unaffected by changes of the biosphere. Note how, in the figure, the CO2 concentration and temperatures are perfectly superimposable during the warming phases: the reaction of the temperature to the CO2 increase was instantaneous on a geological time scale. Another factor may have been the desertification of the land that led to an increase in atmospheric dust that landed on the top of the glaciers. That lowered the albedo (the reflected fraction of light) of the system and led to a new warming phase. A very complicated story that is still being unraveled.  

But how close was the biosphere to total disaster? We will never know. What we know is that, 20 thousand years ago, the atmosphere contained just 180 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 (today, we are at 410 ppm). That was close to the survival limit of green plants and there is evidence of extensive desertification during these periods. Life was hard for the biosphere during the recent ice ages, although not so bad as in the Cryogenian. Lovelock's idea that permanent ice at the poles is good for life just doesn't seem to be right.

Of course, the idea that we could go back to a new ice age was legitimate in the 1950s, not anymore as we understand the role of human activities on climate. Some people maintain that it was a good thing that humans started burning fossil hydrocarbons since that "saved us from a new ice age." Maybe, but this is a classic case of too much of a good thing. We are pumping so much CO2 into the atmosphere that our problem is now the opposite: we are not facing an "icehouse Earth" but a "warmhouse" or even a "hothouse" Earth. 

A "hothouse Earth" would be a true disaster since it was the main cause of the mass extinctions that took place in the remote past of our planet. Mainly, the hothouse episodes were the result of outbursts of CO2 generated by the enormous volcanic eruptions called "large igneous provinces." In principle, human emissions can't even remotely match these events. According to some calculations, we would need to keep burning fossil fuels for 500 years at the current rates to create a hothouse like the one that killed the dinosaurs (but, there is always that detail that non linear systems always surprise you . . .)

Still, considering feedback effects such as the release of methane buried in the permafrost, it is perfectly possible that human emissions could bring CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere at levels of the order of 600-800 ppm, or even more, comparable to those of the Eocene, when temperatures were 12 degrees higher than they are now. We may reach the condition called, sometimes, "warmhouse Earth."

From the human viewpoint, it would be a disaster. If the change were to occur in a relatively short time, say, of the order of a few centuries, the human civilization is probably toast. We are not equipped to cope with this kind of change. Just think of what happened some 14,500 years ago, when the great Laurentide ice sheet in North America fragmented and collapsed. (image source) (the 2006 movie "Meltdown" was inspired exactly by this event). Earth's climate went through a series of cold and warm spells that is hard to think we could survive. 


Human survival concerns are legitimate, but probably irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. If we go back to the Eocene, the ecosystem would take a big hit during the transition, but it would survive and then adapt to the new conditions. In terms of life, the Eocene has been described as "luxuriant." With plenty of CO2 in the atmosphere, forests were thriving and, probably, the biotic pump provided abundant water everywhere inland, even though the temperatures were relatively uniform at different latitudes. A possible mental model for that period is the modern tropical forests of Central Africa or Indonesia. We don't have data that would allow us to compare Earth's productivity today with that of the Eocene, but we can't exclude that the Eocene was more productive in terms of life. Humans might well adapt to this new world, although their survival during the transition is by no means guaranteed. 

Again, it seems that Lovelock was wrong when he said that ice ages optimize the functioning of the biosphere. But maybe there is more to this idea. At least for one thing, ice ages have a good effect on life. Take a look at this image that summarizes the main ice ages of Earth's long history

 (image source)

The interesting point is that ice ages seem to occur just before major transitions in the evolutionary history of Earth. We don't know much about the Huronian ice age, but it occurred just at the boundary of the Archean and the Proterozoic, at the time of the appearance of the Eucaryotes. Then, the Cryogenian preceded the Ediacaran period and the appearance of multicellular life that colonized the land. Finally, even the evolution of the Homo Sapiens species may be related to the most recent ice age cycle. With the cooling of the planet and the reduction of the extent of forested areas, our ancestors were forced to leave the comfortable forests where they had lived up to then and take up a more dangerous lifestyle in the savannas. And you know what it led to!

So, maybe there is something good in ice ages and, after all, James Lovelock's intuition may have hinted at an important insight in how evolution works. Then, there remains the question of how exactly ice ages drive evolution. Maybe they have an active role, or maybe they are simply a parallel effect of the real cause that drives evolution, quite possibly the increasing concentration of atmospheric oxygen that has accompanied the biosphere over the past 2.7 billion years. Oxygen is the magic pill that boosts the metabolism of aerobic creatures -- what makes possible creatures like us. 

In any case, it is likely that ice ages will soon be a thing of the past on planet Earth. The effect of the human perturbation may be moderate and, when humans will stop burning fossil hydrocarbons (they have to, one day or another) the system may reabsorb the excess CO2 and gradually return to the ice age cycles of the past. That may occur in times of the order of at least several thousand years, possibly several tens of thousands. But the climate is a non-linear system and it may react by reinforcing the perturbation -- the results are unknowable. 

What we know for sure is that the cycle of Earth's ecosystem (Gaia) is limited. We still have about 600 million years before the sun's increasing brightness takes Earth to a different condition: that of "wet greenhouse" that will bring the oceans to boil and extinguish all life on the planet. And so it will be what it will have to be. Gaia is long-lived, but not eternal.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 18, 2021

Four Scenarios for a Catastrophic Future (part II)

This is the second part of the series of posts by "Rutilius Namatianus" (RN) that re-examines the 4 scenarios of the future proposed by David Holmgren in 2009 (first part). 

 In general, you may find that RN's interpretations are rather extreme, but I do believe that there is some method in the overall madness of the current situation and that the post may correctly identify some of of the reasons why we are here. You will also notice that RN is "not convinced" that Anthropogenic Global Warming is real. I disagree with this position, but I felt that this post was worth publishing nevertheless. If nothing else as evidence of how fast the prestige of science is collapsing, by now more or less at the same level as that of the cult of the Spaghetti Monster. 

Overall, RN argues that we have moved into the scenario that Holmgren called the "Brown Tech" scenario, where the ruling elites have decided that the way to go is to concentrate all the remaining resources for their use, while the commoners are left in the cold. RN describes this scenario as "a totalitarian monster gripping power through a pervasive surveillance and police state, and the majority of the population pressed into poverty and dependence." Enjoy this post!

 By Rutilius Namatianus


Ten years after the financial collapse of 2008, it was surprising that the 'establishment' had managed to hang on to control of the situation with increasingly outlandish financial manipulations. Behind the scenes though, we must also acknowledge that they only managed to pull of this magic trick because they also had a huge networked surveillance-and-control system that they expanded at top speed after the crisis. 

This period saw the proliferation of laws and regulations all designed to trap peoples finances in an elaborate electronic fun-house where there is no stable measure of anything. the proliferation of automatic collection of data, recording of every last transaction, reporting into centralized databases automatically of everything people do, and an increasingly arbitrary and opaque (and violent) system of punishment for anything 'suspicious' or 'out of the ordinary.' It cowed most of the population of the developed world into a kind of nervous submission. 

In the less developed world, we saw a huge upsurge in violence, disorder, and general upheaval as people do not accept even deeper poverty with acquiescence. It is telling that in the West the tablet-generation of people glued to small portable media devices all their waking lives has coincided with them being docile enough to accept these extreme measures of fraud which have kept the wheels on (if wobbling) the cart ten years after the big crash hit. This might well be by now a critical component of the control system and any interruption or degradation of it or its effectiveness could lead to chaos in the 'West'. So right now, in 2019, we know for sure that we're in Holmgren's 'brown tech' scenario but with a propaganda narrative of 'green tech' as a Potemkin facade. 

As real energy and resources decline, the brown tech power structures have managed to keep selling increased poverty as 'being green' but it's getting tougher to sell this to people as they realize they are getting poorer. The past couple of years have shown some developments: Brexit in Europe, the Visegrad countries resisting the EU migration agenda, led by Hungary's Orban, but echoed in not-yet-majority movements in a half dozen other countries (viz, Italy managed to put Salvini in power for a year before Brussels regained control of Italy and evicted Salvini just this year). We saw the Cyprus bank confiscation and four years of Greek 'bailout agreements' which put the country in receivership with a lapdog government executing all orders from the bankers. This continues today. 

North and West of there, the non-Greek rest of the EU can see what happened and knows they're next on the list. In the US we have the whole story of the Trump presidency. This was something the 'establishment' did not prepare for, and while they have effectively isolated him from his administration to continue the basic life support functions of the 'deep state' in the US, there has been policy stagnation in the US for three years as everything and everyone has become obsessed and preoccupied with a Trump-versus-antitrump polarization. The accompanying breakdown of reality into surrealistic political fantasy in America, with the dominance of identity politics, absolutely everything as 'fake news' and everyone following narratives instead of reality, all around, have kept America, ironically, from really moving further into the totalitarian zone of the brown tech scenario. Three more years of inconclusive wars on fringe territories have led to no real change in geostrategic balances, as the other main contenders are in equally shabby condition and busy propping up their own narratives.

A new angle 

One thing I want to propose now is a modification of Holmgren's mapping. It was pretty clear to many of us back when these scenarios were being worked out (2007-2009) that the 'green tech' future was nothing but fantasy, even then. Holmgren acknowledges that a lot of the debate of these scenarios took place in an excellent forum known as 'The Oil Drum' from the early 2000s to about 2012. By 2012 most of the main contributors and discussants in the Oil Drum had concluded their own ideas about what was going on and were already putting into action their responses, most of which involved changes of career, lifestyle, and so on, and left much less time for talking on forums about it, and meant much more hard work preparing for or dealing with the crisis. That forum is now just kept as an archive. Still, even then, many of us saw 'green tech' style scenarios as fantasy. 

Now, in 2019, it is clear that indeed, green tech was never a realistic prospect. We are already a decade into brown tech. The question is where to from here. Another big factor is the 'climate change' variable. Holmgren took this as fact. Not all of us were so convinced that it was either so serious or so related to human activity. To some of us, the climate changes look more like cycles related to solar activity and orbital aberrations similar to those which brought us the Roman warm period, the early medieval cold period, the medieval warm period, and the little ice age. Beyond that, the timescale of energy and resource decline likely makes any question of climate change irrelevant. Therefore considering this possibility, we might want to rethink the climate axis on Holmgren's map. We might want to replace it with another axis! 

It has been shown that post-2008 the brown tech elites and power structures have managed to hang on to control through increasing use of extreme surveillance and tightly networked instrumentation of more and more of the economy. This intimidates people into submission and also locks them into a tighter loop of dependence- if you will yourself directly starve because your digibit-card gets shut off or stops working, then you feel it and the threat of it immediately and you will sit down and shut up much more readily than if you only know abstractly that if the city burns down in riots, that the supermarkets won't get resupplied next week. It's a weaker connection back to the feedback loop and people are more likely to rebel. And along the gradient to that extreme, if your digibit-card gets nicked by a fine or penalty of basically being subversive or voicing dissent, then you'll keep your mouth shut- viz China's rapid rollout of 'social credit' as a mechanism of automated electronic mass control. This has the potential to ride heavy demand destruction down the decline curve without the elites losing control. 

So it seems first of all that Holmgren's four scenarios are really three - brown tech is the current reality already a decade on, and there is a bifurcation (Holmgren treats this possibility in his paper) between lifeboat and earth steward depending on local conditions. in different places the scenarios coexist. A new fourth scenario might be added which we might call 'mad max,' if it could be even more dystopian and extreme collapse than 'lifeboat'. a major variable in all this would seem to be how long Brown Tech keeps control, and how tightly they manage to clamp down. Thus, Brown Tech already left behind its 'green tech' possibility but still keeps up a facade of 'green tech' and a self-indulgent shiny consumer existence for a portion of the population. This could almost be called a Huxley's scenario. Behind the pleasant facade of Brown Tech is a totalitarian monster gripping power through a pervasive surveillance and police state, and the majority of the population pressed into poverty and dependence- a scenario that could easily be named '1984'. 

It is clear that 'Huxley and '1984' can coexist and one transitions into the other as resources decline. but let's plot a new map based on this thinking: on one axis, we have, as before, resource/energy depletion, slow vs fast. on the other, we have consolidation of power, slow/moderate to fast/total. in the slow depletion, slow/moderate consolidation quadrant, we have a scenario that's Huxley with some 20th-century style fascism and the veneer of civilization, with a future of staircase type catabolic decline into one of the other scenarios depending on which one goes sooner, energy or control. This is Holmgren's Brown Tech scenario with a nice face. 

In the slow depletion, fast/total control quadrant, we have the ugly face of Brown Tech, which I've called 'brown tech apotheosis'. This can hang on as long as it keeps the resource depletion variable above some threshold limits. On the fast depletion, slow/moderate control quadrant, we have Holmgren's Lifeboat scenario. Power doesn't manage to consolidate, and resource limits break things down into wars, chaos, and finally a low complexity lifeboat world. On the fast depletion, fast/total control quadrant, we have a period of 1984 which transforms into more or less worldwide war, and then as the wars burn out, leave behind a condition I've called 'mad max'. This is a very bleak and ugly version of the Lifeboat scenario. 

Actually, Mad max, Lifeboat, and Earth steward are all along an axis depending on local conditions, as terminal points of the chain of evolution of these scenarios (extinction is also a point on this axis, even though further beyond mad max). It seems the main variables that distinguish earth steward, lifeboat, mad max, and extinction, are local conditions (environment, climate, population salvageable resources, etc), plus the trajectory which was followed to get there through the previous map- a trajectory through 1984 and WW3 is more likely to terminate in mad max or extinction, whereas a trajectory through lifeboat might lead to enclaves of earth steward. It is looking as if much of the Third World and the US are going through worse conditions now, but will avoid some of the worst later, for example.

Thus, it is useful to try to figure out not only where we are on this map but what path we have been following and how it might evolve further, acknowledging that not every part of the world is following exactly the same trajectory. So we can also try to follow different futures for different regions. It does seem clear that before the 2005-2008 time of peak net energy, there had been in force a long trend toward tighter integration of the global economy. Thus, it is useful to consider all regions more or less as starting in the same spot circa 2005 and plot their divergence since then. 



First, let's try to see if we can get a better understanding of where we are along the depletion axis. This at least should be easier to observe and quantify than the consolidation of the control axis. We know that in 2005 our scenario begins somewhere in the 'Huxley' quadrant near the left side of the depletion axis. We know (as we suspected years back) that the recent bumps in oil/gas production and plateau maintenance of coal production have been ever lower quality resources with lower net energy and steeper decline profiles in time. We don't know if we have already crossed the middle of the map with respect to depletion but we can be pretty sure we're close to it if not over it. 

We also know that absent some unpredictable step function down in production (due to some one-off natural phenomenon like an earthquake, or to some out of band event like a war), that the decline profile will be messy but accelerating downward over a period of a couple decades. We could easily already be some years into that and just on a bump- or we might have another fifteen or twenty years to go before the bottom falls out. 

So what else do we know? We know that in 2008 we fell off peak energy and have been sliding downward for eleven years. We also know that at the time the power elites of the Huxley/brown-tech-with-a-nice-face scene, managed through increasingly extreme distortions, to keep control. The rapidity of those measures is definitely a step function type of move, so we are pretty sure we took the step out of the Huxley quadrant in 2008/2009 down into the 1984 quadrant. There is still plenty of nuance in that quadrant and most of us reading this on a computer screen are living in the Huxley zone that, while shrinking, coincides with a growing 1984 zone as parts of the same general 'establishment'. We know that 2016-2019 saw a lot of bumpy resistance to the further consolidation of control, but also saw successful responses and regaining of control by power elites in many areas. We know that now in 2019, as well as in 2010 or 2015, we were further along the depletion axis than we were in 2008 and that this is basically monotonic in time. We wont find any new resources or high-quality energy sources from here on out.

We haven't yet fallen into world war 3 (apparently), so we're still in the Huxley/1984 mix, with the Huxley component bleeding out and the 1984 cauldron waiting to collect all who fall through the cracks in the Huxley facade. And yet, wherever the brown tech/1984 steamroller has not managed to erect such an effective electronic prison, we can see massive increases in riots, chaos, violence, etc, over the past decade. That's characteristic of world war type scenarios even if it's not organized military units fighting organized campaigns.

Not to mention that the past decade has seen more of the earth's surface and population caught up in organized military violence as well. So we're somewhere between 1984 and ww3 with some Huxley on top for those still living the comfortable life. We see some major bifurcation points ahead: the last round of crazy finance manipulation and twilight-zone measures like negative interest rates and financial
markets that only go up on exponentially exploding debt numbers, all the insane measures taken in the past decade, seem to be running out of gas. New injections of imaginary digibit money have less of an effect on markets than previous injections and the effects don't last as long. People are figuring out that they're poorer and even in the developed world they're getting more restless about it. Challengers to the narrative of the elites are appearing and even managing to gain positions in prominent public office sometimes, though so far the brown tech elites have managed to keep them in check. This hints that if the brown tech elites are going to keep control and keep the scenario in the brown tech apotheosis quadrant of the map, they must up their game- new measures for even more total control. And they are working hard to do so.

Thus one major bifurcation point approaching is the question of how successful will these new measures be? It seems clear that these measures will largely involve electronic and computerized technologies- surveillance, instrumentation, automation, and centralization of processes to insert a control mechanism into the loop of execution of even simple routine actions. It's an electronic panopticon prison for the whole world, something which many people (criticized by the mass media as cranks, weirdos, conspiracy theorists, or nutjobs) have been yammering about for years. And yet that's the only real option for the elites to keep control. 

They cant control the depletion axis, that's physics driving that dimension. They can slow down the progress along that axis only be destroying resource demand, which means making people poorer or reducing their number (or a combination of the two). While an extreme version of this might be a mass-extermination of most of the human population to allow an elite to live richly for centuries yet to come in some techno-enhanced prolongation of the Huxley scenario, this is an absurdly unlikely trajectory fraught with too many real engineering problems to be realistic. Not that the elites of the brown tech world couldn't accomplish the kill-off of billions, that's a technically feasible move, but rather that they wouldn't be able to keep up a technological empire afterward. They would merely instead transition rapidly and sharply through a world-war-3 phase into the mad max with enclaves of an especially evil lifeboat scenario, some of which would be whatever remained of those elites. 

Thus it seems clear that all trajectories ultimately lead monotonically to the right and eventually either down to (near-?) extinction or, even if they bow deeply down through mad max, ultimately curve back up into lifeboat. So some combination of population decline and increased poverty, though, can prolong the elite's hold on a brown-tech/Huxley scenario, and this seems obvious to be their main focus. The equal amount of noise about the evil lurking beneath the surface of trends like the UN 'agenda 21' and other such forces, while they might sound like far-out conspiracy theories would actually fit perfectly with an effort to hang on to a brown-tech Huxley/1984 hybrid world as long as possible, with the Huxley fragment keeping control. 

However, it is not at all clear how they will manage this next round of measures without also breaking some of the electronic facades that have kept the populations of the developed countries docile thus far. It looks like their aim there instead is to drop the facade and dump the mass of them into 1984 rather swiftly by closing the last loose ends in economic activity, communication, and individual tracking of people's movements 24/7. Once they feel confident they have those pieces in place they can drop the remains of the facade and they will have locked the majority into the 1984 scenario, which can continue for perhaps even a decade or more before it melts down into mad max. 

That's a scary proposition for anyone alive right now, because it would mean most of the rest of his life would be lived through such a scenario. Another bifurcation question is in the world war direction- will for example the widening rift between the US and China turn more hostile and end up in a hot war? will it percolate into more proxy wars in the third world? Cold war? How rapidly will it move in that direction? In some aspects, the map and our experience hint to us that we're already in WW3, it just doesn't look like any world war we've seen before. Further refinements can be attempted at drawing trajectories, for smaller regions, by trying to identify local conditions which will influence the bigger trends as the play out in those regions. Let's try to picture what we know or think is a pretty solid guess for some major modern blocs: the US, the EU, the 'third world', and China. (places like Japan and Australia go largely with the US in this picture). 

The future will be examined in the next installment of this series of posts.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Honoring a Fallen Enemy: the Death of Rush Limbaugh


Rush Limbaugh has died at 70. Defined as "The most dangerous man in America," climate science denier, friend of Donald Trump, accused of racism and of all sorts of evil deeds. Eventually, though, a human being like all of us. 

Quomodo fabula, sic vita: non quam diu, sed quam bene acta sit, refert. (Life is like a play: it's not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters to Licilius.


Years ago, the vagaries of life led me to have a meal in a restaurant in Bucharest. There, I discovered that the cook was Italian and I had a long chat with him. One thing he told me was that he had been the personal cook of Dick Cheney, in the US. 

Yes, Dick Cheney, the man behind the "Project for a New American Century," of the attack on Iraq, of the fake story of the "weapons of mass destruction," and God knows of how many more dark and dire things we don't know about. I have no reason to doubt the story I was told: what surprised me was that he told me that Cheney was "the best employer he had ever had," kind, considerate, and he paid well. And I have no reason to doubt that, either. 

You see, I am fascinated by evil. It is a theme that goes deep into everything we do and we think. Does evil really exist? Do evil people exist?  An Italian writer of one century ago, Armando Vacca, noted how the Great War was fought with the people on both sides all thinking they were fighting for a good cause. And he asked himself the question: "who would ever want to fight an unjust war?" A related question is, "who would ever want to live an evil life?" Evil may be something more subtle than it seems to be.

Nowadays, our view of the world is dominated by the search for evil. We seem to have lost our moral compass so completely that we can see ourselves as good only if we can identify someone evil to be in contrast with. It has been like that during the past century or so. But who are these evil rulers? Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Cheney, and many others, were they really evil or just said to be evil by their enemies? About Mussolini, I looked into the matter as much as I could and I arrived at the conclusion that he was not a man who had pleasure in harming others, which is a possible definition of "evil". He was, mainly, a man whose mind had aged and who had retreated behind the mask of the Duce degli Italiani. The man had become the mask and he wore that mask all the time. He had come to believe in his own propaganda and he really thought that he was doing something good for Italy. 

So, evil is not a question of someone enjoying hurting or killing other people while satanically laughing. It is a question of the mask that every one of us wears. The very concept of "persona" is related to that of mask. It may come from the Latin verb per-sonare, literally: sounding through, referred to the masks actors wore in theatrical performances. We all go through life wearing a mask, sometimes more than one. And we often identify so much with the mask we wear that we forget what we might be without it. 

So, evil people are best detected when they are in a position where they can do much more damage than the average person. My experience of when I occasionally crossed paths with high-level people agrees with what the Italian cook I met in Bucharest told me. High-level people can be absolutely charming, it is a skill that they develop to arrive at the top. Does that mean that the powerful always lie their way upward? Not really. They just wear their mask, their persona, and that's what they become. We all do the same.

So, how about Rush Limbaugh? I must say that I never heard him speak live, but I knew who he was and how he had influenced many people. For me, he was a sort of a distant bogeyman, and I am reasonably sure I would disagree with maybe 99% of the things he was saying. But does that mean he was evil? Difficult to say, unless you happened to meet his cook. 

From what comes out of a debate he had with Peter Gleick (a climate scientist), Limbaugh doesn't come out as evil, more like the typical climate science denier.  Not a person who consciously lies, just a person who lacks the intellectual tools needed to think quantitatively. That is, your next-door neighbor. 

Roy Spencer (another climate scientist, but of the heretical kind) tells us many good things about Rush Limbaugh. One stands out:

Rush was the same person, on the air and off the air.

And so, it seems that Limbaugh, like many people whom we often consider evil, didn't see himself as evil. He would just wear his mask in the scene and at home, just like most of us do. In the end, the persona, the mask, is the same thing as our real face. 

As Seneca said, what counts in the play is how well it is acted and we cannot say that Rush Limbaugh didn't play his part well. Perhaps there will come a day when we won't need to label others as evil to think of us as good. Then, we'll be able to consider our enemies as human beings, just like us. Rest in peace, Rush.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

CO2 emissions facing a Seneca collapse?

Reposted from "Cassandra's Legacy". I argue here, among other things, that the Seneca collapse of the world's production system might "save" (so to say) us from climate change. But, on the other hand, not even that may be enough!

Living in interesting times: have CO2 emissions peaked?

Image from MIT Technology Review

The projections that had been circulating during the past few months turned out to be correct. Now, it is official: the global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peaked in 2014 and went down in 2015. And this could be a momentous change.

Don't expect the emission peak, alone, to save us from the impending climate disaster, but, if CO2 emissions will start an irreversible decline, then we need to rethink several assumptions that we have been making on how to deal with climate change. In particular, depletion is normally assumed to be a minor factor in determining the trajectory of the world's economy during the coming decades, but that may not be the case. Depletion is not a good thing in itself, but it might help us (perhaps) to stay within the "safe" limits and avoid a climate disaster.

CO2 emissions are mainly the result of the combustion of fossil fuels and of activities made possible by the combustion of fossil fuels. And, since we expect the production of fossil fuels to peak and decline as the result of depletion, it shouldn't be a surprise that CO2 emissions should peak too. But it is surprising that we may be already seeing the peak. For instance, Laherrere had assumed the peak for all fossils to occur not before around 2025. And many people would have seen these projections as ridiculously catastrophistic. Most of the published scenarios for the future saw CO2 emissions increasing for at least a few decades in the future unless draconian economic or legislative measures to limit them were taken.

So, what we are seeing may be simply a fluctuation; not necessarily "the peak". But, it might also be the big one: the point of no-return. From now on, we may find ourselves rolling down on the other side of the Hubbert curve. It would be the true vindication of the "base case" scenario of "The Limits to Growth" that had seen the combination of gradual depletion and pollution to cause the start of the terminal decline of the fossil based industrial system at some moment during the 2nd-3rd decade of the 21st century.

Let's assume that we really are at the peak of both emissions and fossil energy consumption, then what? First of all, the event will be surely misinterpreted. The techno-optimists will say that what we are seeing is proof of how human ingenuity can solve all problems while the anti-science crowd will hail these results as the evidence of two things: 1) that climate is nothing to be worried about and 2) that those silly climate scientists have been proven wrong one more time.

Of course, none of these interpretations is correct and the situation remains critical for various good reasons. I can list at least three of them

1. There is really no reason to congratulate ourselves for being so smart. The reduction in emissions may be partly due to better efficiency, renewable energy, and the like. But, mainly, it is the result of the global economic slowdown. The IMF data indicate that the world's GDP has peaked in 2014, together with CO2 emissions and 2016 could shrink even more (see also Tyler Durden). The reasons for all this have to do with the gradual decline of the energy yield of fossil fuels, in turn related to progressive depletion. That has generated the disaster that struck the oil industry and the whole mineral industry in the form of collapsing prices. With the decline of the extractive industry, the reason why emissions peaked is because people are poorer, not smarter (so much for the so-called "dematerialization" of the economy).

2. The fact that emissions may have peaked does not mean a reduction in the CO2 accumulation in the ecosystem. We are only slowing down the flow, but the stocks keep being filled. CO2 accumulates in two main reservoirs: the atmosphere and the oceans and we may already have too much of it in both. And that says nothing about possible feedback effects out of human control, such as the release of methane from hydrates. So, we are still risking a lot in terms of the very unpleasant things that could occur in the future (including a runaway climate change).

3. Even assuming that emissions are facing an irreversible decline, the decline rate is likely to be still too slow to stay within the limits that are perceived as (perhaps) safe. Let's assume that emissions will follow a "Hubbert" curve, that is they will go down at the same speed as they went up so far. It means that in the future we will emit approximately as much we have emitted up to now. Can that save us from catastrophic climate change? Not really. So far, we emitted a grand total 1465 gigaton (Gt) of CO2) that might be the amount that we'll emit in the future. Unfortunately, according to Meinshausen et al  in order to have a 25% probability to stay below the 2 degrees limit, we cannot emit more than about 1000 Gt of CO2. And we are not there. According to Meisenhausen, with 1500 Gt of CO2 emitted, we are almost exactly at a 50/50 probability of staying below 2 C. If your hobby is to play the Russian roulette with a real gun, you should enjoy the situation we find ourselves in.

Still, the possible peaking of the CO2 emission. although not sufficient to save us, may not be a bad thing since, at least, it eases the task of staying within the safe limits. And not just that. These new data should lead us to rethink about some of our entrenched assumptions. So far, we have been assuming that a herculean effort will be needed to force the economic system to stop using resources that were assumed to be abundant and cheap. So herculean that it seemed to be totally impossible. But, if we really are at the peak of fossils, then the effort needed could be much less herculean: depletion will help us a lot. At this point, the emphasis should shift from "phasing out" fossil fuels - that would go largely by itself - to "phasing in" renewables - that needs a specific effort. And if we want to phase in the renewables we need to do that before the collapse of the fossil fuel industry makes it impossible to invest enough in their deployment.

Finally, there is another interesting possibility (in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse: 'may you live in interesting times'). The decline might not follow a
Hubbert curve but, rather, a Seneca curve. That is, emissions may decline much faster than they grew in the past. That implies, of course, a parallel crash of fossil fuel production and of the world GDP. The resulting  economic collapse might keep us within the "safe" climate limits. That would be so bad to be almost unimaginable, but, at least, better than some truly horrible climate scenarios. And, why not, we could have both the collapse of the economy and a runaway climate change! (not just fire or ice, but fire and ice)

Truly, we live in interesting times.


Note: from some messages I received, it seems that many people find that the mere concept that the world GDP could decline is unthinkable and contrary to some universal principle. And, yet, it is shrinking. See this plot from Vox.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Climate change: can the Seneca effect save us?

Nothing we do (or try to do) seems to be able to stop carbon dioxide from accumulating in the atmosphere. And, as a consequence, nothing seems to be able to stop climate change. With the situation getting worse and worse (see here for an example), we are hoping that some kind of international agreement can be reached to limit emissions. But, after many attempts and many failures, can we really expect that next time - miraculously - we could succeed?

Another line of thought, instead, has that depletion will save us. After all, if we run out of oil (and of fossil fuels in general) then we'll have to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Won't that solve the problem? In principle, yes, but is it going to happen?

The gist of the debate on the future of fossil fuel production is that, despite the theoretically abundant resources, the production rate is strongly affected by diminishing economic returns generated by depletion. This factor forces the production curve to follow a "bell shaped", or "Hubbert," curve that peaks and starts declining much before the resource runs out, physically. In practice, most studies that take into account the diminishing economic returns of production arrive to the conclusion that the IPCC scenarios often overestimate the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned (see a recent review by Hook et al.). From this, some have arrived to the optimistic conclusion that peak oil will save us from climate change (see this post of mine). But that's way too simplistic. 

The problem with climate change is not that temperatures will keep smoothly growing from now until the end of the century. The problem is that we will run into big troubles much earlier if we let temperatures rise over a certain limit. Sea level rise, oceanic acidification, and land desertification are just some of the problems, but a worse one could be the "climate tipping point." That is, over a certain point, the rise in temperatures would start to be driven by a series of feedback effects within the ecosystem and climate change would become unstoppable.

We don't know where the climate tipping point could be situated, but there exists a general agreement that we should keep temperatures from rising above 2 deg. C to avoid a major catastrophe. From the 2009 paper by Meinshausen et alwe can estimate that, from now on, we should not release more than about 1x10+12 t of CO2 in the atmosphere. Considering that we have released so far some 1.3x10+12 t of CO2 (sourceglobal carbon project), the grand total should not be more than about 2.3x10+12 t of CO2.

So, what can we expect in terms of total emissions considering a "peaking" scenario? Let me show you some data from Jean Laherrere, who has been among the first to propose the concept of "peak oil."

In this figure, made in 2012, Laherrere lists the quantities of fuels burned, with a "U" ("ultimate") measured in Tboe(Terabarrels of oil equivalent, see below for the conversion factors used). As a first approximation, if all the emissions were from crude oil, we would emit some 4.5x10+12 t of CO2. Things change little if we separate the contributions of the three fossil fuels. Crude oil, alone, would produce 1.3x10+12 t of CO2.  Coal would produce 2.8x10+12 t and natural gas 0.95x10+12 t. The final result is nearly exactly 5x10+12 t of CO2.

In short, even if we follow a "peaking" trajectory in the production of fossil fuels, we are going to emit around twice as much carbon dioxide as what some people (probably optimistically) consider to be the "safe" limit.

Of course, there are plenty of uncertainties in these calculations and the tipping point may be farther away than estimated. But it could also be closer; much closer. And we should take into account the problem of the increasing CO2 emissions per unit of energy as we progressively move toward dirtier and less efficient fuels. So, we are really toying with disaster, with a good chance to run straight into a climate catastrophe.

This conclusion holds in the assumption that the "peaking" scenario is not too optimistic in the amount of fossil fuels that can be produced and burned in the future. But these scenarios are normally termed "pessimistic" in mainstream studies, so that little would change as long as we work with nearly symmetric, bell shaped curves. At best, we can assume that peaking could take place a few years earlier than in Laherrere's estimate; but that still leaves us facing the very real possibility of a climate catastrophe.

Could we, instead, consider a different shape for the production curve? The symmetric "bell shaped" or ("Hubbert") curve is the result of the assumption that extraction is performed in a fully  functioning economy. But, once the economic system starts unraveling, a series of destructive feedbacks accelerates the decline. This is the "Seneca collapse" that generates an asymmetric production curve (the "Seneca cliff").

A Seneca shaped production curve would considerably reduce the amount of fossil carbon that can be burned in the future. Tentatively, if the collapse were to start within the next 10 years and it were to cut off more than half of the potential coal production, then, we could remain within the estimates of the 2 deg. C limit, hoping that it could be enough. Hubbert can't save the ecosystem, but Seneca could (maybe).

But, even if that came to pass, a Seneca collapse is a major disaster in itself for humankind, so there is little to rejoice at the thought that it could save us from runaway climate change. In practice, the only hope to avoid disaster lies in taking a more active role in substituting fossils with renewables. In this way, we can force the production of fossil fuels to go down faster than it would do as an effect of gradual depletion, but without losing the energy supply we need. It is possible - it is a big effort, but we could do it if we were willing to try (see this paper by Sgouridis, Bardi and Csala for a quantitative estimate of the effort needed)


Unit conversion

One Boe of crude oil = 0.43 t CO2 (

One Boe of coal = 0.53 t CO2 (calculation from and from 

One Boe of natural gas: 0.31 t CO2 (calculation from and from