An interview with Ugo Bardi
Ugo Bardi is a researcher and Professor in Chemistry. He contributes to The Oil Drum, is a member of the scientific committee of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and author of several books, including one on energy and mineral resources (The Limits to Growth Revisited).
Our sincere thanks to Mr Bardi for agreeing to talk to us.
Translation: Florence Mitchell
Adrastia: You have built a theory called The Seneca Cliff. It revisits the Hubbert peak and bell curve though in this case its descent is much steeper than its ascent. Originally this curve applied to oil production. Could you explain in what way it applies to many other key factors of our civilisation?
Ugo Bardi: The point of the Seneca Cliff is clear to most of us: many things go down faster than they went up. Just think of a house of cards, for instance. It’s one of those obvious things which happens not to be easy to explain according to the fundamentals of physics. In Newton’s time, for instance, everyone knew that apples fell from trees, but the law of universal gravity had yet to be discovered. With the Seneca Cliff we are still in what we could call a ‘pre-Newtonian situation’. Roughly speaking, the curve is observed in systems where there is a kind of correlation between their constituents. It is a ‘‘collective phenomenon’’ typical of systems that are described as complex, for example at times of rapid collective changes in phase transitions, but also in the mechanics of the breakdown of materials, and also when civilisations collapse. Systems are always complex when the internal elements are inter-correlated. Let’s say that if one likes the theory of networks as well as system dynamics modeling there is much fun to be had with them. In fact, it’s so much fun that I am working on a book which will be called The Seneca Cliff and which I hope to publish before the end of the year – perhaps…
A: What do you think are the weak points of our civilisation, its main vulnerabilities? If there was to be a collapse what would you see as the first chain of events typical of the phenomenon? And do you have a sense of what will then happen as resources get depleted and the climate goes awry?
U.B.: I have thought quite a bit about these issues, and I find the study of the theory of networks combined with system dynamics modeling very helpful. When I started working on this topic, I thought that the depletion of resources might be the main reason why civilisations collapse. I still think that might be the case, just as it might also be the case that civilisations have been destroyed by outside forces such as climate change or military invasions. But it seems to me that very often something more subtle may be going on: it’s loss of control which leads to the collapse of civilisations. A civilisation is a system made up of elements that are closely linked, and their correlation has to be controlled in one way or another. Besides, the control mechanism needs resources, and if fewer resources are available there may be loss of control leading in turn to a risk of collapse, even before the exhaustion of resources or climate change brings about this result.
A: You have named your blog Cassandra’s Legacy. Do you get the impression that you’re not heard?
U.B.: Never… How could you possibly think such a thing?! (smile)
A: How did you come to the realisation that our civilisation is reaching the end of the road? Do you remember a particular moment when your conscience reached a tipping point?
U.B.: Yes, definitely. On September 11 I was in the States, in Berkeley, and I saw the Twin Towers collapse on TV. That same morning, in quite a state, I went for a walk, and in a bookshop in Berkeley I found a book called The Hubbert Peak, written by the American geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (who I later got to know personally). These two events, the book and the New York attacks, seemed to me to be correlated that day, even though I couldn’t quite explain it to myself. It was later that I realised how they were indeed connected.
A.: How do you deal with this theory of collapse that we are going to experience – that we are already experiencing in some ways – when it comes to those around you, your family and friends, who don’t have the same awareness or may even reject the theory? Very generally, what impact has it had on your social interaction, and how do you live with the knowledge?
U.B.: People often ask me this. I am not sure I have an answer, but one thing is obvious to me: “catastrophists” (and I am one of them) are not unhappier in their daily life than “cornucopians”. I should add that the risks that we, the catastrophists, see coming in the future mean that we also take a rather philosophical approach to the world and we have a strong urge to take action. It’s the very same vision that the “Stoics” had, Seneca being one of them. It’s a philosophical vision which emerges in difficult times. Japanese Samurais used to practise a very similar philosophy to Stoicism, I believe. A good Stoic (or a good Samurai) knows his limits, but he also knows he has a duty to act or to fight for the general good. Nowadays, of course, we don’t use a sword in our daily life, although I am learning Japanese swordsmanship, as well as traditional archery. You never know…
A: Do you talk about these issues with your children, who will have to face these difficult and possibly dangerous times to come? If so, how do you broach the topic?
U.B.: This is the hardest thing. I think it’s not for me to push my children (they are almost grown-up now) towards my own vision of the world. They have the right and the ability to develop their own vision. And I believe they are well adjusted to a world which is becoming more and more difficult, especially for young people.
A: Many members of the Adrastia association are literally consumed by the issue of the end of the industrial and fossil-fuel civilisation, to such a point that they think of nothing else. Is it a kind of obsession for you, and if so, how do you cope?
U.B.: It may be so. There is a risk that one’s ideas become an obsession but, in my experience, one can’t do for long: it’s too stressful. People forget and go back to watching telly. It’s normal, it’s human. In my case, I have other interests which prevent me, I hope, from turning my life into a catastrophist saga! (I’ve written a sci-fi novel, for example. It’s a bit catastrophist, I have to admit…)
A: Do you already have a clear idea of how you are going to live through this period of energy decline? How are you preparing for it? Are you ready to live without oil?
U.B.:One makes long-term predictions that often turn out to be correct, but it’s difficult to translate them into daily life, very difficult. One thing I have learned is that the future is never what you expect, so you get there, I think, by following a long winding path that you create one step at a time.
A: Do you belong to a group, collective, association or NGO aiming to lay the foundations of resilience, even autonomy (local energy transition, alternative currencies, permaculture…)? How do you view these initiatives, and what would you recommend to individuals or groups who want to prepare themselves?
U.B.: These are interesting things which I have tried to put into practice several times. At the moment I think my job is above all to communicate certain ideas, and that’s what I am doing. I am privileged to have been able to focus on those things which I believe are the right things to do. It’s a privilege, I know. If I was unable to do this, I would surely be more active in the local community, in the Transition Town Movement or similar movements. In the future, I might possibly be more involved in this kind of activity.
A: You travel on a regular basis to give talks, and your books are translated in several languages. Among the countries or regions you have visited, are you aware of major cultural differences – in nature or degree – in the way that people tackle the notion of collapse, in their individual or collective awareness, or the way they listen to your message?
U.B.: In the West (Western Europe and the United States) I don’t notice many differences: in many places in these countries there is a fraction of the population that is aware of certain problems and tries to work on them. But of course I am rarely invited to those countries where these problems are not at all understood. For instance, it seems to me extremely difficult to convey certain ideas in Eastern European countries and especially in Russia. It seems that in Russia the idea that mineral resources are destined to become exhausted at some point is seen as a form of Western propaganda against Russia and its vast mineral resources. And they won’t be taken in, will they? They aren’t stupid… What is to be done? I don’t know. In fact, nothing changes; governments in the West and the East are doing the same thing and couldn’t care less about catastrophist forecasts. It’s well known throughout history: human societies are not very good at managing the future. And, by the way, that’s why I called my blog “Cassandra’s legacy”!
A: In the face of environmental constraints which we understand better these days, and in view of the considerable research in neuroscience which challenges our usual definition of personal freedom, do you think we could have chosen to avoid the risks? Is mankind inevitably headed towards a tragic destiny that it won’t be able to escape?
U.B.: Clearly it’s extremely difficult to convey messages that are perceived as “catastrophist”. Climate change is a good example: it’s a horrific message to be giving. We are really talking about the possibility of an end to mankind and maybe life on earth. It’s understandable that instead of listening to the message, many people prefer to flee with their hands over their ears while singing “la-la-la!”. We’re dealing, obviously, with the limits of human intelligence. How could we do better than that? Many people have tried to find an answer in neuroscience, others in philosophy, in religion, or even in slightly esoteric fields like “memetics”. Finding the answer proves to be very difficult, if not completely impossible. The only thing we can say is that the future will surprise us. We have arrived here after a journey of some ten thousand years, through the Holocene period. We are only starting to understand the huge transformations that human beings have gone through, thanks to developments and changes during this period which are not only cultural but also genetic. Mankind, hopefully, still has several thousands of years to adapt, and this in a world of constant change. The evolution of mankind is probably far from over. Where this evolution will take us, it’s impossible to say at this point. But evolving means adapting, and the theorists of infinite growth are clearly ill-adapted to the future – they are bound to disappear. In the future we won’t be able to bypass the need to adapt to a finite world.