Ugo Bardi: The Banquet of Consequences

Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.

~ Robert Louis Stevenson

"Growth is the problem; not the solution" says Ugo Bardi, Professor of Physical Chemistry at Italy's University of Florence and author of the recent book Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet.

In this week's podcast, Professor Bardi and Chris discuss resource depletion and its growing impact on geopolitical events and the world economy. In many ways, the future is becoming increasingly predictable due to the obvious math of resource extraction. Many of these predictions, by the way, are not new; but an accelerating preponderance of evidence now indicates we are quickly moving into the era where future forecasts are now becoming present reality.

From Bardi's perspective, human society has been running at an unsustainably high rate of consumption given the resources it depends on. At some point, the limits of scarcity will force a contraction of the status quo. Bardi concludes that time is now:

People ask me:  Are we running out of rare earths? Are we running out of oil? Are we running out of natural gas? And it is very difficult to give a simple answer to a question which is not the right one. Because if I say No, we are not going to run out of anything, then people just switch off their attention. They say Okay, if we are not going to run out of anything, thank you very much, bye-bye Professor.

But really the question is not when we run out of something, but When are we able to afford a certain mineral commodity? Because it is a very well-known story, and it goes back to 19th Century, to the work of William Stanley Jevons, that the cost of extraction increases over time. Simply because you pick the low hanging fruit, so to say, in this case you pick a fruit, which is below ground and not from a branch. But it is the same concept, you have to go deeper and deeper to get the more difficult minerals, if you run out of the easy, the least expensive mineral that you can effect.

So this is the problem, and at some point, you do not run out of anything, you run out of your financial capability of buying, of paying for this task of extraction. So I try to refrain from these questions. It is not a question of running out, it is a question of diminishing economic returns. A concept that also goes to Jevons, back in mid-19th Century. It is a very simple concept, diminishing economic returns. So you make less and less money, and in order to keep your profit, the company, which it reflects, has to raise prices, and at some point customer will say, well we cannot afford that anymore. At that point, it is like it is stuff running out, in the sense that you cannot have it anymore. It is still there, the mineral is still underground, but you cannot afford to extract it, and that is the problem.

All commodities: mineral commodities, fossil fuels, whatever you have -- it is the same problem everywhere, because we have been mining for tens of thousands of years. But in the past one or two centuries, we stepped it up, the speed of extraction. Right now we have extracted the easy resources. Now we will start having troubles because we have to access the difficult resources. These resources are expensive. And if it is expensive then it means that you have to allocate resources to pay for these results. So that is having bad effects on the economy.

My impression, and not just mine, is that many of the problems which we see today in the world, economic problems, political problems, strategic problems, geo-political problems, are due to the fact that resources everywhere are becoming scarce in the sense that they are becoming expensive. And at this point, you have to fight for what is left.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Ugo Bardi (40m:26s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I sent this letter off to a local politician a couple of days ago.

I do not expect a response, but am I on the right track in my understanding/fluency?



Matt Blain



Dear Sir,
I write in response to the question you posed earlier this week on 3AW, “Where are all the promoters of growth?” It’s an interesting question, and one that may tie all our issues, both grand and personal, closer than we think. Though I am not an expert on such matters – indeed, I’m just your Average Joe, married 25 years, 3 kids, mortgage, too-little saved – I did reacquaint myself with some basic maths a few years back. I’ve concluded the effort to sustain steady growth may prove unachievable.
We know when something grows, it will eventually double in size. Whether it’s money earning interest, a living thing or even a whole economy. How fast that thing grows depends on the rate of growth. For example, $100 at 10% annual growth becomes $200 after roughly 7 years. The Chinese economy at 10% annual growth doubles in size in the same period. A tree that grows at 10% annually, same thing… Simple compounding maths we should all be aware of [should]. Yes, in reality external forces bump such figures around, however the basic premise remains: Something that grows must eventually double in size. And something that continues to grow, doubles in size again and again.
While this “doubling effect” looks fantastic on paper (indeed, is essential for our future nest eggs), I’ve been asking myself this… How many times can a thing double in size? In reality. That is, is there a limit to how large a thing can grow?
The Tree
At 10% annual growth, our tree doubles in size every seven years (* see below for more detail)…
Planted in 1960, 1 metre tall
1967, 2 metres tall
1974, 4 metres tall
1981, 8 metres tall
1988, 16 metres tall
1995, 32 metres tall
2002, 64 metres tall
2009, 128 metres tall
A mere 10%, year on year. By 2009, after a few short decades, our tree is taller than a Californian Redwood and half it’s total growth occurred in the last seven year period. It seems that compounding maths involves considerable acceleration.
Our tree took 40 years to reach its physical height limit. Can it rise anymore? By next year can the tree be over 200 metres tall? The answer of course is no; the tree cannot physically push/pull nutrients up that high and overall weight becomes an issue; branches will get too heavy and snap. Granted, there’s room for a bit more girth, however there’s neighbouring trees to consider and an escalating fight for limited nutrients. So does it simply stop growing?
Of course, trees don’t grow this way in reality, at a fixed rate. Nothing does. But there exists a pattern nonetheless; something slowly takes hold, then burgeons very rapidly for a period, then slows gradually, eventually stops. Growth remains dynamic.
Still, the basic maths of compounding growth can be plotted and measured and extrapolated to other forms, such as the Chinese economy mentioned above (it doubled in size several times over in a similar period). But economies, like trees and anything else that grows, require two basic ingredients… Energy. And Stuff. For mankind, energy comes in the form of fossil fuel (crude oil is the key, as it is permits global distribution of Stuff) and physical human activity. Stuff is everything taken from the earth (iron ore, copper, silica, crops, etc).
In short, for an economy to grow, it requires greater and greater (forever accelerating) amounts of energy and stuff. That’s what “sustained growth” is. But without an increasing supply of energy and stuff (required for the doubling effect), growth must slow and eventually cease. It’s this basic and fundamental.
Given the current diet of human endeavour – more people wanting more – and challenges of keeping energy cheap (it will be interesting to see what a barrel of Arctic Oil sells for in the coming years), my questions to my fellow man remain… Where on our tree timeline do you believe we are? Can we achieve impossible heights? Or are there truly limits to growth? It’s a question for a global scale.
Mr Abbott describes our current financial position as having “significant challenges”. Indeed. There is no public discussion of growth limits, compounding, nor the doubling effect. I wonder if privately they look at the basic maths? I truly hope they do. It affects us all.
Thank you for your time.
Kind regards,
Matthew Blain
Concerned parent
1960, 1 metre tall
1961, 1.1 metres tall (1 metre + 10%)
1962, 1.21 metres tall (1.1 metres +10%)
1963, 1.33 metres tall (1.21 metres + 10%)
1964, 1.46 metres tall (1.33 metres + 10%)
1965, 1.61 metres tall (1.46 metres + 10%)
1966, 1.77 metres tall (1.61 metres + 10%)
1967, 1.95 metres tall (1.77 metres + 10%) - rounded to 2 metres for purpose of this demonstration

You forgot to factor in the Nuclear powered chainsaw wielding maniacs. That tree will be cut in half or maybe chopped all the way to the stump shortly as a third deforestation has been planned for our area. 
Not sure if a new tree will grow out of the stump. It might just die out


Professor Bardi and the Limits to Growth conclusions are unassailable and can only be attacked at the very foundations. I have to resort to speaking past the conversation and attacking the assumptions.
In speaking past the conversation I invoke to a much greater timescale. It looks as though the curves are set in stone- there will be a population collapse. But why let a good crisis go to waste? And this crisis is going to be a doozie. You thought the second world war was bad? You ain't seen nothin'

Here I spoke about the problems with Kirchoff's Laws. Why is this arcane concept important? Because it exposes our deep ignorance about the fundamentals of how the world operates. And then there is Rupert Sheldrake's "Nature of Formative Causation" which was so upsetting to the collective model of Science that it lodged in their throats like a chicken bone.

Did you know that the speed of light varied between 1908 and 1948? It was decided to fix the problem by defining distance in terms of the speed of light, not the other way around! How shamefully embarrassing. How should we weigh precious egos in the scale against the fate of our civilization, not to mention the massive dieoff of people? .

 Never let the physicists tell you they know what is going on-they don't. Their whole edifice is a lot of kludges.

Here Yasuhiro Iwamura discusses transmutation of various elements. I seem to recall a conversion rate of 80% for some element.

If the Low Hanging fruit is depleted how about the High Hanging fruit? I would appear to be a lot easier to get and there is an unimaginable abundance of it. Did I say that it was going to be processed on Earth? No, I did not. The Earth is too precious to be abused by manufacturing.

Here is a picture of one such piece of fruit. I have not done the maths but I believe it to contain more minerals than Hammersley Iron Ore.

Today’s cornucopia included a presentation from Gerhard Schmidt of the University of Mainz, who says that platinum rings come from outer space.

More precisely, the idea is that platinum, gold, and other precious “iron-loving” metals were stripped from the planet’s superheated self as Earth formed, but then were delivered back to the exterior layers by asteroid impacts once things cooled down a bit.


Am I prepared to watch our Civilization perish with glee? No.

But first- Bring on the Crisis.


So this D2/Pd system can be played for energy, or for transmutation it seems?  Amazing stuff here.  Keep it coming Arthur.  ICP/MS don't lie… I have one down the hall from my office. 

ALOHA!! Here at Kaimu Nursery we grow orchids and other tropical flowers. In my studies to increase production there are certain chemicals called "growth regulators" and "growth stimulators". Money based on its quality can also cause the same economic results. Under our current monetary system we have increased population and consumption based on debt. What is debt? In simple terms it is borrowing from the future to consume in the present.
You can see these "debt effects" at the US Treasury. For instance on March 31, 2014 the US Treasury reported net debt increase of $863BIL over a six month period(H1) of FY2014. We can now equate that to a more layman's view as to the consequences of that action by our government.

Now lets take that $863BIL debt and see how it looks by comparing it to Exxon. Exxon was formed in 1882 under the Standard Oil Trust. That means Exxon(XOM) has been around in various incarnations for over 130 years. If you look up Exxon market cap as of last Friday it is at $420BIL. Now take that $420BIL XOM market cap and divide it into the six month $863BIL debt increase at the US Treasury. You get 2.05! That means in six months the US Treasury issued enough debt to buy over two 130 year old Exxons.  

It took Exxon over 130 years to drill and risk capital to find oil and gas to service the needs of the USA. It took the US Treasury a few weeks to input debt auctions that resulted in $863BIL. The US Treasury usually holds these auctions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What did the US Treasury risk and does the US Treasury have a product that can create an Exxon that creates jobs and services for the needs of the global masses? Or does the US Treasury simply create a product(debt) that only has a use for the maintenance of their entrenched political and monetary monopolies?

My question is this. Why would we entrust a corrupt government and central bank who devised this monetary system to be responsible and credible and efficient in the way they construct this massive debt and its distribution? It seems our modern money is backed by nothing more than the human condition and resultant whims of politicians and their bankers. Not very stable in my opinion and certainly wide open to massive infinite corruption.

ALOHA!! Deaf, Dumb and Blind is no way to go through life! I have written numerous letters to Hawaii Congressmen and even to George Bush(W). I only got replies from Inouye and Akaka back when they were still alive. The answers were from their staffers and they referred me to other phone numbers and websites. I never heard back from "W"!I made "W" an offer back in 2007. I said I would forfeit all my rights to receive Medicare and Social Security benefits if he would exempt me from ever having to pay federal taxes for the rest of my life. I thought it was a fair trade as I do not have that much more earning years left.
Maybe someday due to my State and Federal pestering I will achieve "Patriot Status" and be placed on the government "No Fly List"!!

Oops …

CAT bought Bucy in 2010.  Plant workforce slashed in half since 2013.  I purposefully talked with Ladish and Bucy employees in bars near the plants and the mood is not good.  Bucy was a very profitable company making unique product.

The interview brings up the possibility of abundant renewable energy.  I am concerned that an abundant renewable energy solution to our problem is a pipe dream in todays world.
It's not that there isn't some political motivation to move in that direction.  You can't drive anywhere in the Midwestern United States without passing giant windmill farms.  

Personally, I can't see these wind farms, without considering the energy and resources that it took to build them and wonder if the energy they return justifies the resource investment, or even if the windmills have a positive return over their useful life.  Finally, if they do cost justify, does the return include the cost of dismantling and disposing of the giant windmills, once they are past their useful life.

Simply from a visual perspective, it would seem that our current approach to renewable energy is a lot more capital intensive than existing conventional energy infrastructure.

One of the energy books or articles I've read, included the following visualization.  If you took a lump of coal and placed it in the sun, it would take 1,000 years of sun shining on the lump of coal to equal there energy stored in the coal.  If true, that implies to me that the future will require both renewable energy plus an entirely more energy efficient world economy.  

Any chance we have to produce an abundant renewable energy society would require not only renewable energy installations that are efficient at capturing energy, but also manufacturing infrastructure that efficiently produces the renewable energy installations.

Here's the kicker, IMHO, the flaws in both democracy and capitalism are becoming clear.  So, how do change the direction we are headed in without correcting the problems that got us here?

renewable energy cannot be 'the answer' if the question is 'how do we continue to consume as much energy per capita as we currently do?'

The reason is simple enough…renewable energy lacks the energy density and overall available flow rates that we get from our lumps of coal and gallons of oil.

On that first point, humanity has never before attempted to migrate from a higher energy density system to a lower one.  The mistake most people make is assuming that our prior experiences of moving from wood to coal, and then from coal to oil/gas, are relevant to the shift from oil/gas to solar/wind/algae.  They are nearly perfectly irrelevant because this next transition heads in exactly the opposite direction:  Higher density > Lower density.

On the second point,  the flow rates of all renewables are a function of the rate that energy flows from the sun to the earth.  It's a decent flow rate, to be sure, but it's got a limit and it cannot compete with sucking or digging out literally a hundred million years of ancient sunlight in a hundred years.  

Finally, it all comes down to energy return on energy invested, or EROEI.  Literally nobody has ever done a full cycle analysis that would include sustainably manufacturing every single component of an alternative installation using the same energy from said installations (while delivering some surplus energy to boot) because such a system does not exist.  There are hidden and not-so-hidden fossil fuel inputs baked into every one of the thousands of steps and components of every "alternative" energy system.

This is the closest thing we have to a full cycle analysis and the results are very much not encouraging for those who want to believe in a seamless transition:

Tilting at Windmills, Spain’s disastrous attempt to replace fossil fuels with Solar Photovoltaics

Aug 17, 2013

This is the first time an estimate of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) of solar Photovoltaics (PV) has been based on real data from the sunniest European country, with accurate measures of generated energy from over 50,000 installations using several years of real-life data from optimized, efficient, multi-megawatt and well oriented facilities.

Other life cycle and energy payback time analyses used models that left out dozens of energy inputs, leading to overestimates of energy such as payback time of 1-2 years (Fthenakis), EROI 8.3 (Bankier), and EROI of 5.9 to 11.8 (Raugei et al).

Prieto and Hall added dozens of energy inputs missing from past solar PV analyses. Perhaps previous studies missed these inputs because their authors weren’t overseeing several large photovoltaic projects and signing every purchase order like author Pedro Prieto. Charles A. S. Hall is one of the foremost experts in the world on the calculation of EROI. Together they’re a formidable team with data, methodology, and expertise that will be hard to refute.

Prieto and Hall conclude that the EROI of solar photovoltaic is only 2.45, very low despite Spain’s ideal sunny climate. Germany’s EROI is probably 20 to 33% less (1.6 to 2), due to less sunlight and efficient rooftop installations.

Ouch!  A 2.45 EROEI in sunny, beautiful Spain.

That's not even close to enough to run our current incarnation of a complex society and probably isn't enough to even run the specific industries necessary to sustainably manufacture, install and maintain those same solar installations.

But…if we truly adjust our thinking, and get away from the fantasy that we're going to maintain our current living arrangements but using solar/wind/algae, and begin the process of developing other living arrangements, then I think we'll get by.  

The shifts will neither be small nor easy.   Everything has to be relocalized.  We'll have to do a lot of cultural maturation in a  very short amount of time, shifting from 'consumers' to stewards which implies a complete reorganization of what we value, prioritize, and even idolize.  

In that new future billionaire financiers are so despised they no longer exist and the most prolific farmers who best increase the value of their soils are revered.  

Thanks for the article Chris, 2.45 EROEI is almost an order of magnitude lower than the 15 to 20 number that we usually read.On a side note as an engineer who designs microchips for a living, the endnote section got my attention:

Endnote: This book was only available online at the University of California. It’s a shame libraries are putting many journals and books into electronic versions only.  Especially this book.  Microchips, motherboards, and computers will be among the first casualties of declining fossil fuels, because they have the most complex supply chains with many single points of failure, dependence on rare metals, and so on (see Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge for details). I encourage you to get your (university) library to buy a hard copy of this book, so that future scientists and historians will understand why our society didn’t replace fossil fuels with “renewables” even though we knew oil couldn’t last forever.

I predict a very large population (>80%) drop in the next 20 years or so, so energy issues will be largely a moot point in my opinion. The only scarcity will be for the left over slaves after the purge.  
There will be relatively unlimited energy for the "new" management at the new greatly reduced population totals.

With any luck something will happen to cause this to change course, but i have my doubts at this point.



Thanks, Chris, for the book review you referenced with more accurate EROI estimates for solar PV. Actually, it seems to be more of a comprehensive summary and original article than just a book review, and it has a great title to boot.Fred, thanks for quoting the endnote regarding the fragility of microchips, and hence IT systems, raising the possibility of needing to preserve knowledge in books and other forms.  I usually envision a society 20-30 years down the road where simple smart phones and computers, and the information networks that make them so appealing, are still working.  This is based on a vague and probably unjustified belief that the percentage of electricity needed to supply the IT products and networks would be small enough in size, and people's willingness to pay for access to the networks would be great enough, that we will be able to keep them running even after we have let other systems contract more, such as perhaps a big part of our transportation networks.  But, after reconsidering the high amount of energy embedded in a microchip, maybe many aspects of the IT network would fall away earlier, as the endnote suggests.
Hopefully the failure of IT networks and computers is an if and not a when.  ​ In his near-future collapse sci-fi books, Paolo Bacigalupi has characters who supply the energy to their treadle computers by pedaling.  But, if computer parts are made to last 10 years - at the outside, and require a huge amount of energy to produce, then maybe the whole industry is so dependent on mass-produced disposable parts that even very simple digital products will be rare fairly quickly.  I hope that the disappearance of digital networks is still a matter of "if" and not of "when."
But, in that light, maybe storing information in books does indeed make the most sense, although stone tablets, or at least cuneiform in baked clay might last longer.
I assume that someone on the Peak Prosperity team already prints each comment from each thread and keeps them filed, alphabetically ordered and cross-referenced.  A further step towards resiliency would be for the whole website to be gradually transferred over to a mail correspondence system.  Towards this cause, I will keep my eyes peeled for bargains on carrier pigeons in my area.  Once the fiat currencies have collapsed, good carrier pigeons will cost three chickens each, at a minimum!
In solidarity,

Hugh,The thing that’s clear to me is the technologies that we are enjoying today (computers, tablets, smart phones, etc…) is only possible in a world with hundreds of millions of consumers that can afford to buy the products.
There are millions of man-hours in development time to make a smart phone for instance. The foundries to manufacture the chips that you find in these electronic devices represent billions of dollars of investments.
So with this kind of numbers, the math only works if hundreds of millions of product are sold and growing…
What will happen when for economic reasons the consumption of these products start to go down? It’s difficult to see how these huge investments will be able to continue.
One my think that we can continue to live very well without cell phones and tablets.  However the side effect will also be the decline of other technologies that indirectly benefit from these multi-billions dollars chip foundries but don’t have the volume to justify the investments.  Think medical and scientific equipment for instance that require advance technologies but are low volume. Or powerful computers used for simulations.
So the idea that we’ll always come up with new technologies that would save us once the economy start to decline is questionable for sure.  We might well experience “peak technology” with “peak energy”

When will we begin mining the dumps where a lot of those minerals have been 'stored' for the last few decades?

I know, I know, finding mother boards and other electronics dumped 30 years ago is very energy intensive… Then there is 'how do we retrieve the elements from the components?' - Even more energy required. Then there is the problem of 'kicking-up' all of the hazardous waste buried along side of all of those elements.

But, what happens when those costs are figured out and compared to the costs to mine 'fresh' elements?

We aren't there yet, right? Perhaps, not yet. But it will be when and not if…

Sadly, I doubt we will make it to that point because we will have polluted and poisoned our planet to the point of no return. For example, when will the next Fukushima happen? OK, don't like that one, think about this… EROEI gets so bad, there is not enough money or resources to care for all of the tons of spent fuel rods that must be kept cool sitting in pools in every nuclear plant across the globe. The time to act is past. We are all fook'ed.


[quote=cmartenson]In that new future billionaire financiers are so despised they no longer exist and the most prolific farmers who best increase the value of their soils are revered.  
Wow, paying respect where respect is due?  Now there is something to look forward to in a future many, perhaps rightfully, paint as bleak.

[quote=FreeNL]I predict a very large population (>80%) drop in the next 20 years or so…
And I thought I was a pessimist?!
You must be envisioning all out war and every man for himself?  I am still hoping some of us are smarter than that. 
Perhaps it's a failure to be realistic on my part, but if I held that view of the future, it would detract from my enjoyment of today.  I refuse to ruin the calm before the storm with an excessively dire outlook.

Actually understanding that the future will be grim for most people is a benefit to me  as theres no reason not to go do the things I always wanted to do, right now.
I don't suppose to know the thoughts of the psychopaths running this show, but i do know that they have no value for the vast majority of human life, so i have no expectations that they will change and when their power becomes absolute, their cruelty will be unrestrained.


I have struggled with a point of cognitive dissonance for years, and Ugo Bardi uttered a single sentence that has set me on a path out of my quagmire. I wonder, how does an energy company stay in business if it takes more than 1 unit of energy to acquire 1 unit of energy to sell to consumers… negative EROEI. Ugo said (paraphrasing), 'You can still make money [in the energy business] even though the process of acquiring the energy you sell to consumers results in a net negative EROEI.' A net energy loss. …sell… …sell… …Umm, OK. I'm in sales. It is a subject I know… What does this mean? … …money… …money… …money… AHA! That's how they do it! Money games! …duh.
I am a scientist by training and business executive by trade, and I have long tried to reconcile the issue of how do you stay in business when 'natural economics' say you should be out of business. To my simple mind, it would be something like a large tree that, throughout the many years of its growth, took in less energy (from sunlight, chemicals, etc.) than what was required for it to grow to become a large tree- yet it grew in spite of the net energy deficit. The economy of the natural world would never support such an arrangement. Indeed, the fiat currency arrangement made by the humans is not supported by the economy of the natural world. Everyone who may read this note knows well that it is the edifice of fiat currency that props up our un-natural human economy. And, even though I know it to be true, it is still difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that our money has no basis in or connection to the physical world.

There is a price to be paid. I think that's how the universe works. But, I just can't sort it out yet. What is the price? Who pays it? All of us? Or just some of us? And when does the bill come due?