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Syrian Sickness

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Publishes on Cassandra's Legacy on November 22, 2015

Here, I argue that the origins of the Syrian collapse are to be found in the economic downturn generated by the gradual depletion of the Syrian oil reserves. Crude oil had created modern Syria, crude oil has destroyed it. This phenomenon can be termed the "Syrian Sickness" and the question is: "which country will be affected next?"

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The "Syrian Sickness": What Crude Oil Gives, Crude Oil Can Take Back.

Crude oil is a great source of wealth for the countries that possess it. But it is also a wealth that comes as a cycle. Normally, the cycle spans several decades, even more than a century, so that those who live through it may completely miss the fact that they are heading to an end of their wealth. But the cycle is faster and especially visible in those areas where the amount of oil is modest; there, wealth and misery appear one after the other in a dramatic series of events.

One of these rapid cycles of growth and decline is that of Syria. It is a country that never became a major world producer, its maximum output was less than 1% of the world's total production when it peaked, around 1995. (graph below, from Gail Tverberg's blog). For the small Syrian economy, however, even this limited amount was important.
 

The Syrian oil production went through its cycle over little more than three decades. Depletion generated progressively higher production costs and that led to a scarcity of capital investments to keep production increasing, eventually forcing it to decline. The result was the "bell shaped" production curve that is often called the "Hubbert curve". Around 2011, the internal consumption curve crossed the production curve and that transformed the country from an oil exporter to an oil importer. The cross-over point corresponded to the start of the civil war.

The IMF data show that the Syrian government's budget was still 25% dependent on oil in 2010. Data on what it was earlier on are hard to find, but it is clear that it must have been much larger. It may well be that, at the time of the peak, most of the government's revenues came from oil. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that the complete loss of these revenues generated a big turmoil.

So, we can build up a narrative of what happened in Syria after the peak. With progressively lower oil revenues, the government was less and less able to afford the bureaucracy and the social services it used to provide. Gradually, it became also unable to afford an efficient police force and a functioning army. The middle class, that had been strongly dependent on the government's handouts, was badly hit. The most educated and wealthy ones left the country or, at least, moved their financial assets abroad. Those who were forced to remain saw their assets destroyed by hyperinflation and became an impoverished urban proletariat. At the same time, the countryside also went through an economic disaster, enhanced by the droughts created by climate change. At this point, a large number of young men, unemployed and without hope for the future, become cannon fodder for religious fanatics and for local warlords, often paid by foreign powers interested in carving out the country in pieces to be distributed among themselves. The destruction of whatever was left was also helped by economic sanction and aerial bombardments. The final result is what we see: the "Syrian Sickness." A nearly terminal form of social sickness; it is hard to imagine when and how Syria will be able to recover even a shade of its former wealth and stability.

 

The factors that led to the Syrian disaster are by no means limited to Syria alone. Yemen went through a nearly identical cycle; going through the peak its oil production in 2002 at levels smaller than those of Syria, but probably even more important for the local economy. The cross-over point of the production and consumption curves took place in 2013 and, like Syria, the country is at present being destroyed by civil war and aerial bombardments.  (image from "crudeoilpeak")
 


There are several other examples of minor oil producers that went through similar cycles. Egypt, for instance, experienced the cross-over of production and consumption in 2010, experiencing a phase of dramatic civil unrest. Egypt, however, did not collapse; most likely because the importance of oil in its economy was not as large as it was for Syria. Other examples of countries that experienced the cross-over are Malaysia and Indonesia, also undergoing internal troubles, but no generalized collapse. No country is completely immune to the Syrian sickness, but some are less sensitive to it.

At this point, the question is obvious: given the known cases of Syrian Sickness, given that depletion is unavoidable, which country is next in line?

There are several candidates for a future crossover of production and consumption, but none seems to be very close to it. Venezuela, Iran, and Mexico may be the producers most at risk; but the critical moment may still be several years away in the future. But the most interesting and worrisome case is that of Saudi Arabia. The data shown below are from Mazamascience. Most producers of the Arabian peninsula (with the exception of Yemen) show a similar pattern.
 

You see that, despite the rapid increase in internal consumption, Saudi Arabia is still able to export about two thirds of its production. But how about the future? Of course, extrapolations are always dangerous, but it doesn't seem that the production and consumption curves are destined to cross each other very soon. Hence, the country might still have at least a couple of decades of substantial oil export revenues. The problem is that the Saudi economy is heavily dependent on oil: 90% of the government revenues come from oil. So, Saudi Arabia may not need to go through the cross-over point to start experiencing troubles. Consider that it is nearly completely dependent on imports for the food its population consumes, and that the trend is worsening because of the depletion of local aquifers. You can imagine what the problem could become in case of a substantial loss of financial resources coming from crude oil. If Saudi Arabia starts suffering of the Syrian Sickness, the result disaster may make the Syrian collapse pale in comparison.

Is there any hope for Saudi Arabia or any other producing country to avoid the Syrian Sickness? There are several ways to postpone or reverse the decline of oil production if sufficient financial resources are available. However, these are just stopgap measures: depletion is an irreversible process. A country can only prepare for it by building an alternative economic infrastructure while it is still possible; an opportunity that was missed in Syria. Today, Saudi Arabia doesn't lack the financial resource for massive investments in renewable energy, that would provide an alternative to the collapse created by depletion. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that these investments are being made, with the Saudi government preferring to engage in expensive military power games. That's a bad idea not only for Saudi Arabia, but for the whole world: with more than 10% of the world's oil consumption provided by producers in the Arabian Peninsula, you can imagine what might happen if the region falls victim of the Syrian Sickness.

Crude oil has given a lot to Saudi Arabia, crude oil can take back a lot from it. But there is something that crude oil can never provide, and it is wisdom necessary to manage it well.

Cassandra is Back

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 16, 2015

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Rediscovering the Legacy of a Prophetess

"Cassandra's legacy" is again the name of this blog. In March 2014, I had changed it to "Resource Crisis," hoping that a more serious name would promote a rational debate on the question of mineral depletion. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a misplaced hope.

While depletion becomes progressively more and more of a burden for the economic system (and there is no way that it could be otherwise) the debate on this subject remains conspicuously absent from the media; even more so with the recent fall in oil prices. Instead of being taken for what it is, a symptom of something deeply wrong in the market of mineral commodities, it has been hailed as the definitive demonstration that "peakers" were wrong and will always be wrong. And the same is true for climate change: the recent events in Paris have totally marginalized the issue. It will take some time before we can return to a rational view of the world – if we will ever manage that.

Even in the midst of the general disaster, however, I am happy to return the name of the blog to a modest homage to the figure of Cassandra. She may never have existed but, even so, she remains for us an example of courage and of strength. And she was always right with her prophecies, even though nobody believed her – but they should have. So, welcome back, Cassandra!

I can also offer to you something that I wrote earlier this year and that I published in my "Chimeras" blog: a short story titled "An Interview with Cassandra." See? When I say that I like Cassandra and her story, I am serious!

 
 

The prophetess Cassandra was cursed to be always right in her prophecies, but never to be believed. That places her on a par with modern climate scientists. (image: Cassandra as interpreted by Marvel comics)

I don't have to tell you that this story is a work of fantasy, but several details are taken from modern historiography, for instance the character of the Hittite king Mutawalli, the possible contemporary events of the battle of Kadesh and the fall of Troy, the habits of the Babylonian temple priestesses, and more, including the fact that Hittite is a language vaguely related to English and an attempt of inventing a Sumerian root for the name "Cassandra", whose etymology is unknown. You may also like to know that this story came to my mind, nearly complete, while I was mounting some bookshelves at home; maybe I have to consider it as a gift from the Goddess Ikea.
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After that I had googled "summoning spells" on the web, I found one that I liked. I needed some peculiar stuff to perform it, including crocodile liver, platypus' whiskers, bat's earwax and more. But once I got all that (via Amazon.com), I thought I could try. And, immediately, there materialized in front of me, right in my office, a translucent image of a dark haired lady wearing gold jewels and a curious dress. No less than the ghost of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. And I could interview her!


Ahem….. Lady Cassandra, I humbly welcome you here….

Oh…. Where am I?

I summoned you, Lady Cassandra…. you are far in the future. More than three thousand years.

Three thousand years in the future, you say? You must have some really powerful magic, here. Where did you learn it?

Well, we have something we call the "Internet"

A library? Plenty of scrolls you must have in there.

Not exactly scrolls, lady Cassandra, but you can find a lot of things in it. But I must say that I am not a great expert at summoning ghosts; it is the first time I try.

You have to be careful with these spells, you know? It is dangerous stuff. You could have summoned some Galla demons of the underworld and they would have shred you to pieces. You are lucky that you summoned me in your first try. But the Gods of the underworld must like you – really! They even granted me the gift of being able to speak your language. A curious language, by the way; it sounds a little like Hittite, you know?

We call it 'English', lady. But you say it sounds like Hittite? I am not sure I understand….

Well, Hittite is a language that I came to learn. But never mind that; evidently the Gods like me to speak this…. this "English". But enough with this "Lady Cassandra". Why do you call me like that?

Well, after all, you are the daughter of King Priam.

The daughter of King Priam? You believe that story?

Well, it is what is said about you. Are you that Cassandra…. ?

Oh, yes, I am that Cassandra – the one they say was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. A lot of things have been said about me, I know; some are even true. But the daughter of King Priam? No, no…. It is just a legend, one of the many. Actually, I came to know Priam very well; and I was in Troy when the Achaeans destroyed it. But I am not Priam's daughter. You see, I was born in Babylon…..

Born in Babylon? Really? Lady Cassandra, this is surprising!

Well, Babylon is where I was born. And I was born as Kashanna before those silly Greeks mangled my name turning it into "Cassandra". But I wasn't born as Cassandra. Besides, I have been in the underworld long enough that I can drop all those silly titles. But, if you really like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine for me. So, who are you, by the way?

Oh.. you see, I am nobody of any importance. I was just reading about you, and I was curious.

Enough that you risked being shred to pieces by a Galla demon? You have to be a very curious person.

It is my job to be curious. I am called, well…. we say, "scientist"

Something like a priest? You make prophecies?

Sometimes I make prophecies….. you know, for instance how climate will change in the future.

And are you believed?

Oh… well, that's a big problem.

I know, I know! It happens all the time. Anyway, if you are so curious, I figure I could tell you a few things about me. I don't think that the demons of the underworld will leave me chatting with you for a long time. But as long as the spell lasts, why not?

Thank you, Lady Cassandra. It is an honor to be told this story

Let me see…. I have to start from the beginning. As I told you, I was born in Babylon. And I became a shamhatu of the temple of Ishtar. You probably don't know what a shamhatu is; well, in the old language she would be called a Karkid, or also a Harimtu the way we used to say. But in the end she is a hierodule of the temple. A temple girl, just that. It was my job. The job of the temple girls is to celebrate the goddess of love, Ishtar. We also call her "Inanna" in the old language, in Sumerian, that is. Actually, the work of the temple girl is not so sophisticated, normally. You do what you have to do as a service to the temple; people pay, and they go away happy. But I was, well, it seems that my Ensi,  the high priestess of the temple, thought that I was especially smart; a little more than the average girl; at least. So, I was studying to become a priestess. That meant I had to learn the old language of the Sumerians, to recite the hymns, to perform the sacrifices. It is a complicated job, you know? You have to study a lot and then, when it is time to perform the sacred marriage rite, well, as a priestess it means to have sex with the king, celebrate the sacred marriage of Tammuz and Ishtar – or, as they said in the times of our Sumerian ancestors, Dummuzi and Inanna. So, you have to look all coquettish with the king, wear jewels, sexy clothes, all that….. Ouf…. Not all kings are nice… But all kings like a lot to play the role of Dummuzi in the sacred marriage rite. And a priestess plays the role of Inanna, the goddess. In a way, it is fun.

Now, in my times, the big man, the king, was someone called Muwatalli the second, an Hittite. His father had conquered Babylon earlier on and, at that time, in Babylon we were part of the Hittite Empire. So, the king of the Hittites would come to Babylon once in a while, just to make sure that everything was quiet and that everybody pays their taxes to him. So, he came to Babylon from the capital of the Empire, from Tarhuntassa. Quite a retinue he carried with him. Soldiers, slaves, concubines, servants, cooks, all the rest. And he arrived in time for the rite of the sacred marriage. And you can imagine who was the hierodule who had the task of performing the rite that year. Just the modest me; Cassandra – or rather, as I said, Kashanna.

So, I performed this rite with King Mutawalli. Not a bad guy, I'd say, although he had this idea that everyone should call him Nergal, which means the God of War, but kings have these bizarre ideas. Anyway, he must have been impressed by our rituals. You know, in Babylon, at that time, we knew how to impress people! Fancy dresses, songs, harps playing, all the rest. But I think he was more impressed by the way the priestesses could perform divinations. Kings are always interested in divinations – they must feel very insecure all the time. Or so I think.

Anyway, King Muwatalli was impressed enough by the whole circus that he wanted to take me to Tarhuntassa. People used to say that I was a nice looking girl at that time, but I am not sure that he wanted me for my looks. I think he was thrilled by the idea of having a personal Babylonian priestess at his court – available anytime. Whatever, I had no choice. I remember that my Ensi, told me that I had to be careful, because I had learned a lot of things in the temple, even how to make prophecies, but that of prophetizing is not an easy job and that I had not learned yet how to make myself believed, and so I risked to be misunderstood all the time. She was right, of course. But I was young and I must say that I was excited at the idea to go with king Muwatalli. You know, I could have given a son to the king, then he would have married me and I would have become Queen, or Empress, or something like that. I knew that it wasn't likely that it would happen; and it didn't happen. But – you know – a girl can always dream!

So, let me keep going. I went with King Muwatalli to Tarhuntassa and I became one of his concubines; he had a lot of them, as kings use to have. He also had a wife, or perhaps more than one – I am not sure. Anyway, I was not to be his wife, just a concubine. Which is fine, after all; you know, the job of the concubine is not very difficult. You just have to be ready when the king wants you, which is not so often, because the king has a lot of concubines. It was a little boring, sure, but after a while you get used to that. After that I had learned some of the local language, Hittite, I spent my time chatting with the other concubines, eating, drinking, and laughing. So, that could have been all of my story; to get old in the king's harem; it is the lot of concubines, But, instead, my destiny was to be completely different.

As a concubine, I was a little special, because I was from Babylon, and I had been a hierodule of the temple of Ishtar and the priests and the priestesses of Babylon have this fame of being able to make prophecies. So, one day, the king summoned me, and I went to see him all dressed up nice, kohl on my eyes, good perfume all over, and gold bracelets on my wrists and my ankles. But that day I found that he didn't want to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me. I saw right away that he was worried, very worried. So, he told me that messengers had come from Egypt and had told him that the Egyptian army was marching North in full strength, toward the lands of the Hittites, led by the young Pharaoh Ramses. And, of course, he had to stop them. So, he asked me to make a prophecy for him. A prophecy about the coming battle.

What could I do? When a king asks you something, you can't refuse. So, I wore the dress of the prophetess, had a liver from a freshly killed goat brought to me and I made this prophecy for him. And it was not a good prophecy. I saw a lot of dead people, plenty of smashed chariots, and the remains of the Hittite army retreating. I told him that, and he got angry at me. He said that he was going to lick these Egyptians as they deserved. And that he would teach this stupid Ramses a good lesson. And that he didn't believe a word of my prophecy. It was what my Ensi had said. That nobody would believe my prophecies; actually she had said it was a curse, and maybe it was true. But what could I do about that? King Muwatalli assembled the army; all the chariots and the infantry, and off he went, marching south.

A few months later, we saw the king coming back. But half of the army was not there anymore. Of course, the king told everyone that it had been a big victory for him, at the city of Kadesh. But the survivors told different stories; people being hacked to pieces and drowning while trying to swim across the Orontes river, pursued by the Egyptians. Later on, there came messengers from Egypt; they said that king Ramses had come back home telling of the great victory he had won against the Hittites.

So, you can understand how things were at the court of Tarhuntassa at that time. The king was worried that the Egyptians would attack again, that the provinces would rebel, that the nobles would try to overthrow him… a mess. And about me…. ow… you can imagine that. It is no good having been right about a king's disgrace. I was afraid that King Mutawalli would kill me; he didn't, but for sure he didn't care any more for me to play Inanna and Dummuzi with him. But at this point there happened something else.

Not that I was supposed to be told about these political things, I was just a concubine. But everything becomes known in court after a while, and so I learned that there had come a messenger from the West, from king Alaksandu of Wilusa. You probably never heard these names, but you can surely understand if I say, instead, "King Priam of Troy". So let me call him Priam, even though the Hittites called him in a different way.

Now, this messenger arrived, and he said that King Priam was in trouble because there was this king Akagamunash, ruler of the Ahhiyawa, who was planning to attack the city of Troy. Even these names, you probably never heard of, unless you speak Hittite. But they are also known as king Agamemnon and the Achaeans; people living across the sea from Anatolia. So, this messenger said that King Priam had always been a faithful vassal of king Mutawalli, and that he would remain a faithful servant forever, and that his sons would be forever faithful servants of King Muwatalli, too, and he kept going like that for quite a long time. Then, while still paying homage to the victorious king of the Hittites, he – king Priam – said that he badly needed some help from King Muwatalli and that the great Hittite ruler was surely able to chase away these barbarian Achaeans with his powerful army as if they were ants pushed away by fire.

That message made king Mutawalli even angrier and more worried than before. He had no army that he could send West to defend Troy. And if he tried to defend Troy, he would have to leave the Eastern provinces unguarded, and that could have been truly the end of him. But if he did nothing, he risked the whole left flank of the Hittite Empire. So, he had this idea: to send me to king Priam.

I don't know if that was to be taken as a joke or if he really thought I could help the Trojans – maybe yes, you know, these Babylonian priestesses have strange powers. Anyway, the king had his scribes write a pompous letter to Priam, saying that because of his faithful service he wanted to reward him with a precious gift, a gift of great value. And he was sending him this wise woman, Kashanna from Babylon, prophetess of renown, and that he – king Muwatalli – was sure that King Priam would appreciate the gift for what it was worth.

All that I came to know later. What happened is that the king summoned me in front of him and he told me "Kashanna, you are going to Wilusa." And I knew nothing of that story and I said, "What?" And he laughed and he said, "Aren't you a prophetess, Kashanna? You should know!" Silly humor of kings. But let me say nothing about that.

One month later, I was there, in front of the walls of Troy, with a caravan that had traveled all the way from Tarhuntassa. And I was in front of King Priam, who came out of the door of the city to meet me. I still remember his face. He was expecting an army to help him, and all what he got was a dressed up concubine escorted by eunuchs and slaves. Oh, that he was disappointed!! But he put on a brave face, and he took me into the city with all the pomp of the occasion.

Now, King Priam was too old to be interested in playing Dummuzi and Inanna with me. But his sons were young enough, and I was the new girl in town, and I think that Priam didn't want anyone to quarrel because of me. There was a war that was going to start, and he didn't want Trojans to kill each other because they were quarreling for me. So, he placed me in the temple of the goddess with the other hierodules. In Troy, things were much different than in Babylon and the hierodules were all supposed to be virgins. Now, it is a bit strange for a hierodule of Isthar to be said to be a virgin. Curious uses they had, there. It would be like saying that Nergal, the God of War, fears blood! And, about those girls being really virgins, well, let me say nothing. But, anyway, the king placed me there, and there I had to stay. And not just that. He adopted me, telling everyone that from then on I was supposed to be his daughter and that any offense against me, any attempt to jeopardize my virginity, would be seen as an insult to the king and to the whole royal family. Well, what could I say? At least I didn't have to worry about too many things.

So, while staying in the temple, I learned a little of the local language – not so different than Hittite. It was then at that time that they started calling me "Cassandra" instead of Kashanna, apparently Cassandra sounded better in their language. Then, I learned about the city and all the buzz there was about this woman, Helen. One of the sons of King Priam, Paris, had snatched her away from her husband, a big Achaean boss called Menelaus. This Helen was supposed to be extremely beautiful, but I can tell you that she was kind of overrated. Anyway, it was none of my business whether this Paris and Helen were playing Dummuzi and Inanna together. But it didn't seem to me that it had been such a good idea to steal this woman from her husband, who was a powerful Achaean King. Now the Achaeans were buzzing like angry bees and that was the reason why Priam was expecting an invasion.

Sure enough, not long after I had arrived, there appeared on the sea a big fleet of those Achaeans, right in front of the city of Troy. They landed, and out of the ships they came with their chariots, swords, lances, and all what is needed for war. And the Trojans, including the hierodules of the temple, went up the walls and looked down to the plain in front of the city and – by the sacred name of the Goddess – there was a huge band of those Achaeans there. Truly an awful lot of them.

Later on, that day, King Priam summoned me and he asked me to perform a divination for him. And I told him, "King, I don't need to make a prophecy for you; haven't you seen how many of these Achaeans there are, out there?" And he told me not to be silly and to make this divination. So, what could I do? I got myself a goat liver and I performed the ritual and I told him what I saw. Which was a lot of blood and the city in flames. And, of course, he wasn't happy. He got angry at me and he started screaming things I didn't understand. So, I told him, "king, don't you think it was a silly idea that your son, Paris, snatched away this girl, this Helen, from her husband? Now he is here with all his friends and he wants her back. So, why don't you give her back to him, and so you save the city?" But he muttered something like "the Trojans' honor is not negotiable!" And he left, angry, saying that he didn't believe a word of my prophecies. As if that was new.

Not that King Priam was stupid, not at all. One problem was that he was old, he couldn't really tell to his people what to do. But there was this idea in Troy that the honor of the city was at stake and that they had to fight, even though they understood that they had done something wrong and that the Achaeans, after all, were right at being angry at them. I know this because I spoke with other people of the city, including one of Priam's sons, a guy called Hector. He seemed to be smarter than the average, but still he didn't budge from that position: they were fighting for the honor of Troy and that was it. So, what could I do about that? I even made a divination for him, and you can imagine what came out: more blood and disasters. And he started looking at me askance as if I was a traitor or a spy; after all I was a foreigner. Don't misunderstand me; these Trojans were not bad people – actually I liked them. But they had this idea that there is no other way to solve problems than hacking at each other with swords. I told them that swords create problems, don't solve them, but they looked at me as if I had been a Galla demon from the underworld, just materialized in front of them. Nothing to do about that.

So, there started the war. In the temple, with the other hierodules, we couldn't see anything of what was going on, out there, but, every evening, the warriors came back to the city and told stories of the battle. We heard of this guy having killed that guy, and of another guy coming up and killing the first in revenge. I figure this is the way wars are; not very interesting for a hierodule. Anyhow, I must say that the Trojans put up quite a good fight, though badly outnumbered. And they trusted their walls, they thought they were safe behind them.

There is a legend that says that the siege of Troy lasted for ten years, but it is not true, it lasted just for a season – what do you think those Achaeans would have eaten if they had to stay in the plain for ten years? But never mind that. One day, someone came up to the temple and he told me, "Cassandra, come! The Achaeans have gone!" So, they told me that the Achaeans had left in a hurry and that it was a big victory for the glorious city of Troy. Everyone was happy about that, but they were also perplexed, because the Achaeans had left something weird in front of the city walls. So, I walked up the battlements and I saw a big wooden thing right in front of the walls. And everyone was wondering about what the hell that was and they asked me because they knew I was a priestess and I had seen a lot of things. And, of course, I knew what it was, I had read about those things; not for nothing we have a big library in the temple of Babylon. So, I told them, "it is a siege engine!" And they looked at me with bovine eyes and they said, "what?" And I told them, "it is made to smash down the city walls!" They looked at each other, shaking their heads. They didn't believe me. What's so new about that?

So, they kept discussing about that big wooden thing and someone came up with this brilliant idea that it was a horse and that it was a votive offering for the God Apollon. And I told them, "Look, you idiots, you must set that thing on fire before it is too late." I was trying to do my best to help them, after all. But they just looked at me, askance and again, they started muttering that I am a foreigner and that I could be a spy and that I should not be trusted. What could I do about that?

So, I went back to the temple, and night came, and I went to sleep and I woke up when I heard a lot of noise, people screaming, and the smell of things burning. I understood immediately what was going on but, again, there was nothing I could do about that. I could only note how silly these people were. And, again, I was sorry for them, they were not bad people, these Trojans. Then, at some moment, the door of the temple was smashed open from the outside and there came inside a hirsute idiot wearing armor and carrying a sword. You can imagine that I was afraid, so I clung to the statue of the Goddess, but the idiot tried to pull me away – I mean, so stupid: if he had wanted to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me, he could have asked in the proper manner, after all I was a temple girl from Babylon, it is my job! Instead, he tried to force me away, I got even more scared and I clung to the statue more, and in the end I got a dislocated shoulder, quite some bruises, and the hirsute idiot carried me away.

You can imagine how angry I was, in addition to the dislocated shoulder, this idiot had managed to desecrate the temple of the Goddess. So I cursed him for good, using some curses that my Ensi had taught me; while telling me that I should never use them, but I did. He was cursed for good and he had lots of troubles. Later on, the Goddess had his ship sink at sea, and he drowned. When I came to know that, I was sorry for him, but that was how things went.

So, while Troy was burning, I ended up playing Inanna and Dummuzi with the king of the Achaeans, someone called Agamemnon. I said that I was a good looking girl at that time, so he took me with him on his ship, when he sailed back to his city, Mycenae. Before leaving, he asked me to make a divination for him; which I did – the usual work with a goat's liver. I told him that I saw blood and murder at his home, and he just laughed and he said that his loving wife was waiting for him and that everything would be fine. He didn't believe me. Nothing unusual.

So, we arrived in Mycenae, and Agamemnon took me with him to his palace. His wife, Clytemnestra, didn't like that — not so much because of me, but because she had a lover, and she didn't want her obnoxious husband back. So she killed Agamemnon by stabbing him while he was taking a bath – loving wife, yes! – and then she ran after me with an axe. She almost got me, but I managed to run away. Later on, the legend spread that said that she had killed me. That was not true, but I was perfectly happy with that. I had had enough troubles with all those stories and I much preferred if people thought I was dead.

That was not the end of the story, but I'll skip several details of what happened after I ran away from Mycenae, chased by a madwoman yielding a battle axe. Let me just say that I managed to meet another Achaean who was also getting back home – Odysseus his name. He took me on board of his ship and he played a little of Dummuzi and Inanna with me, then he asked me a prophecy for his return home. I don't have to tell you that I saw bad things there, but he didn't believe me – of course. But this Odysseus was nice enough to land me in Byblos, in Lebanon. There, I found a ride on a caravan that was bringing cedar wood to Babylon.

And there I was, a few years had gone by, but in the meantime my Ensi priestess had died and now they recognized me, and they wanted me to become the new Ensi of the temple. But I didn't want to – I had had enough of prophecies. I stopped being a hierodule, I stopped being a prophetess. I married a tavern keeper in Babylon, I had children and grandchildren, and I died very old. I had a happy life and now I am a ghost. And that's the end of the story of Cassandra – known as Kashanna in Babylon.

Just one more detail; I think it may interest you. One day there came someone to the tavern, an old Greek. He was blind and he had no money, but he said he could sing for me in exchange for some good beer. So, I served him some good beer, and he sang for me the story of the war of Troy. It was nice, but I told him that it was wrong in many details. I tried to tell him that Cassandra was not the daughter of King Priam, and that the siege engine was not supposed to look like a horse. But he didn't believe me – imagine that! So, I told him that he could have his beer for free, and might the Goddess bless him. And that's truly the end of this story.

….. Lady Cassandra, it is a nice story to hear. Thank you very much. So, you even meet Homer…

Yes, I remember that Homer was the name of that blind Greek. I think he became famous.

But, Lady Cassandra.. You said that your name in Babylon was…. how did you say?

My name? Kashanna…. it was my name in Babylon.

What does it mean?

Oh… it is an old Sumerian name. Kash is beer and Anna is heaven. So, Kashanna means "heavenly beer."

A very nice name.

Thank you. Do you like beer?

I do. Although sometimes it gives me headaches.

Not the beer I served in my tavern, in Babylon. I am sure that it didn't give headaches to anyone.

I don't think they make that kind of beer any more…. unfortunately. Do you like beer Lady Cassanra?

Well, I used to. But, you know, as a ghost……

Oh…. sorry, I didn't mean…

No, it is all right. It is the way the Gods have arranged things to be. Everyone has to become a ghost. Sooner or later.

But, Lady Cassandra, I was thinking that I might ask you something…..

You want a divination, don't you?

Well, if possible…. I am not sure I can find a goat liver for you, but…..

Oh… don't worry about that. As a ghost I can make divinations even without a goat liver. No problem. And what would you like the divination to be about?

That's very nice of you, Lady Cassandra. So, you know, we have plenty of problems, here. But there is this one we call "climate change"…. I am not sure you are familiar with this concept.

Ghosts have special powers, you know? So, I know what you are talking about. It is very dangerous, indeed. More dangerous than having the whole Achaean army lined up in front of the city doors. So, let me make this divination for you.

Well, maybe it takes time…

No…. as I said, we ghosts have special powers. I just have to think about the matter, and the prophecy comes. And, you know, I am sorry, I am really sorry…..

Why?

It is not a good prophecy. It is even worse than for Troy. Everything on fire. People dying, blood everywhere. But many, many more.

But am I not supposed to disbelieve you?

Oh… no, that curse was for when I was alive. Now that I am a ghost, not anymore….. I think you believe me. I can see that.

Not that I am happy about that, but….

It seems that people in your time are even more stupid than the Trojans. They just had to give back Helen to the Achaeans to save the city, and they didn't want to do that. And or you, all what you have to do is to stop burning that awful black stuff you keep burning. Is it so difficult?

Apparently, yes. It seems to be very difficult.

I see….. I am sorry that I upset you.

It is all right. I should have expected that.

I am really sorry. I see that you are very upset. I should really go back to the underworld….

No, no… there is no hurry. But, Lady Cassandra, do you really think your prophecies…. I mean, do they always come true?

The Gods send them to me.

Ah……

See, I was sorry for the people of Troy, and I am sorry for your people, too. You see, maybe you should pray to the Goddess Inanna, maybe she can help you.

I think we should try that, yes…..

Really, I guess it is time for me to go…… Ghosts are not supposed to chat with the living for such a long time. And good luck, you really need it.

Thank you, Lady Cassandra.

Seneca Cliffs of the 3rd Kind

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on December 15, 2014

Seneca cliffs of the third kind: how technological progress can generate a faster collapse

The image above (from Wikipedia) shows the collapse of the North Atlantic cod stocks. The fishery disaster of the early 1990s was the result of a combination of greed, incompetence, and government support for both. Unfortunately, it is just one of the many examples of how human beings tend to worsen the problems they try to solve. The philosopher Lucius Anneus Seneca had understood this problem already some 2000 years ago, when he said, “It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
 

The collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery industry gives us a good example of the abrupt collapse in the production of resources – even resources which are theoretically renewable. The shape of the production curve landings shows some similarity with the “Seneca curve“, a general term that I proposed to apply to all cases in which we observe a rapid decline of the production of a non renewable, or slowly renewable, resource. Here is the typical shape of the Seneca Curve:

The similarity with the cod landings curve is only approximate, but clearly, in both cases we have a very rapid decline after a slow growth that, for the cod fishery, had lasted for more than a century. What caused this behavior?

The Seneca curve is a special case of the “Hubbert Curve” which describes the exploitation of a non renewable (or slowly renewable) resource in a free market environment. The Hubbert curve is “bell shaped” and symmetric (and it is the origin of the well known concept of “peak oil). The Seneca curve is similar, but it is skewed forward. In general, the forward skewness can be explained in terms of the attempt of producers to keep producing at all costs a disappearing resource.

There are several mechanisms which can affect the curve. In my first note on this subject, I noted how the Seneca behavior could be generated by growing pollution and, later on, how it could be the result of the application of more capital resources to production as a consequence of increasing market prices. However, in the case of the cod fishery, neither factor seems to be fundamental. Pollution in the form of climate change may have played a role, but it doesn’t explain the upward spike of the 1960s in fish landings. Also, we have no evidence of cod prices increasing sharply during this phase of the production cycle. Instead, there is clear evidence that the spike and the subsequent collapse was generated by technological improvements.

The effect of new and better fishing technologies is clearly described by Hamilton et al. (2003)

Fishing changed as new technology for catching cod and shrimp developed, and boats became larger. A handful of fishermen shifted to trawling or “dragger” gear. The federal government played a decisive role introducing new technology and providing financial resources to fishermen who were willing to take the risk of investing in new gear and larger boats.

Fishermen in open boats and some long-liners continued to fish cod, lobster and seal inshore. Meanwhile draggers  and other long-liners moved onto the open ocean, pursuing cod and shrimp nearly year round. At the height of the boom, dragger captains made $350,000–600,000 a year from cod alone. … The federal government helped finance boat improvements, providing grants covering 30–40% of their cost.
….
By the late 1980s, some fishermen recognized signs of decline. Open boats and long-liners could rarely reach their quotas. To find the remaining cod, fishermen traveled farther north, deployed more gear and intensified their efforts. A few began shifting to alternative species such as crab. Cheating fisheries regulation—by selling unreported catches at night, lining nets with small mesh and dumping bycatch at sea—was said to be commonplace. Large illegal catches on top of too-high legal quotas drew down the resource. Some say they saw trouble coming, but felt powerless to halt it.

So, we don’t really need complicated models (but see below) to understand how human greed and incompetence – and help from the government – generated the cod disaster. Cods were killed faster than they could reproduce and the result was their destruction. Note also that in the case of whaling in the 19th century, the collapse of the fishery was not so abrupt as it was for cods, most likely because, in the 19th century, fishing technology could not “progress” could not be so radical as it was in the 20th century.

The Seneca collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery is just one of the many cases in which humans “push the levers in the wrong directions“, directly generating the problem they try to avoid. If there is some hope that, someday, the cod fishery may recover, the situation is even clearer with fully non-renewable resources, such as oil and most minerals. Also here, technological progress is touted as the way to solve the depletion problems. Nobody seems to worry about the fact that the faster you extract it, the faster you deplete it: that’s the whole concept of the Seneca curve.

So take care: there is a Seneca cliff ahead also for oil!

____________________________________

A simple dynamic model to describe how technological progress can generate the collapse of the production of a slowly renewable resource; such as in the case of fisheries.

by Ugo Bardi

Note: this is not a formal academic paper, just a short note to sketch how a dynamic model describing overfishing can be built. See also a similar model describing the effect of prices on the production of a non renewable resource


The basics of a system dynamics model describing the exploitation of a non renewable resource in a free market are described in detail in a 2009 paper by Bardi and Lavacchi. According to the model developed in that paper, it is assumed that the non renewable resource (R) exists in the form of an initial stock of fixed extent. The resource stock is gradually transformed into a stock of capital (C) which in turn gradually declines. The behavior of the two stocks as a function of time is described by two coupled differential equations.
R’ = – k1*C*R C’ = k2*C*R – k3*C,
where R‘ and C’ indicate the flow of the stocks as a function of time (R’ is what we call “production”), while the “ks” are constants. This is a “bare bones” model which nevertheless can reproduce the “bell shaped” Hubbert curve and fit some historical cases. Adding a third stock (pollution) to the system, generates the “Seneca Curve“, that is a skewed forward production curve, with decline faster than growth.

The two stock system (i.e. without taking pollution into account) can also produce a Seneca curve if the equations above are slightly modified. In particular, we can write:
R’ = – k1*k3*C*R C’ = ko*k2*C*R – (k3+k4)*C.
Here, “k3” explicitly indicates the fraction of capital reinvested in production, while k4 which is proportional to capital depreciation (or any other non productive use). Then, we assume that production is proportional to the amount of capital invested, that is to k3*C. Note how the ratio of R’ to the flow of capital into resource creation describes the net energy production (EROI), which turns out to be equal to k1*R. Note also that “ko” is a factor that defines the efficiency of the transformation of resources into capital; it can be seen as related to technological efficiency.
The model described above is valid for a completely non-renewable resource. Dealing with a fishery, which is theoretically renewable, we should add a growth factor to R’, in the form of k5*R. Here is the model as implemented using the Vensim (TM) software for system dynamics. The “ks” have been given explicit names. I am also using the convention of “mind sized models” with higher free energy stocks appearing above lower free energy stocks

If the constants remain constant during the run, the model is the same as the well known “Lotka-Volterra” one. If the reproduction rate is set at zero, the model generates the symmetric Hubbert curve.

In order to simulate technological progress, the “production efficiency” constant is supposed to double stepwise around mid-cycle. A possible result is the following, which qualitatively reproduces the behavior of the North Atlantic cod fishery.

Among other things, this result confirms the conclusions of an early paper of mine (2003) on this subject, based on a different method of modeling.

Let me stress again that this is not an academic paper. I am just showing the results of tests performed with simple assumptions for the constants. Nevertheless, these calculations show that the Seneca cliff is a general behavior that occurs when producers stretch out their system allocating increasing fractions of capital to production. Should someone volunteer to give me a hand to make better models, I’d be happy to collaborate!

At The Edge of the Seneca Cliff

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on December 7, 2014

It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.” Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

This observation by Seneca seems to be valid for many modern cases, including the production of a nonrenewable resource such as crude oil. Are we on the edge of the “Seneca cliff?

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Fossil fuels: are we on the edge of the Seneca cliff?

It is a well known tenet of people working in system dynamics that there exist plenty of cases of solutions worsening the problem. Often, people appear to be perfectly able to understand what the problem is, but, just as often, they tend to act on it in the wrong way. It is a concept also expressed as “pushing the lever in the wrong direction.”

With fossil fuels, we all understand that we have a depletion problem, but the solution, so far, has been to drill more, to drill deeper, and to keep drilling. Squeezing out some fuel by all possible sources, no matter how difficult and expensive, could offset the decline of conventional fields and keep production growing for the past few years. But is it a real solution? That is, won’t we pay the present growth with a faster decline in the future?

This question can be described in terms of the “Seneca Cliff“, a concept that I proposed a few years ago to describe how the production of a non renewable resource may show a rapid decline after passing its production peak. It is not just a theoretical model: there are several historical cases where the production of a resource collapsed after having reached a peak. For instance, here are the data for the Caspian sturgeon, a case that I termed “peak caviar“.

Do we risk to see something like this in the case of the world production of oil and gas? In my opinion, yes. There are some similarities; both fossil fuels and caviar are non-replaceable resources; and in both cases prices went rapidly up at and after the peak. So, if Caspian sturgeon showed such a clear Seneca cliff, oil and gas could do the same. But let me go into some details.

In the first version of my Seneca model, the fast decline of production was interpreted in terms of growing pollution, which places an extra burden on the productive system and reduces the amount of resources available for the development of new resources. However, I found that the Seneca behavior is rather robust in these systems and it appears every time people try to “stretch out” a system to force it to produce more and faster than it would naturally do.

So, in the case of the Caspian sturgeon, above, pollution cannot be the cause of the rapid collapse of production. Rather, what happened is that high prices of a rare and non replaceable resource (caviar) enticed producers to invest more and more resources in raking out of the sea as much as possible. It worked, for a while, but, in the end, you can’t fish sturgeon which isn’t there. It ended up in disaster: a classic case of a Seneca Cliff.

Can this phenomenon be modeled? Yes. Below, I describe the model for this case in some detail. The essence of the idea is that producers need to reinvest a fraction of their profits in developing new resources in order to keep producing. However, the yield of the new investments declines as time goes by because the most profitable resources (e.g. oil fields) are exploited first. As a result, less and less capital is available for new investments. Eventually production reaches a maximum, then it declines. If we assume that companies re-invest a constant fraction of their profits in new resources, the model leads to the symmetric bell shaped curve known as the “Hubbert Curve.”

However, as I describe in detail below, decline can be postponed if high prices provide extra capital for new productive developments. Unfortunately, growth is obtained at the cost of a fast burning out of capital resources. The final result is not any more the symmetric Hubbert curve, but a classic Seneca curve: decline is more rapid than growth.

Is this what we are facing for fossil fuels? Of course, we are only dealing with qualitative models, but, on the other hand, qualitative models are often robust and give us an idea of what to expect, even though they can’t tell us much in terms of predicting events on a precise time scale. The ongoing collapse of oil prices may be a symptom that we are running out of the capital resources necessary to keep developing new fields. So, what we can say is that there are some good chances of rough times ahead – actually very rough. The Seneca cliff may well be part of our near term future.

_______________________________________________________

The Seneca curve as the result of increasing fractions of profits allocated to the production of a non renewable resource

by Ugo Bardi – 07 Dec 2014

Note: this is not a formal scientific paper; it is more a rough “back of the envelope” calculation designed to show how increasing capex fractions can affect the production rate of a non renewable resource. If someone could give me a hand to make a more refined and publishable study, I would be happy to collaborate!

The basics of a system dynamics model describing the exploitation of a non renewable resource in a free market are described in detail in a 2009 paper by Bardi and Lavacchi. This paper provides a theoretical description of the Hubbert model and of the “bell shaped” production curve. In the model, it is assumed that the non renewable resource (R) exists in the form of an initial stock of fixed extent. The resource stock is gradually transformed into a stock of capital (C) which in turn gradually declines. The behavior of the two stocks as a function of time is described by two coupled differential equations.

R’ = – k1*C*R
C’ = k2*C*R – k3*C,

where R‘ and C’ indicate the flow of the stocks as a function of time (R’ is what we call “production”), while the “ks” are constants. This is a “bare bones” model which nevertheless can reproduce the Hubbert curve and fit some historical cases. Adding a third stock (pollution) to the system, generates the “Seneca Curve“, that is a skewed forward production curve, with decline faster than growth.

The two stock system can also produce a Seneca curve if the equations above are slightly modified. In particular, we can write:

R’ = – k1*k3*C*R
C’ = ko*k2*C*R – (k3+k4)*C.

Here, “k3” here explicitly indicates the fraction of capital reinvested in production, while k4 which is proportional to capital depreciation (or any other non productive use). Then, we assume that production is proportional to the amount of capital invested, that is to C*k3. Note also that “ko” is a factor that defines the efficiency of the transformation of resources into capital; it can be seen as related to technological efficiency, but this point will not be examined here.

Here is the model as implemented using the Vensim (TM) software for system dynamics. The “ks” have been given explicit names. I am also using the convention of “mind sized models” with higher free energy stocks appearing above lower free energy stocks

If the k‘s are kept constant over the production cycle, the shape of the curves generated by this model is exactly the same as with the simplified version, that is a symmetric, bell shaped production curve. Here are the results of a typical run:

Things change if we allow “k3” to vary over the simulation cycle. The characteristic that makes “k3” (productive investment fraction) somewhat different than the other parameters of the model, is that it is wholly dependent on human choice. That is, while the other ks are constrained by physical and technological factors, the fraction of the available capital re-invested into production can be chosen almost at will (of course, there remains the limit of the total amount of available capital!).

Higher prices will lead to higher profits for producers and to the tendency to increase the fraction reinvested in new developments. It is also known that in the region near the production peak prices tend to be higher – as in the historical cases of whale oil and caviar and whale oil. In the case of caviar, the price rise was nearly exponential, in the case of whale oil, more like a logistic curve. Assuming that the fraction of reinvested capital varies in proportion to prices, some modeling may be attempted. Here, let me show just the results obtained with an exponential increase.

I have also tried other functions for the rising trend of k3. The results are qualitatively the same for a linear increase and for a logistic one: The Seneca behavior appears to be robust.

Let me stress once more that these are not supposed to be complete results. These are only tests performed with somewhat arbitrary assumptions for the constants. Nevertheless, these calculations show that the Seneca behavior occurs when we assume that producers stretch out their system allocating increasing fractions of capital to production.

Euro, Yen & Oil Collapse Doom Double Feature

logopodcastOff the microphones, cameras and keyboards of Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi, Steve Ludlum, RE & Monsta

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Aired on the Doomstead Diner on November 11, 2014

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Yen, Euro & Oil Frostbite Falls Daily Rant

Yen, Euro and Oil Collapse Cafe Chat with Guests Gail Tverberg, Ugo Bardi and Steve Ludlum

Read more from Gail, Ugo & Steve on their Blogs

Gail Tverberg: Our Finite World

Ugo Bardi: Resource Crisis

Steve Ludlum: Economic Undertow

 

Snippets from the Analysts: (follow the Links to read full versions)

The collapse of oil prices and energy security in Europe

This is a written version of the brief talk I gave at the hearing of the EU parliament on energy security in Brussels on Nov 5, 2014. It is not a transcription, but a shortened version that tries to maintain the substance of what I said. In the picture, you can see the audience and, on the TV screen, yours truly taking the picture.

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, let me say that it is a pleasure and an honor to be addressing this distinguished audience today. I am here as a faculty member of the University of Florence and as a member of the Club of Rome, but let me state right away that what I will tell you are my own opinions, not necessarily those of the Club of Rome or of my university.

This said, let me note that we have been discussing so far with the gas crisis and the Ukrainian situation, but I have to alert you that there is another ongoing crisis – perhaps much more worrisome – that has to do with crude oil. This crisis is being generated by the rapid fall in oil prices during the past few weeks. I have to tell you that low oil prices are NOT a good thing for the reasons that I will try to explain. In particular, low oil prices make it impossible for many oil producers to produce at a profit and that could generate big problems for the world’s economy, just as it already happened in 2008.

Oil Price Slide – No Good Way Out

The world is in a dangerous place now. A large share of oil sellers need the revenue from oil sales. They have to continue producing, regardless of how low oil prices go unless they are stopped by bankruptcy, revolution, or something else that gives them a very clear signal to stop. Producers of oil from US shale are in this category, as are most oil exporters, including many of the OPEC countries and Russia.

Some large oil companies, such as Shell and ExxonMobil, decided even before the recent drop in prices that they couldn’t make money by developing available producible resources at then-available prices, likely around $100 barrel. See my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. These large companies are in the process of trying to sell off acreage, if they can find someone to buy it. Their actions will eventually lead to a drop in oil production, but not very quickly–maybe in a couple of years.

So there is a definite time lag in slowing production–even with very low prices. In fact, if US shale production keeps rising, and Libya and Iraq keep work at getting oil production on line, we may even see an increase in world oil production, at a time when world oil production needs to decline.

Last Line of Defense …

Triangle of Doom 110114

Figure 1: Continuous WTI futures (TFC Charts, click on for big). Price convergence results in a breakdown as customers are unwilling- or unable to bid prices higher. Absent the high prices there is insufficient cash flow to enable drillers to continue operations. Today’s marginal barrels are extracted from high cost deepwater offshore plays, from tight-oil shale formations and from ‘tar’ sands: without customer credit, drillers are more dependent upon junk bond leverage than ever.

Of course, once on the borrowing treadmill, it is impossible to step off. Borrowers must run faster to stay in place, ever-increasing amounts are needed to keep pace with operating- and service costs as well as to rollover maturing legacy debt. Consumer access to credit must be considered a ‘hard limit’ to petroleum extraction along with geology. Even as drillers are able to borrow they find there are fewer ‘end users’ with available credit … onto whom the drillers can lay off their ballooning exposure.

Conventional analysis insists that fuel constraints result in higher prices due to simply supply and demand. The assumption is that consumers will always find more funds. Instead, fuel constraints reduce customer purchasing power: customers stumble first, the drillers fail afterwards. As customers’ borrowing capacity shrinks the petroleum industry has little choice but to adjust prices to meet the market which forces drillers to reduce output. At some point they fail outright. Fuel supply cuts => diminished consumer borrowing capacity => more fuel supply cuts in a vicious, self-reinforcing cycle.

 

The Double Whammy

Reverse Engineer

Over the course of the last week, we have had two MAJOR Black Swans come in for a landing.

The first one actually has been ongoing for a couple of weeks now, the collapsing price in the Oil Market, plunging from its recent “set point’ at around $90/barrel to $77 for WTI as I write this article:

The second Swan came in the form of an announcement by BoJ Chief Psycho Kuroda that the BoJ would ENGAGE Warp Drive on the Printing Press and buy up every last JGB the Nip Goobermint sells in order to meet their ever increasing need for cash.  The Yen was already sliding, this announcement however sent it on a Downhill Run worthy of an Olympic ski course.

http://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user3303/imageroot/2014/11/20141103_NKY.jpg

Flip this upside down to get JPYUSD.  Nobody publishes it that way, I wonder why?

Are these two events unrelated coincidence?  Of course not.

Demand Destruction has taken hold all across the globe now, and Oil consumption is dropping everywhere.  Here in the FSoA, we’ve seen a 10% drop in gasoline consumption since 2008, and the end to this is nowhere in sight either.

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 11.57.00 AM

For the rest, listen to the Rant while you tend your Garden, watch the Video while you Cook Dinner, or if you don’t like Media, just read the damn articles!

 

Don’t miss our Upcoming Podcast with David Hughes, Author of the recent Drilling Deeper Report, analyzing the Fracking and Tight Oil plays in the Oil Patch.

…and that’s All the Doom, This Time until Next Time, here on the Doomstead Diner 😀

RE

Mineral depletion: where do we stand?

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

Published on Cassandra’s Legacy on November 20, 2013

miningenergy

Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

This is a written version of the talk that I gave in Stuttgart on Nov 12th for the “Resource Efficiency and Circular Economy Congress“. It is not a transcription of my speech, but a version written from memory that maintains the gist of what I said

Ladies and gentlemen, first of all I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting because it is a pleasure and a honor to be here today. It is a pleasure, mainly, to see that the local government of Baden-Wurttemberg is taking seriously the problem of mineral depletion and its environmental consequences, and that so much high quality work is being done on this subject.

This said, I have 20 minutes to tell you how we stand in terms of worldwide mining trends. As you may imagine, it is not an easy task. The world’s mineral industry is an unbelievably huge machine that extracts all kinds of minerals and processes billions of tons of materials. If we look at the data of the United States Geological service, the USGS, we find a listing of about 90 mineral commodities; but each commodity includes several varieties of the same, or related, compounds. So, it is really a complicated story to tell.

Nevertheless, myself and 16 coworkers set up to try to analyze the situation with a book that we titled “Plundering the Planet“. It is a study that was sponsored by the Club of Rome. It is, actually, the 33rd report to the Club. Here is the cover of the book we published on this subject:

Of course, this study doesn’t claim to be a complete survey of what’s being done in the world’s mineral industry, otherwise we would have had to put together an encyclopedia in 24 volumes or more. But I think that at least we were able to catch the main trends and, here, I can summarize the main results for you.

So, where do we stand in terms of mining? Or, asking the question explicitly: are we going to run out of something? And, if so, when?

At this point, the typical answer that you can find on the web or in most studies on the subject is a list of the available reserves of this or that mineral. Allow me to tell you that once you enter in this kind of evaluation, you enter a true minefield. The concept of “reserve” is a curious beast, a sort of chameleon that changes color depending on where it stands. Reserves are, by definition, mineral deposits that can be extracted, but what will actually be extracted depends on what you need and on what you can afford. As you may imagine, these concepts vary a lot with the vagaries of the economy. So, if you want to estimate for how long a certain mineral resource will be extracted at reasonable costs – which is what we are interested in – well, it is another matter. Forecasting production on the basis of the available reserve is an activity prone to mistakes; even large ones.

So, let me take a different view of the situation. I’ll not be listing reserves, here, but I’ll show you mainly historical production data and price trends. From that, we’ll see if we can say something about the future.

First of all, where do we stand in terms of overall mineral production? Let me show you the most recent aggregated data available, from USGS.

(Rogich, D.G., and Matos, G.R., 2008, The global flows of metals and minerals: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2008–1355, 11 p., available only online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2008/1355/.

This image comes from a 2008 paper and is updated to 2005. From then, the trends haven’t changed that much. As you see, we are still growing in terms of total amounts produced. We have been moving billions of tons of materials during the past century and we are continuing to do so. In particular, construction materials, for instance cement, keep growing: it is a nearly exponential trend that shows no sign of abating. But, we can’t live of cement, alone and I think you are more interested in the trends relative to fossil fuels – surely crucial for not just for the economy, but for our physical survival. So, let me show you some recent data.

Clearly, we don’t seem to be running out of fossil fuels, at least as long as we measure production in terms of tonnage (Mtoe stands for “million tons of oil equivalent). But note some trends: natural gas, and especially coal, are both rapidly growing – this is a bad thing, especially for coal, because coal’s emissions of greenhouse gases are the largest of the three for the same amount of energy produced. Even natural gas, which is sometimes touted as a “clean” (or even “green”) fuel also emits greenhouse gases and the problem of methane losses during extraction may make it as polluting as coal.

Notice also how the production of crude oil has been basically static during the past 7-8 years. That’s important because crude oil is a crucial commodity for our transportation system and the fact that it has not been growing is telling us something. You have surely heard of the “new oil” story and how new technologies have revolutionized oil production giving to us a new age of abundance. Well, from these data it seems that, at best, these technologies have been able to avoid decline; not more. One reason is because these technologies have been used only in the United States; maybe they’ll spread. But it is also true that after the great boom of “fracking” of the past few years, there are already signs of impending decline in the US. It is a fact, in any case, that the faster you extract it, the faster you run out of it.

There are further problems that this aggregated figure hides. One is that we should consider not just the total oil produced, but the oil produced per person. Here it is, in a graphic courtesy of Jean Laherrere.

You see, here, that if we consider the increase in population, the actual availability of crude oil per person has been declining after a peak reached in the early 1970s. It was the time of the great oil crisis that, apparently, never truly ended.

And you should also consider that, in Europe, we are all consumers of oil, not producers, so what we are interesting in is not really how much oil is produced in total, but how much oil we can import from producing countries. That depends, of course, on their internal consumption. Here, I could show you some data which indicate that several producers have big problems with their internal consumption increasing and that makes difficult for them not just increasing their oil exports but even in exporting any oil. But let me not go into the details.

These data show you that we are not running out of fossil fuels, not at all, but also that things are not easy. What’s happening is that the industry needs to use more and more expensive technologies in order just to avoid a decline in production. And if we are spending more to produce oil, it means that prices must be rising; of course nobody ever would sell oil at a loss. So, here are the data for “Brent” oil, one of the industrial standards of oil.

Image by Ugo Bardi from EIA data

So, you can clearly see a rising trend here. It is not speculation. It is difficult to think that someone could speculate on a market of several trillion dollars per year but, even so, speculation is usually short lived. Here, we have an increasing price trend that started with the turn of the century and it is still ongoing.

We can justify these prices considering actual data on how much extracting oil costs. This is a difficult evaluation, of course, but it appears that the most expensive oil on the market, the so-called “marginal barrel”, doesn’t cost less than about 80 dollars. It is so expensive because it comes from remote fields, it requires deep drilling, it is high viscosity oil, contaminated oil, all sorts of factors that contribute to high costs.  These costs can be measured in terms of energy needed to lift, purify, refine, etc. You can print as much money as you want, but that won’t help you in lifting oil out of the ground. For that, you need energy

And, please, note another important point. The prices of oil (and its cost), at present do not include pollution costs. When you buy gasoline for your car, you are not paying for the costs of global warming. And I don’t have to tell you that, as we are discovering in this moment, after the tragedy of the Philippines, these costs are very high and that someone has to pay for them – sooner or later. To clean up the mess we ourselves are creating, we need energy.

Now, there is an interesting conclusion, here. It is that if we want to keep production at these levels, we must accept these prices. Prices are an indicator that says that energy and material resources must be channeled to the oil industry in order to make it able to keep production at the present levels. If we want to reduce prices, then we must accept a reduced production. And if we’ll see a reduction in oil prices in the near future (which seems to be the recent trend) we’ll see also production going down. This is the situation: surely not one of abundance even though, as I said, we are not running out of oil.

There would be a lot more to say about fossil fuels, obviously, but let me stop here. As I said, my idea was to give you some general idea of how the world’s mineral industry is performing, so let me give you another example: copper. Here are the productive trends.

Now, copper is another critical commodity for the world’s industry and I think this figure provides some food for thought for all of us. You see that production is growing – even here we can say that we are not running out of anything. But the growth is slowing down. Copper production is not continuing the exponential growth it had been following in earlier times. What’s happening? Let’s give a look to the price trends.

As you see, copper prices have been following the same pattern we saw for crude oil. And that’s not surprising: in order to extract copper, you need oil. It is a general rule that in order to extract anything – even oil – you need energy in one form or another. It is known that the extractive industry is a voracious consumer of energy. The quantitative estimates are variable, but we can say that perhaps about 10% of the total primary energy produced in the world is used for the extraction of minerals. Of this energy, a large fraction, (about 35% according to some estimates) is in the form of diesel fuel for mining machines; for bulldozers and the like. So, no wonder that a rise in oil prices has caused a rise in the price of most minerals.

There is also another problem and it is that not only the energy needed to extract copper is more expensive. It is also that it is becoming gradually more expensive to extract copper because the energy needed is increasing. It is a general problem: for any mineral, the high grade ores are the first to be extracted. But, as you run out of high grade ores, you must move to lower grade ores and processing lower grade ores is more expensive. That’s the main effect of depletion. As I said, we are not running out of minerals; but we can say that we are running out of cheap minerals.

Now, I could tell you a lot more, but let me say that there are still some minerals that show a healthy growing trend, one is aluminum, for instance. That’s due to the fact that high grade aluminum ores are still abundant and also that aluminum extraction requires a lot of electric energy and that energy is often generated by renewables, hydropower, for instance. So, aluminum is not subjected to the same problem of copper and other metals.

So, the production of some commodities is still increasing; what we can say in terms of a general rule is that we have a general problem of rising prices. Evidently, extraction costs are increasing everywhere and for all mineral commodities. Here are some data for an average of a few of them (incidentally, showing to you the difference that inflation makes; it is there, but it doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge increase in prices, recently):

Average price index for aluminum, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, silver, tin and zinc (adapted from a graphic reported by Bertram et al., Resource Policy, 36(2011)315)

Let me show you just a final example. The situation seems to be especially difficult for rare and expensive commodities and you surely have heard of the problem of rare earths; important minerals for applications in electronics. Here are the productive trends.

Production has not been increasing for at least five years and it is clear that there is a problem, here, even though the trends are not so clear as in other cases. About price trends, rare earths are a relatively small market and so what has been happening is a huge speculation phenomenon that caused prices to skyrocket. But, then, the bubble burst up and prices came down again in recent years. But not to the initial values, before speculation. Rare earth prices remain today about a factor 5 higher than they were 5-10 years ago.

We know is that the main producer of rare earths in the world is China and during the past few years China’s production has been going down. Some people have said that China wants to use rare earths as a commercial weapon, but I think that is not the case. The fact is that mining rare earths is expensive and polluting and the Chinese government has been trying to clean up the operation. And that is expensive. As I said earlier on, pollution costs are an integral part of the cost of mining, even though that is not usually taken into account.

So, let me summarize the situation in just a few lines:


1. Overall mineral production still on the increase

2. Per capita production static or decreasing

3. Costs of production everywhere increasing

4. Pollution damage also increasing

All that is not surprising, actually it was expected. I said that “The Plundered Planet”, is a report to the Club of Rome and you probably know the Club in reason of their first report, the one that was published in 1972 under the title “The Limits to Growth”. It was a set of scenarios for the future that took into account mineral scarcity as one of the main parameters. The calculations have been redone and updated; here is the latest version of the main results, from the 2004 version

From “The Limits to Growth, the 30-year update” by D. Meadows et al.

Without going into the details of how the trajectory of the world’s economy is modeled in this study, let me just say that it is based on physical factors – the main one being the increasing cost of extraction of mineral resources. This increasing costs was supposed to grow proportionally to the amount extracted. And you see, in the figure, how the curve for “resources” goes down with time, but also that troubles start much before running out of anything. It is because the high costs of extraction (and also the cost of pollution) are weighing down the economy, so much that it becomes impossible to keep industrial and agricultural production growing.

Now, the above shouldn’t be taken as a prophecy; not at all. It was just one of the many possible trajectories that the world’s economy could have taken. But, unfortunately, it looks like we have been following a trajectory close to this model. For instance, it seems clear that, as we approach the peak of industrial production that the model predicts, we are having problems in maintaining the growth of industrial production as we would like it to do. Here are some data for the industrial production in Europe (sorry that this image has labels in Italian, but I think you can understand it anyway):

Here, you see that after the crisis of 2008 there has been a certain return in industrial production. Germany almost managed to go back to the pre-2008 levels, but most European countries couldn’t do that. So, I think this image tells us that the 2008 crisis wasn’t just a financial crisis. It was something deeper and more structural. We can’t say for sure that it is the start of that general decline of the worldwide industrial production that the scenario I showed to you sees for some moment around 2020; but it could be.

In any case, we clearly have big problems related to the high prices of mineral commodities which ar deeply affecting the economies of the world. Let me show you some data for Italy and Germany

As you see, we are dealing with huge sums spent for importing mineral commodities- several tens of billions of Euros. About the data above, note that we have the data for the imports of fossil fuels only, but to that we should add the cost of importing all the other mineral commodity. For Italy, I can tell you that it almost doubles the total: in 2012 the net balance amounted to some 113 billion Euros that Italy spent and that represents about 7.5% of Italy’s GDP. I think that you should consider a similar fraction for Germany. Huge sums, as I said.

Now, consider that all these commodities have shown an increase in price of a factor that goes in the range of 3 to 5. You see that in the past few years, the added burden on the economies of countries which import mineral commodities has amounted to at least a few points of their GDP. Now, this is a heavy burden: we are talking of something of the order of 70 billion euros extra to pay for Italy alone – that can’t fail to have an effect. And, as you surely know, it wasn’t a good effect. The Italian economy is in deep trouble and I think that these extra costs are a major factor in the problem.

Germany survived increasing commodity prices better than Italy because the burden is lower in relative terms. This is because Germany produces some of its energy from domestic sources: coal and nuclear (which Italy doesn’t have) and has also done a remarkable effort in renewable energy; which is also a domestic source. The difference is clear: here are some data (source: World Bank, elaborated by Google):

You see the difference in the graph and, if you happen to live and work in Italy, you feel the difference yourself. Germany has more or less recovered from the 2008 crisis, Italy hasn’t. And I think that Italy’s near complete dependency on imported mineral commodities is the crucial factor that makes the difference.

So, it is time now to recap and to conclude: clearly we have a problem here; and it is a big problem. But not one that’s impossible to solve if we recognize it before it is too late. The solution lies, mainly, in the concept of “circular economy” that we are examining in this congress. And we know what that means: recycling, reusing, and being more efficient. But let me tell you one thing that I learned living in Italy: in order move towards a circular economy, you need resources and energy. Recycling has an energy cost, reusing does too – because you have to re-design practically everything. And even being more efficient has a cost: I see that in my job, which involves helping companies to make better products. Right now, Italian companies can’t afford being efficient. It looks like a contradiction in terms, but think about that: they are fighting for survival;  how can they invest in higher efficiency if the rewards for this will come only years in the future?

In short, if we don’t have energy we can’t do anything. If we have energy, we can recycle, we can reuse, we can be efficient and we can keep mining the resources which are still there, while we gradually move towards a circular (or “closed”) economy.

This is the fundamental point, but it also has to be said in the right way, because it can be misunderstood and has been misunderstood. We need energy, but of the right kind: non polluting and not subjected to depletion. It should be clear that fossil fuels are not a solution: they can’t solve the depletion problem, they can only worsen it. The faster you extract them, the faster you run out of them. And I can’t stress enough that the problem we face is not just depletion, it is pollution in terms of climate change. The climate problem may be much more difficult and intractable than depletion.

So, the right word about energy is “renewable”. And we can use the German term “energiewende” to indicate the energy transition. In the figure below, I am reporting some words by the British economist William Stanley Jevons, slightly modified (he was talking about “coal” rather than about “energy”; but the sense is the same)

So, we know what we have to do. But are we doing it? I am afraid that we aren’t, at least not fast enough worldwide. Let me show you some data:

You see that the investments for fossil fuels dwarf those for renewable energy. Think of how much money is spent just to maintain more or less constant the production of fuels! And if you look at more general sectors, investments in sustainability compared to investments for infrastructure related to fossil fuels, you’ll see that the trend is the same. Much more is spent to maintain business as usual – a society based on fossil fuels – than it is spent to create the energiewende, the transition to a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable society.

Note also a worrisome trend: investments in renewable energy went down in 2012 in comparison to 2011. Unfortunately, that points at the fact that when there is competition for scarce resources, the strongest competitor wins. And the fossil fuel industry is gigantic; with revenues in the range of several trillions of dollars per year for oil and gas alone. If the economic crisis continues, it is possible that we’ll see the support for renewables shrink, while we’ll see even more frantic and desperate efforts to pour everything we have into the fossil fuel industry in order to squeeze the last drops of fossil fuels out of the ground.

Why are we doing this? Who has decided to invest these huge sums for perpetuating an activity that is doing us gigantic damage and that we’ll have to abandon anyway in a not too remote future?

I think we can say that it is us; most of us, at least. It is because we have been seeking for short term profits in our investments and – if we remain within that paradigm – we’ll keep digging fossil fuels until we destroy our civilization and wreck the whole ecosystem.

On the other hand, it is also true that paradigm shift do exist. If we look at the figure above, we can see things in a more optimistic way. Think of how fast renewable energy – and sustainability in general – has been growing. Today we manage to spend some 250 billion dollars per year on renewable energy alone. Twenty years ago, it was almost nothing in comparison. So, that has been a remarkable progress that can make us optimistic for the future.

In the end, the way we spend our remaining resources is our decision. A decision that we make as professionals, as political leaders, as citizens of Europe, as citizens of the world, as human beings. And it is not impossible to take wise decisions if we just move our horizon a little farther than that of immediate financial returns.

To conclude, I would like to thank the whole staff of the Club of Rome for having made this report possible. 

Schilling Shilling

Off the keyboard of James Howard Kunstler

Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666
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Originally Published on Clusterfuck Nation  November 4, 2013

 

Shale-Gas--A-natural-gas--007

     Such is the power of wishful thinking that a set of fool-making memes now pulses through the word-clouds of financial chatter in America spreading the false good cheer that our economic troubles are behind us and pimping for perpetual motion in wealth expansion. A poster boy for this bundle of falsehoods is financial analyst A. Gary Schilling. Just last week, he was talking out of his cloacal vent about US “energy independence” and “the manufacturing renaissance” that will allow this country to magically decouple from the compressive contraction driving the rest of the world.

     Shilling is among the growing chorus of cheerleaders who believe that the shale oil and gas boom will make it possible for so-called “consumers” (what we foolishly call ourselves) to keep driving to Wal-Mart forever — which is the master wish behind all the current fantasies of endless expansion. That idea is going to leave a lot of people disappointed and put the nation further behind in the necessary reorganization of all the key systems that support everyday civilized life, namely: food production, commerce, transport, and the management of capital.

     Here’s what’s actually going to happen with shale oil and gas. Best case scenario: shale oil production rises for three more years to about 2.3 million barrels a day and then crashes so quickly that in 10 years the shale oil industry ceases to exist. A less rosy forecast would admit that the exorbitant costs of drilling-and-fracking will not find the necessary capital to even take the industry that far. Rather, dwindling capital will see the shocking decline rates of shale wells (commonly 50 percent the first year and double digits the following) and will run shrieking for other places to hide.

     Contrary to Gary Schilling’s blather, America is not practicing “energy conservation.” Rather, an economy engineered strictly to run on cheap oil has gotten crushed by oil that is not cheap. Does Schilling believe, for example, that American suburbia works just as well on $90-a-barrel oil as it did on $11-a-barrel oil, or that it has a future as the basic armature of daily life, or that we are doing anything meaningful to alter the burdens of living this way? My guess is that he has never thought about it.

            Likewise, as the American economy got crushed by no-longer-cheap oil, all the working classes in this country below the one-percenters got crushed, hammered, and trashed. Among other things they can no longer afford is gasoline. Total vehicle miles driven has gone down by almost 3 percent since 2007. It will keep going down, and the Happy Motoring matrix will collapse for another reason: capital scarcity will translate into fewer available car loans for Americans, and fewer qualified borrowers, and Americans are used to buying their cars on installment loans.

    The shale gas situation is also not the “energy savior” it’s cracked up to be. Because it costs so much to export the stuff, and we don’t have the export infrastructure in place — ocean terminals, fleets of special (expensive!) tanker ships — shale gas is hostage to the US domestic market. The initial boom was so extravagant that it produced a gas glut, which drove the price way below the level that makes it economically rational to drill for the stuff. Now, a lot of those drilling rigs are migrating to North Dakota, where the Bakken shale oil fields require perpetual increases in rig-counts to offset the rapid decline of existing wells.

      The shale gas regions of Barnett (Fort Worth), Haynesville (Louisiana), and Fayetteville, Arkansas, are already dwindling. The “sweet spots” turned out to be smaller than the hype suggested. The Marcellus (Pennsylvania and New York) is next. Several of the other hyped shale gas “plays” — the Antrim and the Utica — proved too unpromising to even bother with and never made it out of the wish bag.

      The problems with fracking and groundwater pollution are secondary to the economic quandaries as far as the fate of the industry is concerned. At under $8 a unit (1000 cubic feet), shale gas is not worth drilling-and-fracking for. It’s currently around $4. Above $8, Americans are going to have a hard time paying for it. So, enjoy the temporary glut and now stand back and watch the industry begin to dry up and blow away.

      As for the “industrial renaissance,” clowns like Gary Shilling can’t put together the obvious trends. The talked-about new factories will be operated by robots, so there would be no employment renaissance to go along with them. Then there is the question of who might the products be sold to? To Americans who have no jobs and no money? To Europeans who are also going broke and also have the ability to roboticize industrial production and impoverish their own working people? To Asia, which is already at industrial over-capacity — and which will only grow worse as Americans and Europeans buy less stuff? I guess that leaves South America and Africa. Well, good luck with that.

     Schilling is really only shilling for delusional stock market psychology, which tends to be a self-reinforcing racket until it reaches a threshold of credulity criticality and then implodes from a sudden loss of faith, ruining even a great many one percenters. Money may indeed keep pouring into the US stock markets, especially from other countries, where the money is frightened. I’ll tell you what it ought to be really frightened about: that it doesn’t represent genuine capital, i.e. has no real value. One day not distant, all the nations will discover that their money is only notional and that notions have a way of going up in a vapor. Foolish ideas, though, appear more durable and plentiful. They just keep coming, no matter what’s going on in reality.

     My basic wish is that we would quit all our wishing in America and get on with the job of transforming our economic arrangements to a scale and mode that are consistent with the resource and capital realities of these times — before they whap us upside the head and put and end to the project of remaining civilized.


***

James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

 

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SWISSIE CAPITULATION!

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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