Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy?

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy. These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline.

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy. The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century. Even with very optimistic assumptions on the availability of natural resources and of new technologies the calculations show that the collapse could at best be postponed, but not avoided. Many later studies confirmed these results: collapse turns out to be a typical feature of systems in overshoot, a phenomenon called sometimes the “Seneca Cliff” from a sentence of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

The base case scenario calculated in the 1972 version of “The Limits to Growth” 

The coronavirus, in itself, is a minor perturbation, but the system is poised for collapse and the epidemics may trigger it. We already saw how the world’s economy is fragile: it nearly collapsed in 2008 under the relatively small perturbation of the crash of the subprime mortgage market. At that time, it was possible to contain the damage but, today, the fragility of the system has not improved and the coronavirus may be a stronger perturbation. The collapse of entire sectors of the economy, such as the tourism industry (more than 10% of the world’s gross product), is already ongoing and it may be impossible to stop it from spreading to other sectors.

So, what exactly is it going to happen to us? Since we started with mentioning a camel, we may also mention a famous statement by Shaykh Rāshid that we can summarize as, “My father rode a camel, I drive a Mercedes, my son will ride a camel.” Might that sentence have been truly prophetic?

Indeed, the coming crisis might turn out to be so bad to push us back to the Middle Ages. But it is also true that all major epidemics in history have seen a robust rebound after the collapse. Consider that, in the mid-14th century, the “black death” killed perhaps 40% of the population of Europe but, a century later, Europeans were discovering America and starting their attempt of conquering the world. It may be that the black death was instrumental in this rebound: the temporary reduction of the European population had freed the resources necessary for a new leap forward.

Could we see a similar rebound of our society in the future? Why not? After all, the coronavirus could be doing us a favor by forcing us to abandon the obsolete and polluting fossil fuels we use today. The current low market prices are the result of the contraction of the demand and are likely to be the straw that breaks the back of the oil industry. That will leave space for new and more efficient technologies. Today, solar energy has become so cheap that it is possible to think of a society fully based on renewable energy. It won’t be easy, but recent studies show that it can be done.

That doesn’t mean that the near term collapse can be avoided. The transition to a new energy infrastructure will require enormous investments, impossible to find in a moment of economic contraction we expect for the near future. But, in the long run, the transition is unavoidable and there is hope for a “Seneca rebound” toward a new society based on clean and renewable energy, no more plagued by the threats of depletion and climate change. It will take time, but we can heal the poor camel’s back.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it


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