Gail Tverberg vs. John Michael Greer

I think a major difference between John Michael Greer and Gail Tverberg is that while Greer sees the economy as fractal, Tverberg sees it as a dome made up of Leonardo Sticks:

Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks. Is this a correct model of our economy?

In a fractal structure consisting of lots of nodes many of these can break down before the whole system falls apart:

A fractal structure where a significant number of nodes need to be broken before the economy collapses by its own weight. Is this a correct model of our economy? Drawing by Nikos A. Salingaros.

If the economy is fractal, it will take quite a long time before enough nodes are broken to make the whole structure collapse.

This is how the system is made according to Greer, and it will therefore use considerable time to “wear out”.

According to Tverberg and her dome model, just a few sticks have to be removed for the whole structure to fall apart.

I’ve not studied Greers “catabolic collapse”-theory in depth, so I’m not qualified to tell if his model has seriously flaws?

But Tverberg argues convincingly about her model using present data and statistics.

While Greer continues to refer to historic examples.

Maybe previous civilizations had a fractal structure, while our is different and has a dome structure of Leonardo Sticks?

If this is the case maybe Greers theory of “catabolic collapse” was correct for all former civilisations, while this time the “dome structure” needs to be applied?

Eivind Berge made an interesting comment:

“That is an excellent summary of the difference between Greer and Tverberg. I find both of them rather convincing when I read them, and I am not qualified to know any better myself, either. Is our civilization really as fragile as a dome of Leonardo sticks, or is there enough resilience built in to enable a slow, catabolic collapse? Greer has been right so far, but that is no guarantee for the future. He said something interesting in a recent comment to explain his thinking:

“All the fast-crash people insist that we face worse problems than any previous civilization has faced. All the progress-will-save-us people insist that we have more capability to meet those problems than any previous civilization has had. I think they’re both right, and that they cancel each other out — giving us the usual one to three centuries of decline, ending in a half millennium or so of dark age.”

Regardless of the evidence either way, he always concludes with his refrain that there is nothing new under the sun on this most ancient of planets. I wish more smart people would weigh in on this issue. If our industrial civilization is really just a hollow dome that can collapse altogether at any moment, then it is insane not to at least try to come up with a contingency plan to mitigate the disaster. This would seem like a far more worthy subject of study than climate change and just about everything else occupying the attention of researchers and receiving funding.”

See our discussion here.

16 Comments Gail Tverberg vs. John Michael Greer

  1. Paul Hughes

    Although the differences are interesting, especially if we simply assume that the coming transition is just collapse, the real, and in my opinion, more important debate is between Greer/Tverberg and people like Kevin Carson and Jordan Greenhall. Can we be so certain that catabolic collapse/deflation is not in fact ephermalization? What’s preventing distributed abundance, which includes regenerative technics and economics, is not limited resources, because regeneration solves that, but existing crony capitalist capture of what would otherwise be true mutualist and commons based free markets. So catastrophic collapse is not assured. Given that abundance systems are now multiplying faster than they can be expropriated, means we have a real shot at radical abundance in the coming years.

  2. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    We cannot regenerate one-time gifts, as Gail points out: “The phosphorous issue is more the same as the oil limits issue than you realize. We start with limited quantities of high quality ores of every kind. Ugo Bardi in his book “Extracted” calls those resources one-time gifts. I consider these gifts parallel to fossil fuels. The reason they are gifts is because we can extract them with reasonable quantities of energy products. Once those one time gifts are disbursed, the quantity of energy products required to extract them becomes so high that they become pretty much unreachable. The idea that we can recycle doesn’t work well either–it just takes too much energy, and gets only a portion of the material being recycled. In a few times through, we are pretty well out of the material.”:

    Still, we can regenerate soil:

    A bottleneck will become metal tools.

    I also note that 70% of our electronic devices, like laptops, cellphones, eReaders and so on, are sent to the third world for “recycling”:

    “Since 2011 I am documenting the e-waste trails and consequences of dumping and improper recycling in different countries. Discarded computers, office electronic equipment, entertainment device electronics, mobile phones, television sets, and refrigerators – in short: E-waste which is shipped from the western world to impoverished and under developed regions of the world. These electronic devices are burned for any valuable metals. Noxious fumes fill the air; lead, cadmium, zinc, chrome, nickel and other chemical substances are emitted and damage health: headaches, dizziness, skin rashes and damage to the nervous system are the result. Not to mention the highly toxic residue that contaminates the soil. Those toxic chemicals can leach into the land over time or are released into the atmosphere, also impacting nearby communities and the whole environment. In many European countries, regulations have been introduced to prevent electronic waste being dumped in landfills due to its hazardous content. However, the practice still continues in many countries.”

    So I’m afraid we’re just “recycling” the cornucopian myth:

  3. Paul Hughes

    Thank you for clarifying your underlying assumptions. Two stand out, and both are dubious.

    The first is that we are running out of a phosphorous. Proven reserves, ones actually tested and assayed show approx. 300 years worth (67 million divided by 210,000 annual use) . Total estimated amounts not yet tested appear to be in the thousands of years. This also assumes were going to keep using phosphorous with current use systems, rather than eco-agriculture, vertical farming aeropinics, etc.

    Second assumption is that energy availability is shrinking relative to use. The amount of solar incident energy alone is enough to sustain 4,000 human equivalent civilizations indefinitely. Regarding material resourcrs, given sufficient energy those resources can be recycled. The rate of both solar and batter capacity and efficiency is growing exponentially, not to mention cheaper with energy generated versus cost ratio increasing beyond 150 in the near future.

    Collapsarians have been saying increasing oil prices yields collapse *and* decreasing prices yield collapse. Which one? I’d say this discrepancy proves underlying projection models of collapse based on oil and commodity pricing are in error.

    We could debate this stuff and throw facts at each other all day. What I do know is I haven’t found a single collapsarian model yet not based on faulty data, models and analysis. Do we have a “mega” crisis on our hands? Yes. But we are also seeing a “mega” convergence of multiple S-curce that can resolve it.

    See: Jordan Greenhall’s ‘The coming great transition’. Could not paste link. Please Google.


  4. Paul Hughes

    I should add a third flawed assumption, which is that there will be no improvement in regenerative technics, remediation, etc. Given the trajectory of green technologies, biodegrade materials, replacement of heavy metals in electronics with carbon (graphene), cradle to grave product life cycle movements, no more planned obsolescence through open sourced at home 3d printing of metal tools from old recycled materials, completely reduces, if not eliminates the use of new materials, not to mention cleans up land fills.

    Why is it that collapsarians continues to ignore ephermalization, exponential and accelerating technological advancement?

  5. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    You suggest that human civilization can become like a coral reef, recycling almost all nutrients and resources almost indefinitely, with just some input from solar radiation.

    I too suggested this for Tverberg in the comments section in her last post, but using permaculture techniques. Unfortunately she even debunked that my last of hopes:

    “Pollution and waste are the flip side of energy use. We are constantly using more materials from lower grade ores. There is huge energy cost associated with attempting to recycle.

    In some sense, concentrated ores of minerals of any kind, not just fossil fuels, are one-time gifts. We have been dissipating these one-time gifts; this dissipation is another face of our problem with diminishing returns.

    The idea that we can use less is an attractive one, but the way that complexity works, and the way our networked system works, it is very doubtful that we can. It looks like the financial system collapses instead, bringing down the whole economy.”

    About proven reserves for phosphorous I think these are not more proven than for oil, it’s just human hubris that think these resources are available for us. When our economy collapses, they’ll not be available any more.

    Why we cannot replace fossil energy with solar energy, Greer answer in this weeks post:

    “Simple as it is, it’s a point that an astonishing number of people—including some who are scientifically literate—routinely miss. A while back on this blog, for example, I noted that one of the core reasons you can’t power a modern industrial civilization on solar energy is that sunlight is relatively diffuse as an energy source, compared to the extremely concentrated energy we get from fossil fuels. I still field rants from people insisting that this is utter hogwash, since photons have exactly the same amount of energy they did when they left the Sun, and so the energy they carry is just as concentrated as it was when it left the Sun. You’ll notice, though, that if this was the only variable that mattered, Neptune would be just as warm as Mercury, since each of the photons hitting the one planet pack on average the same energetic punch as those that hit the other.

    It’s hard to think of a better example of the blindness to whole systems that’s pandemic in today’s geek culture. Obviously, the difference between the temperatures of Neptune and Mercury isn’t a function of the energy of individual photons hitting the two worlds; it’s a function of differing concentrations of photons—the number of them, let’s say, hitting a square meter of each planet’s surface. This is also one of the two figures that matter when we’re talking about solar energy here on Earth. The other? That’s the background heat into which waste energy disperses when the system, eco- or solar, is done with it. On the broadest scale, that’s deep space, but ecosystems don’t funnel their waste heat straight into orbit, you know. Rather, they diffuse it into the ambient temperature at whatever height above or below sea level, and whatever latitude closer or further from the equator, they happen to be—and since that’s heated by the Sun, too, the difference between input and output concentrations isn’t very substantial.”

    Then, with less energy, our society has to become less complex:

    “The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

    That belief only seemed to work, though, as long as the concentration differential between energy inputs and the background remained very high. Once easily accessible fossil fuels started to become scarce, and more and more energy and other resources had to be invested in the extraction of what remained, problems started to crop up. Tar sands and oil shales in their natural form are not as concentrated an energy source as light sweet crude—once they’re refined, sure, the differences are minimal, but a whole system analysis of energy concentration has to start at the moment each energy source enters the system. Take a cubic yard of tar sand fresh from the pit mine, with the sand still in it, or a cubic yard of oil shale with the oil still trapped in the rock, and you’ve simply got less energy per unit volume than you do if you’ve got a cubic yard of light sweet crude fresh from the well, or even a cubic yard of good permeable sandstone with light sweet crude oozing out of every pore.

    It’s an article of faith in contemporary culture that such differences don’t matter, but that’s just another aspect of our cornucopian myth. The energy needed to get the sand out of the tar sands or the oil out of the shale oil has to come from somewhere, and that energy, in turn, is not available for other uses. The result, however you slice it conceptually, is that the upper limit of complexity begins moving down. That sounds abstract, but it adds up to a great deal of very concrete misery, because as already noted, the complexity of a society determines such things as the number of different occupational specialties it can support, the number of employees who are involved in the production and distribution of a given good or service, and so on. There’s a useful phrase for a sustained contraction in the usual measures of complexity in a human ecosystem: “economic depression.”

    The economic troubles that are shaking the industrial world more and more often these days, in other words, are symptoms of a disastrous mismatch between the level of complexity that our remaining concentration differential can support, and the level of complexity that our preferred ideologies insist we ought to have. As those two things collide, there’s no question which of them is going to win. Adding to our total stock of knowledge won’t change that result, since knowledge is a necessary condition for economic expansion but not a sufficient one: if the upper limit of complexity set by the laws of thermodynamics drops below the level that your knowledge base would otherwise support, further additions to the knowledge base simply mean that there will be a growing number of things that people know how to do in theory, but that nobody has the resources to do in practice.”

    My best hopes are that we are entering a catabolic collapse of 2-300 years, before entering the first global dark ages, that will last for half a millenium or so.

    The alternative is Tverberg’s version, with a rapid collapse, in best case going back to stone age technology.

    I will re-post Greers post at this blog, as this weeks essay explains so many things with such a clarity. From his comments earlier I know he’s always grateful for people re-posting his essays.

    If you want to deepen your view at this blog you should ask the administration for a password. They are very generous for giving people an entry as long as you in general support the p2p-ideas.

  6. Paul Hughes


    I want to commend you for bringing up the coral reef as living proof of sustainable complexity. It is completely possible to build a complex, fully regenerative, ecologically harmonious, decentralized, collectively intelligent, global “reef” civilization that is rich in play, novelty and fun for everyone, using a sufficiently savvy design science. Bucky Fuller demonstrated this in 1965. We have the means now. The current capitalist crap based on artificial scarcity through an enclosure of resources as a source of rents, not to mention forced obsolescence, is depleting the planet and killing life. But a post scarcity society geared around open sourced abundance and regeneration is scientifically possible and completely feasible. Doomers like Tverberg saying it isn’t, is not only disingenuous, it’s irresponsible to our generation most charged with building it!

    To me this is an open and shut case. Kevin Carson already won this debate with Greer. The real debate is will society maintain cohesion long enough to develop the requisite systems. So it’s not a matter of if it’s possible – it is. It’s a matter of can we build it in time? This isn’t at its core a resource issue, as Tverberg claims, this is a structural issue based on the current powers deliberately suppressing the very things necessary to create the successor society. One piece of good news here – the tools of abundance are now multiplying faster than they can be expropriated.

    I wish I had more time to discuss this with you here. This is why I choose instead to focus on one or two points at a time to see if they stand up to scrutiny. The continued talking point amongst doomers that phosphorus is running out in the next 50-100 years is simply not true. I haven’t determined if this meme is based on ignorance or politically motivated disinformation. It’s not even running out in 300 years. Next point, solar energy can and will have the capacity to power civilization far more complex than our own. This is so easily proven, that I’m shocked and amazed otherwise educated people like Tverberg are arguing otherwise. As an ex-physicist I’m perfectly aware of energy flux density. Although that’s important in terms of how much space a solar panel takes up based on its efficiency, it’s a non issue in terms of us having enough space to capturing enough to do the job. At 12-15% efficiencies a smallish section of the upper Sahara would be enough. New panels now have double those efficiencies, thus cutting the necessary area in half. Super cheap organic solar cells are coming, yet already solar is reaching fossil fuel parity. Batteries are closing in on oil’s energy density. I will happily debate both Tverberg and Greer publicly on solar having the capacity to power human civilization. What is more arguable is will be able to replace fossil fuels with solar electric equivalents in time? That’s a good question, and the jury is out.

    Regeneration is not an energy intensive issue, it’s about the deliberate creation of super durable but fully reusable, regenerative, and/or compostable materials from the get go! Duh! For example, stronger C-N nanomaterials will obsolete most need for metals anyway, not to mention the deliberate creation of modular reusable tool sets designed not to break, therefor no replacement cost and new materials needed.

    Where Tverberg may be correct is will we experience an economic domino like collapse before alternative financial instruments can take over? She says no, and I can’t say she’s right or wrong. Several years ago, I would have more easily agreed with her. Now, and despite Bitcoin’s flaws, we have at least one. Other efforts at decentralized financial instruments are making headway.

    We need to start separating out more meaningfully the differences between the many types of growth, complexity, novelty, change, stability, etc. Having over simplified black and white conceptions of each, results in the conflation of one with the another, resulting in what looks like serious one sided framing from both Greer and Tverberg.

  7. Scientific Materialist

    “Kevin Carson already won this debate with Greer.”

    If you’re talking about the debate that was posted on this site, they both lost. They both refused to do the math, crunch the numbers, thus making their debate entirely evidence-free and worthless.

  8. Paul Hughes

    Care to give us the math and numbers needing crunching, that Greer and Carson didn’t? Please elaborate. Otherwise I will assume your statement is without merit.

    Having finally taken the time to visit Gail’s site proved to be quite revealing – she’s an actuary! Her site and all her podcasts, guest appearances, websites are all on places like “doomsdiner”, “peak prosperity”, “our finite world”, not the best bastions of non biased reporting.

    I raised my eyebrows on the actuary part, because actuaries are notorious for complete missing any kind of discontinuity – they simply do not take into account any kind of novel development. Almost everything we take for granted in our modern society today was at one point a discontinuity. The invention of the telephone, airplanes, radio, TV, antibiotics, computers, lasers, the Internet, are discontinuities in so called “trend lines”. Now it makes sense why her projections completely ignore the revolutionary advancements that are occurring in solar and battery technologies, 3d printing, and regenerative technics. Actuaries are the same people who erroneously predict the lifespan of children at the time of birth!

    Although I suspect we may be in for a catastrophic economic crisis anytime, I simply can’t take the rest of her analysis seriously, given the gapping omissions in her work.

  9. Bob Haugen

    This is an important set of questions which requires more research and more careful analysis. Ad hominems and hand waving do not apply. I am not sure of the answers myself, but to say Tverberg is an actuary and that disqualifies her is not a valid argument. Nor is “they both lost”, for that matter.

    Here’s another guy trying to do the quantitative analysis:

    My problem with Tverberg’s analysis is not that she does not factor in innovations that do not quite exist yet, but that she assumes the current economic system will survive the coming crises. Greer does not, but doesn’t hold much hope for something better, either. I do. But I could be deluded.

  10. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    “Oyvind, so? Of course the purveyors of crackpot optimism are going to reject what I have to say — after all, look at all this vaporware they’ve imagined! The proof of the pudding, though, is in the eating, and despite all the constantly shifting claims about this or that or the other miracle technology that’s sure to save us all, the decline and fall of industrial civilization is still following the familiar trajectory.” – JMG

    “I will try to write more posts explaining exactly what the issues are in developing a new society. Basically, we have to start over either completely, or with bits and pieces of our current system that can somehow survive. This is far different from back in the days of the Roman Empire and other early collapses, where farmers could simply move their location from one place to another. We are instead faced with some number of survivors from the current civilization, each with skills that are not very useful in the new civilization. Instead of knowing how to use a computer on the Internet, people will need to figure out how to get along without grid electricity and our current paved roads. Your ideas of modular reusable tool sets seem “pie in the sky” to me. We haven’t figured out today how to get rid of friction; I doubt we will without grid electricity. Rocks are reusable tools that can be easily replaced. Perhaps we need to think about them.” – GT

  11. Paul Hughes

    Oyvind, I rest my case. Any opponent in a debate who has to resort to ad hominens, as JMG did, obviously isn’t willing to engage in rational debate backed by a complete assessment of the facts. GL is clearly more civil, but again, no actual factual rebuttal, with her fans also resorting to ad hominens. Given my previous experience with collapsitarians, I’m not surprised in the least – scratch “a crackpot pessimist” and what you’ll likely find is an overly emotional and reactive person addicted to their disasterbation. It’s too bad really, because factual and reasoned debate is precisely what is needed.

  12. Paul Hughes

    Here’s something I posted the other day in another group. The kind of information and analysis that is inconvenient to Greer and Tverberg, not to mention the emotional investment they’ve put into their careers.

    You may have heard deflation is a bad thing, something to be feared. This might have been true in a scarcity based economy, but the opposite is true in an abundance based economy. No where is this more true than in the information technology sector, where annual deflation runs well over 50%. This is a huge rate of deflation, yet it comes from a sector of the economy that generates the most robust economic growth each year. Deflation is the result of advancing technology that generates greater efficiencies resulting in ephermalization – doing more and more with less and less. Ephermalization is now impacting the energy markets in earnest. Soon, energy is about to become even cheaper than it already is, despite falling oil prices. Below are two articles you should read, back to back. The first is a projection from Citigroup, a traditionally conservative institution, that advancing battery technology is going to be even more disruptive than solar, supplanting the entire fossil fuel industry withing the next *decade*. The second is a brilliant explanation of Saudi Arabia’s smart and prescient move to drop oil prices. Time is running out for fossil fuels remaining competitive, so with each passing day remaining reserves are becoming less valuable. Soon they will be worthless. Better to make some money now while the world still needs your oil, than none later when the world has moved on to something better.

  13. Orsan

    This comparison is not a valid one since the both models are static ones, while the economy is built on dynamic social relationships that are not totally determined but limited or constrained by historically specific social structures. So if it will collapse or not, thrown away or renew itself is open ended question that will be defined by sum of conscious and unconscious, collective and individual, internal and external, and multi level interactions 🙂

  14. Robert Orr FAIA, FCNU, FSY

    What is the answer to population explosion? 3-600 million for thousands of years, now 7.8 billion, double that by 2100, etc., etc.

    What is the answer to insatiable land development, 15,000% higher than it was for thousands of years before the 19th century? Insatiable land development scrapes off the vital few feet of fertility/habitat of Earth’s crust, disrupts balance in species, and causes widespread extinctions, famines, disease, etc., etc.

    Both vis à vis fractal, dome made up of Leonardo Sticks, or ephermalization?

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