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The Hubbert Game – Teaching the Science of Collapse

General Ideas
My students playing the “Hubbert Game.” It is a simple operational game illustrating the exploitation of a non-renewable resource and the phenomenon of overshoot and collapse. 

In my presentation at the recent Summer Academy of the Club of Rome, I stressed the point that the major stumbling block we face in managing the ongoing crisis is that most people, and in particular policymakers, lack the concept of “overshoot.” As a consequence, they also lack the concepts of peaking and collapsing (also in the form of the “Seneca Cliff“). It is not surprising: the idea of overshoot and collapse is a new development in the science of complex systems. It goes back to a little more than 50 years ago when it was proposed first by Jay Forrester. Earlier on, it simply didn’t exist.

So, most people think of the exploitation of natural resources in linear terms, assuming that we can continue extracting oil (a physical thing) as long as we have money (a non-physical thing) to pay for it. When depletion is taken into account, it is done only on the basis of oversimplified and misleading models such as the “resources to production ratio.” It is something I have termed “Tiffany’s fallacy” (the mineral pie is shrinking and most of what’s left is in the sky).

The recent summer academy of the Club of Rome in Florence brought back to my attention the need of exposing people to the basic concepts of the dynamics of real bioeconomic systems. Young people who care about the survival of humankind and of the earth’s ecosystem know a lot of things, but I noted that they too often miss the concept of overshoot and collapse. That’s something that I had already noted years ago and it had led me to develop an operational game called “The Hubbert Game.”

The Hubbert game is a simple boardgame that needs no computers and no special equipment except some black and white counters used to mark oil fields. It is designed to be run in a few hours at most and to provide to players a “hands-on” experience of what means to run a company that exploits non-renewable resources. Players take the role of oil companies which compete in exploiting the gradually dwindling oil resources. The game is competitive and some versions involve strategic choices; the game surely tends to capture the attention of the players. The final result is always the same, the pattern of oil production, in the game as in the real world, tend to look like the “bell shaped” Hubbert curve.  You can see the curve below, hand drawn from the results of a game session

The Hubbert game is described in detail in a paper that I presented at the 2016 conference of the System Dynamics Society in Delft, Holland. There is also an earlier version which I uploaded on the “” site. As I keep experimenting, new versions may appear.

In the meantime, the game seems to be enjoying a certain popularity, at least in Italy. It has been used by my colleague Luca Pardi for his class in environmental economics at the University of Florence. It was played in a high school and it is planned for the “night of the researchers” to be held this Sep 29 in Trento. You see here a snapshot of the flyer of the game for that occasion (h/t Luciano Celi and Luca Pardi).

Will this game have some positive effects? Well, in an earlier post I said that we need something like “a new axial age” to develop the tools we need to manage the earth’s ecosystem (which includes humankind as an element). So, it is hard to think that a boardgame will save the world. But it is a step in the right direction and, after all, it is fun!

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi

13 Comments on "The Hubbert Game – Teaching the Science of Collapse"

  1. Mick on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 4:43 pm 

    Peak oil ! That was so last week it’s all about peak demand now . Nobody wants that black goo anymore
    I’ll be ordering my battery powered SUV as soon as its on ebay . That will show dem peak oil nuts they were wrong .

  2. makati1 on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 4:44 pm 

    Extinction by game… Ugo should retire.

  3. Mick on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 4:49 pm 

    I should get a royalty check for that statement

  4. energy investor on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 6:16 pm 

    Don’t be a dick Mick.

    Exponentially increasing demand for oil (which is still happening) will not end well in a world where the resource is finite and exploration and development efforts are being turned off.

    Li-ion batteries won’t solve our problems. So we need energy storage systems that change the paradigm by orders of magnitude first.

  5. Mick on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 6:37 pm 

    I was being sarcastic. Perhaps I should of said sarc off at the end of that sentence

  6. Boat on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 6:42 pm 

    10 Battery Gigafactories Are Now in the Works. And Elon Musk May Add 4 More

    Gigafactory announcements have been trending in recent months, with plans for at least 10 new plants revealed in the last six months. Half a dozen have been planned in the last month alone.

  7. Mick on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 6:56 pm 

    How long would musk last without government subsidies? He’s a smart man and knows how to work the system ,there’s big bucks pretending to be green

  8. Davy on Sat, 23rd Sep 2017 8:06 pm 

    “Will this game have some positive effects? Well, in an earlier post I said that we need something like “a new axial age” to develop the tools we need to manage the earth’s ecosystem (which includes humankind as an element).”

    I have mentioned in a similar way the “axial age” message. The only “real” room for growth with humans today is through the human spirit. Materially we need to degrowth and simplify out of necessity and to be able to do this we must find inner wisdom. The natural tendency today is growth based techno development centered on increased efficiency. This tendency has been at the expense of the human spirit. Growth and development stifles and degrades the human spirit. We seek comfort and stimulation instead of connection and harmony.

    There is so much noise now I wonder if we will even have it in us to progress spiritually. The pieces of the puzzle are there. Our techno knowledge is vast and access to the deepest knowledge is just a key punch away pretty much anywhere on earth. That is amazing but this access to the deepest of meanings has also destroyed something human in us. The community we once had is no longer the same. It has been corrupted by so many messages and many contradictory.

    We may be capable of spiritual growth once a profound existential crisis develops. That day is nearing. It is unclear when this will happen but the outlook is an earth shattering crisis at some point. We are disrupting the planetary carbon cycle and living ecosystem. There is no way to reform our current civilization to heal this degradation. It must end as-is. We cannot expect market based capitalism with individual discretionary wants to solve problems. Price cannot determine the greater good. To change the preponderance of price signals will destroy the all-important system. Globalism is about advantage and maximization. This is not the route of spiritual growth.

    It is often the case that a destructive event allows a resurgence. In the past this has often been a material resurgence but today it will have to be a spiritual rebirth because the future will be about less. In fact once a destructive event occurs it is not at all clear if we will survive. There is no way to support 7BIL without the status quo of globalism. This means we need the spiritual growth to be prepared to face some very painful times ahead.

  9. omul on Sun, 24th Sep 2017 12:12 am 

    you are young but smart , it right once at least in your lifetime..” dont know if we will survive,”.. well done, you all kinda know you should never try to guesss the future cause sometimes you..

  10. Theedrich on Mon, 25th Sep 2017 3:23 am 

    Alas, Davy, spiritual growth is for spirits.  Our phylogenetic drives compel us to kill for scarce resources, for Lebensraum, to prove our moral superiority, or simply for fun.  There is any number of dreamy, hopeful strategies which promise to avoid the inevitable, but killing is the only solution that is ever implemented.  Stalin, the Leftists’ superhero, is estimated to have brought about the deaths of over sixty million people, Mao over seventy-five million.  And they did it in order to bring about their version of heaven on earth.  The Mohammedans (the real ones, not the fantasies propagated by Western Progressives like Schumer, Pelosi, Angel Merkel and their stooges) aim to accomplish their own version of earthly paradise by outdoing Stalin and Mao.  The superrich and politicoes of the West know all about making money and establishing “democratic” tyranny, but nothing about the soul of man.

  11. Cloggie on Mon, 25th Sep 2017 4:05 am 

    One wonders if collapsnik Ugo Bardi ever heard of renewable energy?

    Perhaps he will integrate that feature in a new version of his board game.

  12. Davy on Mon, 25th Sep 2017 7:21 am 

    “killing is the only solution that is ever implemented.”

    Thee, maybe after the killing and those who survive look around at all the destruction maybe they will get a spiritual boost.

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