Ugo Bardi

Epidemiological Models: A Simple Explanation of How they Work

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on June 3, 2020

 

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There is a certain logic in the way the universe works and so it is not surprising that the same models can describe phenomena that seem to be completely different. Here, I'll show you how the same equations describe chain reactions that govern such different phenomena as the spread of an epidemic, the cycle of extraction of crude oil, and even the nuclear reaction that creates atomic explosions. All these phenomena depend on the efficiency of energy transfer, the parameter that's known in energy studies as EROI (energy return on energy invested), related to the "transmission factor" (R) of epidemiological models. Above, a classic clip from Walt Disney's 1957 movie, "Our friend, the atom." 

 

You may be surprised to discover that epidemiological models share the same basic core of peak oil models. And it is not just about peak oil, the same models are used to describe chemical reactions, resource depletion, the fishing industry, the diffusion of memes on the Web, and even the nuclear chain reaction that leads to nuclear explosions. It is always the same idea: reinforcing feedbacks lead the system to grow in a frenzy of exploitation of an available resource: oil, fish, atomic nuclei, or people to be infected. In the end, it is perhaps the most typical way the universe uses dissipate potentials. As always, entropy rules everything!

 

Modeling these phenomena has a story that starts with the model developed in the 1920s by Vito Volterra and Alfred Lotka. They go under the name of "Lotka-Volterra" models or, sometimes, "Prey-Predator" models. This heritage is not normally recognized by people in the field of epidemiology, but the model is the same: the virus is a predator and we are the prey. The only difference is that an epidemic cycle is so short, typically a few months, that the prey, people, don't reproduce during the cycle. Then, if you think that oil companies are predators and oil fields are the prey, then we have again the same model. Finally, you can see the atomic chain reaction that takes place during fission as generated by neutrons acting as predators and atomic nuclei acting as prey. In the Walt Disney interpretation, shown in the clip above, ping-pong balls are the predator and mousetraps are the prey.

 

To describe the model, let's focus on epidemiology. These models are called "SIR," with the acronym standing for "Susceptible, Infected, Recovered." The idea is that the Infected stock grows proportionally to both the Susceptible and the Infected stocks — it is a feedback loop. No feedback, no growth, this is how these models work. Then, of course, the virus will gradually run out of susceptible people, growth will slow down and, eventually, the infected stock will start declining. Then, the epidemic will be over.

 

So, let's see what the model produces in its simplest version. I made it using the Vensim (TM) system dynamics package (see at the end of the post for the details *)
 

 

 
Note how the number of susceptible people (blue curve) gradually declines. Instead, the number of cases per unit time (green curve) and the total infected people (red curve) show a cycle of growth and decline. Finally, the recovered people (gray curve) grow and then stabilize. (they might also die, the equations won't change.)
 
Let's compare with peak oil models: the names of the variables change, but the model is the same

 

Susceptible  –> Oil Resources
Infection rate –> oil production
Infected –> Extracted Oil
Recovered –> Pollution

Note the green curve in the figure. It is symmetric and bell-shaped: it is the typical "Peak Oil" curve. In the case of oil, the curve describes the production in barrels per day. In the case of an epidemic, it describes the number of new cases of infections per day. The curve for the victims should be the same, but (hopefully) smaller and shifted forward in time to take into account that you die after having contracted the virus. The red curve in the figure is proportional to the amount of oil extracted and not yet burned. It is the "capital" of the oil industry. As oil is burned, it becomes pollution and disappears from the model.

 

You can play the same game with other phenomena. For instance, in the case of the "mousetrap model" developed by Disney studios, the one shown in the clip at the beginning of this post, you have that

Susceptible –> trapped balls
Infection rate –> number of traps springing per unit time.
Infected –> number of flying balls
Recovered –> balls on the ground

 

 

In general, epidemiological models are normally much more complicated than the basic SIR model that I showed above. That is, in my opinion, a weakness of these models. Attempting to evaluate such parameters as how many people will contact each other per day, and from that estimating the infection rate is nearly hopeless and, indeed, these models have a poor record in terms of quantitative forecasting. Even peak oil models, although not so bad, turned out to be unsuccessful in estimating the data of the peak, at least in terms of volumes of liquids produced.

But this is a long story and I won't get into it, here. Let me just say that, in general, models may be useful even (and perhaps especially) when you don't ask them to make exact predictions. Often, a correct warning may be much more useful than an incorrect prediction. That's true when the models are well-grounded in physics and can tell you what will happen, even though not necessarily when.

Something that you can learn from these models is how the behavior of the system is determined by an efficiency parameter called R in epidemiology and EROI (energy return on energy invested) in peak oil studies. Yes, these two parameters are the same — apart from some details. They share the property that they need to have a minimum value in order for the chain reaction (the epidemics or a cycle of extraction) to start. In epidemiology, you can show that R must be >1 for the infection to grow. As the epidemic proceeds, R becomes smaller. When R=1, you have the "peak virus" and the number of infected people starts declining. That's called "herd immunity."

Things are not so simple for the peak oil curves, but the story is the same. You can show that an energy-producing resource cannot be produced with a positive energy yield unless you have EROI=1/η at the beginning of the extraction cycle, with η the efficiency of the transformation of the energy of the extracted resource into useful energy (exergy). For crude oil, we may probably take η as equal to 0.1-0.2. The implication is that oil extraction is not viable for EROI<5-10, which is consistent with the current situation. We are close to EROI values that correspond to an unavoidable decline of the industry. (Note that this condition is for "peak capital" — "peak oil" comes for even larger values of the EROI)

Ah… by the way, these limits of the EROI values are valid only for exhaustible resources such as crude oil. They do not hold for renewable energy sources such as solar energy — of course, you can't run out of sunlight!
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The R and the EROI parameters of chain reaction models

If you know something about the peak oil theory, you may have wondered if the "Ro" (or simply R) parameter, the virus transmission factor, is the same as the EROI (energy return for energy invested) for peak oil studies. The answer is yes.

Ro is defined as the expected number of cases generated by one case in a population where all individuals are susceptible to infection, that is, at the initial stages of the epidemic. As the epidemic proceeds, varying proportions of the population become immune. To account for this, the "effective reproduction number" is used, written as Rt or simply R. It is the average number of new infections caused by a single infected individual at time t. When the fraction of the population that is immune increases so much that R drops below 1, it is said that "herd immunity" has been achieved. It means that the number of infected people does not grow any longer and gradually decreases toward zero.

 

The EROI (or EROEI) (energy return of energy investment) factor in oil extraction is defined as the number of barrels of oil produced using the energy obtained from one barrel. It is more general than that, but let's remain with crude oil. Obviously, when the EROEI goes below one, the whole enterprise of oil extraction becomes useless in terms of producing useful energy. But "peaking" of oil production starts well before the EROI goes below one, as we'll see in the following.

 

R and EROI look similar and, indeed, they are the same thing. To say something more about this matter, we need to write down the equations of the model. Here they are for the SIR system, with S=susceptible, I=infected, and R= recovered

dS/dt = – k1SI
dI/dt = k1SI  – k2I

Note that the coefficient k1 is the same in both equations because the number of people who become infected is equal to the number of those who cease being susceptible. The other coefficient, k2, is the frequency of recovery of the infected people. There is a third equation describing the growth of the "recovered" stock, but it is simply equal to k2I and we can neglect it here.

 

Now, from the equations above, we can say that the R factor is equal to the number of new infections divided by the number of infected people. We need to take also into account the recovery frequency: the gradual disappearance of people from the "infected" stock. So that the result is:

R Sk1/k2

Note that the variables in this model are usually expressed in terms of fractions. So, the number of susceptible people at the very start of the epidemic is supposed to be 100% of the population, that is, unity. There follows that

Ro= k1/k2

 

Now we can determine the value of R needed for attaining "herd immunity." the value needed for stopping the growth of the infection. For this, we take the second equation of the two of the model. We want to know when the number of infected people, I, starts to decline. That means to find when dI/dt <0. That is:

k2R-k2 <0

Or, R<1.  

This is the condition for herd immunity. It explains the attention dedicated to this number for the current coronavirus epidemic. It is a correct point but, in reality, it is not a very useful way to forecast the trajectory of an epidemic. To measure R you need to know S, but normally you don't know who is susceptible and who is not unless you try to infect them. So, saying that "R has become smaller than one" is the same thing as saying that "the number of infected people in the population has started declining." And the latter term is what you can actually measure or, at least, estimate. As someone said, "Models are accurate only when they become irrelevant."

How about the EROI? The equations are the same, but with a small difference. Whereas people move quantitatively from the "Susceptible" to the "Immune" stock, transforming a unit of energy embedded in underground oil into a unit of usable energy cannot be 100% efficient. So, you need another coefficient in the equations, a "transformation efficiency", η as a coefficient of k1 in the second equation. Obviously, it must be that η<1 because of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

We go through the same mathematical tricks and we find the condition for the amount of stored energy (the "capital" of the industry) starts declining. It has to be:

EROI < 1/η

For the transformation of crude oil into useful energy into a thermal engine, we can roughly estimate a life cycle efficiency of the order of 10%-20%. There follow that oil extraction is not thermodynamically viable for an EROI < 5-10, which agrees with independent estimates of EROI for crude oil. It was probably around 30 during the early stages of exploitation and therefore allowed the industry to grow. Currently, the average EROI for oil extraction is probably around 10-15, so that we are close to the start of the irreversible decline of the industrial system that exploits it. Or, it may have already started. 

Note that the condition EROI < 1/η does NOT correspond to "peak oil" as it is normally defined. It is, rather, "peak capital". Peak oil refers to oil production, which is not the same thing. But it is not possible to find an equivalent simple expression that correlates the EROI of the system with the occurrence of the peak. We can only say that it occurs earlier and, therefore, for larger values of the EROI.

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(*) Here is the Vensim model I used for the graph shown in this post. If you want the code, just write to me. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The downfall of ‘Professor Lockdown’: triumphs and failures of science based policies

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on May 9, 2020

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Saturday, May 9, 2020

The downfall of 'Professor Lockdown': triumphs and failures of science based policies

 

 

 

 

Scientists normally think that a scientific theory can be good or bad independently of the moral status of the person who proposes it. But in politics, the messenger can be blamed. That was the probable reason for the downfall of Dr. Neil Ferguson, nicknamed "Professor Lockdown," whose moral position was destroyed by a petty sexual scandal. For most scientists, Dr, Ferguson's personal misbehavior has no relevance to the validity of his models, but for politicians and for the public, it does. A lot.

 

 

 

 


You all read the story of the downfall of Professor Neil Ferguson, aka "Professor Lockdown" trashed worldwide in the media for having had his lover, Ms. Antonia Staats, visiting him during the lockdown period that he himself had recommended for everybody else. It was a blessing for tabloids and there is no doubt that Dr. Ferguson deserved much of the scorn and the ridicule that was poured on him. Yet, there are some elements in this story that make it different from an ordinary story of philandering.

 

 

 

Let's review what we know: it seems that Ms. Staats and Dr. Ferguson met first over an internet site and then it was Staats who went to visit Ferguson at his home in London, and the same Staats who told the story to friends who, in turn, diffused it around. These encounters took place about one month before the story was revealed in the media. Ferguson didn't deny the media reports and he immediately apologized and resigned from his post of government advisor in epidemiologic matters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know about you, but. to me, all this looks like a trap, sounds like a trap, even smells like a trap. So, it probably was a trap. Ferguson fell head first into it and he was neatly skewered.

Of course, I am not the only one who smelled the rat: there have been plenty of speculations about who actually decided to push Dr. Ferguson under the bullet train and to do that one month after that the events that caused his downfall took place. Some say that it was because the British government needed to distract the public from bad news about the epidemic. Others think of a disagreement between the government and Ferguson. And when a government decides that a scientist is a nuisance, you know what happens (think of the case of Robert Oppenheimer in the 1950s)

Whatever the case, we are not talking here about a despicable professor who flouted a few moral rules. It is all about the political struggle that underlies the coronavirus story. It was Ferguson who told the UK government that they were facing a stark choice: either to accept a huge number of victims, maybe half a million of them, or to wreck the UK economy. The government chose the second strategy, probably thinking it was the least damaging one. Several other European governments, for instance, the Italian one, patterned their response to the crisis on the basis of the views expressed by Ferguson.

And here we have the interesting point: going into lockdown was one of the very few cases — perhaps the only case in history —  of a major policy choice made on the basis of a scientific model. It was a huge novelty because, normally, politicians ignore scientists and vice-versa. There are good reasons for the two categories to keep some social distance between them: science and politics use different languages to model reality. Science speaks in terms of data, politics uses narrative. 

There follows that if you want to use a scientific model for political purposes, you must translate it into a different language — the language of politics. That means turning quantitative models into narratives. And here we have the problem. A big, large, huge, humungous problem, since there is no "Google Translate" service that smoothly turns scientific results into policy choices. When people speak different languages they are bound to misunderstand each other, sometimes with disastrous results.  

So, Dr. Ferguson's recommendations were translated into a narrative and the lockdown became a moral tale of good and bad behavior. People were told that if they didn't follow the lockdown rules, they were not just breaking the law, they were evil for putting the life of their neighbors at risk. 

That worked nicely in the UK and almost everywhere in the world, with people accepting in good faith to be locked into their homes for the sake of the common good. But there was a problem: it soon became clear that the lockdown was doing great damage to the very people it was supposed to protect. Stuck in small spaces, often without a job, without money, and without perspectives, people's health was badly affected. We can't yet estimate how many life-years were lost because of the lockdown, but wasn't the solution worsening the problem? Unfortunately, in narrative terms, moral considerations always take precedence over cost-benefit analyses, and so the question couldn't be asked in the public debate. But, surely, it was present in the mind of policymakers.

Then, it started becoming clear that Ferguson's model had big problems. It was a hodgepodge of lines of code put together as needed, never comprehensively documented, never independently tested, never having undergone a sensitivity analysis. As far as I can say from my personal experience with modeling, it was a model good enough for academic research, but hardly a tool that could be used to guide the policy of a national government. The problem was that there was no way to test if the model was correct or not. What if the model had badly overestimated the effectiveness of the lockdown, as some elements seemed to indicate?

Now, let's assume that someone in the upper echelons understood that the case for the lockdown was not at all so clear cut as it had seemed to be at the beginning. Then, a huge problem appeared. The government couldn't just tell people, "oops… folks, we made a mistake. We beggared you for no reason." Think in narrative terms, as politicians do, and remember that the lockdown had been framed as morally and ethically as "good" while no lockdown framed as "evil." The politician who proposes to end the lockdown would be seen as evil himself/herself.

There follows, as politicians know, that the way to change policies is to change the narrative. That has rules, just as science has rules. Typically, evil cannot be turned into good (Sauron can be defeated but not turned into Gandalf's friend). But it is possible to turn good into evil when a supposed good guy turns out to be actually evil (Saruman the White, who turns into Sauron's ally). And that's the key: turn the good guy into the bad guy and then the narrative can be changed. 

At this point, everything makes sense: take the person who proposed the lockdown, Neil Ferguson, and turn him into an evil, amoral, egoistic, and reckless character. That can't have been difficult: mounting a petty sexual scandal surely poses no problems for a national government. Of course, we have no proof that this is exactly what happened, but the gist of the story is clear: Ferguson's head had to roll. And it had to roll as noisily as possible. Afterward, the whole edifice that the former good guy had built can be targeted at will with the heavy artillery of the media.

It seems to be what's happening. Not only Ferguson is being shredded to pieces (actually, all the way down to atomic particles), but also his work is being massively and aggressively criticized. Note what Elon Musk said about him: “This guy has caused massive strife to the world with his absurdly fake ‘science." We'll have to see how things will evolve in the coming days but right now, if things keep moving in this direction, the lockdown is a dead hippo in the water. And so be it: it had to be.

From this story, we can also learn something about the climate debate. You see on the image at the beginning of this post how the enemies of climate science had no qualms in associating Neil Ferguson with Michael Mann, a climate scientist often targeted with all sorts of smears and lies. Fortunately, Mann has been able to avoid, so far, to get entangled in some stupid scandal, but scientists as a category came under attack for lack of coherency when they use planes for their international meetings where they recommend people to stop using fossil fuels. No government ever implemented serious science-based policy choices about climate, although many of them claimed to have done that. But if something serious were ever to be done to follow the recommendations of climate science, you might see a much nastier backlash against climate scientists. 

Will we ever able to blend science and politics together? For sure, it looks like a very difficult task. We need nothing less than a completely different political language, a way of debating that would search for common ground instead of focusing only on shooting down the bad guy of the story. But that will take time, to say the least. And, in the meantime, we keep navigating toward the future thinking that the reefs don't exist if they are not mentioned in the media.

 

A comment from Mr. Kunning-Druger, Ugo Bardi's personal troll.

Glad to see that you finally recognize at least some of your many mistakes, Mr. Bardi. And the mistakes made by this friend of yours, this despicable Mr. Ferguson — despicable indeed, as you say. And you even have the gall to tell us that he created a model that is "good enough for academic research, but not reliable enough to be used as a policy tool." Why don't you say things the way they are: that model is crap. Yeah, stuff that comes out of a bull's rear end. And you gave yourself away when you said, "good enough for academic research." Shameful: you scientists spend public money to publish academic papers just thinking of your academic careers and then you take planes to go to academic meetings and enjoy nightlife and cocktails at the expense of the taxpayers! And then you think you can tell us what to do. You even think you can tell the government to lock everyone in jail as if we were criminals. But it is not the people who are criminals: it is you and your fellow scientists who are criminals. Now, this scandal about the coronavirus is going to really destroy you — and I can split an infinitive here, just like the public will split your gang and have all of you truly skewered, not just in a metaphorical sense, ha! This is the end of the whole scam called "climate science" and you know that very well. Mankind can thank Mr. Ferguson for this: at least he made it clear what kind of people those "scientists" (so to say) are. Ugly, amoral, reckless, evil, power-hungry monsters — not surprising that they ganged up together to create the scam called "global warming" just to fill their pockets with public money. Make no mistake: we'll remember this scandal. It is the beginning of the end of fake science and scientists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coronavirus Daily Double from Ugo Bardi

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on April 16 & 20, 2020

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

 

 

Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

 

 

 

Is the epidemic going to cause civilization to collapse? It may happen for good reasons

 

 

This is a version of the article that I published on the English version of "Al Arabiya" On March 26, 2020. It is not the same text I published there — but I kept the wonderful illustration by Steven Castelluccia. It perfectly conveys the concept of "Seneca Cliff"

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Monday, April 20, 2020

 

 

How effective is a hard lockdown against the COVID epidemics? The data say not so much

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Data about the mortality of the coronavirus epidemic start being available. Above, a list of mortality rates for Western European countries (including the US) taken from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. The data are ordered by the projected number of deaths per million inhabitants. In addition, I built a "lockdown score," also based on the data reported by IHME (except for the US, where different states chose different options). It would be difficult to say that these data support the idea that a "hard" lockdown that includes a stay home order is more effective than a looser kind of lockdown. (for a live version of the table, write to me at ugo.bardi(whirlette)unifi.it)
 

Your friend has a headache. She takes a pill and, after a while, she feels much better. And she is sure that it was because of the pill. Maybe, but how does she know that the headache didn't go away by itself? Was the pill a homeopathic medicine? In this case, you could tell her that she ingested pure sugar, unlikely to cure anything. But, if you ever tried something like that, you know that it is nearly impossible to un-convince someone who believes to have been healed by the miraculous powers of homeopathy or the like. It is a typical problem of medical studies: how do you know that a treatment is effective? That's why there exist precise rules defining how you can test a new drug or treatment.

Now, let's go to the coronavirus epidemic: practically every region in the world has been affected and practically every government has implemented some kind of rules to stop the epidemic from diffusing, from voluntary social distancing (Sweden) to stay home orders enforced by the police. Almost everywhere, most people are convinced that the lockdown has been effective in reducing the spread of the epidemics. Maybe, but how can we say? Not having a "blank experiment" to compare with, it might be argued that all these new rules are the equivalent of homeopathic pills: a little sugar and nothing else.

Right now, the data are still uncertain, but they are accumulating and I think we can at least try some sort of preliminary analysis by comparing the results of countries where the lockdown rules have been implemented in different ways. An especially interesting way to do that is to look at the data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) of the University of Washington. These data are good for this purpose because:

1. The IHME provides a large dataset for several relatively homogeneous countries in Europe in addition to the US.

2. The data include projections for the total mortality at the end of the epidemic cycle and so we can compare countries where the epidemic started at different moments

3. The data also include a list of the rules implemented by each government, whether they include "stay home" orders which we may see as defining a "hard" lockdown, or just invites to citizens to maintain a certain distance from each other. (but note that a "hard" lockdown in Western countries is much softer than the versioni implemented in China and other Asian countries)

Here is an example of the IHME projections. In the case of Italy, you see how the epidemic follows its typical curve and it is going down after the acute phase is over.
 

Note that I focused on the records on mortality because they seem to be the most reliable ones, unlike those on infected people that depend on the number of tests. About Italy, I checked with independent data on the excess mortality from all causes from the Euromomo site. It seems that the mortality rates coincide, these data are reasonably good.

The results I found for several countries are shown in the table at the beginning of this post (not the complete data set, only Western Europe). You can peruse the table yourself (for a "live" version, write to me) and come to your own conclusion. In practice, the mortality rates range from a maximum of about 700/million to a minimum of 10-20. I cannot find a clear relationship between the mortality rate and the harshness of the rules imposed by local governments.

My impression is that the kind of "hard" lockdown imposed in countries such as Italy or Spain didn't help so much, perhaps not at all. For instance, Germany and Austria do well in the list without the need for a stay home order. But, of course, you might also focus on Sweden's relatively poor performance to argue that very loose rules are not a good idea. However, in this case, you might also note that Norway, a country similar to Sweden, is doing much better also with a relatively soft lockdown. Then you might consider other factors, for instance, population density. A colleague of mine (Claudio Della Volpe) examined the data for this factor and he found that there may be a weak dependence but, at present, it cannot be said for sure.

So, my conclusion is that the hard lockdown is unjustified and probably useless, but let me repeat: these are PRELIMINARY data and this is a TENTATIVE analysis, justified only on the urgency we have to manage the epidemic the best we can. Consider that the lockdown is causing a lot of suffering for a lot of people and risks leading us to complete collapse. We should try to do what we can to understand if it is effective. Let me also note that I am NOT DENYING that the COVID-19 virus is killing people, and I AM NOT SAYING that nothing should be done to stop the spreading the epidemics. (and I am not saying that the virus is an engineered bioweapon, or that it is an evil plot to enslave all of us, gosh!). I just placed on line the data I found for the benefit of the readers of Cassandra's Legacy who may interpret them the way they like. When we'll have better data, we'll be able to arrive at more solid conclusions.

As a final note, the story of the coronavirus epidemics shows how we humans tend to politicize/polarize everything. Not that the virus itself, poor critter, is left- or right-leaning, but by now the Right and the Left have taken sides. The right in the US is against a hard lockdown, while the left favors it. At this point, speaking against the lockdown turns you automatically into a Trumpist and a supporter of the NRA, if not of the Ku-Klux-Clan (and of Bolsonaro, too!).

As an example, yesterday I posted on Facebook a link to a study by Yitzhak Ben Israel, (*) of Tel Aviv University that seems to support the idea that most lockdown rules are not very effective against the virus (and note that I didn't even say I thought the paper was correct — I can't read Hebrew!). But, as I should have expected  I was defamed and abused just for having linked that obvious piece of Israeli propaganda, surely a hoax thought to support the bad orange man and his ilk (surprisingly, my readers on Facebook seem to be familiar enough with Hebrew to be able to easily detect the mistakes in a scientific paper written in that language).

So, why is the stay-home ruling "Left" while no stay home is "Right"? Beats me. For those of you who can understand Italian, I leave you with a scene from a movie by Francesco Nuti, where he examines various kinds of cold meats concluding, among other things, that mortadella (bologna) is communist, while prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) is fascist.

(*) Dr. Ben Israel was so kind to send me a version of his paper in English. If you would like to have it, write to me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collapse: Where can we find a safe refuge?

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on April 6, 2020

 

Does it make sense to have a well-stocked bunker in the mountains to escape collapse?

Discuss this article at the Medicine & Health Table inside the Diner

 

Sometimes, you feel that the world looks like a horror story, something like Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.." Image from F.R: Jameson.

Being the collapsnik I am, a few years ago I had the idea that I could buy myself some kind of safe haven in the mountains, a place where I and my family could find refuge if (and when) the dreaded collapse were to strike our civilization (as they say, when the Nutella hits the fan). It is a typical idea of collapse-oriented people: run away from cities, imagined being the most vulnerable places in a Mad Max-style scenario.

Maybe I was thinking also of Boccaccio's Decameron, when he describes how in the mid-14th century a group of wealthy Florentines finds refuge from the plague in a villa, outside Florence. And they had a leisured time telling stories to each other. I don't oven a villa in the countryside, but I took a tour of villages in the Appennini mountains, a few hundred km from Florence, to seek for a hamlet of some kind to buy. I was accompanied by a friend of mine who is a denizen of the area and whom I had infected with the collapse meme.

We found several houses and apartments for sale in the area. One struck me as suitable, and the price was also interesting. It was a two-floor apartment with the windows opening on the central square of the village where it was located, among wooden hills. It had a wood stove, the kind of heating system you can always manage in an emergency. And it was at a sufficient height you could be reasonably safe from heat waves, even without air conditioning.

Then, I was looking at the village from one of the windows when a strange sensation hit me. People were walking in the square, and a few of them raised their glance to look at me. And, for a moment, I was scared.

Did you ever read Lovecraft's short story "The Shadow over Innsmouth"? It tells the story of someone who finds himself stuck in a coastal town named Innsmouth that he discovers being inhabited by fish-like humanoids, the "deep Ones," practicing the cult of a marine deity called Dagon.

Don't misunderstand me: the people I was seeing in the square were not alien cultists of some monstrous divinity. What had scared me was a different kind of thought. It was that I knew that every adult male in that area owns a rifle or a shotgun loaded with slug ammunition. And every adult male in good health engages in wild boar hunting every weekend. They can kill a boar at 50 meters or more, then they are perfectly able to gut it and turn it into ham and sausages.

Now, if things were to turn truly bad, would some of those people consider me as the equivalent of a wild boar? For sure, I couldn't even dream to be able to match the kind of firepower they have. I thanked the owner of the place and my friend, and I drove back home. I never went back to that place.

A few years later, with a real collapse striking us in the form of the COVID-19 epidemics,  I can see that I did well in not buying that apartment in the mountains. At the time of Boccaccio, wealthy Florentine citizens could reasonably think of moving to a villa in the countryside. These villas were nearly self-sufficient agricultural units, where one could find food and shelter provided by local peasants and servants (at that time not armed with long-range rifles). But that, of course, is not the case anymore.

The current crisis is showing us what a real collapse looks like. And it shows that some science fiction scenarios were totally wrong. The typical trope of a post-holocaust story is that people run away from flaming cities after having stormed the shops and the supermarkets, leaving empty shelves for those who arrive late. That didn't happen here. At most, people seemed to think that what they needed most in an emergency was toilet paper and they emptied the supermarket shelves of it. But that was quickly over. Maybe we'll arrive at that kind of scenario, but what is happening now is not that the supermarkets are running out of goods, everything is available if you have the money to buy it. The problem is that people are running out of money.

In this situation, the last thing the government wants is food riots. And they especially care about cities — if they lose control of the cities, everything is lost for them. So they are acting on two levels: they are providing food certificates for the poor, and, at the same time, clamping down on cities with the police and the army to enforce the lockdown. People are facing criminal charges if they dare to take a walk on the street.

Not an easy situation, but at least we have food and the cities are quiet. Think of what would have happened if I had bought that apartment in the mountains. I wouldn't even have been able to go there during the coronavirus epidemics. But, if somehow I had managed to dodge the police, then I would be stuck there. And no supermarkets nearby: there is a small shop selling food in the village, but would it be resupplied during the crisis? The locals have ways to survive also with local food, but a town dweller like me doesn't. And I never tried to shoot a wild boar, I think it is not easy — to say nothing about gutting it and turning it into sausage. Worse, I am sure that no police would patrol that small village, surely not the woods. So, maybe the local denizens would not shoot me and boil me in a cauldron, but if I were to run out of toilet paper, where could I find some? And, worse, what if I were to run out of food?

So, where can we find refuge from collapse? I can think of scenarios where you could be better off in a bunker somewhere in an isolated area, where you stocked a lot of supplies. But in most cases, that would be a terribly bad idea. A well-stocked bunker is the ideal target for whoever is better armed than you, and they can always smoke you out. Of course, you can think of a refuge for an entire group of people, with some of them able to shoot intruders, others to cultivate the fields, others to care for you if you get sick. Maybe, but it is a complicated story. You could join the Amish, but would they want you? It has been done often on the basis of religious ideas and in some cases, it may have worked, at least for a while. And never forget the case of Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana.

In the end, I think the best place to be in a time of crisis is exactly where I am: in a medium-sized city. It is the last place that the government will try to keep under control as long as possible, and not a likely target for someone armed with nukes or other nasty things. Why do I say that? Look at the map, here.

This is a map of the Roman Empire at its peak. Note the position of the major cities: the Empire collapsed and disappeared, but most of the cities of that time are still there, more or less with the same name, the new buildings built in place of the old ones, or near them. Those cities were built in specific places for specific reasons, availability of water, resources, or transportation. And so it made sense for the cities to be exactly where they were, and where they still are. Cities turned out to be extremely resilient. And how about Roman villas in the countryside? Well, many are being excavated today, but after the fall of the Empire, they were abandoned and never rebuilt. It must have been terribly difficult to defend a small settlement against all the horrible things that were happening at the time of the fall of the Empire.

So, overall, I think I did well in moving from a home in the suburbs to one downtown. Bad times may come, but I would say that it offers the best chances of survival, even in reasonably horrible times. Then, of course, the best plan of mice and men tend to gang agley, as we all know.  In any case, collapses are bad and that's doesn't change for collapsniks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Can Collapsologists Learn From the Coronavirus Disaster?

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Guest Article by Herbert Krill

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Published originally on Cassandra's Legacy on March 27, 2020

 

——————  This time, it is for real!  ——————–

Coming this Sunday to a Laptop Near You

A Doomstead Diner Double Feature

 

Discuss this article at the Medicine & Health Table inside the Diner

 

What Can Collapsologists Learn From the Coronavirus Disaster?

 
Guest post by Herbert Krill
March 23, 2020
 
 
These are interesting times for collapsologists and for anyone interested in collapse. For many years, we all studied the past, historic collapses like the Fall of Ancient Rome, and speculated about future collapses. We studied Joseph Tainter, Jared Diamond, read the Blogs of Dmitry Orlov and James Howard Kunstler, re-read "The Limits to Growth" and "Overshoot", enjoyed "The Long Descent" and so on … But now, something that could end in collapse is really here. There is a very fast decline of things as we speak, a "cliff" just as Seneca and Ugo Bardi and others have described.
Is the Coronavirus disaster our collapse? Is that "it"?
 
It might not "the Big One". But it's a big, fat Black Swan. And big enough to learn a lot from it.  Like one learns from a quake, even if it's not the Big One.
 
What is it that we have learned so far?
 
 
All the big systems need redundancy
 
Next time we will have to be better prepared. All this "slowdown", this trying to "flatten the curve" that's happening now (and disturbing the economy and the people themselves, although there are also positive sides to it, see below) could have been mitigated if a better health infrastructure would have been in place. The thing is, you have to build redundancy into the system, some overcapacity.
 
If you have capacity, then you don't have to slow down things so much. Think of fire-fighting. Fires are quick, they need to be attacked quickly. You have to have overcapacity. Fire engines sitting around idly, seemingly uselessly, until the call comes. Firefighters being bored, playing cards (or, rather, playing their smartphones). But no-one will say, "We don't need so many of them if they don't actually work." At some point, they will be needed, in a flash.
 
And that goes for the health care system as well. There should have been many more hospital beds available (even if empty most of the time), more respirators, protective suits, and so forth. If you don't have that infrastructure, you will have to build it quickly, like you do in a war.  It was funny to see those pictures of dozens of caterpillars digging the foundations of emergency hospitals in China, but a week later, those hospitals were actually ready. America did that sort of thing in World War II, regular factories were converted into producing arms, planes, ships, at an incredible rate. But for that to happen you need leadership. There was a Franklin D. Roosevelt then, not a Trump.
 
And the rest of the infrastructure?
 
For collapsologists, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the infrastructure holds together. Here in California, the Internet works (thank God), electricity flows, the mailperson makes his or her rounds, and amazon deliveries are still happening, albeit a bit delayed already. Even though there are lines in front of the supermarkets (people spaced two meters apart), there are not real food shortages. But will it stay that way?
 
The other day, I was reassured by reading an article in the L.A. Times about electricity distribution in  California. "Say what you will about the utility industry – they’re pretty good about contingency planning," Stephen Berberich, president of the California Independent System Operator, which manages the electric grid for most of the state, was quoted. The big electric grids, though sometimes weak, are systems that have always planned for disaster. They might be more vulnerable by a computer virus than a biological one.
 
But still, things can get stressed way too much. What if an earthquake decides to strike us right now? For example, a major rupture of the Hayward Fault, running through Oakland and Berkeley, about 10 km from where I live, is way overdue. Kamala Harris, California senator and recently a presidential candidate, worried aloud about this. It's not just a fantasy. Just a couple of days ago, there was a mid-size earthquake outside Zagreb. People running out on the street and congregating, instead of staying inside, as per official Coronavirus mitigation strategy.
 
A cure worse than the disease?
 
Isn't the current cure what's causing the "slow collapse"? That's probably what President Trump and his people think. They don't want the economy fall to pieces. "The U.S. was not built to be shut down," he said today.  He wants to get things running soon again. But what's more important, the economy or the people? Or are they one and the same?
 
It's a big, bold and perhaps desperate experiment, all this shutting down of everything, of "non-essential businesses", of more activities day by day, including most transportation and especially flying. There is certainly a danger that the whole economic edifice, or house of cards, depending on your point of view, could yet fall down. So interesting to watch this in real time! But just let's not be caught underneath the rubble.
 
Gail Tverberg (students of collapsology will know her) wrote recently on her blog: "Human beings cannot stop eating and breathing for a month. They cannot have sleep apnea for an hour at a time, and function afterward. Economies cannot stop functioning for a month and afterward resume operations at their previous level. Too many people will have lost their jobs; too many businesses will have failed in the meantime."
 
There is already talk of "cascading effects" in the mainstream press. And today, on Bloomberg, the word "domino effect": "Real estate investor Tom Barrack said the U.S. commercial-mortgage market is on the brink of collapse and predicted a domino effect of catastrophic economic consequences if …". This is classical collapsology.
 
The psychological impact
 
You cannot tell people just to stay at home, not to do anything, for a long time. It's bad for their mental health. Many will become slightly unhinged. The "Guardian" just had an article about domestic violence increasing, in China in February and now in the U.S. as well: "A domestic violence hotline in Portland, Oregon, says calls doubled last week." And "The New Yorker" came out with this story: "How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Toll".
 
The "shelter in place" policy actually exacerbates the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. You were lucky if you had booked a suite with a balcony on the "Diamond Princess" cruise ship when you had to wait out fourteen days of quarantine, instead of an interior room without any windows at all. The same goes for small apartments in a crowded city.
 
Stay-at-home and creative types like writers can cope with this, but most people are dependent on going out, having a drink at a bar, going to the movies, be part of a crowd. It's bad for the average guy, for the working classes, to be cooped up like that.
 
Positive sides, unintended
 
If you are not too stressed out, it's a time for reflection. Cherishing nature, family, or even thinking of death, it's good for you. Strangely enough, most churches are closed, as well. It will be a most unusual Easter this year.
 
Less greenhouse gases getting released, the air becomes clean again, for example in China. Time slows down, becomes available again. It's a period of deceleration. And by and by it starts to resemble a "World Made by Hand", the title of a novel by James Howard Kunstler, in which the post-collapse world was not a bad one indeed.
 
And despite of the new etiquette of "social distancing" (a brand-new expression, only ten days old or so) there is more face-to-face friendliness. And people are more in touch with each other via telephone, email, Facebook and such.
 
Just a dress rehearsal?
 
It's a big moment in history and therefore exciting. There is a "global feeling". Awaiting the coming days, weeks, and months. I communicate with my friends in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic as much as I can. Everyone does this now. When will we see each other again? We are united in isolation. And it's a global unity against an unseen, common enemy.
 
But perhaps this is just a fire drill, a dress rehearsal. The real thing, a much worse pandemic, might come later. A more contagious, and/or more deadly virus could emerge. Peter Daszak, a well-known "disease ecologist", thinks the current crisis will prove to be manageable, noting that the mortality rate of Covid-19 isn’t as great as SARS and the spread isn’t rampant. "I’m not hiding in my bunker right now," he told the "Wall Street Journal" at the beginning of the month. "We’re going to get hit by a much bigger one sometime in the next 10 years." Really?
 
 
So we collapsologists may get our "Big One" after all. We may even die from it.
Up to now, we were more or less theoreticians. Now it gets far more real. We were Cassandras, collapse aficionados, we kind of enjoyed our post-apocalyptic visions.
 
But who would have thought that we would really experience something like this?
Now we should stop speculating and start analyzing this event, the Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 or whatever it will be called. Create a framework, set rules, detect mechanisms, make Collapsology a real science.
 
 
Herbert Krill is an Austrian documentary filmmaker currently working in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2012, he directed "American Collapse", a 45-minute documentary for the German-language Public TV network 3SAT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence Hit by the Coronavirus: The Curse of Hyperspecialization

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Video & Audio by RE

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 9, 2020

Coming this week to a Laptop Near You

Coronavirus from the Front Lines with Professors Ugo Bardi & George Mobus &

Collapse Bloggers K-Dog & RE

 

Like the Giant Panda, the economy of Florence is at risk of extinction. 
                                                                    

 

Florence is like the Chinese Panda: a creature highly specialized in the resources it exploits. The pandas need bamboo, Florence needs tourists. No bamboo, the pandas die. No tourists, well….
 
Discuss this article at the Medicine & Health Table inside the Diner

These days, walking in downtown Florence reminds me of my childhood, when Florence was not packed full of tourists. It is a ghostly experience: there is almost nobody around. The few Florentines walking in the streets look perplexed, as if asking each other "and now what?" All Italy is like that, frozen: schools and universities are closed, most restaurants have closed and the trains and the buses run nearly empty.

Right now, the number of victims caused by the coronavirus is relatively small. It will not be a new black death. But the epidemics illustrates the fragility of our economic system: it is being disrupted not because people are killed by the virus, but because it lacks resilience. It is subjected to that deadly phenomenon called "enhancing feedback" — the loss of an element of the network can destroy the whole system.

This fragility is especially visible in some highly specialized economies: the city of Florence is a case in point. I already discussed how Florence evolved over the past two centuries or so from a purely agricultural economy to one centered on tourism. You might see it as a parasitic economy, or maybe a scavenging economy. Modern Florentines have been living on the work of their ancestors, hundreds of years ago, in the form of art masterpieces and spectacular buildings.

The problem is not how you define the Florentine economy. The real problem is another. It was known but carefully ignored: it is that this economy is fragile. Tourism is highly sensitive to economic shocks: in difficult times, the first thing that people stop spending money on are expensive trips abroad. And this is exactly what's happening: with the rampaging coronavirus, people all over the world have canceled their trips and they are staying home. And Florence is empty.

In a way, it was expected: it is what I call the "Seneca Collapse." It is something typical of complex systems. Normally, they can absorb external shocks and adapt. But when they are under stress, it may happen that a small shock unbalances the whole system and causes it to collapse. Here is how the Seneca curve looks like: it is inspired by something that the Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca said: "Growth is sluggish, but ruin is rapid."
 

It is nothing more than the old story of the straw that broke the camel's back. It was not a fault of the straw, but of the camel having been overloaded. Seen in retrospect, it was not a good idea to overload the Florentine economy with infrastructures that brought more and more tourists to the town and that required more and more tourists to provide the resources needed for their maintenance. More hotels, more restaurants, more shops, more events, more roads, and so on. Even a bigger airport was in the plans but that, fortunately, may never materialize. 

A lot of people in Florence are complaining because they are losing money from their investments in bonds and stocks. But the real problem is with the people whose living directly depends on tourism. The people who clean the rooms of hotels and of airb&b's, who serve in restaurants, who drive taxis, who sell trinkets in the squares, who take tourists on tour in groups, and so on. Right now, they are on the edge of panic. Typically, they have no financial reserves and they are often indebted to the banks. But they have to pay their rent and to buy groceries for their families. And they are running out of money.

Image result for florence coronavirus There are further stacked layers of people who indirectly benefit from tourism. For instance, a friend of mine makes a living out of giving private English lessons. In turn, people in Florence take English lessons mainly because it is a skill useful to deal with foreign tourists. But the virus has scared her students and, in any case, in this uncertain situation, most of them thought it was better to skip the cost of English lessons, it is one of those luxuries that can be postponed for better times. My friend's income has dwindled to zero in a couple of weeks. And she has to pay the rent for her home and buy food for her family.

Let's see things a little more in perspective. According to Statista,  "In 2019, the contribution of travel and tourism to the Italian gross domestic product amounted to 237.8 billion euros. The industry, which is one of the most important ones for the country’s economy, constituted about 13.3 percent of the Italian GDP."

Can the Italian economy survive the loss of 13% of the GDP? Probably yes, just as you can survive being run over a truck. But that doesn't mean it is a pleasant experience, nor a painless one.

Then, how about Florence? There are no data about such thing as a "Gross Town Product" for Florence, but some rough estimates of mine indicate that the fraction of the Florentine economic machine that runs on tourism could be around 30%, and perhaps even more. Now, imagine that international tourism vanishes for an extended period of time. . .  Ow. . . No more bamboo shoots for those poor pandas.

With a bit of luck, the virus will go away in a month or two, leaving an Italy battered but still there. Italians have shown great resilience in the past, think of when they rebuilt the country after the disaster of the second world war. Can they do that one more time?

In principle, yes. But it would take a serious rethinking on the part of a political class that so far has placed all bets into expanding tourism as much as possible, beyond all reasonable limits, all in the name of growth for the sake of growth. For once, they might learn something from this experience.

Unfortunately, right now, the first impression is not good, with noises recently heard from the government about the need to provide economic stimuli for people to buy new cars in order to "restart growth." People never change their minds, just like pandas never change their diet. And, as usual, we march into the future while looking backward.

On Greta Thunberg: A Letter to my Non-Western Friends

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Video & Audio by RE

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 12, 2019

Discuss thiss article at the Extinction Rebellion Table inside the Diner

 

On Greta Thunberg: A Letter to my Non-Western Friends

 

Dear non-Western friends,

first of all, let me tell you that I understand your perplexity about Greta Thunberg. I understand how you see this latest stunt of the Western Media of naming her "Person of the Year." From your viewpoint, it looks just like another trick of the West, one among many. And I understand that it makes you even more suspicious that the whole story of climate change is nothing but a hoax created by the Western Empire to maintain its grip on the whole planet.

Yes, I understand. But I would like to ask you to make an effort to understand us, the Westerners. You see, sometimes I have a feeling that one of the characteristics of Hell could be that the people who are in it don't realize that they are in Hell. It would be truly wicked, but it was a Western poet, Baudelaire, who said that the best trick of the devil is to convince you that he doesn't exist. So, if Hell is a place where you are told lies about everything, including that you are not in it, then we Westerners are truly living in Hell, at least a certain kind of hell.

It is not just lies, it is the kind of lies. The Western media have evolved into a machine for manufacturing fear and hatred. Anyone, any group, any belief, can be destroyed by this machine. And you cannot do much to fight back. If you doubt the official narration, you are a conspiracy theorist. If you plead for peace, you are Putin's stooge. If you protest against your government, you are a terrorist. If you deny the role of the West in leading the world, you are a traitor. And, on top of that, most Westerners are convinced that propaganda is a thing of the non-Western world and that their media are free and independent. Indeed, Baudelaire was right.

Of course, don't make me say that the non-Western world is a Paradise of truth. All nations, all states, all cultures, have their biases, their filters, their entrenched beliefs, and, in many cases, their propaganda machines. Every one of us, Westerners and non-Westerners, sees the world through the filters that our culture, our traditions, and our media place in front of us.  But you, non-Westerners, have a possibility that's denied to us, Westerners. You can use English to peer into the Western media without being embedded in it. And, as I said, I understand that often you don't like what you see.

And so, we are back to Greta Thunberg. Of course, I understand that this girl is not a "grassroots" phenomenon as some might want to believe. She is supported by a top-class team of media experts, she couldn't possibly fight the Western Media Behemot alone. And I understand that her message may be misunderstood, mongrelized, and exploited for yet another round of greenwashing. I know that.

But that's not the point. It is how the appearance of Ms. Thunberg has been both amazing and unexpected. If she is a product of propaganda, then it an unusual kind of propaganda. It would be the first time in many decades that our media are presenting to us a message that's not based on the idea of something or someone evil to be destroyed. This girl crashed through all the media barriers with just a simple message: the truth about climate change. She wasn't telling us to kill or hate anyone, she was just telling us to work together to ensure that her generation could have a future. And she carried the message with an inner force, a way of posing herself, a capability of saying things straight that was nearly unbelievable. It is amazing how she attracted upon herself all kinds of insults, abuse, and curses, but nothing really stuck on her. You remember Ronald Reagan's "Teflon presidency"? Well, this girl is not just Teflon coated: she wears a Mythril armor like the heroes of the trilogy of the ring.

I understand that it is possible that this girl will disappear from the mediasphere in a short time, as it happens for most ideas over the Web, nowadays. But she may turn out to be something more, maybe not the specific person of Greta Thunberg, but in the message she represents. A strong message telling humankind to respect the things that make humankind live: our planet and all the living beings in it.

Let me tell you of something I learned not long ago when I was in Iran. It was the time of the Arbaeen, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, forty days after the Day of the Ashura. Someone told me (or maybe I read somewhere) that "Imam Husayn is a figure that we Shi'ites offer as a gift to the whole humankind as an example of virtue and of justice." And that struck me as something worth remembering. In all cultures, we have something or someone we revere as a treasure: a person, a poem, a work of art, a way of seeing the world. And these treasures, I think, we should share with the rest of humankind as gifts.

Now, of course, I don't have the authority to say what the entity we call "The West" should or should not do. For sure, we shared with the world plenty of poisoned gifts in the past. But this girl, Greta Thunberg, might be a true treasure, a gift we could offer to the rest of the world. For once, there would come from the West a message of peace and harmony. Could that really happen? Difficult to believe, sure, but it is a great hope.

 

 

“The Seneca Strategy” — Asking for Suggestions from my Readers

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 9, 2019

Coming this Sunday, June 16th, 2019 to a Laptop Near You

A Collapse Conversation with Professor Ugo Bardi

 

Discuss this article at the Collapse Narratives Table inside the Diner


 

 
 
About Amelia the Amoeba, she is a pedigreed Naegleria Fowleri, a species known for her habit of eating human brains – an interesting case of a Seneca Collapse for the owner of the brain. But Amelia is a good girl and she won't do that to you if you are nice to her.

My second book on the concept of "Seneca Collapse" (or Cliff, or Ruin, or the like) is nearly completed and it should be available from Springer before the end of the year. It is a sequel to my first book, "The Seneca Effect", but this second one is thought as more easily readable "trade" book. It will be sold at a reasonable price, unlike the first one that was supposed to be a specialized, scientific book.

You see above a first attempt at a title and a cover for this book. Of course, the publisher will devise a better cover illustration, but the real issue is the title, still provisional. I used "The Seneca Strategy" as a title because the book focuses on how to deal with collapses rather than on the physics of collapses. It proposes a strategy that's based on the Stoic view of the world revisited under the lens of system dynamics. It is the idea that you don't try to force systems to do what you want them to do, a concept that Jay Forrester termed "pushing the levers in the wrong direction."

But, as it stands, the title is no good. My editor told me that, "“collapse” is not a friendly, or familiar, word to most readers. It seems to apply only to extreme events that don’t affect most people. " That is, people won't understand what the book is about. I think he is correct and that I need a better title — a title that explains what's inside the book.

So, dear readers, could you focus your creative skills on this task and suggest a few titles for me? I think the title should contain the words "collapse" and "Seneca," but then there are many possibilities, for instance, I am toying with "Paths to Ruin" but creativity often consists in trying many different ideas and I am sure many of you could suggest something good. Hoping that not all of my readers are bots, I'll sure appreciate your efforts! (Amelia will also be grateful)

Here is the index of the book, to give you some idea of what it is about.

 

  1. Table of Contents
1. Preface 4
1.1 A quick glossary of the terms you’ll find in this book. 5
2. Summary: Six Things You Should Know About Collapse 6
3. Plan of the Book (not necessarily to be published) 8
4. Collapse: An Introduction 9
5. Models of Collapse 14
5.2 The Limits of Models. Nightfall on Lagash 23
5.3 Why Models are not Believed: The Croesus Syndrome 29
6. The Science of Collapse 36
6.1 Complex Systems: The Goddess’ Wrath 36
6.2 The Power of Networks: The Ghost in the Shell 42
6.3 Living and Dying in a Complex Universe. The Story of Amelia the Amoeba. 52
7. The Practice of Collapse 76
7.1 The Collapse of Engineered Structures: For Dust you are and to Dust you Will Return 76
7.2 Financial Collapses: Blockbuster goes bust. 84
7.3 Natural Disasters: Florence’s Great Flood 94
7.4 Mineral Collapses: The Coming Oil Crisis? 103
7.5 The Seneca Cliff and Human Violence: Fatal Quarrels. 111
7.6 Famines, Epidemics, and Depopulation: The Zombie Apocalypse 117
7.7 The Big One: Societal Collapse 125
7.8 Apocalypse: the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem 132
8. Strategies for Managing Collapse 138
8.1 Technological Progress against Collapse. The Cold Fusion Miracle that Wasn’t. 138
8.2 Avoiding Overexploitation. Drill, Baby, Drill! 148
8.3 Leadership Against Collapse: The Last Roman Empress. 155
8.4 Collapse as a Weapon: The Iago Strategy 164
8.5 Deception as a Strategy: the Camper’s Dilemma 174
8.6 Life After Collapse: The Seneca Rebound 181
9. Conclusion: The Seneca Strategy 189
11. Acknowledgment 195
12. REFERENCES 196

Are the Martyrs Coming Back? Julian Assange and the Fall of the Global Empire

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 6, 2019

 

 

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And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand (Matthew. 12:25)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The more the current world drama unfolds, the more I am amazed by how closely we are following the path that the ancient Roman Empire followed toward its final collapse. Dmitry Orlov, another student of civilization collapse, seem to think in the same way. In a post on his blog, he notes how Julian Assange could be the first martyr for truth of modern times, he calls him "St. Julian." Says Orlov:

If all goes well, he (Julian Assange) will be released and reestablish himself as a media personality of great stature. And if everything goes badly and the Americans do get their hands on him and torture him to death, he will die as a martyr and live in public memory forever.

I don’t know whether Assange has been baptized, but a proper choice of saint for him would be St. Julian of Antioch, who was martyred during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians between 303 and 313 AD. Julian was stuffed into a sack filled with sand, vipers and scorpions and dumped in the sea. Diocletian’s initiative was a failure: the son of one of his lieutenants, Constantine, not only canceled the persecution of Christians but made Christianity into Roman Empire’s state religion. He then moved its capital to New Rome (Constantinople), abandoning Old Rome to languish in the Dark Ages while his New Rome went on for a thousand glorious years.

Should Julian Assange end up martyred by the Americans, we can expect a vaguely similar result: future generations of Americans will say: “There once was a great journalist by the name of Julian. He died as a martyr for the truth. It was a long time ago, and we don’t know what’s been happening to us since then, because all we have been hearing ever since have been nothing but lies…”

I think this post by Orlov goes to the heart of the matter. A civilization collapse is, in the end, a collapse of trust. An empire, a state, a family, any social structure, can be rich or poor, powerful or weak, new or old, happy or sad, but if there is no trust keeping it together it cannot exist for long, it is like a solid turning into a gas when the chemical bonds keeping the atoms together are not strong enough. It is what happened to the Roman Empire, it is what's happening to us. As Matthew says, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (12:25).

Ultimately, trust is based on truth. Without truth, there cannot be trust. In Roman times, the fight of Christianity against the Empire of Lies was more than everything else a fight to rebuild trust by establishing a new truth, the revealed one. I wrote in a previous post that:
 

Augustine and other early Christian fathers were engaged, first of all, in an epistemological revolution. Paulus of Tarsus had already understood this point when he had written: "now we see as in a mirror, darkly, then we'll see face to face." It was the problem of truth; how to see it? How to determine it? In the traditional view, truth was reported by a witness who could be trusted. The Christian epistemology started from that, to build up the concept of truth as the result divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness.

In the name of truth, the Christian martyrs (a Greek term meaning "witness") were willing to give their life, to die vilified and tortured in the most gruesome manners. It was the courage of the early martyrs that eventually brought down the zombie creature that the once great Roman Empire had become.

And now? We are rapidly entering a phase when the lies told to us by our governments and our elites are so huge, so pervasive, so blatant to qualify as diabolical. But in the great confusion of our times even the good among us are confused, they can't discern the truth anymore. And the time may have come when we need a new generation of Martyrs for truth is needed.

 

…and in case you mised it…here's the story of another victim of this travesty, ASSANGE'S CAT!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Empire of Lies: How we are collapsing in the same way as the Roman Empire did.

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on April 14, 2019

 


(Image source: Wikipedia) The Devil is sometimes said to be "The Father of Lies." It is an apt definition for a creature that doesn't even exist except as a figment of human imagination. Satan is an evil egregore that we ourselves created, a creature that seems to loom larger and larger behind the current chronicles. The recent arrest of Julian Assange is just the latest deed of an Empire that seems bent on truly creating its own reality, something that, in itself, wouldn't necessarily be evil but that becomes so when it implies destroying all other realities, including the only true one. 

 

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Initially, I thought to comment the recent news about Assange by reproducing a post "The Empire of Lies" that I published here about one year ago, where I described how the transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages had taken place, in large part, because people just couldn't trust their Imperial rulers anymore. The Roman Empire had become an empire of lies and it was left to Christianity to rebuild the trust that the old empire had squandered – the Middle Ages were far from being "Dark Ages."  But, eventually, I thought to publish something I had in mind about how the Roman Empire and the modern Western Empire are following parallel trajectories in their habit of telling lies as they move toward their respective Seneca Cliffs.

So, here it is my assessment of the Roman Collapse, based on the excellent book by Dmitry Orlov, "The Five Stages of Collapse." Just one note: in the book, Orlov doesn't describe the post-collapse phase of the Soviet Union that ended with Russia becoming again as a prosperous and united country, as it is nowadays. It was a good example of the "Seneca Rebound" — there is life after collapse and there will be new life after that the Evil Empire of lies will be gone.
 

The Five Stages of Collapse of The Roman Empire.

By Ugo Bardi

Dmitry Orlov wrote "The Five Stages of Collapse" as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2013. It was an original idea for that time that of comparing the fall of the Soviet Union with that of the United States. Being an American citizen born in Russia, Orlov could compare the two Empires in detail and note the many similarities that led both to follow the same trajectory, even though the cycle of the American Empire is not over, yet.

To strengthen Orlov's analysis I thought I could apply the same five stages to an older Empire, the Roman one. And, yes, the five stages apply well also to that ancient case. So, here is my take on this subject.

To start, a list of the five Stages of Collapse according to Orlov.
 

  • Stage 1: Financial collapse.
  • Stage 2: Commercial collapse.
  • Stage 3: Political collapse.
  • Stage 4: Social collapse.
  • Stage 5: Cultural collapse.

Now, let's see how these five stages played out during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Stage 1 – Financial Collapse (3rd century AD). The Roman Empire’s financial system was not as sophisticated as ours, but, just like our civilization, the Empire was based on money. Money was the tool that kept together the state: it was used to pay the legions and the bureaucrats and to make the commercial system supply the cities with food. The Roman money was a physical commodity: it was based on silver and gold, and these metals needed to be mined. It was the Roman control over the rich gold mines of Northern Spain that had created the Empire, but these mines couldn’t last forever. Starting with the 1st century, the cost of mining from depleted veins became an increasingly heavy burden. By the 3rd century, the burden was too heavy for the Empire to carry. It was the financial collapse from which the Empire never could fully recover.

Stage 2 – Commercial Collapse (5th century AD). The Roman Empire had never really been a commercial empire nor a manufacturing society. It was specialized in military conquest and it preferred to import luxury items from abroad, some, such as silk, all the way from the other side of Eurasia, from China. In addition to legions, the Empire produced only two commodities in large amounts: grain and gold. Of these, only gold could be exported to long distances and it soon disappeared to China to pay for the expensive imports the Romans were used to buy. The other product, grain, couldn’t be exported and continued to be traded within the Empire’s border for some time – the supply of grain from the African and Near Eastern granaries was what kept the Roman cities alive, Rome in particular. After the financial collapse, the supply lines remained open because the grain producers had no other market than the Roman cities. But, by mid-5th-century, things got so bad that Rome was sacked first by the Visigoths in 410, and then by the Vandals in 450, It recovered from the 1st sack, but the second was terminal. The Romans had no more money left to pay for the grain they needed, the commercial sea lanes broke down completely, and the Romans starved. It was the end of the Roman commercial system.

Stage 3 – Political Collapse (late 5th century AD). The political collapse went in parallel with the commercial collapse. Already in the late 4th century, the Emperors had become unable to defend Rome from the Barbarian armies marching across the empire and they had retired to the safety of the fortified city of Ravenna. When Rome was sacked, the Emperors didn’t even try to do something to help. The last emperors disappeared by the late 5th century but, already decades before, most people in Europe had stopped caring about whether or not there was some pompous person in Ravenna who wore purple clothes and claimed to be a divine Emperor.

Stage 4 – Social Collapse (5th century AD). The social collapse of the Western Empire went in parallel with the disgregation of the political and commercial structures. Already during the early 5th century, we have evidence that the Roman Elites had gone in “escape mode" – it was not just the emperor who had fled Rome to take refuge in Ravenna, patricians and warlords were on the move with troops, money, and followers to establish feudal domains for themselves where they could. And they were leaving the commoners to fend off by themselves. By the 6th century, the Roman State was gone and most of Europe was in the hands of Germanic warlords.

Stage 5 – Cultural collapse (starting in the 6th century AD). It was very slow. The advent of Christianity, during the 3rd century, had not weakened the Empire's cultural structure, it had been an evolution rather than a break with the past. The collapse of the Empire as a political and military entity didn't change things so much and for centuries people in Europe still considered themselves as Romans, not unlike the Japanese soldiers stranded in remote islands after the end of the second world war .(in Greece, people would still define themselves as "Romans" well into the 19th century). Latin, the imperial language, disappeared as a vernacular language but it was kept alive by the Catholic clergy and it became an indispensable tool that kept Europe culturally united. Latin kept a certain cultural continuity with the ancient empire that was only very gradually lost. It was only with the 18th – 19th centuries that Latin disappeared as the language of the cultural elite, to be replaced by English nowadays.

As you see, Orlov’s list has a certain logic although it needs to be adapted a little to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The 5 stages didn’t come one after the other, There was more than a century lapse between the 3rd-century financial collapse (stage 1) and the three subsequent stages arriving together: commercial, political, and social collapse. The 5th stage, the cultural collapse, was a drawn-out story that came later and that lasted for centuries.

How about our civilization? The 1st stage, financial collapse is clearly ongoing, although it is masked by various accounting tricks. The 2nd stage, commercial collapse, instead, hasn't started yet, nor the political collapse: the Empire still maintains a giant and threatening military force, even though its actual efficiency may be doubted. Maybe we are already seeing signs of the 3rd stage, social collapse but, if the Roman case is a guide, these three stages will arrive together.

Then, how about the last stage, cultural collapse? That's a question for a relatively far future. For a while, English will surely remain the universal language, just as Latin used to be after the fall of Rome, while people may keep thinking they still live in a globalized world (maybe it is already an illusion). With English fading, anything may happen and when (and if) a new Empire will rise on the ashes of the American Empire it will be something completely different. We can only say that the universe goes in cycles and that's, evidently, the way things have to be.

What’s Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on February 11, 2019

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What's Emperor Trump Doing? He is Busy at Splitting the Empire in Two

 

Donald Trump seems to be doing what Roman Emperors like Diocletian, Constantine, and Theodosius did long ago: splitting the empire into two halves. Trump may not have consciously decided to do that, but an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be and the American Empire can't afford anymore to dominate the whole world.

Flavius Theodosius Augustus "The Great" (347- 395 CE) was the last emperor to rule over the whole Roman Empire. His success was probably due in large part to his habit of plundering Pagan temples for the gold he needed to pay his troops. But Pagan temples were a limited resource and Theodosius himself seemed to understand that when, shortly before his death, he partitioned the Empire between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. Afterward, the empire would never be united under a single emperor again.

The Roman Empire had been a strong centralized power during its heydays, but it never was very interested in creating an ethnical and linguistic unity among its subjects. The Roman authorities understood that it was less expensive to tolerate diversity than to force uniformity — a typical policy of most empires. So, the Empire remained split into two main linguistic halves: the Latin-speaking Pars Occidentis and the Greek-speaking Pars Orientis. Theoretically, Latin was the official language but, in practice, the Empire remained a bilingual entity and, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Roman elite would tend to speak Greek — considered more refined and classy than Latin.

The split of the two sides of the Empire was not just linguistic, it was economic as well. The Pars Occidentis remained based on mineral wealth which, in turn, fueled the Empire's military power. The Pars Orientis was more based on commerce and manufacturing and it exploited its favorable geographical position as the terminal of the silk road that connected China to Europe. During the expansion period, the military strength of the West made it dominant but, with the exhaustion of the gold mines in Spain, it lost the resources needed to pay for its oversized military apparatus. In time, the Western Empire became unable to control even its own territory and it squandered its remaining resources in huge border walls. It collapsed and vanished during the late 5th century CE. The Eastern Empire lasted nearly one millennium longer but was never able to rebuild the power of the old Roman Empire.

Fast forward to our times, and it is clear that the American Empire is facing the same situation that the Romans were facing around the 2nd century AD. Like the old Western Empire, the American Empire's economy is mainly based on mineral resources: crude oil in particular. But, with the gradual exhaustion of these resources, the empire cannot afford to dominate the whole world anymore.

Emperor Trump seems to have an uncanny ability to understand the situation, even though he may not be an expert in Roman history. His actions are perfectly understandable in light of the plan of splitting the empire into two halves. One half (Pars Occidentis) will still be dominated from Washington, the other half (Pars Orientis) will have Beijing as its capital. The Western Part will retain the original Imperial language, English. The Eastern Part may switch to Chinese.

Consistently, Trump is planning to abandon Afghanistan and also Syria, both too far and too expensive to defend and he also was not interested in an all-out confrontation with North Korea. But he seems to consider South America as part of the Western dominion, so he is moving to take control of Venezuela. Trump is also acting to destroy the hegemony of the dollar as world currency. Apparently, the idea is that the Western Empire is safer from financial disasters if the dollar becomes the Western currency only. So, the economic sanctions enacted against Iran, Russia, and other countries are forcing the Eastern Empire to develop new currencies and financial systems independent of the dollar.

Clearly, Emperor Trump is facing strong resistance. Just as many Roman Emperors, he not completely in control of the Imperial military apparatus and a sizeable opposition is trying to maintain the American Empire alive in is most extended and expensive form: dominating the whole planet. But the direction is clear and the situation is simple: an Empire can only be as large as it can afford to be. The gradual depletion of the mineral resources and the increasing costs of pollution are making a global empire impossible.

The Globalized World Empire was a beautiful creature as long as it prospered, but it was burning the dynamite stick at both ends. The time of global dominance is gone and the Empire is now in a convulsive phase: retreat is the most dangerous military maneuver and it is best executed maintaining an aggressive posture. Which is exactly what Emperor Trump is doing with his threats of war. But it is also true that the game of chicken is the second most dangerous game known (the first is the Russian Roulette). So, the retreat of the Western Empire may not involve just a rapid Seneca Collapse, as it was the case for the old Roman Empire, but a final blast of fireworks in the form of a nuclear war which would end civilization as we know it. Not pretty, but that's the way things are.

There remains one point of contention: is Western Europe in the Orientis or in the Occidentis part of the Empire? Surely, Britain tends to remain part of the Western Empire because of its linguistic ties with the United States. But the non-English speaking parts of the former EU don't have this link and they have strong – practically unbreakable – ties with Russia as an energy supplier. So, they might become part of the Eastern Eurasian Empire.

It seems that Trump understands this point very well, too, and it is in these terms that you can interpret his lashing out at the NATO allies at last year's G7 meeting. Trump's message to the states once forming the European Union was simply, "Sorry, fellows, we can't afford to defend you anymore unless you pay us more money than you can afford to pay." In this sense, Western Europe could play the role of Britain and Dacia during the 3rd and 4th century CE, abandoned by the central Roman Government and left to fend off by themselves against the barbarian invaders. Who knows? History rhymes again and we might even have a new King Arthur.

________________________________________

Was the fall of the Western Roman Empire a Seneca Collapse? Yes, by all means it was. Look at this:

 

From Taagepera, Size and Duration of Empires, 1978 — the vertical scale is in million square miles

See also "Can Donald Trump be the last world emperor?"

And you may also be interested at how Theodosius's daughter, Galla Placidia, managed to keep the Western Empire together even without plundering temples. The story is here.  

Note also that I used the term "understanding" but that doesn't mean that Trump consciously understands the deep reasons of why he is doing what he is doing in the sense of moving intentionally to the splitting of the empire. He is simply reacting to the stimuli he perceives and he moves accordingly. (which is, BTW, what we all do!!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you ready for a new round of mass exterminations?

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 12, 2017

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This article is reposted from INSURGE. 

 

 

The great “pulse” of mass exterminations that occurred during the 20th century (graph created by Rummel). According to this chart, 262 million people were exterminated during the last century, mainly by governments in a series of actions that Rummel defines as “democides”. The question is, could something similar occur in the future? It turns out that mass exterminations are like earthquakes, their occurrence cannot be predicted exactly; but we can estimate the probability of an event of a certain size to occur. And the more time passes, the more likely a new pulse of mass exterminations becomes.

 


In this sobering exclusive analysis for INSURGE, Professor Ugo Bardi dissects historical statistics on war to unpick the patterns of violence of the past and uncover what this says about the present — and our coming future. He warns that statistical data suggests we are on the brink of heading into another round of major wars resulting, potentially, in mass deaths on a scale that could rival what we have seen in the early 20th century. Far from mere doom-mongering, Bardi’s warning is based on a careful assessment of statistical patterns in the data.Such a future, however, may not be set in stone — given that for the first time we are able to assess our past to discern these patterns, in a way we could not do before. Perhaps, then, the path to freedom from the patterns of the past remains open. The question is: what are we going to do with this information?

Humans are dangerous creatures; this much is clear. During the 20th century, about one billion humans were killed, directly or indirectly, by other humans.

Not all these murders were intentional, but a good fraction was, including some 262 million people killed in what Rummel calls “democides”, the government-organized extermination of a large number of people for political, racial, or generally sectarian reasons.

If we add the number of people murdered piecemeal (maybe 177 million during the 20th century), the total is nearly half a billion people killed in anger by other people.

Considering that about 5 billion people died during the 20th century, we can say that during that century the probability of dying killed by another person was about 10%. Not bad for creatures who claim to have been created in the image of a benevolent God.

No other vertebrate on Earth can do anything even remotely comparable, even though chimps and other apes may be cruel with their kin and occasionally engage in skirmishes which we could define as small-scale wars.

Today, by comparison with the turbulent mid-20th century, we appear to be living in a relatively quiet period and it has been argued by Steven Pinker that our times are especially quiet in comparison to the past (though exactly how quiet remains a matter of debate). But there is a big question: for how long will the lull last?

It is, of course, a very difficult question, to say the least. Nevertheless, a good way to be prepared for the future is to look at past trends. In the case of mass exterminations, the historical data is scarce and unreliable, but we do have some. The Conflict Catalog (here) is authored by Peter Brecke and contains information on 3,708 conflicts, going back to the 15th century. It is a good place to start.

The “War Fatalities” data in the Conflict Catalog includes both civilian and military victims, even though they don’t seem to include those mass exterminations that didn’t involve military operations — for instance the extermination of the Native Americans in North America. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating set of data. Here is the plot.
 


You see that the graph is dominated by 20th century wars, with the Second World War marking the historical maximum. It doesn’t mean that earlier times were quieter: let’s zoom into the data by plotting them on a scale that expands the data bars by a factor of 10.
 


Now, you see better the bursts of war in the past, including the Thirty Years War during the early and mid1600s, as well as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars during the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Now, let’s zoom in by another factor of 10, and see the result:


Now, the periods that looked quiet don’t seem to be so quiet, after all. War seems to be endemic (and sometimes epidemic) in human history, at least during the past six centuries.

So what can we say about this data?

A first point is the apparent increase in intensity with time. But the data are not corrected for population growth, which seems to be a key factor explaining the increasing trend.

For instance, the worldwide democide pulse of the 20th century generated 260 million victims for a world population of about 2.5 billion people. The Thirty Years War in Europe, during the 17th century, caused some 8 million victims in the European population which, at the time, was 80 million people. The ratio is nearly the same in both cases: about one person in 10 was killed. It seems that the intensity and the rate of major conflict pulses are approximately constant in proportion to population.

Do we see any evidence, then, of a periodicity of the data? Apparently not in the plots above. But we could try to smooth the curve by averaging. Here are the results shown in a plot made by “OurWorldInData.” This data is the same that I plotted before, but on a logarithmic scale. The data has also been smoothed and the result is the red line.

 


At first glance, this graph seems to indicate a periodicity of about 50 years, but that may not be true. Look carefully: the cycles are not all of the same duration.

So, the oscillations are probably mostly an artifact of the smoothing. In reality, mass exterminations don’t seem to be cyclical. Rather, they seem to follow a “power law” — that is their probability is inversely proportional to their size (Roberts and Turcotte (1998) and Gonzalez-Val Rafael (2014)).

It is a result that we have to take with caution because the data is uncertain and scarcely reliable, especially over long time spans. But it seems reasonable: it puts wars in the same category of forest fires, avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, and more.

All these events have a common characteristic: large events are triggered by small ones. A rolling pebble may generate a landslide while an abandoned lit cigarette may generate a forest fire. It is the same for wars, where the tendency of small wars to generate large ones is called “escalation.”

These events tend to follow “power laws.” It means that large wars are less probable than small ones. But we can’t say when a new war will start, nor how big it will be. It is the same for earthquakes. It is this uncertainty that makes earthquakes (and wars) so destructive and so difficult to manage.

It means that, statistically, a new pulse of exterminations could start at any moment and, the more time passes, the more likely it is that it will start. Indeed, if we study even just a little the events that led to the 20th century democide that we call the Second World War, you can see that we are moving exactly along the same lines.

We are seeing the rise of hate, violence, racism, fascism, dictatorships, rising inequality, sectarian ideologies, ethnic cleansing, oppression, and the demonization of various modern “untermenschen” (sub-humans). All this can be seen as the precursor for a new, large war engagement to come.

We are already seeing an arc of democides that starts in North Africa and continues along the Middle East, all the way to Afghanistan and which may soon extend to Korea. We can’t say if these relatively limited democides will coalesce into a much larger one, but they may become the trigger that generates a new gigantic pulse of mass exterminations.

If the proportionality of democide size with population size holds, we should take into account that, today, there are three times more people in the world than there were at the time of the Second World War. The resulting 21st century democide could therefore involve anything between half a billion and a billion victims, or even more; especially considering that this time nuclear weapons could be used on a large scale.

Can we do something to avoid this outcome? According to Rudolph Rummel (1932–2014), who studied wars all of his life, democracies are much less likely than dictatorships to engage in wars. In this interpretation, promoting democracy could be a good way to avoid wars.

This is debatable: we might question the extent to which Western democracies have really refrained from engagement in wars. Or we might say that a healthy democracy is an emergent property of a sane society just as war is an emergent property of a sick one.

So when a society gets sick, impoverished, divided, and violent, it gets rid of democracy and engages in war. It seems to be exactly what’s happening to us nowadays: we are weakening and jettisoning democracy, and gearing up for a new, large pulse of mass exterminations.

The past 50 years or so of relative calm, at least between Western states, may have deluded us into believing that we have entered a new era of ‘long peace’. But that may have been just an illusion if we look at the continuous eruptions of warfare of the past half millennium. Wars seem to be too inextricably linked to human nature for it to be stoppable with mere slogans and goodwill. Theoretically, everyone is against war, but when flags start waving, reason seems to fly away with the wind.

Yet, there is more to be said on these trends. It is often said that all wars are for resources, but this may not be true. Wars need resources. You could say that resources generate wars, rather than the opposite. So, the great cycle of growing democides of the past half-millennium has taken place against a background of increasing population and wealth accumulation. That made it possible to build and maintain the social and military apparatus needed to make wars.

But now? Clearly, we are seeing the start of a phase of dwindling resource availability. Mineral resources are becoming more expensive, arable land is being rapidly depleted of nutrients, the atmosphere is being poisoned and climate is rapidly changing in ways that are going to harm humankind to levels which, at present, we can’t even imagine. There is less and less surplus to be invested in wars.

Of course, there are still plenty of reasons to go to war against each other; in particular to take control of the remaining resources. And it is also true that democides don’t need to be expensive; some recent democides such as the one which took place in Rwanda in 1994 did not require more sophisticated weapons than machetes. Then, it may be even easier to engineer a democide by denying low-cost medical assistance to the poor.

Yet, there remain great uncertainties as we are rolling over to the other side of the great cycle of what we call the “industrial civilization” that spanned several centuries.

While wars and exterminations were a common feature of the growing phase of the cycle, will they also be in the declining phase? We can’t say. What the future will bring to us, only the future will tell.

But for the first time in human history we are able to look back at the past with a birds-eye view that can inform us of the patterns of behaviour we are bringing into that future — thus, for the first time, perhaps, we can collectively learn from the lessons of our past to create a future with somewhat different patterns.

Ugo Bardi is Professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His research interests encompass resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is a member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil) and blogs in English on these topics at “Cassandra’s Legacy”. He is the author of the Club of Rome report, Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green, 2014) and The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer, 2011), among many other scholarly publications.

Fake Newz Kills

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 19, 2017

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When Fake News Kill. Mata Hari, the Spy Who Never Was

 
 

 

One century after her death, Mata Hari remains for us the prototypical figure of the female spy. An extreme case of “femme fatale”; she is seen as someone who not only seduced men for her lust of money and power, but also for the greater lust of having them killed by the thousands on the battlefield. But she never was what she was said to be. Rather, she was one of the first victims of what we call today "fake news," also known as "propaganda", a set of techniques of mass manipulation being developed at that time and which today have reached near perfection. 

A hundred years ago, on July 24, 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle, known as Mata Hari, was sentenced to death by a military court in Paris on the accusation of being a spy for the Germans. She was said to have passed to them information that caused the death of “maybe fifty thousand French soldiers.”. She was shot a few months later.

 
Today, looking back at the acts of the trial, we can easily see the absurdity and the inconsistency of the accusations. If there ever was an example of a court of Marsupials, that was it. There just was no way that Mata Hari could have done what she was accused to have done. She was, rather, a scapegoat killed in order to distract the public in a moment when the war was going badly for France. Put simply: she was framed. It was one of the first examples of the deadly effects of propaganda (also known today as "fake news) which, at that time, was just starting to become a common feature of our world.

 

The trial was the endpoint of a career of dancer and performer that Margaretha Zelle had started when she came back to Europe from Indonesia, at that time called the "Dutch Indies". She had spent just a few years there as the wife of a Dutch Officer but that was sufficient for her to pick up something of the local culture that allowed her to claim that she was Buddhist. She also learned enough of the local language to be able to choose  "Mata Hari" as her stage name, meaning (it seems) "The Light of Dawn". As a dancer, Mata Hari drew a lot of criticism at her times and it is likely that her dances were little more than strip teases with an Oriental flavor. Yet, she became very popular in Europe after she gave her first performance in Paris, in 1905.

As years went by, Mata Hari gradually gave up with stripping naked in public and she was said to have become a high-rank courtesan, seducing the rich and the famous (that, too, may be clouded by propaganda). During the war, she may have tried her hand at being also a secret agent, but it seems more likely that she was simply framed. In a certain way, the French and the German secret services collaborated in sending her to face the firing squad. The German saw her as a "propaganda point" to show how evil the French were in killing an innocent woman, while the French saw the trial as a way to show how tough they were against traitors (and traitoresses).

The trial and the detention of Mata Hari were a showcase of cruelty and intimidation. The last pictures we have of her show us no more the dancer that she used to be, but a woman physically destroyed by months of life in jail. After the execution, Mata Hari received also the ultimate insult, that of being denied a decent burial, of having her dead body dissected on a hospital table and having the pieces thrown away. They say that her mummified head was kept for some years in the museum of anatomy in Paris, before it was, too, thrown away and lost. She was denied the status of human being and considered rather as a sort of giant insect to be disposed of. The transformation of human beings into insects and their subsequent extermination is something that Kafka had already prophetically described in his story “the metamorphosis”.

In later times the anthropologist Roy Rappaport defined as “diabolical lies” those lies that “tamper with the very fabric of reality”. Today, we call those lies with the more neutral term of "fake news", as if they were just a fad that comes and goes. But fake news can kill and one of their victims was Mata Hari. The deadly mix of nationalism and propaganda that killed her was to continue and to explode in later years with the 2nd world war, leading Europe into the largest exterminations of innocent people that history has (so far) recorded. Mata Hari was among the first to be engulfed by this wave of senseless killing. She was killed in cold blood by people who were, most likely, perfectly aware that she was innocent.

 

It may well be that Mata Hari’s Oriental stance was not just a veneer to ennoble a little her strip teases, but it may also be that she had seriously studied Buddhism and other oriental ways while in the Dutch Indies. Her behavior at her execution, her calm, her evident belief that death was simply a passage, may tell us that her Buddhism was not just a pose but something that she had taken by heart. A hundred years later, we may still learn something from her story.

 

These notes are based mainly on the book by Rusell Warren Howe, "Mata-Hari. The true story". Editions de l'Archipel, Paris 2007, and on the near contemporary report by Emile Massard "Espionnes À Paris" (Gallimard, 1922), but there is lot of material on her story. Whereas earlier on there was still some discussion on whether she could really have been a spy, today the prevalent opinion is that she wasn't. 

 

Mining Asteroids

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 19, 2017

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Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?

 

 

A silly idea that seems to be coming straight from a science fiction story of the 1950s. Mining the asteroids wouldn't just be outrageously expensive; the problem is that there is nothing to mine there. Yet, some people seem to take the idea seriously

It seems that, when we are in trouble, we tend to revert to our childhood memories, seen as happy times that, somehow, could return. That may explain why President Trump is dreaming of an impossible return to coal. He may see the idea through his memories of childhood as a time of happy miners and prosperous families.

Some others, instead, may revert to memories influenced by the science fiction of the 1950s, when the idea of "mining the asteroids" was commonplace. Jerry Pournelle wrote a delightful essay on this genre in 1980 under the title "Those Pesky Belters and Their Torchships". You may also remember the 1981 movie "Outland" starring Sean Connery and taking place in a mine on the moon of Jupiter, Io.

Nice memories, yes, could we ever mine space bodies for real? Well, the science fiction of the 1950s described many innovations that never appeared in the real world and most likely never will. Some because they are too expensive (flying cars) and some because they are contrary to the laws of physics (anti-gravity). Mining the asteroids falls straight into the "impossible" category for two reasons: the first is that it is too expensive and the second that it goes against the laws of geology (if not of physics). It wouldn't be physically impossible to mine the asteroids but there is nothing to mine there.

Let me explain: we can extract minerals on Earth because of the "energy credit" that comes from geological or biological processes (and often both) which have concentrated specific elements in some special regions of the crust. We call these regions "deposits" and we use the term "ores" for those deposits which are concentrated and pure enough that they can generate an economic profit from mining. Only ores are a useful source of minerals. Mining from the undifferentiated crust is simply unthinkable because of the enormous energy it would require (see my book "Extracted").

 
And there lies the snag with asteroids. The physical processes that created ores on our planet can take place only on planets which are both geologically and biologically active. As far as we know, asteroids never were. So, there are no ores on asteroids; nor there are on the moon or other "dead" space bodies. It is not impossible that there could be ores on Mars, which may have been geo-biologically active in a remote past, or perhaps on the moons of Jupiter, maybe geologically active today. But, for what we know, the best place in the solar system where to find ores is our planet, the good, old Earth (and, incidentally, as science fiction goes, the 2011 movie "Cowboys and Aliens" got the geology of the story perfectly right: the aliens come to Earth for its mineral resources). 
 
So, no ores, no mining. And no ores on asteroids means no mining on asteroids (*). Of course, many asteroids are mainly iron, but it makes no sense to go there to mine iron if you consider that there is plenty of iron on Earth and you think of the costs involved with the idea of mining space bodies. It is an idea that just makes no sense.

 

 

 

Yet, we are seeing a spate of news that we could take as if someone really wanted to mine the asteroids. Possibly the most idiotic one appeared on "Futurism.com" with the title mentioning an asteroid "worth 10,000 trillion dollars". It seems that the author simply multiplied the mass of the asteroid, supposed to be all iron, by the current cost of iron per kg, arriving at such a meaningless number.

Other people seem to be peddling space mining and they may ask you money to finance their ideas on the basis of cute drawings which, indeed, remind the fictional spaceships of the 1950s. Others, including the Luxembourg government, seem to be willing to do exactly that: spend money on the idea of mining space, really!  (at least, despite their attempt of selecting the worst possible ideas they couldn't imagine, they don't seem to be planning to invade Iraq).

Some people who should know better seem to have lost track a little of what they are saying. So, the French astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet is reported to have declared that "Asteroids are full of pure and precious metals, such as gold, platinum, cobalt, etc, in quantities ten to a hundred times larger than what we can find in terrestrial mines." (let's just say that we can't pretend that astrophysicists know something of geology).  The idea seems to be diffusing and I reported in a previous post how an acquaintance of mine reacted to my statements that we had resource problems with "but we shall colonize other planets!"

So, what to say? Just that when desperation sets in, idiocy often follows.

(*) commenter Ned noted that some meteorites have a platinum concentration higher than that of terrestrial ores. So, there may be an exception to the rule. Whether these asteroids could be actually mined, it is another question. 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sixth Extinction: A Seneca Cliff in the Making

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 15, 2017

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Image above from the paper by Hull et al. "rarity in mass extinctions and the future of ecosystems" Nature 528, 345–351 (17 December 2015). Notice how the decline in the fossil abundance, takes the shape of a "Seneca Cliff". The article examines the current situation of the Earths's ecosystem and concludes that we are not yet falling down the cliff, but we might be in the future.
 
 
 
 
 
Sometimes, my colleagues make me think of the old joke, "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." That happened to me once more when I read an interview to Smithsonian paleontologist Doug Erwin that was published with the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction", ("The Atlantic," June 13, 2017). Here, Erwin states that the idea that we are in the sixth extinction is just "junk science".
 
If you wanted further proof that scientists are a bunch of unreliable nerds who live in a world of their own, you need to go no further. How can it be that the "sixth extinction" had become accepted science and then, suddenly, another one of those silly scientists comes up and says that it is not true? How can you believe a single word coming from them?
 
So. let's try to understand what this whole story is about. First, where does the idea of the sixth extinction come from? Perhaps it was popularized for the first time in a 2011 paper by Barnosky et al on Nature that dealt mainly with the megafauna extinction during the Holocene. Of course, the idea is older than that. If you look on "Google Scholar," the term "sixth extinction" produces more than 174,000 hits. If this is junk science, surely plenty of scientists seem to like this kind of junk. 
 
 
So, why does Dr. Erwin defines as junk science a subject of study that looks perfectly legitimate and widely explored? The article in "The Atlantic" is just baffling. It starts with an image of the asteroid that's supposed to have killed the dinosaurs; then the title says "we are NOT in a mass extinction," then there follows a long review of all the ongoing extinctions, and then we read that "Erwin says no." 
 
So, what are you supposed to understand from all this? Twice we are told that, yes, extinctions are ongoing, and twice that they are not. To add to the confusion, later in the article we are treated with paragraphs such as "“If we’re really in a mass extinction—if we’re in the [End- Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago]—go get a case of scotch,” he said." What in the world do you think could that mean?
 
Oh, boy, that life is complicated. Let's quit the silly article in "The Atlantic" and go see the original article in Nature where Erwin and his coauthors explain what they have in mind. And there, unlike in the Atlantic, we have an understandable text. Here are some excerpts from the article.
 

To date, the majority of extinction studies have been biased towards terrestrial species and charismatic megafauna and we know relatively little about changes in the abundance and ranges of the shelly marine invertebrates that would provide a direct link to mass extinctions in the fossil record.

From custodians of deep time, we need quantitative assessments of the fossil record of the present and future earth in order to accurately size up current biotic changes with the same filter through which we see the past.

 Although extinctions are rare, the ecological ghosts of oceans past already swim in emptied seas.

You see the point? So far, we have focussed on the extinction of "charismatic" species, from the past one of mammoths, giant sloths, and the like to the ongoing ones of Elephants, tigers, cheetahs, and others. However, a true mass extinction sees the disappearance, or at least the the near disappearance of common species such as marine invertebrates. But that doesn't appear to be happening, yet.

There follows that, if someone in a remote future were to examine the fossil record for our times, he/she/it wouldn't see, not yet at least, the same kind of disastrous "Seneca Collapse" of the most common species that we see for the "big five" mass extinctions. Once a true "End-Permian-like" extinction were to start, it would be so rapid and destructive that nobody would be alive, discussing it.

That's it, folks: the title "We are NOT in the sixth mass extinction" simply means "we are not YET in the sixth mass extinction", but there are plenty of ongoing extinctions that prefigurate a true mass extinction ("emptied seas") for a non-remote future. That's because we know that most of the past mass extinctions (and perhaps all of them) were caused by the same phenomenon that's ongoing nowadays: the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Said in other words, imagine you are falling from the 10th floor. You are not yet splattered on the sidewalk and, if you really want to be precise, you shouldn't say that you are in the same condition of other people who fell from the same window in the past. Who knows? You might fall on something soft, or maybe learn how to fly while en route. Precision is precision, right?

So, the position taken by Dr. Erwin is scientifically correct, although it doesn't change what we know about the ongoing extinctions (and, as a personal opinion, I normally avoid branding the work of my colleagues as "junk science," even though I may not agree with them). We didn't go through a mass extinction, yet, because it is just beginning. The problem is that the meaning of the article in The Atlantic, and in particular its title, will NOT be generally understood. On the contrary, it will give plenty of ammunition to the throngs of those who claim that "CO2 is plant food," "the Earth is getting greener," "global warming is good for people"; and the like. It is already happening. As usual, when scientists say something that some people judge unpalatable, they are cheaters and liars. When a scientist says the opposite, he is suddenly defined as reliable.

I don't think Erwin is to be faulted in particular for this disaster in scientific communication. It happens all the time and especially when you stumble on journalists who tend to sensationalize what you tell them. Unfortunately, as scientists, we haven't yet learned how to communicate science to the public.

 

 

 

 

 

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 7, 2017

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What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII

 
In this post, I examine the historical case of the Russian campaign of the Italian army during WWII to discuss how effective can governments hide important facts from public knowledge. I think that these black-out campaigns can be very effective and it may well be possible that they are being enacted right now. 
 

Governments are not known to be benevolent organizations. On the contrary, when it is question of ensuring their own survival, they are ruthless. And they are well known to lie to people. The case of the "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq is well known but, at least, eventually it became clear that it was a lie: these weapons didn't exist. But it often easier to hide existing things than to create non-existing ones.

The internet is full of claims that governments or some of their institutions are engaged in this kind of lies. They are hiding from us the spreading of poisons in the sky in the form of chemtrails, the building of hidden concentration camps for political opponents, the fact that aliens landed and were captured, the fact that oil is really a renewable resource constantly recreated underground by abiotic processes, that climate scientists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to scare us first and then enslave us. The latest one is about "child slaves on Mars".

These claims are usually described in terms of "conspiracy theories" and most of them are so hopelessly naive and absurd that they raise the legitimate suspicion that they are part of some targeted disinformation campaign. But it seems to be easy to convince people to believe in the weirdest ideas, so maybe these legends are spontaneous evidence of this tendency. Still, it is also true that conspiracies do exist and that governments are often actively engaged in them (I can propose at least one well-documented case). So, we may ask ourselves a very general question: can governments hide important things from us? Let me examine a couple of historical examples.

Perhaps the mother of all government conspiracies was the extermination of the Jews and of other ethnic and social groups during WWII. Did the German know about what was going on, at the time? The question is controversial. On one side, it is argued that the Germans had been exposed to years of aggressive anti-Jews propaganda and that they couldn't miss the fact that the Jews were disappearing from their homes. Besides, so many people were involved with the extermination program that it wasn't just possible that even ordinary citizens wouldn't be able to understand that something monstrous was going on.

On the other side, it is noted that the Germans never could read anything about the extermination in the press, only that the Jews were being "relocated to the East," which would account for their disappearance from German cities. But the main point was that the Germans who understood what was going on couldn't say that publicly. The few who did were arrested and quickly executed. And the message was clear for all the others.

Personally, I can't say much about what the average German could or could not know during WWII. But I can offer an example of a situation that I know much better: that of Italy. The Italian government didn't engage in the mass extermination of the Jews during WWII, but we can find a significant example of "media fog" with the defeat of the Italian forces in Russia, between 1942 and 1943.

Italy engaged some 250,000 men on the Eastern Front, a major effort that ended in disaster when the Italian forces were decisively defeated by the Red Army in a series of campaigns that started in November 1942. By February 1943, the Italian forces on the Eastern Front had ceased to exist. The losses are variously reported, but probably amounted to about half of the expeditionary force. It was probably the greatest defeat suffered by Italy over its history. The disaster was so great that we could consider it as sufficient to charge the commander-in-chief with criminal incompetence and have him hanged upside down. That was, indeed, the destiny of the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini, but only two years later, in April 1945, and this specific criminal act didn't seem to have played a role in the event.

So, what did the Italians know about the Russian disaster while it was happening?  For one thing, the news of the defeat in Russa never appeared in the Italian press during the war. It is instructive to follow the news as they were reported in the Italian press. Up to December 1942, there are daily reports about the Italian expeditionary corps in Russia, the "ARMIR". Then, the reports fade out. The last one that I have been able to find on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" dates Dec 22, 1942. Afterward, reports continue coming from Russia, describing battles fought between the Germans and the Soviets, but the Italians have disappeared. It was as if the quarter million men of the army had vanished into thin air.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the Italians couldn't know at least something about what was happening on the Russian front. It would have been easy to understand that something had gone terribly wrong just from what the press did not say, that is from the disappearance of all mentions of the Italian forces in Russia. Besides, there were tens of thousands of veterans who were repatriated after the defeat: many were sick, wounded, frostbitten, or in desperate conditions of psychological shock. They were told by the government to say nothing about what they had seen in Russia, but it is unthinkable that all of them obeyed and, in any case, their presence couldn't be ignored. Yet, the "media fog" that the government had enacted was successful. Italians seemed to be unable to discuss or express their outrage at the disaster, at least as long as the Fascist government remained in control of the country. Only years after the war was over, the disaster in Russia became widely known.

A similar situation existed with the war. In the 1940s, Italy and Germany both faced what we call today an "existential threat" in the form of military annihilation. Yet, their citizens were never told, up to the last moment, that the war was being lost. Also in this case, it was not difficult to understand what was going on from what the newspapers did not say, but it seemed impossible to state it in public or to debate it.

Now, it is always difficult to generalize, but I think that these historical examples can tell us something about how governments can hide truth: simply by not mentioning it. In other words, governments cannot make the truth disappear, but they can "blur" it, marginalizing it and making it appear unimportant.

Today, the entity that we call "The West" is facing existential threats in the form of resource depletion and global warming. Yet, the mainstream media are completely silent about resource depletion and, at least in the US, they seem to be aiming at silencing the discussion on global warming. Not that people cannot know what's going on, there are plenty of blogs and discussion groups where you can learn the truth. But it remains an unofficial, marginal truth that plays no role in the general discussion. The main discussion remains dominated by concepts such as "making the country great again" and "restart growth," probably as impossible as it was for Italy to defeat the Soviet Union and the USA together, during WWII.

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Below you can see the last piece of news on the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" that mentions the "ARMIR", the Italian expeditionary force in Russia. It is dated 22 December 1942 and it only states that the defensive measures taken to contain the Soviet attacks are being successful. I was unable to find further mentions of the ARMIR in later issues that appeared during the war. By February 1943, the Italian forces in Russia had ceased to exist.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doughnut Economics

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 17, 2017

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Doughnut Economics:a step forward, but not far enough


Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth (Chelsea Green, 2017) is an interesting book that goes in the right direction in the sense that it promotes a circular economy, But it leaves you with the impression that it missed that extra step that would have lead it to define the goal in the right way. Bridging the gap between standard economics and biophysical economics is still far away.

So, what is this "Doughnut" that gives the title to the book? Initially, I had imagined that it was supposed to be a sort of mandala representing the concept of circular economy. But that doesn't seem to be the case: circular mandalas often represent the cyclical movement of a wheel, but the doughnut doesn't (as, indeed, most doughnuts are not supposed to be used as wheels). Here is how it is represented in the book:
 


It is described as "a radically new compass for guiding humanity this century." Ambitious, to say the least, but how is that supposed to work, exactly? Maybe I am missing something, but I not sure I can understand why the numerous concepts appearing in the figure should be arranged in a "doughnut."

The problem with the doughnut is not so much understanding why it is shaped like a doughnut, but what it lacks. Look at the outer ring; you will see 10 sectors, all related to pollution: climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, etc. Something is conspicuously missing and it is not a minor element of the overall picture. It is natural resources and, in particular, non-renewable resources (*)

Natural resources, their depletion, and the related concept of "overshoot" are not just missing from the doughnut, they go mostly unmentioned and unnoticed in the whole book. To give you an example, Raworth mentions only once the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" that was the first to pinpoint the resource problem. In a discussion of less than than two pages, I think her position can be summarized by the following statements:

Mainstream economists were quick to deride the model's design on the basis that it underplayed the balancing feedback of the price mechanism in markets. If non renewable resources became scarce, they argued, prices would rise, triggering greater efficiency in their use, the wider use of substitutes, and exploration for new sources. But in dismissing World 3 and its implied limits to growth , they too quickly dismissed the role and the effect of what the 1970s model simply called pollution … World 3's modeling of pollution turned out to be prescient…. recent data … find that the global economy seems to be closely tracking its business-as-usual scenario.

As it is often the case in this book, Raworth's statements need some work to be interpreted because they are always nuanced; if not vague, as when she says one should be "agnostic" about economic growth (**). Here, the interpretation seems to be that The Limits to Growth may have been right, but only because it took into account pollution. Instead, its treatment of non-renewable natural resources was wrong because depletion can be completely neutralized by market factors. Raworth doesn't seem to realize that she is contradicting herself, here: if the "business as usual" scenario produced good results in terms of comparison with the real world's economy, it is because it contained depletion as a major constraint. World 3 could also be run in the hypothesis of infinite natural resources, with pollution the only constraint, but the results would not be the same.

That's the thread of the whole book: natural resources are not a problem; we should be worried only about pollution. Raworth doesn't link the concept of the circular economy to recovering non-renewable resources; she proposes only in relation to abating pollution, with the corollary that it also brings about also better social equality. This is not wrong; it is true that a cyclical "regenerative" economy would be able, in principle, to reduce or eliminate pollution. Still, it is curious how the question of mineral resources is so conspicuously missing in the book.

Kate Raworth is described in the book flap as a "renegade economist", but she still reasons like an economist. The idea that the price mechanism will make depletion always irrelevant is old and it goes back to the 1930s, when the so-called "functional model" was presented, stating exactly what Raworth describes. The idea is that market factors will always re-adjust the system and magically make depletion disappear. By now, the functional model is deeply entrenched in the standard economic thought and there seems to be no way to dislodge it from its preheminent position.

The interesting point is that not only economists tend to dismiss depletion as irrelevant. In recent times, the whole "environmental movement" or the "Greens" have taken exactly the same position. All the debate about climate change is normally based on the supposition that minerals, and in particular fossil fuels, will remain cheap and abundant for the current century. If this is the case, it makes sense to propose to spend untold amounts of money for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) rather than for renewable energy. It goes without saying that, if this assumption turned out to be wrong, the whole exercise of CCS, if it were undertaken at the necessary scale, would turn out to be the greatest resource misplacement of resources in human history, possibly even worse than nuclear energy.

Why is that? As a puzzle, it is difficult to solve. In principle, resource depletion and its negative effects would seem to be easy to understand. Easier than the complex chain of physical factors that leads from the emission of greenhouse gases to disastrous events such as sea level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, and the like. Maybe it is just a question of the lifetime of memes. The meme of depletion started before that of climate change and it is now in its downward trend. Whatever the case, we seem to be locked in a view of the world that misses some fundamental elements of the situation. Where this special form of blindness will lead us is all to be seen. 

Getting back to Raworth's book, despite the criticism above I can also say that it is worth reading for its broad approach and the wealth of concepts it contains. Its discussion on how the science of economics came to be what it is nowadays is, alone, worth the price of the book. Although it misses part of the problem, it may open up new views for you.

(*) You may also have noticed that the concept of "overpopulation" is missing in the doughnut. On this point, Raworth maintains in the text that if people are given the possibility of having a life free of deprivation, they won't reproduce like rabbits – a concept on which I tend to be in agreement; even though its practical implementation in the current world's situation is problematic, to say the least.

(**) The idea of a "zero growth" or "steady state" society would seem to be a fundamental feature of a circular economy, but it is barely mentioned in the book

Interview with Ugo Bardi

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 7, 2017

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Climate, Fossil Fuels, Resources and All That

 

The MEDEAS project team at a recent meeting in Barcelona. At the center, the project coordinator, Jordi Solé, Another group of well-intentioned people engaged in saving the planet. Yes, we know it is difficult: we are doing our best. 
 
 
This interview was recorded this February and is reported here from the site of the European Project MEDEAS, only minimally edited. Take into account that none of the people involved (interviewers and interviewed) are native English speakers and you can understand why the grammar and the syntax are, well, let's just say "not perfect". Then, as in all non-edited interviews, the flow of the concepts is also far from being perfect. However, I thought to reproduce it here because it contains much of what I have been trying to say, lately. Maybe you'll find it interesting (U.B.)

On 17th February 2017, during MEDEAS first General Assembly in Brno, Czech Republic, Ugo Bardi from INSTM, partner of MEDEAS Project was interviewed by Mikuláš Černík for Deník Referendum, an independent online newspaper focused on social and environmental issues. The interview discussed how science nowadays can address challenges as climate change and possible limitations of resources for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The whole interview can be found below in English, while the original version is published in the newspaper’s webpage

 

 

 

 


INTERVIEW WITH PROF. UGO BARDI (UNIVERSITY OF FLORENCE, ITALY), IN BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC (17.2.2017) DURING MEDEAS GENERAL ASSEMBLY.
 
Your main topic is resource depletion. Since the release of your book on the Limits to Growth, how has the situation changed?

 

 

 

The thread that runs through everything I study is resource depletion in the broadest sense. You can restrict its sense to minerals, which is to take the core meaning, but then there is also climate change. Climate change can be seen as the depletion of the atmosphere’s ability to absorb greenhouse gases without overheating. So it’s also depletion—everything’s a question of depletion. And everything is a question of resources. People have spoken about limits to growth, which at one time was a very innovative concept, but these limits on growth derive from limits on resources, and that’s something we’re still working on.
 

 

 

You’re writing a blog called the Cassandra Legacy. How did you, as a scientist, decide it was necessary to write a blog?

 

 

 

Because many people speak about there being two cultures, humanist culture and scientific culture. And in my modest opinion, this is completely wrong. There are no two cultures, there is only one culture. And so a scientist should be within the limits as much as possible, should be a humanist as much as possible within the limits, should know something about hard science such as thermodynamics and physics, and so on. But unfortunately our world has fallen into the trap of overspecialization, which means that a lot of people study so much that eventually they know everything about nothing—which is the definition of a specialist. So we have specialists who know absolutely everything about nothing, which is a little useless in my opinion. So we need a modern view of science, and this is a concept that some of us are working on. It’s a new conceptualization that tends to deemphasize what we call “reductionist science”. To emphasize what we call “systemic science”, which looks at changes at the whole-system level. Because if you are a reductionist, you would say What is the problem? I’m slowly running out of fuel for my car. So you say, No problem, hydrogen will fix everything. If you follow a systems approach, you say well, okay, maybe hydrogen is a way to change the system, but how will the system react? I think that’s a fundamental part of the MEDEAS project we’re working on. To take a systems approach. We have a valuable collaborator in Brno as well. We’re sure we can get this done.

 

 


Do you think that, as a scientist, when you publish a scientific paper, it has any impact on a broader readership and on the general public and policymakers? How do you perceive the relationship between science and politics?

 

 

 

There is no difference. Scientific communication is just one of many kinds of communication. And that has to do with the fact that we communicate within a system. The world—call it the mediasphere or the cybersphere or the brainsphere—the world is a huge system in which ideas, comments, novelties, the news and everything moves and competes in a space. All these things grow, they evolve, they change and they take over spaces, and that’s the most “systemic system”, if you like. It is hugely interesting to study, and that’s what we’re doing. You might not have noticed, but my coworkers and I are developing models for dissemination, for spreading ideas in the websphere, the world wide web, in the mindspace. What we’ve discovered is that your message—you want to know the theory of messaging my coworkers and I are developing? Messages are made up of two parts—the message itself and the communicator who sends it. So the message must be simple enough that it can reproduce, but that’s not enough. The message has a signature that makes it recognized as ‘self/nonself’ and if it is not recognized as “self” it is discarded and the whole attempt to transmit it is useless. So what you do when you send the message is you send yourself. And that’s it. You don’t always hit people with facts. The relevant fact is you, because you are relevant. If you are relevant, you send a message which is understood. You need to understand who is sending the message, you need to understand what a person is. So if you don’t know what you are, you can’t send the message.

 

 


This leads me to the next question. Don’t you think that, when scientists put out messages to the public, the public may believe in their correctness and yet feel that what they say is overly pessimistic? That they’re not enough to make them change their behaviour? I’m talking about alarmism. Some people argue that when you scare people too much, as a consequence they won’t be willing to change their behaviour. Do you agree?

 

 

 

This is because most scientists are children when it comes to communication. They know very little, nothing in this field. I won’t use the term ignoramus, but the definition is that when you don’t know anything about something, you are an ignoramus on that topic. Scientific education doesn’t cover communication. So when you try to do work in a field you’re ignorant of, you may achieve zero. And you’re likely to make mistakes. Just think of riding a bicycle for the first time. You don’t know what a bicycle is, what pedals or brakes are, and so on. You don’t really know how a bicycle works. You fall off the bike straightaway. This is what happens when scientists try to communicate all these pessimistic things about climate science to the public. They’re using the wrong communication model. Their message—its penetration—doesn’t depend upon pessimism or optimism. This is a mistake. Think about Christianity. What is the message? It is that there will come an apocalypse. And it is spread easily. Even though it’s predicting an apocalypse. Because Christians knew much better – the old, the ancient Christians, they knew how to promulgate their message. They were able to emphasize the messenger. If you’re willing to get eaten by lions, then the message is important for you, it carries weight. But you must be ready to be eaten by lions to demonstrate the message is real and that, I think, scientists are not willing to do for Climate Science. Maybe we don’t need to arrive to that point but the essence is the same – it doesn’t matter if the message is optimistic or pessimistic. The power is not in the message, it’s in the messenger. The messenger must be believable and this is the problem with climate science. Scientists have made a lot of mistakes and they are presenting a contradictory message. Some scientists say, “don’t worry, we have the solution: you don’t have to do anything” and maybe they start babbling about hydrogen or nuclear energy or whatever. Other scientist say, “well, you have to make sacrifices” and they talk about investing in double paned glasses, using bicycles and the like. But these two messages are not compatible with each other. And if the messenger doesn’t send a coherent message, he or she is not believed.

 

 


What about the term peak oil—which was much more widely used in the recent past than it is today. Could you tell us how this term has evolved in public debate?

 

 

 

It’s a good example of how to spread a message. Generally because the message was simple: just two words. “Peak oil”. It has a ring to it, it was interesting, and it was simple enough to spread. And spread it did. These messages have a cycle. They peak, and then they go down. But I think the spread of this message was successful in the sense that it was not only viral, but became part of our culture. Its greatest diffusion came around ten years ago. Then it lost popularity a bit because people had difficulty understanding the term. They see that oil isn’t expensive right now and think that’s because it’s abundant. But that changes. It’s like limits to growth. It was criticised, rejected, demonised, but it was a successful concept, because it is still with us. We debate it, maybe over a long period, but still we debate it. And that’s what we can do with messages. They don’t necessarily need to take over the world, but they remain with us. They can’t be ignored.

 

 


Could you also tell us something about the project you’re currently involved in? About MEDEAS; and how it is changing the debate?

 

 

 

MEDEAS is an extremely important project, as a next step after Paris. Paris COP21 told us what we should do, and it was a very good meeting with a huge impact because the communication was taken care of by people who knew what they wanted to do. To have a message which will take root, it must be simple. So Paris – we had thousands of people, hundreds of models, tens of thousands of scenarios, the whole climate science with uncertainties and things like that and final result was one number: 2 °C. You condense everything into something like a piece of genetic code which will then be unpacked. You send a little virus to the mind with a very tiny chink of genetic code. It takes up residency in your brain. It reproduces and grows.

 

 


So do you really think the Paris agreement is a step forward in tackling climate change?

 

 

 

Absolutely. It was a remarkable success because it was well packaged. But the numbers in it are not enough, because we don’t know how to achieve them. And that’s what MEDEAS is answering. We give you another number—how much it will cost? If we can afford it and the degree of sacrifice it entails. How much are you willing to pay for your survival?

 

 


Let’s imagine that we achieve a post-carbon future. Who will be the loser and who the winner in the transition?

 

 

 

Some scientists in the MEDEAS group have developed a concept they call Thanatia, which refers to a world not meant to be—one in which people have survived, but the planet has died in terms of minerals. This means there is no longer any ability to mine rare minerals, and these minerals are what allowed us to build our civilization. The result is a future that is completely different. There are no more mineral resources like oil and cobalt, because these mineral resources are concentrated—you can’t just find them anywhere you want. If you need something that you lack but someone else has, you may have to fight to get it. But in the future, this will no longer be done, because we will stick to resources that are abundant, like sunlight, silicon, aluminium, magnesium, etc. Society can be built in a locally-structured way that may give rise to less competition for resources and fewer wars.

 

 


In our country, the Czech Republic, if we want to achieve what was promised in the Paris agreement, we need to cut our coal consumption, despite its abundance as a resource. How would you advocate this position with the public?

 

 

 

I don’t think this is such a big problem. I mean, the Czech Republic is a very small part of the world and of what’s going on in the world. And if the world starts moving in a certain direction, the Czech Republic will follow. We have coal in Germany, in Poland, in Ukraine, and these regions are burning it. It has to be phased out slowly, and I think we are moving in that direction because the cost is really increasing. Coal is not as cheap as it seems. In the future, you won’t be able to afford to burn the coal, whatever the politicians may say. Mr. Trump said “we have a thousand years of coal” and this is an alternative fact, in other words, a lie. I think we will cease to burn coal sometime over the next decade or two. And hopefully we will do so because we have agreed to stop burning coal and also because we have agreed to deploy renewable energy and replace it.

 

 


So basically what you’re saying is, the sooner we make the move, the more we gain?

 

 

 

Yes, that’s correct. The change is going to take place anyway. People talk about problems and that’s bad. Once you say there are problems, you begin to think of solutions. But not all problems are problems, and not all solutions are solutions. If you remember the “Jewish Problem” at the time of Adolf Hitler, well, once you start to say the Jews are a problem, you start thinking of the solution, and the solution they found was a very bad idea – as we all know. So we don’t have to think in terms of problems/solutions – that may lead us to very bad ideas. Instead, we must emphasize change. That change is ongoing, and you have a choice: either you go along with the change, or you reject it. If you reject it, the change will change you, and you will not be happy but will be swept away by the change. In other words, you can solve a problem but there is no solution for a change. There is only one way to face change: to adapt to it.

 

 


Ok, thanks very much.

 

 

 

You’re not going to ask me anything about Italian football…?

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes in Eternity

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 7, 2017

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Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner

 
"What we do in life echoes in eternity" is a line from "Gladiator"  (actually from Marcus Aurelius). What our politicians are doing now, and will be doing in the near future, for the climate will echo for a long time in the future of our planet. 

President Trump's decision to exit the Paris agreement has been correctly vilified almost everywhere outside the US, but some commentators noted that Trump may have done the right thing, even though for the wrong reasons. It seems that for many politicians and industrialists, the Paris treaty was seen as the perfect tool to appear to be doing something while at the same time doing nothing. Personally, I tend to agree with this interpretation, especially from what I know about Italian politicians.

So, here is a link to a text where Trump's decision is discussed in these terms. I am impressed by Graham Readfearn's statement that the Paris treaty was seen by the coal industry as a way to get financed for "clean coal" and other useless technologies. Again, knowing the people involved in this kind of tricks, it doesn't surprise me at all.

In the end, Trump's attempt to revitalize dying industries, such as coal, are bound to fail and this may give a bad reputation to some bad ideas that really deserve that. And that may create a momentum for doing the right things as argued, for instance, by Jean-Marc Jancovici.

What we do now will echo on the future of our planet and for a long time to come.

Here is an excerpt from Graham Readfearn

"At least two coal companies, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, had tried to convince Trump to remain in the Paris deal. Oil and gas giants Exxon and Conoco also voiced support for the Paris deal.

This internal fight represented two different approaches from a fossil fuel industry trying to sustain itself. One approach is to bulldoze and cherry-pick your way through the science of climate change and attack the UN process — all to undermine your opponents’ core arguments.

Another approach is to accept the science but work the system to convince governments that “clean coal” and efficiency gains are the way forward.

The latter was exactly the rationale reportedly deployed by coal firms like Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak.

According to White House officials quoted by Reuters, these firms wanted Trump to stay in the Paris deal because this gave them a better chance of getting support for “low-emission” coal plants. They might also get some financial help to support the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology."

Carz Go Off the Seneca Cliff

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 24, 2017

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The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

 
 
This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to "RethinkX". That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:
 

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call "the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation." There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will solve the problems created by technology. It just doesn't work like that.

That doesn't mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:
 

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase "fighting tanks with horses" is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra's Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West with the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkably effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today's cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as it would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global position systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes it possible a kind of "transportation on demand" or "transportation as a service" (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasing seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and move to TAAS. Then, TAAS can also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn't change the trend.

Of course, all that is a vision of the future and the future is always difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won't need to be of the kind that the present aotumotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by "RethinkX," even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of "fighting tanks with horses."

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the "Seneca Effect." When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we'll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

 

 

 

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomous driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

 

 

 

 

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