Ugo Bardi

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 "" 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.


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





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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"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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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 15, 2017


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Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One










Image above: the 1998 movie "AntZ". This post was inspired by a post by Antonio Turiel titled "Of Ants and Men" where he used the example of an ant to discuss the difficulties that humans have to perceive the real problems facing humankind today. Here, I examine again, a little more in depth, the same issue.

Make the Anthill Great Again! The Ant Colony and the Human One

Imagine yourself as an ant. What would be your perception of the world? Mainly, it is other ants from the same colony. As an ant, you are nearly blind but you have an excellent sense of smell and most of your sensorial inputs are the pheromones you receive from your sister ants that then you transmit to other ants. This kind of feedback-based pheromone exchange may lead to remarkably complex behaviors. Yet, the colony has no structure that we could see as a brain. If we define "self-consciousness" as the capability of a creature to model itself, the colony doesn't have this capability. It can react to external stimuli, and it can do that fast. But it can't plan for the future. It is the same for single ants: for them, the colony is a set of smells; they don't really perceive it.

Now, zoom back to your condition of a human being reading a blog post. What's your perception of the world? You are probably smarter than the average ant, but, like an ant, your perception of the world is mainly shaped by the pairwise contacts you have with other human beings, members of the same colony. These stimuli are verbal, not olfactory, but the mechanism of transmission and retransmission is the same. Like an ant, you are continuously exposed to stimuli from the media and from social networks that you then retransmit to other humans. This often generates transient bursts of reinforcing feedbacks that may generate rapid, even violent, collective reactions on the part of the whole colony. But the human colony doesn't have a brain, it can react to external stimuli but it can't plan ahead. Those large human colonies called "states" don't show an intelligent behavior; not more than ant colonies do. States explore their environment, compete for resources, occasionally fight each other, at times very destructively. But these are behaviors that ant colonies engage in as well.

Of course, single human beings have abilities that ants lack: they are self-conscious in the sense that they can model their environment and themselves. They even have specific brain structures dedicated to this purpose, such as the "mirror neurons" used to model the behavior of other humans. But all this doesn't seem to affect the behavior of the colony. The sophisticated modeling capabilities of human brains seem to be used mainly to gain an advantage in playing the sexual competition game between individuals. Outside of this realm, most humans probably see their "country" mostly as a semantic entity created by simple messages related to defense and attack. They have no perception of the immense complexity of a giant human colony of tens or hundreds of millions of individuals.

Theoretically, however, the power of the human brain could be applied to the management of the colony. In history, we see the widespread attempt to place a single human being – that is, a single brain – in charge of the activity of the state. That sometimes leads to attempts of planning for the future of the whole colony, but it often backfires creating disasters. A single human brain cannot manage the immense complexity of a human state. Dictators, kings, emperors, and the like are normally just as clueless about the system they are supposed to manage as their subject. Maybe as clueless as the ants of an anthill.

Yet, something changed in recent times. We may see the appearance of "world modeling" in the 1970s as the serendipitous awakening of consciousness in the human colony. Digital computers made it possible to perform studies such as the 1972 "The Limits to Growth" that modeled society on the basis of quantitative data and projected the results to the future. It was the first time in history that society could really plan for the future. In particular, the models identified a phenomenon scarcely known before: it was called "overshoot", the tendency of society to overexploit its resources and then collapse. The models could be used to plan ahead and avoid collapse.

But, as well known, these studies had little or no impact and the world's human colonies continued their blind path toward collapse. This is probably understandable. The emergence of complex structures such as brains is driven by evolutionary competition. Humans developed their large brains as tools for inter-group sexual competition. But states or industrial companies compete by exploiting the available resources as fast as possible. They have no advantage in the capability of planning for the long term, especially when the results of the planning is that they should slow down the exploitation rate. Doing that would only give more chances to their competitors who don't. So, the behavior of human colonies remains dictated by one very simple rule: grow as much as possible and don't care about anything else.

It is the same for ants: eusocial ant colonies have been around for more than 50 million years. If anthills had benefitted from being self-conscious, there was plenty of time for natural selection to create that characteristic. Instead, it seems that the intelligence of both individual ants and of ant colonies is optimized for the survival of the anthill. There is evidence that social insects are less intelligent than their wild counterparts as a result of the colony taking over in many tasks that were once for the individual to deal with. The same phenomenon may be taking place in human colonies: human brains have been shrinking during the past tens of thousands of years. The trend may have been greatly accelerated in recent times by the development of social networks on the Internet.

In the end, it may well be that the evolution of the human species is leading it to develop a eusocial behavior similar to that of social insects such as ants or bees. That would possibly entice an overall reduction of individual intelligence, not completely compensated by an increase in societal intelligence. Eusocial human colonies would keep competing against each other for the available resources as they ar doing now. As a eusocial species, humans might be very successful, just as eusocial ants have been very successful in the insect world. But, on the whole, these eusocial entities would not be self-conscious and wouldn't engage in long term planning

Yet, the future remains impossible to predict: humans are clever monkeys and you never know what they may be able to invent. There may be ways to make the human colony conscious and that would lead to a whole new spectrum of behaviors that, at present, we can only vaguely imagine. For the time being, it seems that we can't do much more than blindly keep at the impossible task of making the anthill great again.













Decline & Fall of the Western Empire

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 3, 2017


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The auditorium of Fiesole, near Florence, Italy. A monster of glass and concrete, it was announced almost 15 years ago but it was never completed and probably never will be. It can be seen as a metaphor of the decline of the West: if there are no more resources to produce or to distribute goods, the whole economy grinds to a halt. 

In a previous post, Miguel Martinez examined the retreat from Moscow of Napoleon's army as a metaphor for the decline of the Left in the West. Martinez notes how the Left has normally emphasized the redistribution of the goods produced by the economy but that, nowadays, the resource crisis makes it impossible to produce enough goods to distribute. It is just like when the soldiers of Napoleon's army found little to plunder in Moscow after that they had conquered the city.

In practice, the plight of the Right is not different from that of the Left. Traditionally, the Right emphasized production rather than redistribution. But these are two sides of the same coin: the gradual depletion of resources and the increasing ecosystem disruption makes it impossible to produce goods at the same low costs as it was possible decades ago. The attempt of Donald Trump to restart coal production in the US is similar to the plight of Napoleon's soldiers marching in the snow during their retreat from Moscow. The only choices available to them were either to plunder cities that they had no capability to conquer or to redistribute spoils that they had not been able to plunder. Right or Left, they were are going nowhere.

I think these concepts can be illustrated by the story of a building in the city where I live, Fiesole, on a hill near Florence, in Italy. In 2003, the mayor  announced the plan of building a large auditorium which he described as an "absolute necessity for the town." There followed a debate where many local residents (including myself) noted that the city may have needed an auditorium but that the proposed one was way too large. 
As you may imagine, our protests were swamped in howls of disdain. We were accused of a "nimby" attitude and told that the new Auditorium would bring jobs for the inhabitants of Fiesole, money for the shop owners, and turn Fiesole into an internationally known cultural center. In any case, it would mean economic growth and how could anyone be against that? 
So, the Auditorium was built. It was even enlarged with the progress of the construction until it was supposed to be able to seat 312 people.  The only problem: it was never completed. Today, only the outer wall and the roof stand (and they say that the roof leaks). The reason is said to have been that the city ran out of money, but I think that the builders themselves, at some point, looked at what they were doing and they gasped in awe. I can imagine them asking each other something like. "'what the hell are we doing here? This thing is too damn big." I can imagine the same moment of awe for the soldiers and the commanders of Napoleon's army in Moscow. "What the hell are we doing here? It is getting damn cold."






Just as Russia was too big for Napoleon to conquer, the auditorium of Fiesole is too big for the size of the city. Imagine building New York's Metropolitan Opera House in Mount Carroll, Illinois, and you get the right feeling. Fiesole is a small town on top of a hill and it doesn't have enough hotel rooms to host the kind of events that would need a hall with 300+ seats. Bringing people there from other locations is not a solution, either: there are wholly insufficient parking facilities nearby; using buses would be slow and expensive and, anyway, full size buses couldn't negotiate the sharp turns in the roads around the Auditorium. Given these conditions, who would ever need this auditorium when there are literally dozens of more convenient ones in nearby Florence? If the auditorium of Fiesole were ever to be completed, what could be done with it? Maybe we could paint it in white and have people come to look at the elephant of the city zoo. 





Doesn't this story really feel like Napoleon's invasion of Russia? Yes, Napoleon was caught in a bubble scheme of his own making where he had to keep fighting and winning bigger and bigger battles in order to have more spoils to redistribute. Eventually, the bubble had to burst. The Western economic system has been caught in the same kind of bubble, although not based on military actions (not completely, at least). Rather, it is a bubble of construction and redistribution that's bursting right now. 
So, today, walking in front of the concrete and glass giant in a square of the small town of Fiesole, one is nearly overwhelmed by a thought: how could people make such an absurd error? (1) Surely there was money involved but, for what I can say, it was mostly done in good faith by people who really believed that the city needed such a thing (and, if you care to know, the mayor who started the whole thing was a former member of the Communist party). But it didn't matter: the Right would have done exactly the same. It was just like for Napoleon's soldiers who took the road to Moscow, convinced that they were going toward glory and riches. Looking at the errors of the past we can always learn one thing: that we never learn from the errors of the past (2).






1. There was a certain method in this madness. A parking lot was built downhill and it might have provided a sufficient number of parking spaces, even though it still remained off-limits to full size buses. But to get to the auditorium from there one needs to walk up a long flight of steep stairs. So, the idea was to build an escalator to take people uphill but, as you may imagine, it was a grand plan that turned out to be too expensive. Even grander and more expensive was the idea to build a cableway that would have taken people to Fiesole from the valley below, where new hotels would be built. That would have been coupled with a special train service from Florence's central train station. These ideas were more or less equivalent to think that Napoleon could conquer Vladivostok during his Russian adventure of 1812.

2. Evidence that people haven't learned anything from past mistakes comes from the plans for a new airport in Florence. A new oversized project that aims at increasing the number of tourists coming to Florence, all in the name of Growth. Apparently, nine million tourists per year are not enough for Florence. Do we think this number will keep growing forever? 






Evil leaders: what makes their brain work?

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on April 24, 2017


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Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) led the Italian government from 1922 to 1943. During the final years of his career, he made a series of truly colossal mistakes that led to disaster for Italy and for him, personally. Was Mussolini mad? An idiot? Or brain damaged? We cannot say for sure, but the problem with the way the minds of leaders function seems to be more and more important in our times.

An evident trend that we observe in history is that, in times of crisis, strong leaders tend to take over and assume all powers. It has happened with the Romans, whose government system moved from democracy to a military dictatorship managed by emperors. It seems to be happening to us, too, with more and more power being concentrated in the hands of the man (rarely the woman) at the top of the government's hierarchy.

There are reasons for this trend. Human society, as it is nowadays, doesn't seem to show any sign of collective intelligence. It is not a "brain," it can't plan for the future, it just stumbles onward, exploiting what's available. So, in a certain way, it makes sense to put a real brain in charge. The human brain is the most complex thing we know in the whole universe and it is not unreasonable to hope that it could manage society better than a mob.

The problem is that, sometimes, the brain at the top is not so good, actually it may be horribly bad. Like in the movie "Frankenstein Junior," even with the best of good will, we may put abnormal brains inside society's head. Dictators, emperors, warlords, big men, generalissimos, strongmen, tycoons, and the like often indulge in killing, torturing, and oppressing their subjects, as well as in engaging in unprovoked and ruinous wars, in addition to being sexual perverts. The final result is that they are often described as the prototypical evil madman character of comics or movies, complete with bloody eyes, wicked smile, and Satanic laughing.

But simply defining leaders as "mad" or "evil" doesn't tell us what makes their minds tick. Could some of them be truly insane? Maybe brain-damaged? Or is it just a kind of personality that propels them to the position they occupy? These are very difficult questions because it is impossible to diagnose mental illness from one person's public behavior and public statements. Doing that is, correctly, even considered unethical for professionals (even though it is done all the time in the political debate).

Here, I am not claiming to be saying anything definitive on this subject, but I think we can learn a lot if we examine the well known case of Benito Mussolini, the Italian "Duce" from 1922 to 1943, as an example of a behavior that can be seen as insane and, also, rather typical for dictators and absolute rulers.

The mistakes that Benito Mussolini made during the last stages of his career of prime minister of Italy were truly colossal, including declaring war on the United States in 1941. Let me give you a less well known but highly significant example. In October 1940, the Italian army attacked Greece from Albania, a story that I discussed in a previous post. That implied having to cross the Epirus mountains in winter and how in the world could anyone think that it was a good idea? Unsurprisingly, the result was a military disaster with the Italian troops suffering heavy losses while stuck in the mud and the snow of the Epirus mountains during the 1940-41 winter, until the Germans came to the rescue – sensibly- in the following Spring. In a certain sense, the campaign was successful for the Axis because eventually Greece had to surrender. But it was also a tremendous waste of military resources that could have been used by Italy for the war effort against the British in North Africa. The blunder in Greece may have been a major factor in the Italian defeat in WWII.

The interesting point about this campaign is that we have the minutes of the government reunions that led to the ill-fated decision of attacking Greece. These documents don't seem to be available on line, but they are reported by Mario Cervi in his 1969 book "Storia della Guerra di Grecia" (translated into English as "The Hollow Legions"). It is clear from the minutes that it was Mussolini, and Mussolini alone, who pushed for starting the attack at the beginning of Winter. During a reunion held on Oct 15, 1940, the Duce is reported to have said the date for the attack on Greece had been set by him and that "it cannot be postponed, not even of one hour." No reason was given for having chosen this specific date and none of the various generals and high level officers present at the reunion dared to object and to say that it would have been better to wait for spring to come. The impression is that Italy was led by a bumbling idiot and the results were consistent with this impression.

What made Mussolini behave in this way? There is the possibility that his brain was not functioning well. We know that Mussolini suffered from syphilis and that it is an illness that can lead to brain damage. But a biopsy was performed on a fragment of his brain after his death, in 1945, and the results were reasonably clear: no trace of brain damage. It was the functional brain of a 62 year old man, as Mussolini was at the time of his death.

Mussolini is one of the very few cases of high level political leaders for whom we have hard evidence of the presence or absence brain damage. The quintessential evil dictator, Adolf Hitler, is said to have been suffering from Parkinson or other neurological problems, but that cannot be proven since his body was burned to ashes after his suicide, in 1945. After the surrender of Germany, several Nazi leaders were examined in search for neurological problems and, for one of them, Robert Ley, a post-mortem examination revealed a certain degree of physical damage to the frontal lobes. Whether that was the cause of his cruel behavior, however, is debatable.

That's more or less what we have. It doesn't prove that evil leaders never suffer of brain damage but the case of Mussolini tells us that dictators are not necessarily insane or evil in the way comics or movie characters are described. Rather, they are best described as persons who suffer from a "narcissistic personality disorder" (NPD). That syndrome describes their vindictive, paranoid, and cruel behavior, but also their ability of finding followers and becoming popular. So, it may be that the NPD syndrome is not really a "disorder" but, rather, something functional for becoming a leader.

There lies the problem: even in a democracy, a politician's first priority is being elected and that's a very different skill than that needed for leading a country. An NPD affected ruler may not be necessarily evil, but he (very rarely she) will be almost certainly incompetent. It happens not just in politics, but also in business. I could also cite the names of some scientists who seem to be affected by NPD. They are often incompetents, but they may achieve a certain degree of success by means of their social skills that allow them to accumulate research grants and attract smart collaborators. (Fortunately, they can't jail and torture their opponents!)

The problem with this situation is that, everywhere in the world, NPD affected individuals aim at obtaining high level government positions and often they succeed. Then, ruling a whole country gives them plenty of chances to be not just incompetents, but the kind of person that we describe as "criminally incompetent." The kind of disaster that can result may be illustrated, again, by Mussolini's case. During the Greek campaign the Duce ordered the Italian Air Force to "destroy all Greek cities with more than 10,000 inhabitants" as reported by Cervi and by Davide Conti in his "L'occupazione italiana dei Balcani" (2008). Fortunately, the Italian air force of the time was not able to carry out this order. But what would happen if a similar order were given today by a leader who can control atomic weapons?

Crimea: from World War 0 to World War III

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on April 10, 2017


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Today, we remember little about what we call the Crimean war (1853-1856), even though it was the largest war ever fought in history up to that moment. It prefigured many of the elements that would later reappear in the two world wars of the 20th century, so much that we might call it "World War 0." It included fossil fuels as the ultimate cause of conflicts, an enhanced role of propaganda, the tendency of leaders of losing control of the wars they have started, and the origin of the "Russophobia" still common in the West in our times. These elements may tell us a lot about what could be a "World War III" in our future. Above, you can see a painting by Vasilii Nesterenko (2005) that celebrates the Russian defense of Sevastopol in 1855. It makes clear that defending Crimea is not a trifling matter for the Russians, who lost some 400.000 men in the Crimean war.





There is much material scattered on the Web about the Crimean war, but nothing that I found really satisfactory in digging out the real reasons for the disaster that it was. So, this is an attempt of mine to create some order out of the chaos. It is not meant to be anything definitive: if you find the time to read it, it is up to you to judge.

One of the curious thigns of the Crimean war of 1853-1856 is that we remember so little about it. Ask anyone what the war was about, who won, who lost, and even who fought it and the answers are likely to be vague, at best. It seems that the only thing remembered today about that war is the disastrous charge of the British Light Brigade at Balaclava. It is as if we remembered the 2nd world war only for the episode of saving private Ryan.

Yet, the Crimean war was the largest ever fought up to that time. It was a global engagement that involved practically all the major military powers of the time, nearly two million combatants, and a number of casualties that can be estimated as between half a million and a million. In many ways, the Crimean war prefigured the world wars that would take place during the 20th century, especially for the increasingly important role of propaganda. For this reason, we could rightly call it "world war 0".

But why this war? And why was it so thoroughly forgotten, at least in the West? For anything that happens there has to be a reason and, also in this case, there are reasons. We may find them in a mix of economic factors and in the monumental incompetence of some leaders. But we have to start from the beginning.

Many of the struggles of the 19th century can be understood in view of the role of coal in history. Starting with the late 18th century, coal created the industrial revolution in those countries that had coal resources. That, in turn, generated an economic surplus that was used in large part to build up military power and – with it – empires. The two largest empires of the 19th century were the British and the Russian one; the first dominating the seas, the second the Eurasian landmass. England had the largest coal resources in the world and it was also the most industrialized country in those times. Russia was not so thoroughly industrialized as Britain, but it had enormous human and mineral resources that made it a major player in the world domination game. At that time, it became common to speak of "the Great Game," also well known as "Bolshoya Ikra" in Russian. And from the languages used to define the game, you can understand who were the players. It is still being played today, even though the capital of the Sea Empire has moved from London to Washington.

While the coal-powered empires were expanding, the regions that didn't have coal resources were in deep trouble. Of course, coal could be imported, but that implied having a system of canals that could distribute coal everywhere. No canals, no industry. No industry, no military power. That was the situation of the Ottoman Empire, called at the time "the sick man of Europe." But the old Empire was not sick: it was starved of coal. It didn't produce any and it controlled lands too dry to be suitable for waterways. It was a problem created by geology and, as such, it was not affected by politics. So, the Ottoman Empire was destined to be carved up among the coal-powered states, a process that would be completed with the first world war.

It was clear to both Russia and Britain that the Great Game was about competing for the spoils of the Ottoman State. The Russians were coming down from the North, in Central Asia and in the Balkans. The British were working their way up from the South, in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Region. In a series of wars fought during the 18th century, the Russians had reached the shores of the Black Sea. During the reign of Catherine II, the Russians defeated once more the Ottoman Empire and, in 1783, they annexed the Crimean Khanate, once a protectorate of the Ottomans.

For the Russians, Crimea was not just one more piece of land for their already vast empire. With the military harbor of Sevastopol, Crimea was a springboard for further expansion southward. Sevastopol also gave to the Russian the possibility of projecting their naval power into the Mediterranean sea. Of course, the British didn't like the idea of sharing the Mediterranean with the Russians, but it seems that they had to put up with that. After all, if the Russians were at work at weakening the Ottoman Empire from the North, that gave to the British better chances to advance from the South. That was the situation until the French rocked the boat around 1850, starting a quarrel over a trivial question about the rights of the Christians living in the Ottoman Empire, eventually leading to a major, world-wide war.

In those times, France was another powerful empire. It had been one of the first states to engage in the large-scale use of coal and, during the early 19th century, it had become the dominating power in Central and Western Europe. That was the origin of the disastrous adventure of Napoleon in Russia, in 1812: it was the attempt of eliminating a major rival in the domination of Europe. Napoleon's colossal mistake was typical of leaders everywhere and of all times: overestimating the military might he commanded.

Mistakes tend to generate more mistakes and that's true for individuals as well as for empires. Some 40 years after Napoleon's defeat in Russia, France had rebuilt its military strength and Europe was set for a new military confrontation. As before, it was the result of economic factors and of the poor judgment of the people who controlled the most powerful states of that time. This time, the blunders were made mainly by Louis Napoleon, who had styled himself as "Emperor of the French" and taken the title of "Napoleon III."

To be a credible Emperor, Louis Napoleon needed the kind of prestige that can only come from military victories. Possibly, he would have liked to avenge the defeat of his uncle against the Russians in 1812 but, of course, he couldn't even dream to have the French army march on Moscow again. Still, he thought that the Russians were the enemies of France and he endeavored to build up a coalition that would fight Russia. He couldn't understand that the game in mid 18th century was not anymore the game that had been played at the time of the first Napoleon. Louis Napoleon was making the mistake that Lao Tzu described by saying that "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." That was exactly what was to happen with the Crimean war.

The escalation that led to an all-out war was probably something that none of the leaders involved in it could control, or perhaps even understand. It was an ominous presage of what would happen 60 years later, when Europe exploded in the first world war. Perhaps it was an even more ominous presage of what propaganda can do when the Western press started describing the Russians as ugly savages, as you see in the image, from 1855. In those times, propaganda wasn't as sophisticated as it is today, but the idea is always the same: they are bad and we are good.

Eventually, the Ottomans declared war on Russia in October 1853, knowing that they were supported France and Britain. Then, the war exploded along a ring of fire that followed the Russian borders, from the White Sea in the North-West, to the Kamchatka peninsula in the East. At the beginning, the idea of attacking Crimea doesn't seem to have been in the plans of the coalition. But, once they had built up a military force in the Black Sea, someone must have realized that the harbor of Sevastopol could have been an excellent objective to demonstrate the coalition's superior power. The idea suited Louis Napoleon very nicely: by conquering Sevastopol he could claim to have avenged the French defeat of 1812. In September of 1854, British, French and Ottoman troops landed in Crimea with an ambitious objective: taking Sevastopol.

They succeeded, but at a very high price. In August 1855, after nearly one year of struggle, the Russians abandoned Sevastopol after having destroyed most of what was left intact after the allied bombardment. The fall of Sevastopol effectively put an end to the war. There followed negotiations and the treaty of Paris (1856) that basically recognized that neither side wanted to continue fighting. By all means, the outcome of the Crimean war was a military defeat for the Russians but the only obligation that was imposed on them was to demilitarize Crimea.

At the same time, the war had been a military success for the coalition, but the costs had been enormous and the tangible results nearly zero. The allies had suffered tremendous losses and they couldn't possibly have kept the occupation of Crimea for a long time. Not many years later, in 1870, with France defeated by Prussia, there was no coalition that could stop the Russian from returning and re-militarizing Sevastopol – which they did. By 1877, Russia and Turkey were again at war on one another and, this time, the Western European powers didn't intervene to help Turkey. Rather, Britain profited from the occasion to snatch Cyprus away from the Ottoman Empire.

As it normally the case for wars, the whole Crimean war was fought for nothing. But perhaps, in this case, the futility of the whole enterprise was more evident than in others. It may be for this reason that, in the following years, most people in the West made an effort to forget everything about this ill-fated war. The only memory of it left was the colorful and dramatic charge of the 600 at Balaclava. We still remember that episode, today.

But mistakes, as we saw, keep begetting mistakes and a typical source of mistakes for leaders is their tendency to see the world in terms of "friends" and "enemies". After the Crimean war was over, it seems that the bad guys of the story were identified not so much with the Russians, but with those European states which had refused to join the coalition against Russia: Austria and the Kingdom of Naples. These two states were singled out as worth punishing, in particular by Louis Napoleon. In 1859, the French engaged in a military campaign aimed at expelling the Austrians out of Italy, and they succeeded. One year later, Louis Napoleon did nothing to prevent Piedmont from defeating and annexing the Kingdom of Naples, creating the "Kingdom of Italy" in 1861.

In these actions, Luis Napoleon had shot himself (and France) in both feet. He hadn't understood the growing role of Prussia (another coal-powered empire) in central Europe and that weakening Austria meant giving to Prussia a chance to expand even more. At the same time, the new Italian state was a competitor of France for domination in the Mediterranean region and would stop France from further expanding in North Africa. Maybe Louis Napoleon thought that Italy would have become a French protectorate, as Piedmont had been. It was another colossal mistake: ten years later, Italy was allied with Prussia in a war against Austria and France. At Sedan, in 1870, Prussia dealt a deadly blow to the French imperial dreams. From then on, the German Empire was to be the top dog of Western Europe. It still plays this role, today.

You see how a chain of events affecting Europe originated from the Crimean war of 1853-1856. Starting from that event, we could play the "what if?" game. What if Louis Napoleon had not pushed for war against Russia? What if he had prevented the Italian unification from occurring? It is one of the fascinating games you can play with history, and I have done that here and here. Perhaps all that happens in history is a game that leaders play with the lives of their subjects. And, in this game, Crimea seems to be often playing an important role, even in modern times.

Over the years, Empires changed names but the strategic struggle for the domination of the world remained unchanged. During the first world war, taking advantage of the turmoil in Russia, German forces took control of Crimea in April 1918. That was a short-lived occupation and the Germans withdrew in November. Tzarist Russia disappeared and in 1920 the Red Army occupied Crimea after that it had been briefly in control first of the anti-Bolshevik White Army and then also invaded by the French. During the second world war, history repeated itself once more. The Axis forces attacked Crimea in 1941 and managed to take Sevastopol after an extended siege. Then, the Red Army took back Sevastopol in 1944. A pattern seemed to appear in all these events: Western armies seemed to be always able to occupy Crimea, but never to hold it for a long time.

The British Empire waned in the following decades, replaced by the US empire, The Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, replaced by the Russian Federation. But the importance of Crimea and the military port of Sevastopol remained unchanged. In our times, the focus of the struggle has moved more and more from traditional warfare to the kind of "hybrid" warfare that includes propaganda, infiltration, and psyops. In 1954, the administration of Crimea had been transferred to another Soviet country, Ukraine. When the Ukraine coup of 2014 moved the country to the Western sphere of influence, it seemed that the West had found an easy way to gain control of Crimea. It didn't work as planned. Less than one year later, Russia took back Crimea in a bloodless counter-operation of hybrid warfare. Again, we see how the the West, apparently, can take Crimea but can't hold it.

Unsurprisingly, the return of Crimea to Russia (obrazovanje in Russian) in 2014 was not taken kindly in the West and that led to another round of hybrid warfare, this time based on economic sanctions. The struggle is still ongoing and the small peninsula of Crimea remains one of the major friction points of the world's strategic balance. Apart from the importance of the military port of Sevastopol, Crimea has the characteristic of being part of Russia but, at the same time, to be disconnected from the Russian mainland and to be vulnerable to attack from the sea. These characteristics make it a possible target for an aggressive Western leader. At the same time, the importance of Crimea for Russia is so high that no Russian leader could even dream to abandon Crimea before trying to defend it with all the available means. This is a recipe for disaster, today as it was at the time of Louis Napoleon. Whether it will take us to another world war, WW3, is all to be seen, but it can't be excluded.

Appendix: the viewpoint from Italy

A little known part of this story is the role of the Kingdom of Naples in the 19th century Crimean war. The Kingdom had a long story of friendship with Russia and, some 50 years before, Russia had sent troops to Naples to help (unsuccessfully) the Kingdom to repel an attack from France. It seems that the Russians saw the Southern Italian kingdom as their gateway to the Mediterranean region and maintained good relations with it. At the time of the Crimean war, there was no formal alliance between the Kingdom of Naples and Russia, but when the British asked to the King of Naples to send troops to Crimea to join the Anti-Russia alliance, the King refused. He didn't know that, in doing so, he was signing the death sentence for the kingdom. Even when it was clear that Russia was losing, the King of Naples refused to make the about-face that the Austrian empire did at the last moment. That turned the Kingdom of Naples into a pariah in the eyes of both the French and the British. Instead, the Kingdom of Piedmont (more exactly, the Kingdom of Sardinia) had been smarter and had sent an expeditionary corps to support the anti-Russian coalition. We can perhaps understand something of how harsh the Crimean war was if we note that, of the 15,000 troops sent to Crimea from Piedmont, it is reported that only about 2500 returned to their homes all in one piece.

So, much of what happened in Italy after the Crimean War can be explained by these simple facts. The French and the British felt that the Kingdom of Piedmont was to be rewarded for its help, while the Kingdom of Naples was to be punished for the opposite reasons. The Kingdom of Naples had no coal and no waterways to import it, and it was in a desperately weak position. The defeat of Russia in Crimea had made it impossible for the Russians to send help to Naples and the kingdom found itself completely isolated against the industrialized, coal-powered Kingdom of Piedmont, well supported by Britain. There came the expedition of Garibaldi to Sicily in 1860, whose ships were protected by the British fleet. The Neapolitan army was defeated, the kingdom was invaded by the Piedmontese from the North and that was the end of the Kingdom of Naples and the birth of the Kingdom of Italy.




The great fossil cycle and the story of a family.

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 26, 2017


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My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando's son, Antonio)


There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life, just as the life of everyone in Italy and in the rest of the world, was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become common and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi's army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to "the country" to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, however, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as "dire poverty" in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal, France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Of course, Italy had no significant coal resources but, already in those times, coal started being imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had made of Florence a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 – 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, seems to have started his life as a street urchin. But that changed when he was befriended by a "gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil," then visiting Florence. It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was "Pedro Americo," paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don't seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a mature and rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn't exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic imprint of the people who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was "painted from the original". It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career and, in his later life, he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty trap that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was still a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing as a result of the ongoing coal age. That opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1892. His instruction was limited, but he could read and write and perhaps he attended a professional school. When he was drafted for the Great War, he had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home, all in one piece. There, he married a seamstress, my grandmother Rita and he found a job in a Swiss company that had established a branch in Florence and that manufactured straw hats, exporting them all over the world.

There were reasons for that company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was that the manufacturing of straw hats was a traditional activity in Tuscany, having been started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century had gone through a rapid growth. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor. Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

That was the opportunity that my grandfather exploited. He was only a modest employee in the company where he worked, but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn't even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home for his family in the suburbs; very much in the style of the "American Dream" (although without a car in the garage). It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could comfortably lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family on a vacation at the seaside for about one month every summer. He could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello's home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the "economic miracle". It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

During this period, the Italian labor was not anymore so cheap as it had been in earlier times. The activity of manufacturing straw hats was taken over nearly completely by Chinese firms and the Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration and selling the result as "Florentine hats."  One of my aunts, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry that did exactly that. My other aunt, Anna, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter, but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times and the moment of highest prosperity for the Bardi family. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. Their families were mostly organized according to the breadwinner/housewife model, but even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life (my mother was an exception, like my father she had graduated in architecture and worked as a high-school teacher). Most of them could afford to own their homes and, in most cases, also a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside (also here, my family was somewhat an exception, preferring a large cottage on the hills). They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: even the women often attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the "congiuntura economica" a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most well-educated one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly overskilled for the kind of jobs that were available and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the "brain drain".

I emigrated for a while to the US. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. Some worked as employees, set up their own companies, opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. Of course, we were not as poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary had become nearly unthinkable. None of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn't we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn't have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. They were badly overskilled, as we had been, perhaps even more internationalized than we were; perfect candidates for the brain drain trend. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he'll come back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. My daughter still has to find a decent job. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production ("peak oil") was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that's still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That's especially true for Florence, a town that went through along-termm cycle that transformed it from sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence in ever-increasing numbers. They don't seem to be so much interested in art anymore, but rather in food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is either unemployed or working in restaurants, bars, or hotels.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.



Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 13, 2017


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The image above was shown by Charlie Hall in a recent presentation that he gave in Princeton. It seems logic that the more net energy is available for a civilization, the more that civilization can do, say, build cathedrals, create art, explore space, and more. But what's needed, exactly, for a civilization to exist? Maybe very high values of the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) are not necessary.

A lively debate is ongoing on what should be the minimum energy return for energy invested (EROEI) in order to sustain a civilization. Clearly, one always wants the best returns for one's investments. And, of course, investing in something that provides a return smaller than one is a bad idea, to say the least. So, a civilization grows and prosper on the energy it receives. The question is whether the transition from fossil fuels to renewables could provide enough energy to keep civilization alive in a form not too different from the present one.

It is often said that the prosperity of our society is the result of the high EROEI of crude oil as it was in mid 20th century. Values as high as 100 are often cited, but these are probably widely off the mark. The data reported in a 2014 study by Dave Murphy indicate that the average EROEI of crude oil worldwide could have been around 35 in the past, declining to around 20 at present. Dale et al. estimate (2011) that the average EROEI of crude oil could have been, at most, around 45 in the 1960s Data for the US production indicate an EROEI around 20 in the 1950s; down to about 10 today.

We see that the EROEI of oil is not easy to estimate but we can say at least two things: 1) our civilization was built on an energy source with an EROEI around 30-40. 2) the EROEI of oil has been going down owing to the depletion of the most profitable (high EROEI) wells. Today, we may be producing crude oil at EROEIs between 10 and 20, and it keeps going down.

Let's move to renewables. Here, the debate often becomes dominated by emotional or political factors that seem to bring people to try to disparage renewables as much as possible. Some evidently wrong assessments claim EROEIs smaller than one for the most promising renewable technology, photovoltaics (PV). In other cases, the game consists in enlarging the boundaries of the calculation, adding costs not directly related to the exploitation of the resource. That's why we should compare what's comparable; that is, use the same rules for evaluating the EROEI of fossil fuels and that of renewable energy. If we do that, we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but surely not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a "civilization"? What kind of civilization could a renewable-powered society support? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?

Here, some people are very pessimistic, and not just about SUVs and plane trips. On the basis of the fact that the EROEI of renewables is smaller than that of crude oil, considering also the expense of the infrastructure needed to adapt our society to the kind of energy produced by renewables, they conclude that "renewables cannot sustain a civilization that can sustain renewables." (a little like Groucho Marx's joke "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.").

Maybe, but I beg to differ. Let me explain with an example. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the energy source that powers society has an EROEI equal to 2. You would think that this is an abysmally low value and that it couldn't support anything more than a society of mountain shepherds, and probably not even that. But think about what an EROEI of 2 implies: for each plant in operation there must be a second one of the same size that only produces the energy that will be used to replace both plants after that they have gone through their lifetime. And the energy produced by the first plant comes for free. Now, consider a power source that has an EROEI= infinity; then you don't need the second plant. So, the difference is only a factor of two in the investments necessary to maintain the energy producing system forever.

It is like that: the EROEI is a strongly non-linear measurement. You can see that in the well-known diagram below (here in a simplified version, some people trace a line in the graph indicating the "minimum EROEI needed for civilization", which I think is unjustified)):



You see that oil, wind, coal, and solar are all in the same range. As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10% of the production to keep the system going, which is pretty reasonable. It is only when the EROEI it becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn't seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn't be included in a PV-based society (note the low EROEI of biofuels) but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what's the problem?

There is a problem, though. And it has to do with growth. Let me go back to the example I made before, that of a hypothetical energy technology that has an EROEI = 2. If this energy return is calculated over a lifetime of 25 years, it means that the best that can be done in terms of growth is to double the number of plants over 25 years, a yearly growth rate of less than 3%. And that in the hypothesis that all the energy produced by the plants would go to make more plants which, of course, makes no sense. If we assume that, say, 10% of the energy produced is invested in new plants then, with EROEI=2, growth can be at most of the order of 0.3%. Even with an EROEI =10, we can't reasonably expect renewables to push their own growth at rates higher than 1%-2%(*). Things were different in the good old days, up to about 1970, when, with an EROEI around 40, crude oil production grew at a yearly rate of 7%. It seemed normal, at that time, but it was the result of very special conditions.

So, the problem is here: our society is fixated on growth and, in order to have high rates of growth, we need high EROEIs. Renewables are good for a steady-state society but probably can't support a fast growing one. But is it a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

(*) The present problem is not to keep the unsustainable growth rates that society is accustomed to. It is how to grow renewable energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. This is a difficult but not impossible task. The current fraction of energy produced by wind and solar combined is less than 2% of the final consumption (see p. 28 of the REN21 report), so we need a yearly growth of more than 10% to replace fossils by 2050. Right now, both solar and wind are growing at more than a 20% yearly rate, but this high rate is obtained using energy from fossil fuels. The calculations indicate that it is possible to keep these growth rates while gradually phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, as described here


Thermodynamic model of oil depletion sparks controversy

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 6, 2017


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This is a post by François-Xavier Chevallerau, a Brussels-based public policy professional who is in the process of setting up a new international think tank to support the emergence and promotion of biophysical economics in the public debate and the policy conversation. Here, he comments on the "Hill's Report" that was also discussed in a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy." 





Guest post by François-Xavier Chevallerau

A report on the world’s oil depletion problem published several years ago by an obscure association of anonymous consulting engineers and professional project managers is suddenly coming under fierce criticism. 
In December 2013, an ‘association of consulting engineers and professional project managers’ calling themselves ‘The Hill’s Group‘ published a report titled ‘Depletion: A determination for the world’s petroleum reserve’. Depletion, as is well known, is the inevitable consequence of non-renewable resource extraction, and determining how this depletion will affect petroleum production has been a key focus of energy analysts and researchers for a long time.

Arriving at an estimate for the remaining extractable petroleum reserve is usually attempted by adding together the quantity of petroleum believed to be present in each field, a method which is error-prone and imprecise. The Hill’s Group’s study proposed an alternative model of oil extraction and depletion, rooted in thermodynamics – i.e. the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between all forms of energy. This model, called ‘ETP’ (Total Production Energy), is allegedly derived from the fundamental physical properties of petroleum, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and the production history of petroleum.

The methodology used by The Hill’s Group is based on ‘exergy analysis’. Exergy in thermodynamics means ‘the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a system’. The system being considered, in this case, is a unit of petroleum. The Hill’s Group’s study calculates the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a unit of petroleum, using the physical properties of the crude oil in question, equations derived from studies of the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics, and the cumulative production history of petroleum. It then uses these these values to construct a mathematical model that it claims can predict the status of the world’s petroleum reserve with a much smaller margin of error than can be provided by the quantity measurement approach.

Optimistic estimates place the world’s total petroleum reserve at 4,300 billion barrels. Of that quantity the model proposed by The Hill’s Group predicts that it will only be possible to extract 1,760.5 billion barrels, or 40.9% of the total reserve. Its model suggests that petroleum’s ability to supply the energy needed to sustain its own production process is declining, that petroleum depletion is further advanced than generally assumed and that oil production will decline or even collapse much faster than commonly anticipated.

From its ETP model the Hill’s Group also derives a petroleum cost curve, which it says maps the price of petroleum since 1960 with a correlation coefficient of 0.965, making it the most accurate oil pricing model ever developed. It also says that the price of oil depends, in addition to production costs, on the amount that the end consumer can afford to pay for it, and derives from its ETP model a Maximum Consumer Price curve, representing the maximum price that the end consumer can pay over time for petroleum. It is based on the observation that the price of a unit of petroleum can not exceed the value of the economic activity that the energy it supplies to the end consumer can generate. According to the Hill’s Group, its model shows that 2012 was the energy half way point for petroleum production, i.e. it was the year when one half of the energy content of the petroleum extracted was required to produce the petroleum and its products. From then on, it says, the price of oil can only be pulled down along the descending Maximum Consumer Price curve, which it says is curtailed at $11.76/ barrel in 2020. At this point petroleum will no longer be acting as a significant energy source for the economy, and its only function will be as an energy carrier for other sources. In other words, the oil industry as we know it will disintegrate, with a myriad of negative consequences for the world economy.

The Hill’s Group’s original report was published over three years ago, and a second version was published in March 2015. It gained significant popularity and was favorably commented on many blogs and websites. All this however seems to have change, and the Hill’s Group’s ETP model is now coming under fierce criticism from various sources:

‘SK’, a professor emeritus in the department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at a Major U.S. University, delivered a strong critique of the ETP oil extraction model at The fact that The Hill’s Group said that a threshold for oil markets was passed in 2012 and that oil prices would tend to go down shortly after seems to give the report a superficial credibility. But according to SK the thermodynamic analysis is incorrect and therefore any calculations and graphs based on this analysis must also be unreliable.

Spanish physicist Antonio Turiel published on his website an analysis of the theoretical basis of the ETP model (in Spanish). Applying the principles of thermodynamics to evaluate the limits of the oil’s capacity to deliver net energy to society makes sense, he says, provided it is done in a proper way. The ETP model, however, is according to him based on an incorrect use of thermodynamic theory, erroneous deductions, definitions that do not make sense from a physics point of view, deficient data processing, and ignorance of the interactions between oil production and the economy as well as other energy sources. Given these important shortcomings, he says, the ETP model cannot be used for a serious discussion of oil depletion, at least not until it is fundamentally revised and rebuilt.

Another Spanish physicist, Carlos de Castro from the University of Valladolid, also published a scathing critique of the Hill’s Group’s report (in Spanish). The physical, technological and economic foundations of the report are erroneous, he says. The Hill’s Group in fact focuses on the loss of thermal energy involved in the oil extraction process (oil moving from a high temperature reservoir to ambient temperature outside), which he says has nothing to do with the energy cost of the oil procurement process for human societies. What matters to society, he says, is not oil’s thermal energy but its chemical energy – even if this chemical energy may then be used to generate heat. The ETP model, he concludes, is not an adequate model to assess the net energy derived form petroleum extraction and its evolution.

Prof. Ugo Bardi from the University of Florence is also taking aim with the Hill’s Group’s work in a recent blog post. The Hill’s Group’s report, he says, is badly flawed. While it is true that the oil industry is in trouble, the calculations by the Hill’s group are, at best, irrelevant and probably simply plain wrong. The problem of diminishing energy returns of oil production is real, Bardi says, but the way to study it is based on the ‘life cycle analysis’ (LCA) of the process. This method takes into account entropy indirectly, in terms of heat losses, without attempting the impossible task of calculating it from textbook thermodynamic principles. By means of this method, we can understand that oil production still provides a reasonable energy return on investment (EROI). It is anyway erroneous, says Bardi, to draw conclusions regarding the economy from net energy analysis. The economy is a complex adaptative system that evolves in ways that cannot be understood in terms of mere energy return considerations.

This controversy surrounding the Hill’s Group’s report reveals some inconvenient truths that the ‘peak oil’ community now has to face. The Group’s work was widely embraced and disseminated in this community, with no or limited critical scrutiny. It indeed has an aura of scientific accuracy that comes from its use of basic thermodynamic principles and of the concept of entropy, correctly understood as the force behind the depletion problem. But behind the thermodynamic terminology, it proposes a series of assumptions, not always explicit, and of complex mathematical calculations that nobody until recently had apparently taken the time to review. As pointed out by Antonio Turiel, the Hill’s Group’s work would probably not have passed a proper peer review process in its current form.

Yet the report was widely accepted and commented in the ‘peak oil’ community. According to Ugo Bardi, this episode shows that “a report that claims to be based on thermodynamics and uses resounding words such as ‘entropy’ plays into the human tendency of believing what one wants to believe“. As many in the ‘peak oil’ community want to believe in imminent collapse and disaster, works like the Hill’s Group’s report that are perceived as providing a serious scientific basis to catastrophism are widely embraced. If the scientific basis is revealed to be not as sound as initially thought, as seems to be the case for the Hill’s Group’s work, then its embrace and dissemination can only be detrimental to the peak oil community and undermine its credibility.

Energy researchers and analysts should probably be particularly cautious and vigilant when using the concept of ‘entropy’. As pointed out by Ugo Bardi, “entropy is an important concept, but it must be correctly understood to be useful. It is no good to use it as an excuse to pander unbridled catastrophism.” The problem being, of course, that entropy cannot be correctly understood so easily. As famous scientist John von Neumann (1903-1957) once advised a colleague: “You should call it entropy (…) nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.



Medeas: The Next Step After the Paris Agreement

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on Feb 21, 2017


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Jordi Solé, coordinator of the MEDEAS project speaks in Brno (Czekia) on Feb 15th, 2017. The European project MEDEAS has the ambitious goal of providing the tools necessary to put into practice the 2015 Paris agreement on climate


Let me start with something to dispel the confusion about what models are for. When you deal with complex, adaptive systems, models are NOT meant to predict the future. As John Gall said in his book on complex systems, "systems always kick back" – to which I may add, "and sometimes they kick back with a vengeance". (another way to express this concept is "forecasting always fails.")

But if dynamic models cannot predict the future, what are they good for? Simple, they are about being prepared for the future. Think of the Paris climate treaty of 2015. It was the result of millions of runs of various climate models, none of which claimed to predict "the" future. But these models are tools to prepare for the future; they tell you what may happen, depending on what you do. They are tools to shape political decisions. Out of all those runs, a goal was extracted, a setpoint, a number: "we don't want temperatures to rise of more than  2 °C and, for that purpose, there is a limit to the amounts of fossil fuels we can burn." It was a political decision that took into account not just what the models say, but what could be concretely achieved in the real world.  No model would give you that number as an output.The Paris agreement was a masterpiece of diplomacy and of communication strategy because it concentrated so much noise into a simple, stark, number: a goal to reach.

And there we stand: with Paris, we set the goal, but how do we get there? This section of policy planning was poor in Paris, where the best that could be done was to line up the INDCs, the intended nationally determined contribution; that is how single countries think they could reduce emissions. That's not planning, it is a first stab at the problem; it shows the good will to do something, but no more. As they stand, the INDCs won't get us far enough.

So, we are again at the task of getting prepared for the future. We know that we need to reduce carbon emissions, but how fast? Besides, it is not just a question of reduction, it is a question of substitution. We need to maintain the essential energy services to the world's population: surely, as a society, we can shed a lot of fat and keep going, but without a minimum of energy input, the system collapses. At the same time, we need to maintain the current input without exceeding the emissions limits. A difficult challenge, although not an impossible one.

Here, we need models, again. No model can tell you exactly how to get there, but models will tell you what is likely to happen given some choices and some decisions. And out of the models, you have to extract a concrete, politically feasible goal: how to invest the remaining resources into attaining the Paris objectives? In other words, what fraction of the world's GDP need to be invested in the transition to a renewable economy?

Giving an answer to this question is the ambitious task of the MEDEAS project which has now reached a full year of work and set up the basis for an extensive modeling effort. MEDEAS takes an approach mainly based on system dynamics, similar to the one of the well-known "The Limits to Growth" approach. It is not the only ongoing project in this area, others projects take different lines of approach. But in al cases the idea is to build up knowledge on what is needed for the transition. Some data are already available that tell us we need a major effort to replace fossil fuels fast enough. The transition that won't come by itself, pushed by purely economic forces. But we need to explore the issue more in depth before these considerations can be turned into a number that can be agreed upon by the interested parties. We need to take into account both what's needed and what is politically feasible. Then, we will have a goal to reach.

If you want to know more about MEDEAS, you can see the MEDEAS website. There is also a MEDAS newsletter, still in a preliminary phase. And, if you would like to be involved, contact me (ugo.bardi(strangething)

Below: an intense discussion held in Brno about the project with the coordinator, Jordi Solé from Barcelona and two Italian researchers from Florence, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi. 







Trump: the Defeat of Science

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 22, 2017


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Minutes after Donald Trump took office as President, the page on climate change of the website of the White House disappeared. This may be just a result of some internal protocol, but also the first stage of a coming "purge" of climate science and climate scientists. In any case, the election of Trump is a major defeat for science and we need to understand what mistakes we made to arrive at this point. I am writing here something that probably won't make me popular with my scientist colleagues, but I thought I had to write it.

Defeats are supposed to teach people how to do better; in theory. In practice, it often happens that defeats teach people how to become masters in blame-shifting. With some exceptions, this seems to have been the main result of the recent defeat of the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, where we saw a truly spasmodic search for culprits: Putin, the Russian hackers, the Fake News, the Rednecks, the FBI, Exxon, the aliens from Betelgeuse, and more. Everything except admitting one's mistakes.

Even less soul searching has been performed by those who turned out to be among the major losers in this story: science and scientists. In particular, climate scientists saw their field wiped out from the White House Website minutes after President Trump took office. That may have been simply a question of protocol, but surely it is not a good omen for the future.

So far, scientists have reacted with appropriate outrage to possibilities such as Trump repudiating the Paris climate treaty. However, on the average, scientists seem to be completely unable to even imagine that there may be something wrong with what they have been doing. We may have here a good illustration of the principle expressed by James Schlesinger that "people have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic". Even though some scientists are starting to show symptoms of panic, most of them seem to be still in complacency mode.

Yet, for everything that happens there is a reason and if you invaded Russia in winter it is no good to blame the snow for the defeat. So, what did scientists do that led them to a situation that may turn out to be even worse than the retreat from Moscow for Napoleon's Grande Armée?

One problem, here, is that if scientists had wanted to present themselves to the public as a priesthood of acolytes interested only in maintaining their petty privileges, they succeeded beyond the rosiest expectations. Yet, I don't think that this is the problem. Overall, science is still a sane profession and very few scientists have been directly involved in financial scandals. The public perceives this and normally rates scientists as much more trustworthy than – say- journalists or politicians. And modern climate science, as part of the field of Earth sciences, is nothing less than a triumph of human knowledge. Truly a major advance of what we know on the way our planet and our ecosystem work.

The problem, in my opinion, is a different one. It goes deeper and it is not related to individual scientists or to specific scientific fields. It has to do with science as a whole and, in particular, with the inconsistent messages that scientists are beaming to the public. According to the results reported by Ara Norenzayan's in "Big Gods" (Princeton, 2013), people have a built-in "lie detector" in their minds that works by a heuristic algorithm: people will evaluate the truth of what they are told on the basis of consistency. Not only the message must be consistent in itself, but also the messenger must be consistent with the message carried. This is a fundamental point: people don't normally care about data and factual evidence: they care about the consistency of the message in their social environment; it is something that Dan Kahan has shown in a series of studies on the public perception of climate science.

So, if your local prophet tells you that you must be chaste, he'd better be chaste himself. If he tells you that you must make sacrifices and accept poverty, he'd better be poor himself. And chastity/poverty must be acceptable in your social environment. These are things that Francis of Assisi understood already long ago. Then, think of Donald Trump: why was he elected? It was, mainly, because Trump's political message was consistent with Trump himself. Trump was telling people that he would make America rich and powerful and that was perfectly consistent with the fact that he is rich and powerful himself. Because of this, Trump's message didn't trigger people's lie detector and Trump the unthinkable became Trump the unavoidable.

Getting back to science, the message of climate change is intimately linked to the need of making sacrifices. We are asking people to reduce their consumption, reduce waste, travel less, and the like. It is a perfectly legitimate message and many religious groups have been carrying similar messages successfully. Of course, it would never work if Donald Trump were to propose it; but why can't scientists propose it successfully? Scientists are not Franciscan monks, but normally they are not rich. I often tell my PhD students that they are exchanging three years of starvation for a lifetime of unemployment. I don't really need to tell them that: they know that by themselves.

The problem is that there exists another side of science where scientists are beaming out exactly the opposite message of that of the need of making sacrifices. It is the side of the "gee-whiz science" or, maybe, "Santa Claus Science", scientific research still operating along the optimistic ideas developed in the 1950s, at the time of the "space age" and the "atomic age". The message that comes from this area is, "give us some money and we'll invent some magic device that will solve all the problema." It is a message that's ringing more and more hollow and the public is starting to perceive that the scientists are making promises they can't maintain. Not only the various scientific miracles that were promised are not materializing (say, nuclear fusion) but many pretended scientific revolutions are making things worse (say, shale oil). Still, many scientists keep making these promises and a certain section of society accepts – even requires – them.

So, the name of the problem is inconsistency. Scientists are taking two different and incompatible roles: that of doom-sayers and that of gift-givers. And "inconsistency" is just a polite way to say "lie." White scientist speak with forked tongue. Ye can't serve God and mammon.

The result is that not just Donald Trump despises science; it is a consistent fraction of the public that just doesn't believe the scientific message, especially about climate. The fraction of Americans who think that climate change is a serious threat has remained floating around 50% – 60%, going up and down, but not significantly changing. It is trench warfare in the climate communication war. Things may get worse for science under the Trump presidency. It already happened at the time of McCarthy, why shouldn't it happen again?

At this point, good manners dictate that when you write about a problem, you should also propose ways to solve it. Of course, there are ways that could be suggested: first of all, as scientists we should stop asking money for things that we know won't work (the "hydrogen-based economy" is a good example). Then, science badly needs a cleanup: we should crack down on predatory publishers, fight data fabrication, establish transparent standards for scientific publications, provide for free results of science to those who pay for it (the public), get rid of the huge number of irrelevant studies performed today, and more. Personally, I would also like a science that's more of a service for the community and less of a showcase for primadonnas in white coats.

But, as we all know, large organizations (and science is one) are almost impossible to reform from inside. So, where is science going? Difficult to say, but it may need a good shake-up from the outside (maybe from Trump, although he may well exaggerate) to be turned into something that may be what we truly need to help humankind in this difficult moment. The transformation will be surely resisted as much as possible, but change is needed and it will come.

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24)



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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 13, 2017


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Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy

Alice Friedmann recently posted on her blog "Energy Skeptic" a summary of the discussion on nuclear energy from my book "Extracted" (Chelsea Green, 2014). It is a well-done summary that I am reproducing here. Note that the text below mixes some of the considerations of the main text (written by me) and of one of the "glimpses"; that were written by other authors. The glimpse that reports the results of a model of future uranium production was written by Michael Dittmar. He told me in a recent mail exchange that his model seems to be doing pretty well more than two years after its results were published in "Extracted". (U.B.)


Peak Uranium by Ugo Bardi from "Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet"




Figure 1. cumulative uranium consumption by IPCC model 2015-2100 versus measured and inferred Uranium resources




[ Figure 1 shows that the next IPCC report counts very much on nuclear power to keep warming below 2.5 C.  The black line represents how many million tonnes of reasonably and inferred resources under $260 per kg remain (2016 IAEA redbook). Clearly most of the IPCC models are unrealistic.  The IPCC greatly exaggerates the amount of oil and coal reserves as well. Source: David Hughes (private communication)

This is an extract of Ugo Bardi’s must read “Extracted” about the limits of production of uranium. Many well-meaning citizens favor nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.  The problem is that the Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines transformed our civilization with their ability to do heavy work better than steam, gasoline, or any other kind of engine.  Trucks are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth require, from food to the materials and construction of the roads they run on, as well as mining, agriculture, construction trucks, logging etc. 

Nuclear power plants are not a solution, since trucks can’t run on electricity, so anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite).  And we certainly aren’t going to be able to replace a billion trucks and equipment with diesel engines by the time the energy crunch hits with something else, there is nothing else.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Although there is a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, there is still a basic problem: uranium is a mineral resource that exists in finite amounts.

Even as early as the 1950s it was clear that the known uranium resources were not sufficient to fuel the “atomic age” for a period longer than a few decades.

That gave rise to the idea of “breeding” fissile plutonium fuel from the more abundant, non-fissile isotope 238 of uranium. It was a very ambitious idea: fuel the industrial system with an element that doesn’t exist in measurable amounts on Earth but would be created by humans expressly for their own purposes. The concept gave rise to dreams of a plutonium-based economy. This ambitious plan was never really put into practice, though, at least not in the form that was envisioned in the 1950s and ’60s. Several attempts were made to build breeder reactors in the 1970s, but the technology was found to be expensive, difficult to manage, and prone to failure. Besides, it posed unsolvable strategic problems in terms of the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to build atomic weapons. The idea was thoroughly abandoned in the 1970s, when the US Senate enacted a law that forbade the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

A similar fate was encountered by another idea that involved “breeding” a nuclear fuel from a naturally existing element—thorium. The concept involved transforming the 232 isotope of thorium into the fissile 233 isotope of uranium, which then could be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor (or for nuclear warheads). The idea was discussed at length during the heydays of the nuclear industry, and it is still discussed today; but so far, nothing has come out of it and the nuclear industry is still based on mineral uranium as fuel.

Today, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel the existing nuclear reactors. The gap between supply and demand for mineral uranium has been as large as almost 50% from 1995 to 2005, though gradually reduced the past few years.

The U.S. mined 370,000 metric tons the past 50 years, peaking in 1981 at 17,000 tons/year.  Europe peaked in the 1990s after extracting 460,000 tons.  Today nearly all of the 21,000 ton/year needed to keep European nuclear plants operating is imported.

The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.




Table 1. The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.




The Soviet Union and Canada each mined 450,000 tons. By 2010 global cumulative production was 2.5 million tons.  Of this, 2 million tons has been used, and the military had most of the remaining half a million tons.

The most recent data available show that mineral uranium accounts now for about 80% of the demand.  The gap is filled by uranium recovered from the stockpiles of the military industry and from the dismantling of old nuclear warheads.

This turning of swords into plows is surely a good idea, but old nuclear weapons and military stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. With the present stasis in uranium demand, it is possible that the production gap will be closed in a decade or so by increased mineral production. However, prospects are uncertain, as explained in “The End of Cheap Uranium.” In particular, if nuclear energy were to see a worldwide expansion, it is hard to see how mineral production could satisfy the increasing uranium demand, given the gigantic investments that would be needed, which are unlikely to be possible in the present economically challenging times.

At the same time, the effects of the 2011 incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are likely to negatively affect the prospects of growth for nuclear energy production, and with the concomitant reduced demand for uranium, the surviving reactors may have sufficient fuel to remain in operation for several decades.

It’s true that there are large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, but there are limited numbers of deposits that are concentrated enough to be profitably mined. If we tried to extract those less concentrated deposits, the mining process would require far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produced [negative EROI].

Modeling Future Uranium Supplies

Uranium supply and demand to 2030




Table 2. Uranium supply and demand to 2030




Michael Dittmar used historical data for countries and single mines, to create a model that projected how much uranium will likely be extracted from existing reserves in the years to come. The model is purely empirical and is based on the assumption that mining companies, when planning the extraction profile of a deposit, project their operations to coincide with the average lifetime of the expensive equipment and infrastructure it takes to mine uranium—about a decade.

Gradually the extraction becomes more expensive as some equipment has to be replaced and the least costly resources are mined. As a consequence, both extraction and profits decline. Eventually, the company stops exploiting the deposit and the mine closes. The model depends on both geological and economic constraints, but the fact that it has turned out to be valid for so many past cases shows that it is a good approximation of reality.
This said, the model assumes the following points:

  • Mine operators plan to operate the mine at a nearly constant production level on the basis of detailed geological studies and to manage extraction so that the plateau can be sustained for approximately 10 years.
  • The total amount of extractable uranium is approximately the achieved (or planned) annual plateau value multiplied by 10.

Applying this model to well-documented mines in Canada and Australia, we arrive at amazingly correct results. For instance, in one case, the model predicted a total production of 319 ± 24 kilotons, which was very close to the 310 kilotons actually produced. So we can be reasonably confident that it can be applied to today’s larger currently operating and planned uranium mines.

Considering that the achieved plateau production from past operations was usually smaller than the one planned, this model probably overestimates the future production.

Table 2 summarizes the model’s predictions for future uranium production, comparing those findings against forecasts from other groups and against two different potential future nuclear scenarios.

As you can see, the forecasts obtained by this model indicate substantial supply constraints in the coming decades—a considerably different picture from that presented by the other models, which predict larger supplies.

The WNA’s 2009 forecast differs from our model mainly by assuming that existing and future mines will have a lifetime of at least 20 years. As a result, the WNA predicts a production peak of 85 kilotons/year around the year 2025, about 10 years later than in the present model, followed by a steep decline to about 70 kilotons/year in 2030. Despite being relatively optimistic, the forecast by the WNA shows that the uranium production in 2030 would not be higher than it is now. In any case, the long deposit lifetime in the WNA model is inconsistent with the data from past uranium mines. The 2006 estimate from the EWG was based on the Red Book 2005 RAR (reasonably assured resources) and IR (inferred resources) numbers. The EWG calculated an upper production limit based on the assumption that extraction can be increased according to demand until half of the RAR or at most half of the sum of the RAR and IR resources are used. That led the group to estimate a production peak around the year 2025.

Assuming all planned uranium mines are opened, annual mining will increase from 54,000 tons/year to a maximum of 58 (+ or – 4) thousand tons/year in 2015. [ Bardi wrote this before 2013 and 2014 figures were known. 2013 was 59,673 (highest total) and 56,252 in 2014.]

Declining uranium production will make it impossible to obtain a significant increase in electrical power from nuclear plants in the coming decades.



Carbon capture finally cracked?

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 8, 2017


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Why you can't fight climate change with Coke or Pepsi





From "", an article by Julian Turner. Not wrong, is it possible that we can't discuss anything any longer without turning it into a "game changer", a "breakthrough" and all the rest? A little less hype in these reports would help a lot. 

Some time ago, I found myself trying to explain to a journalist why I opposed CO2 mining in Tuscany. I said something like, "it makes no sense that the regional government spends money to reduce CO2 emissions and, at the same time, allows this company to extract CO2 that, otherwise, would stay underground." "But", the journalist said, "I have interviewed the people of this company and they say that the CO2 they extract is not dispersed into the atmosphere – it is stored." "And where is it stored in?" I said. "They sell it to companies that make carbonated drinks." I tried to explain to him that producing Coca Cola or Pepsi is not the way to fight climate change, but I don't think he really understood.

This is typical of how difficult is to make some messages pass in the public debate. Among the many possible ways of mitigating global warming, carbon capture and sequestration (or storage) – CCS – is the least understood, the most complicated, and the most likely to lead to pseudo-solutions. Not surprising, because it is a complex story that involves chemistry, geology, engineering and economics.

About one month ago, a post by Julian Turner appeared on "Power Technology" with the rather ambitious title of "Carbon Capture Finally Cracked." The post is full of hype about a breakthrough in the process that purifies CO2 at the output or a coal-burning plant – a process called "CO2 scrubbing".  The new process, it is said, is better, less expensive, faster, efficient, and  "game changer". Mr. Sharma, CEO of the company that developed the process declared:

“TACL will be able to capture CO2 from their boiler emissions and then reuse it,” confirms Sharma. “For the end user the electricity produced by capturing carbon dioxide will be clean electricity and the steam produced will be clean energy. For that reason, we can say that it is ‘emissions-free’.”

I have no doubt that there is something good in the new process. Scrubbing CO2 using solvents is a known technology and it can surely be improved. Technology is good at doing exactly that: improving known processes. The problem is another one: is it a really an "emission-free" process? And the answer is, unfortunately, "not at all", at least in the form the idea is presented.
The problem, here, is that all the hype is about carbon capture, but there is nothing in these claims about carbon sequestration. Indeed, the article discusses "carbon capture and utilization" (CCU) and not "carbon capture and sequestration" (CCS). Now, CCS is supposed to mitigate global warming, but CCU does NOT.

Let's go back to basics: if you want to understand what CCS is about, a good starting point is the 2005 IPCC special report on the matter (a massive 443-page document). More than ten years after its publication, the situation has not changed very much; as confirmed by a more recent report. The basic idea remains the same: to transform CO2 into something that should be stable and non-polluting. And when we say "stable" we mean something that should remain stable for time spans of the order of thousands of years, at the very least. This is what we call "sequestration" or "storage".

A tall order, if there ever was one, but not impossible and, as it is often the case, the problem is not feasibility, but cost. The safest way of storing CO2 for very long times is to imitate the natural process of "silicate weathering" and transform CO2 into stable carbonates, calcium and magnesium, for instance. It is what the ecosystem does in order to regulate the temperature of the planet. But the natural process is extremely slow; we are talking about times of the order of hundreds of thousands of years; not what we need right now. We can, of course, accelerate the weathering process but it takes a lot of energy, mainly to crush and pulverize silicates. A less expensive method is "geological storage", that is pumping CO2 into an underground reservoir. And hope that it will stay there for tens of thousands of years. But it is the main aim of CCS, nowadays.

This said, the way to evaluate the feasibility and the opportunity of the whole concept of CCS is to examine the life cycle of the whole process; see how much energy it requires (its energy return for energy invested, EROEI), and then compare it with the data for alternative processes – for instance investing the same resources into renewable energy rather than in CCS (and renewable energy may be already less expensive than coal produced electricity). But it seems that this comparative analysis has not been done, so far, despite the several cost analysis performed for CCS. One thing that we can infer from the 2005 report  (see page 338) is that, even without scrubbing, the energy necessary for the whole process might be not so far away from values that would make it an exercise in digging holes and then filling them up again, as John Maynard Keynes is reported to have proposed. The situation is better if we consider geological storage, but even in this case scrubbing is only a fraction of the total cost.

At this point, you can understand what's wrong in calling the new scrubbing process a "game changer." It is not that. It is a process that improves one of the steps of the chain that leads to carbon storage, but that may have little value for CCS, unless it is evaluated within the whole life cycle of the process.

Then, in the whole article by Turner, there is no mention of CCS/storage. They only speak of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and they say that the CO2 will be sold to another company that will turn it into soda ash (Na2CO3). This compound could then be used it for glass making, urea making, and similar purposes. But all these processes will bring back the captured CO2 to the atmosphere! No storage, no global warming mitigation – they might as well sell the CO2 to the industry that makes carbonated beverages. This is not the breakthrough we need.

So, what sense does it have to make so much noise about "clean energy," "clean electricity," and "emission-free" energy when the new process aims at nothing of that sort? Not surprising, it is all part of the "fact-free" ongoing debate.

To conclude, let me note that this new scrubbing process might just be one of those ways of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction," according to a definition by Jay Forrester. That is, it may be counter-productive for the exact purposes it had been developed for. The problem is that pure CO2 is an industrial product that has a certain market value, as the people who extract it from underground in Tuscany know very well. So far, the cost of scrubbing has prevented the exhaust of fossil-fueled plants from having a market value, but a new, efficient process could make it feasible to turn it into a saleable product. That would make coal plants more profitable and would encourage people to invest into building more of them, and that would generate no reductions in CO2 emissions! It would be even worse if the coal industry were to sell to governments their scrubbing process in order to escape carbon taxes. So, you see? Once more, the rule of unintended consequences plays out nicely.



An update on mineral depletion

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 3, 2017


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Do we need mining quotas?





Currently, the problem of resource depletion is completely missing from the political debate. There has to be some reason why some problems tend to disappear from the public's radar as they become worse. Unfortunately, the depletion problem won't go away because the public is not interested in it. I discussed depletion in depth in my 2014 book "Extracted" and now Theo Henckens' updates the situation with this post based on his PhD dissertation “Managing Raw Materials Scarcity, Safeguarding the availability of geologically scarce mineral resources for future generations" (16 October 2016, University of Utrecht, The Netherlands). The full dissertation can be downloaded via the link  (UB)




Scarce minerals are running out: mining quotas are needed



by Theo Henckens


To ensure that sufficient zinc, molybdenum and antimony are available for our greatgrandchildren’s generation, we need an international mineral resources agreement.

Molybdenum is essential for the manufacture of high-grade stainless steels, but at present molybdenum is hardly recycled. Yet unless reuse of molybdenum is dramatically increased, the extractable reserves of molybdenum on Earth will run out in about eighty years from now. The extractable reserves of antimony, a mineral used to make plastics more heat-resistant, will run out within thirty years.

During more than a century the use of mineral resources increased exponentially with an average between 3 and 4% annually. Can this go on, given the limited amounts of mineral resources in the earth’s crust?


Which raw materials or minerals are scarce?

A mineral’s scarcity is expressed as the number of years that its extractable amount in the Earth's crust is sufficient to meet anticipated demand. This exhaustion period is estimated from the annual use of such mineral. I calculated the ratio between the extractable amount and the annual consumption for 65 mineral resources. My calculation is based on what is considered to be maximally extractable from the Earth’s crust. These “Extractable Global Resources” are derived from a study by the International Resource Panel of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) in 2011. Regarding the annual use of mineral resources I have supposed an annual growth of 3% until 2050, where after I have supposed that extraction stabilizes. The table below shows the top ten scarcest mineral resources.




Exhaustion period (in years) of remaining extractable mineral resources
Important applications
Flame retardants
Electronic components
Corrosion protection
High-grade steels
High-quality alloys
Electricity grid
Stainless steels
Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
Tins, brass

What is a sustainable extraction rate?

In my dissertation I have defined a sustainable extraction rate as follows: “The extraction of a mineral resource is sustainable, if a world population of nine billion people can be provided with that mineral resource during a period of thousand years, supposing that the average use per world citizen is equally divided over the countries of the world”. Actually, the concept of sustainability is only applicable to an activity, which can continue forever. Concerning the extraction of mineral resources, I consider a thousand years as a reasonable approach. This is arbitrary of course. But 100 years is too short. In that case we would accept that our grandchildren would be confronted with exhausted mineral resources.
A sensitivity analysis reveals that even if we assume that the extractable reserves in the Earth’s crust are ten times higher than the already optimistic assumption of the UNEP International Resource Panel, then the use of antimony, gold, zinc, molybdenum, and rhenium in industrialized countries would still have to be hugely reduced in order to preserve sufficient of these raw materials for future generations. This is particularly so if we want these resources to be more fairly shared among countries and people than is currently the case. There are also environmental and energy limits to the ever deeper and remoter search for ever lower concentrations of minerals. If we want to stretch out all the exhaustion periods in the table to 1000 years, then it can be calculated that the extraction of antimony should be reduced of 96 %, that of zinc of 82 %, that of molybdenum of 81 %, that of copper of 63 %, that of chromium of 57 % and that of boron of 44 %. This is compared to the extracted quantities in 2010. These reduction percentages are high. The question is whether that is feasible. Moreover, would the price mechanism not lead to a timely and sufficient extraction reduction of scarce mineral resources?

The price mechanism fails
One would suppose that the general price mechanism would work: the price of relatively scarce mineral resource rises quicker than the price of relative abundant mineral resources.


* The minerals have been classified according to their scarcity. The scarce raw materials in the figure are antimony, zinc, gold, molybdenum and rhenium. The moderately scarce raw materials are tin, chromium, copper, lead, boron, arsenic, iron, nickel, silver, cadmium, tungsten and bismuth. The non-scarce raw minerals are aluminum, magnesium, manganese, cobalt, barium, selenium, beryllium, vanadium, strontium, lithium, gallium, germanium, niobium, the platinum-group metals, tantalum and mercury.



My research makes clear that the price of scarce mineral resources has not risen significantly faster than that of abundant minerals. I demonstrate in my dissertation that, so far, the geological scarcity of minerals has not affected their price trends. The explanation might be that the London Metal Exchange looks ahead for a maximum period of only ten years and that mining companies anticipate for up to thirty years. But we must look much further ahead if we are to preserve scarce resources for future generations.

Eventually, the price of the scarcest minerals will rise, but probably not until their reserves are almost exhausted and little remains for future generations.

Technological opportunities are not being exploited
Are the conclusions I reach over-pessimistic? After all, when the situation becomes dire, we can expect recycling and material efficiency to increase. The recycling of molybdenum can be greatly improved by selectively dismantling appliances, improved sorting of scrap metal and by designing products from which molybdenum can be easier recycled. Alternative materials with the same properties as scarce minerals can be developed. Antimony as a flame retardant can be replaced fairly easily by other flame retardants. Scarcity will drive innovation.

Thirty to fifty percent of zinc is already being recycled from end of life products, but although it is technologically possible to increase this percentage, this is barely happening. Almost no molybdenum is recycled. Recycling is not increasing because the price mechanism is not working for scarce minerals. In the absence of sufficient financial market pressure, how can technological solutions for recycling and substitution be stimulated?

What should happen?

I argue that what is needed is an international agreement: by limiting the extraction of scarce minerals stepwise, scarcity will be artificially increased – in effect, simulating exhaustion and unleashing market forces. This could be done by determining an annual extraction quota, beginning with the scarcest minerals. Such an international mineral resources agreement should secure the sustainable extraction of scarce resources and the legitimate right of future generations to a fair share of these raw materials. This means that agreement should be reached on reducing the extraction of scarce mineral resources, from 96 percent for antimony to 82 percent for zinc and 44 percent for boron, compared to the use of these minerals in 2010. In effect, such an agreement would entail putting into practice the normative principles that were agreed on long ago relating to the sustainable use of non-renewable raw materials, such as the Stockholm Declaration (United Nations, 1972), the World Charter for Nature (UN, 1982), and the Earth Charter (UNESCO, 2000). These sustainability principles were recently reconfirmed in the implementation report of Agenda 21 for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2016).

Financial compensation for countries with mineral resources
Countries that export the scarce minerals will be reluctant to voluntarily cut back extraction because they would lose revenue. They should therefore receive financial compensation. The compensation scheme should ensure that the income of the resource countries does not suffer. In exchange, user countries will become owners of the raw materials that are not extracted, but remain in the ground. An international supervisory body should be set up for inspection, monitoring, evaluation and research.

Not a utopian idea
In my dissertation, I set out the case for operationalizing the fundamental principles for sustainable extraction of raw materials, which have been agreed in various international conferences and confirmed by successive conferences of the United Nations. The climate agreement, initially thought to be a utopian idea, has become reality, so there is no reason why a mineral resources agreement should not follow.



More than 50% of the antimony annually sold is used in flame retardants, especially in plastics for electrical and electronic equipment. A third of this equipment currently contains antimony. In addition, more than a quarter of antimony sold annually is used in lead batteries. In principle, antimony in its application as a flame retardant can largely be replaced by other types of flame retardants and antimony containing lead batteries can be replaced by non-antimony containing batteries.
In addition to its use in jewelry and as security for paper money, gold is especially used in high-quality switches, connectors and electronic components.
The main application of zinc is as a coating on another metal to protect it against corrosion. Other applications include brass, zinc gutters, rubber tires and as a micro-nutrient in swine feed.
Almost 80% of the volume of molybdenum extracted per annum is used to manufacture high-grade steels that are mainly used in constructions exposed to extreme conditions such as high temperatures, salt water and aggressive chemicals. There are very few substitutes for the current applications of molybdenum, and molybdenum is difficult, though not impossible, to recycle.
Rhenium is mainly used in high-quality alloys, to enable them to withstand extreme temperatures. It is also used in catalysts, to give gasoline a higher octane number.
Rare Earth Metals
Scarce mineral resources should not be confused with the Rare Earth Metals that are mainly mined in China. The Rare Earth Metals are seventeen chemical elements with exotic names, such as praseodymium, dysprosium and lanthanum. The name "Rare Earths" dates from the early nineteenth century. Rare Earths are geologically not scarce, at least not if you compare their extractable global resources with their current annual usage. But of course, that could change in the future.









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