Ugo Bardi

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

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 12, 2019

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

 

Dear non-Western friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 9, 2019

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

A Collapse Conversation with Professor Ugo Bardi

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on May 6, 2019

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on April 14, 2019

 


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

 

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

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

The Five Stages of Collapse of The Roman Empire.

By Ugo Bardi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on February 11, 2019

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you ready for a new round of mass exterminations?

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 12, 2017

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This article is reposted from INSURGE. 

 

 

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

So what can we say about this data?

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake Newz Kills

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 19, 2017

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

 
 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mining Asteroids

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 19, 2017

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Mining the asteroids: how desperate can we become?

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Sixth Extinction: A Seneca Cliff in the Making

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 7, 2017

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What Can Governments Hide From Us? Lessons From WWII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doughnut Economics

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 17, 2017

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Doughnut Economics:a step forward, but not far enough


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Ugo Bardi

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 7, 2017

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Climate, Fossil Fuels, Resources and All That

 

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

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

 

 

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


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

 

 

 

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

 

 


Ok, thanks very much.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Echoes in Eternity

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 7, 2017

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"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.

 

 

 

 

Ants

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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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Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

 

 

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

 

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