Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 26, 2017
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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.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 13, 2017
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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
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 6, 2017
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This is a post by François-Xavier Chevallerau, a Brussels-based public policy professional who is in the process of setting up a new international think tank to support the emergence and promotion of biophysical economics in the public debate and the policy conversation. Here, he comments on the "Hill's Report" that was also discussed in a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy."
Guest post by François-Xavier Chevallerau
A report on the world’s oil depletion problem published several years ago by an obscure association of anonymous consulting engineers and professional project managers is suddenly coming under fierce criticism.
In December 2013, an ‘association of consulting engineers and professional project managers’ calling themselves ‘The Hill’s Group‘ published a report titled ‘Depletion: A determination for the world’s petroleum reserve’. Depletion, as is well known, is the inevitable consequence of non-renewable resource extraction, and determining how this depletion will affect petroleum production has been a key focus of energy analysts and researchers for a long time.
Arriving at an estimate for the remaining extractable petroleum reserve is usually attempted by adding together the quantity of petroleum believed to be present in each field, a method which is error-prone and imprecise. The Hill’s Group’s study proposed an alternative model of oil extraction and depletion, rooted in thermodynamics – i.e. the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between all forms of energy. This model, called ‘ETP’ (Total Production Energy), is allegedly derived from the fundamental physical properties of petroleum, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and the production history of petroleum.
The methodology used by The Hill’s Group is based on ‘exergy analysis’. Exergy in thermodynamics means ‘the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a system’. The system being considered, in this case, is a unit of petroleum. The Hill’s Group’s study calculates the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a unit of petroleum, using the physical properties of the crude oil in question, equations derived from studies of the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics, and the cumulative production history of petroleum. It then uses these these values to construct a mathematical model that it claims can predict the status of the world’s petroleum reserve with a much smaller margin of error than can be provided by the quantity measurement approach.
Optimistic estimates place the world’s total petroleum reserve at 4,300 billion barrels. Of that quantity the model proposed by The Hill’s Group predicts that it will only be possible to extract 1,760.5 billion barrels, or 40.9% of the total reserve. Its model suggests that petroleum’s ability to supply the energy needed to sustain its own production process is declining, that petroleum depletion is further advanced than generally assumed and that oil production will decline or even collapse much faster than commonly anticipated.
From its ETP model the Hill’s Group also derives a petroleum cost curve, which it says maps the price of petroleum since 1960 with a correlation coefficient of 0.965, making it the most accurate oil pricing model ever developed. It also says that the price of oil depends, in addition to production costs, on the amount that the end consumer can afford to pay for it, and derives from its ETP model a Maximum Consumer Price curve, representing the maximum price that the end consumer can pay over time for petroleum. It is based on the observation that the price of a unit of petroleum can not exceed the value of the economic activity that the energy it supplies to the end consumer can generate. According to the Hill’s Group, its model shows that 2012 was the energy half way point for petroleum production, i.e. it was the year when one half of the energy content of the petroleum extracted was required to produce the petroleum and its products. From then on, it says, the price of oil can only be pulled down along the descending Maximum Consumer Price curve, which it says is curtailed at $11.76/ barrel in 2020. At this point petroleum will no longer be acting as a significant energy source for the economy, and its only function will be as an energy carrier for other sources. In other words, the oil industry as we know it will disintegrate, with a myriad of negative consequences for the world economy.
The Hill’s Group’s original report was published over three years ago, and a second version was published in March 2015. It gained significant popularity and was favorably commented on many blogs and websites. All this however seems to have change, and the Hill’s Group’s ETP model is now coming under fierce criticism from various sources:
‘SK’, a professor emeritus in the department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at a Major U.S. University, delivered a strong critique of the ETP oil extraction model at peakoilbarrel.com. The fact that The Hill’s Group said that a threshold for oil markets was passed in 2012 and that oil prices would tend to go down shortly after seems to give the report a superficial credibility. But according to SK the thermodynamic analysis is incorrect and therefore any calculations and graphs based on this analysis must also be unreliable.
Spanish physicist Antonio Turiel published on his website an analysis of the theoretical basis of the ETP model (in Spanish). Applying the principles of thermodynamics to evaluate the limits of the oil’s capacity to deliver net energy to society makes sense, he says, provided it is done in a proper way. The ETP model, however, is according to him based on an incorrect use of thermodynamic theory, erroneous deductions, definitions that do not make sense from a physics point of view, deficient data processing, and ignorance of the interactions between oil production and the economy as well as other energy sources. Given these important shortcomings, he says, the ETP model cannot be used for a serious discussion of oil depletion, at least not until it is fundamentally revised and rebuilt.
Another Spanish physicist, Carlos de Castro from the University of Valladolid, also published a scathing critique of the Hill’s Group’s report (in Spanish). The physical, technological and economic foundations of the report are erroneous, he says. The Hill’s Group in fact focuses on the loss of thermal energy involved in the oil extraction process (oil moving from a high temperature reservoir to ambient temperature outside), which he says has nothing to do with the energy cost of the oil procurement process for human societies. What matters to society, he says, is not oil’s thermal energy but its chemical energy – even if this chemical energy may then be used to generate heat. The ETP model, he concludes, is not an adequate model to assess the net energy derived form petroleum extraction and its evolution.
Prof. Ugo Bardi from the University of Florence is also taking aim with the Hill’s Group’s work in a recent blog post. The Hill’s Group’s report, he says, is badly flawed. While it is true that the oil industry is in trouble, the calculations by the Hill’s group are, at best, irrelevant and probably simply plain wrong. The problem of diminishing energy returns of oil production is real, Bardi says, but the way to study it is based on the ‘life cycle analysis’ (LCA) of the process. This method takes into account entropy indirectly, in terms of heat losses, without attempting the impossible task of calculating it from textbook thermodynamic principles. By means of this method, we can understand that oil production still provides a reasonable energy return on investment (EROI). It is anyway erroneous, says Bardi, to draw conclusions regarding the economy from net energy analysis. The economy is a complex adaptative system that evolves in ways that cannot be understood in terms of mere energy return considerations.
This controversy surrounding the Hill’s Group’s report reveals some inconvenient truths that the ‘peak oil’ community now has to face. The Group’s work was widely embraced and disseminated in this community, with no or limited critical scrutiny. It indeed has an aura of scientific accuracy that comes from its use of basic thermodynamic principles and of the concept of entropy, correctly understood as the force behind the depletion problem. But behind the thermodynamic terminology, it proposes a series of assumptions, not always explicit, and of complex mathematical calculations that nobody until recently had apparently taken the time to review. As pointed out by Antonio Turiel, the Hill’s Group’s work would probably not have passed a proper peer review process in its current form.
Yet the report was widely accepted and commented in the ‘peak oil’ community. According to Ugo Bardi, this episode shows that “a report that claims to be based on thermodynamics and uses resounding words such as ‘entropy’ plays into the human tendency of believing what one wants to believe“. As many in the ‘peak oil’ community want to believe in imminent collapse and disaster, works like the Hill’s Group’s report that are perceived as providing a serious scientific basis to catastrophism are widely embraced. If the scientific basis is revealed to be not as sound as initially thought, as seems to be the case for the Hill’s Group’s work, then its embrace and dissemination can only be detrimental to the peak oil community and undermine its credibility.
Energy researchers and analysts should probably be particularly cautious and vigilant when using the concept of ‘entropy’. As pointed out by Ugo Bardi, “entropy is an important concept, but it must be correctly understood to be useful. It is no good to use it as an excuse to pander unbridled catastrophism.” The problem being, of course, that entropy cannot be correctly understood so easily. As famous scientist John von Neumann (1903-1957) once advised a colleague: “You should call it entropy (…) nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.“
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on Feb 21, 2017
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Let me start with something to dispel the confusion about what models are for. When you deal with complex, adaptive systems, models are NOT meant to predict the future. As John Gall said in his book on complex systems, "systems always kick back" – to which I may add, "and sometimes they kick back with a vengeance". (another way to express this concept is "forecasting always fails.")
But if dynamic models cannot predict the future, what are they good for? Simple, they are about being prepared for the future. Think of the Paris climate treaty of 2015. It was the result of millions of runs of various climate models, none of which claimed to predict "the" future. But these models are tools to prepare for the future; they tell you what may happen, depending on what you do. They are tools to shape political decisions. Out of all those runs, a goal was extracted, a setpoint, a number: "we don't want temperatures to rise of more than 2 °C and, for that purpose, there is a limit to the amounts of fossil fuels we can burn." It was a political decision that took into account not just what the models say, but what could be concretely achieved in the real world. No model would give you that number as an output.The Paris agreement was a masterpiece of diplomacy and of communication strategy because it concentrated so much noise into a simple, stark, number: a goal to reach.
And there we stand: with Paris, we set the goal, but how do we get there? This section of policy planning was poor in Paris, where the best that could be done was to line up the INDCs, the intended nationally determined contribution; that is how single countries think they could reduce emissions. That's not planning, it is a first stab at the problem; it shows the good will to do something, but no more. As they stand, the INDCs won't get us far enough.
So, we are again at the task of getting prepared for the future. We know that we need to reduce carbon emissions, but how fast? Besides, it is not just a question of reduction, it is a question of substitution. We need to maintain the essential energy services to the world's population: surely, as a society, we can shed a lot of fat and keep going, but without a minimum of energy input, the system collapses. At the same time, we need to maintain the current input without exceeding the emissions limits. A difficult challenge, although not an impossible one.
Here, we need models, again. No model can tell you exactly how to get there, but models will tell you what is likely to happen given some choices and some decisions. And out of the models, you have to extract a concrete, politically feasible goal: how to invest the remaining resources into attaining the Paris objectives? In other words, what fraction of the world's GDP need to be invested in the transition to a renewable economy?
Giving an answer to this question is the ambitious task of the MEDEAS project which has now reached a full year of work and set up the basis for an extensive modeling effort. MEDEAS takes an approach mainly based on system dynamics, similar to the one of the well-known "The Limits to Growth" approach. It is not the only ongoing project in this area, others projects take different lines of approach. But in al cases the idea is to build up knowledge on what is needed for the transition. Some data are already available that tell us we need a major effort to replace fossil fuels fast enough. The transition that won't come by itself, pushed by purely economic forces. But we need to explore the issue more in depth before these considerations can be turned into a number that can be agreed upon by the interested parties. We need to take into account both what's needed and what is politically feasible. Then, we will have a goal to reach.
If you want to know more about MEDEAS, you can see the MEDEAS website. There is also a MEDAS newsletter, still in a preliminary phase. And, if you would like to be involved, contact me (ugo.bardi(strangething)unifi.it)
Below: an intense discussion held in Brno about the project with the coordinator, Jordi Solé from Barcelona and two Italian researchers from Florence, Sara Falsini and Ilaria Perissi.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 22, 2017
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Defeats are supposed to teach people how to do better; in theory. In practice, it often happens that defeats teach people how to become masters in blame-shifting. With some exceptions, this seems to have been the main result of the recent defeat of the Democrats in the 2016 presidential election, where we saw a truly spasmodic search for culprits: Putin, the Russian hackers, the Fake News, the Rednecks, the FBI, Exxon, the aliens from Betelgeuse, and more. Everything except admitting one's mistakes.
Even less soul searching has been performed by those who turned out to be among the major losers in this story: science and scientists. In particular, climate scientists saw their field wiped out from the White House Website minutes after President Trump took office. That may have been simply a question of protocol, but surely it is not a good omen for the future.
So far, scientists have reacted with appropriate outrage to possibilities such as Trump repudiating the Paris climate treaty. However, on the average, scientists seem to be completely unable to even imagine that there may be something wrong with what they have been doing. We may have here a good illustration of the principle expressed by James Schlesinger that "people have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic". Even though some scientists are starting to show symptoms of panic, most of them seem to be still in complacency mode.
Yet, for everything that happens there is a reason and if you invaded Russia in winter it is no good to blame the snow for the defeat. So, what did scientists do that led them to a situation that may turn out to be even worse than the retreat from Moscow for Napoleon's Grande Armée?
One problem, here, is that if scientists had wanted to present themselves to the public as a priesthood of acolytes interested only in maintaining their petty privileges, they succeeded beyond the rosiest expectations. Yet, I don't think that this is the problem. Overall, science is still a sane profession and very few scientists have been directly involved in financial scandals. The public perceives this and normally rates scientists as much more trustworthy than – say- journalists or politicians. And modern climate science, as part of the field of Earth sciences, is nothing less than a triumph of human knowledge. Truly a major advance of what we know on the way our planet and our ecosystem work.
The problem, in my opinion, is a different one. It goes deeper and it is not related to individual scientists or to specific scientific fields. It has to do with science as a whole and, in particular, with the inconsistent messages that scientists are beaming to the public. According to the results reported by Ara Norenzayan's in "Big Gods" (Princeton, 2013), people have a built-in "lie detector" in their minds that works by a heuristic algorithm: people will evaluate the truth of what they are told on the basis of consistency. Not only the message must be consistent in itself, but also the messenger must be consistent with the message carried. This is a fundamental point: people don't normally care about data and factual evidence: they care about the consistency of the message in their social environment; it is something that Dan Kahan has shown in a series of studies on the public perception of climate science.
So, if your local prophet tells you that you must be chaste, he'd better be chaste himself. If he tells you that you must make sacrifices and accept poverty, he'd better be poor himself. And chastity/poverty must be acceptable in your social environment. These are things that Francis of Assisi understood already long ago. Then, think of Donald Trump: why was he elected? It was, mainly, because Trump's political message was consistent with Trump himself. Trump was telling people that he would make America rich and powerful and that was perfectly consistent with the fact that he is rich and powerful himself. Because of this, Trump's message didn't trigger people's lie detector and Trump the unthinkable became Trump the unavoidable.
Getting back to science, the message of climate change is intimately linked to the need of making sacrifices. We are asking people to reduce their consumption, reduce waste, travel less, and the like. It is a perfectly legitimate message and many religious groups have been carrying similar messages successfully. Of course, it would never work if Donald Trump were to propose it; but why can't scientists propose it successfully? Scientists are not Franciscan monks, but normally they are not rich. I often tell my PhD students that they are exchanging three years of starvation for a lifetime of unemployment. I don't really need to tell them that: they know that by themselves.
The problem is that there exists another side of science where scientists are beaming out exactly the opposite message of that of the need of making sacrifices. It is the side of the "gee-whiz science" or, maybe, "Santa Claus Science", scientific research still operating along the optimistic ideas developed in the 1950s, at the time of the "space age" and the "atomic age". The message that comes from this area is, "give us some money and we'll invent some magic device that will solve all the problema." It is a message that's ringing more and more hollow and the public is starting to perceive that the scientists are making promises they can't maintain. Not only the various scientific miracles that were promised are not materializing (say, nuclear fusion) but many pretended scientific revolutions are making things worse (say, shale oil). Still, many scientists keep making these promises and a certain section of society accepts – even requires – them.
So, the name of the problem is inconsistency. Scientists are taking two different and incompatible roles: that of doom-sayers and that of gift-givers. And "inconsistency" is just a polite way to say "lie." White scientist speak with forked tongue. Ye can't serve God and mammon.
The result is that not just Donald Trump despises science; it is a consistent fraction of the public that just doesn't believe the scientific message, especially about climate. The fraction of Americans who think that climate change is a serious threat has remained floating around 50% – 60%, going up and down, but not significantly changing. It is trench warfare in the climate communication war. Things may get worse for science under the Trump presidency. It already happened at the time of McCarthy, why shouldn't it happen again?
At this point, good manners dictate that when you write about a problem, you should also propose ways to solve it. Of course, there are ways that could be suggested: first of all, as scientists we should stop asking money for things that we know won't work (the "hydrogen-based economy" is a good example). Then, science badly needs a cleanup: we should crack down on predatory publishers, fight data fabrication, establish transparent standards for scientific publications, provide for free results of science to those who pay for it (the public), get rid of the huge number of irrelevant studies performed today, and more. Personally, I would also like a science that's more of a service for the community and less of a showcase for primadonnas in white coats.
But, as we all know, large organizations (and science is one) are almost impossible to reform from inside. So, where is science going? Difficult to say, but it may need a good shake-up from the outside (maybe from Trump, although he may well exaggerate) to be turned into something that may be what we truly need to help humankind in this difficult moment. The transformation will be surely resisted as much as possible, but change is needed and it will come.
"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6:24)
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 13, 2017
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Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy
Peak Uranium by Ugo Bardi from "Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet"
[ Figure 1 shows that the next IPCC report counts very much on nuclear power to keep warming below 2.5 C. The black line represents how many million tonnes of reasonably and inferred resources under $260 per kg remain (2016 IAEA redbook). Clearly most of the IPCC models are unrealistic. The IPCC greatly exaggerates the amount of oil and coal reserves as well. Source: David Hughes (private communication)
This is an extract of Ugo Bardi’s must read “Extracted” about the limits of production of uranium. Many well-meaning citizens favor nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. The problem is that the Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines transformed our civilization with their ability to do heavy work better than steam, gasoline, or any other kind of engine. Trucks are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth require, from food to the materials and construction of the roads they run on, as well as mining, agriculture, construction trucks, logging etc.
Nuclear power plants are not a solution, since trucks can’t run on electricity, so anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite). And we certainly aren’t going to be able to replace a billion trucks and equipment with diesel engines by the time the energy crunch hits with something else, there is nothing else.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]
Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Although there is a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, there is still a basic problem: uranium is a mineral resource that exists in finite amounts.
Even as early as the 1950s it was clear that the known uranium resources were not sufficient to fuel the “atomic age” for a period longer than a few decades.
That gave rise to the idea of “breeding” fissile plutonium fuel from the more abundant, non-fissile isotope 238 of uranium. It was a very ambitious idea: fuel the industrial system with an element that doesn’t exist in measurable amounts on Earth but would be created by humans expressly for their own purposes. The concept gave rise to dreams of a plutonium-based economy. This ambitious plan was never really put into practice, though, at least not in the form that was envisioned in the 1950s and ’60s. Several attempts were made to build breeder reactors in the 1970s, but the technology was found to be expensive, difficult to manage, and prone to failure. Besides, it posed unsolvable strategic problems in terms of the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to build atomic weapons. The idea was thoroughly abandoned in the 1970s, when the US Senate enacted a law that forbade the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.
A similar fate was encountered by another idea that involved “breeding” a nuclear fuel from a naturally existing element—thorium. The concept involved transforming the 232 isotope of thorium into the fissile 233 isotope of uranium, which then could be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor (or for nuclear warheads). The idea was discussed at length during the heydays of the nuclear industry, and it is still discussed today; but so far, nothing has come out of it and the nuclear industry is still based on mineral uranium as fuel.
Today, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel the existing nuclear reactors. The gap between supply and demand for mineral uranium has been as large as almost 50% from 1995 to 2005, though gradually reduced the past few years.
The U.S. mined 370,000 metric tons the past 50 years, peaking in 1981 at 17,000 tons/year. Europe peaked in the 1990s after extracting 460,000 tons. Today nearly all of the 21,000 ton/year needed to keep European nuclear plants operating is imported.
The Soviet Union and Canada each mined 450,000 tons. By 2010 global cumulative production was 2.5 million tons. Of this, 2 million tons has been used, and the military had most of the remaining half a million tons.
The most recent data available show that mineral uranium accounts now for about 80% of the demand. The gap is filled by uranium recovered from the stockpiles of the military industry and from the dismantling of old nuclear warheads.
This turning of swords into plows is surely a good idea, but old nuclear weapons and military stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. With the present stasis in uranium demand, it is possible that the production gap will be closed in a decade or so by increased mineral production. However, prospects are uncertain, as explained in “The End of Cheap Uranium.” In particular, if nuclear energy were to see a worldwide expansion, it is hard to see how mineral production could satisfy the increasing uranium demand, given the gigantic investments that would be needed, which are unlikely to be possible in the present economically challenging times.
At the same time, the effects of the 2011 incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are likely to negatively affect the prospects of growth for nuclear energy production, and with the concomitant reduced demand for uranium, the surviving reactors may have sufficient fuel to remain in operation for several decades.
It’s true that there are large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, but there are limited numbers of deposits that are concentrated enough to be profitably mined. If we tried to extract those less concentrated deposits, the mining process would require far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produced [negative EROI].
Modeling Future Uranium Supplies
Michael Dittmar used historical data for countries and single mines, to create a model that projected how much uranium will likely be extracted from existing reserves in the years to come. The model is purely empirical and is based on the assumption that mining companies, when planning the extraction profile of a deposit, project their operations to coincide with the average lifetime of the expensive equipment and infrastructure it takes to mine uranium—about a decade.
Gradually the extraction becomes more expensive as some equipment has to be replaced and the least costly resources are mined. As a consequence, both extraction and profits decline. Eventually, the company stops exploiting the deposit and the mine closes. The model depends on both geological and economic constraints, but the fact that it has turned out to be valid for so many past cases shows that it is a good approximation of reality.
This said, the model assumes the following points:
- Mine operators plan to operate the mine at a nearly constant production level on the basis of detailed geological studies and to manage extraction so that the plateau can be sustained for approximately 10 years.
- The total amount of extractable uranium is approximately the achieved (or planned) annual plateau value multiplied by 10.
Applying this model to well-documented mines in Canada and Australia, we arrive at amazingly correct results. For instance, in one case, the model predicted a total production of 319 ± 24 kilotons, which was very close to the 310 kilotons actually produced. So we can be reasonably confident that it can be applied to today’s larger currently operating and planned uranium mines.
Considering that the achieved plateau production from past operations was usually smaller than the one planned, this model probably overestimates the future production.
Table 2 summarizes the model’s predictions for future uranium production, comparing those findings against forecasts from other groups and against two different potential future nuclear scenarios.
As you can see, the forecasts obtained by this model indicate substantial supply constraints in the coming decades—a considerably different picture from that presented by the other models, which predict larger supplies.
The WNA’s 2009 forecast differs from our model mainly by assuming that existing and future mines will have a lifetime of at least 20 years. As a result, the WNA predicts a production peak of 85 kilotons/year around the year 2025, about 10 years later than in the present model, followed by a steep decline to about 70 kilotons/year in 2030. Despite being relatively optimistic, the forecast by the WNA shows that the uranium production in 2030 would not be higher than it is now. In any case, the long deposit lifetime in the WNA model is inconsistent with the data from past uranium mines. The 2006 estimate from the EWG was based on the Red Book 2005 RAR (reasonably assured resources) and IR (inferred resources) numbers. The EWG calculated an upper production limit based on the assumption that extraction can be increased according to demand until half of the RAR or at most half of the sum of the RAR and IR resources are used. That led the group to estimate a production peak around the year 2025.
Assuming all planned uranium mines are opened, annual mining will increase from 54,000 tons/year to a maximum of 58 (+ or – 4) thousand tons/year in 2015. [ Bardi wrote this before 2013 and 2014 figures were known. 2013 was 59,673 (highest total) and 56,252 in 2014.]
Declining uranium production will make it impossible to obtain a significant increase in electrical power from nuclear plants in the coming decades.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 8, 2017
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Why you can't fight climate change with Coke or Pepsi
Some time ago, I found myself trying to explain to a journalist why I opposed CO2 mining in Tuscany. I said something like, "it makes no sense that the regional government spends money to reduce CO2 emissions and, at the same time, allows this company to extract CO2 that, otherwise, would stay underground." "But", the journalist said, "I have interviewed the people of this company and they say that the CO2 they extract is not dispersed into the atmosphere – it is stored." "And where is it stored in?" I said. "They sell it to companies that make carbonated drinks." I tried to explain to him that producing Coca Cola or Pepsi is not the way to fight climate change, but I don't think he really understood.
This is typical of how difficult is to make some messages pass in the public debate. Among the many possible ways of mitigating global warming, carbon capture and sequestration (or storage) – CCS – is the least understood, the most complicated, and the most likely to lead to pseudo-solutions. Not surprising, because it is a complex story that involves chemistry, geology, engineering and economics.
About one month ago, a post by Julian Turner appeared on "Power Technology" with the rather ambitious title of "Carbon Capture Finally Cracked." The post is full of hype about a breakthrough in the process that purifies CO2 at the output or a coal-burning plant – a process called "CO2 scrubbing". The new process, it is said, is better, less expensive, faster, efficient, and "game changer". Mr. Sharma, CEO of the company that developed the process declared:
“TACL will be able to capture CO2 from their boiler emissions and then reuse it,” confirms Sharma. “For the end user the electricity produced by capturing carbon dioxide will be clean electricity and the steam produced will be clean energy. For that reason, we can say that it is ‘emissions-free’.”
I have no doubt that there is something good in the new process. Scrubbing CO2 using solvents is a known technology and it can surely be improved. Technology is good at doing exactly that: improving known processes. The problem is another one: is it a really an "emission-free" process? And the answer is, unfortunately, "not at all", at least in the form the idea is presented.
The problem, here, is that all the hype is about carbon capture, but there is nothing in these claims about carbon sequestration. Indeed, the article discusses "carbon capture and utilization" (CCU) and not "carbon capture and sequestration" (CCS). Now, CCS is supposed to mitigate global warming, but CCU does NOT.
Let's go back to basics: if you want to understand what CCS is about, a good starting point is the 2005 IPCC special report on the matter (a massive 443-page document). More than ten years after its publication, the situation has not changed very much; as confirmed by a more recent report. The basic idea remains the same: to transform CO2 into something that should be stable and non-polluting. And when we say "stable" we mean something that should remain stable for time spans of the order of thousands of years, at the very least. This is what we call "sequestration" or "storage".
A tall order, if there ever was one, but not impossible and, as it is often the case, the problem is not feasibility, but cost. The safest way of storing CO2 for very long times is to imitate the natural process of "silicate weathering" and transform CO2 into stable carbonates, calcium and magnesium, for instance. It is what the ecosystem does in order to regulate the temperature of the planet. But the natural process is extremely slow; we are talking about times of the order of hundreds of thousands of years; not what we need right now. We can, of course, accelerate the weathering process but it takes a lot of energy, mainly to crush and pulverize silicates. A less expensive method is "geological storage", that is pumping CO2 into an underground reservoir. And hope that it will stay there for tens of thousands of years. But it is the main aim of CCS, nowadays.
This said, the way to evaluate the feasibility and the opportunity of the whole concept of CCS is to examine the life cycle of the whole process; see how much energy it requires (its energy return for energy invested, EROEI), and then compare it with the data for alternative processes – for instance investing the same resources into renewable energy rather than in CCS (and renewable energy may be already less expensive than coal produced electricity). But it seems that this comparative analysis has not been done, so far, despite the several cost analysis performed for CCS. One thing that we can infer from the 2005 report (see page 338) is that, even without scrubbing, the energy necessary for the whole process might be not so far away from values that would make it an exercise in digging holes and then filling them up again, as John Maynard Keynes is reported to have proposed. The situation is better if we consider geological storage, but even in this case scrubbing is only a fraction of the total cost.
At this point, you can understand what's wrong in calling the new scrubbing process a "game changer." It is not that. It is a process that improves one of the steps of the chain that leads to carbon storage, but that may have little value for CCS, unless it is evaluated within the whole life cycle of the process.
Then, in the whole article by Turner, there is no mention of CCS/storage. They only speak of carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and they say that the CO2 will be sold to another company that will turn it into soda ash (Na2CO3). This compound could then be used it for glass making, urea making, and similar purposes. But all these processes will bring back the captured CO2 to the atmosphere! No storage, no global warming mitigation – they might as well sell the CO2 to the industry that makes carbonated beverages. This is not the breakthrough we need.
So, what sense does it have to make so much noise about "clean energy," "clean electricity," and "emission-free" energy when the new process aims at nothing of that sort? Not surprising, it is all part of the "fact-free" ongoing debate.
To conclude, let me note that this new scrubbing process might just be one of those ways of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction," according to a definition by Jay Forrester. That is, it may be counter-productive for the exact purposes it had been developed for. The problem is that pure CO2 is an industrial product that has a certain market value, as the people who extract it from underground in Tuscany know very well. So far, the cost of scrubbing has prevented the exhaust of fossil-fueled plants from having a market value, but a new, efficient process could make it feasible to turn it into a saleable product. That would make coal plants more profitable and would encourage people to invest into building more of them, and that would generate no reductions in CO2 emissions! It would be even worse if the coal industry were to sell to governments their scrubbing process in order to escape carbon taxes. So, you see? Once more, the rule of unintended consequences plays out nicely.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 3, 2017
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Do we need mining quotas?
Scarce minerals are running out: mining quotas are needed
Molybdenum is essential for the manufacture of high-grade stainless steels, but at present molybdenum is hardly recycled. Yet unless reuse of molybdenum is dramatically increased, the extractable reserves of molybdenum on Earth will run out in about eighty years from now. The extractable reserves of antimony, a mineral used to make plastics more heat-resistant, will run out within thirty years.
During more than a century the use of mineral resources increased exponentially with an average between 3 and 4% annually. Can this go on, given the limited amounts of mineral resources in the earth’s crust?
Which raw materials or minerals are scarce?
A mineral’s scarcity is expressed as the number of years that its extractable amount in the Earth's crust is sufficient to meet anticipated demand. This exhaustion period is estimated from the annual use of such mineral. I calculated the ratio between the extractable amount and the annual consumption for 65 mineral resources. My calculation is based on what is considered to be maximally extractable from the Earth’s crust. These “Extractable Global Resources” are derived from a study by the International Resource Panel of UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) in 2011. Regarding the annual use of mineral resources I have supposed an annual growth of 3% until 2050, where after I have supposed that extraction stabilizes. The table below shows the top ten scarcest mineral resources.
TOP TEN SCARCE MINERAL RESOURCES
Exhaustion period (in years) of remaining extractable mineral resources
Pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
What is a sustainable extraction rate?
In my dissertation I have defined a sustainable extraction rate as follows: “The extraction of a mineral resource is sustainable, if a world population of nine billion people can be provided with that mineral resource during a period of thousand years, supposing that the average use per world citizen is equally divided over the countries of the world”. Actually, the concept of sustainability is only applicable to an activity, which can continue forever. Concerning the extraction of mineral resources, I consider a thousand years as a reasonable approach. This is arbitrary of course. But 100 years is too short. In that case we would accept that our grandchildren would be confronted with exhausted mineral resources.
A sensitivity analysis reveals that even if we assume that the extractable reserves in the Earth’s crust are ten times higher than the already optimistic assumption of the UNEP International Resource Panel, then the use of antimony, gold, zinc, molybdenum, and rhenium in industrialized countries would still have to be hugely reduced in order to preserve sufficient of these raw materials for future generations. This is particularly so if we want these resources to be more fairly shared among countries and people than is currently the case. There are also environmental and energy limits to the ever deeper and remoter search for ever lower concentrations of minerals. If we want to stretch out all the exhaustion periods in the table to 1000 years, then it can be calculated that the extraction of antimony should be reduced of 96 %, that of zinc of 82 %, that of molybdenum of 81 %, that of copper of 63 %, that of chromium of 57 % and that of boron of 44 %. This is compared to the extracted quantities in 2010. These reduction percentages are high. The question is whether that is feasible. Moreover, would the price mechanism not lead to a timely and sufficient extraction reduction of scarce mineral resources?
The price mechanism fails
One would suppose that the general price mechanism would work: the price of relatively scarce mineral resource rises quicker than the price of relative abundant mineral resources.
TRENDS IN THE REAL PRICE OF SCARCE AND NON-SCARCE MINERALS IN THE UNITED STATES 1900-2015*
* The minerals have been classified according to their scarcity. The scarce raw materials in the figure are antimony, zinc, gold, molybdenum and rhenium. The moderately scarce raw materials are tin, chromium, copper, lead, boron, arsenic, iron, nickel, silver, cadmium, tungsten and bismuth. The non-scarce raw minerals are aluminum, magnesium, manganese, cobalt, barium, selenium, beryllium, vanadium, strontium, lithium, gallium, germanium, niobium, the platinum-group metals, tantalum and mercury.
My research makes clear that the price of scarce mineral resources has not risen significantly faster than that of abundant minerals. I demonstrate in my dissertation that, so far, the geological scarcity of minerals has not affected their price trends. The explanation might be that the London Metal Exchange looks ahead for a maximum period of only ten years and that mining companies anticipate for up to thirty years. But we must look much further ahead if we are to preserve scarce resources for future generations.
Eventually, the price of the scarcest minerals will rise, but probably not until their reserves are almost exhausted and little remains for future generations.
Technological opportunities are not being exploited
Are the conclusions I reach over-pessimistic? After all, when the situation becomes dire, we can expect recycling and material efficiency to increase. The recycling of molybdenum can be greatly improved by selectively dismantling appliances, improved sorting of scrap metal and by designing products from which molybdenum can be easier recycled. Alternative materials with the same properties as scarce minerals can be developed. Antimony as a flame retardant can be replaced fairly easily by other flame retardants. Scarcity will drive innovation.
Thirty to fifty percent of zinc is already being recycled from end of life products, but although it is technologically possible to increase this percentage, this is barely happening. Almost no molybdenum is recycled. Recycling is not increasing because the price mechanism is not working for scarce minerals. In the absence of sufficient financial market pressure, how can technological solutions for recycling and substitution be stimulated?
What should happen?
I argue that what is needed is an international agreement: by limiting the extraction of scarce minerals stepwise, scarcity will be artificially increased – in effect, simulating exhaustion and unleashing market forces. This could be done by determining an annual extraction quota, beginning with the scarcest minerals. Such an international mineral resources agreement should secure the sustainable extraction of scarce resources and the legitimate right of future generations to a fair share of these raw materials. This means that agreement should be reached on reducing the extraction of scarce mineral resources, from 96 percent for antimony to 82 percent for zinc and 44 percent for boron, compared to the use of these minerals in 2010. In effect, such an agreement would entail putting into practice the normative principles that were agreed on long ago relating to the sustainable use of non-renewable raw materials, such as the Stockholm Declaration (United Nations, 1972), the World Charter for Nature (UN, 1982), and the Earth Charter (UNESCO, 2000). These sustainability principles were recently reconfirmed in the implementation report of Agenda 21 for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2016).
Financial compensation for countries with mineral resources
Countries that export the scarce minerals will be reluctant to voluntarily cut back extraction because they would lose revenue. They should therefore receive financial compensation. The compensation scheme should ensure that the income of the resource countries does not suffer. In exchange, user countries will become owners of the raw materials that are not extracted, but remain in the ground. An international supervisory body should be set up for inspection, monitoring, evaluation and research.
Not a utopian idea
In my dissertation, I set out the case for operationalizing the fundamental principles for sustainable extraction of raw materials, which have been agreed in various international conferences and confirmed by successive conferences of the United Nations. The climate agreement, initially thought to be a utopian idea, has become reality, so there is no reason why a mineral resources agreement should not follow.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 18, 2016
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There is only one culture: bringing back science into the fold of humanism
Thanks for this question – it is a very interesting question: "are we teaching enough science to our children?" And I can tell you that it is much more than an interesting question, it caused some small earthquake in my mind. Truly, I had a flash of understanding that I had never had before and right now I completely changed my view of the world. It happens to me: the world changes so fast and I do my best to follow it.
Your question is so interesting because it has to do with the idea that there are two cultures: a scientific one and a literary one. As a consequence, some of us think that instruction is unbalanced in one or the other direction: maybe we teach too little science to our children, maybe too much. The whole idea goes back to someone named Snow who proposed it in the 1950s. He was not wrong, I think, but there were problems with the idea. The concept of the two cultures can be intended as meaning that we need somehow to bridge the gap that exists in between. Or, and I think that's what happens most often, it can be interpreted as meaning that one of the two cultures is superior to the other. That can generate a competition between the two and divide people into two different tribes: literates and scientists. We are very good, as human beings, at dividing ourselves into separate tribes fighting each other. And that's bad, as you can imagine. Actually, it is a disaster. Snow was a scientist and he decried the scientific ignorance of literates. On this, he was right but in the long run the result was that literates despise scientists as illiterate boors and scientists despise literates as feebleminded ignorants.
Now, I had been thinking about all this and, as I said, today I had this flash that focused my mind on a concept. I think we have to say this clearly: this story of the "two cultures" is an idiocy. It must end. There is only ONE culture, and that's what we may call "humanism," if nothing else because we are all humans. That is, unless someone in the audience today is an alien or a droid. In such case, would you please stand up? No……? Apparently, we are all humans in this room and so we call our culture "humanism" (or, sometimes, "arts and humanities") How else would you call it?
So, there is really no reason for considering modern science a separate culture rather than part of the human culture that we call humanism. I am saying this as a scientist: science is part of what I would like to call human "sapience", what the ancient called "sophos"; that we translate as "wisdom" "sapience," or "knowledge." The term philosopher just means someone who loves sapience. And that's what we are; scientists or non-scientists, the very fact that we are here today, engaged in this discussion. means that we love knowledge: we are all philosophers. And that's a good thing to be; sapience is what makes us human and that's why we speak of humanism.
So, why do science and scientists sometimes pretend to be a separate branch of knowledge? Well, it has to do with another concept that comes to us from the Greek philosophy. It goes under the name of techné that we may translate as "craftsmanship" and that originates the modern term "technology". Here lies the problem.
Five minutes ago, someone asked me about hydrogen powered cars. I answered that they have been a complete failure and that was it. But I ask you to go a little more in depth with this question. Why do many of us think these things are important: hydrogen cars, a hydrogen powered economy, and lots of strange things we hear as proposed by scientists and that are said to be able to "solve our problems." Why is that? There is a reason and it goes back to a period in history when scientists found that they were able to devise some clever gadgets: you remember the "atomic age", right? It started more or less from there. Then there was the space age, the information age, and so on. There was this great wave of optimism when we really thought that science would bring us a new age of happiness and prosperity – it was the triumph of technology over everything else. The triumph of techné over sophos.
That period of optimism is still with us: anything that you say that disputes the sacred cow of economic growth is answered with "the scientists will think of something." Climate change? Resource Depletion? Pollution? Not really problems if you have the right gadget to solve them. And this brings, sometimes, the question "do we teach enough science to our children?" It is a result of the opinion that, in order to solve our problems, we need more gadgets and that, in order to have more gadgets, we need more science and that, in order to have more science, we need to teach more of it to our children. I think this is not a good idea. I think we have too many gadgets, not too few. And all these gadgets either don't work or cause more problems than those they are supposed to solve. Think about that: we wanted flying cars and we got killer drones, we wanted freedom and we got body scanners, we wanted cheap energy and we got Fukushima, we wanted knowledge and we got 140 characters, we wanted a long life and we got Alzheimer. The more gadgets we have, the worse the situation becomes.
Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that technology is bad in itself. We all live in heated spaces, we use electricity, when we have a headache we take an aspirin, and we use a lot of useful devices in our everyday life. I am not telling you that we should run to the woods and live as our stone-age ancestors – not at all. Being good craftsmen is part of being human. It is just that this fascination with gadgetry is generating multiple disasters, as we have been discussing today: from climate change to all the rest. One of these disasters is the decline of science, with scientists often turned into those raucous boors who feel they have to send out a press release every month or so to describe how their new gadget will save the world.
It can't work in this way. We need to take control of the technology we use, we need to stop being controlled by it. And I think the first step for retaking control is to bring science back into the fold of humanism. I am saying this as a scientist and as someone who loves science – I have been loving science from when I was a kid. Modern science is a beautiful thing; well worth being loved. It has been telling us so much that's worth knowing: the history of our planet, the origin and the fate of the universe, the thermodynamic engines that make everything move, and much more. We need to see science as part of the human treasure of knowledge and we need to love knowledge in all its forms. And, as I said at the beginning, someone who loves knowledge is a philosopher and that's what we can all be and we should be; because it is our call as human beings. If we want to save the world, we don't need gadgetry, we need to be what we are: human beings.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 10, 2016
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Google Trends shows a remarkable spike in the interest for the coupled terms "climate" and "hoax". Does that mean that people are becoming more skeptical about climate science? Or simply more interested in the subject? On this point, Google Trends tells us that there has been no special change in the level of interest in the general subjects of climate change and global warming. The interest is specific in the coupling of "climate" and "hoax." And, if we couple the terms "climate", "hoax" and "Trump" we see that there is a clear correlation.
So, it seems clear that the rise of Donald Trump has emboldened science deniers, who are more active than before. Qualitatively, it is a trend noted also by "DeSmog" and others. That doesn't necessarily mean a change in the distribution of the opinions on the danger of climate change, still deadlocked in what I termed "trench warfare in the climate wars". Instead, The election of Donald Trump may lead to an even sharper polarization of the US public opinion on climate. Most likely, the virtual trench warfare will continue for quite a while, and we can only hope that it won't become real warfare.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 15, 2016
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Michael Klare has published an extensive comment on "Tomgram" about what appear to be the current policy choices by Donald Trump on energy and he correctly notes how contradictory they are. Basically,
The main thrust of his approach couldn’t be clearer: abolish all regulations and presidential directives that stand in the way of unrestrained fossil fuel extraction, including commitments made by President Obama in December 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement.
In other words, Trump seems to be locked in a market-only vision of the problem, thinking that physical realities have no role in the extraction of fossil resources. On this, he is surely not alone, but the problem is that deregulation is not so important as Trump seems to think. It was not because the market was over-regulated that oil prices spiked up to $150 dollars/barrel in 2008 and kept hovering at around $100/barrel from 2011 up to late 2014. And it was not because oil production was suddenly deregulated that prices collapsed to below $40 in 2015. The oil market, as all markets, suffers from instabilities that may be, sometimes, cured by regulations. Eliminating all the regulations may well cause further price swings and wild oscillations, rather than increase production.
If oil companies are in trouble, right now, is because the oil prices are too low, not because oil extraction is over-regulated and Trump's policies – if they were to work – may damage the fossil fuel industry even more. That, in itself, would not be a bad thing – especially in terms of the effects on climate. The problem is that Trump's ideas to revitalize the fossil fuel industry may not be limited to deregulation, but could involve actively discouraging renewable energy, a policy that, for instance, the Italian government has been successfully applying during the past few years.
So, why does Trump want to do such a thing? Here, we can only imagine what passes in the mind of a 70-year old man who is not known to be especially expert in anything. Klare puts forward a possible explanation as:
To some degree, no doubt, it comes, at least in part, from the president-elect’s deep and abiding nostalgia for the fast-growing (and largely regulation-free) America of the 1950s. When Trump was growing up, the United States was on an extraordinary expansionist drive and its output of basic goods, including oil, coal, and steel, was swelling by the day. The country’s major industries were heavily unionized; the suburbs were booming; apartment buildings were going up all over the borough of Queens in New York City where Trump got his start; cars were rolling off the assembly lines in what was then anything but the “Rust Belt”; and refineries and coal plants were pouring out the massive amounts of energy needed to make it all happen.
And don’t forget one other factor: Trump’s vindictiveness — in this case, not just toward his Democratic opponent in the recent election campaign but toward those who voted against him. The Donald is well aware that most Americans who care about climate change and are in favor of a rapid transformation to a green energy America did not vote for him,
Given his well-known penchant for attacking anyone who frustrates his ambitions or speaks negatively of him, and his urge to punish greens by, among other things, obliterating every measure adopted by President Obama to speed the utilization of renewable energy, expect him to rip the EPA apart and do his best to shred any obstacles to fossil fuel exploitation. If that means hastening the incineration of the planet, so be it. He either doesn’t care (since at 70 he won’t live to see it happen), truly doesn’t believe in the science, or doesn’t think it will hurt his company’s business interests over the next few decades.
This interpretation by Michael Klare may or may not be correct but it underlies a basic problem: elections give power to people on the basis of their promises, but nobody really knows how they will behave once they have power in their hands. The world's history is full of leaders who had mental problems of all kinds or even just had a vision of the world that was completely out of touch with reality. The result was normally unmitigated disasters as leaders, in most cases, refuse to learn from their mistakes. And not just that, they tend to double down, worsening things.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 8, 2016
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John Glenn (1921-2016): the End of an Era
The last astronaut: the cycle of human spaceflight is coming to an end (Feb 9, 2015)
I experienced the enthusiasm of the "space age," starting in the 1960s, and I am not happy to see the end of that old dream. Yet, the data are clear and cannot be ignored: human spaceflight is winding down. Look at the graph, below. It shows the total number of people launched into space each year. (The data are from Wikipedia – more details.)
As you see, the number of people sent to space peaked in the 1990s, following a cycle that can be fitted reasonably well using a bell-shaped curve (a Gaussian, in this case). We have not yet arrived at the end of space travel, but the number of people traveling to space is going down. With the international space station set to be retired in 2020, it may be that the "space age" is destined to come to an end in a non-remote future.
The shape of the cycle can be seen as a "Hubbert curve." This curve typically describes the exploitation of a non-renewable resource; fossil fuels in particular, but it also describes how economic activities are affected by a diminishing availability of resources. In this case, the shape of the curve suggests that we are gradually running out of the surplus resources needed to send humans into space. In a sense, the economics of human spaceflight are like those of the great pyramids of Egypt. These pyramids were expensive and required considerable surplus resources to be built. When the surplus disappeared, no more were built. The shape of the pyramid building curve was, again, Hubbert-like.
This result is not surprising, considering that we are reaching the planetary limits to growth. In part, we are reacting to the diminishing availability of resources by replacing humans with less expensive robots, but sending robots to space is not the same as the "conquest of space" was once conceived. Besides, the decline of space exploration is evident also from other data, see for instance this plot showing the budget available to NASA (from "Starts with a Bang").Note how the peak in human spaceflights coincides with the peak in the resources destined to space exploration.
If space exploration is directly related to the availability of resources, it is also true that, from the beginning, it was not meant to be just a resource drain. The idea of the conquest of space involved overcoming the limits of the earth's ecosphere and accessing the resources of the whole solar system. Some of the concepts developed in this area were thought explicitly as ways to avoid the dire scenarios laid out in the 1972 study, "The Limits to Growth." Proposals involved placing giant habitats at the Lagrange libration points, where no energy was necessary to keep them there. The idea gained some traction in the 1970s and, in the figure, you see an impression of one of those habitats – the "Bernal Sphere."(image credit: NASA)
Today, we can't look at these old drawings without shaking our heads and wondering how anyone could take them seriously. Yet, these ideas were not impossible in themselves and, in the 1970s, we still had sufficient resources to make it possible some kind of human expansion into space, even though not on the grand scale that some people were proposing. But we missed that occasion and we much preferred to invest our surplus in military toys. Today, we can't even dream of colonizing space anymore.
The space age is not completely over, yet, but it is becoming more and more difficult to sustain the costs of it. Right now, the Russians are still willing to launch to orbit West European astronauts. But how long will they continue to do so while Western Europe is enacting sanctions devised to cripple the Russian economy? Samantha Cristoforetti, brave and competent Italian astronaut, may well be a member of the last patrol of humans orbiting around the earth for a long time to come.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 18, 2016
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So, the USGS comes out with a press release that the media immediately diffuse in terms of a great discovery: 20 billion barrels, somewhere in Texas in a place called "Wolfcamp". Bloomberg multiplies the number by the current oil price and comes up with a title that reads: "A $900 billion Oil Treasure," for a piece that tells of "bonanza" and of "the gift that keeps on giving". USA today speaks of "The Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US". And how about the comments? Just a few examples.
As our new President will do – DRILL BABY DRILL!!! Energy independence – that sure has a nice ring to it. Middle finger to Middle East arabs.
I remember in the late 70's when scientists said we would be running out of oil by the late 90's. I wonder where those scientists are working now? Climate change?
They are constantly finding more reserves. President Trump will open up more land and ocean for safe drilling. Something the Obama administration had no clue how to do..
but of course the Radical Left, determined to return all of western civilization to the hunter-gatherer society of 10,000 years ago will do all it can to prevent this once great nation from becoming energy dependent and permanently kicking the barbarian raghead arab oil nations out of this country.
Great fun, and all fact-free! But let's suppose, for once, that facts mattered. What should we say about the "Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US"? One point is that nothing new was "found;" the Wolfcamp formation was well known and already being exploited. The USGS just made a new estimate; probably valid within the assumptions made; but it is just that: an estimate. It doesn't mean that these resources have been discovered (note that the USGS explicitly says "undiscovered.") So, what all this means is that, statistically, these resources should be there, but nobody can be completely sure and it wouldn't be the first time that these estimates turn out to be optimistic. (in this case, the round number "20" is more than a little suspicious).
But never mind that; let's assume that these 20 billion barrels are there for real. How does this amount stack up in comparison with the world's oil situation? Here are some data, taken from Bloomberg (not exactly a den of Cassandras).
Let's compare these data with the world's oil consumption that, according to "Index Mundi," is today a little more than 33 billion barrels per year. So, you see from the figure that, during the past decade at least, we have been consistently burning more oil than we could discover. Now, if there had been other major discoveries this year, they would have been trumpeted enough that we would know of them. So, adding the 20 billion barrels of the Wolfcamp formation to the meager total of 2016, probably, we still don't reach a total of 33 billion. In the end, all that we can say is that, for this year, oil discoveries were just a little less, rather than much less, than what the world has consumed. These would be the news, if facts mattered.
But, that's not even the point: the essence of depletion is not how much of it there is, it is how much it costs to extract it. Here, Arthur Berman notes that Bloomberg had calculated the value of this "treasure" at $900 billion as if "if the oil magically leaped out of the ground without the cost of drilling and completing wells; if there were no operating costs to produce it; if there were no taxes and no royalties." Then, Berman calculates how much it would cost to extract all this "bonanza" of oil and concludes that, at the current prices, it would result in a net loss of some $500 billion.
So, aren't you happy to live in a fact-free world? You can keep thinking that it is enough to poke a few holes in the ground to see it gush out in never ending abundance because, as everyone knows, it is really "abiotic." Sure, and you can also walk on thin air, as Wile E. Coyote can do as long as he doesn't realize he does.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 18, 2016
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Jay Wright Forrester (1918-2016) may have been the source of inspiration for Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In Asimov's novels, Seldon develops "pyschohistoric equations" that allow him to predict the impending collapse of the Galactic Empire. In the real world, Forrester developed "system dynamics equations" that allowed him to predict the impending collapse of the modern human civilization. The predictions were ignored by the Imperial powers of both the fictional and the real universe.
Jay Forrester, one of the great minds of the 20th century, died at 98, a few days ago. His career was long and fruitful, and we can say that his work changed the intellectual story of humankind in various ways, in particular for the role he had in the birth of the Club of Rome's report "The Limits to Growth"
In 1969, Forrester was a faculty member of the MIT when he met Aurelio Peccei in Italy. At that time, Peccei had already founded the Club of Rome, whose members were worried about the limits to the natural resources that the Earth could provide. They were trying to understand what the consequences would have been for humankind. From what Peccei wrote, it seems clear that he was seeing the situation mostly in Malthusian terms; thinking that the human population would have been growing until reaching the resource limits, and then stay there, kept in check by famines and epidemics. The main concern of Peccei and of the Club of Rome was to avoid human suffering by ensuring a fair distribution of what was available.
The encounter with Forrester changed this vision in ways that, perhaps, neither Peccei nor any of the Club members would have imagined. In the 1960s, Forrester's models were already well advanced. Based on a completely new method of calculation that Forrester had dubbed "system dynamics," the models were able to take into account how the many variables of a complex system interacted with each other and changed in time.
The result was the study that the Club of Rome commissioned to Forrester and to his research group: simulate the future of humankind over a time range of more than a century, all the way to 2100. Forrester himself prepared a complete study with the title "World Dynamics" that was published in 1971. A group of Forrester's students and coworkers prepared a more extensive study titled "The Limits to Growth" that became a true intellectual revolution in 1972.
Forrester's system dynamics provided results that proved that Malthus had been an optimist. Far from reaching the limits to growth and staying there, as Malthus had imagined, the human civilization was to overshoot the limits and keep growing, only to crash down, badly, afterward. The problem was not just that of a fair distribution of the available resources, but to avoid the collapse of the whole human civilization. The calculations showed that it was possible, but that it required stopping economic growth. That was something that nobody, then as now, couldn't even imagine to do.
You know how things went: I told the story in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited". Forrester's work was mostly ignored, but the better known "The Limits to Growth" study was not only rejected; it was actively demonized. The legend of the "wrong predictions" of the study was created and it spread so much that it is still widely believed. Yet, the intellectual revolution that was the creation of System Dynamics never died out completely and, today, world modeling is returning. We need to study the future in these times of great uncertainty. It is difficult, unrewarding, and often leading us astray. But we must keep trying.
Perhaps of Forrester's unknown achievement was of having inspired Isaac Asimov for the character of "Hari Seldon" in the famous "Foundation" series that Asimov wrote starting in the 1950s. We have no proof that Asimov ever met Forrester or knew his work, but they both lived in Boston at the same time, so it is at least possible. Then, Hari Seldon and Jay Forrester share similar traits: both are scientists who develop powerful methods for prediction the future. Seldon develops a field known as "Psychohistory" while Forrester developed "System Dynamics." In both cases, the equations predict that civilization will undergo a collapse. In both cases, the scientists are not believed by the Imperial authorities of their times, fictional or real.
In Asimov's story, Seldon goes on to create "Foundation" a planet where the achievements of civilization are kept alive and will be used to rebuild a new civilization after that the collapse of the old one. The plan succeeds in Asimov's fictional universe. In our case, the real Earth of the 21st century, nobody seems to have been able to create a safe haven for the achievements of civilization that we can use after the collapse. Seeing how things stand, maybe it is the only hope left?
But, maybe, Asimov wasn't directly inspired by Forrester for his Hari Seldon. Maybe he was just inspired by the archetype of the wise man that, in human history, has been played by people such as Merlin, Laozi, Kong Fuzi, Prince Gautama, Socrates, and many others. Perhaps Jay Forrester deserves to be listed among these wise men of old. Perhaps, the wisdom that Forrester brought to us will come handy in the difficult future that awaits us.
Forrester's achievements are many besides those of World Modeling. He developed a completely new magnetic computer memory that became the world standard, he developed a complete programming language (called "dynamo"), he is the originator of several fundamental ideas in system management: the "bullwhip effect," the concept of "Urban Dynamics"; of "Industrial Dynamics" of the "leverage points" in complex systems, and much more. A true genius of our times.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on Noveber 12,, 2016
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In 2003, the Western Media were able to convince almost everyone that the evil dictator Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The success of this propaganda operation was so spectacular that it led one of the aides of George W. Bush to declare that "now we create our own reality." It was the true founding statement of the Empire of Lies.
But the power of creation does not reside with mere human beings and it may well be that the Gods took umbrage at this manifestation of hubris. During the latest US presidential campaign, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin were lumped together and subjected to the same demonizing treatment that earlier on had been reserved to Saddam Hussein. But, simply, it didn't work. The whole campaign backfired, badly. The extent of the defeat that the Empire of Lies suffered is staggering.
Unfortunately, the fact that Donald Trump was elected largely as a reaction against previous lies doesn't make him a good president and not even someone whom we can trust. We may have learned to recognize lies, but it seems that we haven't yet learned to recognize the truth. The pendulum may be swinging too far and we are now branding perfectly correct theories as hoaxes and conspiracies. This is the case of climate change, that Donald Trump has defined as a hoax. The extent of the damage that the Trump presidency could do to humankind by policies that ignore the climate threat is staggering, too.
So, will we ever learn to find our way in the universe of lies in which we live? Difficult to say, but we live in a condition in which the ancient Romans already found themselves long ago. The post below, published early this year, may help us to understand the problem.
From "Cassandra's Legacy", Monday, February 8, 2016
The Empire of Lies
At the beginning of the 5th century AD, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his "De Mendacio" ("On Lying"). Reading it today, we may be surprised at how rigid and strict Augustine was in his conclusions. A Christian, according to him, could not lie in any circumstances whatsoever; not even to save lives or to avoid suffering for someone. The suffering of the material body, said Augustine, is nothing; what's important is one's immortal soul. Later theologians substantially softened these requirements, but there was a logic in Augustine's stance if we consider his times: the last century of the Western Roman Empire.
By the time of Augustine, the Roman Empire had become an Empire of lies. It still pretended to uphold the rule of law, to protect the people from the Barbarian invaders, to maintain the social order. But all that had become a bad joke for the citizens of an empire by then reduced to nothing more than a giant military machine dedicated to oppressing the poor in order to maintain the privileges of the rich. The Empire itself had become a lie: that it existed because of the favor of the Gods who rewarded the Romans because of their moral virtues. Nobody could believe in that anymore: it was the breakdown of the very fabric of society; the loss of what the ancient called the auctoritas, the trust that citizens had toward their leaders and the institutions of their state.
Augustine was reacting to all this. He was trying to rebuild the "auctoritas", not in the form of mere authoritarianism of an oppressive government, but in the form of trust. So, he was appealing to the highest authority of all, God himself. He was also building his argument on the prestige that the Christians had gained at a very high price with their martyrs. And not just that. In his texts, and in particular in his "Confessions" Augustine was opening himself completely to his readers; telling them all of his thoughts and his sins in minute details. It was, again, a way to rebuild trust by showing that one had no hidden motives. And he had to be strict in his conclusions. He couldn't leave any openings that would permit the Empire of Lies to return.
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 of divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness. It was a spiritual and philosophical vision, but also a very down-to-earth one. Today, we would say that the Christians of late Roman times were engaged in "relocalization", abandoning the expensive and undefendable structures of the old Empire to rebuild a society based on local resources and local governance. The age that followed, the Middle Ages, can be seen as a time of decline but it was, rather, a necessary adaptation to the changed economic conditions. Eventually, all societies must come to terms with Truth. The Western Roman Empire could not do that, It had to disappear, it was unavoidable.
Now, let's move forward to our times and we have reached our empire of lies. On the current situation, I don't have to tell you anything that you don't already know. During the past few decades, the mountain of lies tossed at us by governments has been perfectly matched by the disastrous loss of trust in our leaders on the part of the citizens. When the Soviets launched their first orbiting satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957, nobody doubted that it was for real and the reaction of the US government was to launch their own satellites. Today, plenty of people even deny that the US sent men to the moon in the 1960s. They may be ridiculed, they may be branded as conspiracy theorists, sure, but they are there. Perhaps the watershed of this collapse of trust was with the story of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction" that we were told were hidden in Iraq. It was not their first, nor it will be their last, lie. But how can you ever trust an institution that lied to you so brazenly? (and that continue to do so?)
Today, every statement from a government, or from an even remotely "official" source, seems to generate a parallel and opposite statement of denial. Unfortunately, the opposite of a lie is not necessarily the truth, and that has originated baroque castles of lies, counter-lies, and counter-counter lies. Think of the story of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Somewhere, hidden below the mass of legends and myths that have piled up on this story, there has to be the truth; some kind of truth. But how to find it when you can't trust anything you read on the Web? Or think of peak oil. At the simplest level of conspiratorial interpretation, peak oil can be seen as a reaction to the lies of oil companies that hide the depletion of their resources. But you may also see peak oil as a scam created by oil companies that try to hide the fact that their resources are actually abundant – even infinite in the diffuse legend of "abiotic oil". But, for others, the idea that peak oil is a scam created in order to hide abundance may be a higher order scam created in order to hide scarcity. Eve higher order conspiracy theories are possible. It is a fractal universe of lies, where you have no reference point to tell you where you are.
Eventually, it is a problem of epistemology. The same that goes back to Pontius Pilate's statement "what is truth?" Where are we supposed to find truth in our world? Perhaps in science? But science is rapidly becoming a marginal sect of people who mumble of catastrophes to come. People whom nobody believes any longer after they failed to deliver their promises of energy too cheap to meter, space travel, and flying cars. Then, we tend to seek it in such things as "democracy" and to believe that a voting majority somehow defines "truth". But democracy has become a ghost of itself: how can citizens make an informed choice after that we discovered the concept that we call "perception management" (earlier on called "propaganda")?
Going along a trajectory parallel to that of the ancient Romans, we haven't yet arrived at having a semi-divine emperor residing in Washington D.C., considered by law to be the repository of divine truth. And we aren't seeing yet a new religion taking over and expelling the old ones. At present, the reaction against the official lies takes mostly the form of what we call "conspiratorial attitude." Although widely despised, conspirationism is not necessarily wrong; conspiracies do exist and much of the misinformation that spreads over the web must be created by someone who is conspiring against us. The problem is that conspirationism is not a form of epistemology. Once you have decided that everything you read is part of the great conspiracy, then you have locked yourself in an epistemological box and thrown away the key. And, like Pilate, you can only ask "what is truth?", but you will never find it.
Is it possible to think of an "epistemology 2.0" that would allow us to regain trust on the institutions and on our fellow human beings? Possibly, yes but, right now, we are seeing as in a mirror, darkly. Something is surely stirring, out there; but it has not yet taken a recognizable shape. Maybe it will be a new ideal, maybe a revisitation of an old religion, maybe a new religion, maybe a new way of seeing the world. We cannot say which form the new truth will take, but we can say that nothing new can be born without the death of something. And that all births are painful but necessary.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on October 22, 2016
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In the 1950s, during the high times of the "atomic age", someone had the unfortunate idea of claiming that nuclear technologies would give us, one day, "energy too cheap to meter." We might call it "the mother of all promises" and, of course, it was not maintained. But, as propaganda often does, it stuck in people's minds and it seems that many people still believe in the concept that energy too cheap to meter is just around the corner. Many seem to expect it to come with one of the many scams about "free energy" or "cold fusion" that litter the Internet today.
But breakthroughs bordering on miracles are claimed also in other fields of science and some scientists seem to have made a point in saving the world every two weeks or so. The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.
Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that "The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst." So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription "in the lab, it worked."
In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?
Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.
It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can't last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn't live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.
Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.
So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don't know, but wouldn't it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can't maintain?
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on October 12, 2016
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Today, in Cambridge, a meeting was held with several of the authors of the "Glimpses" that were part of the "2052" book by Jorgen Randers. The idea was to update the forecasts that were published in 2012.
Randers showed the update of his model, obtained with new data and with some modifications of the model itself. In five years, there have been modest changes and the basic results of the initial model are confirmed. Basically:
1. Randers' model sees the growth of both the economy (in terms of GDP) and of the population up to 2052; although the forecasted population is less than 9 billion people, much lower than the UN predictions.
2. Randers' model doesn't see scarcity for any resource, at least up to 2052
3. Inequality and poverty will remain as significant problems.
4. The model clearly says that we are NOT staying below the 2 degrees limits. Renewables will be growing fast, but so will do fossil fuels at least for another couple of decades. Randers' climate model (a different one) doesn't produce a "climate tipping point" for the rest of the century, but the raising temperatures will do enormous damage to the world's economy and to people.
Of course, forecasts are always difficult, especially when dealing with the future. My modest opinion is that Randers' model is good and I was impressed by the work that was done and that's being done to keep it up to date and to improve it; so I think that these results should be carefully studied and understood.
Then, still according to my modest opinion, there remains a fundamental problem: models based on system dynamics are not really made to catch tipping points. I think Randers is right when he says that we won't see the climate "catching fire" during this century. We may well be on our way to an ice free planet (and the corresponding 70 m of sea level rise) but that will not be for this century (hopefully!). The kind of tipping points that we are more likely to see are the result of coupling between the climate system and the socio-economic system. For instance, no model could predict the Syrian disaster, and yet its root cause is the double whammy of global warming and oil depletion. What can happen in the future as temperatures keep rising and resources being depleted, it is probably impossible to predict by any model.
But the meeting of today produced also elements of hope. The idea that renewables can make it seem to be diffusing and I myself presented the results of the study that we performed with Sgouridis and Csala that demonstrates just that. Others argued that the financial system is gearing up to provide the necessary resources for the transition. And, who knows? We might really make it! The future cannot be predicted, but we can always hope for a good future!
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on September 13, 2016
Discuss this article at the Collapse Narratives Table inside the Diner
Have you ever been dreaming of living in Roman times? Yes, those ancient and glorious times when the Romans had conquered all the known world and were ruling it by means of their legions, their laws, and their culture. But, if you were an ancient Roman, you would have known that you had a problem: the Roman Empire has often been under threat: rebellions, barbarians, all that. And, as a 21st-century person dreaming of those ancient times, you know that, eventually, the empire will fall. You know that Rome will be taken and sacked, that the Roman legion will be defeated and scattered, that the Roman ways will be lost and forgotten. It was the way history went but was it really unavoidable? Or could a wise emperor have done something to avoid that?
So, imagine that some powerful magic has you transferred to those remote times in the form of a Druid living in foggy Britannia, an ancestor of Merlin the wise, smart enough to figure out that something is rotten in the Roman Empire. Then, you know that it is a tradition of Druids to alert kings and rulers of the dangers ahead. After al, it is what Merlin did that for King Arthur. So, you want to do the same for the Roman Emperor. You want to use your 21st-century knowledge in order to save the empire.
Let's imagine that this druid lives during the golden age of the Empire, the time of the wise emperors. And let's imagine that the ruling wise emperor is actually Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who left us his thoughts that we still read today. So, you, as that druid, leave your town of Eburacum (that today we call York) in foggy Britannia and you march all the way to Rome. Your fame has preceded you and, when you arrive in Rome, the Emperor receives you, happy to meet such a wise man from a remote province of the Empire. So, you are in front of the emperor. He looks wise, too, with his gray beard and his solemn “trabea” toga, all dyed in the sacred purple, as it befits to a reigning emperor. Maybe you would tell him something like this.
Emperor, greetings from remote Britannia! Greetings from a druid whom more than a few say is wise. Good Marcus, I walked all the way from Eburacum to Rome to advise you; hear my words! The Empire is in trouble, in great trouble. The gold mines of Iberia do not produce any more gold in such an abundance as they did long ago and the coffers of the state are becoming empty. And, without much gold and silver to pay the legionnaires, the legions are not any more so numerous as they used to be. And the people of the Empire suffer under weight of the taxation that's needed to keep manned the fortifications that protect the Empire from its enemies. Emperor, the legions are becoming smaller, the people poorer, and the fortification less safe. And the barbarians surrounding the empire are numerous and warlike and everyday they become more numerous and more warlike. Emperor, if you don't do something, one day the barbarians will overrun the fortifications, they will defeat and disperse the legions, and they will besiege and take Rome. And the great Roman Empire will be no more.
But, Emperor, I have wisdom that I can access by the powers I have as a druid, and it is wisdom that can help the empire! First of all, I can tell you that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. It is a long travel to there, but if you send ships to those remote lands, you can find gold in abundance and replenish the coffers of the empire and with this gold you can pay the legionnaires and the Roman Army will be again as strong as it was in the old times. Then, Emperor, I can tell you that in the land I come from, there are black stones that burn. And these black stones are incredibly abundant. If you can send people to dig for them, with these black stones you can build great metal machines which, in turn, will build bigger and bigger machines. And these machines will do the work of many men and bring prosperity to the Empire. And, finally, emperor, I can tell you how to create a powder that burns; and it burns so fast that it makes a great noise and a great gust of wind comes out of it. And this powder can be made to catch fire inside a metal tube. And if one side of the tube is kept sealed and the other is open, you can place a lead ball into the tube, and the fire of the powder will project the ball fast and at a great distance and kill your enemies. And with this weapon your legions will easily defeat the barbarians. And this is the wisdom that i am bringing to you, Emperor. ”
The emperor looks at you, perplexed. He caresses his gray beard for a while. Then he speaks:
“Druid, I see that you know many things, and some of these things are truly wondrous to hear. And maybe, Druid, you are truly wise as some say you are. Yet, I daresay that this knowledge of yours may not be wisdom, after all. Let me tell you something about what you propose. First of all, it may be true that there are lands on the other side of the Great Ocean. And it may also be true that there is gold in these lands. But, Druid, there is gold also in much closer lands; and you should know that my predecessor, the good Emperor Trajan, may the Gods bless his memory, endeavored to invade the land that we call Dacia in order to obtain the gold that we knew was there. And you should know, druid, that the Roman legions fought hard and for a long time and covered themselves in glory and conquered that land and brought back much gold to Rome, But, druid, let me also tell you that the effort was great and the gold that could be brought to Rome was not so much that it could justify it. And so, if getting gold from a close land was so difficult and so expensive, how much more effort will take to get it from a much more remote one, on the other side of the Ocean, as you propose?
Then, druid, let me tell you something about the great machines that you propose to build and to power using those black stones that indeed I know exist in remote Britannia. Yes, maybe that would be possible. But the work of many men would be necessary to dig out the black stones. Would we have to weaken our fortifications or take men from farming to do that? And to bring the stones here, we would need a fleet of ships, but the fleet we have is engaged in bringing grain to Rome in order to feed the Romans. And, if we send the fleet to Britannia to load the black stones and carry them to Rome, what will the Romans eat? Would you want them to eat stones?
And, finally, druid, about those metal tubes that can kill people at a distance; yes, I understand that they could be a powerful weapon. But, druid, what would prevent our enemies, the barbarians, from getting those tubes themselves and using them against us? And if they were to build truly large ones, would they use them to bring down the great walls that defend the empire and the city of Rome?
The emperor keeps caressing his gray beard, looking at you. He remains silent for a while, then he speaks again, looking very solemn in his purple toga.
Druid, I understand that you may be sincere in telling me the things you told me and that you may really wishing to help the empire. Yet, I think that this pretended wisdom of yours is not useful to the empire and perhaps it is even dangerous for it. And, Druid, you should understand that I am the emperor of the Romans and I have power of life and death on everyone in the city of Rome and also on everyone within the limes of the Empire. And if I use my power it is to protect the empire from things that I judge dangerous for the empire. And so I was thinking that I could use this power to have your head lopped off, so that this knowledge of yours would not be a danger anymore for the Empire. But since I am steeped in the ways of philosophy and I know the sacredness of life, I will not do that. So, let me offer to you an escort that will lead you back to the town of Eburacum, in remote Britannia, where I trust you will stay and from where you will never come back here again.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on September 13, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
– the real cause of the growing social inequality in the US
In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Stan Sorscher reports the graph above and asks the question of what could have happened in the early 1970s that changed everything. Impressive, but what caused this "something" that happened in the early 1970s? According to Sorscher,
X marks the spot. In this case, “X” is our choice of national values. We abandoned traditional American values that built a great and prosperous nation.
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of an explanation that doesn't explain anything. Why did the American people decide to abandon traditional American values just at that specific moment in time?
In reality, the turning point of that time has been known for a long time. The first to notice it were Harry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison with their 1988 book "The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring And The Polarizing Of America." They noted that a lot of economic parameters had completely reversed their historical trends in the early 1970s, including the overall inequality measured in terms of the Gini coefficient. For nearly a century, the US society had been moving toward a higher degree of equality. From the early 1970s, the trend changed direction, bringing the US to an inequality level similar to that of the average South-American countries.
So, what was that "something" that changed everything in the early 1970s? Nobody really knows for sure, but at least there was a major measurable change that took place in 1970: peak oil in the US. (image below, from Wikipedia).
It was a true asteroid that hit the US economy and that changed a lot of things. Possibly the most important change was that the US ceased to be an oil exporter and became an oil importer. That change was "user transparent," in the sense that the Americans who were filling up the tanks of their cars didn't know where the oil that had produced their gasoline was coming from (and mostly didn't even care). But the change implied a major transfer of capital from the US to foreign producers, while a large part of it returned to the US in the form of investments. It was the "petrodollar recycling" phenomenon that mainly affected the financial system; all that money never really trickled down to the poorer sections of the US society. That may well explain the increasing inequality trend that started in the early 1970s.
But, if the oil peak of 1970 explains the inequality trends, shouldn't the new reversal of the trend – the "shale oil revolution" change everything again? Perhaps surprisingly, there is some evidence that this may be the case
The data from the World Bank indicate that the Gini coefficient for the US has peaked in 2006 and has remained constant, or slightly declining, ever since. Again, that makes some sense; one wouldn't have expected a return to the low inequality values of the 1960s since the great shale oil boom didn't transform the US into an oil exporter. At present, with the recent peaking of the Bakken field, it looks like that the good times of half a century ago will never return.
All this would require a lot of work to be better quantified and proven. But it is not a surprise that our life depends so much and so deeply on the production of that vital black liquid that we call "crude oil". And with the probable downturn of the US production that seems to be starting right now, we are going to see more, and more radical, changes in our society. What these changes will be, we have to see, but it is hard to think that they will be for better equality.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on September 4, 2016
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
There is a new and very interesting report on the attitudes of the public on Global Warming. It was published on "Environment" on Aug 26, with the title. "The Political Divide on Climate Change: Partisan Polarization Widens in the U.S. It is written by Riley E. Dunlap, Aaron M. McCright and Jerrod H. Yarosh.
The report provides updated data from Gallup polls that basically confirms some interpretations that I had proposed in earlier posts. We seem to be completely stuck with this debate. The percentage of Americans who agree with the scientific interpretation of global warming today is basically the same as it was 10 years ago. You can see it from the figure above; all the data of the report are consistent on this point. The two camps advance a little and retreat a little, but the front line moves very little.
The figure at the top is also interesting because it provides a long-term assessment of what propaganda can do. You see the remarkable dip in the public belief on the importance of global warming that was originated by the "climategate" psyop that raged in 2009-2010. It is something that will be remembered for centuries as a milestone in the history of propaganda. But look at the data: all the climategate sound and fury had some effect only for a few years. And note how it was most effective on the Republicans, that is the people who were already the most skeptical about climate science. On the democrats, the effect is nearly zero.
We see here both the power and the limits of propaganda. And it tells us something rather chilling. If we ever were able to mount an important information campaign in favor of science, it could hardly be more effective than Climategate was against science. At best, such a campaign would intensify the belief in good science of those who already believe in good science. The debate is stuck: as we keep preaching to the choir, nothing will change.
The reason for this situation is clear from the report – and not just from that. Partisan polarization is increasing in the US and, probably, everywhere in the Western World. And as long as the polarization is so sharp, nothing that can be said by one side will affect the other. And, while we are going nowhere, global warming is marching on.
Is there a way to unlock the situation? Possibly, but it can only be drastic. We know that there is a way to recompact the people of a country and have them fight for a common goal: war. That may be the reason why the West seems to be so much on a war footing nowadays; it is a desperate attempt to recover some kind of national unity while facing a terribly difficult economic situation. But, of course, a major war would spell disaster for all attempts to stop climate change. That is, unless it were to be the right kind of war.….