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
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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
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– 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
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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.….
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on August 26, 2016
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Italy may be an especially vulnerable place for earthquakes. It is a country located in a highly seismic zone where a large number of buildings have been erected just by piling up bricks, without worrying too much about safety. The results can be seen in the earthquake of a few days ago and in several other earthquakes of the past decades. (see the image above, source). But, if Italy is a bad place in terms of precautions against seismic events, it is normal that everywhere large earthquakes strike, the damage is enormous. Even Japan, although a country that places a lot of attention on earthquake safety, was badly hit by the 2011 tsunami and by the 1995 earthquake near Kobe.
The discussion about the recent earthquake in Italy raised up some comments on my Italian blog, one of which I found especially silly. Summarizing it, it said, "If earthquakes cannot be predicted, how can you pretend to predict climate change? We should just wait and see."
I think that the logic of this comment needs to be deconstructed; at least it is further evidence that human beings are not rational creatures. But it also raises an interesting point about the predictability of climate change. Much of the debate on climate turns around the often raised objection against the need of doing something that says, "if you can't predict exactly what's going to happen, then we should just sit and watch". Obviously, nobody would even dream to raise such an objection against reinforcing buildings against earthquakes, although in practice the idea is often resisted. Nor, anyone would maintain that you shouldn't wear seat belts in your car because you can't predict exactly when an accident will occur.
So, why is the debate on climate change so special? In one sense, it is the sheer vastness of the problem. While you can always think that the next earthquake will strike somewhere else, there is no escape from climate change: it affects the whole planet and that surely makes people tend to react by disregarding even the most elementary rules of logic. In another sense, it I think that the problem is in the very concept of "predictions". Geologists know a lot about earthquakes. but they have wisely abstained from trying to make predictions about them. Climatologists, instead, have made a big effort to develop predictive tools and they keep publishing diagrams telling us what temperatures we should expect for 2050 or 2100. That has led to a heated debate about the validity of the models which, as all models, can only be approximated (the map is not the territory).
Don't make me say that there is anything wrong in climate models. They are sophisticated, physics-based tools, perfectly valid within the assumptions that they make. There is, however, a problem. Climate change and seismic phenomena are, at the most basic level, very similar in the sense that they are both about the accumulation of energy in a reservoir. Geological faults cause the accumulation of elastic energy in the crust. Greenhouse gases cause the accumulation of thermal energy in the atmosphere and in the oceans.
Now, it is known that the release of elastic energy in the crust is not a linear phenomenon that generates sudden and catastrophic events. How about the release of thermal energy in the atmosphere/hydrosphere system? Mostly, we tend to think that it is a linear phenomenon: higher concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause rising temperatures and, indirectly, rising sea levels. But, unfortunately, that's not the whole story and it cannot be.
Complex systems tend to react to forcings in strongly non-linear ways, something that I termed the "Seneca Effect". And the rising temperatures may create plenty of sudden catastrophes when linked with the other elements of the ecosphere and also of the human econosphere. Just think of the effect of a sudden increase in the sea levels on the world's economy, largely based on marine transportation. And think about the effects on agriculture: much of the recent turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East may be seen as a non-linear reaction to rising temperatures and droughts.
But the most worrisome sudden transition related to greenhouse warming is known as the "runaway greenhouse" or the "Venus catastrophe;" the planetary equivalent of a major earthquake; something like what happened to the city of Amatrice, in Italy, completely razed down a few days ago. Of course, we may say that such a transition is "sudden" only in terms of a different time scale in comparison to earthquakes, but it may still be rapid enough to cause gigantic damage. We don't know for sure if such a catastrophe can occur on the Earth but, according to some recent studies, it seems to be possible. And make no mistake: a runaway greenhouse effect is not just a hotter earth, it involves the extinction of the biosphere.
In the end, the main problem of this whole story is that we don't know how to convince people about the risks related to non-linear phenomena, earthquakes, climate change and the like. Should we emphasize the risk? That has the unwanted effect that people tend to run away plugging their ears and singing "la-la-la." Or should we sweeten the pill and tell them that there is nothing to be really worried about; just a few minor adjustments and everything will be fine. That has the effect that nobody is doing anything, surely not enough. Will we ever find the right strategy?
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 31, 2016
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…and if a jellyfish stings you, you know why.
And yet, this invasion of alien jellyfish it was not normal just a few decades ago. And, surely, it was not normal a century ago when the sea coast of the Mediterranean sea was the home of many local fishermen who would make a living with their catch. But, today, what would they be bringing back home? Only a boatload of jellyfish, but their nutritive properties are not the top. So, there has been a change, a big change in the fish population in the sea. And this change has a cause: it is overexploitation which has depleted the fisheries. The sea has been nearly emptied of fish, and that has generated a booming jellyfish population and of other invertebrates, such as crabs and lobsters whose numbers, once were kept in check by the fish.
So, I could have told to my friend that the painful red stripes on her arm were the result of the human tendency of overexploiting natural resources: oil, fish, or whatever, our tendency to maximize our immediate profit leads to destroying the resources that make us live. However, wherever people still manage to make a living out of something, mentioning the depletion of that something is normally a no-no. You just don't say that. It is a long story that started when whalers swore that the fact that the couldn't catch so many whales anymore was because the whales "had become shy" (as you can read in Starbuck's "History of the American whale fishery," 1876). In modern times, mentioning depletion and overexploitation is often met with scorn especially from economists who remain convinced that the market mechanisms can optimize all economic activities. For instance, Daniel Pauly and others published already in 1998 a paper titled "Fishing down Marine Food Webs" describing exactly the phenomenon that leads the sea to become depleted in fish and rich in invertebrates. But, as you may expect, this was defined as a myth. You feel like telling these people to take a good swim in the Mediterranean sea and experience by themselves the abundance of invertebrates, there.
Eventually, anything and everything can be debated, discussed, supported, or denied. But I think that myself and my coworkers gave a non-negligible contribution to understanding the overexploitation of marine fisheries when we applied to the available data the same system dynamic models that are used for peak oil. And we found that the models work. The cycle of growth and decline of many fisheries can be described by a simple model that assumes that the main factor that affects productivity is the abundance of the fish stock. And the model shows that the fish stock declines; fish is removed from the sea faster than the stock can be replenished by reproduction. Here are the data for the Japanese fishery that we presented in Delft.
So, depletion is real, depletion is now, and if a jellyfish stings you, you know why.
If you like to have a copy of the paper presented at the Delft conference, just write me at ugo.bardi(zingything)unifi.it. The full paper is at present under review. And I have also to thank my coworkers Ilaria Perissi, Alessandro Lavacchi and Toufic El Asmar.
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on July 25 & 27, 2016
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I am writing this post just after having gone through one of the usual exchanges in the comments of a blog. You know how it goes: it is based on the idea that "renewables will never be able to replace fossil fuels." The reasons are always the same: renewables are intermittent, renewables cannot provide liquid fuels, renewables cannot fly wide-body planes, renewables cannot do this, renewables cannot do that. And if we try to move to renewables, we'll go back to barbarism.
A paragraph of the book that has forever remained in my mind tells of a restaurant, somewhere in the Japanese countryside, that Maraini describes as (p 116 of the 1st edition):
…. one of those monstrous local taverns where all the styles of history seem to have been distilled into a final residue of hideousness. Sensitive and discriminating as the Japanese are when they move within the orbit of their own civilization, they become barbarians when they renounce their past and mimic foreign ways … Renouncing a civilization means renouncing civilization.
… the bare concrete floor was plastered with congealed mud. When the Japanese abandon tatami, the straw mats on which they walk with bare feet, they are left with a psychological void. The floor, not being tatami, is merely an extension of the street: the street brought into the house.
And there we are: when we think of abandoning fossil fuels, we are left with a psychological void. Abandoning the fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization and a world not being powered by fossil fuels can only be the extension of the barbarian ages of the past. Barbarism brought into our world.
But no matter how much some of us dislike the new world we will be experiencing, we have no choice. I think we are in for quite some cultural shock!
Power is nothing without control: lessons from the failed coup in Turkey
About two thousand years ago, the Romans had developed the most effective military apparatus seen before in history and, with it, they had created a vast empire. However, with the first century before our era, they found that they had a problem: their stupendous military power was going out of control. One of the warlords of that time, Julius Caesar, had staged a successful military coup in 49 BCE. Even before that, the Roman legions had started fighting each other, led by one or another warlord: Marius against Sulla, Caesar against Pompey, Octavianus against Anthony, and more. And when the warlords were not fighting each other, they were engaging their forces in reckless military adventures that were putting the Roman state at risk. For instance, in 53 BCE, Marcus Licinius Crassus led the army in a disastrous expedition against the Parthian empire from which not even he came back alive. In short, the Romans were discovering that power is nothing without control.
The solution to the problem came from a man of exceptional military and political skills: Gaius Julius Octavianus. And it was a straightforward solution: the system had become unstable because it was too complex, it had to be drastically simplified by having only one warlord in command. So, Octavianus took the title of "emperor," that so far had meant just "commander," and added to it the title of "Augustus" (venerable) and that of "Caesar" to link it with the prestige of his predecessor. Most importantly, he started to link the imperial rule to religion. In time, the Roman Emperors were turned into semi-divine rulers, the porphyrogenites ("born in the purple"), people on whom the Roman Gods (and later on, the Christian God) had bestowed absolute power over their subjects. Rebellion against an emperor was not just a crime against the state, but a crime against God Himself.
Did it work? On the whole, yes. After Octavianus, the Roman Empire was turned into a remarkably resilient structure that was to last about half a millennium in the Western part of the empire, that was eventually doomed only by the collapse of its gold-based financial system. And Octavianus' idea of taking the title of "Caesar" was so successful that the Russian Emperors still called themselves "Czars," about two thousand years later. Not that Octavianus' idea stopped the rebellions completely and, in times of grave crisis, more than an individual at the same time would claim the title of Emperor of Rome. But, on the average, the Roman experience shows that a semi-divine (or even fully divine) ruler is a good way to keep the state together. As another example, we can think of Japan, where the military dictator of the country, the Shogun, though no divine ruler himself, ruled in the name of the divine emperor, the Tenno.
Now, move forward to our times and consider the recent events in Turkey, where we saw the Turkish army splitting in two and the local warlords fighting each other. Turkey is not an empire but it is (or perhaps was) part of the large empire that we call today "globalization." So, the struggle in Turkey was probably just a reflection of a deeper struggle within the empire, even though we'll probably never know the details of what exactly led to the coup. Outside Turkey, we are not yet seeing independent warlords fighting each other, but we are seeing that the Global Empire is engaging its military forces in reckless adventures that put the whole system at risk. The case of Iraq is just an example, to say nothing of the risk of a confrontation against a nuclear-armed state. For sure, the Global Empire has the most powerful military force ever developed in history, but all this power is nothing without control.
We seem to be facing the same problems that the Romans faced two thousand years ago: how to maintain control over a complex system that turns out to be unstable and prone to fighting against itself? The Romans solved the problem by drastically simplifying the system. Possibly, something similar can take place in the modern Global Empire, with the emperor in Washington becoming a divine ruler, taking up all the related trappings: crown, scepter, purple clothes, and the like. More than that, a divine ruler cannot be elected by the people: his power can only be the result of the divine will. We aren't yet seeing the Washington emperor claiming to be a divine being, but we may note how Mr. Erdogan played the religion card to gain the upper hand in the struggle in Turkey. Clearly, we are moving toward something new in the way the global empire is ruled, it is a slow and uncertain motion, but the general direction is clear. (*)
If there are similarities of our world with the ancient Roman one, we must also be careful to consider the differences. The complex system that we call "globalization" is much vaster than the Roman empire and it faces additional challenges. The Romans didn't have to face resource depletion, nor climate change, at least not in the same degree as we do, today. The Roman maritime transportation system kept working and supported the economic structure of the empire up to the very last decades of the existence of the Western Roman Empire. In the case of the Global Empire, the gigantic maritime transportation system that we call "containerization" is vulnerable to financial crisis, to a fuel supply crisis, and to sea level rise. A long-lasting interruption of the vital supply of goods carried by this system would rapidly kill the empire, no matter what the Global Emperor could order his armies to do. Then, a nervous warlord with nuclear weapons could bring the empire to an even faster end.
Overall, what we are seeing is all part of the behavior of complex systems, something that we still don't understand completely. We know that these systems are thermodynamical dissipative structures that evolve and change in order to maximize the dissipation rate. This is a phenomenon that goes on along an irregular path, sometimes taking the shape of the "Seneca Cliff", an abrupt and uncontrollable decline that often marks the end of those stupendous structures that we call "empires." Will we ever be able to overcome these cycles of boom and bust? So far, we haven't. At present, we are in full overshoot and it will be impossible to avoid some kind of collapse in the near future. We can only try to soften the blow, but the ongoing debate shows that the global elites really have no idea of what they are facing.
(*) Mr. Trump is clearly not the kind of person who can position himself as a semi-divine emperor. However, is probable incompetence as president may very well lead to a military coup of the same kind that led Julius Caesar to become emperor in Roman Times
On the loss of control that led to the demise of the Western Roman Empire, see also this post of mine: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2014/03/power-is-nothing-without-control-how-to.html
Published on Cassandra's Legacy on June 27, 2016
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(adapted from a story told by Wouter Diederen)
King of Babel: Minister, faithful minister, speak to me! I hear that there is unrest at the great tower that my workers are building. I hear that some workers want to leave, and I see that the tower is not growing anymore so fast as it was growing not long ago. Minister, tell me what's happening with my tower; the great tower of Babel of which, I, the King of Babel, am so proud!
Minister: King, what you say is true. There is unrest at the great tower of Babel, the workers are clamoring for better pay and a group of them have voted among themselves to stop working at the tower and go back to their land beyond the sea, where they will build their own tower. And because of this, the Great Tower of Babel is not growing anymore.
King: But, minister, why is that happening? Haven't these workers worked for so many years at my tower? Wasn't my tower nicely growing up until not long ago? What's happened that made the workers rebel against me, their master?
Minister: King, you see, we have a problem of energy return on investment…..
Minister: King, let me explain to you. In order to build the tower, we need stones from quarries. And it has happened that the nearby quarries have produced so many stones for the tower that there is no stone anymore there.
King: Minister, I was told about this problem. But I was also told that there are many quarries a little farther away that still hold plenty of stone. So what is the problem with getting good stones from these quarries?
Minister: King, you see, there lies the problem. In order to carry these stones from the quarry to the tower, we need a caravan of many mules pulling carts.
King: And what is the problem with that, minister?
Minister: Well, the problem is that we keep extracting stones and the quarries we get it from are farther and farther away.
King: But that just means that the caravans will have to travel farther away, right?
Minister: King, this is the energy problem I was telling you about. You see, mules need energy, in the form of food. And the people driving the mules need energy, too, in the form of food. So, some carts in the caravan must carry food for the mules and for the mule drivers, and therefore these carts cannot carry stones. And the farther the quarry is, the more food loaded carts there have to be in it.
King: So be it. What is the problem?
Minister: It is that the quarries we are exploiting at present are so far away that most of the carts must be loaded with food and only a few can carry stones. And so what you have are long, long caravans arriving from the quarry to the tower, but carrying very few stones.
King: So, make the caravans bigger, then there will be more carts loaded with stones for the tower.
Minister: King, we are doing that, but we are running out of mules. And we also need more caravans to bring wood for the scaffolding of the towers, and here, too, we must travel to far away forests to find good wood. In addition, the bureaucrats managing the tower have been growing in numbers and are now more numerous than the workers. And we need more caravans and more mules to feed the bureaucrats. As a result, the workers are now living on reduced food rations and they are not happy about that. As I said, it is a question of diminishing energy returns. We call this the "Limits to Growth."
Minister: So, I think we should start thinking of a sustainable tower, that won't need to grow anymore since it is already tall enough. And we could make a steady state tower that would need just a few stones to replace those that wear out. The energy investment would be much smaller……
King: Close your mouth, unfaithful minister! I do not believe a single word of what you told me. I think this story of the energy return is something you invented in order to confuse me. I think, rather, that the workers have become lazy. That the mule drivers have become lazy. And that the mules themselves have become lazy. And so, what I will do will be to punish the lazy workers, the lazy mule drivers, and the lazy mules as they deserve. And I will severely punish those workers who voted to move back to their island to build their own tower. They will feel the wrath of the king of Babel. Also, I think that my enemies outside the borders are plotting against me. And hence I will enlarge the army and attack them. And they, too, will feel the wrath of the king of Babel.
King: And, now that I think about that, I also need a new minister.