Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, January 28, 2013

Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of escaping the growth trap





You probably know the story of the man who invented the game of chess. It is said that he presented the game to the king and that he asked in exchange a grain of rice on the first square of the board, two on the second, four on the third and so on, for all the 64 squares. The story says that the king agreed to the deal, only to find out, later on, that the amount of rice he was supposed to provide was gigantic, larger than the amount existing in the whole world. 

The story doesn't say what happened at that point, but we may suppose that the king was not happy and that the inventor of the game received a reward much different than what he had asked for. So, we learn that growth is a trap and that doesn't apply just to grains of rice on a chessboard. It is always difficult to understand the consequences of exponential growth and everyone can fall in the trap; even whole civilizations. Today, we are still trying to go after the mythical "growth" that many think will magically solve all problems. Yet, many of us have this terrible feeling that it will be all useless and not just that. The feeling is that economic growth is taking us straight into the abyss. 

So, is there a way to get free? We don't know what our destiny will be, but there have been examples of civilizations who managed a long term equilibrium. One is Japan of Edo times, another one is Tuscany after the Renaissance. There was a fateful moment in Tuscan history when people understood that the solution to the terrible times they were experiencing was not growth but adaptation. It came gradually, but we can identify the turning point with the rule of Grand Duke Ferdinando 1st, who put Tuscany on a path that in a personal interpretation of mine I can describe as, "plant trees, disband the army and work together". A path that led to a few centuries of peace (or at least without major wars) and to a moderate prosperity.

Tuscany: escaping the growth trap



Tuscany is a region of central Italy stuck between the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a land of gentle hills and plains; of grain fields and of cypress trees, of farms and of walled cities. It has been like that from the time of the Etruscans, the first dwellers of the area and from whom the old name of Tuscia comes.

Even though small and relatively isolated, Tuscany came to play an important role in the world's history with the Renaissance; an age of poets, painters, sculptors, bankers, and explorers. For a while, the main city of Tuscany, Florence, was the center of the Western World; the place of the financial power, the center of commerce, the place where artists, literates, and professionals would go to learn their trade.

But the golden age of the Renaissance didn't last for long. Its peak times were maybe one or two centuries long. Then, with the 16th century, decline started. Plagues, famines, economic crisis, military invasions, gradually led Tuscany to become one of the poorest countries of Europe. Yet, population never collapsed and something survived of the old spirit of freedom and intellectual independence. In the early 17th century, Tuscany became a refuge for the Jews fleeing from persecution in Spain. Tuscany kept her universities and academies and, in 1786, it was the first European state to officially abolish torture and the death penalty. So, the Tuscan collapse was not total - it was managed; it was "soft" and not so disastrous as it could have been. How was it done? It is a long story that deserves to be told.


Growth and collapse in Tuscany

Emerging out of the terrible times of the Great Plague, in 14th century, Tuscany's agriculture was able to create the resources needed to restart population growth and to embark in that age of economic growth and of great artistic accomplishments that we call "Renaissance." But nothing can grow forever: a growing population meant that more and more land was needed to feed it, and that could be obtained only by clearing forests. That, in turn opened the way to erosion. And erosion destroys the fertile soil that supports agriculture.

Still today, you can see how bad the erosion problem was during those times by looking at the city of Pisa. Today, it is an inland city but, during the Middle Ages, it had been a thriving harbor. It is reported that, already in the 15th century, Pisa’s harbor had been silting because of sediments carried by the Arno River. In the 17th century, silting became so serious that the harbor had to be abandoned. The sediments that destroyed the harbor of Pisa were the rich soil that had once supported Tuscan agriculture and, with it, the Tuscan population.

With the decline of agriculture, the Tuscan economic system started imploding; commerce and industry could not survive without food. Famines became common. The proud citizens of Florence, the city that had been called the “New Athens," started going hungry. According to a chronicler, in 1590 Florentines were reduced to eat a kind of bread that “in older times would have been given to dogs, and perhaps dogs would have refused it."

The Tuscan cities declined also in terms of military strength and the once free cities of Tuscany fell one by one to foreign invaders. The republic of Florence fell to the Spanish Imperial Armies in 1530. The republic of Siena fell to the combined armies of Spain and of the Florentine Medici in 1555. Afterwards, Tuscany became a province of the Spanish Empire, although still maintaining some degree of independence. 


Plant trees, disband the army, work together

From the beginning, the Grand Dukes who ruled first Florence and then the whole Tuscany were turning their attention inward, to the management of the Tuscan territory. Already in 1559, at the time of Cosimo 1st of the Medici family, Tuscany had started a policy of protection of agriculture with a severe law that forbade cutting trees in the Appennino mountains, even on pain of death! That policy was continued by later rulers and Grand-Duke Ferdinando 1st was probably the turning point in abandoning all dreams of growth and expansion.

The monument to Ferdinando 1st (1549-1609), Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1587 to 1609. He was perhaps the first Tuscan ruler to recognize the end of growth times

Ferdinando ruled Tuscany from 1587 until his death in 1609. He was fond of saying that he ruled not by force but by "dignity only"; as his motto in Latin said: "maiestate tantum." He did a lot for agriculture, among other things enacting laws that reduced the tax burden on farmers. He went some steps further and he spoke of Tuscans as “worker bees" (“api operose") meaning that they had to work hard all together. Here is the symbol of the working bees in a bronze plate on Ferdinando's monument in Florence.

bees

The “Working Bees", (“Api Operose") symbol of Ferdinando 1st. Image on the monument in Piazza SS. Annunziata, Firenze.

Some warlike spirit remained in Tuscany during Ferdinando's rule and that led to skirmishes with the Turkish Empire. But, on the whole, this age was the start of a period of careful management of the territory, of reducing military expenses, of seeking for social harmony and justice. We could define this policy as "plant trees, disband the army, work together", even though Ferdinando himself never used these terms.

The Dukes who followed Ferdinando 1st, continued this policy. Agriculture remained a focus of the policy of the government. The laws protecting trees were maintained and expanded and, in 1753, Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo created the “Georgofili" academy with the specific task of promoting agriculture. The academy still exists today and its motto is “For the sake of public prosperity."

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The symbol of the Georgofili Academy established in Florence in 1753. The writing says  “Prosperitati Publicae Augendae" (“In favor of public prosperity")



The Tuscan government also progressively reduced military expenses. The navy had basically ceased to exist with the first years of the 18th century and the army created by the Medici family was progressively reduced in strength until it was formally disbanded in 1753 by Grand Duke Francesco Stefano. New kinds of armies were created in later times but, basically, Tuscany just couldn’t afford war. Often, her borders had to be opened to invaders; it caused less harm than fighting them. Tuscany underwent a good number of invasions but, on the whole, these wars never brought great destruction. After the fall of Siena, in 1555, Tuscany didn’t see one of her cities besieged and bombarded until 1944, almost four centuries later.

It took time but, eventually, these policies had their effects on reducing the severity of the decline and of bringing Tuscany back from collapse. From the 18th century onward, agriculture managed a comeback. Famines didn’t disappear but could be contained while commerce and industry restarted with a new network of riverways and roads.

Not everything was perfect during this period. One problem was that Tuscany never really succeeded in stabilizing population, which slowly grew from less than half a million in 15th century to more than a million in 18th century. As a consequence, there remained a strong pressure to find new land for agriculture. So, the rules that protected trees were relaxed more than once. It is reported that, in 1780, a group of woodcutters fell on their knees in front of Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo, pleading hunger. This resulted in a decree liberalizing tree cutting. But the mountains were reforested and the policies of protecting agriculture maintained.


Our times

With the 19th century, Tuscany merged with the newly created Italian state and the industrial revolution generated a new phase of rapid population growth and economic expansion. With the improvement of the transportation network and the development of railroads, famines became a thing of the past. The last recorded one in Tuscany was in 1898-1899. Forest suffered during this period of expansion; nevertheless, today Tuscany remains one of the most forested regions of Italy, a legacy of the policy of the old Grand-Dukes.

But times have changed and the latest wave of building frenzy seems to be transforming some of the once fertile areas of Tuscany into areas that look like suburbs of Los Angeles. With a population four times larger than it was at the time of the famines and with climate change and the oil crisis looming, Tuscany is facing difficult times. But we have a tradition of caring for the land that has helped us in the past. It will help us also in the uncertain future.

Can Tuscany be seen as a model of “soft collapse" for other regions of the world? Perhaps; at least it gives us a recipe that worked from the time of Grand Dukes: "plant trees, disband the army, work together. It is not exactly what we are doing right now, but we may learn.


This is a revised version of a post published in 2006 on the blog "Transition Culture.It was one my first posts in English and, some years later, I think it is appropriate to repost it on "Cassandra's legacy" with some modifications and corrections. I am grateful to Susan Kucera for leading me to return to this subject and for suggesting to me the analogy with the "grains on the chessboard" story .

____________

Notes:

Most of the data that I report about Tuscan agriculture in ancient times come from the book "ALPI" by Matteo Biffi Tolomei published for the first time in the early 1800s and re-published in 2004 with a post-faction by Fabio Clauser. (Libreria Editrice Fiorentina)

Data on the history of the Tuscan army at the time of the Grand Dukes are also not so easy to find, but a description can be found in "Corpi armati e ordine pubblico in Italia (XVI-XIX sec.)": Seminario di studi, Castello Visconti di San Vito, Somma Lombardo, 10-11 novembre 2000 Livio Antonielli, Claudio Donati Rubbettino Editore, 2003. For a history of the Tuscan Navy, see the relative article in Wikipedia 

Data on the population of Tuscany from Middle Ages to present times can be found in the paper (in Italian) by Marco Breschi and Paolo Malanima, ""Demografia e Economia in Toscana"  

A list of famines in Tuscany up to 1736 can be found in this document, by the Georgofili Academy. There aren't many data available about the famine of 1898-99 that affected all Italy and that was, probably, the last recorded famine in the country. A description can be found in this document (in Italian) 
The site of the Georgofili academy.




Monday, January 21, 2013

Ugo Bardi speaks about limits to growth





This is the video record  of the talk on resource depletion I gave in the University of Bielefeld, Germany, in November of 2012. It is almost one hour and a half long, so I am not sure that anyone would really want to watch it. In any case, if you are interested in the subject, you may try.

The gist of the talk, anyway,  is that depletion is not an isolated problem. Minerals are part of the geological cycles of the Earth. When we extract a mineral and we disperse it all over the ecosystem we cause changes of all kinds, besides the obvious fact that we use non renewable resources. So, for instance, when we extract fossil fuels we alter the climate. The two problems: fossil fuel depletion and climate change are two sides of the same coin. And that is true of all the minerals we use - in most cases depletion is just one side of a larger problem.




Thanks to professor Marcus Kracht for having organized this presentation in Bielefeld.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The end of the E-Cat story? Andrea Rossi loses supporters for his "cold fusion" device




The story of the E-Cat, the "cold fusion" device proposed by Mr. Andrea Rossi seems to be losing interest everywhere. Yesterday, Jan 14, another of Rossi's supporters, Mr. Daniele Passerini, announced that he is abandoning the fray and closing down his blog, at least for the time being.

Mr Passerini's blog, titled "22 steps of love" has been the main focus of support for the E-Cat in Italy up to now. He says in his last post, titled "ad maiora" that "Some time ago, I wrote that, after that two years would have passed from the date of January 14 2011, I would quit in any case in the absence of official and certain announcements on the reality of the E-Cat." Passerini states that he will be waiting patiently and "will return when the news that we have been waiting for during the past two years will arrive"

The closing of Mr. Passerini's blog comes after that, in November of last year, another of Mr. Rossi's supporters, Mr. Paul Story of "eCatNews" declared that he would close his  blog because, "with scant hope of Rossi delivering on his promises, I find myself wondering why I would waste any more time on him. If he is committing fraud, he should be pursued by the police. Interest in the man or the subject is now relegated to the level of curiosity, not dedication."

Earlier on, in April 2012, Mr. Sterling Allen of the blog PESN (Pure Energy Systems) had been appalled at Rossi's behavior and had stated, "I apologize to anyone that I've encouraged to try and do business with Andrea Rossi, and I retract my endorsement" even though he later continued to cover announcements about the E-Cat. (*)

The supporters of the E-Cat are still numerous and the marketing techniques of Mr. Rossi have generated a remarkable number of imitators. So, what we are seeing is not likely to be the end of the story. However, these defections are a clear symptom that the interest in the E-Cat is winding down. After two years of impossible claims, missed demonstrations, broken promises, and unverifiable endorsements, no other outcome was possible.






(*)Mr. Sterling Allen commented on this post stating that "But a few months after that I felt he (Rossi) was back on a better track, and worth giving my confidence in again... Though I don't know for sure, I have a high extent of confidence in Rossi and his group.





Sunday, January 13, 2013

Can we trust the reporting of environmental issues by the mainstream media?


Guest Post by Max Iacono:


Among the various lessons we learned in 2012 there is also whether or not the so-called “mainstream media” really can be trusted to tell the truth about environmental issues.  Or can it be trusted to do just the opposite,  and in various diverse and difficult to detect ways?

This additional “lesson to be learned” is in fact the subject of an entire excellent –and also recently published book by the title “Project Censored 2013”, which describes quite well many of the important issues which the mainstream media has mostly (or fully) censored,  or completely misled us about,  over this past year or so. 

The book is available on Amazon in both Kindle and hard copy versions. I recently purchased it and have been reading it. I thought the Foreword by Dr. Nafeez Mosssadeq Ahmed was particularly clear and convincing and nicely summed up the current situation with respect to mainstream media censorship of “inconvenient topics” and in particular those which are of interest and concern to Cassandra Legacy readers and that deal with the environment and its various aspects. And also with Al Gore’s extremely “inconvenient truth” which is becoming more and more inconvenient by the day to some, but much more convenient to the millions or even billions of people who think something should be done urgently about climate change.  Some have said that the ratio of persons on one side to those on the other is 1 to 99 (or 99 to 1) but I will leave that particular quantitative aspect aside for the time being.

The book –and this particular post which tries to give an idea of what the book is about - also offers an additional perspective or amicable warning to us all regarding the ubiquitous “mainstream media” -   is also a kind of logical follow-on to my own earlier post on Cassandra Legacy by the title “Limits to Growth” : An Alternative History

In that post I tried to argue that the old book Limits to Growth (first published in 1972) might have been  better received  -or at least less poorly received and less “demonized”- if it had taken into account in its World Model (or at least had done so qualitatively, separately) not only the variables which it did consider and model –namely a series of economic, industrial, resources, pollution, and demographic variables all in interaction within its dynamic systems model-,  but also selected variables of culture, identity, politics, political science, political economy, societal institutions,  and ideology. 

This second set of variables I believe were those that had caused the book to be “demonized” once its central message that there are limits to growth and that “economic growth forever” is not possible on a finite planet, clearly came up against them, in the so called real (social) world.  That is, “the real world” of business, politics, economics, religions, and their various academic disciplines and professions, and up against their many representatives and advocates.   And this also since to many who are active in those disciplines and professions apparently the “real world of physics, chemistry and biology” (and ecology) regrettably is either considered to be “pretty unreal” or is secondary,  or at least is not particularly worthy of much serious or top priority policy consideration.  And of course one very important player in that broad social context -and one which also significantly influences and affects all the rest- is the so-called mainstream (or corporate) media in all of its forms. That is, mainstream –and generally corporate-owned, newspapers, magazines, TV channels, radio, and etc. etc. including also some Internet media.

Did the mainstream media “inform” the wider public, or did it misinform, or “dis-inform and mislead” the public with respect to the book Limits to Growth?  And even more significant at this specific time, is it informing or dis-informing right now with respect to the ongoing and continuing significant range of serious environmental problems, topics and issues?  And in particular with respect to climate change, peak oil, limits to growth and other particularly important environmental topics and issues such as Arctic methane, ocean acidification, Arctic and Antarctic ice melt, diminishing or dwindling fish stocks, biodiversity and habitat loss, ongoing deforestation, advancing desertification, and several others.   The reader can make up her / his own mind about that, but I would like to offer the following for consideration:

First, below follows a list of the titles of the 15 chapters of the book Project Censored 2013 which provides a pretty good idea of what topics those who wrote or compiled the book –and there were many contributing chapter authors- think the mainstream media has either censored or lied to us (the wider public) about.  And, moreover, most often in quite clever and deceptive ways which are very difficult to detect, pick up and deconstruct. And for those who may be interested in reviewing some of the specific ways and techniques through which the mainstream media (in this specific instance Fox News Channel) (but they are by no means the only ones) lies to us and tries to deceive us, they can read the following very good article which summarizes their top 14 techniques: “Fourteen Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans

Some of the topics and book sections in “Project Censored 2013” deal with some of the main issues treated by Cassandra Legacy -namely climate change, peak oil and limits to growth- and some deal instead with other issues related to politics, democracy, and U.S. foreign and domestic policy, which often are equally censored or lied about.  And if one reads the book one might also consider quite apt an alternative possible title for the book that I came up with myself (only in “jest”) and namely:
“Project Dissembled, Denied, Distorted, Delayed, Deleted, Deflected and Deceived

About by the Mainstream Media”, or perhaps more succinctly and humorously simply “Mainstream Media Project-7D”.  In any case, here is the list of the book’s chapters:

1. “The top 25 Censored Stories from 2011-2012 and Censored News.   Clusters:
 i) The Police State and Civil Liberties
ii) From “Bankster Bailout” to “Blessed Unrest”:  News we can use to create a US economy for the 99 percent
iii) Environment and Health
iv) Human Costs of War and Violence
v) Women and Gender, Race and Ethnicity

2. Déjà vu:  What happened to previous censored stories?

3. American Idle:  Junk Food News, News Abuse, and the Voice of Freedumb

4. Media Democracy in Action

5. Ownership Backfires:  A Taxonomy of Concepts Related to Censorship

6. The Global 1 Percent Ruling Class Exposed

7. The Information War:  How Government is Seeking Total Information Awareness and What This Portends for Freedom and Democracy

8. GerM Warfare:  How to Reclaim the Education Debate from Corporate Occupation
 

9. Kent State:  Was it about Civil Rights or Murdering Student Protesters?
 

10. The Creative Tension of the Emerging Future:  Facing the Seven Challenges of Humanity
 

11. Guantanamospeak and the Manufacture of Consent
 

12. Framing Al-Awlaki:  How Government Officials and Corporate Media Legitimised a Targeted Killing
 

13. A Morally Disengaged America:  Sacrificing Iraqi Refugees to Terrorism Fears and Anti-Immigration
 

14. On the Road to Fukushima:  The Unreported Story Behind Japan’s Nuclear-Media-Industrial Complex
 

15. An Occupation of Truth:  Indian Administered Kashmir”


As a conclusion, below I add a quote containing several specific examples regarding the recent treatment by the mainstream media of peak oil and climate change –including also what Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed says about each- in his excellent foreword to the book.

At a time when the world faces tipping points in the escalation of multiple crises, the publication of this volume is of momentous significance.
 

As I write, a sampling of the latest “mainstream” corporate news illustrates the unprecedented nature of our current predicament as a civilization.  The bizarre and extreme weather of the early United States summer prompted one leading climate scientist to state boldly that we are “certainly seeing climate change in action,” as a window on a worsening future.  Record-shattering heat waves, wildfires, and freak storms are a taste of things to come – “This is just the beginning” said one meteorologist.
 

Simultaneously, the International Monetary Fund cut its growth forecast for the US economy, warning that the ongoing Eurozone crisis, along with the weak housing market, risks triggering a recession by 2013 while the jobless rate morphs into “higher structural unemployment”.
 

As the defunct neoliberal model of casino capitalism wreaks havoc at home, it is doing the same abroad.   Global food prices doubled between 2006 and 2008, and despite some fluctuation, remain largely at record levels.  One of the key causes has been speculation in derivatives –thirteen trillion dollars was invested in food commodities in 2006, then pulled out in 2008, and then reinvested again by 2011.  The rocketing food prices for the global poor have generated an unprecedented global food crisis across the developing world
 

But another driver of the food crisis is climate change, which has already led to crop failures in key food basket regions.  This is only going to get worse on a business-as-usual model, which could lead to a minimum 4 degrees Celsius rise by mid-century.  Even a 2-degree rise could lead to a minimum 4 degrees Celsius rise by mid-century.  Even a 2-degreee rise would lead to dramatic crop failures and soaring meat prices; at 4 degrees Celsius, rice crops could be reduced by about 30 percent, leading to global food shortages and hunger.
 

Amid this escalating frenzy of perfect storms, however, over the last year the corporate media has focused on one apparent light at the end of the tunnel: unconventional oil and gas.  “Has Oil Peaked?  Read one headline in the Wall Street Journal.  Across the pond, BBC News asked, “Shortages: Is ‘Peak Oil’ Idea Dead?”  Environmentalists have also jumped on the bandwagon.  Andrew C. Revkin in the New York Times took “A Fresh Look at Oil’s Long Goodbye, while George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that “We Were Wrong on Peak Oil.  There’s Enough to Fry Us All”
 

The essence of this uniform message is that the new drilling methods – like hydraulic fracturing, i.e. “fracking” among others- have allowed the fossil fuel industry to exploit previously untapped reserves of tar sands, oil shale, and shale gas, bringing them to market at much cheaper prices than hitherto imaginable, and effectively turning the US from net oil importer into a leading exporter.
 

But it should come as no great surprise to Project Censored readers that,  once again, the corporate news media has obfuscated the facts.  The latest figures from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) confirm that the supposedly massive boost in unconventional oil production that is pitched to launch the world into a glorious future of petroleum abundance – capable of sustaining the wonders of capitalist economic growth ad infinitum – has had negligible impact on world oil production.  On the contrary, despite the US producing a “total oil supply” of ten million barrels per day – up by 2.1 million since January 2005 – world crude oil production remains on the largely flat, undulating plateau it has been on since it stopped rising around that very year.  As reported by oil markets journalist Gregor Macdonald, who has previously reported for the Financial Times and Harvard Business Review, among other publications:
 

Since 2005, despite a phase transition in prices,  global oil production has been trapped below a ceiling of 74 mmbpd (million barrels per day).  New production from new fields and new discoveries comes on line, but it has not been at a rate fast enough to overcome declines from existing fields.  Overall, global decline has been estimated at a minimum of 4% per year and as high as 6+% pa year.  Given that new oil resources are developed and flow at much slower rates, the existing declines present a formidable challenge to the task of increasing supply I see no set of factors, in combination that would take global production of crude oil higher in 2012, or next year, or thereafter.
 

Yet this stark fact has not been reported in any mass media news outlet whatsoever, anywhere in the world. Indeed,  Macdonald points out that data from British Petroleum’s Statistical Review of World Energy shows that oil’s heyday is well and truly in decline.  In 1973, oil as a percentage of global energy use had peaked at around 48.5 percent.  Forty years later, “oil is barely hanging on as a the world’s primary energy source, with a much reduced role as a supplier of only 33.5% of all world energy consumption.”
 

The disparity in reporting is instructive. In June 2012, the corporate media focus on the unconventional oil boom revolved around one study in particular by oil company executive Leonardo Maugeri – former executive vice president of Italian oil major ENI.  The report was not peer-reviewed but as published at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs by the Geopolitics of Energy Project, “which is supported in part by a general grant from the (same) oil major (i.e. ENI),” conceded the WSJ.  Hardly an impartial perspective, then.
 

Meanwhile, a series of peer-reviewed reports by independent scientists published in highly reputable science journals from January through to June 2012 – Science, Nature, and Energy – have been blacked out in corporate news reporting.  In Energy Gail Tverberg documented that since 2005, “world oil supply has not increased”, that this was “a primary cause of the 2008-2009 recession,” and that the “expected impact of reduced oil supply” will mean the “financial crisis may eventually worsen.”  An even more damning analysis was published in Nature by James Murray and Sir David King, the latter being the British government’s former chief scientific adviser.  Murray and King’s analysis found that despite reported increases in oil reserves, tar sands production, and hydrofracturing-generated natural gas, depletion of the world’s existing fields is still running at 4.5 percent to 6.7 percent per year, and production at shale gas wells could drop by as much as 60 to 90 percent in the first year of operation
 

Curiously forgotten in the spate of reporting on the opportunities opened up by fracking is a New York Times investigation from 2011, which found that “the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.”  The e-mail revealed industry executives, lawyers, state geologists, and market analysts voicing “skepticism about lofty forecasts” and questioning “whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves.”  A year later, it seems, such revelations were merely destined for their memory hole”
 

Following the above opening section the Foreword to the book goes on to describe additional examples and also the role which a book such as “Project Censored 2013” can play in at least exposing the disinformation or the non-information so often “put out” or censored by the mainstream media.  Which is something it often does instead of putting forward real facts and truthful stories and their respective most plausible and most sensible overall descriptive or explanatory or prescriptive narratives,  which could help tie together and integrate i.e. “connect the dots” regarding the important evidence and facts,  and thereby also support and be able to provide significant help to those who are concerned and are trying to do something about the issues….through their various ongoing struggles.  And I say “ongoing” because the key issues and problems (already listed above) are certainly NOT going to go away in 2013.  So we had better be ready also for the long haul and will need all of the intellectual and other help we can get.  And having access to accurate, reliable and valid information is of course quintessential, just as it is quintessential for democracy itself to function properly. 
 

But I am not a “conspiracy theorist” and moreover nothing is black and white. Is all of the “mainstream media” and its countless writers and protagonists equally bad and misleading or is it always omitting important stories,  and is it bad and lying all of the time and in every instance?  And is everything which is reported in the “non-mainstream” media always factual, truthful and correct?  And although “exceptions often prove the rule” there remains always, and in any case, a key element of personal responsibility to  try to figure out what actually is true or false and what is just or fair or not, and  which narratives and story-lines make the most sense and which do not.  So it is probably also useful to try to consult multiple sources even if perhaps only one among the many later will be shown to have contained the facts and have been correct.   Also remembering of course that a lie or a deception repeated fifty times,  is still a lie.   But I think it can be of great “ex ante” “heuristic help” when navigating the information territory to know at least generally speaking who one’s friends are -and whether they are only “fair weather” friends and NOT also “fair climate” friends- and who instead are the self-serving liars and the promulgators of assorted exercises in deception, i.e.  “the spin starts here” sorts of people. 


Friday, January 4, 2013

A New Year's tale



In 1960, Vladimir Dudintsev (1918-1998) published a short novel titled "A New Year's tale."  This story greatly impressed me when I read it, many years ago, in an Italian translation in a collection titled "Russian Science Fiction"



Some 50 years ago, I received as a Christmas present a book titled "Russian Science Fiction." All the stories in that book made a deep impression on me, but there was one that has remained in my mind more than the others; a curious story titled "A New Year's Tale".

I was, maybe, 12 at that time and, of course, I couldn't understand everything of that story and I didn't pay attention to the name of the author. But, as time went by, I didn't forget it; rather, it became entrenched in my mind, progressively acquiring more meaning and more importance. I reread it not long ago, and it came back to my mind during a recent trip to Russia. So, let me tell you this story as I remember it.

"A New Year's Tale" tells of one year of life of the protagonist, a researcher in a scientific laboratory somewhere in the Soviet Union. Dudintsev manages to tell the story without ever giving specific details about anything: no place names, no names of the characters, not even of the protagonist. It is a feat of literary virtuosity; it gives to the story an atmosphere of fairy tale but, at the same time, it is very, very specific.

It took me time before I could understand the hints that Dudintsev gives all over the text, but after many trips to Russia everything fell in place. It is curious how Dudintsev managed to catch so well the atmosphere of a research lab in the Soviet Union; he was not a scientific researcher. But that's what makes a great story teller, after all: understanding what one is describing - and feeling something for it.

The story starts with a debate - rather, a quarrel - that the protagonist  has with someone termed "a provincial academic" (of course, we are not told his name). This provincial academic should be nothing more than a nuisance, but the protagonist can't stop from engaging in the debate. He understands that he  is losing time, that he should be doing something more useful, more important. But he just can't sit down and do his job.

While the protagonist is entangled in this useless quarrel, the chief of the laboratory (again, we are not told his name) dabbles in archeology and one day he tells his coworkers of a research of his somewhere in the Caucasus, where they found an ancient tomb. There was an owl engraved on the tombstone and an inscription that they could decipher. It says "...and the years of his life were 900...."

Now, what could that mean? Could the man buried there have lived 900 years? No, of course not. But then, what does the inscription mean? Well, someone says, that must mean that this man spent his life so well and so fully that it was like his years had been 900.

The discussion goes on. What does it mean to live such a full life? The researchers try to find an answer but, at some moment, they hear the voice of someone who usually keeps silent at these reunions. We are told that he is from far away, not Russian, that is. We can imagine that this man doesn't have a Russian name, but we are not told names. So, he is an outsider and he comes with a completely different viewpoint; let me call him "the foreign scientist" even though in the old Soviet Union, theoretically, there was no such distinction. "You see, comrades," he says, "it is very simple. To live a full life, you must always choose the greatest satisfactions, the highest joys you can find."

At this point, we hear the voice of the political commissioner of the lab. Apparently, there was usually someone in scientific academies in the Soviet Union who was in charge of making sure that Soviet Scientists would not fall into doing decadent capitalist science. So, he stands up and he tells the foreign scientist, "Well, comrade, don't you think one should also work for the people or something like that?" And the foreign scientist answers, "You are so backward, comrade. Don't you understand? The greatest satisfaction, the highest joy one can have in life is exactly that: working for the people!"

After that the discussion is over, the protagonist of the story reflects on the words of the foreign scientist and he resolves to start doing something serious in his life. He decides to start doing experiments, advance his theory. We are not told exactly what he is doing, but we understand that he is  working on something important; a great discovery that has to do with capturing and storing solar light. And he manages to work on that for some time. Then, his colleagues bring to him another paper written by his provincial antagonist. So, he feels he has to answer that, and then the provincial academician responds.... and the protagonist finds himself entangled again into this argument that he can't abandon.

Things are back to the silly normalcy of before, but then something happens. The protagonist finds that he is being stalked. Someone, or something, is following him all the time. When he sees it in full he discovers that it is an owl. A giant owl, almost as big as a man, looking at him. He thinks it is a hallucination, which of course it must be. But he keeps seeing this owl over and over.

So, the protagonist goes to see a doctor and the doctor asks him what made him come there. "An owl" he says, and the doctor pales. After a thorough physical examination the doctor tells him: "you have one year to live, more or less." We are not told of what specific sickness the protagonist suffers. He asks, "but why the owl?" And the doctor answers, "we are studying that. You are not the only one. The owl is a symptom." Then, the doctor looks at the protagonist straight in his eyes and he says, "I can tell you something. Those who see the owl, have a chance to be saved."

In the meantime, there had been a long discussion between the protagonist and the foreign scientist, the one who had so well silenced the political commissioner. So, the foreign scientist had told to the protagonist his story, obliquely, yes, but clearly understandable. His fellow countrymen had not liked the idea that he had left the country to become a scientist. They are described as gangsters and criminals, but we have a feeling that there was something more at stake than just petty crimes. This man had made a choice and that had meant to make a clean break from his country and his culture; it had meant to accept the new Soviet Communist society. Now, he was spending his time in this new world trying to get his "greatest satisfactions and highest joys" by working for the people. And, because of that, his former countrymen had condemned him to death. So, he had changed his name and his identity, and he had even surgically changed his face to become unrecognizable. But he knew that "they" were looking for him and they would find him at some moment.

So, the destiny of the protagonist and of the foreign scientist are somehow parallel, they both have a limited time. After having seen the doctor, the protagonist understands the situation and he rushes to search for the foreign scientist. They can work together, they can join forces, in this way, maybe they can....  but in horror he discovers that the scientist has been killed. 

In panic, the protagonist desperately looks for the notes he had collected over the years. But the cleaning lady tells him that she had used them to start the fire in the stove. She had no idea that they could have been important. The protagonist feels like he is walking in a nightmare. Just one year and he has lost his notes. He starts from scratch.... his great discovery.... how can he do? Yet, he decides to try.

He becomes absorbed in his work. He works harder and harder. Staying in the lab night and day and, when he goes home, he keeps working. His colleagues note the change; they are surprised that he doesn't react any more to the attacks of the provincial academician, but he doesn't care (which is, by the way, a good lesson on how to handle Internet flames). He still sees the owl; always bigger and coming closer to him, the owl has become something of a familiar creature, almost a friend.

Then, someone appears. It is a woman with well formed shoulders (of course, we are not told her name!). The protagonist recognizes her. It is not the first time he has seen her. He remembers having seen her with the now dead foreign Scientist.

The protagonist has no time for a love story. He has to work. He tries to ignore the woman but he is also attracted to her. He can concede her just a few words. Ten minutes, maybe. So they talk and the woman tells him. "It is you, I recognize you! You can't fool me!" The protagonist remembers something that the foreign scientist had told him; that he had his face surgically changed to escape from his enemies. Now, this woman thinks that the protagonist is really her former lover, who changed again face and appearance and didn't tell that not even to her.

The protagonist tries to deny that he is the former lover of the woman but, curiously, he doesn't succeed, not even to himself. In a way, he becomes the other, acting like him in his complete immersion in his work. The protagonist discovers that the foreign scientist had assembled a complete laboratory at home, much better than the lab at the academy. So he moves there, with the woman with the well formed shoulders (and the owl comes, too, perching on a branch just outside the window). Then, the protagonist even discovers that the foreign scientist was secretly copying his notes and he gave them to the woman, who has kept them for him. With these notes, he can gain months of work. Maybe he can make it in one year, maybe.....

The last part of the story goes on at a feverish pace. The protagonist becomes sicker and sicker; to the point that he has to stay in bed and it is the woman with the well formed shoulders who takes up the work in the lab. And the owl perches on the bed head. But they manage to get some important results and that's enough to catch the attention of the lab boss. He orders to everyone in the lab to come there and help the protagonist (and the woman with the well formed shoulders) to move on with the experiments.

In the final scene, the year has ended and we see the protagonist in bed, dying. But his colleagues show him the results of the experiment: something so bright, so beautiful; we are not told exactly what: anyway it is a way to catch sunlight in a compact form: a new form of energy, a new understanding of the working of the sun - we don't know, but it is something fantastic. Even the owl looks at that thing, curious. The protagonist hears the sound of bells from the window. A new year is starting. We are not told whether he lives or not, but in any case it is a new beginning and, whatever it happens, they'll tell of him that the years of his life had been 900.


And here we are. You see, it is a magic story. It keeps your attention; you want to know if the protagonist lives or not and you want to know if he manages to make his great discovery. But it is also the story of the life and of the mind of scientists that I think you can't find anywhere else in novels or short stories. It is curious that Dudintsev did so well because, as I said, he wasn't a scientist; he was a literate. But he managed to catch so incredibly well the life of a scientist - of a scientist working in the Soviet Union, yes, but not just that. Dudintsev's portrait of science and scientists goes beyond the quirks of the old Soviet world.

Yes, in Soviet science there were things that look strange for us, such having a political commissioner in the lab to watch what scientists are doing. But that's just a minor feature and today we have plenty of different constraints on what we do that don't involve a dumb political commissioner. The point is that scientists often work as if their life were to last just one year; at least during the productive time of their life; when they are trying to compress each year as if it were to be 900 years long. It is their lot: the search for the discovery, being so deeply absorbed in their work, being remote from everyone else; obsessed with owls that they alone can see.

And yet, Dudintsev's story is so universal that it goes beyond the peculiar mind of scientists. It is the story of all men, all over the world, of what we do and how we spend our life. And the key of the story is the woman with the well formed shoulders. She recognizes her former lover in the protagonist, or she feigns to recognize him. It is him or it is not him - it doesn't matter, but her devotion to her man is so touching: you perceive true love in this attitude. In the end, that's the key of the whole story: whatever we do in life, we do it for those we love.

Some of us are scientists, some aren't. But it is not a bad advice to live your life as if you wanted each year to be 900 years long. And every new year is a new beginning.













Thursday, January 3, 2013

What future for petroleum?

This is a translation from Italian of a post by Marco Pagani on the blog "Ecoalfabeta" based on a comment by Antonio Turiel on the recent IEA report on the future of petroleum and fossil hydrocarbons. 

by Marco Pagani

The IEA forecast for the future of petroleum are not only too optimistic, but also wrong because they are based on summing volumes of fuels which have different output and energy costs of extraction. Here you find the correct analysis, much less reassuring

What will be the future of oil? Antonio Turiel recently published a very interesting post on his blog, The Oil Crash. Turiel's post is very long and detailed, let me try here to summarize it to make it more easily understandable.


The figure above shows the IEA's predictions, where it is hoped to arrive to nearly 100 million barrels per day in  2035 (1). These predictions, however, are totally wrong for two reasons:
  1. Non-conventional fuels (liquefied natural gas, bitumen, shales, etc,) have a gross energy content per unit volume that is approximately 70% of conventional crude oil and, for this reason must be counted in terms of "equivalent barrels" .(2)
  2. We need to consider the "net energy" that can be obtained from a given amount of fuel, because every fuel has an energy cost of production that must be subtracted from the total (3) che va sottratto dal risultato finale.
The result of these corrections are is shown in the figure below. As you see, the difference is not small, even though the plotted data are based on the same initial data.


However, the IEA forecast is very optimistic also for other reasons, mainly because the decline in production will be more marked than assumed (-5%/year instead of -3%), the wells to be developed will be usable at 50% and those to be discovered are probably assumed to be four times what would be a realistic evaluation. The same is true for non conventional oil.

According to Turiel, therefore, a more realistic future scenario is the following:



What to say? From 100 million barrels, we arrive to about 40; if we make preparations for this future, perhaps we'll be able to face it, but if we keep the rosy colored glasses of IEA, we might well be running towards catastrophe.

Notes

(1) The IEA predictions include also refinery gains, which are not shown here because, as Turiel notes, these gains are obtained at the expense of energy obtained from natural gas.

(2) the ton equivalent of petroleum (tep) represents a mass of fuel containing an energy of 42 GJ. A barrel-equivalent equals 0.146 tep

(3) EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) is the ratio  x=Et/Ei (hence Ei=Et/x) between the total energy produced and the energy spent in input. The net energy (En) is therefore the fraction of energy that can be obtained from the resource En = Et-Ei and En= Et - Et/x = Et (1-1/x) = Et y, with y is the yield.


The values of x and of y =1-1/x used by  Turiel are:

                                     x                                y
Crude oil 20 0,95
To be developed 5 0,80
To be discovered 3 0,67
LNG 5 0,80
Non conventional oil 2 0,50
Shale Oil 2 0,50



Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The cracked pot: a little hope for 2013


Painting by Giovanni Segantini (1858-1899)

The old story of the cracked pot explains the basic mechanism of the universe. The continuous spilling of energy from one energy level to another is the true engine of creation that generates those structures that we call "life". Real perfection, apparently, lies in a little imperfection.


An elderly Chinese woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck.

One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water.

At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water.

Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments.

But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream.

‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.’

The old woman smiled, ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.’

Each of us has our own unique flaw.  But it’s the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding. You’ve just got to take each person for what they are and look for the good in them.

So, to all of my cracked pot friends, have a great day and remember to smell the flowers on your side of the path!



h/t "Attack on Earth"