Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gypsies at the peak

The Roma (or Rroma) of Italy are probably the poorest fraction of the residents in the country. They normally live in segregated camps, in trailers or in self built sheds. Only about half of the 150,000 Roma in Italy are Italian citizens; in most cases, they have no stable job and live a very precarious existence as the target of hatred and of open racism. The image above, from Excite Magazine, shows the Roma camp in the suburb of Ponticelli, in Naples, as it was before it was burned to the ground by a mob in 2008.

Here I am, in front of the whole class. Romani men and women; about 20 people; all coming from the same camp, nearby. They are in their late 20s and early 30s, and they have dressed up for the occasion. Not that they can afford expensive clothes, of course, but the men look smart in their informal attire. The women like to dress in bright colors. They wear the almost obligatory long skirt, as well as earrings and necklaces. They seem to be very happy to have found a way to leave the routine of the camp where they spend their time cooking and looking after young children.

Over the past few months, a group of teachers have been lecturing to this group as part of an initiative of the county government. The idea is to help them gain skills that could be useful for them to find a job and integrate better in society. So, we told them how to manage a cooperative, how to manage their personal finances, safety in the workplace, garbage collection and recycling, permaculture, how to surf the web and much more. They have absorbed most what we told them with ease. After having seen them listen attentively to two hours of lessons on the biological carbon cycle and ask intelligent questions afterwards, I was impressed. My college students can't take that much without falling asleep or becoming totally stoned. So, I told myself; why not peak oil? And here I am.

Telling people about peak oil takes different approaches depending to whom you are talking to. I understood long ago that most people can't read even a simple Cartesian graph. Graphs are a language and they never learned it. If you show them the bell shaped curve, they'll see it as a hill or a mountain of some kind. They'll feel that it is hard to climb up and easy to descend. Not the way peak oil should be understood.

The Roma I'll be talking to are at one of the extremes of the spectrum in terms of culture. None of the men went beyond 3rd or 4th grade of schooling; most of the women never went to school at all. The men can usually read, but rarely can write; the women can neither read nor write. They don't read newspapers and don't watch the news in TV. They love movies and spend lots of time chatting. It is from these sources that they gather most of what they know. What would be a good way to explain peak oil to them?

Communication is never one way. If I want them to understand me, I must understand them as well. So, for this talk, I have developed an extreme version of the presentation that I give when I know that the people listening are not at the top level in terms of scientific literacy. It is all based on vivid images shown on screen; pictures of oil wells, for instance. No graphs, no text, and no numbers. I have to rely on my voice, on my ability to catch their attention.

So, I tell them of peak oil based on the example of a person. When we are born, I say, we are small, but with time we grow and we can do more things. But we also become old. In time, we can do less and less and, eventually, we must die. In a way, I continue, it is the same with oil. When oil is young, there is a lot of it. As it gets older, we use it up and there is less and less of it. We must work harder to get as much of it as we used to. It is the same with many things you are doing - haven't you noticed that you must work harder? They look at me and nod. They understand the concept.

From here on, I show them pictures of oil fields, of oil refineries, of tankers and of everything related to oil. I tell them that gasoline for their cars comes from crude oil (they knew that, but vaguely). I tell them that the tires of their cars are made from crude oil (they didn't know that, and it makes them worry). I tell them that it takes oil to power the trucks that bring food to the supermarkets. This makes the women worried; they are in charge of the task of preparing food for the family.

When I speak to the Gadje (the non-Roma) there is always at least someone in the audience who sleeps through the talk or who is clearly not listening. But the Roma are all awake and listening. The message is getting through, I can see that. I tell them about the future, about what to expect when there will be less and less oil available. There will be fewer jobs, fewer opportunities, less money and less food. Even welfare payments, on which many of them rely for survival, may disappear. It will be a hard time for everyone. They clearly understand the problem. They remember where they come from-- former Yugoslavia. They are used to hard times.

When the talk is over, they ask me questions. How much is gasoline going to cost? I tell them that it will be more expensive, sure, but that may not be the problem. The real problem will be to find it. Long lines at the gas stations, very probably. They understand the point: apparently it was the way things were in former Yugoslavia. They ask me what kind of car is best to buy and to use. I know that there doesn't exist a Mercedes that a Rom won't like, and when I tell them that they should buy a cheap car with a good mileage, they are not happy. They ask me what they should do. I say that they should try to adapt and be flexible. They nod; that is a strategy that they know very well. In the end, they ask me if the end of the world will be in 2012. I laugh, they laugh, too. But they seem to be relieved: they were a little worried.

In the days that follow, I inquire with the social workers and with the Roma themselves. What was the impact of my talk? Everyone tells me that they have been discussing what I said; that they have been impressed. But I didn't expect anything to happen and, indeed, that's the final outcome. Nothing changes in the life of the camp.

When you present peak oil to middle class people, the reaction may be denial or mobilization. But rarely you see people who have understood peak oil who are indifferent to it and there are good reasons for that. If you are middle class, you can see right away how peak oil can hurt you. You depend on a salary and, if your job vanishes because of peak oil, you'll be in deep trouble. You have to pay your mortgage, your health insurance plan, instruction for your children, and all the rest. Peak oil can destroy you. But, as a middle class person, you may think that you can prepare for peak oil, that you have spare resources to do something about it. Probably it is a wrong perception but it may lead you to do such things as installing solar panels, insulating your home, buying a smaller car, that kind of thing. If, instead, you think that you don't have that kind of resources, or you don't want to use them in this way, your reaction may very well be to shut off the concept from your consciousness as much as you can.

But think of your situation as a Romani person. You have no stable job; so you can't lose it. You don't own a house, so you can't be evicted. Nobody will give you credit, so you'll never be in debt. You have no retirement plan, so you rely on your children for support when you'll be old. It is true that you depend on welfare, but you also know that you can live with very little. Finally, you live in a close-knit community formed of family clans. You quarrel with your neighbors and relatives all the time but you know that in a difficult situation, they'll help you if they can.

Peak oil will be hard on the Roma, just as it will be on us, but they have a fighting chance of surviving it. In several ways, they are already post peak.

A few days after my talk on peak oil, a Rom of the camp, one of the married men, tells me something like this (I am trying to report it maintaining the rhythm of it)
You see, professor, I think you were right with your lesson. Yeah, you told us that things are not going to be so easy as they used to be. Right, we saw that, too. It is what's happening. You know, I remember when we came here from Yugoslavia. I was a child; I was 10 years old but I remember that very well. It was so different, here. We saw so much wealth: lights and cars and houses and stuff in the supermarkets. Yeah, we had never seen anything like that. In Yugoslavia there was nothing. And so, we were all very happy, but I think we made a big mistake. You know; I remember my grandfather. He was a good man; he could work metals; he could fix pots and pans and sharpen knives. So, he told me that I should learn his job; but I didn't want to. I was very young; I wasn't that smart but, see, professor, I think we all made the same mistake. Many of the old folks could do things. Like singing or playing instruments, buying and selling horses. But we can't do that any more. We didn't want to learn. We saw all this wealth, here, and we thought that there was no need of working so hard. If there was so much wealth; why couldn't we share a little of it? We didn't want to be rich; we just wanted a little - enough to live in peace. And we thought it would last forever. But, you are right, professor, it is not going to last forever. And now we are in trouble.
I find that impeccable. Isn't that the same mistake we made with crude oil?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Survival tips from the Gypsies

Image: Romani camp set on fire by an angry mob in Torino, Italy, on dec 10, 2011- from "La Stampa."

Years of contact with the Roma, whom we also call "Gypsies," have changed in many ways my view of the world. Not that I could penetrate more than superficially a culture that I found to be the most alien I even encountered and of which I don't speak even one of the many dialects. But I think I absorbed enough that I could try a personal interpretation of the ways of the Gypsies: how they managed the amazing feat of surviving for more than half a millennium in Europe, within an often hostile society. Don't take this text of mine as a an attempt to glorify the Roma - I understand the problems they are facing. But I also recognize that there are many ways of being human and that the Roma have chosen a specific one and, for this, they deserve respect. Perhaps, from them we can learn something useful for the hard times that are coming.

In December 2011, a 16 year old Italian girl living in a suburb of Turin reported that she had been raped by two Gypsies coming from a nearby camp. Apparently, she was readily believed and soon an angry mob of some 500 people marched toward the camp armed with clubs and torches.

When the mob arrived to the camp, they found it completely empty of people. The Gypsies (better said, the "Roma") had left in a hurry, taking with them all their valuables. So, there was nothing left to do for the mobsters but to vent their rage by breaking windows, smashing furniture, and setting some of the shacks on fire. Later on, the firemen put out the fires and the girl confessed that she had invented everything. She had been afraid of telling her parents that she had lost her virginity with her boyfriend. (You can read the story here, in Italian).

You may wonder about how it can be that a story that seems to belong to Middle Ages took place in a (theoretically) modern country such as Italy in 2011. But what impressed me most is not the stupidity of my fellow countrymen or the naivety of the girl. It was the reaction of the Roma.

Suppose you come to know that a mob armed with clubs and torches is marching toward your home. I don't know about you, but my first reaction would be to wait for them shotgun in hand. That would be - I think - the typical reaction of middle class Westerners. We tend to see our home as our castle; worth making a stand for.

But the Roma of the story didn't reason that way. And they did the right thing: they fled. Suppose, instead, that they had tried to defend their homes. It was later learned that some people in the mob had guns. Can you imagine what could have happened? Considering how these stories are normally reported in the press, it is likely that the Roma would have ended up being described as the culprits.

When the smoke cleared, instead, the right and the wrong side of the clash were evident for everybody. So, the Roma could come back to repair their shacks, having avoided the worst. I think it is an interesting example of how you can be surprised by a culture and a way of thinking that suddenly reveals itself as truly different.

After some years of contacts with the Roma who live at just a few hundred meters from my office, I came to understand a little of this culture which I think I can describe as the most alien I have ever encountered. It is a culture that draws on more than half a millennium of experience in a difficult and hostile world; from the time they started arriving in Europe, slowly migrating from their country of origin: India. We may not like the way of behaving of the Roma and their stubbornness in resisting integration. But the fact that they survived and thrived for such a long time means that they have been doing something right.

So I tried to put together a few "tips for survival" placing myself in the role of a Rom, as much as I am able to, being myself just a humble Gadjo. I am not sure that my notes can work as a survival manual, but at least they it should provide some food for thought. (I apologize in advance to my Roma friends for any misinterpretation I made and I am ready to correct my text with their help.)


1. In battle, the best strategy is flight.  (The golden rule). Many centuries of survival in an often hostile world taught the Roma that making a stand in conditions of inferiority is not the way to go. That doesn't mean that the Roma are meek as individuals or family groups. On the contrary, they can be aggressive and occasionally engage in noisy internecine fights. But, in general, they tend to avoid conflicts with the Gadje, fleeing if necessary. There are no reports of the Roma as an ethnic group having been ever involved in a war and only a few Roma are known to have ever served in Gadje armies or fighting organizations. It is an attitude that seems to be still valuable today, as shown by the case of the attack against the Roma camp of Torino (Italy) in 2011, where the rapid flight of the Roma avoided a violent clash that could have turned very bad for them.

2. Don't carry and don't use weapons. This rule derives directly from the golden rule (the best strategy is flight). If you are the underdog in a conflict, escalating it is a very bad idea because, most likely, the weapons you brought to the fray will be used against you. The Roma seem to have been practicing this strategy during all their history as wanderers and they still stick to it today. Even though some of them may be engaged in illegal activities, it is extremely rare to read reports of a Rom carrying or using weapons. The concept of having a "right to bear arms" is almost unthinkable to them. On this point, they are well in advance in comparison to Western Gadje.

3. Cherish your mobility. This rule is a consequence of the first two. If you are unarmed and you are the weaker side in a conflict, you can't be a sitting duck; you have to be mobile. For centuries, the Roma have been using this strategy. Their life has been on the road and it remains so such even today, although they don't use any more their old horse-drawn carts; much preferring motor cars (and there doesn't seem to exist a Mercedes that a Rom doesn't like). So, the Roma don't seem to be particularly interested in switching their trailers and mobile homes for regular apartments, even though sometimes they are invited (or even forced) to do so by local administrations. But things change and vanishing in the background is becoming difficult in a world which is becoming more and more regulated and controlled. Today, the Roma are often segregated in camps that look more and more like open air prisons; a situation that they must grudgingly endure.

4. Travel light in life. Modern Roma seem to have inherited from their ancestors the concept that they have to be always ready to pack up and scramble on short notice. One of the results of this attitude is that a Romani home (be it a shack or a trailer) doesn't show any of the typical clutter of Gadje's homes. That's not just because the Roma are poorer, but mainly because they seem to apply some kind of "Feng Shui" rules in the sense that they ruthlessly throw away everything that is not not strictly needed. As a consequence, normally the inside of a Romani home is truly spic & span, unlike the situation of not a few Gadje's homes. On the other hand, the Roma don't seem to use the same care in maintaining the exterior of their homes. Again, if they are always ready to flee, what sense would it make to take care of the communal lawn? So, a Romani camp often looks like it was bombed just a few days before. That is usually the only thing seen by the Gadje who visit the camp, and surely that is not so good for the public image of the Roma. But, on the other hand, there are not so many Gadje interested in visiting Romani camps.

5. Cultivate creative obfuscation. If you are perpetually in danger of being ethnically cleansed, you'd better be careful in avoiding to give information to your more powerful neighbors. The Roma seem to take this idea as a stimulus to develop a linguistic smokescreen that makes everything vague. If you happen to be chatting with Romani people, you'll notice that it is never clearly stated who is doing what, when, and how. Appointments are always very elastic (to say the least) and if you are invited for dinner by a Romani family you are sure to arrive always too late or too early. In addition, the Roma seem to be positively jealous of their language and won't provide much help for your attempts to learn it. All these features do bring some advantage to the Roma even today, although not in terms of endearing them very much to the Gadje. It is, however, part of being Roma.

6. A man's family is his refuge. A Rom man becomes really a man only when he is married and has children, and the same is true for a Romni, a woman. But the family for the Rom is best seen as a "clan" that includes a large number of relatives in a maze of relationships and obligations. It is on this network of family members that the Roma rely for their needs when times are bad. The clan provides support, defense, entertainment, and emergency help. All that is fundamental for people who don't have a job, a retirement fund and, in many cases, no medical assistance. The problem is that tradition encourages families to have children and the Roma often have up to five or six per couple. That used to be a good strategy in the hard times of old, when just a fraction of a family's offspring would survive to adulthood. Today, instead, having many children creates a host of practical problems additional to the many that the Roma already have. Of these problems, one is that the Gadje tend to disapprove the Roma for adopting a strategy, large families, that they themselves had been adopting up to not long ago. That may change with a new generation of Romnie who often state that they have no intention of burdening themselves with so many children as their mothers did. Whether the "demographic transition" will take place with the Roma is to be seen, but one thing is sure, anyway: the Roma greatly love their children.

7. What you learned to do yourself, can never be stolen. The Roma have always been excellent craftsmen. They worked as potters, blacksmiths, horseshoers, and jacks of all trades. Even today, a Rom can build - alone - a complete shack using scrap wood and he can do it well enough that the roof doesn't fall on the heads of the family. It doesn't leak when it rains and it is even cozy in winter, with the stove that warms it nicely! Unfortunately, however, modern Roma have also lost most of the specific abilities of their ancestors: there is no need anymore to repair old pots and pans and most mechanical objects are being manufactured in ways that make them impossible to repair. Still, the Roma maintain a remarkable flexibility and adaptability. They are quick learners: should there be again a need for people who can repair a broken umbrella; the Roma can re-learn how to do that.

8. Catch the occasion when you see it. Living perpetually on the road, often fleeing powerful enemies, the Roma have learned to be flexible, resourceful, and always ready to catch the opportunity of the moment. It may be this characteristic that makes them magnificent traders - they have a nearly unbelievable ability in understanding what is valuable and what is junk and they exploit it to the utmost. Of course, there often remain legitimate doubts about the source of the objects they trade and it is true that some Roma pursue a career as petty thieves. Whether that is part of the Romani traditional ways is debatable, but it is sure that the number of Roma who are actually engaged in illegal activities is greatly overestimated by most Gadje. For one thing, it is more and more difficult to steal anything in a world of sensors, alarms, electronic cards, and hidden cameras. But "illegal" is also a question of definition. For instance, one of the traditional activities of the Roma was collecting scrap metal for recycling, something that they saw (and still see) as a perfectly legitimate activity. However, governments started creating laws and regulations that transformed this kind of waste collection into an illegal activity. That pushed most of the Roma who specialize in this field into the shadow world of the "parallel economy," where they still manage to collect metals by exploiting their creativity and adaptability; but under much more difficult conditions. 

9. Be jealous of your identity. The Roma stubbornly refuse to be integrated in the society of the Gadje and they jealously guard their language and their traditions. That seems to to be a common attitude still today, despite the fact that many Romani children go to school and despite the presence of TV sets and Internet connections in Romani homes. In this respect, the Roma behave like the Jews, although they don't see their identity in religious terms (they have normally adopted the religion of the region they find themselves in). Also, unlike the Jewish tradition, the Romani one is not written. It is completely oral and that may be a reason why the Roma don't seem to be especially interested in learning how to read and write. What the Roma need to know, they keep inside their heads, unlike most Gadje who are increasingly lost in a tsunami of information that they can't control any more. Emphasizing ethnic identity is a useful concept to maintain cohesion in the Romani community, but it may backfire by generating a convenient target for that fraction of Gadje who are inclined toward racism and ethnic hatred; of which there seem to be plenty today, just as there were in the past. During the second world war, the Roma suffered an attempt of extermination similar to that of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Today, pogrom-like attacks against the Roma seem to be rare, but they still occur at times. Anyhow, if the Roma managed to survive the Nazis, they can probably survive anything.

10. Be a free spirit.  In old times, the Roma's preferred occupation was as musicians and their famed ability with musical instruments was not just a way to make a living; it was also a way to celebrate the fleeting beauty of the world. Today, only a few Roma have maintained this skill in a world where music has become mostly a product of the entertainment industry. However, the Roma still cherish their freedom and normally refuse to submit to the slavery of a time card. That doesn't make it easy for them to find jobs in a world that emphasizes reliability, efficiency, and control - the result is that most of the Roma living in Wester countries seems to be condemned to a condition of extreme poverty. Maybe in the old times the Roma were happy with their carefree life "on the road", but today in Roma camps there are cases of depression, mental illness, and unhappiness. However, it is difficult to say whether on the average the Roma are more stressed by their condition of poverty than their neighboring Gadje are stressed by their daily fight with mortgages, rents, evictions, unemployment, and the like. What can be said for sure is that freedom, for anyone, is not only a choice but also a cost. 

Can these tips be useful for us, the Gadje? Surely, right now the way of life of the Roma looks hopelessly outdated. Nobody needs any more people able to repair umbrellas, to trade horses, to sing songs, and - more than that - nobody seem to conceive the possibility that someone might not want to live the way modern Gadje live. But the world always changes and the virtues that have made the West so powerful and successful may one day become obsolete. Dmitry Orlov notes in his book "The Five Stage of Collapse" how the Roma thrived with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When hard times come to us, I bet that the Roma will still be around and maybe they will teach us a thing or two.

* In the most common Romani dialect, the term "Rom" has "Roma" as plural, while "Romani" is an adjective.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Climate change: the Fiesole example

Fiesole, a small town near Florence, Italy, is being affected by climate change just as every place on earth. Here, I report of an initiative to bring the problem to the citizens' attention and motivate them to act on it. In this occasion, I tried to use some strategies that I took mainly from a document on climate change by Peter Sandman, a professional risk management expert. Among these strategies, Sandman suggests that you should tell the truth about the situation, but you should not try to make people feel guilty or scare them. You should emphasize concrete measures and actions that bring results which, in the case of climate change, means to consider mitigation as something just as important as prevention (and perhaps more). It is a test but, so far, it seems to be working in Fiesole. Here is an elaboration of the talk I gave at the meeting.

Good morning, everybody. First of all, let me say that it is very nice to be here, all together speaking about climate change. I have to thank the administration of our town for having organized this meeting and also thank the citizens who found the way to spend a whole Friday morning on this subject.

It is something new: climate change is one of those things that you don't hear about so often, recently. It used to be mentioned much more in the past but, now, there seems to be some sort of conspiracy of silence on it. In TV, you hear about all sort of strange stuff, from the thing called "Spread" to debt, bonds, the stock market and all the rest. It is like if there were nothing of importance in the world but the financial system.

Yet, I think that all of us have been noticing that there is something else that's happening in the real world.  You see, I am not a specialist in climate science; although I have done my best to study the subject. But I also think that there is no need to be a specialist to notice what's happening. Let me just show you this image:

I am sure that you can recognize this building: it is what is left today of the "ghiacciaia" (ice storage building) of Monte Senario; not far from where we are today. You also surely know that, a century ago, people would discharge tons and tons of winter snow into the belly of that cavernous building in order to make ice. Then, they would sell the ice in Florence, during the summer.

Of course, that wouldn't not possible today. This winter, we barely saw snow in Fiesole. Even two years ago, when we had a big snowstorm, it lasted just 2-3 days and then the snow melted away. So, today, at best you would be able to collect enough ice in winter to make a few ice cream cones in summer - if you are lucky. Things have changed a lot, indeed!

Now, if all the problem was that we can't make ice any more; well, we could say that it doesn't matter: we have refrigerators! But climate change takes other forms and creates other effects. Let me show you this picture, taken last summer in Fiesole:

I have been picking figs from trees in summer for all my life. But I had never seen figs drying up on branches before ripening. This is something totally unusual and it matches with other changes in the vegetation around here. Many people have noticed how the Fiesole valleys are becoming yellow in summer. That's not usual: if you think about that you can surely remember that, up to a few years ago, Fiesole remained green all over the summer. Now, this is a big change: it may be related to temperatures, to the drought, or to pollution. But it is a change we can't ignore.

And that's not all. As you know, last year we had two major fires in the valley. Let me show you a picture of the fire that nearly destroyed the village of Monte Rinaldi.

I was coming home that day and, as I passed in front of the hill, I saw gigantic flames erupting. I can tell you: it was scary. So, I went home, I took my camera and I went back there to take pictures. Fortunately, by then the big flames were almost gone. But it took several hours and two helicopters to extinguish the fire. Apart from all other considerations, think how expensive it has been to keep those two helicopters flying for so long! And it is a cost that we all have to pay as citizens.

Of course, you can't attribute a single event, a fire in this case, to global warming. Yes, but I have been living in this valley for more than 40 years and I remember one fire large enough that it needed a helicopter to be put down. Maybe there were others I don't know about but, this year, as you know, we had two big fires near Fiesole in a single year. That should tell us something.

So, what's happening? Changes; big changes. And not just droughts and fires. Today we tend to use the term "climate change" rather than "global warming", as it was the use until not long ago. That is because the effects of global warming are much more complex than it seemed to us at the beginning. It is not just that temperatures are a bit warmer; it is the whole climate that changes in ways that are unpredictable. Last year we had a terrible drought, this year it has been raining for six months almost without interruption. Climate is becoming chaotic. The people who are specialists in this subject can tell us why, but we all see the consequences.

Among the consequences of climate change, we have floods and snowstorms. Let me show you a picture of the big snowstorm of two years ago in Fiesole.

Beautiful, sure. But we must remember that snow was so common in our town decades ago and people must have been used to it. Today, when we have two days of snow, it is disaster! Nobody knows any more what to do. Things do change!

It is the same for rain; it has always rained in Fiesole but, now, when it rains, it rains hard and it creates big problems. You remember what the Regional commissioner for agriculture was telling us just before my talk? He said that every year we have something like three billion Euros of damage per year due to weather phenomena. Not all that can be attributed to climate change, of course, but a good fraction, yes.

So, I think we don't need climate scientists to tell us that our climate is changing. We can see it with our eyes. And we don't need to enter into one of those nasty discussions on whether it is real, it is human caused, it is all a big hoax and all the rest. You may think as you like on this subject; maybe it is not so bad as some people say. Maybe someone is making money on it. Maybe it is not our fault or, at least, not completely. We could discuss about these possibilities until our jaws fall on the floor. But the point is that we are all seeing the change and we cannot ignore it.

And the point is that it all fits with what the specialists had been telling us. Look at this picture:

Look at the red line. It is the average temperature of our earth according to the most recent study. It starts going up rapidly more or less when we started burning coal, about two centuries ago. And, as you see, the temperature at the time when the big ice building in Monte Senario was in operation was about half a degree (centigrade) smaller than it is today. So, just one half of a degree is enough to bring big, big changes. So, think of what could happen for two-three degrees of increase, as scientists say it is likely to happen if we continue burning fossil fuels - as we seem to be bent on doing.

Now, look at this image:

It is the world as it could be in 2030-2039 according to a study by "UCAR". The red areas of the map indicate drought. Be careful about this point: it is a "drought index"; It doesn't just mean that it rains less. It means also that rain comes in the wrong moment and it causes more damage than help. Look at the Mediterranean region: it is not just red, it is violet. So, the droughts we had been seeing around us make sense - it is something that was expected and that's expected to increase in the coming decades. We are possibly in the worst place in the world in terms of future droughts.

So, you see what we are facing. It may not be politically correct to say what I am saying, but we are all adults. We don't like it when we discover that people are "sugaring the pill" for us. I think we have to tell things as they are. We have to face a future, in the coming decades, when we'll have more droughts, more fires, more heat waves and more sudden floods and, possibly, heavy snowstorms. This is what we'll be seeing no matter what we do as citizens of Fiesole and no matter what will be done at the level of governments and international treaties. Climate change is with us to stay; at least for a few decades. We are seeing it; we will see more of it in the future.

So, when we think of our town, we think of something like this; green and beautiful:

But here is the same place, seen from a different angle, after the fire of last year. For how long will we have a green Fiesole?

You see that we have a problem. A big problem. So, what do we do? Well, the first step in order to solve a problem is to recognize that it exists and the fact that we are all here, today, means that we recognize that climate change exists and that we need to do something about it. This is a big step forward. 

You see, I think that the climate problem is solvable. But we need to get together and do something about it. Much can be done at the international level, by means of treaties to reduce emissions and move to cleaner forms of energy. But, in order to have these treaties we need to build up a consensus that these treaties are needed. And consensus starts locally - it starts with people, and we are people! So, our first task, I think, is to start building this consensus here, in Fiesole. Think about that: we are doing it right now! I see that you are nodding. You see? It is not so difficult to start acting on the climate problem!

I was looking at your faces when I was showing you those projections of future droughts and fires. I know, it is scary to look at the future and the temptation is to turn away your eyes or to scream something like "it is not true, it is a hoax, a scam, a trick,  whatever". But now that you know that are acting, that you are doing something, you feel better, don't you?

This is a little trick that I learned from a Swedish psychologist named Lennart Parknas. He wrote a beautiful book on how to motivate people into action. He says that action is fundamental: you cannot do anything to solve a problem unless you are convinced that you can do something to solve it. It is what Parknas defines as being "empowered." Climate change is a big problem, but the methods for solving big problems are the same as those for solving small ones. You need to know that you can solve them in order to solve them.

Of course, there is a lot more that we can do in addition to get together in a room and nodding at what someone else says. Let me tell you that I have been discussing this point with our administrators and there are plenty of things that we can do together. One is to protect our territory from fires: we don't want more fires like those of last summer. We need surveillance but, more than all, we need preparation. You probably know that the fire of Monte Rinaldi was started by a guy who thought it was a good idea to burn dry leaves in his garden in a hot day of August. He wasn't prepared, but nobody told him, apparently, that it wasn't such a good idea. You see? We are not prepared, not just that guy. We need to work on that!

Fire prevention is an example of what's called "mitigation" of the effects of climate change. Of course, mitigation doesn't solve the climate problem at its roots (that's called "prevention"). But mitigation has this big advantage that it gives us something real and practical to do. And if we prevent fires, we have a win-win situation. We do something good in itself, but we also create awareness of the climate problem around. We create consensus, which is what we need.

That doesn't mean we cannot do climate change prevention, here in Fiesole - we can, of course. We have to go in parallel with such things as renewable energy, better efficiency in many areas, from home heating to transportation. But the most important thing is to work at attaining consensus that the climate problem exists and in order to attain consensus we need to be all empowered. We need to act and we are doing it.

So, the fact that you are all here tells me that we have a chance to do something good and even give the example to other towns and cities! We are a small town, of course but, after all, all things big started small!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Climate change: it's happening here!

The "ghiacciaia" (ice storage building) of Monte Senario, not far from the town of Fiesole, Italy, as it was about a hundred years ago. It was used to store snow in winter that then was sold as ice in summer. The building is still there but, today, the winter snow that you could throw into that cavernous storage system would barely be enough for a few ice cream cones. It is a visible demonstration of the effects of climate change in this region, but many more things have changed and are changing right in front of people's eyes. The citizens and the administrators of the town of Fiesole discussed about these changes in a meeting organized on Friday 12, 2013

There is some hope, after all. Consensus is building up about climate change. Denial might not be such a terrible obstacle and we may still have a chance to do something before it is too late. It is a sensation that came to me with the meeting on climate organized today, Friday 12, 2013, by the administration of my town, Fiesole.

Not a meeting of scientists; not of activists. It was a gathering of ordinary people: farmers, employees, professionals, students, local politicians. They had come to listen to a small group of experts telling them, for once, not about remote or abstract ideas, but of the concrete reality of climate change. Of course, polar bears have their problems, poor critters, but the talk was about what's happening here; how climate change it is affecting agriculture, the economy of the town, and everyone's life.

And, for once, politicians, experts, and the public agreed on everything. They said it loud; no fear of being politically incorrect: climate change is here and now! It is not something we read in the newspapers or we hear in TV. It is in our town; it is here that things are changing, we see the change every day. 

It was a small miracle for a quiet Friday morning. Everyone could suddenly realize that they were not alone in thinking what they were thinking. Everyone had noticed the same things: that springs are drying up, waterfalls are disappearing, plants are withering, and leaves  are getting yellow in summer. Now, that's real weird: Fiesole is not California: summer, here, has always remained green. Up to a few years ago.

And no climate denialists. Had there been one around, he would have to face up real people - he would have had to show his face; he couldn't hide behind a nickname; he wouldn't be able to play the usual games. There was just no space for denial - it would have been denying reality. It would have been denying what people had been seeing with their very eyes.

A refreshing moment, an epiphany of understanding. You see, the Internet is a toxic environment. People with no faces and no names throwing sentences at each other as if they were stones. How the hell did we get caught in this idea that we can discuss anything in this way? And think we can ever agree on something? Can't happen: people with no faces can't agree on anything. We need to look at each other in the eyes - then things change.

I don't know if these meetings are the only - or even the best - way to go. But I am sure that we are not getting anywhere with the endless Internet slugging we have been engaged in, up to now. We need to look at each other in the face to understand that climate change is not only real; it is here, it is coming. If we do that, we'll see that consensus is building up about the need to do something to stop the disaster before it is too late. The next step in Fiesole will be to work on that.


I wish to thank to the administration of the town of Fiesole for organizing this meeting. In particular the vice-mayor Giancarlo Gamannossi, the mayor Fabio Incatasciato, and the Tuscan commissioner for agriculture and forestry, Gianni Salvadori. And thanks to the speakers: Toufic El Asmar (FAO), Federico Spanna (AIMAT) and Cristiano Bottone (Transition Town Italia). Finally, thanks to all those who managed to spend a whole Friday morning discussing climate change, despite the many more things they surely had to do. 

From left to right, Gianni Salvadori, regional commissioner for agriculture and forestry, Fabio Incatasciato, mayor of Fiesole and Giancarlo Gamannossi, vice-mayor; who organized the meeting.

Cristiano Bottone, of Transition Town Italy, speaking at the Fiesole meeting and asking the question, "We knew from the 1970s about climate change, how is it that we didn't do anything up to now?" 

The public at the "Basolato" hall in Fiesole. We had a nearly full house at the meeting. Not bad for a Friday morning!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jorgen Randers: what the future will be

Jorgen Randers presented the Italian version of his book, "2052,"  in Rome on April 5 2013. What follows is a summary of what he said in that occasion. I apologize in advance for what I may have missed or misinterpreted of Randers' one hour long talk, but I think that this text describes the gist of his speech.

Presenting his book, "2052", Jorgen Randers starts with a bold statement: "I will not tell you what the future could be, but what the future will be". You would think that this shows quite a bit of hubris but, if you follow Randers' reasoning, you'll see that he has a point.

Randers is one of the authors of the famous "The Limits to Growth" report to the Club of Rome. Published in 1972, the book caused quite a stir and was widely misinterpreted as a prophecy of doom. It wasn't so and, in his talk, Randers summarizes what he and the others did. They didn't make any prophecy but, rather, they created a 'fan' of 12 different scenarios for the future of the world up to 2100. Some of these scenarios involved decline and collapse of the economy, some involved stabilization and prosperity. Whether one or the other set of scenarios would unfold depended on whether humankind made the right or the wrong choices in dealing with pollution, resource exploitation, and population growth.

One problem with the "The Limits to Growth" was that the authors never specified by what mechanisms humankind could develop the consensus necessary to make the right choices, which all involved some sacrifices in the short term. After 40 years of work, Randers has arrived to a conclusion: there are no such mechanisms. The right choices were not made and never will be.

Today, Randers says, there is no more a fan of good and bad scenarios: there is only one; and it is not pleasant. It can only be the decline of our society, constrained by overpopulation, declining resource availability, and widespread damage caused by pollution and climate change. The start of the decline may come earlier or later; collapse may be faster or slower, but the shape of the future is determined.

Randers maintains that there is a simple way to describe the reasons that are taking us to this unpleasant future: people always make the choice that involves the least costs in the short term. The problem is all there: as long as we always choose the easiest road, we have no control on where we are going.

Imagine you are lost in a forest. Would you think that always choosing the easiest path in front of you could take you home? But this is what we are doing: even though we should know that this is not the way to go where we would like to be. We are unwilling, for instance, to invest in renewable energy as long as fossil fuels are even slightly less expensive and we can neglect their external costs in the form of pollution and climate change. But this choice is based on short term consideration and it will cause us terrible long term damage.

Why are we unable to do better? Here, Randers proposes that "short-termism" is deeply ingrained in people's minds and is reflected in our democratic decisional system. He has been accused to be against democracy, but he maintains that he has nothing against democracy: the problem is that democracy is the result of human short-termism. He makes the example of an enlightened politician who decides to introduce a carbon tax. Soon, voters discover that the carbon tax is making gasoline and electricity more expensive. As a consequence, that politician won't be re-elected. It is simple and it happens all the time.

Of course, you might object that if the public were to be educated about climate change, then people would accept a carbon tax - actually they would clamor for it. Maybe; but Randers is skeptical. He says that he has spent decades of his life training generations of decision-makers in sustainability and ecosystem science. And he has seen those trained generations taking exactly the same wrong decisions that the previous, untrained, generations were taking.

Human nature is difficult to overcome. Randers recounts how he and his colleagues had been discussing about the size of a natural disaster that would wake the public to the reality of ecosystem destruction. Then Hurricane Katrina came and, later on, Sandy. Both where disasters as big as they can be. But they fell flat as wake up calls: the public didn't react. Today, three Americans out of eight still think that global warming is a hoax.

Randers has seen the enemy and the enemy is us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Climate change: stating the problem

Here, Dan Gilbert states very nicely what are the problems that prevent the diffusion of the concept that climate change is an imminent danger and that we should do something about it.

The video goes back to a few years ago and the problems remain the same, today. It is time to start thinking of solutions!

(h/t Alexander Ac)

Monday, April 1, 2013

Peak eggs debunked

The Easter Egg hunt seems to be a source of plenty of insights about the global petroleum situation. On this subject, see also my Easter post of last year. Image above from "bitrebels".

April 1st 2013.
from Cassandra's Legacy

Today, a press release from the egg industry commented on the traditional egg hunt of this year's Easter, denying that "peak eggs" took place last year.
"Eggs are still abundant," maintains the industry's press release, "and the new technology of egg fracking is creating a "new age of eggs" that will last decades". The press release adds that the concept of "peak eggs" is only the result of fear mongering on the part of a small group of pseudo-experts who have been shown to be in error many times in the past.

Sources close to the Easter Bunny also answered to a number of questions, specifying that, yes, it is true that it was sometimes more difficult for children to collect fracked eggs from the ground; but that should not detract from the advantages that the new technology is bringing to us.

The same sources also stated that the worries of some environmentalists about the consumption of fracked eggs are misplaced. The industry won't disclose the chemicals used in egg-fracking, but maintains that the results of the process are totally safe for human consumption; adding that the blue color (sometimes green) of the yolk is wholly natural. Also, the fact that fracked eggs have been sometimes observed to spontaneously catch fire should be seen as a bonus in terms of easing the preparation of omelets.

According to industrial sources, fracking methods show great promise in the creation of new foodstuff and will soon be extended to new fields. Fracked chicken, for instance, shows promise for the burger industry and tests are in progress.