Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ugo Bardi on "Plundering the Planet", part III

Quelle: www.kontext-tv.de

Fracking, tar sand, shale oil: „immense historical error“ / Short term profit interests decide about investments

With oil prices rising, „unconventional“ oil and gas resources become attractive for investors: tar sands, shale oil and shale gas, which is extracted by a controversial technology called „fracking“. The exploitation of these sources is an „immense historical error“, Bardi says. Fracking might be even more climate-damaging than coal, as it releases Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Additonally, groundwater resources in vast areas have already been polluted by fracking, as in the US. Renewable energies are able to deliver much cheaper and cleaner energy – if environmental costs are taken into account. However, the system is not conceived to make such decisions, as it focusses only on short term, immediate profits."

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Ugo Bardi on "Plundering the Planet" (Part II)


Climate change: „We risk extinction, if we keep on building coal-fired power plants.“

s oil production stagnates and is likely to fall in the future, „king coal“ enjoys a renaissance – with disastrous consequences for the climate. If we continue to build coal-fired power plants, we risk the future of humanity, we risk extinction, says Bardi. Coal is only profitable because social and ecological costs are not taken into account. Future generations will have to pay the bill and clean up the mess. In spite of misinformation and the enormous power of fossil fuel corporations, resistsance is fertile, Bardi says.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ugo Bardi on "Plundering the Planet" (part 1)


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Shortage of key resources ahead

More than 40 years after the report „The Limits to Growth“, the Club of Rome presented its new report: „Plundering the Planet“. Its author Ugo Bardi explains the consequences of overexploitation. Growing energy costs for the extraction of minerals from less and less concentrated ores could soon lead to shortages of key resources like oil, uranium or copper. Even worse are the ecological costs of mining: radioactive materials and heavy metals poison the earth’s ecological systems while growing CO2 emissions cause catastrophic climate change.
Ugo Bardi, professor for physical chemistry at the University of Florence, author of the Report to the Club of Rome "Plundering the Planet"

Monday, June 24, 2013

Dr. Orlov's report: The five stages of collapse

Dmitry Orlov's recent book, "The Five Stages of Collapse" is a stark description of the world as it is today and of what its destiny could be.  So impressive it is that it reminded me of a story by J. L. Borges "Dr. Brodie's Report"

Sometimes, when you read a book, something rings in your head; something that requires a little work to identify but that, in the end, comes out loud and clear. This was the case for me with the latest book by Dmitry Orlov. It reminded me of something and, eventually, I found out what it was. It was one of the many stories by Jorge Luis Borges,"Dr. Brodie's report" (El relato de Brodie); the description of the barbarous customs and the cruel culture of the African tribe of the Hrn; as observed by Dr. Brodie. "The Five Stages of Collapse" describes instead the barbarous customs and the cruel culture of the tribe of the "Middle Class Westerners" as observed by Dr. Orlov.

It must be said that Orlov and Borges write in very different styles: sometimes Orlov's brilliance hides his depth while, at times, Borges' depth hides his brilliance. And while Borges remains in the allegoric tradition that goes back to Johnathan Swift and his "Yahoos", Orlov goes direct to his real subject: modern society. But there are points in common. Orlov, like Borges, doesn't hide any of the grim details of what he describes and both Borges and Orlov show a certain sympathy and kindness toward their subject. There are many ways of being human and the great virtue of people such as Orlov and Borges is the capability of appreciating all of them.

Orlov's book is so full of insight and revelations that it can't be summarized; it must be read. But to give you just some idea of the style and content of the book, here is an excerpt from the section where Orlov describes another human subculture, that of the Roma (ake Gypsies), perhaps somewhat less cruel than others.

From "The Five Stages of Collapse" by Dmitry Orlov

Throughout their history the Roma have been a nomadic people, ranging all over Europe and, more recently, the Americas. Although economically dependent on the surrounding population, they have always taken great pains to remain completely separated from it, socially. 

Roma identity is an internal identity that is not disclosed to the outside world. It is a birthright reinforced by upbringing and socialization into a community that caters to its members from cradle to grave. Roma are not known to adopt Gadjo children. It is possible to marry into a Roma family and participate in the life of a Roma community but it is not possible to become Roma. The children from such a mixed marriage may become Roma if so brought up.

Although the Romani language has been written down, this has had minimal effect on the Roma themselves, who continue to adhere to a strictly oral tradition, with a rich folklore that includes creation myths, a religious tradition loosely based on Christianity and a purely oral internal system of jurisprudence. Among the Roma, literacy correlates negatively with wealth and status, occurring least often with the wealthiest. The literate play subservient, low-status roles, such as corresponding with Gadje and forging paperwork and documents.

The effort of keeping everything in one's head seems to result among Roma in excellent memory and a sharp and lucid mind, which are all very helpful in stealing, cheating, lying and swindling – major advantages which ignorant educationalists tend to miss. As the US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky likes to say: “this is important, don't write it down!”


Sunday, June 16, 2013

How to cope with Internet spying: a tip from the Gypsies

The Gypsies (that is, the Roma) may seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for strategies to cope with the tendency of governments to spy on us over the Web. But survival is survival, everywhere and any time, and the Roma are surely experts at that. In particular, we may learn from them the strategy "non-concealment" that aims at projecting a non-threatening image to potential enemies (image from Wikipedia commons)

The Roma (whom we often call Gypsies) must know a thing or two about survival. Always a minority, not especially loved and often actively hated, they underwent all sorts of attacks, including the terrible "porajmos" (the great devouring) unleashed against them by the Nazis during the second world war. And yet, after having lived in Europe for half a millennium, they are still with us; battered and troubled, yes,  but Roma as ever.

I discussed some of the Roma' survival techniques in a previous post of mine describing their practical, non-violent ways. Now, I thought that there is one further habit of the Roma that we may find interesting in view of the fact, by now unavoidable, that the government has access to all our data and to everything we do. Of course the Roma never had (and still largely don't have) this specific Internet problem; but their survival techniques can still be a source of inspiration for us in this regard.

To cope with government spying on us, we can look at the strategy that we could call "non-concealment" and that the Roma seem to practice routinely. Note how Roma campsites are always clearly visible, normally placed near roads or right inside cities. The camps are also completely open - the Roma don't seem to even dream of fortifying themselves inside. If you see a fence around a Roma camp, you can be assured that it was placed there by the Gadje (the non-Roma) to keep the Roma in and not by the Roma to keep the Gadje out. And think of how the Roma are easily recognizable when they stroll around by the way they dress. They seem to have the habit of making a point that everyone can easily know, all the time, who they are and where they are.

It is one of their survival techniques: the Roma project a non-threatening image to their nervous and aggressive neighbors. The Gadje must know that the Roma may be petty thieves, but no major threat; so they can be safely ignored. That doesn't mean that, at times, the Gadjes don't become aggressive, but it would be probably much worse if they suspected that the Roma were planning dark and dire things while hiding somewhere.

Now, let's go back to the Internet surveillance programs. What we learned recently is, actually, nothing new. You can be sure that governments never missed a chance to spy on their citizens; the Internet just gave them the possibility to do that on a massive scale. What they are doing, actually, is not so much spying on single citizens but, rather, large scale "data mining". That is, they won't (and they can't, simply because of the sheer size of the database) keep track of more than a few individuals. They do, however, identify those  people who stray away from the accepted norms and select them for further investigation.

The way the system works can be understood by the story of Hasan Elahi as told by László Barabàsi in his book "Bursts" (2010). Elahi, American citizen, was detained in more than one occasion by the FBI on his returns to the US from overseas trips. One of his problems was that he had an Arab-sounding name but, more than that, it was the fact that he tended to fly a lot to foreign countries because of his artistic activities. His whereabouts brought the FBI to detain him in 2007 when he landed in New York because of what they defined as "suspicious movements after 9/11". According to Barabàsi, Elahi's movement patterns didn't fit the average patterns. He hadn't done anything wrong; he just was the nail that stands out and that gets hammered down.

Note how Hasan Elahi was behaving like a Gypsy in his nomadic habits: always in movement and never standing anywhere for a long time. And note how, as described by Barabàsi, he ended up adopting the Gypsy survival strategy: that is of projecting a non-threatening image by avoiding to conceal his movements. He started telling everyone where he was staying and where he was going, eventually developing specific Web based techniques for doing that. If you go now to Elahi's site, you can know exactly and in real time where he is and see what he is seeing there!

As you see, the Gypsy strategy is a natural consequence of being the underdog. Facing a group that is much more powerful, better armed, and not especially interested in your well being, making a stand is by all means a bad idea. Facing your government and their surveillance apparatus, as Orlov correctly argues, the worse thing to do would be to conceal your Web identity, hide behind firewalls, encrypting your data, and the like. If you do that, you'll be immediately classed among those who have something to hide and you risk being singled out for an in-depth investigation (or much worse). Getting off-line doesn't help, either. First of all, you can't really do that unless you normally live in a forest with the rest of your tribe. Second, the very fact that you tend to stay off-line makes you, again, suspicious if you belong to a cultural group (e.g. middle class Westerners) whose members are likely to use such services as Facebook and the like.
So, your best bet to cope with Internet spying may be to adopt the Roma's "non-concealment" strategy. That is, disclose everything yourself about your identity, your whereabouts, and your ideas. After all, many of us (middle class Westerners) criticize our governments but none of us, normally, has the power of doing anything that would seriously threaten them. If we avoid giving the impression that we are plotting something in secrecy, then the best strategy for the powers that be (and that control the Internet) is to leave us to our harmless antics: e-petitions, blog rants, Facebook chats and all the rest..

Of course, we can't be certain that the non-concealment strategy will always protect us. All strategies for survival are just plans for the future and reality may turn out to refuse to conform to plans. But this strategy may be our best bet (and possibly the only one) for coping with government spying in the present situation, at least while we wait for the Internet to collapse together with its masters (as Orlov, again, points out).

So, it is funny to think that our wonderful new communication technologies may be turning all of us into Gypsies; something that brings a whole new meaning to what we call the "law of unintended consequences". But, after all, the Gypsy way is just one of the many ways of being human and maybe it is not such a sad destiny to try it, even for the proud Gadje of today.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Presentation of "The Plundered Planet" in Berlin on June 10

For those of you who happen to be in Berlin or nearby; this presentation of the book "Plundering the Planet" will be held at the "Urania" scientific society, Kleiststraße 13-14, 10787 Berlin, on June 10, at 7:30 pm. It will be in English with simultaneous translation in German provided. Announcement and details here.

Friday, June 7, 2013

"Plundering the planet" in pills

The Berlin presentation of the new report for the Club of Rome, "Plundering the Planet" seems to have gone well and there is a lot of interest in the new book, at least for those who can read it in German! At present, I am giving interviews to the German media (in English!) and I am developing a certain "sense" for what journalists find useful for their reports. I found that  you have to condense in single statements concepts that take entire chapters to be developed in the book. So, here is a selection of these statements; it is "Plundering the Planet" in pills.

- Debating about the amount of mineral reserves left is like balancing your checkbook while stranded on a desert island.

- So far, we have been thinking of mineral reserves as of soldiers lined up for battle: the more of them, the better. Saddam Hussein was thinking the same when he invaded Kuwait. 

- Everybody knows that higher prices create more resources. Marie Antoinette was saying the same thing about bread and cake.

- The market can make extraction profitable, it cannot make it cheap.

- Thinking that new technologies can create mineral resources is like thinking that you can make pizza without flour, an innovative GMO yeast is enough. 

- The cheapest extractive technology is the one you don't need to use.

- Drilling more is useless (the more you drill, the faster you deplete the resource), drilling deeper is no good (mineral deposits exists only near the surface), drilling the seafloor is a bad idea (most of it is geologically too young to have mineral deposits), drilling asteroids is silly (too expensive; besides, asteroids have no mineral deposits). Ah..... also printing more money doesn't help.

- Pollution is just another cost of mineral production; but one that will be paid by someone else.

- Some people say that running out of oil will save us from global warming. Perhaps. And perhaps running out of money will save you from your addiction to crack. More likely, though, you'll start getting your highs by sniffing cheap glue.

- Debating about the "energy transition" is like debating about getting old. The problem is that you don't have a choice.

- The energy transition is not just a good idea, it is the consequence of the laws of physics.

- We'll either manage the transition, or we'll be managed by the transition.

- Give fossil fuel to a man and he will have energy for one day. Teach a man how to make renewable energy and he will have energy forever

- Prediction is always difficult, especially when it has to do with the future. But if the future cannot be predicted, at least we can be prepared for it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

A new report to the Club of Rome: "Plundering the Planet" by Ugo Bardi

From the site of the Club of Rome.

Launch of the new Report to the Club of Rome by Ugo Bardi in Berlin on June 6th

The Club of Rome, in partnership with WWF Germany, the Worldwatch Institute and the German Association of the Club of Rome invites to the launch of

The new Report to the Club of Rome by Ugo Bardi

Thursday, 6th June 2013, 11.30h – 13.00h
(Registration with refreshments begin at 11.00h)

 Hannoversche Straße 5b, 10115 Berlin-Mitte, Germany


Ernst-Ulrich von Weizsäcker (Co-President of the Club of Rome)
Ugo Bardi (Author of Plundering the Planet)
Eberhard Brandes (CEO of WWF Germany)
Maja Göpel (Head of the Wuppertal Institute Berlin)
Erik Assadourian (Senior Fellow of the Worldwatch Institute)
Ian Johnson (Secretary General of the Club of Rome)
Questions and answers

The number of seats is limited.
The launch will be followed by a snack lunch starting at 13.00h.

The German edition of the new Report to the Club of Rome Plundering the Planet – How to Manage the Earth’s Limited Mineral Resources will be published by the oekom Verlag 
ISBN-13: 978-3-86581-410-4, Munich, 2013


Ugo Bardi offers a fascinating inspection into the geological history of our unique planet. The inspection makes us shiver about the gigantic forces moving tectonic plates. He explains how concentrations of metals resulted from such movements. We realize that it is the high concentration of deposits that determine the availability of metals, fossil fuels and other chemical elements and compounds.

It is against this geological background that humanity has to reflect the way of dealing with the limited treasures of our Planet. In the early phases of human history, the treasures may have appeared limitless. Limited were rather the human capacities to access the treasures. One can interpret human history as the growing capacity to access the treasures – thereby steadily increasing prosperity.

After centuries of ever more successful prospecting and exploitation of mineral resources, we have come to the point where we have to restrain ourselves because, after all, resources are not infinite.

A milestone in this debate was the publication of the first Report to the Club of Rome in 1972, The Limits to Growth.  This put forward scenarios of possible development paths of humanity between 1972 and 2100. For the first time it presented a quantitative model of the path of the world’s industrial civilization as a function of the reduced availability of mineral resources.

As already stated in The Limits to Growth, we are not going to “run out” of minerals in the near future, but we are facing higher costs for extraction and exploitation. Also the amount of energy needed for a ton of pure metal is increasing as we have to rely on less highly concentrated ores. Hence, the real limits may lie in the availability of energy.

Fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) are mineral resources (of organic origin) but also represent energy resources allowing us to extract inorganic minerals. Fossil fuels have been our main source of energy for the past two centuries and have been the main factor that created the birth of the industrial revolution and the development of our present civilization.

Common sense would suggest that we start managing natural resources in a sustainable way by moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources and by decoupling economic growth from resource consumption. We would do better to avoid being deceived by the current hype of shale gas, shale oil and tar sands. They may postpone the time of real scarcity by some thirty years, but at the same time, they aggravate the problem of global warming and are likely to lock us ever deeper into industrial processes, infrastructures and consumption habits that are unsustainable in the long term.

In this Report to the Club of Rome, Ugo Bardi has now taken a look at the history, present day activities and the future of mining. He takes great care to emphasize that the world will never run out of mineral resources, but it faces an increasing depletion of “cheap” oil and high grade ores, leaving us with lower grade ores, which are more expensive to extract, more damaging to the ecosystem and more polluting. I see the book as a very valid sequel to The Limits to Growth and also as a wake-up call for a new and sustainable civilization.