Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bringing the message about resource depletion to the European Parliament



With 24 languages deemed as "official," the European Union shares some characteristics with the ancient Babel Tower (above, the parliament building in Strasbourg). The Babel of languages is one of the problems associated with trying to pass messages to politicians, but not the most important one. Rather, the main problem seems to be a decisional mechanism which favors groupthink Here are some notes of a recent experience of mine at a hearing on energy security of the European Parliament in Brussels.


As I walk to the hearing on energy security in Europe, I am struck first of all by the size of the hall. The "Alcide De Gasperi" room in the palace of the European Parliament in Brussels was clearly built for impressing people, in addition to its function as a meeting room. One of its most remarkable features is the long row of windows of the interpreters' rooms. Since there are 24 official languages of the European Union, there have to be some 50 interpreters working in there. Then, I also notice how the screens for projecting one's slides are small and located high up, near the ceiling. This is not a place where you are supposed to support your statements with data and graphs. It is a place built for political debate.

As people collect in the hall, I can see that the atmosphere is rather formal, with several members of the European Parliament sitting in the audience. Most people are dressed in suits and many wear ties. On the podium, there are six invited speakers. And there we go; I immediately sense the mood of the conference: this is not a scientific meeting. None of the speakers seem to be an expert about fossil fuels, intended as markets, production, resources, reserves, and the like. Rather, they seem to be mainly concerned with strategic and political issues. The line that emerges from the presentations and from the reactions of the audience is clear: it is a highly confrontational attitude (to put it mildly) toward Russia, accused to be engaging in an economic war against Western Europe. The gist of what I hear is that the European Union must unite in defense; we must follow the example of the United States and get rid of our silly regulations and of the local resistance against drilling and nuclear plants. Europe can exploit its shale gas and oil resources (and also nuclear energy) and attain energy independence, as the United States did. It is "drill, drill, drill" all over.

This line, in various shades, is the position of four speakers out of six. The bias in favor of fossil fuels is shown also by the fact that the lady charged with defending renewables is given the last time slot of the hearing. The fossil oriented attitude seems to be shared by the majority of the audience. Not that it is not challenged by some of the MEPs in the room. One of them (I know him well, he has been a long time ASPO supporter) stands up and tells to one of the speakers: "it is not true that the United States has attained energy independence. You have to stop getting your data from newspapers!". He is right, (you can look at the data yourself). But it is an isolated reaction, and the overall debate remains based on the idea that the US has become energy independent or that, at least, it will soon become independent.

When it is my turn to speak, I tell a different story. I try to explain that the ultimate origin of the energy security problems in Europe is due to depletion, and that drilling more is not the solution. I keep the message as simple as possible; tailored for people who are not specialists in oil and gas. I show the price trends, I tell them something about energy return, and I make the point that renewable energy is not subjected to depletion. I sense that my talk is well received: the people in the audience listen to what I say, and they look up at my slides (but those screens are too high and too small, dammit!). I also get several questions and comments - mostly favorable ones. After the hearing is over, several people stop me to discuss further about what I said. As a talk, it was a reasonably successful one.

But, on the whole, I think I had a very modest impact, if any. As I noticed many times, it is extremely difficult to pass to decision makers messages which are perceived as out of the ordinary, as the message on resource depletion is. The problem has many facets and it has to do, mainly, with the way politicians think. According to my experience, politicians - especially high level ones - are very smart people. The problem is that they are swamped with information; just as most of us. So, in the great mass of data arriving, how do you decide what is the truth? If you are a scientist - or you are scientifically trained - you have ways to evaluate the data and filter out the bad ones. But politicians are not scientists, they are not scientifically trained, so they use a different method. They maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about everything they hear; they don't pay too much attention on data, and they tend to side with the interpretation that they perceive as the most compatible with the general opinion of the group they belong to.

There are reasons for this "groupthink" syndrome that, probably, affects politicians more than most of us. It is because then main tool in the political struggle, today, is the demonization of adversaries. So, a politician is very careful to avoid to be singled out from the crowd of colleagues and subjected to the standard demonizing treatment. For a politician, there is safety in crowds; a traditional strategy well known also by sheep and fish. In practice, you may see a politician as having a built in opinion detector in his head. He/she will sense the position of the majority and try to avoid straying too far away from it. In general, the way for a politician to obtain power is to occupy the center; to be seen as a moderate. That this is the way to success has been known for a long time; even rigorously modeled (in economics, it is known as the "Hotelling's law"). Scientists are sometimes contrarians, politicians almost never are. 

So, I think I can figure out the reaction of most of the MEPs to the hearing on energy security in Brussels. It was something like, "Well, that Italian guy who spoke about resource depletion might have a point about what the real problem is. I couldn't his slides so well, so high up near the ceiling, but he seemed to have some good data. But, on the other hand, the other speakers saw the problem differently. If most people in the parliament think that Russia is waging an economic war against us and that drilling more is a good idea, then there has to be something in it. For sure, I shouldn't take the risk of siding with a minority option."



Ugo Bardi teaches at the University of Florence, Italy. He is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted, how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)








32 comments:

  1. This touches on something I have been thinking quite a bit about.

    I don't think that the explanation is simply that politicians are swamped with information and they are not trained scientists (although the latter is very relevant obviously, more on this in a second). There are two additional very significant issues:

    1) There is a worldview problem. I have the impression that these are mostly people who do not see the world as governed by the laws of physics, but as something where politics and economics (as conventionally understood) are central. That's the core of the problem really - politicians come primarily from economics, business and law backgrounds, which means that most likely the only science they were ever directly exposed to was in high school, or at most some very basic introductory undergraduate classes, and most of them absolutely hated that stuff and were deeply relived to never have to deal with again. It is very easy to develop a worldview centered around human relationships when you grow up like that. I see this a lot with friends and relatives, who are not politicians but have similarly grown up and developed as adults without any serious exposure to science - they see science as stuff that kids might occasionally be interested in, but should mostly eventually outgrow, and from time to time as a source of cool technological gadgets, but that's it, it has no role in their understanding of the world. So if you start talking to them about how the human civilization is subsystem of the natural world, and how in its current form it depends on ever growing energy flows and ever expanding extraction of concentrated mineral resources, all you get is blank stare, because even the most basic concepts that from the basis of your argument are completely foreign to them.

    2) You are correct that politicians are not dumb. But "smart" and "competent" are different things, and this is where the second deep problem lies. It's not so much about how busy they are now but what spent their time on until they got to this point. Politics is a Darwinian race - being a high-ranking politician is unconsciously perceived as greatly improving one's inclusive fitness (because it usually indeed does that), thus not only is there no shortage of candidates for glory, but one has to overcome some really cutthroat competition to come out on top and stay there. And as is the case with all human activities, on average it's not pure talent that wins, but how much effort one puts in the struggle. So it tends to be the people who spent all their time networking, making connections, begging for campaign contributions, etc. All of that stuff takes time, and that is time that is not spent reading and educating oneself about how the world works. Meanwhile the people who have spent their time reading and learning, have typically not had much time to dedicate to battling for political influence. So the nature of the political process in the modern world basically guarantees that the people in charge will be almost completely ignorant of the very basic of how the world we all live in works, while the people who understand those things will be mostly relegated to the fringes

    P.S. How did you end up talking there to begin with?

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    1. How did I end up talking there? I say in my post that there is a MEP who has been a long time supporter of ASPO! :-)

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    2. It's a start I guess :)

      And you certainly said a lot more than would be possible to say in a US Senate hearing, for example - I have heard people testifying there about whom I am quite certain that they have a much deeper understanding of the subject than what their testimony reveals, yet for some reason they never cross certain very confining invisible lines, and no serious discussion happens as a result. So I guess there is some serious censorship going on there, which seems not to have been the case here.

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    3. I think there exist techniques much more effective than straight censorship. They simply push you to the fringe; then you can say what you want, but you are not heard. So, it is a reasonable counter-strategy not to say what you really think; it is self-imposed.

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    4. Is it Yves Cochet ? Another one ? :)

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    5. No, not Yves Cochet. An Italian one. I am not sure it is fair to mention his name here, I would be accused to do political propaganda. Or not? What do readers think? Should I disclose his name?

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    6. Stay on the meaning, the name doesn't matter and triggers old games, we are already playing a new one, why should we go back?

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    7. Oh, well, if you want to know, just write me a private message

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  2. Many thanks for this very interesting summary. Things sound even more DISMAL and FRIGHTENING than I had expected they might be. At least your own talk went relatively well even though your conclusion about what most MP's probably concluded about it, is most probably right. What next then? Let's at least try to be "decisive" for once !

    An immediate declaration of war on Russia? Immediate launching of fracking operations for shale oil and gas in downtown Rome and Paris? Or how about razing to the ground the European Parliament hall and fracking there instead? Obviously if any special help or special equipment were needed the U.S. corps of engineers could be brought in to help speed up the operations.

    Of course before any of these things could be done the related "political directives" first would have to be translated into 24 languages and only then could the needed "technical directives" begin to be formulated. But to "improve" and "deepen democracy" perhaps all the directives also should be translated in at least 10 of the regional dialects which I am sure exist in each country and all the spellings should be checked and double checked for accuracy by specialized editors each paid a minimum wage of 15,000 euros per month plus maybe bonuses for overtime and a thirteenth and fourteenth month of salary. Or would that be only for those from the Southern Countries to fully respect their own "deeply rooted" cultural traditions?

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    1. I was a bit scared at the beginning, when I heard all those statements about the EU having to take strong steps to defend itself against Russian aggression. I think you don't need a dictator to take a country to war. The groupthink effect may be enough.

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  3. Thank you for making the effort! It seems clear enough to me that "experts" legislators rely upon, who really understand the scope of the problem, would rather pretend it's not happening.

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  4. I would add that politicians in the US can be extreme, and outside on the mainstream, as long as they are conservative or libertarian. We have lots of those. Of course our politicians on the right don't even pretend to believe in science. "I'm not a scientist" is the prepared response that all of the Republican politicians have started using to avoid talking about climate change. Resource depletion is far beyond their scope. So in that sense, Ugo made it much further in the EU than he ever would in US Congress.

    Let us also not forget that our elected representatives have already sold out to business interests, so anything that would decrease quarterly GNP growth by .1% is automatically off the table.

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    1. Even in the US, the attraction to the center is easily seen in presidential election, when both candidates say basically the same things. But it is also true that the US system is strongly bipolar and that created two centers and a "no man's land" in between. That reflects the structure of the US society. There is a profound divide in the US society about some issues - climate is just the tip of the iceberg - that doesn't seem to be so evident in Europe. We don't have many politicians who rabidly deny climate change. Of course there are some, Nigel Farage of UKIP is an example. But he is part of a fringe opinion (so far.....)

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    2. I don't know if you find US politics interesting, but our congressman and senators have become increasingly extreme, due in part to the way our congressional districts are drawn. Congressman need to cater to the interests of the far right in order to win the primary in all of the secure Republican districts. Anti-tax, anti-climate change and pro-gun are three of litmus test issues to win the primary. This is relevant to this conversation because it explains why the US congress is so hostile to anything related to climate change or resource depletion.

      The presidency is different. An extremist on either side cannot win enough electors (determined at the state level) to become president -- so far we have never had extremist president.

      But again, the problem is that the congress has a vast amount of power and it will single-handedly shuttle progress on climate change as far as you can see into the future.

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    3. Of course we people of the provinces are always interested in Imperial politics! Apart from that, it is strange that the US politics has become so extreme. It seems to disprove Hotelling's law, which has that in order to win, a politician has to occupy the center. It is also curious that in Europe we seem to be seeing the opposite trend. Here, in Italy, our new prime minister is having a good success by occupying the center and pushing both the far left and the far right opposition to the fringe. So, it is a complicated issue - I don't know what pushes things in one direction or another. There is plenty of space to worsen things in Europe, too, with people like Farage who could gain a status that, right now, they can't even dream to.

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    4. It's confusing to me. So far, European politics seems to be staying in the middle and it appears to be more level-headed than their American counterparts, despite the fact that the European economies and the Euro are a mess. The extremists get more votes, but there hasn't been a power shift. Yet. The US has a ridiculously bad government, but we still have some economic growth.

      Go figure.

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  5. Thanks a lot for that Ugo, do you know if the videos of the hearing are available somewhere ?
    As to the US energy independence thing, for me more than figures, best would be to say that the US is still number 1 net oil importer (or second behind China), and still a net importer of natural gas.
    From report BP 2014 (2013 data)
    US consumption : 18887 Kbd
    US prod : 10003 Kbd
    NET : 8884 Kbd
    China consumption : 10756
    China prod : 4180
    NET : 6756
    On this there is also always this little game played between talking about "the US" and "North America"
    (but if counting the Eurozone or "Europe" as one, it is probably first)
    In fact European Union BP definition :
    Consumption : 12770
    Prod : 1437
    NET : 11 333

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    1. The videos should be available, but I think not yet. I'll diffuse the link to them as soon as I have it.

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  6. The insights into the non-scientific perspective are valuable. So often we scientists just look at the data and talk with each other. But as you point out, non-scientists have other worldviews. The hope is that the approach of your presentation has nudged their center a bit in a positive direction. Well done.

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    1. Thank you Sam, but I am afraid that it didn't even do that. But, who knows?

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  7. Georgi Marinov,

    Very insightful comment at the top of the thread. Thank you.

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  8. thx Ugo for the insight! I once made a german sketch (try to dry a morass with water) doing more of the same will not save us: free to use http://goo.gl/6yF1xi

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  9. The 97% paper was important exactly for these reasons, and the attack on it was clearly motivated by same

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  10. Ugo
    If I remember correctly, a good while ago you described a conversation with a Romany friend and his family. What you have done in Strasbourg is necessary but there is a distinct contrast in the perceptiveness of the audience. I am not sure whether a moral can be drawn from the comparison.
    best
    Phil

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    1. Good point, Phil. When I spoke to the Roma, they understood everything, but they also understood perfectly that they couldn't do anything about that. When I spoke in Brussels, theoretically they could have done something, but they chose to not understand what I said (at least most of them, I imagine)

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  11. Traducción al español 1

    Con 24 idiomas considerados como "oficiales", la Unión Europea comparte algunas características con la antigua Torre de Babel (anteriormente, el edificio del Parlamento en Estrasburgo). La Babel de las lenguas es uno de los problemas asociados con tratar de pasar mensajes a los políticos, pero no la más importante. Más bien, el problema principal parece ser un mecanismo de decisión que favorece el pensamiento grupal. Aquí están algunas notas de una experiencia reciente mía en una audiencia sobre la seguridad energética del Parlamento Europeo en Bruselas.


    Mientras camino a la audiencia sobre la seguridad energética en Europa, me llama la atención en primer lugar por el tamaño de la sala. La sala "Alcide De Gasperi" en el palacio del Parlamento Europeo en Bruselas estaba claramente construida para impresionar a la gente, además de su función como una sala de reuniones. Una de sus características más destacables es la larga hilera de ventanas de las cabinas de los intérpretes. Puesto que hay 24 lenguas oficiales de la Unión Europea, tiene que haber unos 50 intérpretes trabajando en esa sala. Luego, también me doy cuenta de cómo las pantallas para la proyección de diapositivas son pequeñas y situadas en lo alto, cerca del techo. Este no es un lugar donde se supone que para apoyar sus afirmaciones con datos y gráficos. Es un lugar construido para el debate político.



    Cuando recorro el pasillo , puedo ver que el ambiente es más bien formal, con varios miembros del Parlamento Europeo que se sientan en la audiencia. La mayoría de las personas se visten con traje chaqueta. En el podio, hay seis oradores invitados. Y ahí vamos; Inmediatamente percibo el estado de ánimo de la conferencia: esto no es una reunión científica. Ninguno de los oradores parece ser un experto sobre los combustibles fósiles, destinados como mercados, producción, recursos, reservas, y similares. Más bien, parecen ser principalmente con cuestiones estratégicas y políticas. La línea que se desprende de las presentaciones y de las reacciones de la audiencia es clara: se trata de una actitud altamente conflictiva (por decirlo suavemente) hacia Rusia, acusada de estar participando en una guerra económica contra Europa Occidental. La esencia de lo que he oído es que la Unión Europea debe unirse en la defensa; debemos seguir el ejemplo de los Estados Unidos y deshacernos de nuestras regulaciones tontas y de la resistencia local contra la perforación y plantas nucleares. Europa puede explotar su gas de esquisto y recursos de petróleo (y también la energía nuclear) y alcanzar la independencia energética, al igual que los Estados Unidos. Se trata de "perforar, perforar, perforar" por todas partes.

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  12. Traducción al español 2

    Esta línea, en distintos tonos, es la posición de cuatro altavoces de seis. El sesgo a favor de los combustibles fósiles se muestra también por el hecho de que a la ponente encargada de la defensa de las energías renovables se le concede el último intervalo de tiempo de la audiencia. La actitud orientada hacia los combustibles fósiles parece ser compartida por la mayoría de la audiencia. No es que no es cuestionada por algunos de los diputados al Parlamento Europeo en la habitación. Uno de ellos (yo lo conozco bien, él ha sido un largo tiempo partidario ASPO) se pone de pie y dice a uno de los oradores:. "No es cierto que los Estados Unidos ha alcanzado la independencia energética . ¡Tiene Vd. que dejar de recibir sus datos de periódicos! ". Tiene razón, ( puedes ver los datos tú mismo (vinculo)). Pero es una reacción aislada, y el debate general sigue basándose en la idea de que los EE.UU. se han convertido en independiente de energía o que, al menos, pronto se convertirá en independiente.

    Cuando es mi turno de hablar, te digo una historia diferente. Trato de explicar que el origen último de los problemas de seguridad energética en Europa se debe al agotamiento, y que la perforación de más no es la solución. Me quedo con el mensaje tan simple como sea posible; adaptado para las personas que no son especialistas en petróleo y gas. Muestro las tendencias de los precios, les digo algo sobre el retorno de energía, y yo insisto en el punto de que las energías renovables no son susceptibles de agotamiento. Tengo la sensación de que mi discurso es bien recibido: las personas en el público escuche lo que digo, y miro hacia mis diapositivas (pero esas pantallas son demasiado altas y demasiado pequeñas, ¡ maldita sea!). También tengo varias preguntas y comentarios - en su mayoría los favorables. Después de la audiencia es más, varias personas me detienen para discutir más a fondo en lo que dije. Como una charla, que era un uno un éxito razonable.

    Pero, en general, creo que he tenido un impacto muy modesto, en su caso. Como he notado muchas veces, es muy difícil pasar a los mensajes de quienes toman las decisiones que se consideran fuera de lo normal, ya que el mensaje en el agotamiento de los recursos es. El problema tiene muchas facetas y que tiene que ver, principalmente, con la forma en los políticos piensan. Según mi experiencia, los políticos - especialmente los de alto nivel - son personas muy inteligentes. El problema es que están inundados de información; al igual que la mayoría de nosotros. Así que, en la gran masa de datos que llegan, ¿cómo decidir cuál es la verdad? Si usted es un científico - o usted está científicamente capacitado - usted tiene maneras de evaluar los datos y filtrar los malos. Pero los políticos no son científicos, no están capacitados científicamente, por lo que usan un método diferente. Ellos mantienen una saludable dosis de escepticismo sobre todo lo que oyen; no prestan demasiada atención en los datos, y tienden a alinearse con la interpretación que ellos perciben como el más compatible con la opinión general del grupo al que pertenecen.

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  13. Traducción al español 3

    Hay razones para este síndrome de "pensamiento de grupo" que, probablemente, afecta a los políticos más que la mayoría de nosotros. Es porque entonces principal herramienta en la lucha política, hoy en día, es la demonización de los adversarios. Así, un político es muy cuidadoso para evitar ser señalado de la multitud de colegas y sometido al tratamiento de demonización estándar. Para un político, hay seguridad en las multitudes; una estrategia tradicional muy conocido también por las ovejas y peces. En la práctica, es posible que vea un político que tiene incorporado un detector de opinión en la cabeza. Él / ella detectar la posición de la mayoría y tratar de evitar alejarse demasiado lejos de ella. En general, el camino para un político para obtener el poder es ocupar el centro; a ser visto como un moderado. Que este es el camino al éxito se conoce desde hace mucho tiempo; incluso rigurosamente modelado (en economía, se le conoce como la "ley de Hotelling"). Los científicos a veces son inconformistas, los políticos casi nunca lo son.

    Por lo tanto, creo que puedo averiguar la reacción de la mayoría de los diputados a la audiencia sobre la seguridad energética en Bruselas. Era algo así como: "Bueno, ese chico italiano que habló sobre el agotamiento de recursos podría tener una visión acertada sobre lo que es el verdadero problema. Yo no he podido ver sus diapositivas muy bien, tan próximas al techo están las pantallas, pero parecía tener buena información. Pero, por otro lado, los otros oradores consideraron que el problema de otra manera. Si la mayoría de la gente en el parlamento creen que Rusia está librando una guerra económica contra nosotros y que la perforación de más pozos es una buena idea, entonces tienen que tener algo de razón . Por supuesto, yo no debería correr el riesgo de ponerse del lado de una opción minoritaria ".

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  14. Udo, thanks for your interesting posting. I also think that for nowaday's policymakers (conciously or not) Hotelling's law is a major rationale for striving towards the very center of the(ir) political universe.
    This idea is also supported by a recent study
    ( http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=972446 )
    about the typical profile of of professionally successful leaders - a characteristics that should also apply to political leaders. In short, it found out that the main characteristics for a successful career is to "function" well and smoothly within the existing operative framework. And that this is not what critical, lateral thinkers do, which would disturb this system.


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    1. Very interesting link. Thanks a lot. Just look at this sentence from the paper, and it explains a lot of things:

      "In the paper, the authors analyze the trade-off between adapting to new information and coordinating employees. Their analysis concludes that more resolute and overconfident CEOs perform better than CEOs who are better listeners and communicators in situations requiring greater coordination. The authors predict that measures of characteristics that reflect resoluteness and overconfidence should be positively correlated with performance.

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  15. Wow that's a wonderfull blog having all details & helpful. Meeting room

    ReplyDelete

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)