Sunday, September 16, 2018

Plastic Pollution: The Age of Unsolvable Problems


Suddenly, we discovered that plastic pollution is a problem, a big one. What to do about it? As usual, it is a question of governance: the problem in itself is not so terribly bad that it couldn't be controlled. But, over the years, we developed such effective technologies of anti-governance that we have entered now "the age of unsolvable problems". 



How bad is the situation with plastic pollution? Rather bad, by all means. Citing from a recent paper by Geyer et al., more than 8 billion tons of plastic have been produced since the 1950s. Of this mass, 9% percent was recycled, 12% was incinerated, the rest is still around. It is this mass of plastics, billions of tons, which generates the pollution we see today. It is almost one ton of plastic waste for every human being living today. Imagine if it were magically to appear in your living room: one ton for every member of your family!

Still following Geyer et al., we learn that, in 2015, the world produced 380 million tons of plastics from fossil hydrocarbons. To get some idea of how polluting this mass is, we can compare it to the total carbon emissions produced by hydrocarbon combustion, around 9 billion tons per year. As an order of magnitude comparison, we can say that about 4% of the fossil hydrocarbons we extract become plastics.  

4% doesn't seem to be a large amount, but it is not negligible, either. Apart from the horrible state of some beaches and the islands of plastics in the oceans, it is a lot of carbon pumped into the ecosystems. Its effects are unknown, especially on humans: we are all eating microplastic particles, today. What will that do to our health, nobody knows -- we are all guinea pigs in a great experiment. The long-run problem is that all this plastic is made from fossil hydrocarbons, so it is going to be gradually oxidized and turned into gaseous CO2. Then, it will contribute to global warming.

So, we have a problem and not a small one. Then, how do we deal with it? The Greens in their various shades will respond with the magic words "recycle!" or "reuse!" but there is a little problem here: you can't recycle or reuse anything for more than a limited number of times. Recycling plastics is just a way to procrastinate the unavoidable: you may know the quote (attributed to Christopher Parker), "Procrastination is like a credit card; it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill." Eventually, even recycled/reused plastics must become waste and at that point, we get the pollution bill to pay.

A different brand of problem solvers, maybe we could call them the "anti-Greens," will come up with a completely different strategy: "let's burn it!" Yes, sure, after it is burned, we don't see it anymore -- which means it has disappeared, right? And, in the process, we magically create energy! Isn't that a good idea? Maybe it is, but if there ever was a perfect illustration of the concept of "sweeping the problem under the carpet," this would be it. When burned, the stuff plastic is made of doesn't disappear -- it is simply turned into CO2 which then goes into the atmosphere to create more global warming. And the energy we can get from incineration is just a trifle and it is obtained in a dirty and inefficient manner.

There is a third brand of people I could call the "bring me a problem and I'll show you an opportunity." They take notice that there exists something called "bioplastics" which doesn't generate extra greenhouse gases and is bio-degradable, at least in principle. So, it could solve the problem while keeping everything the way it is in the best of possible worlds. They know that, nowadays, weight for weight, bioplastics cost 2-3 times more than ordinary plastics made from fossil fuels but, hey, higher prices mean higher profits! After all, the fraction of the budget that an ordinary family can't be but small, so they can afford to pay a little more. Besides, technological progress will surely bring costs down. And when they discover that bioplastic production today is only about 4 million tons (1% of the total production of plastics), wow! Think of the possibilities of growth!!

But is bioplastic the solution to the problem? As it often happens, quantification makes short work of ideas that seemed to be good in theory. Today, bioplastics are made mainly from cereals (corn) or directly from sugar. According to the data from Statista, the world's production of sugar was about 170 million tons in 2017, less than half the amount needed to make the currently produced amounts of plastics even in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient process. About cereals, the data tell us that in crop year 2016/2017, a total of approximately 2.62 billion metric tons of cereals were produced worldwide. Again in the wildly optimistic assumption of a 100% efficient production process, it means we should set aside about 15% of the world's cereal production - more realistically about 20%-25%. Then, of course, efficiency can be improved and we may find ways to make plastic out of plants not used as food. But, at present, it is the way things stand.

Think for a moment of what losing 25% of the food production to make bioplastics would mean for a world where billions of people live on the edge of starvation. You see that we have a little problem, here -- similar to the one that would come if we were to try to switch from fossil fuels to biofuels. And I am not saying anything about the fact that agriculture is far from being fossil-free, not at all: think of fertilizers, pesticides, transportation, refrigeration, processing, and more. Think also that, the way it is performed nowadays, agriculture is an unsustainable process that destroys the fertile soil that it needs to produce food. There is just so much that agriculture can do: it can't feed more than 7 billion people and, at the same time, provide fiber, chemicals, and fuel for everybody.

Does that mean that the problem of plastic pollution unsolvable? No. It is, actually, a minor problem in comparison to other, much more difficult problems we face. We need to phase out fossil fuels from the world's economy but, if we were to do that very rapidly, the world's economy would cease to function. But we could phase out fossil-based plastics tomorrow. It would be uncomfortable and complicated, but nobody would die and we would rapidly adapt to new ways to do everything we do today, just using something else: metals, paper, ceramic, tissue, or whatever at hand -- even nothing in some cases. And we don't even need to phase-out plastics completely: in some areas, plastic materials are really indispensable, think of one-use medical equipment or rubber tires for road vehicles. But, in that case, we can use bioplastics: if we use it in limited amounts, it is possible. What we have to do is just to eliminate the wasteful and frankly stupid one-use plastic items: plastic bottles, for instance.

It is, in the end, not a technological problem: it is a problem of governance: we (intended as humankind) have been able to manage reasonably well the elimination of some harmful substance from industrial production. Think of lead as a component of paints or in gasoline. Think of mercury in thermometers, beryllium in some alloys, CFCs in refrigerators, DDT as an insecticide, and many more cases. International agreements were discussed, approved, and implemented. Then, these and many more substances were banned and removed from industrial use. It is possible and it has been done.

So, it would be perfectly possible to develop and implement international agreements that would curb the use of plastics made from fossil fuels and eventually ban it completely. That implies changing something in our everyday life: the "overpackaged" products that today are so common in supermarket aisles would have to disappear. But packaging is not evil: it is a way to store food more efficiently. We need to learn how to be much more efficient with it.

So theoretically, it should be possible -- even reasonably easy -- to eliminate plastics pollution by means of international legislative action but, in practice, it looks difficult. Over the years, efficient technologies of anti-governance (aka good old disinformation) have been developed and honed to near perfection -- we saw them applied to the issue of global warming. These technologies can be used by industrial lobbies to stop all legislative changes that would reduce their profits. That has suddenly made every problem impossible to solve.

Right now, the fossil fuel industry is desperately fighting to survive. It has been able to successfully stop many attempts to do something against climate change. It is at least unlikely that it will stay silent while it loses a market worth some 600 billion dollars per year. So, expect soon a loud campaign in favor of plastics: some hints are already starting to appear (*). And they will blame you for not differentiating your waste well enough!

If the campaign to keep fossil plastics will work, then the only way to get rid of the stuff will be a full-fledged Seneca Collapse.  That is, if humans can't reduce by themselves the amount of fossil plastics they use, the system will crash and force them to reduce it. This kind of crashes have happened in the past, they can surely happen again. Even in the age of unsolvable problems, collapse is a feature, not a bug.



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(*) The article cited on WSJ is paywalled, but the gist of it is based on an earlier article on NPR which notes how the number of plastic straws used yearly in the US is usually overestimated (500 million per day) and that the person who generated it a few years ago (Milo Cress) now admits it was just a guess. Because of this, the WSJ writer, James Freeman, concludes that the whole anti-plastics campaign is a scam designed to have you pay more money to the Green PTBs, out there. It is a standard disinformation technique based on cherry picking. They can do much better than this - you'll see that soon!


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Stunning News from the Memesphere: Forest Fires had no Effect on the Public's Perception of Climate Change


In 2018, the fires in California and in other parts of the world have been especially devastating. But they had little or no effect on people's perception of global warming and climate change. It seems that we are operating on the basis of a wrong model of governance: the bottom-up mechanism is simply not working.



This year, we had the largest forest fires ever seen in history in California. And we had terrible forest fires in Greece, Portugal, and Scandinavia. Climate scientists were quick in stating that these fires were made more likely and more severe by global warming, but you don't need to be a climate scientist to understand that higher temperatures mean drier conditions and more fires.

Then, if you live, as I do, in a bubble in the memesphere where climate change is regarded as a serious and imminent problem, you surely had the impression that the fires of this summer was an important factor in affecting the perception of the general public. All that sound and fury couldn't signify nothing, right? I saw several self-congratulatory messages in the meme bubble stating something like, "now they will start understanding the problem of climate change!"

Alas, that's not true. The results are stark clear: there is NO evidence of an increased public interest in global warming as a result of the fires. Below, you can see the results of a search on Google Trends for the United States. These data record the number of times that a certain term was searched on the Google Search Engine.


Note how the interest in the term "wildfires" spikes up in correspondence with major wildfire events. You can see in the graph the three California fires of 2017, August, October, and November. You can also see the rising interest in the 2018 fires. But climate change? No detectable effect. At best, a very minor increase, not even compensating the decline generated by the Trump administration starting to use deception by omission. (note how the spike in interest in climate change in 2017 is the result of Trump's announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris treaty). Other countries showed the same pattern: I could detect some rising interest in climate during the 2018 fire season only in France, in Germany, and in some other countries of central Europe. A minor effect, anyway.

All that is nothing less than stunning. We had this big disaster, fires everywhere, giant columns of smoke, incinerated buildings, all pointing directly to global warming. Of course, it is possible to argue that there are other factors that caused the fires, but at least you would think that people would have been stimulated to look over the Web on the subject. Instead, nothing, zero, null, zilch, nada. No detectable rise in interest in climate change despite the fires. People just didn't make the connection.

So, what's happening? One of the problems is that the media didn't emphasize the climate factor in causing the fires. The many articles published on the subject normally contained a few sentences about the effects of climate change buried somewhere in the text, but the subject never appeared in the title and was never emphasized in the summaries. But it was not a conspiracy of the media: simply, they found that mentioning climate change in the news about the fires was a "palpable ratings killer." So, the media had no interest in diffusing a subject that the public found uninteresting and the public found the subject uninteresting because it was not diffused by the media. It is a damping feedback which is gradually marginalizing climate change to the status of a non-problem. (see this post on Cassandra's Legacy and this article).

In the end, the problem is that we have a wrong model for how to generate action against climate change. We tend to think that, as the change becomes more evident in the form of major disasters, people will take notice and that will force politicians and opinion leaders to do something. That's not happening. We are having giant fires, scorching heatwaves, and droughts, besides, of course, rising temperatures. But people don't care if they are not directly affected and, if they are, they have other priorities than worrying about climate change. The bottom-up model of diffusion of the climate change meme is simply not working.

So, what do we need? One thing that can be said is that no major environmental problem was ever solved by means of a bottom-up meme diffusion mechanism: refrigerator owners never pushed for their CFC refrigerating fluid to be replaced with non-ozone depleting fluids. Instead, manufacturers were forced by law to stop their production of CFCs. We need to find a way to go in that direction in order to stop greenhouse emissions, hoping that it is not too late.


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As a further note, during this year's fire season, I published a comment on an Italian newspaper on the fires in Greece, trying to highlight the connection with climate change. The result was discouraging: most commenters angrily disagreed with me and much preferred a conspiracy theory that attributed the fires to "arsonists." It seems that not only people can't see the connection between forest fires and climate change, they become positively angry when it is pointed out to them.


Sunday, September 2, 2018

How Can They Lie to us so Blatantly? The Strange Case of Wealth Inequality in Russia



The figure is taken from the "Independent" dated 23 November 2016. It is an example of propaganda techniques based on spin and omission. We live today in a true Empire of Lies

(note: this article was modified after having received a comment from "Alien Observer")


By mere chance, I happened to stumble into the graph you see above. It bothered me: can it really be that Russia is, by far, is the most unequal country in the world? It just didn't fit with what I know of Russia. Yet, the power of well-presented graphic information is such that for a while I tried to rationalize these data in my mind. Maybe the fall of Communism really caused some kind of terrible unbalancing of the Russian society. Scratching my head, I thought that I had to check the data.

Perusing the Internet on this matter, I found several other 2016 reports in the mainstream media about the alleged high inequality of the Russian society. In a 2016 article on CNN, you can read that "Russia is the most unequal major economy in the world," while on "Radio Free Europe" they say that "wealth disparity in Russia is unparalleled."

But there is something wrong with these reports. I checked with the World Bank, I checked with the "World Inequality Database," I checked with the Statista site. I even checked the  CIA Factbook, not exactly people known for their sympathies for those evil Russians. The result was always the same: Russia is NOT the most unequal country in the world. "Inequality" is a wide-ranging concept that can be measured in various ways but, in general, Russia is ranked at about the same level as the United States and at much lower levels of inequality than countries like India or Brazil.

So, what are these reports based on? CNN doesn't provide links to their sources, but they refer to a company called "New World Wealth." Radio Free Europe cites one Mr. Tony Shorroks of a company called "Global Economic Perspectives." Neither source seems to be very reliable. A company called "New World Wealth" has a Web Site but, frankly, it looks like a fake company: their "reports" are simply links to the site of a bank in Mauritius and, in any case, none of them says anything about social inequality in Russia. As for Mr. Shorroks' company, it seems to exist in London, but it doesn't even have a Web address - it is hard to think that it can perform an independent economic analysis of the Russian Federation.

How about the data on the Independent? The number provided for Russia just doesn't seem to be right. According to the World Inequality Database, the share of wealth of the top 1% of the Russian population is around 42%, not 74.5%. Again, they don't provide a link but, after some work, the 74.5% value can be found buried in a table at page 145 of a report published by Credit Suisse (h/t Alien Observer). How is it that this number is so different than others is probably because of the data the Credit Suisse use are incomplete, as they themselves say. In any case, the wealth of the top 1% is a very partial tool to measure how unequal a society is. It only tells you something about the existence of an upper crust of super-rich people, whose wealth is very difficult to estimate anyway. It tells you nothing on how wealth is distributed among the rest of society, the poor and the middle class.

So, among the data available in several reports, the Independent chose the only number they could find that gave them the possibility of denigrating Russia -- conveniently forgetting to cite all the others. But that's the way propaganda works. Good propaganda - better defined as "perception management" - is not about telling lies, it is about distorting the truth, typically, by means of the three basic propaganda techniques: omission, spin, and saturation. Here, we have a classic case: the data which agree with a certain interpretation are cited (spin), the others are ignored (omission).

The interesting point, here, is that I could find nothing on the Web that challenged these stories about inequality in Russia. It seems that most people are too busy and distracted to have the time and the inclination to check the data they read in the media. So, the concept of "high inequality in Russia" just flashes up in people's perception and then it becomes part of a diffuse worldview.

So, here we are: the whole issue is not so much about Russia, it is about how blatantly they can lie to us and get away with that. How about much darker things for which we have no reliable sources? How can we believe in anything we read in the media? And note that this is not the kind of fake news diffused by amateurs on the social media. These are news appearing on major media outlets which, by the way, often claim to be fighting fake news.

Maybe lies are not a bug but a feature of our society. It seems to be true that we can "create our own reality," as an aide to Donald Rumsfeld is reported to have said at the time of the invasion of Iraq. So we are creating a true "Empire of Lies" and that's not a good thing.


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Some more info on inequality in Russia. Here is a graph from the "World Inequality Database"


As you can see, inequality in Russia increased after the fall of the Soviet Union but, later on, it started to go down with the economic recovery. Recently, however, it went up again, most likely because of the strain on the economy imposed by the international sanctions. Still, the current value of about 42% for the 1% share doesn't compare with the 74.5% value given by the Independent. 

Here are, instead, the data for the US.
The graph is a little outdated. Today, the 1% share in the US is higher than it was in 2014 and about the same as it is in Russia. Note also that these data are only about personal wealth but say nothing about other factors, such having a health insurance, which is provided for free by the state to Russian citizens, but not to American ones. About the growing inequality trend, maybe it is correlated to the oil production peak in the US - in any case, today the level of inequality in the US is close to that of England in the 18th century.





Monday, August 27, 2018

So, You Think Science Will Save the World? Are You Sure?

I understand that by publishing this post I may be giving ammunition to the anti-science crowd. But we can't just hide in the ivory tower and tell people that science is perfect as it is. We need deep reforms in the way science is done.



In Italy, we have a term for those who engage in a task much too big and too difficult for them. We call them a "Brancaleone Army" (Armata Brancaleone), a term coming from the title of a wonderful 1966 Italian movie where an Italian self-styled knight tries to lead a ragtag army of incompetent fighters. The sad conditions of science nowadays sometimes look to me like the story of the Brancaleone army.


What is truth? These famous words come not from a scientist but from a politician, Pontius Pilate, governor of Palestine in Roman times. As a politician, Pilate knew very well how truth could be twisted, stretched, sliced, cooked, flavored, and rearranged in many ways in order to be sold to people. Things are not different, today. In politics, truth is what you perceive to be true. After all, isn't it true that we can create our own reality? (a US government official is reported to have said that at the time of the invasion of Iraq, in 2003).

Eventually, the Roman Empire drowned in its own lies, it was an epistemological collapse. Something similar may happen to us: we cannot continue for long to ignore reality, believing that we can manufacture our own, and deceive everyone in the process.

But how about science? Isn't science able to tell us what reality is according to its much-praised "scientific method?" In principle, yes, but science is far from being a perfect truth-seeking machine. The attacks that science is receiving from all quarters have some justification: as scientists, we cannot claim to be able to save the world if we don't clean up our act first.

A critical element of the soft belly of modern science is the process called "Peer Review." If you are not familiar with this procedure, let me explain it to you. The idea is that when scientists want to diffuse the results of their studies in the form of a "paper", they will submit it to a "peer-reviewed" journal. Their manuscript will be sent to a number (typically 2 or 3) anonymous reviewers - scientists working in the same field - who will recommend rejection or publication and, in the latter case, changes to improve the paper. (for details, see this excellent paper by Jon Tennant)

So far, so good: if everyone does their best to do the reviewing job, the process might provide good results. And, indeed, peer review is supposed to be the "golden standard" of science. The typical accusation that climate scientists direct to their critics is that their papers are not peer-reviewed: they are often published in politically motivated blogs, and they lack the rigor that real scientific papers have. This is often a correct viewpoint, climate science is one of the most advanced and vital fields of science, today, and the criticism made at it is normally of poor quality and politically biased.

But there is a problem: the gold standard called Peer Review is neither gold nor a standard. First of all, it doesn't prevent bad science from filtering through. It is always possible with some effort and some patience to find a favorable combination of reviewers and editors and manage to publish on a serious journal a paper that's wrong from top to bottom. It has happened and some cases are truly a scandal. You can see this one, for instance, where the authors invented out of whole cloth a completely new nuclear physics based on shaky (to say the least) experimental evidence, and all in order to explain phenomena that had other, perfectly good, explanations.

At this point, get ready for a surprise: Scientific Journals have NO WAY to remedy a mistake. Once a paper is published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is enshrined in the corpus of "officially approved science." Unless there are evident scams involved, such as plagiarism or fake data, the fact that most scientists in the field think that the paper is wrong is not sufficient to have it removed. The best that other scientists can do is to submit a comment to the editors - who will be usually as happy to publish it as they are happy to see their dentist. Then, the authors of the commented paper will be able to submit their counter-comments and the whole process will only serve to give them more visibility - and that's exactly what happened with the paper I was telling you about.

On the other side of the peer review process, the filter makes it nearly impossible to publish innovative ideas, especially for young researchers. Reviewers are a self-selected group, often formed of elderly gentlemen, whose purpose seems to be to make sure that nothing that contrasts with their views goes through the filter. To say nothing about the incredibly slow, time-consuming, and frustrating process of dealing with reviewers who understood nothing of one's work but nevertheless think that they can demolish it, even poking fun at it. Reviewers can always manage to transform a perfectly good paper into an ugly mongrel just because they want to throw their weight around. The worst is when they won't be happy until they have imposed their views on the authors, forcing them to write the paper the way they (the reviewers) want.

How about standards in reviewing? Again, brace for a surprise: there are none, zero, zilch, null. The whole process is carried out in secrecy, the authors don't know who is the person who has somehow gained the right to abuse them from a comfortable anonymity position, there is no standard for what kind of criticism is supposed to be acceptable or not, nor for what kind of rebuttal is supposed to be acceptable or not. The editors can do whatever they want with a submission and normally there is no procedure that an author can follow to protest against what they see as an unfair treatment of their paper.

Now, would you assign to someone the job of - say - designing a plane on the basis of this review method? Would you fly in it once it is built? So, if you are a scientist, do you think that you can save the world in this way? And peer review is not the only problem plaguing modern science!

You may wonder how come that scientists - who are supposed to be so smart - behave in such a sloppy manner when it is question of publishing their results. I am baffled by myself on this point; the only thing I can propose is that they are good at whatever they are specialized in, but not necessarily in all fields. In other words, many scientists can be defined as "Idiot Savants," interested only in their narrow specialized field. The final result is something like the Brancaleone Army I was mentioning at the beginning of this post.

Fortunately, science is not yet the scam it is accused to be, for instance, by those engaged in rejecting climate science. But, if we don't do something fast to improve, we risk seeing science perceived by everyone to be a scam. And  didn't we say that in politics truth is what you perceive to be true?




This post was inspired by a paper by Jon Tennant. http://fossilsandshit.com/the-state-of-the-art-in-peer-review/  and by a post by Jem Bendell


And here is the original Brancaleone in action!

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Why so Many People on Earth? The Ideology of Natalism


(Above: a 19th century English family). 

A few years ago I was invited at a reunion of citizens concerned about social issues. When I was there, I was startled to discover that the only concern of the group was the evils of abortion. It was a fascinating experience: one of the persons speaking reported a calculation of how many "babies" had been killed by abortions over the past 15 years and concluded with "do you realize that, were it not for abortions, we could have today one million more people in Italy?" (I may remember the numbers incorrectly). But don't make me say that they were bad people, not at all. It is just that if you start - as they did - from the assumption that the more people there are, the better the world is, then the consequence is that you want as many children born as possible: it is the position called "natalism." I wonder how the people I met at that reunion would judge the kind of discussion that we are normally having at the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog.

In the following post, Natan Feltrin and Eleonora Vecchi examine natalism as an ideology. About the proposition, "the more we are, the better it is,"  see also my post titled "If Switzerland had a Sahara Desert, it Would be a Small Africa" (U.B.)




Brief manifest of ethical-political anti-natalism 

Guest post by Natan Feltrin & Eleonora Vecchi

Abstract: The aim of this paper is to point out the problematic relationship between demographic trends and the ideology called "natalism". With a point by point analysis, the authors highlight how, worldwide, there has always been a biopolitical approach to control the human biomass. This political "numbers game" builds on three main socio-cultural imperatives: to accomplish a holy order, to meet military needs and to enhance economic growth. In this dominant perspective, men, women and their sexuality become an effective tool to carry out a capitalistic and imperialistic goal.  Starting from this assumption and taking into account the biogeochemical limits of Gaia, "anti-natalism" turns out to be a heretical proposal against the dominant political mindset. From the child-free individual choice to family planning based on gender equality this brief manifest tries to encourage a new perspective on demography particularly with regard to its implications for the other species. Finally, the paper suggests the necessity of a more-than-human demography based on a bio-proportionality criterion far beyond the reductive idea of biodiversity.



Premise: Thursday, July 19th, 2018 10.13pm, we're in a small pub in the Finnish town of Savitaipale in Southern Karelia. The World Population Clock reports that the human population has already reached 7,637,012,840 (billion) individuals. We sit down with two cups of coffee, ready to explain as briefly and effectively as possible why the dramatic growth of sapiens biomass is an ethical, ecological and political concern.


We live in a finite system: The Earth is a not a closed, nor an isolated, but a finite system. Thereby it is meant that from a biogeochemical perspective there are limited chances of expansion and proliferation on the planet. In other words, the growth of both consumption and consumers, engine par excellence of GWP (Gross World Product), has physical constraints that are flexible but not breakable. There's no possibility to throw our hearts over thermodynamic rules! To state it even more clearly, the ideology of growth inherent in the contemporary capitalistic economy is heading towards a crash against the hard cliff of reality.

Violation of ecological boundaries: In the last two hundred years, Homo sapiens not only turned fossil fuel into human biomass but also our species increased its unequal prosperity to the detriment of natural systems. This phenomenon, known as The Great Acceleration, has resulted in an abnormal anthropic effect on a geologic scale: the Anthropocene is not only the Epoch of Man because sapiens has become a hyperobject - an all-pervasive entity in the lives of present and future beings- sed etiam because of the "human quantity". In the Epoch of Man - "Man" and not "Human" due to the anthropocentric perspective of geo-history - loss of biodiversity, global warming, ocean acidification, desertification, plastic pollution, land consumption, water pollution, alteration of many biogeochemical cycles and much more, are consequences of the product between consumption and consumers. An unprecedented impact in history…

Optimist only if realist. Against an ideology of progress: Technology isn't a deus ex machina and won’t necessarily intervene providentially when humankind needs it. In history, "great inventions" "saved" only behindhand: vaccines hadn't a retroactive effect on generations that died in the agony of diseases. Endeavouring to create a more resilient world through a tenacious and avant-gardist scientific research doesn't mean to let utopian or dystopian geo-engineering scenarios seduce us. In order to avoid phantasmic policies we need a realistic approach towards science, which often doesn't ensure cures, but clearly identifies symptoms and aetiology.

Humans deal with knowledge in a schizoid way: when we achieve easy solutions through science we praise it, on the contrary when it warns us, we overthrow it. We let mermaids seduce us as much as we don't want to listen to Cassandra! Regardless, technology is only a portion of a solution that must take place in a conscious political evolution. The human flock has to find new routes and new ways to coordinate and not to lose itself in some Neverland!

What to do? A systemic answer: if you're lost in the heart of a Finnish forest the best thing to do is to ration resources, walk and not to consume everything, blindly trusting in prompt rescuers. Thus, so as not to be overwhelmed by the chaos of Anthropocene, politics and ethics can't only hope but have to take responsibility for their own time through an unprecedented pragmatic rationality. Understanding the necessity of acting and not waiting, we must intervene in the whole IPAT equation: the massive impact of the present and future anthropo-mass combined with the erosion of the "natural capital" must be resized with the descent of consumption, the inversion of demographic trend and the development of more ecological technologies. Repetita iuvant: the demographic growth is not the only area for action, nevertheless without giving a limit to this human multiplication every sickness of the world, at least of Gaia, won't be solved.

What is natalism? Brief explanation: natalism is not the same as an increasing demographic trend, instead it is the ideology that advocates the positivity, necessity, and eco-compatibility of such an increment. This ideology leads to political or individual ideas and actions that have the aim of sponsoring, encouraging or forcing the population of an area to heighten their natality according to a bio-political agenda. There are three common form of natalism that intertwine together: theocratic, militarist-ethnocentric and capitalistic. In those viewpoints, demography is never neutral but, from a woman’s womb to male sperm, all the anthropic matter serves as cannon fodder for achieving the aims of a few. The will to fertility becomes the will to power, not merely reproductive but cancerous.

  • Theocratic: there's only one population, the one of God, and it has to follow the imperative to multiply itself at the expense of every other community, human or not human. This mind-set, even if archaic and reclaimed by few, contains all the monotheistic culture, affecting us from the depth of our unconscious.
  • Militarist-ethnocentric: from Mussolini's speech to the fight of cradles between Palestine and Israel all geopolitics is drenched in geo-demography. The number of humans is turned into a tool which different Leviathans use to compete and to divide an ecumene increasingly tight and mortified. In this vision, the others are always "too many".
  • the human biomass is gasoline for the wheels of stagnant economies: more consumers, most families with small children tend to spend more, means growing GDP. Furthermore, like Malthus and Ricardo had guessed, more people are synonymous with cheap workers. The demographic imperative, namely natalism, is an unequivocal breaking point between two different ways to administer the Oikos: ecology and capitalistic economy are irreconcilably in opposition.

Ethics anti-natalism, child-free and bio-protest: being child-free means to freely decide not to have offspring. The ones that contest this position often describe the decision as Eurocentric. In this critical statement, there's a concealed truth: choosing to have or not have a child is not possible throughout the world. Above all, under either the reason why individuals choose to use their right of not procreating, often related with the rupture of the taboo of the traditional family as the only social accepted relation, the child-free choice doesn't turn those subjects anti-natalistic. Anti-natalism in individuals is the awareness of the criminal implication that natalistic ideology has, both from a biocentric and an anthropocentric perspective. Anti-natalism, therefore, is an ethical disposition in a natural and cultural world with the aim of disarming all the theocratic and capitalistic attempts at increasing human quantity. This results, in supporting a policy of family planning and moreover embracing, with a symbolic and material parrhesia, in life seeing the descent of consumers and consumption. For this reason, an anti-natalist couple can decide to have zero, one, two children, or to adopt. All these reflections have to start from the consideration that to whom in this world is not and wouldn't have the desire to be, we don't have to give them a mere existence tout court, but the possibility of material and social condition to be happy. In this ethical horizon, the child-free choice can be a bump key and breaks the chains that nail human life on a reproductive telos. Frequently referred as a child-less choice in a deprivation sense and painted like the symbol of a bourgeois and egocentric existence poor in affection, the decision to not reproduce can rather assume a proactive value in political environmentalism. As a reply to a natalist bio-policy, being child-free matures into a bio-protest, boycotting in its small way the rush towards collapse.

Anti-natalism beyond Eurocentrism. To act is needed: policy has to make cast-iron and trans-national decisions: a steady stream of investment for family planning where the birth rate is higher is fundamental. Family planning, it is always good to emphasize, doesn't mean to control birth rate with a coercive and totalitarian approach, conversely, it means to allow individuals to decide with conscious freedom about their reproduction. Effective and accessible provision to contraception, sexual education, gender equality, and the reconnection of social realities with their environment are goals to reach alongside illness and hunger prevention and political instability.

This approach, far from being a paternalistic Eurocentrism, is a moral duty towards the other dictated by awareness: the ones who prefer non-intervention in foreign reality are like an AIDS sufferer that refuses to contemplate the use of prophylactics. As regards the so-called "developed countries", the natalist and limitless ideology must be eradicated through ethical-ecological education and liberation of sexuality, still enslaved by the pornography-reproduction dichotomy. Culturally, a decreasing demographic trend, like the Italian or the Japanese, has to be turned from demerit to collective virtue. A descent will bring countless advantages of resilience, although from a social perspective will be distressing. Thus, a declining birth rate has to be handled by policies focused on effective generational replacement and specific investment in public services: what a nation invests in under 18’s would be endowed gradually towards protection against senility. This can sound drastic but assuming there will be more young people to take care of elderly will only procrastinate and escalate the issue of a radical change in the demographic pyramid, enslaving us in a Ponzi scheme. Obviously, anti-natalist policies need to go beyond, in quantity and complexity, the few points that we have mentioned here. Further consideration would be a fertile ground for broader research.

A world among worlds. More-than-human demography in the Eremocene: There are several talks on Anthropocene, nevertheless the more correct word to describe the Epoch we are creating could be Eremocene. This is because we are annihilating bio-cultural diversities mainly by subtraction of "living space" creating a repetitive and monochrome world. In the current reality, where globalization, free market, and heritage flattening are making humankind greyer and more fragile, others life forms are incurring a dramatic extinction, aka the Sixth Extinction. Contemporary philosophy needs to become aware not only of the demographic challenge but embrace the concept of a more-than-human demography. With this definition, we want to underline the necessity of going beyond the division between anthropocentric demography and ecology of non-human populations.

This effort is required because thinking of the human quantity only in the economical-political-cultural outlook blind us from seeing the reality: our species is a world among worlds and not a self-referential isolated monad. The base principle of this ethic is that every life form and every bio-cultural heritage, have the right to a space for expression. This space cannot be a merely symbolic reductionism of species and population to an individual label.


Monday, August 13, 2018

Why is it so Easy to Deceive People? The Strange Case of the Cooling Trend of the United States


The figure above, showing a cooling trend in the United States, was posted by Steven Goddard (aka Tony Heller) on his blog with the remarkable title of "The Deplorable Climate Science Blog" (actually there is a slightly different one on the blog, right now, but it is simply a difference in the smoothing procedure). The author claims that this graphic is based on real data and that turns out to be true: but is it a honest graph?


The world is becoming more and more complicated. And the more complicated it is, the more difficult to understand it becomes. And there appear more and more opportunities to deceive people: we are all swamped by the news and have neither the competence nor the time to verify what the media serve to us.

So, this August, Mr. Tony Heller, writing under the pen name of Steven Goddard, published on his blog the graph you see above, showing a clear cooling trend in the United States. Make no mistake, these are real data, or so they are said to be. And they do show that summers have been cooling. But what about heat waves we are experiencing nowadays? Just an impression, apparently, because the data say otherwise. Then, what about global warming? An illusion, probably a fraud.

The graph is having a certain diffusion in the social media. An earlier version was even picked up by James Delingpole in his Breitbart news site. It quickly became a growing meme, scoffed or cheered depending on the attitude of the people commenting on it. As usual, the debate on climate on the social media is little more than a shouting match. It took some work by an expert, Tamino, on his "Open Mind" blog to dissect the story of this graph and show the tricks behind it. Tamino's whole post is reproduced below.

Basically, Steven Goddard's post is a textbook example of two well-known propaganda methodsCarlo Kopp describes the technique called "deception by omission" noting that it works when "the victim has poor a priori knowledge or no a priori knowledge or understanding of what the attacker is presenting to be a picture of reality" He also notes that deception by omission is often accompanied by "deception by spin" which consists in presenting only the information favorable to a certain viewpoint of a certain issue.

Note that neither deception by omission nor deception by spin require lying. It is all a way to present (or not to present) the data. This is what Goddard does, carefully choosing the data available on the NOAA site and presenting only those supporting the idea that the US has been cooling, not warming, during the past century or so. That's just not true, but the trick of these things is the ability to demonstrate a wrong thesis by using real data.

And that's what is truly impressive: how little it takes to deceive people. All that was needed to create a wholly new alternate reality was some patience and a high school level ability to manipulate data. No need for Goddard to be a government agent or to be paid by the PTB. All he needs is to be a lone troll with a stone ax to grind.

Now, stop for a moment and think: what if the real spooks were to engage in deceiving us for good? I mean, governments have resources and competencies in propaganda infinitely larger than those of a single person. What could they do to us if they were to direct us to a completely wrong perception of reality? Do you remember the story of the "weapons of mass destruction" at the time of Saddam Hussein? Now they can do much better than that. Yes, they can deceive us. And probably they do - they are doing that right now.

So, what's happening? The anthropologist Roy Rappaport spoke about "diabolical lies," defined as lies which tamper with the very fabric of truth.  Maybe our whole civilization is being destroyed by lies, diabolical or not, and we desperately need a new epistemology to rebuild trust in our institutions and in ourselves as human beings. This is the task that the early Christian thinkers had engaged in at the time when another civilization, the Roman one, was being destroyed from inside by the very truths it had been built on - by then become diabolical lies. As Poul Anderson said, "all evil is rotten good" and that may well describe our situation.

At this point, I can only propose to you to read Tamino's post, below. At least, it clarifies a section of our perception of the universe.

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USA Temperature: can I sucker you?


Suppose I wanted to convince people that temperature in the USA wasn’t going up, it was going down. What would I show? Let’s try yearly average temperature in the conterminous U.S., also known as the “lower 48 states” (I’ll just call it “USA”):


Well that won’t do. It shows that temperature has been rising, not falling. By the way, I’ve included two trend estimates. The blue straight line is a linear trend estimate and it’s going up. The red curvy line is a nonlinear trend estimate, it has gone up and down and up, and is now rising fast. Scary fast. That definitely won’t do.

But wait! The temperature shown is the mean temperature, which is the average of the high and low temperatures. What if I tried just low temperatures?


That won’t do either. Scary fast.
How about high temperatures?


That still won’t do, but it’s a little better. There’s a more pronounced hump in the 1930s — that’s the dustbowl era. Could I maybe make the most of that?

Let’s try this: look at high temperature during the different seasons of the year. After all, we know winter has been warming faster than summer, maybe summertime only — or maybe at least one of the seasons — will give a more useful “sucker people” picture. Here are the average high temperatures for all four seasons separately:



Now we’re getting somewhere! Summer high temperature has still been increasing overall, but that hump during the 1930s (the dust bowl era) is far more pronounced. Maybe I could make something of that?

Perhaps I could just get rid of some of the data I don’t like. I can’t get rid of the most recent stuff — then people will figure out I’m trying to sucker them. How about I get rid of some of the early stuff? I’ll start with 1918, instead of starting when the data actually start (1895). That leaves this:


Finally! I’ve got a graph that looks like there’s nothing to worry about, where the linear trend is so small you almost can’t tell it’s still (barely) rising, and I only had to pick one of 12 possible combinations (mean/high/low temperature over winter/spring/summer/autumn) and leave out the early data to get it. Clever.

Even so, the trend is still going up even if just barely. And that’s the linear trend; the nonlinear trend looks like it might be rising noticeably lately, maybe even getting close to as hot as the summer of the dust bowl era. Could I fix that?

Of course I can! Instead of using the USA temperature data from the “experts,” those people at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who think they’re so good at it just because they’ve spent decades studying all that “math” and learning how to do it “right,” I’ll just take the raw data and form a simple average. Those NOAA people will tell you that isn’t right, that over the years new stations have come online and old ones have retired so you have to take that into account. They’ll talk about fancy-schmancy math stuff like “area weighting.” That’s all just NOAA tricks, aren’t they just a bunch of frauds? We can completely ignore the fact that over the years the average location of all the contributing stations has moved slightly northward to colder territory:

Heck we can completely ignore everything that they’ve learned about how to do it right … mainly because if we just take a simple, naive average we’ll get what we want.

There’s a graph going around the internet from Steve Goddard a.k.a. Tony Heller, claiming to show that temperature in the U.S. has been declining, using only high temperatures, using only summertime temperatures, using only data since 1918, based on a simple average without taking into account new stations coming online or old stations retiring or area-weighting or any of that “expert” stuff:


Imagine that.


Monday, August 6, 2018

How the World Elites are Going to Betray us: Lessons from Roman History


The more I study the story of the Roman Empire, the more I see the similarities with our world. Of course, history doesn't always repeat itself, but it is impressive to note how with the start of the collapse of the Western Empire, the Roman elites abandoned the people to build themselves strongholds in safe places. Something similar may be starting to occur in our times and our elites may decide to seek for safe havens while leaving us to drown, starve, or burn.


Rutilius Namatianus is known today for his "De Reditu Suo" (of his return). It is a long poem where he tells us of his travel along the Italian coast around 416 AD, during the last decades of the Western Roman Empire. We read in it a chilling report of the ongoing collapse: abandoned cities, wastelands, ruined roads, and more.

But who was Rutilius Namatianus, and what was he doing? A patrician, a powerful man, a rich man, and also a liar and a traitor. He was running away from Rome, probably taking with him gold, slaves, and troops with the idea of building himself a feud in Southern France, where he had some possessions. In doing so, he was abandoning the people of Rome to fend off for themselves. The people whom it was his duty to defend as praefectus urbi, the prefect of Rome, the delegate of the Emperor himself.

Namatianus was doing nothing worse than other rich and powerful Romans were. Emperor Honorius himself had run away from Rome, settling in Ravenna, protected by the marshes surrounding the city and with ships ready to take him to safety in Byzantium if things were to get really bad. When Rome was besieged and taken by the Visigoths, in 410 AD, Honorius did nothing, preferring to worry about his chicken (a legend, but with elements of truth).

If you read the chronicles of the early 5th century AD, you get the impression of total mayhem, with barbarian armies crisscrossing Europe and few, if any, Roman nobles and commanders trying to defend the Empire. Most of them seemed to be maneuvering to find places where they could find safety for themselves. We don't know what was the final destiny of Rutilius Namatianus but, since he had the time to finish his poem, we may imagine that he could build himself a stronghold in Southern France and his descendants may have become feudal lords. But not everyone made it. For instance, Paulinus of Pella, another rich Roman, contemporary of Namatianus, desperately tried to hold on his possessions in Europe, eventually considering himself happy just for having been able of surviving to old age.

We see a pattern here: when the rich Romans saw that things were going really out of control, they scrambled to save themselves while, at the same time, denying that things were so bad as they looked. We can see that clearly in Namatianus' poem: he never ever hints that Rome was doomed. At most, he says, it was a temporary setback and soon Rome will be great again.

Of course, history doesn't have to repeat itself, even though we know that it often rhymes. But the similarities of the last decades of the Western Roman Empire with our times are starting to be worrisome. Most of our elites aren't yet running away, but some of them seem to be thinking about that (see this article by Kurt Cobb). And some are starting to build sophisticated luxury bunkers where to take refuge.

What's most impressive is the change in attitude: as long as problems such as climate change were seen as needing just cosmetic changes, they were openly discussed and governments pledged to do something to solve them. Now that the problems start to be seen as impossible to deal with, they are ignored. The change is especially impressive for those regions where the climate threat is closer in time. The elites of the Maldives and the Kiribati islands (*) have reacted by denying the danger, while at the same time selling off what they have and getting ready to leave for higher grounds.

We have to be careful here: there is no conspiracy today (just as there wasn't in Roman times) of people getting together in a secret room to decide the fate of humankind. There is, rather, a convergence of interests. People who are sufficiently wealthy to buy themselves a survival bunker may decide to do so and, at that point, it is in their best interest to downplay the threats and to keep their escape strategy as secret as possible.

It is a very different attitude from that of middle-class people. We (I assume that most readers of this blog are middle-class people) don't have the kind of financial clout needed to plan for a future as feudal lords among the ruins of a collapsed civilization. That's why some of us keep catastrophistic blogs, "Cassandra's Legacy", for instance. Blogs can hardly save us from collapse but, at least, they are efficient means of communication and maybe that's what we need in order to plan for the future.

So, returning to Roman history, what happened to the Romans who couldn't run away and reach their castles? We know that not all of them survived, but some did. While the institutions and the state crumbled down, resilient communities started to appear, often in the form of monasteries or secular communities created around "overseers" (bishops).

Can we think of something like that for our future? Yes, it is an idea that's developing in several forms, transition towns, for instance. So far, it is just an embryonic idea, but it may grow into something important together with new ideas on how humans can relate to the ecosystem. The Romans, after all, developed a new religion to help them deal with the collapse of their society. And, as I said, history never exactly repeats itself, but it rhymes.



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Some more details about the experience of ancient Rome with collapse. First of all, what was the origin of the 5th-century collapse? We have to go back to "peak empire" when the Romans reached the limits to their expansion. It was in 9 AD when three Roman legions were massacred by the Germans in the woods of Teutoburg. Their commander, Publius Quinctilius Varus, committed suicide.

How could it be that the Romans, no fools in military matters, sent three of their legions blithely marching into a thick forest were a large number of German warriors were waiting to cut them to pieces? The only possible explanation is that Varus was betrayed: someone wanted to see his head rolling, and they did. It is remarkable how fast and effectively Octavianus, emperor at that time, exploited the defeat for his personal political gain. He spread the rumor that he was so saddened by the news that he would walk in his palace at night, muttering, perhaps hoping to be heard by the Gods, "Varus, Varus, give me back my legions!" If there ever was a viral meme, this was one, still with us more than 2,000 years afterward!

Maybe Octavianus had Varus stabbed in the back, or maybe he just exploited Varus' incompetency as military commander. In any case, the Teutoburg disaster had the same effect as our 9/11 attacks on Roman society. It scared the Romans deeply. That sealed the role of Emperors as protectors of the people. Eventually, politics is mostly a racket: people pay to be "protected." Against whom? Typically, if there is no ready-to-use enemy, one needs to be fabricated on purpose. For the ancient Romans, the Barbarian menace (we would call them today, 'immigrants') was a suitable excuse, although it was also much exaggerated. The problems of the Empire were mostly internal and would have required deep reforms. Instead, the Emperors - and the Romans themselves - refused to admit that and they concentrated on military measures only. It was good business to keep troops and build defensive walls. Again, the similarities with our times are evident.

Things moved slowly in Roman times, so the strategy of concentrating all efforts on the military system seemed to pay, at least for a couple of centuries. If you read the memories of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, you get the impression of a person who genuinely believed that his duty was to defend the Empire. He couldn't understand that the excessive military expenses were ruining the Empire; most empires in history have destroyed themselves exactly in this way. Similarities with our times? Oh. . .

Things started going bad after Marcus Aurelius and the Empire all but collapsed during the 3rd century AD. It managed to get together again in a form that reminded more of a zombie than of the glorious empire of the early times. But the puls (**) really hit the fan with the end of the 4th century, when the Roman Elites started running for their lives. Many of them succeeded, while the poor were left in the puls - or not even that. Between 400 and 800 AD, the population of Rome fell by over 90%, mainly because of famine and the associated plagues.

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(*) The fact that coral islands are "alive" gives them a certain capability of coping with the sea level rise caused by global warming. But there are limits to how fast the coral can grow and to the level the islands can cope with.


(**) If you are curious about what may be hitting the fan, you can see here a bowl of puls, a typical Roman food. It was a soup made with farro grains.
 

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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)