Sunday, July 14, 2019

A rare glimpse of what the members of the elite think: What are they going to do when things get really tough?

"A lot of these laws and regulations were designed back when the US had a finite amount of energy. Before the new technology was put into place."  Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, at the meeting titled "The Fight for EU Energy Security" held on April 11, 2019, in Brussels. Full video of the event.

Scott Fitzgerald said once that "The rich are different from you and me” and Ernst Hemingway is reported to have answered, “Yes, they have more money." Maybe this exchange never took place, but it is probably true that, apart from the money they have, the rich are not really different from ordinary people. That is, they are not smarter than us. Their riches are the result of luck and of a certain capability of being in the right place at the right moment, including being born from a rich father.

I think that the same conclusion is valid for the category we call the elite. They are not different from you and me: they are not smarter, they just have more power. The concept of elite, of course, is a little vague. Let's say that they are people who have a certain capability of putting into practice their beliefs and so have an impact on the world. The commoners (you and me) cannot do that: at best we can vent our frustrations on the Web: it is what I am doing here!

So, if something important happens in the world, it is because the elites want it to happen. The president of the United States can decide to bomb a foreign country and it will be bombed. Senators and MPs can create laws that will be valid for everyone in the country. The military may lobby to siphon ever-increasing sums of money out of the taxes paid by everyone to build more and more expensive weaponry. Rich people may move huge amounts of money to support the extraction of fossil fuels. As we go down in the hierarchy, these capabilities fade gradually and disappear at the fuzzy boundary that separates the elites from the commoners. The elites and the commoners behave in similar ways, although it may be possible that the members of the elite are more aggressive. But the point remains: some people, up in the hierarchy, can do things we can't do.

I am not inventing all this, the "Elite Theory" that says that the world moves the way the rich and the powerful want it to move has been well known for more than a century. The most recent study that shows how commoners have little or no decisional power in a democracy was published by Gilens and Page in 2014 and their conclusion is that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."

Not surprising, I'd say. But note that there is no such a thing as a secret "government of the elite" of people dressing in capes convening in a dark hall in the basement of the White House, in Washington. It is just that the pushes generated by powerful people average to a certain direction according to their prevailing beliefs. And the world moves in that direction.

So, what do the elite think? Maybe we can get a glimpse of that from what Mr. Gordon Sondland said when speaking at a meeting about the EU energy security in April 2019. Among his many dubious statements, one stands above the others: "the US had a finite amount of energy before the new technology was put into place." That's the same as saying that the fossil energy available in the US is now infinite.

Now, Mr. Sondland is surely a member of the US elite. He is a rich man, reported to have donated $ 1 million to support Donald Trump's electoral campaign. No wonder that he was given the prestigious job of US ambassador to the EU. But that was not just a reward for previous credits: Mr. Sondland is perfectly suited for the job of peddling US natural gas to the Europeans. If you have time, listen to him speaking at that meeting. Smooth, self-assured, convincing, the kind of person who could sell whiskers to cats.

The interesting point is that I think Mr. Sondland really believes that the US energy is infinite because of technological progress (*). Of course, I can't get inside his head but it was said in such a matter-of-factly tone that I'd bet he does. It is a belief that fits well with the current debate in the media. Of course, just a fringe believe that hydrocarbons are physically infinite, but most people are now in a phase of complete remotion of the concept that such a thing as "depletion" even exists, to say nothing about being a problem for the foreseeable future. The same is true for climate change.

If we can take Mr. Sondland's sentence as representative of the way the elite think, I guess it proves that they are influenced by their own propaganda. As I said, they are not different from you and me: they watch CNN and Fox News, too! And, like most people, they are unable to reason in quantitative terms, they cannot understand complex systems, they have no knowledge of physics, and they use only extremely crude, intuition-based models.

That, I think, explains a lot of things about what's happening in the world today. The elite think that technology can provide "infinite resources" and that's why their financial branch is pouring enormous amounts of money into a money-losing enterprise such as shale oil. And it also explains why their military branch is so fixated with petty little wars while the ecosystem is going to Hell. They are just acting according to their beliefs.

Of course, that's what's happening now. What if something really big changes the elite's cherished beliefs? How about a new oil crisis? What about a truly gigantic climate-related disaster? That may open up some interesting scenarios. Overall, people's behavior is well described by something that James Schlesinger said, "People have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic." There is no doubt that the elites are in full complacency mode, right now but, if things get really tough, will the elite go into panic mode? And, if so, what happens?

Likely, the panicked elite will not react in a rational way: that's not one of the operating modes of human beings. Most likely, they will keep their trust in technology: if Mr. Sondland believes that it could make fossil fuels infinite, then more technology can solve other problems. If fracking ceases to work we can apply more technology and get liquid fuels out of coal, why not? Or maybe restart an all-out effort with nuclear energy, and damn the radioactive torpedoes. And climate change? Well, the scientists can think of some way of dealing with it: spray something in the atmosphere, put mirrors in orbit, whatever.

It could be much worse: the elite may decide that the problem is just that there are too many people consuming and polluting. Then, they could think of ways to solve it - you guess how. Or they may simply decide that, after all, what do they care about the commoners? They'll just work at saving themselves. It is just what the Roman Elite did at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. And it we will see the usual combination of lies, damned lies, and propaganda. Interesting times ahead.

(*) What if Mr. Sondland was lying and he knows perfectly well that the US fossil reserves are not infinite? That changes little in the situation, except that it would indicate that a larger fraction of the elite (including Mr. Sondland) is already in panic mode.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The First Recorded Ecological Collapse in History and How it Was Misunderstood.

The Goddess Inanna in her full regalia as depicted on a Sumerian cylinder seal. On the left, Ninshubur (the Queen of the East) Inanna's second in command. Inanna is sometimes called the "Goddess of Love," but she was no gentle lady. She was known to tame lions, use weapons, fight her enemies, and, sometimes, devour their corpses. Among her several feats, one is to have smashed an entire mountain with her mighty mace. It may be the first historical record of an ecological collapse

Pushing the world's temperatures over 2°C could well lead to the greatest ecological collapse ever seen in human history, but it wouldn't be the first. There is a long series of human-caused ecological collapses at various scales, often the result of deforestation and erosion of the fertile soil. Perhaps the oldest recorded collapse is one that took place at some moment during the 3rd millennium BCE and that is recorded in a mythologized form by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first author of texts in history whose name is known to us.

The story of how the mountain Ebih "melted into a vat of sheepfat" is interesting in itself but it is most interesting for what it teaches to us. The Sumerians, apparently, never understood the problem of erosion of the fertile soil and their land -- that we call "Iraq" today -- was gradually turned into the desert that it is today.

It seems that the Sumerians couldn't think of any better idea than faulting supernatural powers for the disaster that was befalling them. On the other hand, it may also be that the punishment that the Goddess meted to the mountain was seen as a curse that humans deserved for having mismanaged the fertile soil. In the second case, the Sumerians had at least a partial understanding of what they were doing but, in the end, they were unable to stop the overexploitation of their land.

In our case, with climate change, we don't seem to be able to do any better than the Sumerians did with erosion and we may be subjected to a much harsher punishment. But we are unable to stop what we are doing and we continue to destroy the things that make us live.


 From "Chimeras", Aug 23, 2015

Inanna and Ebih: a report of an ancient ecological catastrophe?

Ugo Bardi
Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra – Università di Firenze
Polo Scientifico di Sesto Fiorentino,
Sesto Fiorentino (Fi) via della Lastruccia 3, 50019, Italy


“Inanna and Ebih” is the modern title of a text written by the Sumerian poet Enheduanna around the second half of the third millennium BCE. It describes the conflict between the Goddess Inanna and the mountain called Ebih which ends with the destruction of the latter. I suggest that the poem may be interpreted as the result of the way the ancient perceived what we call today an “ecological catastrophe,” that is the result of overgrazing and deforestation of a fragile mountain environment.

1. Introduction

The “Inanna and Ebih” poem was composed around 2300 BCE by the Sumerian poetess Enheduanna and it was rediscovered in the 20th Century (1)⁠. The story told in the poem can be summarized in a few lines. We read first that the Goddess Inanna is preparing to do battle against the mountain "Ebih," because the mountain “showed her no respect”. Before attacking, Inanna goes to see the God An, whom she calls “father,” apparently to ask for his help. An, however, is perplexed and Inanna decides to fight alone; eventually managing to triumph over the mountain. This story must have been well known in Sumerian times; so much that several copies of it have arrived to us, written in cuneiform on clay tablets. So, its meaning must have been clear enough for the people of ancient times and they must have found the story interesting enough that they kept copying it many times, apparently also as a standard exercise for young scribes (2)⁠. 

However, for us, "Inanna and Ebih" is hard to classify as a poem, even baffling. The characters, their conflict, and the very fact of a God battling a mountain appear totally alien to our modern feelings. As a story, it is far away from all the modern canons of what we define as “literature” or “poetry.”

The present paper adds some considerations to the understanding of the story of Inanna and Ebih. It is based on the concept that the ancient faced the same physical problems as we do, for instance, soil erosion, deforestation, and the like. However, their way to see and describe these problems was much different. So, it may be that the story we are considering describes an ancient ecological catastrophe, the destruction of a forest ecosystem, told in a form that is not easy for us to recognize but that appears clear, once understood. The story also may be an echo of a conflict still existing in modern times: the need to preserve natural environments against the attempt of overexploiting them.

The author does not claim to be able to read Sumerian and the present discussion is based on the versions of the story available in modern languages; that is on the one by Betty De Shong Meador (3)⁠, the one available in the electronic corpus of Sumerian Literature (4)⁠, the version in French by Attinger (5)⁠, and the Italian one by Pettinato (6)⁠. These translations were found to differ in some details, but the overall content was the same.

2. Inanna and Ebih: interpreting the myth

There are several ways to interpret ancient myths. Perhaps the best-known one is the “comparative” method, pioneered, among others, by Claude Levi-Strauss (7)⁠. It consists in finding common elements among different myths; as they can be found in different cultures and different ages. These common elements evidence the basic structure of the myth and help understand its general meaning, framing it in its specific context.

In the case of "Inanna and Ebih", we could first look for stories involving Gods engaged in fighting mountains, but such a plot appears to be very rare. A similar plot can be found in the Sumerian text referred to as “Lugal-e,” from the first term it begins with (8)⁠. It goes back to times close to those of Enheduanna, but it is probably later. In Lugal-e, we are told of the divine hero, Ninurta, fighting a demon called “Asag” that turns out to be a “pile of stones”, perhaps to be identified as a mountain with that name. Karahashi has discussed this myth explicitly in comparison with that of Inanna and Ebih, finding several points in common, especially in the terminology used. (8)⁠

Another myth showing some structural similarities is the Greek myth of the Chimera. In this case, the hero is Bellerophon, semi-divine as the son of the God Poseidon and, as a monster, the Chimera has some Chthonic elements, especially in its fiery breath that may lead to identifying it with a mountain. Both Pliny the Elder in his “Natural History” and Maurus Servius Honoratus in his commentary to Virgil's Aeneid state that the Chimera has to be intended as a representation of a volcano. We also find a similar interpretation in Plutarch's “Moralia” (3.16.9) where we are told of how Bellerophon cut away a section of a mountain called “Chimera” which was producing a nasty reflection on the plain; which, in turn, dried up the crops. In an earlier work (9)⁠, the author of the present paper proposed that the source of the myth of the Chimera is to be found in ancient East Asian mythology. It is not impossible that one source could be the story of Inanna and Ebih.

Apart from these stories, mountainous monsters are rare in the world's lore. Some mountains were certainly important in religious terms, such as Mount Olympus for the ancient Greek and Mount Fuji in Japan, up to relatively recent times. Neither, however, were deified in the role given to Ebih in the story we are discussing here. We can find occasional stone monsters in modern fiction; for instance in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937), we can read the description of stone monsters hurling gigantic boulders against each other. Other fantasy chthonic monsters appear in environments such as role-playing games. On the whole, however, we can say that a plot describable as “God fights mountain” is very rare both in ancient and in modern lore. Hence, it is nearly impossible to use it as a basis for the comparative method of interpretation of the myth of Inanna and Ebih.

At this point, we could attempt to classify the myth of Inanna and Ebih as an example of the generic theme of a shining hero fighting an ugly monster. There are plenty of ancient and modern myths based on this idea; however, such an interpretation misses some of the elements that make the slaying of Ebih so puzzling. Why is the monster a mountain? Why does it enrage Inanna so much? What are the reasons for Inanna's quarrel with the other Gods? Clearly, there is something more in this story than the traditional hero/monster conflict.

A different line of interpretations of the myth is reported by Delnero (2)⁠. It is based on the idea that the story is, actually, a representation of the conflict existing at the time of the author, Enheduanna, between the Akkadic and the Sumerian elements of the Mesopotamian civilization. It is known that such a conflict existed and other poems by Enheduanna may refer to it. For instance, in “nin-me-sarra” (Lady of bright virtues) Enheduanna appears to describe an insurrection that leads to her being chased away from her temple. The interpretation reported by Meador (p. 181) is that the insurgents were led by a man named Lugalanne, or Lugalanna, possibly of Sumerian ethnical origin, against the Akkadian ruler of the time, Naram-Sin, Enheduanna's nephew (3)⁠. 

There is clearly something in these interpretations and the violence that pervades Enheduanna's texts may well be a reflection of the violence that characterized her times. However, there remains the problem that “Inanna and Ebih” is so abstract in the characterization of its protagonists that, if it really describes a local conflict of Enheduanna's times, it is not clear which side should be identified with which element of the myth. Maybe this interpretation was clear to the ancient Sumerians, but that may be reasonably doubted.

Meador (3) provides a deeper interpretation of the story, seeing the poem as an early version of the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden; with Inanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Eve/Lilith. Whereas, in the Bible, Eve is punished for her action, in the Sumerian myth Inanna takes the initiative and refuses to submit to the father-God; destroying Eden in the process. Meador also sees the story as a reflection of an ancient conflict between a female-dominated pantheon, with Inanna in the role of the Mother Goddess, and an emerging male-dominated pantheon, with An as a fatherly figure, ruling the other gods. This conflict is evident in several other Sumerian and Akkadian mythological stories where, for instance, Inanna is pitted against her brother Gilgamesh. This is a very interesting interpretation as it implies that “Inanna and Ebih” is related to even more ancient myths, perhaps going back to pre-literate times. This seems to be hinted in the text when Inanna is said (in Meador's translation) to “wear the robes of the old, old Gods” (3)⁠. Attinger (5)⁠ and Pettinato (6)⁠ explicitly name these "old Gods" as “Enul and Enŝar” who may be, indeed, Gods of a more ancient age (10)⁠ (p. 53). 

However, even this way of seeing the myth does not explain the meaning of some elements; for instance, if this is the story of a conflict between a mother Goddess and a father God, what is exactly the role of the mountain Ebih?

A different way to look at this myth is the “Euhemeristic” or “rationalistic” way, consisting of explaining the myth in terms of natural phenomenaThis way of interpreting ancient myths was more popular in the past than it is today, but it never went out of fashion. However, modern scholars tend to be much more cautious in explaining (some could say, “explaining away”) the elements of complex stories into banal physical phenomena. When Servius said that the Chimera was a volcano, he may have meant that the ancient were so naïve to mistake a volcano for a lion, but that, of course, is unlikely, to say the least. Rather, the ancient were facing the same physical phenomena as we do and, for them, describing a thunderstorm in terms of actions performed by a God named Zeus was a way to make it consistent with their cultural and mental tools. We do the same in modern times when we ascribe certain events to abstract and perhaps supernatural entities whose existence can be reasonably doubted (e.g. “the free market”).

Regarding Sumerian/Akkadian myths, naturalistic explanations have been proposed by Jacobsen (11)⁠, but not specifically for the story of Inanna and Ebih. However, if we examine the story in light of a possible rationalistic interpretation, we immediately see how the destruction of the mountain hints to an ecological catastrophe caused by deforestation and overgrazing.

In the myth, the Ebih mountain is described as a luxuriant place: fruits hang in its flourishing gardens. It has magnificent trees, lions, wild bulls and deer are abundant, just as wild bulls and grass. Then, we see Inanna attacking the mountain with fire and with a rain of rocks. In another of Enheduanna's poems, translated by Meador as “Lady of Largest Heart” (3)⁠ we read some lines that may refer to Inanna's fight against Ebih:

She crushes the mountain to garbage,
scattering the trash from dawn to dark,
with mighty stones she pelts,
and the mountain,
like a clay pot
with her might
she melts the mountain
into a vat of sheepfat.

It takes little imagination to see that the poem could well be referring here to the degradation of the soil on the slopes of a mountain, turned into mud slipping downhill. Mountain terrains are especially sensitive to soil erosion and the problem is especially severe in hot climates subjected to episodes of heavy rain interspersed with dry periods, as it is the case of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern climate.

Mesopotamia is a flat land, but its inhabitants briskly traded wood and other forest commodities. Today, most of the mountain ranges of Northern Africa and the Middle East are degraded and eroded in various degrees. But that was not the case in ancient times and it will suffice to note how the mountains of Lebanon were a source of timber for ancient Sumerians (as recorded in the myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu), whereas in modern times these regions are nearly completely deforested and eroded (12)⁠. From the available data (13)⁠, it appears clear that the mountains of the Zagros region, which are probably where the “Inanna and Ebih” refers to, were still largely forested in Sumerian times, but it is also clear that they were already being deforested; a slow process that has led to the present condition of serious environmental degradation (14)⁠.

The ancient knew about the problem of soil degradation. McNeill and Viniwarter (15) summarized several elements of the question, reporting that already in 2000 BCE, that is at a time not far from that of Enheduanna, farmers in the Middle East had already developed ways to fight soil erosion. They also report how Roman writers, such as Varro, had a keen interest in soil quality and on the need of avoiding erosion. It is also well known how Plato, in his "Critias" (4th century BCE) describes the erosion and the degradation of the mountains of Greece. An interesting pre-industrial document on this issue was written by Matteo Biffi Tolomei around the end of the 18th Century (16)⁠. It tells of the attempt to maintain the forest cover of the Appennini mountains in Tuscany, Italy, and of how the attempt failed after much debate among those who defined themselves the “modern” party (favoring the cutting of the trees) and the “old” party (favoring, instead, to keep the forest cover). This conflict of a few centuries ago is not framed in religious terms, but, in it, we may perhaps see a reflection of the much older conflict of Sumerian time that may be reflected in the story of Inanna and Ebih.
3. Conclusion: religion as a way to interpret the world

Religion in Sumerian times was certainly something very different than the way we intend it nowadays. However, certain elements of the concept of religion are common to all its forms (see e.g. Thorkild Jacobsen (11)⁠ for an exhaustive account of the characteristics and of the historical development of the Sumerian religious view of the world). A religious view of the world may see beyond the simple, short term advantage of an action (cutting trees), to note the long terms disadvantages (soil erosion). Today, we may see this kind of approach in the recent papal encyclical on climate change (17)⁠ and the Islamic declaration on global climate change (18)⁠. That may have been the point also of the history of Inanna “punishing” the mountain named Ebih, something that may be interpreted as destroying the humans who weren't been careful enough to maintain and sustain its ecosystem.


1. Kramer SN. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of the Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the 3rd Millennium B.C. Memoirs of. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society; 1944.
2. Delnero P. Inana and Ebih and the Scribal Tradition. A Common Cultural Heritage: Studies on Mesopotamia and the Biblical World in Honor of Barry L Eichler [Internet]. CDL Press; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 8]. Available from:
3. Meador B. Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna [Internet]. Austin (Tx): University of Austin Press; 2000 [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from:
4. Black JA, Cunningham G, Fluckiger-Hawker E, Robson E, Zólyomi G. Inana and Ebih: translation [Internet]. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. [cited 2015 Aug 3]. Available from:
5. Attinger P. Inana and Ebih. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vor Archäologie [Internet]. 1998;88:164–95. Available from:$002fzava.1998.88.issue-2$002fzava.1998.88.2.164$002fzava.1998.88.2.164.xml
6. Pettinato G. Mitologia sumerica [Internet]. Torino: UTET; 2001 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from:
7. Levi-Strauss C. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, U.K; 1978.
8. Karahashi F. Fighting the Mountain: Some Observations on the Sumerian Myths of Inanna and Ninurta*. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 2004 [cited 2015 Aug 3];63(2):111–8. Available from:
9. Bardi U. Il Libro della Chimera. Firenze, Italy: Polistampa; 2008.
10. Espak P. Some Early Developments in Sumerian God-Lists and Pantheon. In: Kanmerer T, editor. Identities and Societiesin the Ancient East-Mediterranean Regions [Internet]. Munster: Ugarit-Verlag; 2011 [cited 2015 Aug 23]. Available from:
11. Jacobsen T. The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion [Internet]. 1978 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. Available from:
12. Mikesell MW. The Deforestation of Mount Lebanon. Geogr Rev [Internet]. 1969;59(1):1–28. Available from:
13. Rowton MB. The Woodlands of Ancient Western Asia. J Near East Stud [Internet]. 1967;26(4):261–177. Available from:
14. Pswarayi-Riddihough I. Forestry in the Middle East and North Africa: An Implementation Review, Volumes 23-521 [Internet]. World Bank Publications; 2002 [cited 2015 Aug 9]. 56 p. Available from:
15. McNeill JR, Winiwarter V. Breaking the sod: humankind, history, and soil. Science [Internet]. 2004 Jun 11 [cited 2015 Aug 18];304(5677):1627–9. Available from:
16. Biffi Tolomei M, Clauser F. Una tragedia ecologica del ’700. Firenze, Italy: Libreria Editrice Fiorentina; 2004. 64 p.
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Thursday, July 4, 2019

How We Keep Destroying the Things that Make us Live: The Biotic Pump and the Raw Power of Science

Dr. Anastassia Makarieva describes the concept of the "Biotic Pump" at the Smart Biotic Pump Summit Prague 2018

This is not an easy video to follow, but I thought to propose it to you nevertheless. Perhaps its most impressive feature is how it is not refined, it is not slick, it uses no tricks. It is just a plain talk of the kind you normally hear at scientific conferences. And yet it gave me an impression of something I would call the "raw power of science." 

It is the power science has to create new ideas, new concepts, new views of seeing the natural world. The biotic pump is not just a refinement of what we know about the Earth's climate. It is a revolutionary way to look at the way the ecosystem works. Dr. Makarieva, here, shows that science produces not only new ideas but relevant ideas. Relevant for our life and for the life of the whole biosphere.  

I know that the concept of biotic pump is controversial and it is in itself a complex concept, not easy to grasp. Not being an expert in atmospheric physics, it is not easy for me to evaluate it in depth. But, if it is true, that is, it is so massive and on such a large scale as Makarieva and Gorshkov propose, then it is mind-boggling. It means that the ecosystem controls the Earth's climate in a much deeper and stronger way than commonly believed. 

According to this view, forests are immense machines that pump water away from the oceans to the land. Forests, not just trees, not grass, not pastures, not cultivated fields. You need a fully grown forest to keep the machine running and to provide the biosphere with the water it needs. And, just for a change, humans are destroying the world's forests. As usual, we keep destroying the things that make us live.

So, if you have 26 minutes, you could do much worse than using them to listen to Dr. Makarieva speaking. But if you limit yourself to the first few minutes, just listen to what she says about professor Gorshkov, who couldn't come to the meeting. She says, "I am just a pale shadow of him." It is a very kind way to honor a man who spent his life honoring the biosphere with his scientific work. 

Victor Gorshkov died last May. Anastassia Makarieva wrote to me that "the biosphere is now orphaned." 

Above, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva

For more data on the biotic pump,  see

A recent paper by a different research group

Monday, July 1, 2019

Did climate change cause the fall of the Roman Empire? No, but what may have actually happened is amazing.

"Vanity Fair" may not be the best source for reliable scientific information, but this cover is typical of an idea that's becoming popular in the memesphere: that the Roman Empire fell because of climate change. Alas, this means stretching the data more than a bit and surprisingly, the opposite may be true: the climate changed because the Empire fell. Read on! (image source)

We have a problem with history: we often try to frame the past as if it were the same as the present. And that means projecting on the ancient our own troubles and fears. Add to this the difficulties we have in dealing with complex systems, the kind of systems that normally behave the way they damn please, and the results are often a complete mess.

The fall of the Roman Empire is a case in point. Maybe you know that in 1984 the German historian Demandt listed 210 (!!) causes proposed for the fall. It is fun to read how people just transferred to the Roman society whatever they were afraid of, from Communism to Culinary Excess.

In more recent times, we started being worried about things that weren't well known in the 1980s. One is the decline of the energy return on energy invested (EROI), which is a true problem for our fossil-based society. It is much less obvious that it was a problem the ancient Romans and I wasn't impressed by the attempts of Thomas Homer-Dixon to paint the Roman collapse as the result of an EROI decline. No data, no proof, just vague analogies.

Nowadays, our worries have shifted to Climate Change and, as you might have expected, the idea that Climate Change can destroy civilization has been projected to the fall of the Roman Empire. You can read a popularized version of the idea on "Vanity Fair" (see above), but also serious researchers seem to have bought into it. For instance, Kyle Harper, professor at the University of Oklahoma, titles his 2017 article "Climate Change Helped Destroy the Roman Empire."

The kind of climate change that's supposed to have destroyed the Roman Empire is different than the current version: we are affected by global warming, in ancient times the problem seems to have been global cooling. Lower temperatures negatively affected agriculture, that caused famines and pestilences, and that reduced the population. Then, bang! The Empire collapsed. The problem with this idea is that the dates, simply, don't match.

I already discussed this matter in a brief post in 2016, but let me go back to the story with more details. The Western Roman Empire officially disappeared during the 5th century, but the real collapse was much earlier. Here are data on lead and silver pollution in Roman times from a 2017 paper by McConnell et al. Likely, these data are a good proxy for the whole Roman economy.

You see how the decline of the Empire started around 100 CE and the collapse was complete around 250 CE, a true Seneca Collapse, faster than the growth that preceded it. That corresponds to what we know from the historians of the time.

Now, how about climate? Do we see something happening during the economic collapse? Here, the data are much less certain, but a "proxy" of temperature can be obtained from measurements on tree rings. Here is a data set published in 2011. More recent data substantially confirm these results.

First of all, note the uncertainty in the data: variations under ca. 0.5 °C are probably not significant. Also note how two different sets of data, marked with the black line and the red line, do not match exactly. But some "dips" seem to indicate significant temperature drops -- here, too, we may have a kind of "Seneca Collapse" of the temperature. The most intense drop occurred in mid 6th century CE with, it seems, a full 2 °C temperature decline.

Now, compare with the data of the previous figure on the Roman economy. Clearly, there was no significant cooling during the economic crash of the 3rd century AD. Temperatures started falling, badly, after the crash. And when temperatures reached their minimum - around the year 600 CE, the Western Roman Empire was only a memory. Of course, if you want to say that "A" caused "B," at least it should be that A precedes B!

Besides, you can see that other correlations just don't work the way they should if you want to blame climate change for something bad that happened to the Roman Empire. Consider the decrease of temperature in mid 1st century BCE. It is marked in the figure as "Roman Conquest," correctly so because Caesar's military campaign in Gallia was in full swing at that time: the Roman Empire was probably at its peak power. If cold is supposed to be able to cause the fall of an empire, it surely didn't do that at that time!

So, we can conclude that, no, the Roman Empire didn't fall because of climate change. It is one more of those "explanations" that don't explain anything and that will become part of Demandt's list, together with "Tiredness of life" and "Escapism."

But let's consider the data a little more in depth. It looks like they are telling something to us. Could it be that the opposite conclusion holds? That is, it could it be that the climate changed because the Empire fell?

Let's follow this line of thought. We know that the Roman collapse was accompanied by a considerable decline in population. It is extremely difficult to have reliable data on this point, but it may be that the maximum European population in Roman times was of some 35 million people at the peak, then it shrunk to only 18 million inhabitants in 650 CE.

Depopulation is both cause and effect of the decline of agriculture and, with less agricultural land, forests can regrow. And, of course, forests tend to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, that affects climate by lowering temperatures. According to a hypothesis put forward by Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva, the effects of forests on climate may be even larger because of the biotic pump mechanism. It is a complicated story: it mainly affects rainfall, but it also cools the land.

If we look at the figure above with forest extents in mind, we see that some things start clicking together. Consider the temperature drop when Caesar conquered Gallia. We have no data on how many people his troops killed, but you can read a chronicle of the war written by Caesar himself, the De Bello Gallico, and you can see that it was no gentleman's war. Caesar's troop not only devastated Gallia but surely also brought back to Rome large numbers of Gauls as slaves. A depopulated Gallia may well have seen its forests regrow. Something similar may have taken place earlier on, during the 3rd century BCE, when the Celts expanded all over Europe.

So, things seem to make sense: depopulation and reforestation may really cool the Earth. But, also, a lot of caution is necessary: the matter is complicated and the data are scant and uncertain. Things become even more complicated with the "Little Ice Age" which also appears in the graph above, starting approximately with the 15th century CE. In this case, in contrast with the previous cases, the cooling occurs in correspondence with strong growth of the European population, although punctuated by various disasters in the form of plagues and famines. Maybe it was the depopulation of the North American continent that caused extensive reforestation and hence cooling. But the data are uncertain at best, with some interpretations explicitly denying this effect and proposing that the cooling may have been related largely to volcanic activity.

As you see, this story both uncertain and fascinating. It will take a lot more work before we'll be able to disentangle the various factors that affected climate in historical times. I don't claim here to have said anything new on these matters, but I was impressed to find so much work pointing at the strong interaction between human beings and climate -- even before fossil hydrocarbons started to be called "fuels".

The Earth's ecosystem is a typical complex system. It reacts to perturbations, even minor ones, sometimes very strongly. Don't expect it to remain stable just because it has been stable up to a certain moment. Remember that a pebble can cause an avalanche and don't forget the straw that broke the camel's back. Then, think of how large is the forcing generated in our times by the combustion of fossil fuels, maybe orders of magnitude larger than anything our ancestors could do. We are moving toward interesting times (as in the ancient Chinese malediction).

(h/t Steve Kurtz, Franco Miglietta, Stefano Caserini, Paolo Gabrielli)

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Stuff of Our Lives: The Seneca Collapse of Relocating

The experience of relocating is curiously similar to an archaeological excavation of the ruins of a disappeared empire. Above, you can see two jars filled with old coins recovered from the nook and crannies of my house after emptying it of everything. Mostly these are old Italian "lira" coins, others are foreign coins and, in the smaller jar, you can see an Italian "gettone" used for making calls at public phones up to a few decades ago. These old coins have no monetary value, they are just markers of time passing. 

You know that the "Seneca Effect" has to do with overshoot and collapse. From the time when the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca noted that "growth is slow, but ruin is rapid," I keep finding new examples of application of the idea. One that I recently experienced had to do with relocating: moving away from the home where my family had been living since 1965. From then,  the 340 square meters (ca. 3600 ft2) house had been gradually filling up with all sorts of stuff. Emptying it in a couple of months of work was quite an experience. "Sobering" is the correct word, I'd say.

I don't know if you are all good followers of Feng Shui, striving for good vibes and not too much junk in your home. I didn't consider myself as an adept of that philosophy, but I didn't see myself as a serial accumulator of junk, either. Well, I had to reconsider my position. I was a serial accumulator. Really, the amount of stiff that came out of my place was so large to be bewildering. And so much of it we had to throw away -- bewildering, too. We are still a little bewildered, but the most intense part of the saga seems to be over, so maybe I can report about my experience in this post.

First of all, we (me and my wife) tried to be good citizens and separate/recover/reuse what we could. It was one of those experiences where you note the divergence between theory and reality.

Let me start with the furniture. A lot of it was modern pieces of the kind made in laminated wood, bought in places like Ikea. We had a few of these pieces re-assembled in our new home, but the result was something that looks like it was salvaged from a shipwreck -- this furniture is not made to be reused. Indeed, the employees of the company that transported our stuff told me that most people just throw away old furniture and buy new pieces: it is cheaper and easier. Another field of our society where the concept of "circular economy" just doesn't seem to apply.

Here is a photo of some (just some!) of our old furniture disassembled and ready to be taken away by the local waste management company. I have no idea of what they do with it, but I am sure there is no way to recycle it. It has to be landfilled or incinerated. Furniture is NOT environmentally friendly.

Then, we had plenty of things that were still perfectly usable-- even brand new -- but that we couldn't take to our new, much smaller home. Here, we tried to avoid throwing stuff away, but it was hard work, time-consuming, and not a very satisfying result in the end. Here is an image of one of the several carloads we transported to a local charity -- I counted at least six trips like this one.

At the charity, they took most of the things we brought, but a little grudgingly. They told us that they are full of clothes, books, toys, tools, tableware, appliances, trinkets, and the like. The poor can have these things aplenty, but what they need is not that: they desperately need money for food and for the rent. But that's, obviously, not what you want to dispose of when you are relocating.

Then, eventually, a lot of things had simply to be thrown away: not good enough to go to charities, too big to be stored somewhere, useless in our new home. Here, you see me throwing away my old globe of when I was a kid -- note the burned area near Australia. Maybe I was playing a nuclear war game, or maybe I was already a catastrophist at that time!

Note also that the globe is going into the "undifferentiated" bin. It is plastic, theoretically it could be recycled, but the Italian law considers only food containers to be recyclable. So, a lot of plastic objects we threw away will never be recycled and every item I dumped in the bin, shoes, tools, trinkets and more, gave me an eerie sensation of a "revenant." One day, I would find again that plastic in the air I breathe after it will be incinerated, or maybe in the form of small chunks in the sushi I eat. Not that if it were possible to recycle it, things would change so much. The thought that my old junk could be turned into a garden bench doesn't comfort me too much: also that bench would end, eventually, in my sushi.

How much stuff did we throw away? I can't say, hundreds of kilograms, at the minimum. And it is impressive to think that most homes in the Western will have the same problem, one day or another. I don't know about your experience but, after I went through all this, I cannot visit a friend at home without noting how much stuff is accumulated there. Some places are even more encumbered with all sorts of junk than our home -- getting rid of all they contain is going to be a nightmare for the owners.

Where will all this stuff end up? And how to manage it in a future in which, probably, transportation is going to cost much more than today? Maybe it will remain where it is, slowly buried by the ruins of our civilization. A treasure for the archaeologists of the future, if there will be any. But it is, after all, just entropy doing its work.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Boy who Cried Wolf: A Bayesian Drama in One Act

The story of the boy who cried wolf too many times is a good way to illustrate our attitude toward the people who try to warn us about dangers ahead. Be it about a wolf or about climate change, the result is always the same: prophets of doom are not believed (and, sometimes, they are hanged). Here is a version of the story of the boy and the wolf told using Bayesian statistics where I assume, unlike in Aesop's version, that the boy was simply trying to do his best (if you are not familiar with the Bayesian approach, try this link where the story is very well explained). This post, anyway, doesn't pretend to use the Bayesian theory in its full version, it is a "montypythonesque" story to illustrate how politicians and the public alike can't understand statistics. (Image from the witch scene in the Monty Python "Holy Grail" movie)

The Boy who Cried Wolf: A Bayesian Drama in one act


The Villagers
The Village Chief
The Village Master Statistician
The Boy

Village Chief: Fellow villagers, we have collected here today to discuss about the boy who acts as a lookout for wolves in order to protect our sheep. I know that several of you have been complaining because the boy has been crying wolf at night several times this year, and every time we woke up and went to the village fence to protect our sheep armed with clubs and pitchforks and carrying lighted torches. But we seem to have a problem with that.

Villager: Yeah, yeah, we go there and there is no wolf to be seen!

Another villager: The boy calls us for nothing!

Another villager: We must hang him!

Village chief. CALM DOWN, fellow villagers. You know that a few times we did see a creature that seemed to be a wolf in the light of our torches – although we couldn't be sure.

Villager: It was not a wolf. It was a black sheep!

Another villager: It was a wild boar!

Another villager: Nothing like that. It was just a shadow!

Another villager. The boy works for the wolf! He does!

Other villagers: Hang the boy, hang the boy!!

Village chief. Fellow villagers, PLEASE, be quiet. It is true that sometimes we didn’t see anything: no wolf appearing the light of our torches. And, worse than that, a few times the wolf came, snatched away a sheep or two, and the boy didn't alert us in advance.

Villager: The boy is playing tricks with us!

Another Villager: Yeah, the boy just enjoys seeing us running!

Another Villager. There are no wolves when he calls! The boy is cheating us.

More villagers. Hang him high! Hang him! Yeah! Yeah!

Village Chief. Calm down, fellow villagers, CALM DOWN! This is not the way to discuss this serious matter because it may well be that the boy is doing his best, but the night is dark and the wolf is cunning, so it is not easy to be the village lookout . . .

Villagers, Hang him, hang him!

Other villagers. Yeah, he is paid by the wolf. Hang him!

Village Chief. And I say BE QUIET! Because I called the village’s Master Statistician to help us and he will tell us whether the boy is doing us a good service according to his Art of which every one of us knows he is a good and respected practitioner.

– Enters the Village Statistician –

Village Statistician. Fellow villagers, lend me your ear because I heard your plight and I am a master of an Art that can help you in this difficult matter.

Villagers: Yeah, let’s listen to the statistician, let’s listen to him!

Statistician: Fellow villagers, the problem you have here is that you don’t know for sure whether there is a wolf or not when the boy calls. And, of course, you don’t like to rush to the fence at night and find that there is no wolf there – at least no wolf that you can see. But thanks to my Art, I will be able to tell you things that that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And this Art is the work of a great master statistician whose name is Bayes and who is respected for this all over the world.

Villager: Yes, yes, master, tell us!

Another Villager: Yeah, master. We trust you. Tell us!

Statistician. Fellow villagers, first of all, let me summarize the situation. If there is no alert before the wolf attacks, the villagers usually arrive too late to save their sheep: the wolf is quick and cunning and he is able to snatch a sheep or two and run away. Hence, we need to be alerted well in advance. That's why the boy keeps watch of the village fence.

Villagers. Yeah, master, yeah. What you say is right.

Statistician. Now, being the village statistician, I keep a record of the wolf attacks and this record I have kept for the years when there was no lookout and so this number tells us how many times the wolf comes, on the average. And I can tell you, fellow villagers, that during the past years there was a chance of a little less than 3% per day of a wolf attack.

Villager. Yes, Master, yes. That’s great.

Another Villager. But what does that mean, Master?

Statisticians. It means, fellow villagers, that the wolf comes about 10 times per year.

Villager. Yeah, yeah, master. We understand that.

Statistician. Very good, fellow villagers. And we shall call that number, 3%, the PRIOR, according to my Art as taught by master Bayes. Remember that carefully!

Villagers: yeah, yeah, master. We remember that!

Statistician. Now, I need the boy who acts as a lookout to help me. Come in, boy!

- Enters the boy -

Boy: Master, I am here at your bidding.

Villagers. Hang him, hang him!

Other villagers. Yeah, yeah, hang him!

Village chief. BE QUIET, I say.

Statistician. Boy, let me ask you, how many times did you see the wolf coming this year?

Boy. Master, Every time I thought I saw a wolf I marked a sign with my knife on the bark of the tree on which I stand at night. And I counted these signs, and there were 20 of them.

Statistician. Very good, my boy. So, dividing this number by the number of days in a year, we see that every day there is a chance of 6% that the boy calls. Therefore, according to my Art, we call this number the EVIDENCE.

Villagers. Master, does that mean we should hang the boy?

Village Chief. QUIET, I say.

Statistician. Fellow villagers, the art of master Bayes is going to help you, but I need some more work. Now I need to know how many times the wolf came unannounced this year. That is, the boy didn’t call, but the wolf came. And you told me that it appeared 4 times. With that, I can calculate the LIKELIHOOD according to my Art. And this likelihood is the number of times the wolf is announced when it comes, divided by the number of times when the beast comes, no matter whether unannounced or announced. So, my data tell me that the wolf comes 10 times per year, whereas it came unannounced 4 times this year. It means its venue was correctly announced six times. In this case, the likelihood will be 6/10, which is 0.6.

Villager. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That’s right. It means we should hang the boy, right?

Another villager.  Hang the boy! Hang him! The Wolf will be very unhappy!!

Village chief. QUIET, fellow villagers. Statistician, what can you tell to us, now?

Statistician. (takes out a charcoal stick and rolls open a tanned sheepskin, starting to write on it). I can now use the formula that the Master of the Art, the much esteemed Thomas Bayes developed. So, the formula tells me that I have to multiply the PRIOR by the LIKELIHOOD and divide by the EVIDENCE. And the final result is .03/.06*.60= 0.3 or 30%

--- silence  --

Villager. Shouldn’t we just hang the boy?

Village Chief. KEEP QUIET. Master Statistician, please explain to us what you just said.

Statistician. Fellow villagers, it means that when the boy calls, the wolf will be there once every three times, approximately.

Village Chief: But that means, Master, that many times we rush to the fence for nothing, right?

Statistician: That's true. Two times out of three.

Villagers. It is what we said! The Boy is tricking us

Other Villagers. Hang the boy, hang him!

Other Villagers. Yeah, yeah. The boy works for the wolf!

Other villagers: Yeah, yeah, let's hang him!!

- The villagers take hold of the boy and take him away. The boy screams.

Statistician. Chief, this is not good. You should explain to the people of the village that they shouldn't behave like the members of the evil sect we call the Frequentists. Without the boy, every day the probability for the wolf to be there would be only 3%. With the boy, you have 30% when he calls. And it is much better.

Village Chief. Dear Statistician, I think the villagers are right. The boy should be hanged: he might be working for the wolf, after all!

– Exeunt –


The Bayesian analysis is a powerful tool and it can be used to study climate change. It is especially powerful when it is used to correlate the rise of carbon dioxide with temperature increases, as it is done, for instance, in this paper. Just as an example, think of the concept of abrupt climate change and the correlated mass extinctions. We know that there have been five major mass extinctions during the past 500 million years or so. Then, from a "frequentist" viewpoint, you could say that the probability that a new mass extinction during the next century has a probability of about 100/100,000,000, that is one in a million and you would feel safe. But if you take into account the correlation with the CO2 rise during the mass extinctions, then the Bayesian analysis tells you a completely different story when you compare with the current CO2 spike. I think the data available are not good enough so far for a complete quantitative analysis, but that gives you some idea of the power of the method. The problem is that neither the public nor politicians understand it.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

"The Seneca Strategy" -- Asking for Suggestions from my Readers

About Amelia the Amoeba, she is a pedigreed Naegleria Fowleri, a species known for her habit of eating human brains - an interesting case of a Seneca Collapse for the owner of the brain. But Amelia is a good girl and she won't do that to you if you are nice to her.

My second book on the concept of "Seneca Collapse" (or Cliff, or Ruin, or the like) is nearly completed and it should be available from Springer before the end of the year. It is a sequel to my first book, "The Seneca Effect", but this second one is thought as more easily readable "trade" book. It will be sold at a reasonable price, unlike the first one that was supposed to be a specialized, scientific book.

You see above a first attempt at a title and a cover for this book. Of course, the publisher will devise a better cover illustration, but the real issue is the title, still provisional. I used "The Seneca Strategy" as a title because the book focuses on how to deal with collapses rather than on the physics of collapses. It proposes a strategy that's based on the Stoic view of the world revisited under the lens of system dynamics. It is the idea that you don't try to force systems to do what you want them to do, a concept that Jay Forrester termed "pushing the levers in the wrong direction."

But, as it stands, the title is no good. My editor told me that, "“collapse” is not a friendly, or familiar, word to most readers. It seems to apply only to extreme events that don’t affect most people. " That is, people won't understand what the book is about. I think he is correct and that I need a better title -- a title that explains what's inside the book.

So, dear readers, could you focus your creative skills on this task and suggest a few titles for me? I think the title should contain the words "collapse" and "Seneca," but then there are many possibilities, for instance, I am toying with "Paths to Ruin" but creativity often consists in trying many different ideas and I am sure many of you could suggest something good. Hoping that not all of my readers are bots, I'll sure appreciate your efforts! (Amelia will also be grateful)

Here is the index of the book, to give you some idea of what it is about.

  1. Table of Contents
1. Preface 4
1.1 A quick glossary of the terms you’ll find in this book. 5
2. Summary: Six Things You Should Know About Collapse 6
3. Plan of the Book (not necessarily to be published) 8
4. Collapse: An Introduction 9
5. Models of Collapse 14
5.2 The Limits of Models. Nightfall on Lagash 23
5.3 Why Models are not Believed: The Croesus Syndrome 29
6. The Science of Collapse 36
6.1 Complex Systems: The Goddess’ Wrath 36
6.2 The Power of Networks: The Ghost in the Shell 42
6.3 Living and Dying in a Complex Universe. The Story of Amelia the Amoeba. 52
7. The Practice of Collapse 76
7.1 The Collapse of Engineered Structures: For Dust you are and to Dust you Will Return 76
7.2 Financial Collapses: Blockbuster goes bust. 84
7.3 Natural Disasters: Florence’s Great Flood 94
7.4 Mineral Collapses: The Coming Oil Crisis? 103
7.5 The Seneca Cliff and Human Violence: Fatal Quarrels. 111
7.6 Famines, Epidemics, and Depopulation: The Zombie Apocalypse 117
7.7 The Big One: Societal Collapse 125
7.8 Apocalypse: the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem 132
8. Strategies for Managing Collapse 138
8.1 Technological Progress against Collapse. The Cold Fusion Miracle that Wasn’t. 138
8.2 Avoiding Overexploitation. Drill, Baby, Drill! 148
8.3 Leadership Against Collapse: The Last Roman Empress. 155
8.4 Collapse as a Weapon: The Iago Strategy 164
8.5 Deception as a Strategy: the Camper’s Dilemma 174
8.6 Life After Collapse: The Seneca Rebound 181
9. Conclusion: The Seneca Strategy 189
11. Acknowledgment 195


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)