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. This stuff has no monetary value, it is just a marker of passing time. 

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 on, this 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 stuff 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 useless stuff, either. Well, I had to reconsider my position. I was a serial accumulator. Really, the amount of stuff 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 stuff 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.

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 stuff we brought, but a little grudgingly. They told us that they are full of things like 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 stuff 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 stuff 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 stuff in the air I breathe after it will be incinerated, or maybe in the form of small chunks of plastics in the sushi I eat. Not that if it were possible to recycle it the thought that it could be turned into a garden bench would 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 this experience, 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

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Second Babel Tower: Symphonic Music and the Collapse of the European Cultural Unity

This is Europe

This is not Europe

This is a reflection on how the breakdown of the Medieval cultural unity in Europe resulted in many different effects, from witch hunts to classical music. It came to me from putting together various elements of various talks heard at the excellent meeting "Colloqui di Martina Franca" held in Apulia in May 2019. H/t Boian Videnoff and Giovanni Semeraro.

The study of the patterns of world conflicts leads to fascinating results, showing the statistical patterns that make wars a sort of natural phenomenon, beyond human control. But there is something in the data that defies statistical analysis. Look at this figure, showing fatalities normalized to the world's population: (data from Martelloni, Di Patti and Bardi, 2019)

Note how there seem to exist two sections in this graph: one is relatively quiet, from 1400 to ca. 1600, the other is stormy: a series of terrible wars starting with the 30-years war that remained the largest in history, in relative terms, until it was surpassed by the 2nd world war. And not only the age of wars started in the mid-17th century, it was also the start of a wave of violence against women: tens of thousands of them, typically poor and illiterate, were tortured and burned alive under the accusation of witchcraft. The data are strongly euro-centered, so there was some kind of a radical change in Europe around mid-1600s. But what was it? And why did it happen?

It is a long story that can be seen in many ways and that shows many facets. In this post, I thought I could focus on how the great transition of the mid 17th century was reflected in a specific area of European culture: music. When Europe lost Latin as a shared communication tool, it was a new Babel Tower: Europeans couldn't understand each other any longer except within the boundaries of their national states. Not surprisingly, people who don't understand each other tend to resort to war to sort out conflicts. But Europeans also tried to replace Latin with some non-verbal tools: one was music. It is a long story that needs to be told from the beginning.

Did you ever realize how strange is the existence of symphonic (or "classical") music? Purely instrumental music is very rare in history and in geographical regions other than Western Europe and its cultural offspring. In most cases, music is purely vocal and instruments are only an optional tool to accompany and enhance the human voice. Instrumental music is even considered sinful in itself by many Islamic scholars.

That's indeed the rule for what we know about the history of European Music. During the Middle Ages, the main genre was Gregorian music: purely vocal. Note how a Gregorian chant is focused on words: listeners are supposed to understand what's being said. Then, the Renaissance came and it was the age of polyphony where the harmony takes precedence -- it is beautiful, but words overlap and the sense of the text is soon lost.

The trend toward polyphony continued in the 1700s when instrumental music became more and more common. It became the norm during the 1800s with the golden age of classical music: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and many others. Symphonic music continued to be popular well in the 1900s, think of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924). But, in time, it faded away. Today, orchestral symphonies are still written and performed, but they are not anymore a popular form of art. We seem to have gone back to a kind of music that focuses on voice and words: the rap. (for a nice version of a rap relevant to the title of this blog and also sung by a physicist, see this link)

What generated this cycle? Mainly, it was the Babel of languages that Europe had become that pushed Europeans to try to develop new forms of communication. Music is a language, not the same kind of language that uses words, it is a tool used mainly to convey emotions rather than facts and data. It can be used to create social bonds or to intimidate an adversary (in the latter case, it is termed AVID - audio-visual intimidating display).

Actually, as argued by Joseph Jordania, music may be the origin of language and polyphonic music is much older than the monophonic kind we are used to, nowadays. Gradually, with the development of word-based languages, monophonic music became prevalent. But, in some peculiar conditions, when the word-based communication breaks down, the Babel Tower effect takes place: to understand each other we must revert to different tools. Polyphonic music, classical symphonies, the haka, they are all forms of emotion-based forms of communication. They are not necessarily inferior to the word-based kind, they bypass words to reach directly the heart of people. And there is no doubt that the haka was conceived as a way to reduce violence as much as possible. But music can't convey the same richness of meaning that words can provide.

So, Beethoven's third symphony is commonly termed the "Heroic." It is hard to pin down what exactly that means, but most people would agree that there is something heroic in that music. There is no Moon in Beethoven's "moonlight sonata" but somehow the music seems to evoke the moonlight. And Beethoven's fifth symphony is the one perhaps closest to the Maori's haka, even though there is much more in Beethoven's fifth than pure intimidation (that's true also for the haka, which is a sophisticated art form in itself -- not polyphonic, though! H/t Elena Piani) (*).

The evolution of Western European culture makes a lot of sense on the basis of these considerations. The Middle Ages were a period of cultural unity in Western Europe. Latin was gradually lost with the Renaissance and this generated new forms of music-based communication. In time, these forms were made unnecessary by the triumph of English as worldwide lingua franca. It may be the reason for the relative lull in the frequency and the intensity of wars during the past 50 years or so, as noted by Steven Pinker in his "The Better Angels of Our Nature:" (2011). It is also the reason for the age of the Rap, in which we are living.

Today, the evolution continues. Maybe English itself will be made obsolete by tools such as Google translate. Maybe we'll use only emojis :-). Maybe we'll develop new methods of communication which, today, we can't even imagine. But there remains a basic fascination in singing together, especially for polyphonic music. It is an art that has been mostly abandoned, today, except in some special religious contexts. But it won't die so easily and if you ever had a chance to sing in a polyphonic choir you understand what I mean. It is music that bypasses your brain to touch your heart. An example, below, the Benedictus as performed by singers of the Taizé Community.

This post was generated by a meeting in Martina Franca that I attended last week. I heard first a talk by the AI scientist Giovanni Semeraro. It made me think of how words are the fundamental unit of communication in languages, but also made me wonder if it were possible to communicate without words. Then, it was the turn of Boian Videnoff's talk on complexity in music and - bang! - a hit of serendipity. European wars, symphonic music, polyphonic music, and Gregorian chants, everything clicked together -- there was a meaning in the gradual evolution of different musical genres! A final point: why did Europe lose Latin? I think there are reasons, but that's a discussion for another post. 

Upon rethinking the matter over, I think the haka IS polyphonic. It is an integrated mix of words, gestures, facial expressions, and dance. A stunningly sophisticated art form. 


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Europe, Europe! The Dream Doesn't Die.

This video exemplifies the problems the European Union has in managing its own image. It was produced in 2012 and then recalled after being widely labeled as "racist." In some senses, it was, but it was also one of the very few attempts the Union made to present itself in ways that go beyond the dull image of a bunch of bureaucrats acting in the name of the global financial powers. Without the ability to project a positive image of itself, the Union may be doomed. But it is also true that in the recent European elections the separatist parties didn't gain as much as they had hoped to. Good dreams never die, they bide their time. And, who knows? One day, the dream of a truly United Europe might come true. 

There was a time, long ago, when the term "Europe" was a vague definition for the lands north of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians. In time, the Roman Empire came to dominate the area we call today "Western Europe" but nobody would even dream to call him or herself "European." For more than a millennium, the inhabitants of this region would proudly call themselves "Romans," even though they might never have seen the city of Rome in their lives.

After that Rome fell, in the 5th century CE, the European population declined and, by 650 CE, it is estimated that it had shrunk to some 18 million people. Europe was an immense forest punctuated by castles and villages here and there, and, occasionally, by the ruins of great cities. It was the start of what we call the "dark ages," that weren't dark at all.

It was at that time that Europe arose. Not that Europe was anything like a recognized entity -- people would call themselves "Christians," but never, ever "Europeans."  But Europe had become a recognizable cultural entity. It was the result of two powerful communication tools that Europeans had inherited from the Roman Empire: the Latin language and the codices that replaced the old rolls.

Latin was the language of the Roman Legions. Then, when the legions were gone, it became the sacred language of Christianity and, at the same time, the language of commerce and of politics. Few Europeans could speak Latin, most were limited to their vernacular languages, but if rulers and merchants wanted to speak other they had to use Latin. And the Western European intellectuals couldn't even imagine to express themselves in any other language.

The other tool that created the European cultural unity was the codex. A remarkable invention: it was what we call today "book," a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials, bound together. The existence of books looks obvious to us, but, at the time, it was a major revolution. It allowed to store and access information in a much more efficient and rapid way than with the old rolls.

With Latin and codices, the Middle Ages became a sophisticated cultural entity that kept alive the classical literature and added much more to it. One of its features was the return of women as authors. They had been silent during Roman times, but now we hear again their voices: Hildegard Von Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Heloise, and many others. The Middle Ages were not "dark" -- they were, by all means, bookish.

By the 9th century, King Charlemagne attempted to make Europe not just a cultural entity, but a political one with his Holy Roman Empire. It was only partially successful, but with the start of the 2nd millennium, Europe had become powerful enough that it could expand out of its borders: it was the time of the crusades. There was no central European government at the time, but Europeans acted together as if there were one. The crusades saw the birth of entities that prefigured modern multinational companies: the Templar Knights were at the same time a monastic order, a military force, and a bank.

The crusades were only partially successful. The European economy peaked with the beginning of the 14th century and then collapsed with the Great Plague of mid 14th century, when Europe lost perhaps 30% of its population. Then, there came the time of the great rebound and this time Europeans engaged in the great overseas adventure that in a few centuries would lead them to dominate most of the world.

But something had gone wrong in the meantime. The process of European integration that had started in the Middle Ages ground to a halt with the "Renaissance." During the 17th century, the 30-years war saw Europeans fighting each other in what was perhaps the most destructive war ever waged in human history up to that moment. Europeans even waged a war against women: the Renaissance was the time of the great witch hunts that saw innumerable innocent women burned alive at the stake.

Over the centuries that followed, Europe never knew a moment of quiet and it disintegrated into a constellation of nation states. Enclosed within rigid and impermeable borders, these creatures were proud, touchy, and aggressive. With the 20th century, they started behaving like drunken gunmen engaged in a tavern brawl. The result was the disaster of the two world wars.

It was only in the second half of the 20th centuries that Europeans seemed to recover some of their mental sanity and started wondering what they had been doing. Was there a way to avoid new internecine wars? That was the origin of the idea of the European Community, later renamed the European Union. A movement of ideas of people genuinely convinced that Europe was a good thing that would prevent new wars. It was the first time in history when the people living in Europe would start seeing themselves as "European Citizens."

In some ways, the European Union was a success, but today it shows the problems that were not solved when it was created. States can be kept together only in two ways: by military force or by cultural bonds. Europe had known both ways in its history: during the Roman Empire, it had been turned into a single political entity by the mighty Roman Legions. Later on, it had been bound together by the common ties of the Christian culture and religion. Within some limits, the United Europe of the second half of the 20th century was the result of the might of the American legions. But legions are expensive commodities and if the American ones leave (and they will), what will keep the European states together?

Here, we see how the European Union was built on weak foundations. The European nation states had consistently refused to cede even an inch of what they saw as their divine right: that of using their national language and only that language in all occasions. The result is that Babel was reincarnated in the city of Brussels, where every statement, every document, every speech, needs to be issued in multiple versions in different languages.

National languages are much more important than colored flags, they are the essence of the concept of nation states. The failure of the founders of the European Union has been that of not pushing a European Language that would have united Europe. Perhaps it would have been possible to resurrect Latin or, more e simply, to adopt English, the de-facto international language of our times. But, instead, the founders thought that it was easier to pay the salary of a legion of interpreters who collected in Brussels like vultures on a fresh kill.

The result was a Europe of the banks rather than a Europe of Europeans. It was never loved, but accepted as long as it seemed to be able to keep the economy going. But, with the economic downturn, feelings changed. Most people tend to reason on the basis of the simplest and most schematic inferences. If the economy was going better before the European Union came, there follows that if we get rid of those ugly bureaucrats (and of the interpreters) in Brussels, things will go back to the good times and everything will be well in the best of worlds. One result was the Brexit disaster and it is a minor miracle and also a good illustration of the power of the European dream that the recent elections saw the separatists win only in some marginal regions of the Union. Overall, most Europeans still see themselves as Europeans.

But for how long can the European Union survive in its current form? Will it collapse and then bounce back? Will it become just a minor peninsula of the great Eurasian co-prosperity zone? Maybe a remote terminal station for the new silk road? And, with its mineral resources badly depleted by millennia of exploitation, can Europeans survive at all in a future where they are threatened by climate change and ecosystem collapse?

We cannot say. The only certainty is that good dreams never really die -- they bide their time. And the dream of a united Europe is not dead. It will come back, one day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Getting rid of Debt: How About Replacing Money with Social Credit?

Mark Twain had a genial idea with his story "The One Million Pound Bank Note" published in 1853. It was such a huge amount of money that it couldn't be exchanged, yet it gave its owner all sorts of perks and goods. It was, in a certain way, an anticipation of what we call today the "social credit score" obtained on the various social media services on the Web. It is a form of money that can be owned, but cannot be exchanged -- in most cases, you can't even go negative with your social credit. So, no debt, no bankruptcy. Would it be possible to build a financial system based on this concept? Not easy, but also an idea being examined nowadays, especially in China with their state-owned social credit system (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì). The text below is derived from the chapter on financial collapses of my new book "The Seneca Strategy," to be published in later 2019.

The whole problem of financial collapses is the result of the existence of money. But what is money exactly? Without going into the various theories of money that economists are still discussing, we can say that once, money was something that everybody agreed on: a weight of precious metals. After all, the British currency is still defined in units of weight, even though one pound (in monetary terms) does not weigh a pound (in physical terms). Still, up to not too long ago, money was simply a token representing a physical entity, typically a certain weight of gold and silver. But things changed a lot with time and, with the 20th century, the convertibility of the dollar into precious metals was more theoretical than real. In 1971 president Nixon formally canceled it. From then on, money has been a purely virtual entity created by central banks out of thin air. How people accept to be paid for their work by something that doesn’t exist is a little strange, if you think about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that money is the backbone of society: it is exchanged, lent, borrowed, distributed, spent, and more. And, with money, there comes debt, and with debt there comes insolvency and, with it, bankruptcy.

Could we think of going a step beyond the institution of bankruptcy laws and imagine a financial system where people can’t go bankrupt? This is an idea that floats nowadays in the world’s global consciousness. Perhaps the first proposal in this sense was made by Cory Doctorow in 2003 (during the pre-Facebook age) in his novel “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” where he proposed a kind of “merit money,” called “Whuffie,” that people could accumulate on the good deeds that they performed. This money was a form of credit, but it couldn’t be spent – it just produced perks and advantages for its owner. It was something that pre-figured the “credit score” that Facebook and other social media would later develop. Maybe Doctorow was inspired by Mark Twain’s story "The Million Pound Bank Note" (1903), where the protagonist finds that the mere possession of this banknote of enormous value entitles him with honors and goods, without the need of exchanging it. But Doctorow may have been thinking of the concept of personal honor, fashionable in less monetized times than ours. As an honorable man you were entitled to some privileges, but enjoying them didn’t mean that your honor would be reduced as a consequence.

Later on, the concept of on-line credit score was developed by social media sites such as Facebook, taking the Web by storm starting in 2004. It had been preceded by what was perhaps the first modern social media system, “Friendster” which appeared in 2002 and went bust in 2015. The variety of these sites is large today and most of them use some kind of “credit scoring” for their users. In Facebook, there is no such a thing as a negative scoring, but the possibility of rating users down exists in other social media, for instance in Reddit, where your “karma points” can go negative if you happen to utter an especially ill-thought comment.

The idea of using the social media on the Web as a form of money was proposed perhaps for the first time by Solitaire Townsend in 2013. The Chinese government seems to have taken the idea seriously and they are implementing a statewide system of social credit (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì) that's supposed to “grade” Chinese citizens on a merit score. You get positive points for being a good citizen: helping an old lady crossing the street will bring you points from the lady and from the people who witnessed the good deed you performed. You get negative points when you do something bad, like getting a traffic ticket or just a bad report from someone who felt hurt by something you did.

The Chinese social credit system can be seen as a form of money, in the sense that it is based on the yin-yang opposition of debt and credit. Having a sufficiently high social credit score is a prerequisite for being able to purchase certain things which, in the West, are not for everybody anyway, plane tickets for instance. Something similar had been developed in earlier times in the Soviet Union, where the members of the Soviet Communist Party were considered as having a higher “credit score” than the others and they enjoyed non-monetary perks and services that were denied to the normal Soviet citizens. It was the “nomenklatura” system, not so much different from what we call the “establishment” in the West.

The idea of a universal social credit score is being experimented in various forms, but in the West, it is regarded with suspicion, at the very least considered as an invasion of people’s privacy and the denial of personal freedom. There exists a site called “people” ( trying to assign a merit score to everyone – it doesn’t seem to have been very successful, so far. But even in the proud West, there exist smaller scale credit rating systems. For decades scientists have been using “academic credits” designed to establish a pecking order among the scientists working in the same fields. Initially, the system was based just on the number of scientific publications (“papers”) that a scientist could produce. That led to the concept of “publish or perish” and to the multiplication of both papers and scientific journals in a gigantic jumble of low-quality publications. Attempts to remedy the disaster led to various schemes to grade both journals and publications. The latest, currently the most popular, version of scientific grading is called the “h-index” and it provides individual scores depending on how many times a paper published by a scientist has been cited by other scientists. The h-index system, just like all the other scoring systems in science, is based on peer evaluation, therefore it is a kind of social credit system.

The common element of these social merit systems is that points cannot be exchanged among owners. We could imagine a society fully based on a credit system where you obtain goods and services just on the basis of your credit rating. So, suppose you want a coffee, you pay for it by adding a number of credit points to the coffee shop owner/waiters, but you don’t detract these point from your score. Things get a little more complicated if you want something expensive. So, suppose you want a fancy car: you can have, say, a Ferrari if your credit score is sufficiently high. Again, the fact of “buying” a Ferrari in this way doesn’t reduce your credit score but, of course, there has to be some kind of record keeping that prevents high-score people from accumulating Ferraris as if they were toy cars. There is some similarity, here, with the way the Soviet Union market system worked. In order to have a car, you had to register on a list and wait for your turn. Years later, you could see that car delivered to you and you were erased from the list and prevented from re-enlisting from a certain time. That made sure that you wouldn’t waste the products of the people’s factories by having more than one car. But Nomenklatura members didn’t need to wait, being high in the credit score list.

So, a “reputation currency” could work, at least in a certain way. An advantage of such a system is that it may be rigged in such a way to create no negative credit (no debt). Could we eliminate the bad consequences of insolvency in this way? And, in a single sweep, we would eliminate such things as theft, robbery, corruption, swindles, and all the crimes related to money. We can imagine ways to swindle the system, but nobody ever could steal your credit rating at gunpoint!

But, obviously, there are problems with the idea. Doctorow says about his creation, the “Whuffie” money, “Reputation is a terrible currency” and that’s very true for those who are at the wrong end of the scale. Have you ever been bullied as a teen? If it happened to you, you know how hard it can be to be the boy at the lowest rung of the ladder. And the only way to move away from the bottom is to behave in the most abject way with the leaders of the group: flattering them and obeying their orders. Doing so, eventually ensures that another hapless person will eventually occupy the bottom place in the pecking order. Then, if you are a scientist, you surely know how powerful a merit score can be as a factor pushing you to conformism. If you are a young scientist, you know that your career depends on never-ever criticizing or disparaging your senior colleagues. That’s a privilege you’ll gain only after getting your tenure and even then you’ll have to be careful about displeasing the powerful dons who control the financing of research.

Doctorow understands this point very well when he says in his book

Whuffie has all the problems of money, and then a bunch more that are unique to it. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, we see how Whuffie – despite its claims to being ‘‘meritocratic’’ – ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top. Once you have a lot of Whuffie – once a lot of people hold you to be reputable – other people bend over backwards to give you opportunities to do things that make you even more reputable, putting you in a position where you can speechify, lead, drive the golden spike, and generally take credit for everything that goes well, while blaming all the screw-ups on lesser mortals.

This is similar to the situation in science nowadays. There is no “scientific bankruptcy” for scientists: their h-index, as it is now, can’t go negative. So, no matter how bad a scientist can be, there is no direct way to hit him or her with a bankruptcy sentence and remove it from the pool of the recognized scientists. This is probably the reason why it is often said that “science progresses one funeral at a time.” (a quote attributed to the German scientist Max Planck). It means that old scientists tend to block scientific progress until the natural phenomenon of biological collapse removes them from the system. It would be an interesting reform to introduce “negative points” in science and fire the scientists who manage to go negative because of one or more truly bad papers. But, before that happens, the “Whuffie trap” that Doctorow described would play its role to push scientists toward the most abject conformism. For a scientist, avoiding to be being the target of the wrath of the scientific powers that be (SPTB) could only mean that they should be extremely careful to avoid to publish or voice anything that goes against the current consensus. And that would destroy that spark of creativity that, despite all odds, science still manages to maintain, so far.

So, switching to an always positive form of money would have some advantages in the sense that it would eliminate debt and, with it, insolvency and all the related problems and traumas. But it wouldn’t in itself, change the fact that currency is just a proxy for something real, the entities we call “goods” or “commodities.” Social credit money wouldn’t do much to solve problems such as resource depletion and pollution: people would still want to consume and waste resources and those who have a high social credit would do that just in the same way as those who are rich in terms of conventional money.

In the end, money may be a virtual entity and you may also define it as the devil’s dung. But we are addicted to it and we keep playing the money game. Money is so deeply intertwined with the way our society works that we can’t even imagine how it could work without it. What could happen to us if a large financial collapse were to destroy the value of our mighty dollar? We can’t say for sure, but the mighty Globalized Empire might crumble like a house of cards in a single, huge, Seneca collapse.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Human Extinction: An Idea Whose Time had to Come.

A few years ago, a political movement taking the name of "extinction rebellion" would have been wholly unthinkable. On the other hand, after more than forty years of warnings on climate change and ecosystem collapse from the world's best scientists, the message had to start going through, somehow. And it does.

One consequence is the appearance on the social media of a crowd of deranged, depressed, misanthropic, and generally nasty people who have decided that the extinction of humankind is what's going to happen, no matter what we do, and they even seem to like the idea. Others, fortunately, seem to think that we can still do something to avoid this manifest destiny and the consequence is the birth of the extinction rebellion movement. Can it accomplish anything? Hard to say, it sounds a little like an "asteroid rebellion" movement that dinosaurs could have created just before the end of the Cretaceous era.

These openly declared attitudes may be just the tip of the iceberg, others may well have decided that, if overpopulation is the problem, then there are quick and very dirty ways to solve it. They may be concocting dark and dire things and they won't care too much about who thinks exactly what about the likelyhood of a coming human extinction. Their only concern would be that THEY won't go extinct. But, as usual, we see the future darkly, as in a mirror, and the time when we'll see it face to face has not come, yet. 

Below, a text by "Reverse Engineer" of the Doomstead Diner who examines the question and, at the linked page, you'll find also a longer video. (U.B.)

Guest post by R.E. (Reverse Engineer).

Extinction has moved from the dark corners of the Collapse Blogosphere into the consciousness of the mainstream.  Just a few short years ago the discussion of human extinction was relegated to a few fringe websites, but not so anymore.  Now it has become Topic #1 in the discussions on many websites that concern themselves with topics of collapse.  Sometimes this comes to the exclusion of many other collapse related topics in economics, geopolitics, energy and social psychology that are impacting more directly right now.

Generally, my focus over the years has been on the economics and energy end of the spin down we are immersed in, and I don't dwell too much on the issues of extinction.  However, here on the Diner we have treated the subject to analysis on a few occasions, most notably the Human Extinction Survey, which we ran a couple of years ago.  It garnered the most respondents of any survey we have run at around 350 submissions until recently, when our Collapse Projections Survey brought in responses from over 600 Kollapsniks.  The extinction survey also inspired a month long email stream between various bloggers and pundits which was quite interesting.

I generally tend to avoid extinction discussions though for a few reasons.  First, I have discovered over the years that it attracts a certain type of reader/commenter who is often nihilistic, misanthropic and sometimes suicidally depressed.  The blog becomes consumed with the discussion of the topic while more proximal problems get ignored.  Who cares if the monetary system is going to crash if we're all gonna die anyhow, right?  It also sometimes inspires people toward counter-productive behaviors.  If we're all destined to inevitable death here no matter what, let's just Party like it's 1999!  It leads to inaction on problems we still can have an effect on as we move forward in collapse.

The timeline question becomes very important here, because if extinction is indeed going to happen, when will it actually occur?  If it's in the next 5 years say, that has one set of problems and responses, if it's going to happen in 50 there's another set.  Nobody can really finger this accurately, it's all speculation but some true believers hammer down on anyone who doesn't buy the whole ball of wax on Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) is in denial and shooting up too much Hopium.  Amongst this crowd, hope is a bad thing to have.

Recent events however compelled me to discuss this subject in detail, which I do in today's Collapse Morning Wake-Up Call.  The first is the rise of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which recently held a week long series of often very theatrical demonstrations in London to raise consciousness and hopefully get some real ACTION out of governments to combat this problem, which looms larger each day as more climate related calamities strike in more places with incresing ferocity and frequency.all over the globe.  The second is a corollary issue of Population Overshoot, and the fact that many Millenials are now choosing to remain childless, for one reason or another.  What kind of difference will this make to our society as time marches on here?

All in all, Extinction is a difficult conundrum to deal with, a Wicked Problem.  Hopefully, I clarify some issues with this discussion, or at least lay out my position on where I stand on these issues.

Save As Many As You Can



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)