Friday, January 18, 2019

What are the chances of a war that would exterminate most of humankind? It could be more likely than you may think

Recently, together with my coworkers I have been engaged in a statistical analysis of war over the past 600 years. The results were sobering: war, it seems, is a statistical phenomenon similar to earthquakes and forest fires. It strikes according to well defined statistical patterns and there is very little that can be done about it. Aaron Clauset is another scientist who has been working on the same subject and, in a sobering analysis of his, he calculates the probablities of future wars. According to his calculations, a war as large as the Second World War has more than 40% chances to occur within 100 years from now. Then, a war causing more than billion battle deaths, that is exterminating most of humankind, has a probability of 5% to occur in less than 4 centuries from now. That doesn't mean we can relax for 4 centuries, not at all. It means we can expect it at any moment in the future.

From Aaron Clauset, 2018. (highlighting mine)

.... a stationary model may be used to estimate the likelihood of a very large war occurring over 100 years, one like the Second World War, which produced x* = 16,634,907 battle deaths. Using the ensemble of semiparametric models for the sizes of wars and assuming a new war onset every 1.91 years on average (43), the probability of observing at least one war with x* or more deaths is p* = 0.43 ± 0.01 (Monte Carlo), and the expected number of these events over the next 100 years is 0.62 ± 0.01. Hence, under stationarity, the likelihood of a very large war over the next 100 years is not particularly small.

Under an even stronger assumption of stationarity, the model can estimate the waiting time for a war of truly spectacular size, such as one with x = 1,000,000,000 (one billion) battle deaths. A conflict this large would be globally catastrophic and would likely mark the end of modern civilization. It is also not outside the realm of possibility, if current nuclear weapons were used widely.

Using the ensemble of semiparametric models of war sizes and a longer Monte Carlo simulation, the model estimates that the median forecasted waiting time for such an event is 1339 years. Reflecting the large fluctuations that are natural under the empirical war size distribution, the distribution of waiting times for such a catastrophic event is enormously variable, with the 5 to 95% quantiles ranging from 383 to 11,489 years. A median delay of roughly 1300 years does not seem like a long time to wait for an event this enormous in magnitude, and humans have been waging war on each other, in one way or another, for substantially longer than that.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Happened in 2015 that Changed the World? "Peak Cement" may Signal the Turning Point of Civilization

"Peak Cement" may have taken place in 2015, stopping the exponentially growing curve that would have led us to turn the Earth into a bowling ball, similar to the fictional planet Trantor, Galactic capital in Isaac Asimov's series "Foundation" (image source).

When giving an example of an exponentially growing production curve, I used to cite cement production. Look at the data up to 2013: a beautiful growing curve with a doubling time of -- very roughly -- 10 years. Then, if we assume that the current concrete covered area in the world is about 2%  (an average of the data by Schneider et al., 2009 and the Global Rural-Urban Mapping Project, 2004) then we would get to Trantor -- bowling ball planet -- in some 50 years.

Of course that wasn't possible, but it was still a surprise to discover how abrupt the change has been: here are the most recent data (the value for 2018 is still an estimate from

Impressive, right? Steve Rocco, smart as usual, had already noticed this trend in 2017, but now it is clearer. It looks like a peak, it has the shape of a peak, it gives the impression of a peak. Most likely it is a peak -- actually, it could be the start of an irreversible decline in the global cement production.

Now, what caused the decline? If you look at the disaggregated data, it is clear that the slowdown was mainly created by China, but not just by China. Several countries in the world are going down in terms of cement production -- in Italy, the decline started in 2010.

My impression -- that I share with the one proposed by Rocco -- is that this is not a blip in the curve, nor a special case among the various mineral commodities produced nowadays. It is a symptom of a general problem: it may be the clearest manifestation of the concept of "peak civilization" that the 1972 "Limits to Growth" study had placed for some moment during the 1st or 2nd decades of the 21st century.

Peak Cement is not alone another major peak was detected by Antonio Turiel for diesel fuel in 2015.

And, of course, we know that another major commodity went through a global peak in 2014: coal. (data from


So, are we really facing "peak civilization"? It is hard to say. On a time scale of a few years, many things could change and, in any case, you don't expect peaking to take place at the same time for all mineral commodities, everywhere. A strong indication that the whole world system is peaking would come from the behavior of the global GDP. Rocco had proposed that also the GDP had peaked in 2015, but the data available at present are insufficient to prove that.

In any case, it has been said that we would see the great peak "in the rear mirror"and this may well be what we are seeing. Whatever is happening it will be clearer in the future but, if it is really "the peak", expect the Seneca cliff to open up in front of us in the coming years. And maybe it won't be such a bad thing(*): did we really want to turn the Earth into a bowling ball?

(*) Antonio Turiel lists in a post of his (in Spanish) all the advantages ensuing from a societal collapse: reducing emissions, less pollution, a saner society and more)

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Future as Seen by the Doomers. It Will be the Seneca Rebound!

Recently, RE (Reverse Engineer) of the famed "Doomsday Diner" carried out an opinion poll among the people frequenting some of the most doomeristic/catastrophistic/millennialistic sites of the Web (including Ugo Bardi's blog, Cassandra's Legacy).

Refreshingly, a majority of the members of this group of hard-liners are in favor of renewable energy! Only 36% of the group think that renewable energy is useless, while 57% think it will power a sustainable technological civilization.

So, maybe you are one of those people who feel it is their duty to pester the discussions on this subject with your favorite statement that goes as "renewable energy plants are built using energy coming from fossil fuels, therefore will never be anything but fossil fuel extenders." Then, know that not only you are wrong, you also understood nothing of the concept of EROI, and, finally, you are also a minority even among the minority of the millennialists of the Web.

Yes, the transition will not be easy, but renewable energy is the future of humankind. It is the Seneca Rebound, baby!

Monday, January 7, 2019

"Energy Dominance," what does it mean? Decoding a Fashionable Slogan

"Now, I know for a fact that American energy dominance is within our grasp as a nation.” Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (source)

"All Warfare is Based on Deception" Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Over nearly a half-century, since the time of Richard Nixon, American presidents have proclaimed the need for "energy independence" for the US, without ever succeeding in attaining it. During the past few years, it has become fashionable to say that the US has, in fact, become energy independent, even though it is not true. And, doubling down on this concept, there came the idea of "energy dominance," introduced by the Trump administration in June 2017.  It is now used at all levels in the press and in the political debate.

No doubt, the US has good reasons to be bullish on oil production. Of the three major world producers, it is the only one growing: it has overtaken Saudi Arabia and it seems to be poised to overtake Russia in a few years. (graphic source).

This rebound in the US production after the decline that started in the early 1970s is nearly miraculous. And the miracle as a name: shale oil. A great success, sure, but, if you think about it, the whole story looks weird: the US is trying to gain this "dominance" by means of resources which, once burned, will be forever gone. It is like people competing at who is burning their own house faster. What sense does it make?

Art Berman keeps telling us that shale oil is an expensive resource that could be produced at a profit only for market conditions that are unrealistic to expect. So far, much more money has been poured into shale oil production than it has returned from the sales of shale oil. "Energy dominance" seems to be just an elaborate way to lose money and resources. Again, what sense does that make?

But there is a logic in the term "energy dominance." It has to do with the way slogans are used in politics: a slogan is not just a compact way of expressing a certain political concept, it is often a coded message that hides much more than it says. So, we know that "bringing democracy" to a foreign country means to bomb it to smithereens. "Make America great again" means subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. "The Indispensable Country" means, "The American Empire." And more.

There is nothing wrong in using coded slogans: you only have to know how to decode them. So, "energy dominance" has to be decoded and turned into "military dominance." Then, things start making sense.

One quick note before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist: I am reasonably sure that there is no "control room" in a dark basement of the Pentagon or of the White House deciding long-term economic and military objectives. The decision mechanism of modern states is collective and networked. It is akin to that of anthills: there is nobody in charge, plenty of people push in different directions and, eventually, the giant structure may start moving in a certain direction.

So, the fact that so much money has been directed toward the exploitation of shale oil and gas doesn't mean that someone at the top decided that it was the thing to be done. It is simply, that investors tend to direct their financial resources where they think they'll have returns, and that may well be the result of a collective hallucination. Investing in shale oil is, basically, a Ponzi scheme but if Ponzi schemes exist there is a reason for them to exist. Even if investing in something doesn't generate overall profits, it moves money, benefits contractors, raises the GDP, and the more money is invested the more expectations of profits grow. And so it goes until the bubble bursts, but that may take time.

But there is more than that in this story: it is the military side. We all know that wars are won by the side that can pour more resources into the fight. It was in this way that the first and the second world war were won: the allies could produce more energy in the form of oil, coal, and gas. And, with these energy sources, they could produce more stuff: planes, tanks, cannons, bombs, bullets, and more stuff that was thrown at the Germans until they gave up. Matthieu Auzeannau gives us plenty of examples of this mechanism in his book "Oil, Power, and War." The Germans were always lacking enough oil to power their military machine and that's why they were doomed from the beginning.

For the military, the lesson of the past world wars is that wars are won by the side which has the largest oil supply. And they remember it. So, if you want to attain military dominance, energy independence is not enough, you need to attain energy dominance.

Everything makes sense also in view of some recent results on the statistical patterns of wars. Wars, it seems, are correlated to the thermodynamic phenomenon of entropy dissipation in complex systems. The more energy there is to dissipate, the faster it is dissipated. And if this dissipation is really fast, it may take the shape of a war -- war is the fastest way to destroy (dissipate) accumulated resources. But, in order to dissipate resources, you need to accumulate them first, and that's the role of shale oil in the current situation.

Which means that shale oil is not a natural resource, it is a military resource. As such, it doesn't matter if it brings a profit or not for the investors. What matters is how it can be used to maintain and expand that gigantic social and economic structure that we call "Globalization" (another slogan that can be decoded as "the global empire").

As long as the production of shale oil increases, we face the risk of a new, major world war. We can only hope that the shale bubble bursts by itself first. One more good reason why a Seneca Collapse of oil production would be good for all of us.

Friday, January 4, 2019

How do you Stop the Arms Race? By Starting a New War, for Instance

Do you see a ghostly Seneca Cliff in this graph? (source)

There is a good rule that you should always be careful when extrapolating your data, especially over the long term. And there is an even better rule saying that you should never, never extrapolate an exponential growth. The uncertainty in the data of an exponentially growing curve increases exponentially, too, and that makes your extrapolation meaningless very soon.

But, in the figure above, they extrapolated an exponentially growing curve for the military expenses of the US and China over more than 30 years!  The origin of that curve above seems to be the RAND Corporation. I couldn't find the original source, but it has been reproduced in the blog of the Wall Street Journal and on Zero Hedge

It looks like someone seriously proposed this extrapolation. But consider a few numbers: according to the chart, by 2050 the US would spend more than 20% of its present GdP for the military! (it is now about 3%). It might be possible if the US GdP were to increase in proportion. But, from the graph, they assume a growth of nearly a factor of 5 (from ca. 600 billion dollars, today, to 2.9 trillion in little more than 30 years. It means that the GdP should double at least twice in 30 years, that is, the US economy should grow at the rate of 6% (twice the current rate!) every year for the next 30 years. Otherwise, the US government would bankrupt itself even faster than it is doing now. 

Now, you might want to dismiss this graph as one of the many silly forecasts that are part of the everyday chat on how this or that sector of the economy is going to grow -- and therefore everyone should invest on it. But, there is something in this idea that military expenses are going to rise in the future. It has to do with a typical enhancing feedback effect. One side raises its military expenses and causes the other side to do the same. And that's the feedback that creates a ladder on which both contenders climb without knowing how to step down. Another parallel effect is the financial mechanism. Large investments in military expenses create a powerful lobby representing the military-industrial complex. A powerful lobby successfully pushes for higher investments and that, in turn, creates an even more powerful lobby. It is all part of what we call "arms race."

Here is another example of an arms race: how military expenses grew in the years before the 1st World War. (from Our World in Data -- see also this link)

The impression is that, by 1913, nobody knew how to stop the race and that the only "solution" that could be found to block the ever-increasing costs was to start a war -- which they did.

The similarity of the current situation with that of the years leading to WWI has been noted more than once. So, are we going to see a new world war in the near future? We cannot say: history doesn't really repeat itself, although it does rhyme. It might not be necessary to start a new world war to stop the exponential growth of military expenses, but the data are not encouraging. A new war could really be near. And, a nuclear war could generate a Seneca Collapse so drastic and disastrous that it could really be the "war ending all wars" -- as WWI should have been -- at least those not fought with clubs and stone axes only.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2019: Are you Ready for a New World War? A Statistical Analysis

Detail from Picasso's "Guernica" - 1937

With the end of 2018, also the centennial of the end of the Great War (or WWI) is over. It passed remarkably in silence: a few celebrations, but little or no discussion of the reasons and the consequences of that war, supposed to be the one that would "end all wars." Of course, it was too much to expect that wars would ever end, but maybe we could have at least learned something from rethinking to a conflict that caused some 40 million victims for no evident purpose. But that didn't happen (if you can read Italian, you may be interested in a reflection of mine on the subject).

So, the world situation, today, looks more and more similar to the military build-up that took place in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. The Great Powers are arranging their forces as if they were setting their pieces on a giant chessboard. At some moment, someone may well decide to make the first move. And, in this giant chess game, the kings can wipe out all the pieces on the chessboard in a single move with their nuclear warheads.

It would be nice to follow Steven Pinker's optimism about modern times, supposed to have become less violent. There may be such a trend for the past few decades, but it is always dangerous to extrapolate from a limited dataset. In this case, the optimism of Pinker seems to be simply wrong if measured over a time span of several centuries. This is the result of an analysis of the data for the conflicts of the past 600 years that myself and my coworkers Martelloni and Di Patti performed in 2018 -- it was thought, in part, as a way to celebrate the centennial of the Great War.

Our results are mostly a confirmation of a series of analyses that was started by Lewis Fry Richardson, pacifist and polymath, who was the first to study wars trying to understand their statistical patterns. It is a field that today has grown and arrived at a number of conclusions, mainly that war is a statistical phenomenon largely independent from religions, ideologies, money, and great leaders. It is an "emergent phenomenon" of the complex network of interactions among human societies worldwide. There is some evidence that wars are becoming less frequent, but they are also becoming more deadly. There follows there is a chance of a major conflict in a non-remote future that could dwarf all past conflicts in terms of the destruction it could cause. On this point, see a recent paper by Aaron Clauset.

Unfortunately, the results of these studies are practically unknown beyond the small group of practitioners engaged in it and with every new war we repeat the mistakes of the Great War, thinking that a war could be a way to end wars -- it is something that was repeated as recently as with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As usual, we are marching blindfolded into the future and the future may not be kind to those who don't understand it.

I have already reported some preliminary results of this study (also here, here, and here). Now you can read our complete paper on ArXiv, and here are some excerpts.


Pattern Analysis of World Conflicts over the past 600 years

(excerpts from the complete paper)

We analyze the largest database available for violent conflicts, the one prepared by Brecke (Brecke 2011), covering some 600 years of human history. After normalizing the data for the global human population, we find that the number of casualties tends to follow a power law over the whole data series for the period considered, with no evidence of periodicity. We also observe that the number of conflicts, again normalized for the human population, show a decreasing trend as a function of time. Our results tend to support the idea that war is a statistical phenomenon related to the network structure of the human society.

Our contribution in this field consists in validating the Brecke conflict database (Brecke 2011)⁠, among the longest and most complete ones available. This analysis confirms previous work, see e.g. (Clauset 2018)⁠ , (Clauset and Gleditsch 2018)⁠ for a general discussion. The data indicate that power laws are common in the distribution of violent conflicts in human history – in this case, the trend is clear when the number of casualties is normalized for the increasing world population. Note also that the normalized number of conflicts per year tend to decrease with time – this result indicates that in modern times war have tended to become less frequent, but more destructive. In practice, these results confirm that there is little evidence supporting the idea popularized by Pinker (Pinker 2011)⁠ that humankind is progressing toward a more peaceful world. A new major conflict might be possible in a non-remote future, as discussed among others by Clauset (Clauset 2018)⁠. These results seem to indicate that human conflicts are a critical phenomenon: we could say that humans worldwide tend to form societies existing in a self-organized critical condition, as defined by Bak et al. (Per Bak, Tang, and Wiesenfeld 1988)⁠. In these conditions, war is simply one of the methods that the system has to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible speed (Kleidon, Malhi, and Cox 2010)⁠,(Trinn 2018). In other words, war appears to be an unavoidable consequence of the behavior of human beings, and perhaps of other primate species (de Waal 2000)⁠.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

When Jerusalem was in Tuscany. The Last Gasps of a Dying Empire

This post was previously published on "Chimeras." It is reproduced here with an introduction and some minor modifications

Did you know that in Italy there is a place called "Jerusalem in Tuscany?" In the monastery of "San Vivaldo," you can find a 16th-century sanctuary structured in such a way to make pilgrims go through an experience similar to that they would have by visiting the real Jerusalem. The sanctuary is still very much the same as it was when it was built, half a millennium ago.

The key feature of all empires is their centralized control over different social and economic subregions. Control is normally obtained by a combination of metal currency and military means, but that's not strictly necessary. Our modern Global Empire does not disdain the use of lethal force, but it is kept together largely by the soft communication techniques we call "propaganda" or, more recently, "consensus building." Some ancient empires were also based on communication techniques, in particular the Catholic Church which dominated Western Europe for about one millennium using its monopoly on Latin as regional 'lingua franca'. Here, I am examining the traces left by the last attempt of the Church to maintain its dominance by developing a completely new, image-based, communication system. It didn't work, but it was impressively modern and it compares well with our present icon-based communication systems. It may tell us something about where we are going in terms of the control of those large social organizations we call "states."

Imagine yourself in Europe during the late Middle Ages -- it was a different world for many reasons but one would perhaps be the most striking: language. Today, Europe is organized in terms of sharp borders of linguistic areas that usually correspond to national states. Inside the borders, there is one -- and only one -- "correct" language while dialects or minority languages are at best tolerated and often despised. But, in the world of the Middle Ages, languages varied smoothly as you moved from one village to another and, after a few hundred kilometers, people could barely understand each other. And, of course, there were fuzzy boundaries for the main language areas: the Latin, the Germanic, the Celtic, the Greek, the Slavic, and other minor ones. Europe was truly a Babel.

But there was a lingua franca that connected the various areas of Europe: Latin, an inheritance of the dead Roman Empire. The Romans had created a nearly homogeneous Latin-speaking language area that included most of Western Europe and of North Africa, while the rest of the Empire spoke Greek. That language unity had been lost with the fading of the empire, disappearing when its dominance tool, gold-based currency, had disappeared with the depletion of its gold mines.

But the loss had been only partial. In Western Europe, Latin was still thriving and, in a certain sense, the Empire was still alive. A new organization had taken the place of the Roman Empire, the Church, which proclaimed itself "Catholic" ("universal" from καθολικός) and used many of the same tools: its structure was patterned on the Imperial one, with the Pope in Rome playing the role of the Emperor, the overseers (bishops) playing the role of the Roman governors, and with Latin remaining the universal language, at least for Western Europe.

The difference was that the Church couldn't use military force to maintain its dominance: legionnaires had to be paid and that required hard currency which had disappeared in the metal-poor Europe of Middle Ages. So, the Church was a "soft" empire which never directly ruled Europe. It operated mainly influencing Feudal Rulers who needed overseers, interpreters, counselors, accountants, and the like. Latin was a fundamental tool for the role of the Church: a monk from Ireland would speak Gaelic with the other monks of his monastery, but he could speak in Latin with a visiting priest from Italy. And both could advise their local kings when it was the time for negotiations with some foreign warlord. All over Western Europe, a Church-based Latinized area had developed and it was the main cultural feature of Europe of the time.

But things always change and, sometimes, change fast. Europe's population kept growing during the Middle Ages, not smoothly but in a series of collapses and rebounds. By the mid 14th century, the "black death" had killed some 30 million Europeans, about one-third of the population of the time. Half a century later, Europe had recovered and the population was skyrocketing upward. It was the time of the great explorations, of the discovery of new lands, and of the return of abundant currency with gold coming from the Americas. The new wealth was creating new political structures: states much more powerful than the ragtag feudal kingdoms that had dominated Europe in earlier times.

With the economic changes, there came cultural changes. More people could afford to learn how to read and write and the monopoly of the Church on cultural matters was being threatened. Already during the early 14th century, Dante Alighieri wrote his "Comedy" not in Latin, the language of the intellectuals, but in Vernacular Italian: a language that the people of Florence could understand. But it was with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, in the mid 15th century, that things really took a different path. As long as a book had to be laboriously copied by hand by a scribe, it was an expensive tool for a class of specialists and it made no sense to write it in a language that wasn't Latin. The printing press made books affordable by people who were not part of the Church's clergy.

Revolutions always bring unexpected changes: the 15th-century European bourgeoisie who could afford printed books were not professional clergymen and few of them had studied Latin. Suddenly, a new market appeared: that of books printed in vernacular languages. Already in the late 15th century, Bibles in German were being printed and you know how Martin Luther published a German version of the Bible in 1522. That was, possibly, his most revolutionary act. With Bibles in their language, people didn't need anymore a priest to interpret the holy scriptures for them. The Latin-based Catholic Empire had suddenly become obsolete.

Of course, the Catholic Church didn't just sit and watch as it was being pushed into the waste bin of history. You know about the counter-reformation movement, the Council of Trento (1545- 1563), and the thirty-years war, up to recent times the bloodiest confrontation recorded in human history. With the counter-reformation, the Church reaffirmed the primacy of Latin as the language of choice, truly the sacred language of Europe.

But that couldn't work. Latin could be a lingua franca, a tool for understanding each other, but it was hardly a sacred language. Moslems could claim that God had spoken in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad. But never in the Christian scriptures you could read that God had spoken in Latin to anyone, He had spoken in Hebrew or, at most, in Aramaic. And the Christian prophets of the New Testament had used Greek. Latin could provide translations, but it wasn't the real thing.

So, the Catholic Church was fighting an impossible battle. It must be said that it put up a spirited resistance and that, during the 18th century, there was an attempt to revive Latin as a cultured language, for instance, Isaac Newton wrote his "Principia" in Latin in 1687. But it was a brief revival, the tumultuous growth of national states in Europe destroyed all attempts to keep Latin as a universal language. By the late 19th century, Europe was what it is today: an ensemble of nation-states whose behavior could be likened to that of a group of drunken psychopaths at a party, each one armed to the teeth and ready to start shooting at the others at the slightest hint of provocation. Engaged in their local quarrels, the European States managed to destroy themselves in a series of internecine wars and the result was the expansion of the American Empire and the dominance of English as the world's lingua franca during the second half of the 20th century. At that point, Latin had become a language as dead as ancient Sumerian.

During the transition from Latin to English, for the Catholic Church it was impossible to maintain the fiction of universality. During the Great War, Catholic Priests were blessing the Austrian and the Italian soldiers on the opposite sides of the frontline and encouraging them to kill each other in the name of the same God. That made no sense, obviously, and the Church eventually admitted defeat with the Second Vatican Council, (1962-1965), when permissions were granted to celebrate the Mass in vernacular languages. With the demise of Latin, priests from different regions of the world were now speaking to each other in English. It was the end of an age: the Catholic Church was not universal anymore.  Even though theoretically still a structure dominated by the Roman Papacy, it was to become what it is now: a loose network of national churches, not unlike the Protestant Churches it had been battling against so strongly. The Catholic cycle of domination over Western European history had lasted more than a millennium -- now it was over.

But let's go back to the 16th century, when the battle lines were just starting to be drawn. The Catholic Church didn't just resist change, it tried to fight back. It did so by using the weapons it had, in particular, its rich and varied tradition of iconography, from frescoes to nativity scenes. There was a reason for this tradition: the Church had been using a language - Latin - that was completely alien to many of its followers, so it had used images as a way to make the message more easily understandable. Christianity had moved along a path different than that of Islam, which had instead capitalized on the capability of the Ummah of understanding, at least in part, Classical Arabic, the language of the Holy Quran. So, when the Latin-based claims to universality were threatened, the Church reacted with a bold move: trying to develop a new universal language. It was to be a purely iconographic one. 

This is what the sanctuary of San Vivaldo was: an original attempt to develop a new language, one that would bypass the Protestant target of the literate elites to speak directly to the illiterate masses (as we would call them today). The images of the sanctuary show strictly no text -- they are purely visual icons, based on color, movement, postures, expressions. They are very simple and direct, similar to our modern comic strips.

We can imagine that the visitors of the various chapels were accompanied by guides explaining to them what they were seeing in their vernacular language -- these guides would play the role of the "text balloons" in our modern comics. And the full-immersion experience would have been remarkable in a world that had none of the modern graphical tricks: movies and newspapers. 

Did it work as planned? For us, some five centuries after that San Vivaldo was created, it is difficult to judge. There are many "Holy Mountains" in Europe which attempt to provide the same kind of emotional experience that San Vivaldo does, all based on simple and high-impact dioramas. At least one more "Italian Jerusalem" exists in Val Sesia, the Holy Mount of Varallo, also based on dramatic and colored 3D images, as you see below.

Over time, with the development of the popular press and of TV, these sanctuaries lost importance and became obsolete. They were forgotten, although many of them still exist, scattered all over Europe. But the basic idea remains that of providing a non-text communication that bypasses the need for translation. Isn't it exactly what we are doing with the icon-based signs that you can find almost everywhere, today? 

Then, the development of machine translation may soon make universal languages obsolete. It is not a perfect technology, but today it is already good enough to turn the world from a Babel tower to a sort of gigantic train station. The new communication technologies may succeed in making writing and speech fully user-transparent: the interface will transform our input in whatever vernacular we happen to speak into a different vernacular understood by the person on the other side of the system. Is this the ultimate Esperanto? And what effect will it have on the seemingly all-powerful nation-states of today, so fond of warring and of killing people? 

Impossible to say, but, as usual, we are running into the future without ever wondering if we really want to go there. 


Note: I went to San Vivaldo in 2017, the place is truly impressive and nearly unknown. If you have a chance to visit Tuscany, by all means, take this less beaten path and enjoy this special jewel of Tuscan history.


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)