Monday, January 20, 2020

How to Predict the Future: Confessions of a Modern Cassandra

Telling the truth has always been dangerous and the original Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess, had to suffer the consequences for what she said. But there is a more interesting question: how did she manage to be right while everyone else got it wrong? Here I tell you of my experience as a modest 21st century Cassandra, with my blog. (if you like to hear the story told by the prophetess herself, you can read it here and here.)

It is traditional at the start of a new year to make predictions, but this time I would rather go back to what I have been doing for the past more than 15 years of blogging and social media activity. I have been dealing with several different subjects and, in some cases, I made predictions or I offered my assessments. How right (or wrong) was I?

I think my record was not so bad as a Cassandra. And from this record, I think there are three rules for good (let's say decent) predictions:

1. Always trust thermodynamics
2. Always mistrust claims of marvelous new technologies
3. Always remember that the system has unpredictable tipping points

So, below you'll find a list of what I think were my main successes and failures.

So, let's start with where I was right.  

2002 - The Hydrogen Economy is a Hoax. 2002 is the year when Rifkin published his book titled "The Hydrogen Economy." I had been working on hydrogen and fuel cells for some time while at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, in Berkeley, and I knew very well that things were not so easy as Rifkin painted them in his book. But, in the beginning, I have to confess that I tried to follow the crowd in search of research grants. Then, I thought it over and I decided that I had to say what I thought: this idea won't work. And I was right: 20 years later, no trace of the hydrogen economy, no hydrogen vehicles on the road, no production of hydrogen from renewable energy. Here is a 2007 post of mine on this subject

2003. No Nuclear Weapons in Iraq.  I don't think I even had a blog at that time. But I did write an assessment of mine in Italian on whether it was likely that Iraq could have had WMDs in the form of nuclear weapons. My conclusion was that it was not possible: Iraq lacked the conditions and the infrastructures needed. As a result, I was vilified in various ways and told that if I liked Iraq so much why didn't I go live there? But you know how it ended. I haven't been able to find that article of mine, but it is mentioned in this post.

2005. The compressed air car (The Eolo) is a scam.  The car running on compressed air is an idea that remained alive in Europe for some 10 years, starting in 2005. A French inventor, Guy Negré, claimed that he could mass-produce a vehicle that he called the "Eolo" that could compete with other technologies in terms of price and performance. I was a skeptical from the very beginning on the basis of some simple calculations. And I was right. More than 10 years later, Mr. Negré is no more with us, but his Eolo car never appeared on roads.

2006. Electric Cars are the future. Already in 2005, I bought myself an electric scooter and I started writing articles where I promoted electric vehicles as a good technology that could alleviate several problems we have: traffic, pollution, climate change, etc. I was right in thinking that EVs would become fashionable, even though it took some time for decision-makers to understand the point. Even today, EVs face strong resistance from an unholy alliance of oil companies, carmakers, and environmentalists. But they are going to replace traditional vehicles in the coming years.

2008. Oil prices will go down. You remember how, in 2008, oil prices had started a rally leading the barrel to be priced at $150. There was a moment of panic in which everyone was expecting prices to keep climbing even higher. They forgot that prices are the result of a compromise between offer and demand and that, since demand cannot be infinite, prices can't, either. So, in 2008 I published a post on "The Oil Drum" where I argued in this sense and I proposed that prices would go down. It was what happened.

2011. Andrea Ross's e-cat is a scam. In 1989, I had witnessed the first claims of "cold fusion." The story swept through the scientific world like a tsunami, but it turned out to have been a mistake. It also triggered infinite attempts of imitation, some of which were outright scams. One was the story of the "E-Cat" invented by Andrea Rossi in Italy. After some initial attempts of assessment, it was clear to me that it was a total hoax, and I said that more than once. Actually, it should have been clear to everybody, but Rossi generated a group of faithful followers who engaged, among other things, in insulting and vilifying the unbelievers. Now, almost 10 years after the first claim by Rossi that he would soon start mass-producing his machine, I think it can be said that it was a hoax. Find the story here.

2011. The Limits to Growth was Right!  In 2011, I published my first assessments of the story of "The Limits to Growth," study and later on, in 2014, a book titled "The Limits to Growth Revisited," my first book in English. I re-examined the whole story how of the study was rejected and demonized, widely described as containing "wrong predictions". I concluded that there was nothing wrong in the book and that its rejection was one of the first examples of a negative PR campaign designed to discredit scientific results that were considered harmful to some political or industrial lobby. My assessment was among the first studies that led to a re-evaluation of the study that's still ongoing. It is still early to say if one or another of the 12 scenarios published in the 1972 book was "right" but there is no doubt that the study is now considered a milestone in the understanding of complex systems, as it deserves to be. In this sense, I had made a correct prediction.

2016. The "Sower's Way:" Photovoltaic Energy is the future. Here, I have been always a sustainer of PV energy, since 2005, when I placed PV panels on the roof of my house. I think I was right too, especially when PV reached "grid parity" with other technologies producing electric power. But it is moving onward. I marked the "2016" date because it is when I published a paper dealing with the concept of the "Sower's Way," that is, that we need to invest fossil energy to build up the new renewable energy infrastructure. We are moving in that direction, although facing a dogged resistance by groups of greenies who have decided that we all have to die in the darkness.

Now some cases in which I turned out to be wrong.

2003 -- Peak oil in 2010. Here, I don't think I ever made a peak date prediction myself, but I have been a "peak oiler," among other things the president of the Italian section of ASPO, the association for the study of peak oil. So, I have to share the blame for the two mistakes that peakers made. The first was to focus on the "peak" as if it was an equivalent of the apocalypse and spending inordinate amounts of time to try to predict the exact date when it would arrive. The second was to underestimate the importance that "non-conventional" oil could have had. We didn't realize that shale oil is not so much an economic resource as it is a strategic dominance weapon. There have been several predictions (including mine) that the shale "bubble" was going to burst, but so far it has not.

2005 -- EROI is a metric that can help us choose the best alternatives for the future.  When I discovered the concept of EROI (energy returned on energy investment) or EROEI (energy return on energy invested), developed by Odum and Hall, it was a small epiphany for me: here is an objective, scientific, rational way to evaluate the best technologies for the future. I wrote my first paper on the subject in 2005, and it became rather popular in Italy. Well, I didn't imagine what the reptilian part of human brains could do when it understood what EROI was and what could it be used for. The concept was stretched, massacred, mongrelized, cut to pieces and made into a stew, and more. Whoever had an interest in making a certain technology look good could find ways to juggle the numbers and assign to it a high EROI. The reverse was also possible. So, you can find studies that assign an EROI <1 to photovoltaics and > 100 to nuclear energy, and also the reverse. At this point, EROI has become a useless metric, destroyed by too much politics applied to it.

2009 -- High Altitude Wind Energy: the Kitegen. In 2009, I published on the Oil Drum a very positive assessment of high altitude wind energy, in particular of the prototype being developed in Italy, called the Kitegen. I was way too optimistic. High altitude wind power turned out to be much more difficult to develop than it had seemed to be at the beginning. There is nothing in the idea that goes against the laws of physics but, evidently, there are big problems, probably related to the control of the kites. Today, 10 years later, high altitude wind energy remains an unfulfilled promise, even though there still exist companies engaged in the field. I continue to think that this technology can play a role in the future, but it won't be the game-changer it seemed to be 10 years ago.

2019 - Greta Thunberg: the unexpected storm.  In 2018 I published a post in which I examined the trends of the "climate change" meme, concluding that the public interest for it was declining and that soon nobody would have been interested in it anymore. I was wrong: in 2019 Greta Thunberg appeared, changing everything. As I wrote in a later post, I made the classic mistake that all forecasters make: thinking that past trends will also be future trends. Sometimes it is true, at times it is deadly wrong, as in this case. It is curious to note how the young Swedish lady has been playing in the real world the role that Asimov's character, "The Mule" played in the "Foundation" series: something outside statistics and unpredictable by models.


There may be more things wrong and right that I said, after all, I calculated that I infested the Web with something like 3 million words, up to now! So, if you remember something I wrote that was egregiously wrong or right, tell me in the comments, I'll see to add it as a note to this post.

Overall, maybe I could have done better, but I think that if Lady Cassandra is seeing me from wherever she is now, in Hades, she may be nodding in approval!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Climate Change: A Concise Assessment of What we are Risking.

The text below is a translation of a post that I published in the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano" about two months ago. The idea was to provide a concise statement on the climate situation (no more than 650 words allowed).  I tried to emphasize the risks involved with the "climate tipping points" and criticize the common idea that, since "the Earth's climate has always been changing,"  there follows that "human activities can't affect climate". I can't really say what impact this article may have had -- normally my posts on "Il Fatto" score a few thousand clicks. But, if you have the time to read the comments (78 in total), you may notice that many commenters were not even vaguely touched by my arguments and continued repeating their typical statements, "where is the proof?" "These are just models," "Nobody knows exactly what's the climate sensitivity factor," "The Club of Rome made wrong predictions," etc.  And so it goes....

The failure of the Madrid climate negotiations, the Cop25, was not really unexpected. Even today, very few people, be they politicians or citizens, understand the risks of what's happening, and those who do are accused of "alarmism". But how long can we carry on as if nothing is happening? What do we risk if we do nothing?

The answer is that we risk much more than we can afford. Many studies tell us
this, among others also a recent article published in Nature titled "Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against." Even without going into the details, the title is clear enough to understand that the matter is becoming dramatic. But why so much concern among scientists?

We can summarize the problem in one short sentence: the Earth's climate is unstable. It is something that is emerging with ever greater force from all studies in climate science. Of course, the fact that the climate always changes is a favorite argument of those who deny climate science. Their reasoning is: "the climate has always changed, therefore man has nothing to do with it." Wrong, very wrong: what we learn from past climate changes is instead that the Earth's climate changes easily and, therefore, is not so difficult to change it. And that's where the risk is.

Today the climate seems stable to us because human civilization has developed over a period of about 10,000 years of modest changes in temperature. Some people enjoy speculating about these small variations, for instance discussing how Hannibal's elephants could cross the Alps. Maybe, at the time, it was a bit warmer than today, but they must have had quite some problems with freezing trunks.

But, if we go further back in time, we see that the Earth's climate has seen real, strong, and dramatic changes. In the past, over a span of about a million years, our planet has seen episodes of intense glaciation interspersed with relatively warm periods, such as the one we live in today. In the more distant past, the Earth saw much more radical and catastrophic changes.

To push the Earth from a glacial period to an interglacial one does not take much: small perturbations are enough, the so-called "Milankovitch cycles", related to asymmetries of the movement of the earth around the sun. But what humans are causing with their greenhouse gas emissions and other factors is a much stronger perturbation that drives us to a warmer, much warmer, planet.

What could happen then? There is talk of temperatures
high enough to destabilize the ice caps at the poles and make them disappear. It would not be the first time that the Earth has no ice at the poles, on the contrary, it is a condition that has occurred commonly in the distant past. But, if the biosphere can live even without ice, our civilization has developed with icecaps at the poles, in climatic conditions that have made possible agriculture, trade, maritime transport, and more.

To create enormous damage to us, we don't even need that the icecaps disappear completely. It is enough to lose an important fraction of the ice to change everything: the sea level would rise to submerge existing ports, then we would see acidification and oceanic anoxia, desertification, mass extinctions and a few more effects that would imperil the survival of human civilization difficult, if not actually of our species.

This is the reason for the great concern: it is not so much the fact that the temperature increases, it is that we face the risk of jumping sharply from one climatic state to another without knowing where we will end up. However, we continue to discuss without taking action: few realize that we risk much more than we can afford.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Iran, Oil, and War: The End of the Carter Doctrine?

The "Oil Corridor," where the largest oil resources in the world are located. It was generated by events that took place during the Jurassic period. Those events can't be affected by politics, but they can affect politics.

For a while, the situation with the USA-Iran standoff looked like a scene in an old Western movie:  two drunken gunmen facing each other in the saloon. Fortunately, things calmed down and, for this time, it seems that no war on Iran is in sight, at least in the short term. Perhaps we have been lucky, perhaps some benevolent deity took care of the situation, or, perhaps, there is a logic in these events.

History often moves along the whim of leaders but even mad leaders must take into account reality. And this seems to be what happened in this case. It is possible that we are seeing the end of the "Carter Doctrine" that was stated in 1980. The idea was, and it is still today, that the control of the Middle East is of "vital interest" for the US. That was based on reality as it was in 1980, now reality is different and so there is a reason for the change. But let's see the whole story from the beginning.

It all started long ago, during the Jurassic period, when the slow sedimentation of an ancient sea created a strip of oil fields that goes from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, in central Eurasia, all the way South to Yemen, crossing Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other states of the region. It is there that most of the world's oil is. More than 20% of all the oil produced today goes through the narrow strait of Hormuz, a critical point of the world's geopolitical map.

So, back to the early 1980s, the US had been the dominant world power for nearly four decades after the victory in World War II. As usual, geography is the mother of empires, and it was because of its vast national oil resources that the US could come to play that role. But oil production in the US had peaked in 1970 and was declining. No oil, no Empire. It was necessary to find new resources and the Middle East region was the richest in the world. A natural target.

The struggle for the Oil of the Middle East had already started in the 1950s, when the prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq, was overthrown in 1953 by a coup orchestrated by the United States. Then, there was the period in which the US more or less controlled the Iran government using the Shah as a proxy. Then there came the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 and the result was the toppling of the Shah. At that point, in 1980, President Carter stated his "doctrine" -- really nothing more than a description of what had been going on up to then.

You know the troubled story of the Middle East in the years that followed. The disastrous Iraq-Iran war (1980 - 1988). The US going "boots on the ground" first in Kuwait in 1991, then invading Iraq in 2003. At that time (and also later on) it was fashionable to say that "boys can go to Baghdad, but real men want to go to Tehran." Maybe it was a joke, but it could have been deadly serious. It is part of the logic of empires to expand.

Eventually, the invasion of Iran never took place and it looks like it never will. It is, again, the way Empires function. They are like a tide, they ebb and flow. The American Empire flowed into Iraq, now it is ebbing back. Most commenters of the recent events agree that we are seeing the first stages of the US bringing their troops at home. It will take time, but it is written on the walls of the Martyr Monument in Baghdad. 

Apart from the antics of the madmen in power, there is a logic in the US abandoning Iraq. Someone, somewhere in Washington D.C., must have asked the question: "why exactly do we keep troops in Iraq?" Yes, why? The typical answer up to not long ago would have been "to secure the oil." But things have changed. The once very abundant oil resources of the Middle East are unavoidably being depleted. Some producers, Syria and Yemen, are already in terminal decline. Of the others, none has the capability of significantly increasing production and all are expected to go into decline in the coming years (you may have heard of the recent discovery of "53 billion barrels" of oil in Iran. Yes, and they also found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow).

At the same time, the US really found a pot of black gold in shale oil, to the point that during the past few years they managed to increase their oil production to levels higher than the earlier 1970 peak. That shale oil is a good deal in economic terms is questionable, to say the least. But the US elites have become convinced not only that they are truly self-sufficient in terms of energy, but that this self-sufficiency will continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever because shale oil is seen as practically infinite. And they see shale oil as a strategic dominance weapon.

At this point, many things start making sense: the oil from the Middle East is not anymore a "vital interest" for the US as it was at the times of Jimmy Carter. So, why pay good money to keep troops there? Those troops are useful only to those spineless Europeans who still depend on oil imports, but why should America pay? Besides, in the current situation, American troops are just sitting ducks waiting for the next rain of missiles coming from those bearded fanatics. So, let's bring the troops back home. Then, we'll be able to assassinate anyone at will in the region without fearing for retaliation. 

And that seems to be how things stand, for now -- unless someone makes some mistake and the fireworks restart. But it is a confirmation that it is geography that creates empires and, also that the geography of oil keeps changing. We'll see more changes in the future, the only sure thing is that, unlike what some people believe, oil is not infinite.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Profession of Arms: Of Vile Leaders and Courageous Ones

Above, you can see an amazing clip from the 2001 movie by Ermanno Olmi "The Profession of Arms". It is the story of the march on Rome of the German Landsknechts led by Georg von Frundsberg in 1526. They were faced by an army commanded by Giovanni de' Medici, known as Giovanni Dalle Bande Nere (Italian: Giovanni of the Black Bands). Giovanni was killed in battle near Mantua on Nov 30, 1526, while Von Frundsberg's army went on to sack Rome in 1527.

The movie has defects, like all movies, and the attempt to cast Giovanni de Medici as an early patriot means stretching the historical reality more than a little. But it remains a beautiful and intense movie. It manages to make you feel like you were in battle yourself in an age when firearms had just started to make armor obsolete. It was, possibly, the last period in history when leaders fought on the front line.

The scene of Giovanni's death summarizes the whole movie. It shows the two enemy commanders facing each other for a few moments and saluting each other before starting the battle where Giovanni will be mortally wounded. It may not be a completely realistic scene, but its intensity is unbelievable. It grips your attention from the first instant to the last. And it has a deep meaning that you can't miss.

Maybe Giovanni de Medici was not a hero, maybe he was just a mercenary, and he might have had plenty of human failings. But a hero is someone who does his duty when facing difficult tasks and the historical Giovanni de' Medici did just that, personally facing his enemies in battle. Just for this, we are authorized to remember him as a hero.

Things have changed from those ancient times and weapons are not the same as they were. But there remains a duty for a leader to take upon himself the risks and the consequences of is actions. If he does, he will be remembered and revered. If he doesn't, he will be considered a spineless coward, as he deserves to be.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Leader Assassination in the Age of Drones: A Suggestion for an Invulnerable President

Captain Birds Eye and his fish sticks. He is a reassuring, fatherly, positive presence. Why don't we elect him as president? The advantage is that he can't be assassinated since he doesn't exist. 

Long ago, leaders used to fight on the frontline with their troops. Everything changed with the invention of firearms, when the leaders discovered that they were magnets for enemy fire and they had to distance themselves from the frontline. Napoleon used to stay at a safe distance from the battlefield, although close enough that he could see what was going on. More than a century later, during WW2, Adolf Hitler spent most of his time secluded in his bunker in Berlin. In 2003, Saddam Hussein barely managed to survive the American bombing by moving frequently and hiding in bunkers.

But the life of the leaders is dangerous also in peacetime. 4 US presidents out of a total of 45 have been assassinated while in office. It corresponds to a probability of about 9%. As a comparison, American soldiers in Iraq had just a 0.4% probability to die during the 2003 invasion. Most high-level leaders take extreme precautions nowadays to avoid all risks, rarely appearing in public, if ever.

But, with the arrival of drone technologies, things have changed for the worse for leaders. The recent assassination of Commander Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad is a case in point. Targeting him using a drone was surprisingly easy and it carried almost no risks for the people who had planned the assassination. Drones are inexpensive and accurate weapons: no government in the world has a monopoly on military drone technology. It doesn't even need to be a drone belonging to a specific armed force: it could be bought, hired, or hacked. So, what would happen if a drone were to "take out," say, President Trump while he plays golf in Palm Beach?

The assassination in Bagdad has suddenly made the life of all high-level government officers a nightmare. They are not safe anywhere from rogue drones targeting them. Will they have to spend their life hidden in bunkers? Maybe, but perhaps there is a better way: go into secrecy. Imagine that nobody really knows for sure who is the president of the United States. It is rumored that he might be someone named Donald Trump, but most people think it is highly improbable that such a person could really be the US president. So, what sense would it make to drone him?

Farfetched? Maybe, but think about this: it is the way mafia works. You never know who the real mafia bosses are, although there are rumors about this or that person being one of them. That means they are hard to target. Are governments different from the mafia? I would say not. They are mostly criminal organizations dominated by powerful economic lobbies. So, why not to adopt the strategies that the ancient mafia has honed to near perfection over centuries of struggle?

If governments are shady organizations dedicated to criminal activities, then it makes sense for the high profile bosses to quietly disappear from the public view, just as mafia bosses do. It is already likely that most of our leaders are just front men for powerful forces hiding behind, then why not go one step further and turn them into virtual leaders? Yes, something like Captain Birds Eye, the mascot of fish sticks. Actually, he would make an excellent figure for a president: he looks fatherly, dependable, charismatic, and more. And he would be impossible to assassinate since he doesn't exist. At best, you could assassinate one of the actors playing him, but by using deep-fake technologies you don't even need actors. The president can be completely virtual.

Now, you may think that people will never accept to be ruled by a virtual president. Maybe, but consider that most people, especially in the US, are used to take orders and counsel from a non-existing being. It would take very little to convince them that a virtual president is the best for them. You could even tell them that they can choose their president they like. How about Captain Birds Eye pitted against Ronald McDonald in the next presidential elections?

Eventually, most government officers could become virtual. Maybe it wouldn't be a worse world than the present one, although it might be a little confusing. But it already is, anyway. Don't you have the sensation that you are living in a videogame? Yes, one of these games where a monster appears every time you turn a corner. And now that I think about that, see, I was discussing about virtual leaders created by deep fake technology. So, about Donald Trump. . . .


The name "Captain Birds Eye" is a registered trademark of Birds Eye, an international brand of frozen food. The use of this term in this post is not intended to indicate an association with or sponsorship by Birds Eye, nor is it intended to disparage their fine products. (and I hope you read Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Breakfast of Champions." (1973). If you didn't, do it, it is worth reading)

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Collapse of the American Empire. What Future for Humankind?

These notes are not supposed to disparage nor to exalt an entity that has a history that goes back to at least a couple of millennia ago. Like all Empires, past and present, the Modern World Empire went through its parable of growth and glory and it is now starting its decline. There is not much that we can do about it, we have to accept that this is the way the universe works. On this subject, see also a previous post of mine "Why Europe Conquered the World "

For everything that exists, there is a reason and that's true also for that gigantic thing that we call sometimes "The West" or perhaps "The American Empire," or maybe "Globalization." To find that reason, we may go back to the very origins of the modern empire. We can find them in an older, but already very advanced, empire: the Roman one.

As someone might have said (and maybe someone did, but it might be an original concept of mine), "geography is the mother of Empires." Empires are built on the availability of natural resources and on the ability to transport them. So, the Romans exploited the geography of the Mediterranean basin to build an empire based on maritime transportation. Rome was the center of a hub of commerce that outcompeted every other state in the Western region of Eurasia and North Africa. This transportation system was so important that it was even deified under the name of the Goddess Annona. It was kept together by a financial system based on coinage, Latin as lingua franca, a large military system, and a legal system very advanced for the time.

Like all empires, though, the Roman one carried inside the seeds of its own destruction. The empire peaked at some moment during the 1st century of our era, then it started declining. It was the result of a combination of related factors: the depletion of the precious metal mines that deprived the Empire of its currency, the growth of the Silk Road that siphoned the Roman wealth to China, the overexploitation of the North-African agriculture that fed the Roman cities. No money, no resources, no food: the Empire could only collapse and it did.

The old Roman Empire left a ghostly shadow over Europe, so persistent that for almost two millennia people tried to recreate it one way or another. But it was not possible, again it was a question of geography. The Roman intensive agriculture had so badly damaged the North-African soil that it could never recover -- still, it hasn't. The loss of the fertile soil on the southern shore divided the Mediterranean sea into two halves: the green and still fertile Northern part, and the dry and barren Southern part. Nevertheless, there were several attempts to rebuild the ancient economic and political unity of the basin. The Arabic caliphate built a Southern Mediterranean Empire based on Arabic as the Lingua Franca and on Islam as the common cultural ground. But the expansion of Islam never reached Western Europe. Its economic base was weak: the North African agriculture just couldn't support the population level that would have been needed to control the whole Mediterranean basin. The same destiny befell, later on, on the Turkish Empire.

On the Northern side of the Mediterranean sea, Europe was a region that the ancient Romans had always considered mostly a periphery. With the Roman Empire gone, Northern Europe was freed to develop by itself. It was the period that we call the "dark ages," a misnomer if ever there was one. The dark ages were a new civilization that exploited some of the cultural and technological structures inherited from Rome but that also developed original ones. The lack of gold and silver made it impossible for Europeans to keep Europe together by military means. They had to rely on subtler and more sophisticated methods that, nevertheless, were patterned over the old Roman structures. Cultural unity was insured by Christianity, with the church even creating a new form of currency not based on precious metals but on the relics of holy men and women. The church also was the keeper of Latin, the old Roman language that became the European the Lingua Franca, the only tool that allowed Europeans to understand each other.

In this way, the Europeans created a gentle and sophisticated civilization. They could maintain the rule of law and they gave back to women some of the rights that they had lost during the Roman Empire. Witch-burning, endemic in the Roman Empire, couldn't be completely abolished, but its frequency was reduced to nearly zero. Slavery was formally abolished, although it never actually disappeared. Material wealth was de-emphasized, in favor of spiritual wealth, art and literature flourished as much as they could in a poor region as Europe was at that time. Wars didn't disappear, but the early Middle Ages were a relatively quiet period with the Church maintaining a certain degree of control over the worst excesses of the local warlords. The Arthurian cycle emphasized how errant knights were fighting to perform good deeds and to defend the weak. It was put in writing only in the late Middle Ages, but it had been part of the European dreamscape from much earlier times.

But things never stand still. During the Middle Ages, the European population and the European economy were growing together exploiting a relatively intact territory. Soon, the gentle civilization of the early Middle Ages gave way to something that was not gentle at all. With the turn of the millennium, Europe was overpopulated and Europeans started looking for areas where to expand. The crusades started with the 11th century and were a new attempt to re-unify the Mediterranean basin. Europe was even equipping itself with international structures that could have governed the new Mediterranean Empire: the chivalric orders. Of these, the Templars were an especially interesting structure: in part a military society, but also a bank and a cultural center, all based on Latin as lingua franca. The idea was that the new Mediterranean Empire would be governed by a supranational organization, not unlike the old Roman Empire.

But the crusades were an expensive failure. The military effort had to be supported by the main economic resources of the time: forests and agricultural land. Both were badly overstrained and the result was an age of famines and pestilences that nearly halved the European population. It was a new collapse that took place during the 14th century. It was bad enough that we may imagine that the descendants of the Sultan Salah ad-Din could have stricken back and conquered Europe, had they not been stabbed in the back by the expanding Mongol empire.

The European Population: graph from William E Langer, "The Black Death" Scientific American, February 1964, p. 117 -- note how growth is faster after the collapse than it was before.

But Europeans were stubborn. Despite the 14th century collapse, they kept using the same trick they had been using before to rebuild after a disaster: patterning new structures on the old ones. The Europeans were good warriors, skilled shipbuilders, excellent merchants, and always willing to take risks in order to make money. They keep doing what they were good at doing and, if they couldn't expand into the East, why not expand West, across the Atlantic Ocean? It was a wildly successful idea. Europeans imported gunpowder technology from China and used it to build fearsome weapons. With their newly mastered gunnery skills, they created a new kind of ship, the cannon-armed galleon. It was a dominance weapon: a galleon could sail everywhere ad blast away all opposition. A century after the great pestilence, the European population was growing again, faster than before. And, this time, the Europeans were embarking on the task of conquering the world.

Over a few centuries, Europeans behaved as worldwide marauders: explorers, merchants, pirates, colonists, empire builders, and more. They sailed everywhere and wherever they sailed, they dominated the sea and, from the sea, they dominated the land. But who were they? Europe never gained a political unity nor it embarked on an effort to create a politically unified empire. While fighting non-European populations, Europeans were also fighting each other for the spoils. The only supranational governing entity they had was the Catholic Church, but it was an obsolete tool for the new times. By the 16th century, the Catholic Church was not anymore a keeper of relics, it was a relic itself. The final blow to it came from the invention of the printing press that enormously lowered the cost of books. That led to a market for books written in vernacular language and that was the end of Latin as a European lingua franca. The result was the reformation by Martin Luther, in 1517: the power of the Catholic Church was broken forever. Now, European states had what they wanted: a free hand to expand where they wanted.

As you may have imagined, the result of this "battle royal" historical phase was a new disaster. The European states jumped at each other's throat engaging in the "30-years war" (1618 – 1648). Half Europe was laid waste, plagues and famines reappeared, food production plummeted down, and with it population. Europeans were not just fighting against each other in the form of warring states. European men were fighting against European women: it was the time of witch-burning, tens of thousands of innocent European women were jailed, tortured, and burned at the stake. With its forests cut and the agricultural land eroded by overexploitation, there was a distinct possibility that the age of the European world empire was over forever. It was not.

Just like a stroke of luck had saved Europe after the first collapse of the 14th century, another nearly miraculous event saved Europe from the 18th century collapse. This miracle had a name: coal. It was a European economist of the 19th century, William Jevons, who had noted that "with coal, everything is easy." And with coal Europeans could solve most of their problems: coal could be used in place of wood to smelt metals and make weapons. This saved the European forests (but not for Spain, which had no cheap coal and whose empire floundered slowly). Then, coal could be turned into food using an indirect but effective technology. Coal was used to smelt iron and produce weapons. With weapons, new lands were conquered and the inhabitants enslaved. The slaves would then cultivate plantations and produce food to be shipped to Europe. It was the time when the British developed their habit of tea in the afternoon: the tea, the sugar, and the flour for the cakes were all produced in the British plantations overseas.

And the cycle continued. The European population restarted growing during the 18th century and, by the end of the 19th century, the feat of conquering the world was nearly complete. The 20th century saw a consolidation of what we can now call the "Western Empire" with the term "West" denoting a cultural entity that by now was not just European: it encompassed the United States, Australia, South Africa, and a few more states -- including even Asiatic countries such as Japan which, in 1905, gained a space among the world powers by force of arms, soundly defeating a traditional European power, Russia, at the naval battle of Tsushima. From a military viewpoint, the Western Empire was a reality. There remained the need of turning it into a political entity. All empires need an emperor, but the West didn't have one, not yet.

The final phase of the building of the Western World Empire took place with the two world wars of the 20th century. Those were true civil wars fought for imperial dominance, similar to the civil wars of ancient Rome at the time of Caesar and Augustus. Out of these wars, a clear winner emerged: the United States. After 1945, the Empire had a common currency (the dollar), a common language (English), a capital (Washington DC) and an emperor, the president of the United States. More than all that, it had acquired a powerful propaganda machine, the one we call today "consensus building." It built a narrative that described WW2 as a triumph of good against evil -- the latter represented by Nazi Germany. This narrative remains today the funding myth of the Western Empire. The only rival empire left, the Soviet Empire, collapsed in 1991, leaving the American Empire as the sole dominant power of the world. Also that was seen as proof of the inherent goodness of the American Empire. It was then that Francis Fukuyama wrote his "The End of History," (1992) correctly describing the events he was witnessing. Just like when Emperor Octavianus ushered the age of the "Pax Romana," it was the beginning of a new golden age: the "Pax Americana"

Alas, history never ends and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, all empires carry inside themselves the seeds of their own destructions. Just a few decades have passed from the time when Fukuyama had claimed the end of history and the Pax Americana seems to be already over. The Western world dominance had been based first on coal, then on oil, now trying to switch to gas, but all these are finite resources becoming more and more expensive to produce. Just like Rome had followed the decline of its gold mines, the West is following follow the decline of the wells it controls. The dollar is losing its role of world currency and the Empire is under threat by a new commercial system. Just as the ancient silk road was a factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire, the nascent "road and belt initiative" that will connect Eurasia as a single commercial region may give the final blow to the Globalized dominance of the West.

To be sure, the Western Empire, although in its death throes, is not dead yet. It still has its wondrous propaganda machine working. The great machine has even been able to convince most people that the empire doesn't actually exist, that everything they see being done to them is done for their good and that foreigners are starved and bombed with the best of good intentions. It is a remarkable feat that reminds something that a European poet, Baudelaire, said long ago: "the Devil's best trick consists in letting you believe he doesn't exist." It is typical of all structures to turn nasty during their decline, it happens even to human beings. So, we may be living in an "Empire of Lies" that's destroying itself by trying to build its own reality. Except that the real reality always wins.

And there we are, today. Just like the old Roman Empire, the Western Empire is going through its cycle and the decline has already started. So, at this point, we could hazard some kind of moral judgment: was the Western Empire good or bad? In a sense, all empires are bad: they tend to be ruthless military organizations that engage in all kinds of massacres, genocides, and destruction. Of the Roman empire, we remember the extermination of the Chartaginese as an example, but it was not the only one. Of the Western Empire, we have many examples: possibly the most evil one being the genocide of the North-American Indians, but such things as the extermination of civilian by aerial bombing of cities during WW2 was also impressively evil. And the (evil) Empire doesn't seem to have lost its taste for genocide, at least as it can be judged from some recent declarations by members of the American government about starving Iranians.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to maintain that Westerners are more evil than people belonging to other cultures. If history tells us something, it is that people tend to become evil when they have a chance to do so. The West created many good things, from polyphonic music to modern science and, during this last phase of its history, it is leading the struggle to keep the Earth alive -- a girl such as Greta Thunberg is a typical example of the "good West" as opposed to the "evil West."

Overall, all empires in history are more or less the same. They are like waves crashing on a beach: some are large, some small, some do damage, some just leave traces on the sand. The Western Empire did more damage than others because it was larger, but it was not different. We have to accept that the universe works in a certain way: never smoothly, always going up and down and, often, going through abrupt collapses, as the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca had noted long ago. Being the current empire so large, the transition to whatever will come after us needs to be more abrupt and more dramatic than anything seen in history before. But, just like it was the case for ancient Rome, the future may well be a gentler and saner age than the current one. And the universe will go on as it has always done.

Friday, December 27, 2019

The Christmas Torches of Abbadia: Sustainable Resource Management According to an Ancient Traditions

This clip is my first attempt at a video on the subject of this blog, resource management. The results are, well, not so great: it is dark and the audio is not very good. I'll see to do better next time, but it seems to me that the clip is at least understandable and it gives some idea of the atmosphere of the torch burning festival of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore in Italy. In the video, I make some comments on the reasons for this tradition, but you can also read the text, below. Many thanks to Viola Calignano for filming.

An ancient tradition of the town of Abbadia San Salvadore, in Tuscany, involves a spectacular festival of wood burning that takes place the night before Christmas. This year, 28 wood torches ("fiaccole") went up in flames, most of them several meters tall and burning well into the next morning. I was there, guest of a family of Badenghi, the way the inhabitants of the place call themselves.

The event was truly fascinating, not a spectacle for tourists but something deeply felt by the locals. It is said that this tradition goes back to more than a millennium ago, to the times of Charlemagne. But why celebrate Christmas by burning so much wood to heat nothing in particular? I have to say that I found the question perplexing, considering that I often try to explain to people that biomass burning is not a solution to the energy problem. But then, after some head-scratching, I think I understood the reasons for this tradition. 

First of all, there is a certain fascination in seeing things burning. I think this is something that goes back to our paleolithic ancestors and that we still carry in our genes. But it is more than that. The Abbadia tradition is, actually, something akin to the "potlatch" of the North-Western native Americans. You probably know what a potlatch is, but let me report a description from Wikipedia, here.
 A potlatch involves giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader's wealth and power. Potlatches are also focused on the reaffirmation of family, clan, and international connections, and the human connection with the supernatural world.
Clearly, this is a perfect description of the Fiaccole festival in Abbadia San Salvatore. It is a form of potlatch, where people demonstrate their wealth by wasting some of the resources that make them live, wood.

Think about that from the perspective of what Abbadia must have been during the Middle Ages. It is a town that sits on the side of the wooded Amiata mountain, surely inhabited mainly by woodsmen -- many people there are still woodsmen. Of course, cutting wood never made anyone rich, but for centuries it could provide a living to the families of Abbadia. 

Now, imagine yourself as a medieval woodsman: your life can only be very basic according to modern standards. You probably won't ever have, nor even see, a lot of money and your chances to buy things are very limited. Still, you are human and therefore a social animal. You want to show that your family is on a par with the others in terms of wealth. And you do that using this form of potlatch.

Note that a potlatch is possible only when the social structure of the place is not excessively unbalanced. High social differences would make the game strongly competitive with the doubly bad result that it would humiliate those at the bottom of the ladder and -- worse -- force everybody to destroy more than what they can afford to destroy. It is possible to have a wood-burning potlatch in Abbadia because the woods are managed mainly as a commons, in a rather egalitarian manner. Note also that there are strict rules limiting the size of the torches, that prevents people from overplaying their cards in the game. The idea is that every family should bring a log to the pile, but no more than that. It is, again, a way to avoid that the rich could humiliate the poor.

So, with Abbadia we have a good example of how natural resources can be reasonably well managed in the form of "commons." You remember that Garrett Hardin had spoken of the "tragedy of the commons" supposing that greed would always lead people to overexploit whatever is available to them. It doesn't happen in the real world, at least among peasants and woodsmen. Elinor Ostrom got a Nobel prize in economics for having studied exactly this subject and shown how local communities usually manage the commons well, as they do in Abbadia. 

Yes, but things are completely different if we move to larger scales, worldwide. There, we see Hardin's tragedy in full swing. We are burning fossil hydrocarbons at the fastest possible rate, we don't seem to be able to find another way to keep up with the joneses except in terms of consuming more than they do. It is as if we were thinking we can show we are richer by burning our home faster. And that happens not just at the level of families, it is at the level of entire nations. When President Trump speaks of "energy dominance" he means exactly that: the US is trying to show that it is more powerful than its neighbors by burning its oil resources faster than anyone else -- and destroying them in the process. It is potlatch in its purest form, gone out of control. We are burning everything.

Will we ever learn to manage our resources in a more rational way? Maybe it just takes time -- I am sure that it took time to arrive to manage the burning piles of Abbadia in a sustainable way. In the worldwide case, though, maybe we'll have to learn by going through one of those collapses that teach you things the hard way. Not pleasant, but maybe unavoidable.

And here are some more photos of the Abbadia Festival.

First, a photo that shows the process of the lighting of one of the torches, it is not easy and the photo gives an idea of the size of the pile.

Here us yours truly, Ugo Bardi, together with one of the "Capi-fiaccola" (torch-masters) charged with watching the tower while it burns and to make sure that nothing goes wrong and that nobody gets burned.

And, finally, me again together with a local denizen of the town, Manuela, a member of an ancient family of Abbadia. She told me that her father is a "capostipite," an honorific title in the cooperative that manages the woods around the town.

h/t the Calignano family


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)