Sunday, April 21, 2019

Italy Becoming Poor -- Becoming Poor in Italy. The Effects of the Twilight of the Age of Oil

The living room of the house that my parents built in 1965. An American style suburban home, a true mansion in the hills. I lived there for more than 50 years but now I have to give up: I can't afford it anymore. 

Let me start with a disclaimer: I am not poor. As a middle class, state employee in Italy, I am probably richer than some 90% of the people living on this planet. But wealth and poverty are mainly relative perceptions and the feeling I have is that I am becoming poorer every year, just like the majority of Italians, nowadays.

I know that the various economic indexes say that we are not becoming poorer and that, worldwide, the GDP keeps growing, even in Italy it sort of restarted growing after a period of decline. But something must be wrong with those indexes because we are becoming poorer. It is unmistakable, GDP or not. To explain that, let me tell you the story of the house that my father and my mother built in the 1960s and how I am now forced to leave it because I can't just afford it anymore.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Italy was going through what was called the "Economic Miracle" at the time. After the disaster of the war, the age of cheap oil had created a booming economy everywhere in the world. In Italy, people enjoyed a wealth that never ever had been seen or even imagined before. Private cars, health care for everybody, vacations at the seaside, the real possibility for most Italians to own a house, and more.

My father and my mother were both high school teachers. They could supplement their salary with their work as architects and by giving private lessons, but surely they were not rich, typical middle-class people. Nevertheless, in the 1960s, they could afford the home of their dreams. Large, a true mansion, it was more than 300 square meters, with an ample living room, terraces, a patio, and a large garden. It also had many fancy details: windows in high-quality wood, door frames in hand-wrought iron, a home-intercom system (very rare at that time), and more. It was in a green area, on the hills near Florence: a pure American-style suburban home.

My parents lived in that house for some 50 years and they both got old and died in there. Then, I inherited it in 2012. As you can imagine, a house that had been inhabited for some years by old people with health problems was not in the best conditions and I had some grand ideas about what to do with it: restoring it and improving it. With my wife, we started doing just that: rebuilding the patio, refurbishing the greenhouse, restoring the living room, repairing the roof, and more. But, after a couple of years, we looked into each other's eyes and we said, "this will never work."

We had spent enough money to make a significant dent in our finances but the effect was barely visible: the house was just too big. To that, you must add the cost of heating and air conditioning of such a large space: in the 1960s, there was no need for air conditioning in Florence, now it is vital to have it. Also, the cost of transportation is a killer. In an American style suburb, you have to rely on private cars and, in the 1960s, it seemed normal to do that. But not anymore: cars have become awfully expensive, traffic jams are everywhere, a disaster. Ah.... and I forgot about taxes: that too is rapidly becoming an impossible burden.

And so we decided to sell the house. We discovered that the value of these suburban mansions had plummeted considerably during the past years, but it was still possible to find buyers. So, we are just now packing up. We expect to leave the old house in the coming weeks, moving to a much smaller apartment downtown where, among other things, we should be able to abandon the obsolete concept of owning a car. It is not a mansion, but it is a nice apartment, not so small and it even has a small garden. As I said, wealth and misery are mostly relative terms: surely we are experiencing a certain degree of "de-growth," but it is good to be able to get rid of a lot of the useless stuff that accumulates in decades of living in the same house. It is a little catharsis, it feels good for the spirit.

What's most impressive is how things changed in 50 years. Theoretically, as a university teacher, my salary is higher than that of my parents, who were both high school teachers. My wife, too, has a pretty decent salary. But there is no way that we could even have dreamed to build or buy the kind of house that I inherited from my parents, to say nothing about maintaining it. Something has changed and the change is deep in the very fabric of the Italian society. And the change has a name: it is the twilight of the age of oil. Wealth and energy are two faces of the same medal: with less net energy available, what Italians could afford 50 years ago, they can't afford anymore.

But saying that depletion is at the basis of our troubles is politically incorrect and unspeakable in the public debate. So, most Italians don't understand the reasons for what's going on. They only perceive that their life is becoming harder and harder, despite what they are being told on TV. Their reaction is to lash out at whoever or whatever they think is the cause of their economic decline: Europe, Angela Merkel, politicians, immigrants, gypsies, foreigners in general. Italy is rapidly becoming a nasty place to live in: racism, hate, fascism, poverty, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer. It is normal. It has already happened, things will be better one day, shall pass, one day, but I am afraid it will not be soon.

It is also impressive to think that I am moving back to the southern area of Florence, the area called "Oltrarno" where the Bardi family has its roots since Medieval times. The Bardis of the recent past living there were not rich, they were mostly low-class workers and some of them were wretchedly poor, I told this story in a post of two years ago. It was only with the prosperity of the golden age of oil that some of them could feel rich enough to afford a mansion in the hills. Not anymore. I suppose that my descendants will live there, just as my ancestors did. It is the great cycle of life.

And here is me, engaged in packing up my collection of science fiction novels. More than one thousand books, most of them in Italian. They have no commercial value but I don't want to throw them away. For the time being, I'll store them in boxes, then -- who knows? -- one day the great cycle of life may have them resurface again.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Empire of Lies: How we are collapsing in the same way as the Roman Empire did.

(Image source: Wikipedia) The Devil is sometimes said to be "The Father of Lies." It is an apt definition for a creature that doesn't even exist except as a figment of human imagination. Satan is an evil egregore that we ourselves created, a creature that seems to loom larger and larger behind the current chronicles. The recent arrest of Julian Assange is just the latest deed of an Empire that seems bent on truly creating its own reality, something that, in itself, wouldn't necessarily be evil but that becomes so when it implies destroying all other realities, including the only true one. 

Initially, I thought to comment the recent news about Assange by reproducing a post "The Empire of Lies" that I published here about one year ago, where I described how the transition from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages had taken place, in large part, because people just couldn't trust their Imperial rulers anymore. The Roman Empire had become an empire of lies and it was left to Christianity to rebuild the trust that the old empire had squandered - the Middle Ages were far from being "Dark Ages."  But, eventually, I thought to publish something I had in mind about how the Roman Empire and the modern Western Empire are following parallel trajectories in their habit of telling lies as they move toward their respective Seneca Cliffs.

So, here it is my assessment of the Roman Collapse, based on the excellent book by Dmitry Orlov, "The Five Stages of Collapse." Just one note: in the book, Orlov doesn't describe the post-collapse phase of the Soviet Union that ended with Russia becoming again as a prosperous and united country, as it is nowadays. It was a good example of the "Seneca Rebound" -- there is life after collapse and there will be new life after that the Evil Empire of lies will be gone.

The Five Stages of Collapse of The Roman Empire.

By Ugo Bardi

Dmitry Orlov wrote "The Five Stages of Collapse" as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2013. It was an original idea for that time that of comparing the fall of the Soviet Union with that of the United States. Being an American citizen born in Russia, Orlov could compare the two Empires in detail and note the many similarities that led both to follow the same trajectory, even though the cycle of the American Empire is not over, yet.

To strengthen Orlov's analysis I thought I could apply the same five stages to an older Empire, the Roman one. And, yes, the five stages apply well also to that ancient case. So, here is my take on this subject.

To start, a list of the five Stages of Collapse according to Orlov.

  • Stage 1: Financial collapse.
  • Stage 2: Commercial collapse.
  • Stage 3: Political collapse.
  • Stage 4: Social collapse.
  • Stage 5: Cultural collapse.

Now, let's see how these five stages played out during the fall of the Roman Empire.

Stage 1 – Financial Collapse (3rd century AD). The Roman Empire’s financial system was not as sophisticated as ours, but, just like our civilization, the Empire was based on money. Money was the tool that kept together the state: it was used to pay the legions and the bureaucrats and to make the commercial system supply the cities with food. The Roman money was a physical commodity: it was based on silver and gold, and these metals needed to be mined. It was the Roman control over the rich gold mines of Northern Spain that had created the Empire, but these mines couldn’t last forever. Starting with the 1st century, the cost of mining from depleted veins became an increasingly heavy burden. By the 3rd century, the burden was too heavy for the Empire to carry. It was the financial collapse from which the Empire never could fully recover.

Stage 2 – Commercial Collapse (5th century AD). The Roman Empire had never really been a commercial empire nor a manufacturing society. It was specialized in military conquest and it preferred to import luxury items from abroad, some, such as silk, all the way from the other side of Eurasia, from China. In addition to legions, the Empire produced only two commodities in large amounts: grain and gold. Of these, only gold could be exported to long distances and it soon disappeared to China to pay for the expensive imports the Romans were used to buy. The other product, grain, couldn’t be exported and continued to be traded within the Empire’s border for some time – the supply of grain from the African and Near Eastern granaries was what kept the Roman cities alive, Rome in particular. After the financial collapse, the supply lines remained open because the grain producers had no other market than the Roman cities. But, by mid-5th-century, things got so bad that Rome was sacked first by the Visigoths in 410, and then by the Vandals in 450, It recovered from the 1st sack, but the second was terminal. The Romans had no more money left to pay for the grain they needed, the commercial sea lanes broke down completely, and the Romans starved. It was the end of the Roman commercial system.

Stage 3 – Political Collapse (late 5th century AD). The political collapse went in parallel with the commercial collapse. Already in the late 4th century, the Emperors had become unable to defend Rome from the Barbarian armies marching across the empire and they had retired to the safety of the fortified city of Ravenna. When Rome was sacked, the Emperors didn’t even try to do something to help. The last emperors disappeared by the late 5th century but, already decades before, most people in Europe had stopped caring about whether or not there was some pompous person in Ravenna who wore purple clothes and claimed to be a divine Emperor.

Stage 4 – Social Collapse (5th century AD). The social collapse of the Western Empire went in parallel with the disgregation of the political and commercial structures. Already during the early 5th century, we have evidence that the Roman Elites had gone in “escape mode" – it was not just the emperor who had fled Rome to take refuge in Ravenna, patricians and warlords were on the move with troops, money, and followers to establish feudal domains for themselves where they could. And they were leaving the commoners to fend off by themselves. By the 6th century, the Roman State was gone and most of Europe was in the hands of Germanic warlords.

Stage 5 - Cultural collapse (starting in the 6th century AD). It was very slow. The advent of Christianity, during the 3rd century, had not weakened the Empire's cultural structure, it had been an evolution rather than a break with the past. The collapse of the Empire as a political and military entity didn't change things so much and for centuries people in Europe still considered themselves as Romans, not unlike the Japanese soldiers stranded in remote islands after the end of the second world war .(in Greece, people would still define themselves as "Romans" well into the 19th century). Latin, the imperial language, disappeared as a vernacular language but it was kept alive by the Catholic clergy and it became an indispensable tool that kept Europe culturally united. Latin kept a certain cultural continuity with the ancient empire that was only very gradually lost. It was only with the 18th - 19th centuries that Latin disappeared as the language of the cultural elite, to be replaced by English nowadays.

As you see, Orlov’s list has a certain logic although it needs to be adapted a little to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The 5 stages didn’t come one after the other, There was more than a century lapse between the 3rd-century financial collapse (stage 1) and the three subsequent stages arriving together: commercial, political, and social collapse. The 5th stage, the cultural collapse, was a drawn-out story that came later and that lasted for centuries.

How about our civilization? The 1st stage, financial collapse is clearly ongoing, although it is masked by various accounting tricks. The 2nd stage, commercial collapse, instead, hasn't started yet, nor the political collapse: the Empire still maintains a giant and threatening military force, even though its actual efficiency may be doubted. Maybe we are already seeing signs of the 3rd stage, social collapse but, if the Roman case is a guide, these three stages will arrive together.

Then, how about the last stage, cultural collapse? That's a question for a relatively far future. For a while, English will surely remain the universal language, just as Latin used to be after the fall of Rome, while people may keep thinking they still live in a globalized world (maybe it is already an illusion). With English fading, anything may happen and when (and if) a new Empire will rise on the ashes of the American Empire it will be something completely different. We can only say that the universe goes in cycles and that's, evidently, the way things have to be.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Above: our paper recently published in Nature Energy. Our conclusion is that, in terms of energy returns, renewable energy in the form of solar or wind is much better than carbon capture and storage for mitigating of climate change. Sweeping the carbon underground is not a good idea.

We have a little problem: for more than thirty years, the climate scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been telling us that if we don't stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- mainly CO2 -- we are in dire trouble. And we have done very little, nearly nothing. As predicted, we ARE in dire trouble.

There is some element showing that things may change: the polls indicate that more and more people are starting to understand the mess we are in and the action of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is making waves in the memesphere. We may be awakening from a 30 years slumber to discover that we have to hurry up and do something. But what?

Not that we lack plans: every IPCC report released includes plans on what we could or should do to avoid the worse. We have to follow a steep trajectory of de-carbonization while, at the same time, maintaining a vital minimum supply of energy to society. But how to do that?

The most common idea floated in these discussions is to use Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). It is straightforward: instead of releasing into the atmosphere the CO2 emitted by a power plant, you pump it underground, sequestering it in a porous reservoir, maybe one that, earlier on, had contained gas or petroleum.

Is that a good idea? Maybe, but it is also a way of sweeping the problem under the carpet. If our problem is the use of fossil fuels, and it is, then by using CCS we are striving to keep alive the technology we should strive to get rid of.

But what if CCS were the only possible solution to the problem? Then, yes, if we really had no choice we would have to settle for the least bad idea. But is it true that CCS is the only way forward, or is it a failure of the imagination? Wouldn't renewable energy be a better idea?

The way to decide this point is to make a quantitative calculation based on real-world data. CCS doesn't come for free: it is a complex technology with an energy cost. This cost must be factored in comparison with alternatives: it is the concept of energy return for energy invested (EROI). The better the value of the EROI, the better the technology. In the long run, EROI factors trump monetary cost factors: you cannot get energy by printing money.

This is exactly what we did, myself and my colleagues Sgouridis, Csala, Dale, and Chiesa, in a paper we published this week on Nature Energy. We compared the EROI of CCS and renewable energy using the latest available data and a broad range of assumptions, including the need for energy storage of renewables.

The result? Renewables are by now a sufficiently mature technology that for most reasonable assumptions they have a better energy return than fossil-based CCS. You can read our paper at this link. Below you can read some of our conclusions. Here sRE stands for "scalable Renewable Energy", while the "sower's strategy" is the concept that we need to invest some fossil energy in order to build up the renewable infrastructure that will replace the fossil one.
The energy return of using fossil resources with CCS in power generation is lower than the EROEI of most current deployment of sRE. Therefore it would be preferable to direct these fossil resources towards building a self-sustaining renewable energy infrastructure, an approach previously termed “the sower’s strategy. Even when sRE adoption reaches or exceeds 80% our calculations indicate that the system EROEI may be equal to the better EROEI CCS without the additional issues related to the reliance on depleting resources and non-energetic biophysical complications
You may discuss the details of this result and argue that, in some special conditions, CCS may still have a better EROEI than renewables. But the point is that CCS has additional negative points that renewables don't have. CCS is still a largely untested technology on a large scale but the main problem, as I was mentioning at the beginning, is that by adopting CCS we give new life to the presently agonizing fossil fuel technologies. But fossil fuels are doomed by depletion in any case, so what sense does it make investing the few resouces we still have in a technology that doesn't have a future? In the end, CCS is mainly a failure of the imagination: we can and we should do much better than sweeping the carbon underground.

As a final note, our study deals only with CCS as a way to remove carbon from the emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants. That doesn't mean that we may not need CCS as a way for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is called "direct atmospheric capture" (DAC) or "Negative Emission Technologies" (NET). Given the situation, it may be the only way to go back to a CO2 concentration low enough to avoid the worst and it might work! But DAC can work only if it is powered by renewables and it is nice to know that we have the technologies we need. If only we'll ever decide to use them.

Link to the paper on Nature Energy.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Russiagate, Climategate, and the Generalized Godwin's law

Above: results obtained using "Google Trends" of the meme diffusion of the "Climategate" story of 2009 compared with the recent buzz about Trump's alleged collusion with the Russian government ("Russiagate"). Both memes show similar search volumes and they may both be subjected to a version of "Godwin's law" that says that in any political discussion the probability that Adolf Hitler will be mentioned tends toward 1. The same seems to be true for the term "Climategate" in any discussion about climate, while "Russiagate" may affect future discussions about Donald Trump. This memetic behavior could be called the "Generalized Godwin's Law."

The "Climategate" story of 2009 was a remarkable example of a successful PR campaign. It was the more remarkable because there was nothing damning, and not even interesting, in the mails exchanged by a group of climate scientists that were diffused over the Web with great fanfare. All we can remember of that "scandal" today are a few sentences -- such as "hide the decline" -- taken out of context and twisted in such a way to create the impression of a hoax that wasn't there. Nevertheless, the concept that the scientists had been doing something bad deeply impacted on the public's opinions. According to Leiserowits et al.
In 2008, 71% of Americans said “yes,” global warming is happening. By 2010, however, this number had dropped to 57%. Meanwhile the proportion that said “no,” global warming is not happening doubled from 10% to 20%.
Over the years, never again the Climategate meme could regain its initial popularity and the attempts to revamp it as "climategate#2" and "Climategate#3" failed miserably. But the meme never disappeared and its influence was long-lived. From a recent Yale survey, we can see that only now -- ten years later - we are returning to a distribution of opinions on climate change similar to that prevalent before Climategate.

Today, Google Trends still report searches being performed for the "Climategate" term. It is a small volume in comparison to the initial peak, but it is there.

That the meme is still alive, although quiescent, is confirmed noting that the latest mention of Climategate on the popular anti-climate science blog by Anthony Watts' is as recent as March 27, 2019. Clearly, the Climategate meme remains stuck in the public's perception. We could imagine that it is subjected to a version of "Godwin's Law" that says that any political discussion is likely to see "Adolf Hitler" mentioned at some moment. In this case, we could speak of a "generalized Godwin's law:" in any discussion, some old and discredited meme is increasingly likely to be mentioned as the discussion continues.

Something similar seems to be taking place with the accusations of treason against Donald Trump, the case called "Russiagate." It is a term still not so popular as "Climategate," but it may become commonplace in the future.In this case, the noise is mainly related to the Special counsel Robert Mueller report on the Russia story. At present, the debate is raging: some claim that Trump did nothing wrong on the basis of the statements of attorney general William Barr, others maintain that Trump is a traitor and think that the full Mueller report will confirm their views.

Just as for the case of Climategate, the discussion is not based on any fact, only on the twisted interpretation of something presented as facts. And it is unlikely that anyone will change their opinions once the full report is released! So, the "Russiagate" meme may well go quiescent and then become one of those entrenched memes that will continue being mentioned according to the generalized Godwin's law.

And memetics remains a fascinating field of science.


A partial list of Generalized Godwin's memes. These are especially stubborn legends which never seem to disappear.

  1.  "But those emails...." (Discussions on climate)
  2.  "How could the towers fall at that speed?" (Discussions on the 9/11 attacks)
  3.  "Renewables can only be extensions of fossil fuels" (Discussions on renewable energy)
  4.  "Are you working for the Russians?" (Discussion about Russia)
  5.  "The Limits to Growth said oil should have run out by 1982" (Discussions on resource depletion)
  6. "Those shadows left by the astronauts on the Moon surface...." (Discussions on the moon landing)
  7. "There should be now 9 feet of horse manure accumulated in New York"  (Discussions on pollution)
  8. And more......

Monday, April 1, 2019

New Research Determines the Ultimate Limits of Renewable Energy: The Bardi Sphere

The future of the Earth as described in the new paper by Ugo Bardi. Image source

A new paper by Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence is in press on the journal "Nature Energy Revolutions." The study was performed with the support of a European financed project under the Horizon 25-25-25. Using sophisticated simulation tools based on system dynamics, the paper builds on previous studies of Ugo Bardi and his coworkers on the market penetration of photovoltaics and other renewable energy systems.

"Our approach in this project," says Bardi, "was to remove some constraints previously considered as unavoidable in the input of the model." The calculations by Bardi indicate that PV plants could replace the current fossil energy production in a very short time: less than 10 years.

Bardi reported that "We started from a concept developed in the 1980s, the "self-replicating lunar factory," an autonomous solar powered machine with the capability of reproducing itself using minerals found in the Earth's crust. From the available data on the energy return of photovoltaic energy, we can assume that the doubling time of the machine can be taken as ca. 2 years. Then, with the assumption of dedicating a "seed" of 1 TW of the current installed global power to bootstrap the first photovoltaic factories, we may calculate that we need just 4 doublings, or 8 years, to reach 16 TW, which is close to the currently installed power of 18 TW."

"The consequences of this innovative approach," continues Bardi, "are more impressive if we examine the longer term. In principle, PV plants could eventually capture the total solar radiation beamed on the Earth surface, about  90,000 TW. With an efficiency of conversion of 15%, the plants could produce a total power of some 15,000 TW, one thousand times larger than the current global power generation. Such a production level could be obtained in less than 30 years from now by the growth of autonomous, self-replicating solar machines." The final result has been described in several comments as the "Bardi Sphere" (even though Bardi doesn't use this term in the paper), in analogy with the older concept of the "Dyson Sphere."

The paper by Bardi goes on to examine the consequences on the Earth's ecosphere of the envisaged rapid growth of PV installations that would result in the whole planetary surface being covered with a uniform layer of PV panels. That would transform the Earth in a different kind of "blue marble." One consequence would be to block the evaporation of water and therefore the formation of clouds.

Bardi's comment on this point is that "Of course, we would see the nearly complete elimination of water in the atmosphere vapor and a considerable cooling as a result. That would be in part compensated by the lower albedo of PV plants which, in any case, work better at lower temperatures, so that the overall effect would be beneficial with respect to energy production. Even better would be a further increase of the solar light reaching the surface as a result of the elimination of the cloud cover. In a longer-term future, the complete elimination of the Earth's atmosphere can be envisaged to increase even more the solar irradiation reaching the surface for further improvement of the energy production rate."

Another source of concern that has been voiced about Bardi's plan is the modifications of the human habitat that would derive from such a large expansion of PV plants. Bardi replies as "Of course, a consequence of the projected expansion of the PV sphere is that planet Earth will not suitable any longer for vertebrate life. But that's not a problem: with so much power available, humankind and its environment can be easily simulated in the form of a program running in a computer. Virtual humankind wouldn't face the same physical constraints to growth existing in the real world, those limits that humans seem to hate so much. They would surely be happier to live in a virtual world where such constraints can be relaxed to the point that it can be said they don't exist."

h/t Paolo Battinelli

Monday, March 25, 2019

Why worry about pollution if life expectancy keeps increasing? Ahem.... are you sure?

It seems clear that we won't get to reach Methuselah's age. In most Western countries, the average life expectancy has started decreasing from 2014 and we are, maybe, on the edge of a Seneca Cliff for longevity. It could be an effect of pollution, but not just that. Image source.

If you ever got into a discussion on the effects of pollution, you know what happens. You list the problems with heavy metals, from lead to mercury, pesticides, fine particles, plastics, everything that is -- or may be -- carcinogenic, including the deadly glyphosate, aka Roundup. Then, there comes always someone who says, "but all that cannot be so bad! After all, people keep living longer and longer!"

Alas, very, unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case anymore. Let me show you some data: let's start from the US (source).

And here are some data about European countries, from the World Bank

Clearly, the nearly linear trend of growth of the life expectancy at birth stopped around 2014 in most Western countries. To put things in perspective, it is not the same for other countries: both in China and in Russia, life expectancy is lower, but it keeps increasing. (again, data from the World Bank)

Before going on, a disclaimer: there is sufficient uncertainty in the data that the trend should be considered as weak. We are on a plateau that might see oscillations that could be interpreted as a return to growth.

But, clearly, something has happened in 2014 that interrupted a trend so stable that it was considered not only the way things were, but the way things had to be. What was that? Data from an article by Gilbert Berdine can tell us something about what's happening, at least in the US.

The mortality of old people keeps declining, what's causing the overall decline in life expectancy is the rising mortality of the young. Berdine comments as (highlighting mine):
The rising mortality rates for young people are attributed to suicides in general and opioid overdoses in particular. These are deaths of despair. . . . It is unclear what is causing despair in young people during a period of time when we are told that the economy is expanding.
We are told that the economy is expanding, yes, but something seems to be wrong with that. In some countries, such as Italy, the economy has been contracting for at least a decade. In the US, instead, the data show that the economy is skyrocketing upward, at least if measured in terms of the GDP. America is becoming great again, actually it never stopped being that (again, in terms of the GDP). So, why is the life expectancy going down in both countries?

What's making the young killing themselves by guns and drugs? Might pollution be affecting people's mental sanity? Yes, that's exactly the case. In a recent paper, Shin and others report that not only pollution causes "subjective stress, depressive disorders, health-related quality of life (QoL) and suicide." They don't speak about life expectancy but they say, "The risk of higher stress or poor QoL in subjects < age 65 increased with air pollution more than did that in subjects ≥ age 65"

So, it is clear that pollution is taking its toll on human health, especially among the young. That may explain the "despair" that Berdine considers the cause for the increased mortality. And there may be perfectly good reasons for the young to despair, even without the help of pollution. In any case, we may have reached a Seneca Cliff of life expectancy.

Another dream of our society that turned into a nightmare. Another chunk of future that we stole from our children and grandchildren. No wonder that they are not happy with us.

Monday, March 18, 2019

When the Going gets Tough, Women get Going. "MIddle Ages 2.0" and the Great Transformation Awaiting us

In Europe, Greta Thunberg has smashed all the memetic barriers succeeding in doing what nobody else had succeeded before: bringing the climate emergency within the horizon of the public and of the decision makers. In parallel, on the other side of the Atlantic, another young woman, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez has been doing something similar with her "Green New Deal."

These are remarkable changes and I think it is not casual that they are brought by women. It had already happened during the early Middle Ages, when women took a prominent role in taking the lead in reshaping a dying empire into a new, vibrant civilization, one that we sometimes call the "Dark Ages" but that was a period of intelligent adaptation to scarcity. It was also a civilization displaying a remarkable degree of gender parity in comparison to what the European society was before and what would become later on.

There is a lot that we can learn from the Middle Ages on how to manage the Great Transformation: it will be "Middle Ages 2.0".  Here, I am reposting a text I originally published on my other blog, "Chimeras" that's relevant on the subject. Expect more posts on this subject, the more I think about that, the more I tend to think that the Middle Ages could provide us with a true blueprint for the great transition.

From "Chimeras" March 1, 2016

The war of the sexes: the origins of gender inequality

 The story of Scheherazade of the 1001 Arabian Nights is the quintessence of the "war of the sexes" and of how women tend to lose it. It is said that King Shahryar would have a new lover every night and every morning he would have her killed. He stopped only when Scheherazade started telling him stories. It shows, among other things, that males behave much better when they listen to females. Picture: Scheherazade and Shahryār by Ferdinand Keller, 1880

Some time ago, I was chatting at home with a friend who is a researcher specialized in "gender inequality". I asked her what were the ultimate origins of this inequality but we couldn't arrive at a conclusion. So, I happened to have in a shelf nearby a copy of the "Malleus Maleficarum", the book that Kramer and Sprenger wrote in the 16th century on the evils of witchcraft. I took it out and I opened it to the page where the authors dedicate several paragraphs to describe how evil women are. I read a few of these paragraphs aloud and my friend was so enraged that she left the room, without saying a word. Later on, she told me that she had done that to avoid telling me what she thought I deserved to be told just for keeping that book in my shelves. Maybe she was right, but the question of the origins of gender inequality remained unanswered (BTW, later on, we became friends again). 

Why are women so commonly discriminated in almost all cultures, modern and ancient? Of course, there are plenty of studies attempting to explain the reasons. It is an interdisciplinary field that mixes history, anthropology, psychology, social studies, and even more; you can spend your whole life studying it. So, I don't even remotely pretend to be saying something definitive or even deep on this subject. It is just that, after much thinking on this matter, I thought that I could share with you some of my conclusions. So, here is a narrative of how gender inequality developed over the centuries in Europe and in the Mediterranean world. I hope you'll find it something worth pondering.

Let's go back in time, way back; when does the phenomenon that we call "gender inequality" starts? You probably know that Marija Gimbutas has been arguing for a long time that the pre-literate ages in Europe were characterized by a form of matriarchy and by the predominance of the cult of a female goddess (or goddesses). That is, of course, debatable and it is hotly debated; there is very little that we have from those ancient times that can tell us how men and women related to each other. However, when we move to the first examples of literature we have, then we see at least hints of a different world that involved some kind - perhaps - if not female dominance at least a more assertive role of women. Indeed, the first text for which we know the name of the author was written by the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna at some moment during the second half of the third millennium BCE. From these ancient times, there comes a very strong voice: the voice of a woman asserting the rule of the Goddess Inanna over the pantheon of male Gods of her times, hinting at an even larger role of female goddesses in even more ancient times.

If we follow the millennia as they move onward, it seems that the voice of women becomes fainter and fainter. In Greece, we have Sappho of Lesbos, renown for her poetry, but she comes from a very early age; the seventh century BCE. As the Greek civilization grew and was absorbed into the Roman one, woman literates seem to dwindle. Of the whole span of the Western Roman civilization, we know of a modest number of literate women and there are only two Roman female poets whose works have survived to us. Both go with the name of Sulpicia and you probably never heard of them. As poetry goes, the first Sulpicia, who lived at the times of August, may be interesting to look at. The second one, living in later times, has survived in a few lines only because they are explicitly erotic. But the point is that it is so little in comparison with so much Greek and Latin literature we still have. Women of those times may not have been really silent but, in literary terms, we just don't hear their voices.

On the other side of the sexual barrier, note how the "Malleus Maleficarum" bases its several pages of insult to women largely on classical authors, for instance, Cicero, Lactantius, Terence, and othes. It is not surprising for us to discover that from the early imperial times to the early Middle Ages, most writers were woman-haters. They thought that sex was, at best, a necessary evil that one had to stand in order to ensure the perpetuation of humankind; but no more than that. Chastity, if one could attain it, was by far the best condition for man and woman alike and, for sure, sex with a woman was only a source of perversity and of debasement. An early Christian father, Origen (3rd century CE) is reported to have taken the matter to the extreme and castrated himself, although that's not certain and surely it never became popular.

With the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire, there appeared something that had never existed before: the monastic orders. Never before so many men and women had decided that they wanted to live in complete separation from the members of the other sex. Read a book such as the "pratum spirituale" by 6th century CE the Byzantine monk John Moschos, and you get the impression that everyone at that time, males and females, were obsessed by sex; how to avoid it, that is. Chastity had never been considered a virtue before and, yet, now it had become the paramount one. At least, however, it seems that women had gained a certain degree of independence, seeking for chastity in their own ways and with a dignity of their own. Reading documents from that age, you get the well-defined impression that men and women had somehow decided that they wanted to avoid each other for a while. It was a pause that lasted several centuries. But why did that happen?

I think there are reasons, but to understand them we must go back to Roman times and try to understand what was the relationship between men and women at that age. And we may find that it was deeply poisoned by a sickness that pervaded the society of those times: social inequality and, in particular, the institution of slavery.

The Roman Empire based its wealth on the work of slaves. Their number is variously estimated as around 10% of the population, but it was larger in the richest regions of the empire. Probably, during the 1st century CE, some 30%-40% of the population of Italy was composed of slaves (1). Slavery was an integral part of the Roman economy and one of the main aims of the Roman military conquests was capturing of large numbers of foreigners, who then were turned into slaves.

Now, most slaves were male and were used for heavy or menial work, in agriculture, for instance. But many of them were female, and, obviously, young and attractive slaves, both male and female, were used as sex objects. Slaves were not considered as having rights. They simply were property. Caroline Osiek writes that (2).

To the female slave, therefore, honor, whether of character or of behavior, cannot be ascribed. The female slave can lay no claim to chastity or shame, which have no meaning. In the official view, she cannot have sensitivity toward chastity. Her honor cannot be violated because it does not exist. .. No legal recognition is granted to the sexual privacy of a female slave.

To have a better idea of how female slaves were considered in Roman times, we may turn to a late Roman poet, Ausonius (4th century CE) who had gained a certain notoriety in his times. He was not only a poet but an accomplished politician who had a chance to accompany Emperor Gratian in a military raid in Germania. From there, he returned with a Germanic slave girl named Bissula. He wrote a poem in her honor that says, among other things,

Delicium, blanditiae, ludus, amor, voluptas, barbara, sed quae Latias vincis alumna pupas, Bissula, nomen tenerae rusticulum puellae, horridulum non solitis, sed domino venustum.

that we can translate as
Delice, blandishment, play, love, desire, barbarian, but you baby beat the Latin girls. Bissula, a tender name, a little rustic for a girl, a little rough for those not used to it, but a grace for your master

It is clear that Ausonius likes Bissula; we could even say that he is fond of her. But it is the same kind of attitude that we may have toward a domestic animal; a cat or a dog that we may like a lot, but that we don't consider our equal. Bissula was no more than a pet in terms of rights. It is true that her master was not supposed to mistreat her, and we have no evidence that he ever did. But she had strictly no choice in terms of satisfying him sexually. In this sense, she had no more rights than those pertaining to a rubber doll in our times. In modern terms, we can say that she was being legally raped. And nobody seemed to find this strange; so much that Ausonius' poem that described this legal rape was considered wholly normal and it was appreciated.

If we can still hear Ausonius' voice, we cannot hear that of Bissula. Probably, she couldn't read and write, to say nothing about doing that in proper Latin. So, what she thought of her master is anyone's guess. Was she happy that she was getting at least food and shelter from him? Or did she hate him for having been one of those who had, perhaps, exterminated her family? Did she ever dream of sticking a hairpin into Ausonius' eye? Perhaps; but we have no evidence that she ever did. If she had done something like that, by the way, she would have condemned to death all the slaves of Ausonius' household. The Roman law practiced a strict interpretation of the principle of common intention and when it happened that a slave killed his/her master, it required that all the slaves of that master were to be executed. And we know that this law was put into practice on several occasions.

So, we cannot hear Bissula's voice, just as we can't hear the voice of the millions of sex slaves that crossed the trajectory of the Roman Empire, from its foundation to its end in the 5th century CE. Exploited, without rights, probably turned to menial work whenever they got older and their masters lost interest in them, their voice is lost in the abyss of time. But, perhaps, we can get a glimpse of their feelings from their reflection on the other side; that of their masters who, in Imperial times, dedicated pages and pages of their writings at insulting women. Yes, because the silent side, that of the slaves, was not without weapons in the war that the masters were waging against them. The masters may have expected gratitude from them, perhaps even love. But they got only hatred and despise. Imagine yourself as Bissula. Do you imagine she could have loved Ausonius? And can you imagine how could she have taken some revenge on him? I am sure there were ways, even though we can't say whether Bissula ever put them into practice. No wonder that so many men in these times accused women of treachery. In the war of the sexes, the women had to use guerrilla tactics, and, apparently, they were doing that with some success.

If slavery turned woman slaves into sex objects, the resulting war of the sexes must have had a negative effect also on free women. They were not supposed to be legally raped as the slaves, but surely they could not ignore what their husbands were doing (and, by the way, free Roman women were not supposed to rape their male slaves and, if they did, they were not supposed to write poems about how cute their male sex dolls were). Very likely, this situation poisoned the male/female relations of generations of Roman citizens. Thinking of that, we cannot be surprised of the avalanche of insults that Roman male writers poured on women (want an example? Seneca in his tragedies [11 (117)]: "when a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil")

That kind of poisoned relationship continued for a long time but, at a certain moment, not much later than Ausonius' times, the Empire ceased to be able to raid slaves from anywhere, and then it disappeared. Slavery didn't disappear with the Empire: we had to wait for the 19th century to see it disappear for good. But, surely, the whole situation changed and slaves were not any more so common. The Christian church took a lot of time before arriving at a clear condemnation of slavery, but turning people into sex toys was not seen anymore as the obvious things to do. So, things changed a lot and we may understand how during Middle Ages men and women were taking that "pause." It was as if they were looking at each other, thinking "who should make the first move?" A shyness that lasted for centuries.

And then, things changed again. It was an impetuous movement, a reversal of the time of hatred between men and women: it was the time of courtly love. With the turning of the millennium, the Amour Courtois started to appear in Europe and it became all the rage. Men and women were looking again at each other and they were looking at each other in romantic terms: they loved each other. The love between man and woman became a noble thing, a way to obtain enlightenment - perhaps better than chastity. From the Northern Celtic tradition, the legend of two lovers, Tristan and Iseult, burst into the literary scene. And it was a dam that gave way. Lancelot and Guinevere, then Dante and Beatrice, Petrarca and Laura, Ibn Arabi and Nizham. West European and Mediterranean poets couldn't think of anything better to express themselves than to dedicate their poetry to noble women whom they loved and respected.

And we hear again the voice of women: and what a voice! Think of Heloise, pupil and lover of Abelard, the philosopher, in a tragic love story that took place during the early 12th century. Heloise  burst onto the scene with unforgettable words: "To her master, nay father, to her husband, nay brother; from his handmaid, nay daughter, his spouse, nay sister: to Abelard, from Heloise. And if the name of wife appears more sacred and more valid, sweeter to me is ever the word friend, or, if you be not ashamed, concubine or whore." What can you say about this? I can only say that my lower jaw falls down as I utter "Wow!!"

It was a long journey from Heloise to our times. Long and tormented, just think that not much later than Heloise, the French mystic Marguerite Porete wrote her book "The mirror of the simple souls" in a style and content that reminds the works of the Sumerian Enheduana, four thousand years before. And Marguerite Porete was burned at the stake for what she had written. And, some centuries later, the war against females continued with the various witch hunts, fueled by books such as "The Malleus Maleficarum" (1520). And think that it was only in the second half of the 20th century that women were generally considered smart enough that they were allowed to vote in general elections. But we have arrived somewhere, to an age in which "gender inequality" is considered something wholly negative, to be avoided at all costs. An age in which, at least in the West, the idea that women are equal to men is obvious, or should be. And an age in which using woman slaves as sex toys is (or should be) considered as an absolute evil.

And yet, if history moves forward, it also moves along a tortuous road and sometimes it goes in circles. The similarities of our times and Roman ones are many. Certainly, we don't have slaves anymore, not officially, at least. But that may not be so much a social and ethical triumph but a consequence of the fact that our society is much more monetarized than the Roman one. The need for money can easily make a man or a woman the monetary equivalent of a slave of Roman times. We call "sex workers" those people who engage in sex for money; they are supposed to be free men and free women, but freedom can only be theoretical when, if you really want it, you have to pay for it by starvation. And while the armies of the globalized empire do not raid any more the neighboring countries to bring back male and female slaves, it is the global financial power that forces them to come to the West. They have little choice but to leave countries ravaged by wars, droughts, and poverty. In general, the social equality that the Western World had been constantly gaining after the industrial revolution, seems to have stopped its movement. Since the 1970s, we are going in reverse, social inequalities are on the increase. Are we going to re-legalize slavery? It is not an impossible thought if you think that it was still legal in the US up to 1865.

So, maybe the rich elites of our times would again turn women into sex objects? Maybe they are doing that already. Think of Italy's leader, Silvio Berlusconi. Enough has been diffused of his private life for us to understand that he behaved not unlike Ausonius with his female toys, except that, luckily for us, he has not imposed on us some bad poetry of his.

So, is the war of the sexes going to restart? Are we going to see again the relations between men and women souring because of the deep inequality that turns women into sex toys? And maybe we are going to see the monastic orders returning and, perhaps, in a far future, a new explosion of reciprocal love? It is, of course, impossible to say. What we can say is that the world empire that we call "globalization" is all based on fossil fuels and that it is going to have a short life; very likely much shorter than that of the Roman Empire. Maybe the cycle will not be restarting, maybe it will; we cannot say. Humankind is engaged in a travel toward the future that is taking us somewhere, but we don't know where. Wherever we are going, the path is something we create with our feet as we march onward.

h/t: Elisabetta Addis

1. Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425. Cambridge University Press, 2011,

2. Carolyn Osniek, Female Slaves, Porneia and the limits to obedience, in "Early Christian Families in Context: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue" David Balch and Carolyn Osniek eds. Wm. Eedermans publishing Co. Cambridge, 2003



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)